Tennis: Sampras' rivals melting away: Threat of Becker and Agassi falters

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The Independent Online
LIKE his style or not, Pete Sampras intends to be around for at least another eight years, health and enthusiasm permitting. 'I plan to play until I'm 30, if I'm fit and still enjoying the game,' the Wimbledon champion and world No 1 said.

For how much of that time Sampras will be able to count Boris Becker and Andre Agassi among his rivals is less clear. Becker and Agassi were two notable gaps in millionaire's row when the world's top eight men gathered here yesterday to contest the ATP Tour Championship, which starts today.

Agassi, No 24, ends the year in a similar fashion to the way he finished the last one: out of sorts and out of contention. Becker has fallen three places short of qualifying for the defence of the crystal crown he won on his 25th birthday a year ago.

Fatherhood and marriage dominate Becker's thoughts at present, and preoccupation has marked many of his performances. Michael Stich, who is left to carry German hopes in the tournament, was not exactly brimming with sympathy for his compatriot. 'It's disappointing for Boris and the spectators,' the 1991 Wimbledon champion said, 'but the eight players who have made it have a right to be here.'

Stefan Edberg, who has traded serves and volleys with Becker for years, has noticed a lack of verve. 'Becker has clearly not been physically fit this year,' the Swede said. 'That's basically what's wrong with him.' Edberg has also failed to make his usual impact of late, and is currently ranked No 5.

Concern about the longevity of Becker and Agassi coincides with fretting about the generally wellbeing of the sport in the face of a post-McEnroe and Connors depression in the men's game and a lack of depth on the women's side.

Though the BBC's viewing figures for Wimbledon matched last year's (the combined totals for BBC 1 and BBC 2 averaged 5.8m for the fortnight), television ratings for tennis around the world have declined. So, too, have the sales of rackets, balls, shoes and clothing.

Television executives, tournament directors and sportswear manufacturers expressed foreboding at a forum, 'The Fans Experience', organised by the ATP Tour. One of the speakers was Luke Jensen, the American who won the French Open doubles title with his brother Murphy. Luke advocates rock music, lasers and smoke, replacing the strawberries and cream with Meatloaf.

The gospel according to this Luke summarises thus: 'Let's go crazy; let's go bananas; let's get rid of the white clothes; let's get out of the country club - people want to see out-of-control tennis.'

Perhaps. But many people would settle for seeing tennis played with less power and more artistry.

Andre Medvedev, the 19-year-old Ukrainian who has risen to No 6, admitted: 'Sometimes I watch the tennis on television myself and I find it boring. I only look to see the tactics of the players, not because I enjoy the games. Sometimes you only see aces and lots of mistakes.'

Goran Ivanisevic was subjected to derision each time he aced Medvedev when defeating the Ukrainian in the recent final of the Paris Open. 'If you play the final of a big tournament you are not going to make a clown of yourself to make people happy,' the world No 8 said.

The Croat is not in favour of the Jensen show. 'You don't need that in tennis,' he said. 'If people want that they can go to Hollywood.' It will be left to the players to provide the pyrotechnics, starting with Jim Courier against Michael Chang in the opener of the round robin.

Arthur Ashe Group: Pete Sampras, Sergi Bruguera, Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic. Stan Smith Group: Jim Courier, Michael Stich, Andrei Medvedev, Michael Chang.