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July 11, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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After Wimbledon: The Elites of Year 2000

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Ray Bowers

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
    French Open: Mary Pierce
    Wimbledon: Venus Williams

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 obvious results.

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 doubles.

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
    French Open: Gustavo Kuerten
    Wimbledon: Pete Sampras

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.

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 Angeles.

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.

Wimbledon 2000 Semi-Final - Agassi vs. Rafter DVD 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 another.

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 (data unofficial).

  1. Kuerten, 520 (includes Garros 200, Ericsson 70, Ital 70, Ger 100)
  2. Norman, 486 (includes Aus 90, Garros 140, Ital 100)
  3. Sampras, 457 (includes Aus 90, Wimb 200, Ericsson 100)
  4. Agassi, 368 (includes Aus 200, Wimb 90, Ericsson 45)
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.

FANTASY CROWNS

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.

COMING UP

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.

--Ray Bowers

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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