Change Seems Essential to Escape Extinction : Wimbledon:World's Most-Loved Dinosaur

LONDON: "It's our Super Bowl," Pete Sampras says about Wimbledon, and from the perspective of an American tennis player, he is quite right.

Wimbledon is the world's oldest tennis tournament (it began in 1877). Wimbledon is the world's most famous tennis tournament. Wimbledon is the world's most prestigious tennis tournament. Wimbledon is the tournament everyone wants to win most. Now wait a minute.

Let's put the litany on hold for a paragraph or three. It has become a reflex for the English-speaking world to

refer to Wimbledon in these glowing terms, to get bowled over by the tradition, the foliage and the trappings like New York socialites get bowled over by an Oxbridge accent.

The place is remarkable; no question about it: by far the most attractive site of the four Grand Slam events at this expansion-minded stage of their development. The roll call of great champions is nearly complete: Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Pancho Gonzales and Monica Seles where are you?

But for me, and not only for me, the grass is just too high a hurdle: too rare, too particular, too reductive, and it is only going to get rarer. Though it would be great for the aching knees of the world's recreational players and the fine art of the volley, there is not going to be a resurgence of grass-court construction in the foreseeable future. It is too expensive, too time-consuming to maintain, and synthetic grass courts, with their uncertain footing, are going to remain a novelty act, as well.

As for the professionals, the pace of deconstruction has been remarkable. On the men's tour this year, there are 34 hard-court tournaments, 26 clay-court events and only six on grass. On the women's tour, there are 32 hard-court tournaments, 23 clay-court events and four on grass. In 1974, when Jimmy Connors won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year, he won them all on grass. By 1988, Wimbledon was the only grass-court Grand Slam event left.

It has survived quite nicely for 13 years, but it is no longer the inescapable reference worldwide. Most South Americans and southern Europeans, including the French, would rather win on the clay in Paris. Wimbledon's inability to reach agreements with major terrestrial broadcasters in western Europe in the last decade also hurts. A generation of French and Spanish youths — to cite two examples — have grown up without Wimbledon, because their parents did not have the right cable or satellite package. They have no images of Sampras winning on grass circulating in their heads, and it is inevitable that the lack of familiarity will eventually have an impact on the event's global prestige.

"We want to be the best; there is no ambiguity," Tim Williams, the new Wimbledon chairman, said on Thursday. "This applies also to the coverage we get and we would like it to reach a wider audience. We are aware of the weakness in Europe at the moment."

In 1999, in an international survey of 108 top men's and women's players by the French magazine Tennis, Wimbledon still finished first in the "most prestigious" category with the French Open second, the U.S. Open third and the Australian Open fourth. But Wimbledon also finished last in that survey in categories like facilities, scheduling, umpiring, crowd atmosphere and welcome atmosphere.

In the past, such polls might have been met with indifference, but the All England Club is now in listening mode. The facilities for the players have been improved dramatically in the past two years, and the tone of the employees has changed perceptibly: evolving in the right direction from smug and superior. "British people are reserved and they can appear to be cool or cold," conceded Phillips. "While some overseas people respect and like efficiency, for others that is seen as officious. What we are trying to do is get the best of both worlds by running an excellent, very well-organized event but trying to get the software in place, so people feel really welcomed."

Andrei Medvedev, the Ukrainian player who was one of Wimbledon's toughest critics two years ago, has been transformed into a publicist.

"The way they take care of us is just great," he said this week. The seedings issue, which was creating discord, has also been well-addressed by the clever move of guaranteeing the top 32 men in the ATP entry system a seeding but not guaranteeing the order of that seeding.

Phillips, a former top British Airways executive, seems more open to constructive change than some of his predecessors, and he has now embraced the idea of adding a third week between the French Open and Wimbledon. The French Open would keep its dates and Wimbledon would move back a week — no small concession considering that Wimbledon has had the same spot on the calendar since 1922.

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