Tennis year 2001 had a full share of wonderful stories. Many of them,
including the following, provided strong candidates for our Player of the
--Jennifer Capriati's comeback from a wrecked career to high triumph at the
Australian and French Opens.
--The successful defense of two prime jewels of women's tennis--Wimbledon and
U.S. Open--by Venus Williams.
--After years of declining results, Goran Ivanisevic's winning of the
Wimbledon crown that seemed destined to elude him.
--The success of Lleyton Hewitt, barely 20, in gaining the Number One ranking
for the year following his triumphs at U.S. Open and Masters Cup.
--The remarkable rise of two teen-aged Belgian women, Clijsters and Henin,
including their capture of Fed Cup at year's end.
--Brilliant Davis Cup runs by two great tennis nations, France and Australia,
producing a classic final-round meeting.
Which one of these happenings produced the highest drama, the clearest
reflection of the sporting idea, the singular achievement that will live
longest in tennis history?
The answer, it seems to me, is clear.
DAVIS CUP 2001
In retrospect, the tale of Davis Cup 2001 was told primarily in the odysseys
of the French and Australian teams to their final-round meeting. Central in
the saga were the remarkable runs of two players, Hewitt and Escude, in
leading the Cup fortunes of their nations and in their head-to-head clash at
The two nations previously met each other just two years ago, in 1999, in a
well-contested final round in Nice, where the Australians behind
Philippoussis triumphed on indoor clay.
But defending the Cup in year 2000 would be no easy task for the Australians.
Lleyton Hewitt, then 19, won two singles matches in all three of Australia's
victories enroute to the final round--a 3-2 win over Switzerland, a 3-2 win
over Germany, and a 5-0 win over Brazil on grass in Brisbane. In the final
round on indoor clay in Barcelona, Hewitt began the meeting by defeating
Albert Costa in five sets. But Hewitt's magic ended on the third day, against
Juan Carlos Ferrero, who completed the triumph for Spain in a four-set win
over the young Aussie.
The year was less satisfying for the French team, which lost in the first
round to Brazil. The matches were played on clay in Florianopolis, home site
of the Brazilian Number One, Kuerten. Most of the sets and matches were
close, but the only French victory came in a meaningless third-day affair
between Kuerten and a French substitute player, Nicolas Escude. Later in the
year, Escude would lead France's defense of its place in the World Group,
defeating Austria, 5-0.
As year 2001 opened, both France and Australia moved comfortably through
their first-round meetings against opponents Ecuador and Netherlands,
respectively. Round Two in April would be a different matter.
The Australians traveled to the clay of Florianopolis, facing essentially the
same situation that had stopped the French a year earlier. In the opening
match Rafter lost to Kuerten, falling behind 2-1 in sets and then withdrawing
with arm trouble. Hewitt then answered with a straight-set win over clay
artist Meligeni. (Meligeni was not a weak player, having defeated the French
Number One, Pioline, in the opening match at Florianopolis the year before.)
Hewitt-Rafter won the doubles, but with Rafter hurting it was up to Hewitt to
close matters by defeating Kuerten the third day.
It was a daunting assignment for the young Australian. Kuerten was two-time
champion on Roland Garros clay and would again triumph at Garros two months
later. But Hewitt at Florianopolis would defeat Kuerten in straight sets--an
achievement probably worthy of its own place in the listing at the top of
Meanwhile the French team faced trouble in Switzerland. The Swiss team had
carried the Australians to the fifth rubber before bowing the year before,
and had upset the Americans just two months earlier. In defeating the U.S.,
Swiss star Federer had beaten Todd Martin and Gambill in singles and teamed
with Manta to win the doubles.
France took a two-match lead the first day when Clement defeated Rosset in
five sets and Escude defeated Federer in four. But the Swiss drew even,
Federer-Manta winning the doubles in five sets and Federer defeating Clement
in four. In the deciding match Escude fell behind Bastl 2-1 in sets, but the
French player recovered to win, 8-6 in the fifth set. Escude's wins over
Federer and Bastl seemed to parallel Hewitt's achievements in Brazil.
The heroics of Hewitt and Escude resumed in the September semi-finals. Hewitt
won both of his singles matches against Sweden, clinching the team victory on
the third day by defeating Johansson, who had beaten Rafter on day one.
Meanwhile on the first day in the Netherlands, Escude defeated Schalken in
five sets. Again Escude trailed 2-1 in sets, but again came back to win the
last two sets, 7-6 and 8-6. Just a month earlier here in Washington I had
watched Schalken's fine ground game break down Agassi, so I can attest that
Schalken was assuredly a sizzling opponent. Clement then won his singles, and
Pioline-Santoro took the doubles, giving France the 3-0 triumph.
France and Australia met on imported grass at Melbourne Park in the
final-round meeting, starting November 30. The opening match pitted our two
protagonists, Hewitt and Escude. Again, Escude fell behind 2-1 in sets. And
once again, the Chartres-born 25-year-old turned matters around, defeating
his opponent in five sets behind unrelenting net-attack tactics. Hewitt's
superb speed and shot-making ability were not quite enough.
But more high drama remained. Rafter next defeated Grosjean, Pioline-Santoro
defeated Hewitt-Rafter in doubles, and Hewitt defeated Grosjean. Thus at
mid-afternoon on day three, it was France 2, Australia 2, with Escude to face
strong-serving Wayne Arthurs to decide the Cup. (Arthurs, a 6-3 lefty who,
like Hewitt, was born in Adelaide, replaced Rafter because of Rafter's arm
trouble. Arthurs had defeated Kafelnikov and Safin in Cup play against Russia
It was a close affair. The match was not televised here, but I tracked the
up-to-date score via internet past midnight through the first two sets, both
settled in tiebreaks. I learned the next morning that Escude had prevailed in
four sets behind determined net attack, thus winning the Cup for France. Both
players showed many more winners than unforced errors, reflecting that most
points were decided at net.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
I am certain that if Hewitt had defeated Escude in Melbourne and if Australia
had then won the Cup, I would now choose Hewitt as Player of the Year. His
Cup heroics, along with his Number One ranking for the year, would easily
have raised him over all others including Capriati, who in my opinion is the
woman most deserving of the award.
But Escude's victory in the critical showdown muddles things. Aside from his
surpassing role in returning the Cup to France, Escude's achievements in 2001
were, unlike Hewitt's, at best moderate. (Escude won four matches at
Wimbledon, won the indoor tournament in Rotterdam, was 33-23 for the year
including wins in tournaments over Hewitt, Kafelnikov, Safin, Grosjean, and
Henman.) He ended up ranked 27th, up from 45th in 2000.
Trim at 6-1 and 155 pounds, Escude is a natural lefty who learned tennis
right-handed. His best-ever Slam finish came in 1998, when he reached the
semis in Australia. In that event he became the first player in Slam history
to win three matches after trailing 2-0 in sets, thus revealing his knack for
coming from behind.
Escude is not an elite player, nor is it likely that he will become so. But
our award is not identical with winning Slams or becoming Number One. I am a
strong believer in Davis Cup--for what it has been in tennis history, for
what it is today, and for what it must become as the centerpiece of our
sport. The magnificent campaign of the French team, which competed superbly
in singles and doubles alike through four difficult engagements in other
lands, requires that the team's prime performer, the individual most
responsible for the team's almost incredible triumph, be singled out here.
With a salute to the superb achievements of Hewitt and Capriati in 2001, our
Tennis Server Player of the Year is Nicolas Escude, Musketeer modern.