Wimbledon 99: Nightmare stalks American dream

Outside its core of leading men - Sampras, Agassi, Martin and Courier - America's stock of players is down to the bare bones. By Bud Collins
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JULIA LEVERING, the stylish first lady of American tennis, doesn't have much in common with Old Mother Hubbard. Or does she?

No, Julia's cupboard isn't bare - yet. She comes to town, president of the US Tennis Association, with a proprietary feeling about the Wimbledon champ, Pete Sampras; the newly rejuvenated ex-champ, Andre Agassi; a lately springier ex-finalist, Jim Courier; and Todd Martin, who might have been champ if he hadn't forgotten to beat MaliVai Washington when he led 5- 1 in the fifth set of their 1996 semi.

Not a bad-looking larder. What national association or federation chief wouldn't feel buoyant about such an inventory. Sir Geoffrey Cass, the Lawn Tennis Association's executive officer, might think he'd died and gone straight down to the mid-1930s and the John Bullish Fred & Bunny Act.

But, look again. How about shelf life? Is this aging, edging toward 30, cast - the core of the most productive (other-than-Australian) male era of the century - stamped with a cautionary "not at strength after 1999''?

So whenever Julia Levering looks deeper into the US cupboard she can't avoid coming away with a vacant Hubbardian stare. Behind the old bones... no bones? Not even very hopeful wishbones.

Scanning the men's entry roll, you find 11 Americans, three of them seeded: 1 Sampras, 4 Agassi, 8 Martin. You also find, having tumbled to No 60 in the world rankings he once led, Courier, who at least for a memorable April weekend in Birmingham was No 1 to anyone witnessing his Davis Cup tour de force.

But the other five? Each has a plus or two in his dossier, though hardly enough to make him a household name far beyond his mother's broom closet. Except for No 98, Jeff Tarango, of course. Tarango, the crafty, contentious left hander, made his indelible Wimbledon name in 1995 not by running to the title but by walking out - while the best Tarango stroke of that afternoon was the right hand of wife, Benedicte, delivered to the head of the involved umpire, Bruno Rebeuh. Why Benedicte and Jeff aren't awarded a wild-wild card into the mixed doubles is beyond me.

Taking a flyer on any of the seven unseeded Yankee whozats would be strictly a gamble, perhaps a sentimental one for a family member. In fact one of them is a Gambill, a handsome one whose Christian name, Jan-Michael, was lifted from a B-movie actor admired by his mum. The only known male to name a female as his favourite player (Steffi Graf), Gambill spent quite a long time gamboling at the Big W a year ago.

It took him three rain-marred days of several gritty comebacks and daringly unorthodox both-handed shots from both sides to overcome Sjeng Schalken in five sets. But that got Gambill only to the second round. His early- 1998 lustre has dimmed somewhat as he languishes at a respectable No 50.

"Wimbledon last year was a dream,'' Jan-Michael recalls. "Like I'd walked into the TV picture that I'd watched so many times. Except,'' he smiles, "I was on an outside court, not Centre, so it wasn't that familiar.''

Cooling many supporters' ardour was Gambill's failure in an always twitchy situation, his Davis Cup debut. He lost to Andrea Gaudenzi as Italy startlingly ousted the US in a semi-final at Milwaukee. Still, he may yet prove to be the best of a thin lot.

Following No 12 Martin among the 10 Americans in the top 100 is No 29, Vince Spadea. From Brockton, Massachusetts, like the old heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, he's a determined non-stop puncher, too - a welterweight from the baseline - but no champ, although he does have a slight tie to Marciano. His grandfather was Rocky's physician.

But grass is a rocky footing for Spadea. "I play it because it's Wimbledon. And why shouldn't I. There really aren't many grass court guys around - Sampras and a few others - so I can do some good.''

Consult Vince's record this year, and you'll see a lot of good. He beat Agassi at the Australian Open, possibly depriving Andre of that title - then crashed. He beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the Lipton, Mark Philippoussis at the Italian, Richard Krajicek at the French - all prime Wimbledon seeds - before going into a tailspin. A top 10 guy doesn't like to see his name paired with Spadea's.

Justin Gimelstob, No 65, a towering serve-and-volleyer, does like the lawn, and had a fine first day for himself two years ago, toppling the freshly crowned French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten in five. He could cause some trouble.

Quick, stubby No 81, Cecil Mamiit, whose name looks like a typographical error, benefited from Agassi's verbal errors at San Jose in registering his most profitable victory. Though leading, Andre was thrown out for badmouthing court officials, and Cecil had no recourse but to accept the gift.

Another young American, the No 110 Paul Goldstein - a college graduate, miracle of miracles - made a brief mark by beating Greg Rusedski at the Australian. And Chris Woodroff, injured most of the last year, beat Agassi at the French two years ago.

The American decade of 20 major titles commenced with the teenager Michael Chang winning the French in 1989. Though only 27, gritty, perpetual motion man Michael nevertheless carries Methuselah-like mileage and now a No 58 stigma on his chronologically young body. He is kept from Wimbledon by an aching back.

"As young guys coming up we got tired of hearing, `What's wrong with American tennis?' So we did something about it,'' says Courier of his tribe.

He won a pair of Australian and French titles. Agassi chipped in with four himself, the recent French completing a tiara with each of the crown jewels. Throw in Sampras's five Wimbledons and six other majors and you see how the drought was busted.

The "What's wrong?" cry persisted for about five years, after the Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe gusher (abetted by Vitas Gerulaitis, Roscoe Tanner and Brian Teacher) dried up in 1984, having yielded 18 majors.

Although Prez Levering says the USTA is in the right furrow in "re-growing the game in the US", the boom-bust periods seem cyclical with bust just around the corner. The USTA's own development schemes haven't done much, though maybe not as sensationally unfertile as the LTA's. But the numerous preparatory boot camps across the land of Nick Bollettieri, Rick Macci, Chris Evert, Dennis Van der Meer and others, principally in Florida, even though loaded with foreigners, ought to keep America in the game.

Those pedagogues could give even Mother Hubbard a backhand. But that doesn't make either hers or Julia Levering's cupboard look any the lusher as another century dawns.