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Tennis needs charismatic champion

Something is missing.

The forehands are all there, crisp and straight as ever. The backhands, too, screaming low across the net and then diving toward the baseline. The lobs, the overheads, the half-volleys. Everything.

Yet, as the world greets the only tennis tournament that really counts, the void is obvious. Somebody has taken something out of tennis and forgot to put it back.

It isn't the play _ there are dozens of great players. It isn't the passion _ I am certain the top professionals care just as much about winning as their predecessors.

What is missing, it seems, is charm.

Today, the court seems farther than ever from the grandstands. The distance between player and observer seems to increase by the day and, thusly, it becomes harder for the casual fan to follow a sport where the stars used to be identified by their first names.

Jimmy and Chrissie. Billie Jean and Arthur. Mac and Martina. Bjorn and Evonne.

Time was, you sat in the stands and watched these players, and the personalities were like the colors in a painter's pallet. There was McEnroe's fire and Borg's ice. There was Evert's smile and Ashe's grace and Martina's frown and Ilie Nastase's playfulness. It was their personalities, as much as their strokes, that did battle on the court.

It was a grand time for tennis. You watched, and you picked out a personality that suited you, and the sport was easy to like. You wanted to share their successes, to buy their rackets, to try their shots.

Heck, what you wanted was to hang out with these people. Watching them play was merely the next-best thing.

No more. The players continue to play well, and they play hard. But too often, the games seem almost robotic, the players intentionally isolated from those who would watch them.

"I think there used to be more joking around," Navratilova said. "Everything used to be looser because there was not much money involved. I still interact with the crowd, but not as much as my instinct would like. The game has lost a little personality."

Jim Courier, for instance, plays a wonderful game of tennis, but at times you wonder if he is even aware people are watching. Andre Agassi is gifted, but he still must prove he can place substance over style.

Mary Carillo, the television commentator and ex-player, thinks much of the reason is simply the age of the top-level players.

"These players are a younger generation," she said. "They don't have as much of a background. A lot of them have never even finished high school. It's a pity, but it's the only way to create a champion these days. Naturally, it retards some of the normal social graces. A lot of these players, the only thing mature about them is the tennis."

This is not to say that Courier, or Pete Sampras, or Steffi Graf, or whoever, is a bad person. It is simply to say that, at this point, we don't know. They are too far away to tell.

Ex-pro Tony Trabert blames the growing trend of the entourage. Players enter a stadium these days, and they look something like Riddick Bowe on the way to a heavyweight fight. Here is their handler, here is their trainer, here is their practice partner, here is their masseuse. Any minute, you expect Angelo Dundee and the cut man to appear.

The result is players left in worlds of their own _ Trabert says some pros don't even know how to write a check _ with the fans outside. At times, the pro is even shielded from other pros.

"A lot of them don't even talk to each other," he said. "There seems to be a distance between the players and everyone, including the media. Do you know of a sport that is harder to get through to a player?"

The point here isn't that players should be more open to the media. Or perhaps it is, because the media largely is the way most athletes project whatever personality they have.

What does the sport need? It needs the same thing that baseball, and golf, and football need. It needs a gifted, charismatic champion who can capture a nation's imagination. It needs someone to turn the casual fan into the die-hard.

"I think it's an unfortunate evolution of the game," Carillo said. "It's like wooden rackets. Yeah, I preferred wooden-racket tennis to the way the game is played now. But it's just part of the deal."

If so, I want to renegotiate.