Tennis: US chief goes Davis Cup head-hunting

Sampras and Agassi are targeted for national duty as 60-year-old Judy Levering tries to restore American pride before the tie against Britain.
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The Independent Online
THE NEW woman in Andre Agassi's life is not the type to shirk a challenge. Judy Levering's first task is to persuade tennis's biggest crowd-puller to bury past differences and play for the United States against Britain in Birmingham at Easter in a match that marks the start of the Davis Cup centenary.

Levering, 60, has just become the first woman president in the 118-year history of the United States Tennis Association. She has taken over from Harry Marmion, whose relationship with Agassi became so soured that the Olympic champion vowed never to play for his country again, or at least not while Marmion was in office. ("That's M-A-R-M-I-O-N," Agassi spelt out to amplify his antipathy).

Agassi's feud with Marmion, dating from a dinner prior to the opening of the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the United States Open in 1997 and coming to a head when Agassi refused to play in last year's Davis Cup semi-final against Italy in Milwaukee because it clashed with his charity gala in Las Vegas, is only one of Levering's legacies.

Pete Sampras, another Milwaukee absentee, has told the American captain, Tom Gullikson, that he will not be playing in the Davis Cup this year because his quest for individual honours comes before playing for his country. The Wimbledon champion is of the opinion that the American public does not care about the Davis Cup. Fatigue caused Sampras, the world No 1 for six consecutive years, to withdraw from the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne next Monday.

"It is not that they are not patriotic, I think it is just that they can only do so much," Levering said on returning to New York this week after visiting both Sampras and Agassi at their homes, catching Agassi before he left for Melbourne.

"I think the door is cracked a little bit," Levering added, "but I am certainly hopeful that in the end they will play, particularly in this centennial year. The last thing I said was, `You can certainly change your mind up until the last minute, and I mean that'."

Levering's mission to talk with Sampras in Los Angeles and Agassi in Las Vegas - "reaching out to these players and trying to establish a relationship with them" - may result in pressure from the USTA for the Davis Cup to be played every two years rather than annually.

"I left with the impression that if we could get it to every other year, it probably would make a lot more sense to the players," Levering said. "I think they both feel that the perception that the public has of Davis Cup is a very confused one.

"When we won the Cup in Russia [in 1995], it wasn't but a little over a month later than we are talking about playing another tie, and the public says, `Well, didn't we just win it?' And the players are just thinking, `Well, we just won it'. Then they have to turn around and start all over again. "I am troubled at the fact that the situation exists where it is hard for them to play. I really want them to know they are our American players. We are extremely proud of them. We are extremely supportive of them in their goals, and we want to help them where we can. I think they would like it to be easy for them to play Davis Cup and if we can help make it that way, we will do it. I want to work with them. I don't want the Davis Cup to create a wedge between the USTA and the players.

"The USTA in some way needs to stand up with those players in forcing change in some of the scheduling. But that being said, it is very important to the sport that these guys represent us well in the Davis Cup, because it is very visible and when they don't it causes controversy in the game, and that doesn't augur well for the sport."

Levering is considered an International Tennis Federation insider, having been elected to its management committee in 1997, chaired its media commission and served on the Fed Cup committee.

Dwight Davis, a Harvard student, donated the trophy for international competition, starting with a match between the United States and the British Isles in Boston in 1900. But would the ITF back American calls for such a radical change now that a total of 131 nations participate in the various zonal groups?

"I think the ITF wants to consider things that will make it better for tennis worldwide," Levering said. "The way the ITF has structured it makes it very difficult for changes to be made quickly. So that is the dilemma? What the [16] World Group countries might want may not suit the other groups, where Davis Cup is their only source of revenue. When they have ties in their home country, that is the only time they are able to make any money. So it is not in their interest to have it every other year. But yet they also have an influence on the voting should the ITF choose to make a change.

"We are, by far, the biggest national association for tennis in the world, and so - although you never have enough money to do all that you want to do - we don't really have as many of the financial problems that some of these other national associations have."

While confirming that she intends having further talks with Sampras and Agassi before the first round tie in Birmingham (2 to 4 April), Levering stressed that she is not only concerned about America's two leading players.

"We don't want to just take for granted those players who have been there for us all the time, such as your Todd Martins," Levering said. "I certainly don't want people to think that we are ignoring them. That is not the case at all."

A native of Kansas City, where Britain's Roger Taylor and his fellow members of the "Handsome Eight" helped launch open tennis down by the stockyards in 1968, Levering appears to sympathise with the sensibilities of today's leading players.

After talking with Sampras and Agassi, she promised that the players would have a greater say in Davis Cup matters in future - even to the extent of the captaincy. "What was brought up was that the players have some say in who the captain is," Levering said. "Not necessarily that they didn't like the present captain. There is an issue and I think it is a very valid one. I told them, at least certainly next year, they would be consulted. Somebody ultimately has to make a decision, but certainly they would be consulted in 2000."

It will be interesting to see if any of this changes Sampras's mind about national service and coaxes Agassi to soar like a bald eagle.