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Bosco’s Corner: Give me a reason to care, please

The U.S. Open, the biggest tennis tournament in the United States, kicks off Monday, right here in Queens at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. And while the annual event seemingly is going about its business as usual, it seems to me that things are not all perfect in the world of tennis.

To be honest, this year’s version of the U.S. Open holds no great anticipation for me. In years past I awaited the Open and the chance to see the world’s best tennis players go at it on local ground. But with only a handful of household names in the tournament this year, my interest is waning.

Ironically, most of the top players in the world are expected to be in attendance, though most of their names escape me. It wasn’t that long ago that I could name most of the top 10 players in both the men’s and women’s brackets, but that time is long gone.

And that is not because I have necessarily lost interest in tennis, but that tennis, on the elite level, has lost the ability to attract the casual fan. The players are an anonymous sea of uninspiring individuals who simply cannot draw the casual fan to pay attention.

Maybe that’s why the U.S. Open has taken the very unlikely step of calling on two big names from its past — John McEnroe and Boris Becker — to play a “challenge match” to top off a day that also includes the women’s doubles final, the two men’s semifinal matches and a prime time women’s final.

McEnroe and Becker hearken back to a time when tennis was one of the most popular, if not the most popular sports other than the four majors here in the United States — baseball, football, basketball and hockey. McEnroe’s name alone inspire more interest in me than all the top 10 players in the world combined.

Why? Because McEnroe, though 42 and well past the ability to compete on the tour in individual competition, is exciting and charismatic, a trait most of the current players never heard of or simply ignore in favor of perfecting their backhand. McEnroe against anyone, let alone Becker, seems a hell of a lot more compelling than watching Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gustavo Kuerten duke it out in a five-match marathon.

I am sure that the overall popularity of tennis or lack thereof is the reason USTA officials have put together this match, in the hopes that the names McEnroe and Becker could somehow bring back the fans that in recent years have turned their attention to Tiger Woods.

That McEnroe is participating in this match only adds proof to my point. No one has been more vocal in recent years than the Queens-born McEnroe about the lagging interest in his chosen sport. He has not minced words in his criticism of some of the sport’s current top players and their inability to attract fans courtside.

When Pete Sampras was riding high as the No. 1 player in the world, he had no real competition. The tennis world tried to drum up a rivalry between Sampras and fellow American Andre Agassi, but Agassi was spotty at best during Sampras’ peak and has only turned up his game in recent years, while Sampras has slowly dropped out of the top 10.

Agassi may be America’s best hope of a U.S. Open crown on the men’s side this year, but while watching him win would be nice, it would help if there was another player out there who would inspire me to watch.

The women’s side is much more interesting, with the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, and the resurgent Jennifer Capriati making up a field vying for this year’s Open title.

Anna Kournikova, the most marketable player on the tour — and not because of her tennis ability — dropped out of the tournament Monday.

I am sure if I asked the USTA about this seeming lag in popularity, they would point me to their web site, where there is a story posted regarding the unbridled success of last year’s U.S. Open and all the records the tournament broke.

In all, the web site claims, the 2000 U.S. Open set 11 attendance records, not to mention that the ratings were — and get this — “the second-highest since 1995” and that 53.9 million viewers tuned in to watch. The site also claims that merchandise and concession sales were up significantly.

With all that said, I’d still have to go search that same web site to find out which player won the men’s tournament last year.

There was a time when the names McEnroe, Connors, Bjorg, Lendl, Edberg and Becker were as recognizable to the average sports fan as they were to the hardcore tennis fanatic. The names Kuerten, Ferraro, Hewitt, Grosjean, Federer and Corretja simply don’t do it for me. By the way, all those players are ranked in the top 10.

Despite lamenting the absence of Kournikova, I will watch and hope for something compelling other than how far along the pregnant and retired Steffi Graf is.

I hope so, otherwise it will be a boring couple of weeks. Again.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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