McEnroe right about rivalries

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

Tomorrow is opening day for the strawberries and cream festival at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, a suburb of London.

That's when British and some European royalty rendez vous for a two-week tennis jamboree usually referred to as "The Fortnight'' so they -- and several hundred thousand fans -- can watch some of the world's best male and female tennis players in action on the finely manicured grass courts.

The Fortnight rivals what the Masters means to golf, the World Cup to soccer and the World Series to baseball. Perhaps even more.

Speaking of rivalries, the pendulum of player rivalries has swung in an opposite direction. Gone are the nerves-tingling, blue-language-spewing players of the past, replaced by mechanical, almost stoical figures chasing the furry tennis ball.

John McEnroe was possibly among the first players to sin against the etiquette, which is not only requested but outright demanded at this tennis shrine. That's where players are reminded to use the word "sir'' when addressing the umpire. McEnroe had much more colourful epithets for the umpire or lines person whom he thought had ruled against him.

However, the regaled tennis star and now television colour commentator believes -- as I do -- that colour has indeed been pushed into the background at Wimbledon, particularly when it comes to rivalries.

Gone are the days when McEnroe battled Sweden's Bjorn Borg in a breathtaking Wimbledon final or the moments when Ilie Nastase of Romania used the kind of unsavoury language that made him infamous.

McEnroe wrote in his book You Cannot Be Serious that tennis, like every sport, does need a rivalry. He wrote: "Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, Jack Nicklaus versus Arnold Palmer. Tennis needs to get back to those kind of rivalries that I had with Borg and Jimmy Connors, or that Pete Sampras had with Andre Agassi in order to give the sport that extra edge."

Having been to 17 Wimbledons, I have seen those rivalries. They kept even a veteran journalist at the edge of his seat. And I have also seen the same rivalries in the ladies division between the ageless Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert; Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, or Monica Seles and Steffi Graf.

Today, those rivalries are missing. They eventually may develop between mechanical Roger Federer of Switzerland and American Andy Roddick with Russian Marat Safin, the racquet-smashing toreador, as well as 19-year-old clay court specialist Rafael Nadal of Spain.

Among the women, the situation is similar. Serena Williams again promises to take on all comers, including the defending champion, 19-year-old Maria Sharapova of Russia. American Lindsay Davenport, France's Amelie Mauresmo, the Belgian tandem of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne and a group of upcoming young Russians could help create a much needed rivalry.

IS YOUNGSTER LURKING?

A storyline worth following is which unheralded youngster will change in locker room "B'' and go on to win Wimbledon as did 17-year-old Boris Franz Becker of Germany in 1985 when he beat the favoured South Africa-born Kevin Curren.

You see, the traditional All England Club has an "A" and "B" dressing room. Becker, an unknown at the time, was in the "B" changing room.

It was the last time he dressed in that room. Champions and other top players now put on the all-whites in dressing room "A", while I put mine on at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club.

Now, please, bring on the strawberries and cream.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Canadian journalism lost two prominent figures this past week -- Scott Young and Irene Vorosvary Weller, publisher and editor in chief of the Canadian Hungarian weekly. Both will be sadly missed by their respective families, friends and readers ... I doubt I'll be getting a Father's Day gift such as the 4 1/2-karat diamond studded Gillette shaver soccer ace David Beckham received.


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