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U.S. Open: It's hard test on hard courts No question, tournament is tennis' toughest exam


NEW YORK -- So it's about as subdued as a subway ride. So the grounds look like a tent city for corporate America. So the ticket policy ensures that only the rich, the famous, the well-connected and the scalped get to sit within 100 yards of the action.

So what?

Forget everything you've ever heard about how gorgeous Wimbledon is, or how utterly civilized the French Open can be, or how the Australians know how to put on a tennis show every January.

They're terrific places to visit. But if you want to find out who the best tennis players are, you come to New York around Labor Day and witness the U.S. Open.

No one-dimensional winners here. It's hard-court tennis. In the summer. In a place where fans act as if they're at a hockey game.

The usual cast of characters armed with rackets and surrounded by entourages will show up for the Open, which begins its two-week run at the National Tennis Center this morning at 11.

Consider these 10 questions on the way to the finals:

Anyone hear from Jim Courier?

You remember him. No. 1 man. Winner of three Slams in 18 months. And then he ran into Andrei Olhovskiy of Russia in the third round at Wimbledon. Olhovskiy grew up playing on hardwood, as in basketball courts, and bounced Courier out of England. Ever since, Courier has struggled to regain his confidence, and even talked as if tennis was like work, or something.

The Olympics didn't help him, either. Too much heat and too much serve from Switzerland's Marc Rosset in the fourth round. But in Barcelona, Spain, Courier was playing for a medal. Here, he'll go after a title and a first-place check of $500,000. Nice work if you can get it.

To grunt or not to grunt?

That is the question facing women's No. 1 Monica Seles. Ever since she stopped grunting, Seles has started losing -- three straight finals at last count. But the noise is much ado about nothing. Fact is, the other women finally are starting to adjust to ,, Seles' double-barrel baseline game. She's still the favorite to win a second straight Open title, but this will be no coronation.

Retirement, anyone?

John McEnroe, who must be taking career lessons from Mario Cuomo, may or may not head into the Malibu sunset after this year's Open. It depends on his mood and his results. The latest bulletin is this: If McEnroe stinks out the joint, he's gone; if he gets to the semis, or even manages to win the thing, he stays. His run to the Wimbledon semifinals was nice. But to advance far in this Open, he'll have to get past Courier in the fourth round and Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals. Next case.

But can they play Las Vegas?

Between them, Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors have won nine Open titles. Few expect them to combine for a 10th, although Navratilova was last year's runner-up. Connors doesn't figure to play much past his 40th birthday, because he could meet Ivan Lendl in the second round. No matter. Next month, Navratilova and Connors will make like Wayne Newton, head to Vegas, and play each other -- for cash.

Can Lendl win?

He's 32, five years removed from his third Open title. But after battling injuries for the past 18 months, Lendl is finally healthy and potentially capable of adding another championship to his resume.

What's with Steffi Graf?

She has sinus problems again. A sore shoulder, too. And No. 1 remains an unreachable target. Yet her draw is generous.

How about long shots?

MaliVai Washington, the No. 14 seed, has reached six finals this year and is in the same bracket with No. 4 Michael Chang, not exactly a heavyweight hard-court hitter. Richard Krajicek, No. 15, has the fastest serve on tour and could be an obstacle for champion Stefan Edberg.

Who's a likely breakthrough?

Jennifer Capriati, of course. After beating Graf for the Olympic gold, the "Dream Teen" is a popular choice to win a first Slam. But, to claim the Open, she'll likely have to beat Seles in the quarterfinals and Gabriela Sabatini in the semifinals.

Whatever happened to . . . ?

Boris Becker doesn't reach a Wimbledon final, and, suddenly, he is being written off. But Becker is talking again of making a climb to No. 1 and could be dangerous. Pete Sampras is talking tough, too, after meekly giving away his title last year. And, remember, the Open is the site of Sabatini's only Grand Slam triumph.

Can Agassi win?

Agassi showed by beating Goran Ivanisevic and winning Wimbledon that what counts isn't image, but heart. He hardly has played since, losing in one round in Washington and then taking time off to recuperate from tonsillitis. Healthy, and heart-felt, he could claim his first Open.

Facts and figures

Where: National Tennis Center, New York

When: Today through Sept. 13

Defending champions: Women -- Monica Seles.

Men -- Stefan Edberg.

Top seeds: Women -- 1, Seles. 2, Steffi Graf. 3, Martina Navratilova. 4, Gabriela Sabatini.

Men -- 1, Jim Courier. 2, Edberg. 3, Pete Sampras. 4, Michael Chang.

Television: Today through Friday: Early rounds, USA Network -- 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.-11 p.m. CBS (Channel 9) -- 11:30 p.m.-midnight.

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