Tennis: Satchmo court is ready to swing

US Open tennis: Big guns lying in wait as Henman and Rusedski bid for Grand Slam triumph
THE MAIN arenas at Flushing Meadows, home to the United States Open, were named in honour of two great American swingers, one of whom never had a racket in his hand.

Louis Armstrong probably would have been amused to find himself associated with tennis folk in a curiously wonderful world; the more so tonight, when Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra are due to play at a ceremony to mark the re-dedication of the Louis Armstrong Stadium, tastefully downscaled to seat 10,000 as the second show court.

"Satchmo" was a resident of nearby Corona, Queens, from 1943 until his death in 1971. The City of New York dedicated the former Singer Bowl from the 1964-65 World's Fair in his honour, and the concert arena was converted into the centrepiece of the USTA National Tennis Centre when the US Open came to Flushing Meadows in 1978.

Louis Armstrong Stadium was too big, so when the USTA replaced it with a new centre court three years ago, they made it even bigger. It was named after another African-American, Arthur Ashe, an embodiment of sporting achievement with dignity. Ashe would have been proud of the recognition, though somewhat embarrassed at the sheer size of the 21,000-seat stadium.

The opening of the Arthur Ashe Stadium was marked by a parade of champions. Two were missing. Pete Sampras was excused because he was due to play. Andre Agassi was not there because he had fallen out with Harry Marmion, the then USTA President, who inadvertently neglected to mention Agassi at a dinner earlier.

Agassi is capable of blowing his own trumpet, and many spectators hope it will sound loud, clear and triumphant during the next couple of weeks as the showman from Las Vegas endeavours to extend an inspired run of form that has seen him win the French Open and advance to the Wimbledon final.

Pete Sampras, playing some of the best tennis of his life, defeated Agassi in straight sets at the All England Club, and the two Americans are seeded to meet in the final here. Victory for Sampras would nudge the Californian ahead of Australia's Roy Emerson with a record 13th Grand Slam singles title.

Victory for Agassi would add to a remarkable career that seemed destined to be regarded as a mixture of charisma and underachievement until he completed a set of the four Grand Slam titles in Paris in June. Not even Sampras has accomplished that.

It is possible that the British contenders, Tim Henman, the No 6 seed, and Greg Rusedski, seeded No 9, will have a say before the American dream has a chance to materialise.

Henman, who did not make an auspicious start to the American hard-court season, will have to lift his game to Wimbledon levels if he is to advance to a prospective meeting with Agassi in the semi-finals.

Rusedski, forced to rest for a month after damaging the big toe of his right foot, made an encouraging return in last week's Boston tournament. Whether he is sufficiently match-hardened to make a similar impact to 1997, when he was defeated by Australia's Pat Rafter in the final, is open to doubt. A meeting with Sampras in the quarter-finals may be a realistic goal.

Rafter, who hopes a dodgy right shoulder will not wreck his chances of a third consecutive triumph in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, at least will not have to face the serving power of his compatriot Mark Philippoussis, who has withdrawn because of a knee injury. Rafter and Philippoussis, last year's finalists, were due to meet in the quarter-finals.

The strong African-American theme may go beyond the strains of jazz in the women's singles. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, may even meet in the final, as they did on a similar court at the Lipton Championships in Florida in March.

Martina Hingis, restored as world No 1 and reconciled with her mother and coach, Melanie, is determined to make amends after her tantrums in Paris and first round elimination at Wimbledon. She may be Venus's obstacle in the semi-finals and Serena is on course to meet Lindsay Davenport, the Wimbledon and US Open champion, in the last four in the lower half of the draw.

While not suggesting anybody should put their money on Venus, it is perhaps worth mentioning that her face is plastered on enormous American Express ads on buses, so she may do nicely.