Bad news for Williams opponents

"Without us, it is a little dry. I would be dishonest if I said it wasn't. But at the same time, I'd be dishonest if I said it was no fun watching tennis. I mean, not everyone loves me," said Serena (pic. right), who and her sister Venus missed the US Open due to injury. — Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-"Without us, it is a little dry. I would be dishonest if I said it wasn't. But at the same time, I'd be dishonest if I said it was no fun watching tennis. I mean, not everyone loves me," said Serena (pic. right), who and her sister Venus missed the US Open due to injury. — Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES

As the U.S. Open unfolded without the injured Williams sisters, here are some troubling thoughts for the other top players to ponder:

As the U.S. Open unfolded without the injured Williams sisters, here are some troubling thoughts for the other top players to ponder:

Venus Williams plans to play another 10 years, and wants little sis to do the same.

And Serena Williams vows to return to the tour "on a mission."

Venus felt a pang of regret that she couldn't be on court.

"I was hoping they would move the Open back a few weeks so that way I could be ready, but nobody liked the idea,'' Venus said, smiling at her own joke. "It's definitely hard not to be in the competition.''

Neither is sure when she will play next; they mentioned the tour championships at Los Angeles in November as a possibility.

As Jennifer Capriati put it: "Whoever's going to take this title, there's going to be an asterisk next to it, saying, 'Oh, but the Williams sisters weren't here.'''

The sisters met in the final at five of the last six Slams — Serena won each — and one or the other won every U.S. Open since 1999. When the topic is women's tennis, invariably the conversation turns to a single family.

And, both sisters noted, it's not always flattering.

"When we weren't winning the Slams, it's like: `Well, when are they going to start winning?' OK — we started winning. `Oh, it's bad for tennis.' It's not really bad for tennis at all, because we're always on the covers of all kinds of newspapers, magazines, everything,'' said Serena, wearing high heels and a black-and-white dress for which Venus picked the fabric.

"Now that we're not here, it's `bad.' It's not bad. There are still a lot of good players in the field, there's a lot of good personalities. ... There's a lot left, as well, without us,'' Serena added, then paused.

"Without us, it is a little dry. I would be dishonest if I said it wasn't. But at the same time, I'd be dishonest if I said it was no fun watching tennis. I mean, not everyone loves me.''

Serena's hoping the camera loves her. With help from the William Morris agency, she's accumulating acting roles, including a movie called "Beauty Shop'' and a part in the Showtime drama "Street Time'' that she'll film in Toronto.

"I love tennis, and it's always my first love, and I really, really miss it,'' Serena said. "But in a way, it is kind of a relief ... this actually gives me a chance to do some other stuff.'''

Off-court pursuits keep the sisters busy. Both have designed clothes, and Venus has an interior decorating company.

Awesome Andre

THE best of the rest of his generation is gone. Almost alone now, Andre Agassi soldiers on.

On the first Sunday at the U.S. Open, it was against Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia in the resumption of a match postponed a day earlier by rain. From the way Agassi began dissecting the match afterward, you half-expected an audible "creak'' when he drew one elbow close in to support his chin.

"Well,'' he began, "it makes for a long day, there's no question about that.''

This came from a man who needed less than an hour to wrap up a straight-set win, who over the years transformed himself from a brash kid with a loud, pastel wardrobe and Las Vegas showgirl-styled hair to a model of decorum, monochromes and aerodynamic efficiency.

One look at Agassi now with his shaved head and basic outfits — white for the heat of the day, black during the cooler evening sessions — lets you know the man is about business and nothing else. At age 33, with the realisation that he is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Agassi can't afford to be any other way.

Veteran Andre Agassi soldiers on. — Pic. AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES-

A decade ago, he was a kid more interested in hawking sneakers, cameras and the like and the U.S. Open draw matched him against Jimmy Connors, then an aging star himself. At one point during the match, a fan yelled to Connors, "He's nothing, you're a legend.''

However that slight might have affected Agassi then, when he was all words and no deeds, it cannot touch him now. He has eight major championships, another 50 tournament wins, is married to Steffi Graf and has a second child on the way.

Asked what that fan might yell if he'd been in attendance Sunday, Agassi broke into a wide grin.

"He's probably in the 55-and-olders watching Jimmy play still,'' he said. "I have no idea.''

The truth is, Agassi knows exactly what that fan would say. While Agassi is loath even to utter the word "legacy,'' there's no denying it's on his mind.

Pete Sampras, the rival whose unsurpassed career will one day help define Agassi's as well, said goodbye in an emotional farewell to the sport on the first day. On the second, Michael Chang followed Sampras to the sideline, the procession closely observed and commented upon by Jim Courier, the final member of a Fab Four that made up arguably the most productive generation of American tennis players ever.

Beginning with Sampras' breakthrough win here as a 19-year-old in 1990 (he beat Agassi in the final), Andre and those three amigos won an incredible 27 of the 55 Grand Slam tournaments leading up to this one. Sampras won 14 — more than half the total — but the bigger surprise may be that Agassi ascended alongside him into the sport's stratosphere.

Kournikova everywhere except on court

She can be seen pouting out from magazine stands, including one cover that salaciously teases "In Bed with Anna."

She has been spotted throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a New York Yankees game, doing the late night talk show circuit and walking the red carpet at an MTV awards party.

It seems, for now, there is only one Anna Kournikova. — Pic. MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES-

To the delight of many testosterone charged Kournikova addicts, the seductive Russian has even taken on the role of "entertainment reporter" for an American television network at this year's final Grand Slam.

In fact, tennis diva Anna Kournikova has been spotted nearly everywhere in New York except the one place you would expect to find her — on court at the U.S. Open with a racket in her hand.

While the injured Kournikova has not given up the idea of returning to the courts to end one of the sporting world's most celebrated winless streaks, her absence at Flushing Meadows has left a gaping hole.

With the headline hogging Williams sisters also absent with injuries, the U.S. Open this year has provided fertile ground for the newest, hottest tennis blonde to take root.

In a "Pop Idol" type search, the waif-like Slovak Daniela Hantuchova, the "American Anna" Ashley Harkleroad and the latest Russian "Siberian Siren" Maria Sharapova have all been trotted out in an attempt to fill the glamour void left by Kournikova.

But finding the next Kournikova is proving to be a tougher task than unearthing the next Pete Sampras.

The media, agents, marketing experts and to a certain extent the WTA, have all pushed, promoted and prodded their idea of the next tennis diva on to Anna's throne with limited success.

It seems, for now, there is only one Kournikova.

"I think she was great for the game," said 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport. "I'd never seen anyone sell out first-round matches in tournaments but Anna.

"The amount of fans she alone would bring in was huge.

"But we've gone through years and years of players being injured, she's another one.

"I have no idea if she plans on playing again or coming back. I think she's been battling a lot of injuries the last couple of years."

Around Flushing Meadows there was no question who was going to be missed more — Sampras or Kournikova.

Although Sampras retired with 14 Grand Slam wins and 64 singles titles on his resume and Kournikova has yet to claim her first trophy in eight years as a professional, it was the Russian pin-up a group of New York fire-fighters said they were missing most.

But not many have embraced Kournikova's new role as reporter, the New York Post summing up her performance in a single headline, "Anna's TV gig makes her tennis look good."

For her new assignment Kournikova, microphone in hand, prowled the players lounge in a micro-mini, red bra and fur-trimmed boots giving viewers an insight at what goes on.

"It's her first time on TV and she's working hard," said USA Network spokesman Tom Caraccioli, when asked about Kournikova's performance.

"She is generating loads of excitement around the grounds, it's rock star like proportions."

We'll team up again, Navratilova tells Paes

Martina Navratilova has promised to be at Leander Paes's side when her mixed doubles partner has recovered from illness and is ready to return to tennis.

Navratilova, who teamed up with Paes to lift the Wimbledon mixed doubles title earlier this year, expressed her relief after learning the Indian had been told by doctors he did not have brain cancer as was first diagnosed.

Suffering from severe headaches, the Indian Davis Cup leader was admitted to hospital with a suspected tumour but a series of tests revealed a tiny lesion on the left side of his brain.

"I told him (Paes) whenever he comes back that we'll play again," Navratilova told reporters. "Whenever he decides to play again, I'll be playing.

"I was devastated for days. It obviously brings things into perspective.

"We worry about break points and pulled hamstrings and here he is with the possibility of dying in a short time.

"That was an eye-opener for everyone I think in the tennis world."

Paes's return might force Navratilova to put her retirement plans on hold.

"I definitely will not be playing in 2005," said Navratilova, who equalled Billie Jean King's record by capturing her 20th Wimbledon title with her victory in the mixed doubles.

"But 2004 I haven't decided yet. There's a possibility I will play next year but we'll have to wait and see."

I think I do get on with fellow pros — Roddick

Unflustered on court, Andy Roddick exerted most of his energy attempting to play down his reputation as the U.S. Open's most wanted man.

Roddick's biggest problems, have come off court, with barbed comments made by fellow players Ivan Ljubicic and Nicolas Lapentti forcing the American to defend his behaviour, his record and his relationship with other tour pros.

First on the agenda was Croatian Ljubicic, who refused to apologise for his previous statement that Roddick's animated on-court antics appalled many players, and that the 21-year-old was disliked in the locker room.

"I was surprised (by what Ljubicic) he had to say because I didn't realise it was on his mind," Roddick said.

"I think I do get on with (others in the locker room)... but who knows what's said when people aren't around?

"But that was one of my issues (with Ljubicic)... I told him 'if it's a thing between me and you, we'll keep it that way.'

"He understood a little bit, we had a professional talk — it's over, it's done."

The argument from Lapentti, the Ecuadorean who has said that Roddick would not be ranked as highly if most tournaments were played outside the United States, also returned to hound the American.

"I haven't talked to Nicolas about what happened," said Roddick. "All that doesn't matter. I feel fortunate that a lot of the tournaments are in the U.S. but I also reached two semi-finals at foreign Grand Slams this year. I don't know how relevant that is."

Andy Roddick's biggest problems have come off court, with barbed comments made by fellow players. — Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

Other players have come out recently in defence of Roddick's popularity, and his status now as the brightest hope in the U.S. means the fans are rather partial to his company, too.

"Well, I love the fans," said Roddick, fending off suggestions they could hamper his concentration here.

Replica reptile stands tall

DinoMite, the tennis dinosaur, stands as a hard- to-miss centre of attention on the grounds of the National Tennis Center, part of a nationwide project which has placed replica reptiles in public spaces around America.

The U.S Open is displaying a 110-kg Stegosaurus, which stands more than two metres high and three metres long. It's one of 100 being used in the nationwide exhibit.

Like the life-sized plastic cows, which had their day in an arts experiment several years ago, the dinosaurs have been designed to increase awareness in prehistoric studies.

And they've always fascinated kids.

The tennis statue is due to be autographed by some of the greatest names in the sport, including Billie Jean King and Ken Rosewall during the fortnight.

WTA considers changing age rule

Maria Sharapova and other teenagers on the WTA Tour could get a chance to play in more tournaments next season. As it frequently does, the tour will consider changes to its age eligibility rule at board meetings during the U.S. Open. The rule, first devised in 1994 and implemented in 1995, limits the number of events players aged 14-to-17 can enter.

"Virtually every year, we tweak it in an effort to make the rule relevant to today's players and today's game. This year is no different," tour spokesman Darrell Fry said.

In 1997, for example, a player who was 15, 16 or 17 would be allowed to exceed their tournament limit if the made it into a Grand Slam field. Sharapova, 16, made the fourth round at Wimbledon as a wild-card entry this year. She's allowed to play 10 pro events.