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Tennis Stars -- And Stripes

As the 9/11 anniversary nears, this year's U.S. Open is going all-American.

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Venus and Serena draw fans with their sheer physical might, Andre Agassi is cute and tenacious, and millions follow Anna Kournikova's every move because they really, really want to see her . . . win that first tournament.

For all the reasons that American tennis fans latch on to favorites, one motivation has been curiously absent: patriotism. And most elite American pros, aside from yearly Davis Cup appearances, seem to be citizens only of stateless Nike Nation or some gated-community Florida tennis academy.

But this is the year that puts the U.S. in U.S. Open. The 2002 Open begins its two-week run in Flushing on August 26 and concludes September 8, amid the one-year-after tributes. Reebok has created new red-white-and-blue outfits for Venus Williams, the defending two-time women's champ, and for Andy Roddick, who was one break point away from last year's men's final.

The United States Tennis Association's logo for this year's Open features red and white stripes with a blue Statue of Liberty. The tricky part, says USTA executive Arlen Kantarian, is setting a tone that's patriotic without being jingoistic. "We have an opportunity and a responsibility to welcome the world to a revitalized, confident, resilient New York," Kantarian says. "We want this Open to be a symbol of the pride in this city." Each nightly session will feature on-court ceremonies honoring September 11 heroes.

One player hasn't needed any graphic-design help. Alexandra Stevenson clicked with the driver who took her from midtown to Queens last fall, and the two scheduled their first date for September 13, at Windows on the World. Manny DelValle Jr., a 32-year-old firefighter moonlighting as a tennis chauffeur, was last seen on the tenth floor of 1 World Trade. Now, when Stevenson plays outdoors, she wears a hat with a patch from DelValle's Engine Company 5, on East 14th Street.

CBS, which televises the Open finals, will run a segment with players talking about New York and the attacks in its U.S. Open preview show on August 25. But the network is being careful not to alienate sports viewers. "If the USTA turns it into a patriotic pageant, I guess we'll cover that," says Bob Mansbach, the network's coordinating producer. "But people are tuning in to watch a tennis tournament, and that's what they're gonna get."

The U.S. Open has long been great end-of-the-summer escapism, and the players know their most valuable public service will once again be to put on a riveting show. "This is New York and it's where we got hit pretty hard," Pete Sampras says. "I'll feel more American, we all will, all the Americans playing." Sampras, though, will keep his patriotic gesture simple: On an off day, away from the cameras, he plans to visit a firehouse.


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