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TENNIS EMULATES PRO WRESTLING'S HEROES AND VILLAINS

TENNIS EMULATES PRO WRESTLING'S HEROES AND VILLAINS

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Was it really so long ago that network television executives assured us that their medium would scarcely affect the way our spectator sports were played?

Their motives were altruistic, they said. They didn't expect sports events to attract high ratings but they would bring them into our homes primarily as a public service.They would sell commercial time, of course, but any disruptions in the authenticity of the action would be negligible.

The rights fees they would pay to the promoters would trickle down to the competitors and more than offset any inconvenience TV might create.

Their assurances sounded too good to be true. And indeed, that turned out to be the case.

What began as a trickle gradually turned into a cornucopia of televised sports offerings until now it has become too voluminous for the viewer to digest.

On one hand, televised sports represent a wonderful feast for the fan.

On the other, well, let's just say there have been some costly tradeoffs.

Actually, the nature of the games we watch has been changed a great deal in the last quarter of a century.

It's no longer necessarily whether you win or lose that counts, or even how you play the game. It is more a matter of marketability.

If you are still idealistic enough to doubt that premise, you haven't been paying close attention to the U.S. Open tennis tournament as it wound its way toward today's conclusion.

Time was, in the pre-TV age, when tennis champions were graceful, sportsmanlike, even heroic figures ... when the players all wore white and champions emerged by developing a prevailing on-court style.

And when the only stakes were a comfortable living and a glamorous lifestyle.

Much of the impetus to change all that was brought about by television.

Now there are millions of dollars available to the top male and female players, more in the form of commercial endorsements than prize money.

And some of those who aren't quite good enough to reach the top or stay there very long have learned to develop images that will attract attention and sell products.

International spectator tennis has evolved into a morality play. Fans have adopted their personal sets of heroes and villains to the extent that it has become somewhat like professional wrestling - but on the up-and-up.

Given that backdrop, we bring you the cast of the 1990 U.S. Open.

During the Open, as is still the case in most American television coverage of any tournament, John McEnroe easily has been the most visible figure.

Blessed with surpassing talent and volleying 'touch,' McEnroe usurped Bjorn Borg's throne and became the dominant player in the world in the early '80s.

At the same time, whether purposely or not, he reached new lows of rude, boorish oncourt behavior in the '70s tradition of Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors.

Because McEnroe was under siege from a growing tide of foreign challengers, many U.S. tennis fans forgave the transgressions that made him an Ugly American. He might have been a jerk but at least, he was our jerk.

Others detested his villainy. But none remained neutral and most remained curious as to what he would do next.

Even when McEnroe's personal demons and his distaste for practice helped remove his competitive edge, he retained his celebrity with his oncourt antics and his marriage to actress Tatum O'Neal.

Now, at 31, McEnroe is past his prime. It now has been five years since he last won a Grand Slam championship. Yet TV has helped sustain a public fascination with his fortunes. He is still more marketable here than the current cast of proven foreign-born champions and rising young players.

In addition, McEnroe generated support at the '90 Open as a result of America's attraction to an underdog. Cheering Open crowds helped him regain much of his old, winning form as he won his way into the final rounds.

In the eyes of many, he is a villain-turned-hero.

While McEnroe capitalized on the forgiveness of the over-30 set, Andre Agassi was targeting the youth market.

At 19, Agassi is a veteran of the international circuit who has yet to win a Grand Slam event. He has even declined to play at Wimbledon the last two years because his game isn't suited to its grass surface.

Good-looking, strong and fit, Agassi is a bullet-hitting baseliner who plays to the crowd and profiles himself as a rebel. He favors a frosted punk haircut replete with a single dangling earring, spandex shorts and day-glo outfits. He never misses an opportunity to remove his shirt and attract the screams of teeny-boppers.

One reason for Agassi's emphasis on his rebellious appearance is a growing list of endorsements that includes a prominent spot on the Nike roster of sports celebrities that includes Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and McEnroe.

There was, however, one throwback to what is becoming tennis' distant past who might appeal to the older set.

Boris Becker seems to belong in a long-ago era when the best players in the world were Don Budge and Baron Gottfried von Cramm.

He approaches tennis as a game. Although he obviously relishes the competition on the court, he speaks thoughtfully when he is away from it and is comparably gracious in victory and defeat.

Becker is a celebrity in his native Germany and a resident of Monte Carlo whose personality, wealth and status have attracted a series of beautiful women to his side.

The defending Open champion's powerful serve-and-volley game has established him as the world's finest all-surface player.

Becker seems rather nonchalant about marketing himself with a TV image.

The odds don't favor the nice guy because he is in the minority, but it's refreshing to see a contender who can still represent the sport's gentler pre-TV and marketing era.

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