Tennis: Organisers rally with concrete statement to slow down the game: Injured world No 1s must contend with a deeper coating of rubber on court surface as authorities try to improve game. John Roberts reports from New York

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The Independent Online
THE organisers of the United States Open, which starts today, have doctored the courts to try to to moderate the pace of the game in the face of mounting criticism concerning serve-dominated matches.

Though the speed of the Flushing Meadow concrete is medium compared with the Wimbledon lawns, the United States Tennis Association decided to resurface the courts, trusting that a deeper coating of rubber would increase the opportunities for rallying.

The metamorphosis of the US Championships began 20 years ago, when the traditional grass courts ceased to be fashionable. Worn, scorched lawns at Forest Hills, even before the tournament commenced, were reminiscent of concluding weekends at Wimbledon, and the bounce was uneven.

After Jimmy Connors and Billie Jean King won the singles titles in 1974, the grass was replaced by green American clay. This remained for three years, until a deputation of United States players, with Arthur Ashe to the fore, persuaded the organisers that the slow surface presented too great an advantage to Europeans and Latin Americans. Concrete came when the tournament was transferred to the National Tennis Centre at Flushing Meadow in 1978.

It will be interesting to see if the latest cosmetic surgery improves the complexion of the championships. Tom Gullikson, the United States Davis Cup captain, appears confident that it will, contending that the all-court player no longer needs to feel intimidated by big- serving opponents.

Gullikson's twin brother, Tim, coaches the world No 1, Pete Sampras, whose potent serve played more than a supporting role in the winning of four of the last five Grand Slam singles titles. But, as Tom correctly asserts, Sampras also has the ground-strokes to prosper.

All of which will be academic if Sampras's left ankle lets him down. Tendinitis has kept the Wimbledon champion out of competition for six weeks, raising doubts that he will be able to withstand the rigours of a two-week tournament played over the best of five sets, particularly on concrete. There is also concern about the fitness of Steffi Graf, the women's champion, whose current weakness is in the lower back.

Some observers, while not wishing to be insensitive, may regard the ailments afflicting the top seeds as providential, handicapping them sufficiently to make the outcome less certain; perhaps more so in Sampras's case than Graf's.

Contrary to expectations, the women's singles in the year's three previous Grand Slams have been more interesting than the men's. Graf, overwelming in her victory against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the final of the Australian Open, seemed destined to remain unchallenged in the continued absence of Monica Seles. This has not been the case. First, the German was stunned by Mary Pierce's power in the semi-finals of the French Open, which gave Sanchez Vicario the incentive to win the title. Little more than a fortnight later, Lori McNeil eliminated Graf in the first round at Wimbledon, an upset which led to Conchita Martinez's triumph against the departing Martina Navratilova in an emotional finale.

Graf will be determined to re-assert herself. It is a considerable time since last she was asked if she became bored with winning easily.