Prize money soars but script stays the same

 

IT was very much a script that could have been written. well in advance. Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf continue to dominate, the prize money continues to soar and the Olympics are a major disappointment. Some things just never change.

In Atlanta Andre Agassi and Lisa Davenport won the singles golds but they were among the minority of leading players who treated the event particularly seriously. Agassi's decision to concentrate on the Olympics was clearly one of the factors in his abysmal performance at Wimbledon while his gold a few weeks later did little for the sport.

Neither did the contempt with which many of the leading players continued to treat all but the very richest of tournaments, and the number of withdrawals and half-hearted appearances at even the Grand Slam Cup (which boasts £3.8 million in prize money) pointed to further troubles ahead.

Sampras ends 1996, as he did 1995, at the top of the pile but there is not much between the 25-year-old and the pack. Thomas Muster had a spell at number one only to drop back late in the year but the rejuvenated Michael Chang and Boris Becker lurk close behind Sampras.

In Melbourne Monica Seles seemed ready to take advantage of her rival's troubles, and when she won the Australian Open for the fourth time in four attempts she appeared to be back to her best.

During the latter stages of the event, however, she aggravated a shoulder injury, ended up having to have minor surgery and, with the exception of helping the USA to victory over Spain in the Federation Cup, during her first year playing for her adopted country, and an appearance in the US Open final, there was little for her to celebrate.

Graf, meanwhile, won in France, Wimbledon and the Us and her place in the spotlight was threatened only by the attention which 16-year-old Swiss international Marina Hingis grabbed on the way to number four in the world.

The youngster reached the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows and beat just about all of the more established stars somewhere. She is, however, just approaching the stage at which most of the previous child prodigies have cracked under the pressure so the coming year will be vital.

The British, meanwhile, finally came up with the genuine prospect in the shape of 22-year-old Tim Henman. The Englishman had climbed through the rankings steadily in the early part of the year but it was at Wimbledon, where he beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov on the way to the quarter finals, that he really began to make an impact.

He continued to do well in the autumn, making it through to the fourth round of the US Open and, having finished the year off with a major earner (£150,000) at the Grand Slam Cup, his prospects to build on his position, just outside the world's top 20, over the coming year look very bright.

At home it was a good year, too, with the men's international team, in particular, outstanding under the leadership of Peter Wright. Owen Casey, Scott Barron, Eoin Collins and John Doran dropped just one rubber between them in their six Davis Cup matches in January and, with Casey, Barron and Tommy Hamilton playing they won promotion again in the European Team Championships to join some of Europe's strongest nations in the First Division.

The picture was not quite so bright on the women's front with the Irish missing out on promotion in the Federation Cup and Europeans. The women's Irish Open was won by Austria's Evelyn Fauth while Gina Niland won the national title.

Grand Slam winners. Australia: Becker and Seles; France: Kafelnikov and Graf; Wimbledon: Krajicek and Graf; US: Sampras and Graf. Davis Cup: France; Federation Cup: USA.