Midsummer in Washington often brings heat, humidity, and air pollution. At
such times even this fanatic avoids hard singles play outdoors. Late July
also begins the pro tennis wars in the northern half of this continent--the
Masters events in Canada and Cincinnati, the excellent tournaments at
Indianapolis and here, a final week of tune-ups, and finally U.S. Open. The
women pros have a different itinerary, also finishing at the Open.
The strongest memories of recent summers are of Pat Rafter's astonishing runs
of 1997 and 1998, both of which led to triumphs at the Open. One also savors
Agassi's victories in consecutive years here in Washington, where Andre
annually provides the main drawing card. Then came Corretja's impossible
upset of Agassi in the final round here two years ago and, last year, Andy
Roddick's triumph, fulfilling the promise he showed here as a tour rookie in
2000. Among the women, we treasure the triumphs of Venus Williams at U.S.
Open the past two summers, in both cases following victory at Wimbledon.
THE WOMEN'S RACE 2002
Serena Williams's Garros and Wimbledon championships this year, sister
Venus's runner-up finish in both events, and Jennifer Capriati's triumph at
Australian Open have left these three American women firmly atop the WTA
point standings for 2002 to date. Each of them has superior power off the
ground along with the superior mobility needed to neutralize an opponent's
power. To produce a softish, defensive shot against any of them is guaranteed
to elicit ever-heavier bombardment. It is hard to believe that women's tennis
has ever produced the ferocity and energy that happens whenever two of these
three superstars meet.
The first three weeks of this summer's tour are in California, the
traditional homeland of hard courts. We can expect early answers to several
questions, including the readiness of Californian Lindsay Davenport to
reclaim her accustomed place at or close to the top following absence because
of knee surgery in January. Her extreme power will surely return, as will her
former mobility and mental strengths. Whether she succeeds will depend on her
ability to send her thunderbolts to the corners with the consistency of the
past--i.e., without missing too often. Lindsay made an encouraging start in
Fed Cup and then at Stanford.
California should also give answers on the Belgian teen-agers Clijsters and
Henin, who in 2001 ranked in the world's top eight and together captured Fed
Cup for their nation. Can they continue to rise or have they reached
plateaus? Clijsters, returning from injuries, reached the final at Stanford, losing to Venus. Henin has played well so far this year but was
diagnosed with a finger fracture at Stanford and will be sidelined for
We will see the other top stars this summer--Seles, Dokic, Mauresmo, though
Seles withdrew from San Diego with foot trouble. Especially
interesting will be the play of the only newcomer to our top group, Daniela
Hantuchova. The Slovak teen-ager finished last year at #38 but is now #10 in
the 2002 race, having won at Indian Wells. She has an impressive winning
record this year against the other top players discussed here but has been
inconsistent against outsiders.
Later this summer we can expect Martina Hingis to return from her foot, knee,
and hip problems. She will again face her standing challenge--to summon the
weight of power needed to compete with the aforementioned sluggers. Her 2002
record against the top players named here prior to her departure was 5-5, but
she was 21-0 against all others.
Listed here are the leaders for 2002 to date (July 29). Serena's superiority
is even stronger than indicated, as she has defeated Venus or Capriati a
total of seven times this year without loss.
- Serena, 3936
- Venus, 3426
- Capriati, 2759
- Seles, 2409
- Henin, 2319
THE MEN'S RACE 2002
The men's race has been less orderly. Last year's champion, Lleyton Hewitt,
lost early at Australian Open and was then sidelined with health problems.
The surprise winner at Melbourne Park was Swedish star Johansson. Hewitt came
back to win the tournament at Indian Wells, defeating Henman in the final.
Agassi then won Key Biscayne, defeating Federer. At the end of March, still
the leader in the year-to-date standings was Johansson.
A new look emerged from the two-month clay season. Strong performances by
Marat Safin and the triumph at Roland Garros by Al Costa moved these two
stars to first and second place, respectively. In early June Italian Open
winner Agassi was third; German Open winner Federer was fourth. Then came the
grass-court season, where Lleyton Hewitt captured both Queens and Wimbledon
and thus took command in the standings. Here are the year-to-date leaders, as
of July 29, just prior to the Canadian.
- Hewitt, 524
- Safin, 397
- Henman, 378
- Costa, 378
- Agassi, 367
Hewitt's margin in first place is strong, and as defending champion at U.S.
Open and probable top seed there, the Australian superstar will be difficult
to pass. But in Toronto, in his first North American outing this
summer, Hewitt was outplayed and defeated by veteran clay artist Felix
Mantilla. Mantilla drove the ball vastly more effectively than when I last
watched him a year or two ago. The most dangerous rival to overtake Hewitt in
the standings this summer is probably second-place Marat Safin, winner of
U.S. Open two years ago. The tall Russian complained of overwork last year
but is well rested now, having not competed since Wimbledon.
Pat Rafter, who is now retired, had the best W-L record on the North American
hard courts last summer (18-3). Next was Gustavo Kuerten (19-4). But the
Brazilian, having recently returned to the tour from hip surgery, withdrew
from his first-round match at Toronto today with tenderness in the hip area.
Just behind Kuerten in last summer's results were Sampras (15-4) and Haas
(16-5). Since then, Sampras's path has been downward, that of Haas distinctly
upward except that he withdrew from competition when his parents were hurt
this spring. Haas, at 24, could be approaching his prime.
I wish the players success this summer. I admire all of them, including the
artists from the clay-court countries, who seem on the verge of winning on
hard courts more frequently. I look forward to watching the new generation of
U.S. stars, including Dent, Blake, Roddick, Morrison, and others. Still, the
summer favorites remain the former U.S.Open champions--Hewitt, Safin, Agassi,
and, despite many recent disappointments, Sampras.
WORLD TENNIS TODAY
Reminiscences of summers long ago make one appreciate that--with all the
criticisms of things that are wrong with today's pro game--tennis is vastly
better today, both for the players and for the sporting public. No longer are
the top players divided among amateurs and pros, where one group competes in
the great international championships, the other tries to earn a decent
living on court. Every week fans can now follow, and often watch, the world's
stars--superbly trained and at prime condition--in match and tournament
competition. Unlike in most other pro sports, in tennis the income of the
players is linked immediately to their competitive results. Watchers
sometimes forget that for most competitors the outcomes of the early rounds
on Monday and Tuesday are just as vital as are the finals on Sunday for the
superstars. The same can be said of the qualifying contenders the previous
weekend. Meanwhile television makes it possible for aspiring tennists, young
and old, to see and copy the techniques of the world's best, inevitably
growing the game and its values. Of the world's women athletes, tennis
players are by far the best known and paid. Practically none of all this
existed in my boyhood.
Best wishes to readers everywhere for a fine summer watching or following the
pros in North America. If you see me at the Legg Mason in Washington, please
introduce yourself so we can talk.