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Between The Lines
December 30, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Player of the Year 2001

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Ray Bowers

Tennis year 2001 had a full share of wonderful stories. Many of them, including the following, provided strong candidates for our Player of the Year.

--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 year's end.

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 this column.

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 in 1999.)

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.

--Ray Bowers

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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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