US Open reveals new face

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The Independent Online
"I wanna wake up in the city that doesn't sleep, to find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap. If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere."

The lines from Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" are writ large above the entrance to the players' lounge in the spectacular Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is due to be inaugurated at the United States Open today. Intended to encapsulate the local spirit of get-up-and-go, they could serve as an anthem for spectators who manage to climb to the 60th row.

Andre Agassi made an expedition to the nosebleed section on Saturday afternoon, looked down and said, "From up here you wouldn't know if you were watching Marc Rosset or Michael Chang."

Officials of the US Tennis Association, impressed by the lines from Rudyard Kipling's "If" above the players' entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon - "If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same" - sought their own flavour of inspiration.

The Sinatra song, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was suggested by Suzanne Maguire, director of the tournament's cultural transition from the privations of the 20,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, a converted concert arena, to the magnificent custom built 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"After the old stadium, big-time tennis played in a cereal bowl would have been welcomed," commented Peter Richmond, a writer who has made a study of American sports grounds.

A disgruntled Kevin Curren once remarked that Flushing Meadow should be "A-bombed", but the former Wimbledon singles finalist appears to have been won round by the "vast improvements" made to the National Tennis Centre. "I just hope the stadium is not too big," Curren added. "You never want to create a football stadium for tennis. You want an intimate environment."

Curren, whose favourite court was the old No 1 at Wimbledon - "the atmosphere was like standing on the 18th tee at Augusta" - makes a valid point about the sheer size of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is 30 feet higher than the Louis Armstrong and 15 feet higher than nearby Shea Stadium, home of the Mets.

High and wide, certainly, but the new building undoubtedly makes a handsome centrepiece of a $254m (pounds 175m) expansion programme which has transformed 46.5 acres of the National Tennis Centre (24.9 acres have been added to the original 21.6 acres).

The project is financed by the USTA, but the city of New York owns the facility. "We have $150m in New York revenue bonds to pay off," the USTA president, Harry Marmion, said. "Our mortgage, so to speak, will be $1.2m per month. We cannot afford to fail. It's an awesome responsibility."

As with the new No 1 Court inaugurated at Wimbledon in June, the opening of the Arthur Ashe Stadium coincides with changing faces on the court, particularly in the women's game.

The 16-year-old Martina Hingis, the youngest-ever world No 1, is seeded to win her third Grand Slam championship of the year, having triumphed at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

Denied by Iva Majoli, of Croatia, in the final of the French Open, Hingis has lost only one other match this year, against the American Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals in Los Angeles. Davenport was subsequently beaten by Monica Seles in the final.

Davenport, the Olympic champion, returned to Atlanta last week to win the US Women's Hardcourt title, defeating Sandrine Testud, of France, in Saturday's final. The powerful, 6ft 21/2in Californian appears fitter and more mobile than for months, and consequently her level of confidence is high.

Projected to meet Hingis in the semi-finals here, Davenport is considered by the Swiss youngster's mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, to be her daughter's chief rival nowadays.

But what when Steffi Graf returns from injury towards the end of the year? "Steffi is physically so used [up] already that even if she was playing she wouldn't be the same Steffi Graf that she was before," Molitor was quoted as saying last week.

Monica Seles, runner-up to Graf for the last two years, is aiming for her a third US Open title and a 10th Grand Slam singles title in total. Seeded to play Hingis in the final, Seles has suffered from a flu virus during the last few days. She also has the constant worry of the illness of her father, Karolj. Otherwise, Seles would be viewed as the most serious threat to Hingis's quest for her first US Open title.

Asked for her views on the new stadium, Hingis spoke admiringly but with a hint of mocking humour. "Just the biggest, nicest, most beautiful... Just everything is the greatest in America, you know."

Greg Rusedski, who will today overtake Tim Henman as the British No 1, is due to play his first-round match against the American David Wheaton today. Henman's opening match against Austria's Thomas Muster, the former world No 1, is scheduled for the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday.

The mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, has declined an invitation to make a speech at tonight's opening ceremony. He has put local politics above sport in his feud with his predecessor, David Dinkins, over the contract with the USTA that obliges the city to pay fines when aircraft from La Guardia Airport fly over and disrupt tournament matches.

Still, Whitney Houston will be here, singing her heart and lungs out to mark a new era in American tennis. Start spreading the news.

n Samantha Smith won through to the first round of the US Open yesterday. The Briton beat the Austrian Sylvia Plischke 6-3, 6-3 in the final round of qualifying.