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Sunday, August 25, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rock And Roll Tennis: U.S. Open Is World's Toughest Tournament

Newspaper Enterprise Association

NEW YORK - Heat, noise, unruly crowds and a daily pace that withers all but the hardiest. A capital city somewhere in the Third World?

No, it's the U.S. Open - the toughest tennis tournament on Earth.

The 1991 Open starts tomorrow. Ask the pros about it. You probably will hear complaints about New York City and its late-summer weather. About the noisy crowds at Flushing Meadow. About the cramped player facilities at the National Tennis Center.

Until last year, you also would have heard gripes about jet fly-overs from nearby LaGuardia Airport. But Mayor David Dinkins, an avid tennis fan, actually managed to get the planes re-routed during the big tournament.

"The U.S. Tennis Association knows what the problems are," said CBS-TV analyst Mary Carillo. "That's why they want to build a new National Tennis Facility on the site of the current one."

CBS and USA Cable are providing live TV coverage of this year's Open. Much of their attention is focused on defending champions Pete Sampras and Gabriela Sabatini. But controversy over the Open is always a factor behind the scenes.

Of course, some things are beyond the USTA's ability to change.

Stefan Edberg has complained before about New York City's weather: too hot in the daytime, too chilly at night.

Carillo, who grew up not far from Flushing Meadow, laughs at that. "The weather is much worse at the Australian Open," she said. "It gets to be 130 degrees on the court there."

But many players find the atmosphere of New York itself oppressive.

As Michael Chang observes, "Everything in New York tends to be go-go-go and push-push-push."

Admittedly, New Yorkers are more boisterous than most tennis fans. Yet some players can thrive on that brand of excitement.

Andre Agassi, the No. 1 proponent of "rock and roll" tennis, considers the New York fans to be an asset. He says he likes "the excitement that the Open brings with it - you get a special type of fan and electricity."

The source of the electricity isn't just the rapid pulse of New York City, according to USTA spokesman Ed Fabricius.

"There's a difference between a Wimbledon-sized stadium, which holds 13,000, and a stadium like ours, which holds 21,000," he noted. "That's a lot more people. And we sell tickets where you have access to any court. So our people move around."

The result is a phenomenon unique to the Open - a New York-style traffic jam inside the stadium. "There just aren't enough exits," CBS analyst Tony Trabert said about the congestion at Flushing Meadow.

"It's not easy to move that many people around," Fabricius admitted.

The proposed new tennis stadium would have more exits and wider accessways, alleviating many of the crowd-control difficulties at the Open.

Anyway, some argue that complaints about U.S. Open crowds are just so much New York bashing. When Wimbledon opened its gates for the first time on a Sunday this year, it offered tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. Pundits were charmed by the exuberance of the very untraditional audience.

"That's what New York has always been like," Fabricius says. "The people are a part of it. That's what Americans are like."

Off the court, however, the players still run into crowds.

Manuela Maleeva, currently ranked among the world's top 10 tennis stars, says her biggest problem with the U.S. Open is the lack of elbow room for the competitors. She says the locker room and players' lounge are too small.

"Compared to the rest of the Grand Slams," she said, "the facilities are not as good. The players' lounge could be bigger. There are so many people in there it's difficult for the players to rest."

In its planning meetings with the players' associations, the USTA has heeded the cries against the facilities. "They'll be considerably improved," vowed Fabricius. "Much bigger. More room."

What is Maleeva, who went into the '91 tournament as a four-time Open quarterfinalist, hoping for?

"I would ask for some facilities like a Jacuzzi or a small swimming pool, like at the French Open," she said, "so that the players can relax after matches."

Fabricius smiled about that particular request. "We had a Jacuzzi, but it was never used," he said. "When we consulted with the players, they had us take it out so they'd have more space." Plans for the new National Tennis Center include a Jacuzzi.

Currently, the USTA is meeting with local planning boards, part of the complex process that governs land use in New York City. If all goes well, part of the new tennis center will be ready in 1994, and the rest in 1995.

Regardless of the drawbacks, the U.S. Open is still a big event. It attracts the best tennis players in the world. For Americans, it has the extra incentive of being "our championship," as Chang calls it.

To many, the hard-court surface also remains a major attraction.

"It's a very honest surface," Carillo said. "You don't get endless rallies on the slow red clay, or the bang-bang tennis of grass. So many different people can win at the Open."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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