Who's that of tennis ...
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun
MONTREAL -- The poster is found all over Montreal, a photograph without words saying too much about the current state of men's tennis.
On one side of the photo stands Andre Agassi. Beside him are Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, names people know, faces they're not so certain about.
I asked a number of people at Stade du Maurier yesterday to identify the three players in the poster, put there to sell this event and sell the game. Agassi was easy. No one missed on him.
But even among people who called themselves tennis fans, some knew Roddick, some didn't, some could identify Hewitt, some couldn't. Few could name all three.
And if these are the biggest names in the sport, then the sport, as many suspect, is in difficulty. You may not be able to tell from the size of the crowds at the Tennis Masters Canada -- they have been large and enthusiastic in spite of weather problems -- but more indicative may be the size of the television audiences worldwide.
Once upon a time, tennis was mainstream. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were as well known as any athletes in the world, and as perfect a match in their day as Joe Frazier was for Muhammad Ali.
Now, today there is Agassi and no one else. One face and one name in a sport that requires two.
Based on wins alone, the best player in the world this year has been Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, who advanced to the quarter-finals yesterday with another nifty win in the afternoon.
Now ask yourself this question: If Roger Federer knocked on your door would you know who he was? Would you recognize the face?
Would you be able to pick Juan Carlos Ferrero out of a police lineup? He was the second seed here before losing last night, with 49 wins and 10 losses this year, a better player right now than either Roddick or Hewitt.
How about Carlos Moya, the already-defeated fourth seed? Or Guillermo Coria, the No. 7 here? Or Rainer Schuettler, the No. 8?
We could go on and on to Sebastien Grosjean and Jiri Novak and well, you get the picture.
You will hear all kinds of reasons tennis isn't what tennis used to be. North Americans, we are told, care only about North Americans.
Which of course is bunk.
Rod Laver wasn't American and neither was Borg or Ilie Nastase or Boris Becker or Ivan Lendl. People cared about them.
You will hear that today's players have no personalities.
That may be true but who had less personality than Borg?
And you will hear that there is much wrong with the game -- too much serve, not enough volley, not enough heroic matches -- but watching here this week, much of the tennis has been terrific, played by marvellous athletes.
Athletes we don't know well enough to care about. For any sport to survive at the highest level, you need an emotional involvement, a reason to care. Simon Larose, in a most unlikely way, provided that reason this week. But there isn't a Simon Larose for every tournament stop and every tournament looking for a reason to be.
Tennis needs more than that and more than Agassi, who at age 33 isn't only the best player in the game but the only player who transcends it.
He had the perfect foil in Pete Sampras, whose game was a polar opposite to his, and still tennis has grown more and more marginal.
Now, with Sampras having backed away and nearing retirement and Agassi playing on strong but old legs, someone has to emerge to carry this show.
That somebody is supposed to be Andy Roddick of Omaha of all places, the big-serving American who draws the kind of shrieks that accompanied Agassi in his younger rock star tennis days. But Roddick has been as much about hype and expectation as he has about delivery.
"The story has stayed the same, the actors have changed," Agassi said, trying to explain the state of the game. "There are still great athletes out here working hard to find a way to win."
We just don't know them anymore. Not the way we once did. We aren't supposed to see the poster and be forced to guess who the attractions are.