Pam Shriver prepares for U.S. Open via Havana

HAVANA — HAVANA -- There were no agents dressed to kill, no Ray-Ban sunglasses fashionably dangling against $30 T-shirts, no screaming parents, no $10 hamburgers, no patches on the sleeves of the players and no coaches named Nick Bollettieri.

This was tennis played in a very simple yet elegant setting within yards of buses that belched smoke and overlooking a glistening blue sea.


When Pam Shriver stepped on to a court at the 19th of November Tennis Stadium yesterday, she was wearing a white shirt and white skirt with matching American flags on the pockets. She greeted by two dozen spectators, four slightly cowed ball boys and girls, two camera crews and one nervous opponent from Jamaica. Thirty-nine minutes later, Shriver walked away with a 6-0, 6-0 victory over Henrietta Harris in the second round of women's singles at the Pan American Games.

Now that George Steinbrenner has fled, and Jane Fonda and Ted Turner have almost completed their excellent adventure with their dear friends in the Cuban government, Shriver is about to become one of the wealthiest people left on the island.


She doesn't mind. The 29-year-old from Lutherville, Md., who has earned more than $4 million in prize money, is acting like just one of the amateur athletes, bunking with teammates in the village apartments, eating the bland meals and sweating through the hot, humid temperatures.

"I think they have done one heck of a job to get this facility ready," she said. "When people came here in April, hardly anything was finished. To get stuff in with all the obstacles they faced, it is a miracle that anything is done."

Of course, a few finishing touches weren't added to the tennis facility, which is named in celebration of Cuba's National Sports and Physical Education Day.

"In the women's locker room, there are toilets without any seats," Shriver said. "It's BYOTP, Bring Your Own Toilet Paper."

Shriver admits it is strange to be playing in Cuba, stranger still for a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who shares court time at the White House with President Bush. The trip to Cuba is more exotic than a week in Prague playing the Federation Cup, more taxing than a Virginia Slims event in Moscow, even more unusual than a one-night exhibition in Jakarta.

"I love the Olympics, and I figured this is the next best thing," said Shriver, a bronze medalist in women's doubles at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. "The opportunity to come to Cuba most likely won't happen again in my career. Late in my career I've wanted to participate in unique events. This is about as unique as you can get."

When she accepted the invitation to coach and play on the U.S. team in April, Shriver was still in the early stages of rebuilding her career in the wake of shoulder surgery. Since then, her ranking on the women's computer has climbed from the low 90s to 33, but she kept her commitment to come to Cuba.

"The United States Tennis Association sent out letters to the top 100 people to gauge the level of interest in the event," she said. "At first, some people said yes. But when there was talk about needing a cholera vaccine because of an outbreak in Colombia, well . . . Some information started to come out that you don't get if you play the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles."


Shriver arrived in Havana Sunday, only moments before "the biggest thunderstorm," she had ever seen. Between trips to practice at the the 12-court tennis facility, Shriver has wandered the streets of Havana, trying to make sense of a strange place.

"I walked around and it was so frustrating because I don't speak Spanish," she said. "I'm taking pictures of the signs. I walked up and down a couple of alleys where people live. It's always interesting to see. Everyone has a TV set. They looked like they took care of what they had, even if they didn't have a lot. You'd love to find out what these people are feeling. Right now, they're feeling great because they're spanking everyone in the Games."

What will Shriver say about the trip to Bush the next time they meet for mixed doubles?

"I'd say, 'The people were hospitable,' " she said. "I haven't any unpleasant experiences. Obviously, the system needs some adjusting. I don't know enough to make any profound statements. I always think there is enough for people to have a relationship. In time, there will be a relationship again between the U.S. and Cuba. A lot of tough things happened years ago. There are a lot of stubborn people involved."

For now, Shriver wants to put aside politics and play. After all, how many other touring pros can say they prepared for the U.S. Open by going to Havana? "Let's see, tournaments in San Diego, Havana, a week off, then Washington, and then the Open," Shriver said.

She'll attempt to play nine matches in three days, trying to win in women's singles, teaming with Donna Faber in doubles, and David Dilucia, the No. 1 men's player at Notre Dame, in mixed doubles.


"I don't care what the competition is, that's a lot of matches," she said. "I'm going for triple gold."