Three of the year's four Slams are in the books, along with more than half
the Masters Series events and, among the women, the Tier Ones. No player,
male or female, has captured more than one Slam, and the eventual wearers of
the year-end crowns remain very unclear. Meanwhile the level of competition
at the top continues to rise, as the leaders feel compelled to become ever
stronger, ever more skilled, in meeting the endless challenge from below.
Recent trends in the game where power dominates over finesse have persisted,
while injuries seem an increasing part of top-level play. Still, pro tennis
remains in excellent health despite an annoying climate of criticism among
writers (including me), players, officials, and even Davis Cup captains. The
tour continues to provide the sport's forward edge of visibility, by and
large reflecting the unique values of tennis and offering inspiration for the
development of the game in nations worldwide.
THE WOMEN SUPERSTARS
Here are the Slam winners of year 2000 to date:
Australian Open: Lindsay Davenport
These three champions, along with the current U.S. Open champion, Serena
Williams, represent the growing trend favoring the power game among the top
women. All four Slam incumbents are strong servers, all pound the ball off
the ground with humbling authority, forehand and backhand. They are tall and
strong, averaging six feet in stature and 160 pounds in well-toned weight.
The Williams sisters are highly athletic, remarkable in their body control,
their ability to cover court rapidly, and in delivering their power from any
part of the court. Pierce and Davenport, while clearly below the Williamses
in agility and athleticism, have worked to improve in these areas with
French Open: Mary Pierce
Wimbledon: Venus Williams
Also near the top in the official WTA rankings is Martina Hingis, who at age
19 has already captured five Slams. The Swiss Miss at 5'7" and 130 pounds is
smaller than her main rivals but is scarcely diminutive, and she has
obviously tried to improve her physical strength and power, perhaps at some
cost to her once-astonishing timing and precision in shotmaking. Her second
serve remains yet vulnerable to attack by the stronger hitters, however.
After winning three Slams at age 16 in 1997, Hingis won only the Australian
in both 1998 and 1999.
The first three months of year 2000 were dominated by Hingis and Davenport.
Davenport defeated Hingis in the Australian Open final. Hingis then won the
Pan-Pacific in Tokyo, the first of the year's Tier Ones, and the two
superstars met in the Tier One finals at Indian Wells and Miami. The American
won Indian Wells and Hingis the Ericsson.
Meanwhile the Williams sisters faced physical problems. Venus was sidelined
with wrist problems throughout the period, and Serena missed the early Tier
Ones with torn meniscus in the left knee. Seemingly less debilitating were
Davenport's lower-back troubles, and Hingis's foot injury. Veterans Seles,
Martinez, and Tauziat thus showed nice triumphs during the spring, and the
French Open went to Mary Pierce, who defeated first Hingis and then Martinez.
Venus Williams returned to action at Roland Garros, winning four matches
before departing. Neither she nor Serena played in the early events on grass,
but at Wimbledon it early became evident that both sisters, especially
Serena, were close to their best. Serena's power and mobility were dazzling
in her first five matches, which she won with loss of only 13 games,
recalling her 1999 U.S. Open dominance. Venus's journey was slightly less
impressive, but her quarter-final win over Hingis left no doubt as to the
stronger player. Venus comfortably defeated a listless Serena in the semis
and then a Davenport heavily wrapped apparently to protect her back. Venus
and Serena afterwards punctuated their Wimbledon ascendancy by capturing the
As the hard-court circuit now starts in North America, the Williams sisters
seem ready to consolidate their superiority. Their raw power and athleticism
should produce many victories on fast surfaces, and either should be favored
to win any event she enters, especially if Davenport's back problem persists.
Because of their early-year successes Hingis and Davenport still lead in the
year's point standings, but a U.S. Open victory by either Venus or Serena
should vault that player ahead. Also close enough to remain in contention are
Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez.
The next generation of teenaged stars remain on the horizon. Jelena Dokic
produced three fine wins in Australia's losing Fed Cup effort, including a
three-set win over likewise youthful Kim Clijsters of Belgium, who was
otherwise undefeated. Dokic reached the semis at Wimbledon, bettering her
quarter-final result in 1999.
The year's early Fed Cup play was unexciting. The new streamlined format
produced three winners--Spain, Czech Republic, and Belgium--who will face the
United States in the semis and finals in November. The Olympics competition
in September should be interesting, but with Davenport and the Williams
sisters expected to participate, the U.S. team appears far stronger than any
rival both in the Olympics and in Fed Cup.
THE ELITES IN MEN'S TENNIS
Australian Open: Andre Agassi
Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are the dominant superstars of our era. Their
classic rivalry shaped men's tennis last year, when Agassi won the French and
U.S. Opens and Sampras took Wimbledon. Sampras prevailed in four of five
head-to-head meetings, including the finals at Wimbledon and at the year-end
championship at Hannover.
French Open: Gustavo Kuerten
Wimbledon: Pete Sampras
The Sampras-Agassi rivalry persisted into year 2000. The two men met in the
semis of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, where Agassi won in five sets
after surviving a fourth-set tiebreaker. Having eliminating Sampras, Agassi
then defeated Kafelnikov in four, and later magnificently led the U.S. Cup
team to close victory in a difficult engagement in Zimbabwe.
Another superstar, his career plainly on the rise, intruded in late March on
the hard courts in Miami. The fine Brazilian player Kuerten convincingly
defeated Agassi in the Ericsson semis, then faced Sampras in the final. Three
of the sets went to tiebreaks, and after four sets Sampras finally emerged
the winner. One week later, it was Kuerten winning a singles and a doubles
match to help the Brazilian team reach the Davis Cup Final Four. Sampras
meanwhile joined Agassi in the close U.S. victory over the Czechs in Los
With Agassi and Sampras both afflicted with hamstring and other injuries, it
was the Brazilian--albeit troubled with back pain and sinus trouble--who
commanded the clay-court season. Kuerten reached the final at Rome and then
captured the German Open at Hamburg. In a four-set final at Roland Garros,
Kuerten reversed his earlier loss in Italy to Magnus Norman.
At Wimbledon Kuerten then vanished early, apparently accepting the
unsuitability of his baseline power game on green grass (though he had
reached the Final Eight last year). Instead, yet another superstar joined
Agassi and Sampras in shaping the late rounds at the All England.
Pat Rafter brings to tennis a refreshing reminder of times past, of
serve-and-volley tennis where quickness and athletic ability counted more
than power from the baseline. Rafter had electrified fans worldwide in
employing this style of play to win the U.S. Open in 1997 and 1998.
Persistent shoulder trouble and finally surgery in late 1999 had pushed the
Queenslander from the top rankings, and his return to his former stature had
been slow. Grass always had seemed the natural surface for Rafter, but only
once had he reached the Final Four at Wimbledon, when he lost to Agassi in
last year's semis.
Preparing for Wimbledon 2000, Rafter won the grass-court event in the
Netherlands. He then moved quietly through five rounds at Wimbledon when the
higher-seeded Kafelnikov succumbed early. Rafter's rematch semi-final against
Agassi proved an immediate classic, flavored by the contrasting styles of the
two warriors, each man playing his very best, Rafter seeking the net and
Agassi exploiting his back-court weaponry. At the end it was Rafter who
prevailed, winning not only by his net play but also by matching the American
in many extended points from the baseline. Both players, and the crowd too,
seemed drained from the excitement of sharing in one brilliant moment after
The Sampras-Rafter final was a different kind of struggle, as both men seized
net position behind every serve. Rafter won the first set and took a strong
lead in the second-set tiebreaker. When Rafter inexplicably faltered and
Sampras evened the match at set-all, Sampras thereafter became once again
invincible on Wimbledon's grass. It was Sampras's thirteenth Slam triumph,
the most by any player ever.
The picture sketched here of year 2000 to date, where three or four
superstars dominated by virtue of success in the big events, was less clear
in the actuality. Several other stars contended strongly at one time or
another, and several of them only narrowly missed reaching the elite group as
defined here. Magnus Norman, for example, spun a powerful clay-court season,
second only narrowly to Kuerten's, and indeed ranks among the elite in the
official points scheme. Mark Philippoussis, who defeated Sampras at Garros
and an in-form Henman at Wimbledon, gave Agassi three difficult sets on the
grass. Australian Lleyton Hewitt won several early tournaments, contributed
in Davis Cup, and defeated Sampras on grass at Queens. Pioline won Monte
Carlo; Kafelnikov was runner-up in Australia. Any of these aspirants are
obviously capable of rising significantly during the forthcoming summer.
Menwhile fans are becoming more comfortable with the new ATP points scheme,
where all players start from zero in January. Here are the top four players
in ATP points immediately after Wimbledon and their main sources of points
The Woodys meanwhile reestablished their eminence in doubles, having
capturing both the French Open and Wimbledon, their sixth, after several
years away from the top place. The runner-up pair in both events was the new
partnership of Paul Haarhuis and Sandon Stolle, both veteran doubles artists.
- Kuerten, 520 (includes Garros 200, Ericsson 70, Ital 70, Ger 100)
- Norman, 486 (includes Aus 90, Garros 140, Ital 100)
- Sampras, 457 (includes Aus 90, Wimb 200, Ericsson 100)
- Agassi, 368 (includes Aus 200, Wimb 90, Ericsson 45)
The travelling gladiators of pro tennis seem as much citizens of the world as
of their countries of origin. Still, tour organizers take care to identify
the tennis nationalities of the players, sensing that fans worldwide find
this information interesting. It is thus not difficult to tally the matches
played during an event according to the nationalities of the winners.
At this year's Australian Open, the U.S. men won 17 singles matches in the
main draw, including 7 by tournament-winner Agassi. Second-best was Australia
with 14 victories; third-best was Sweden with 12. Next came Morocco and
France, each with 10 wins. The rank order changes, however, if doubles play
is also included. Australia moves ahead of the U.S., 37 matches to 36.5, and
Sweden leads South Africa for third place, 19 to 18.
As would be expected, the traditional clay-court nations prevailed at Roland
Garros. Spain gathered the most singles wins, 20, followed by Argentina (16),
Australia (10), Sweden (9), and France (7). Ten different players contributed
at least one win to Argentina's total. By including doubles, Australia moves
well into the lead, reflecting that the Woodys won the men's doubles and did
well with female partners in the mixed.
At Wimbledon the success of Sampras, Agassi, and Gambill produced a strong
margin for the U.S. men, showing 25 singles wins. Sweden and Germany, each
with 13 wins, were then followed by Australia with 11. Doubles moved the
Australians to second place and the South Africans to fourth, behind Sweden.
It seems clear that tallying such data during the course of a tournament
should increase fan enjoyment of the event, especially during the first few
days when a majority of the matches are played. Giving recognition to a
fantasy team crown could add an exciting dimension.
Plenty of action lies ahead, including the U.S. Open, the Olympics in
Australia, the year-end championships in Lisbon and New York, and the final
rounds of Davis and Fed Cups.
Will the superstars named above continue to prevail in the year's second
half? Will Cup outcomes remain decided by home-nation's choice of surface?
Will a youthful second-tenner remain the sport's most-celebrated persona?
Will the carping about how to change pro tennis persist?
You can count on it.