The two weeks of the Open produced an abundance of good theater. Especially
intriguing to me were the struggles of four Americans of two tennis
generations--Sampras and Agassi, ages 31 and 32 respectively, and Roddick and
Blake, ages 20 and 22. The fortunes of these stars became entwined with that
of Lleyton Hewitt, 21, the first superstar of the newer generation. None of
these five players lost to any outsider.
HEWITT vs. BLAKE
Enormously impressed by James Blake's recent performance in Washington, which
included a decisive win over Agassi, I originally picked Blake to prevail in
this section of the draw. Thus I was not surprised by Blake's good work
against Hewitt in driving firmly to the corners and following with strong net
approaches. The main question became whether Blake's winners on the attack
would outnumber his associated errors. Over the full match, Blake scored 51
winners (not counting aces) against 86 unforced errors. Hewitt had 38
winners, 40 errors. Hewitt led in aces and on average had the faster first
and second serves, but it was primarily the winners/errors ratios that
accounted for the final outcome. Just as he did last year, Hewitt defeated
Blake in five sets.
SAMPRAS vs. RODDICK
The Sampras-Roddick quarter-final seemed a likely classic, conceivably a
final confirmation of the Changing of the Guard. Pete had been playing his
best tennis in years, but the chances seemed good for the rising
heir-apparent, now just 20, as Andy had defeated Pete twice in the past
without loss. But from the outset Roddick seemed unprepared for Pete's strong
hitting and aggressiveness. Troubled by a sore foot and the swirling wind,
Andy found his baseline game largely ineffective. His serve-returning was
generally torpid and seldom created trouble for Pete enroute to net. Under
pressure Roddick's passing shots repeatedly found the net. During Andy's
serving games when both men were in deep court, the power of Pete's forehand
overmatched the younger player, often opening Pete's way to net. The
completeness of the demolition was stunning.
AGASSI vs. HEWITT
It was the Agassi formula at its best--(1) relentless heavy ground-stroking,
featuring brute strength and stamina, (2) striking the ball early to cut down
opponent's recovery time, and (3) firm serving. Andre used to say that the
overall effect was to break down his opponent, physically and mentally. Now,
against the defending champion and world's number one, Agassi's full
syndrome was again at work.
Hewitt answered fairly well. The young Australian's more-flowing shots often
carried at least as much pace and penetration as those of the American. Point
after point, the two dueled from the baseline where Hewitt's mobility, the
best in the game, extended the points until one of the warriors misfired.
Typically it was Hewitt who found himself in deeper court, doing the harder
work, forced to take the extra steps for each reply. The first three sets
were very close, Agassi winning two of them.
The effect of Agassi's heavy game became evident toward the end. For the full
match, Hewitt's first and second serves both exceeded Agassi's in velocity
by 4 mph on average. But in the fourth and final set, Hewitt's serving
betrayed the Australian's tiredness and mental desperation. Only five Hewitt
first serves found the box during the set, of which only three led to winning
points. Hewitt lost two of the four games he served.
AGASSI vs. SAMPRAS
It was the fifth meeting of the two in Slam finals. Pete had
defeated Andre on all but one of the earlier occasions. It seemed likely that the outcome would depend primarily on Pete.
If Sampras could continue to play at the level shown earlier in the
tournament--including superior serving, good net work, and, especially,
selective application of extreme power in his forehand--it seemed that Pete
would prevail. Stamina too seemed a possible factor, as Sampras had weakened
in the final round of the last two Opens, held just one day after the semis.
Still, it was Agassi who in this Open had endured the more strenuous
For two sets it was indeed Pete at his best. Sampras produced 16 aces,
meanwhile breaking Agassi's serve three times by a combination of effective
serve-returning, baseline hitting, and occasional net attacks. Andre's
ability to keep his opponent on the run from backcourt, seen the day before
against Hewitt, was neutralized by Pete's extreme power on the forehand,
which even when there was no opening sometimes broke the pattern of Agassi's
dominance from the baseline or opened the way for a Sampras net rush.
Pete maintained his strong game in set three, and though Agassi managed
several near-breaks with superb returns at the Sampras feet, on every
occasion Pete's serve saved the day. As the set wore on, Pete's
serve-returning and baseline power declined, weakening his pressure on the
Agassi serve. Finally, in game 12, in serving to reach the tiebreaker Pete
lost his serving magic, and Andre squeezed out the break. Pete still led 2-1
in sets but the factors of momentum and stamina seemed to favor Andre.
As the games advanced with serve during set four, Pete's tiredness seemed to
increase, especially during several extended serving games. But perhaps
hopeful of keeping the points short, Sampras late in the set again unveiled
his baseline power. Now it was Agassi's serving that was under pressure, with
the rhythm of Agassi's baseline game spoiled by Sampras's intermittent
rocketry. Sampras's big backhand, which had been dormant throughout the
tournament, produced several unexpected winners. Though Andre still seemed
the fresher, at the end it was Agassi's serving that failed, Agassi's
backhands that lost their energy. Several times, having created narrow
openings, Andre's bid for winners landed just outside the lines. In the final
moments, Sampras closed out the match with a sequence of aces.
It was a satisfying triumph for a superstar whose greatest days had seemed
past. Two years ago, I suspected that Andre, in his career rebirth, might yet
surpass Sampras in his career achievements. Pete's Slam victory at age 31 now
erases this thought and instead rekindles the idea that Pete's may yet be
deemed tennis's finest career. Is another Wimbledon still ahead? Wildly
perhaps, could there yet occur the missing Garros triumph?
One last thought. Might we have just witnessed a blessing for the future of
tennis, in that the seemingly vanishing net-attack game, as played by Pete
Sampras, has been magnificently vindicated in a demonstration for a new
VENUS AND SERENA
Influenced by Serena's withdrawal at Montreal with knee trouble, I originally
picked Venus to win this expected final-round match-up. But Serena's superb
performances during the earlier rounds of the Open, along with Venus's close
escapes against Mauresmo and Rubin, made Serena the strong favorite at
match-time. There had been no further evidence of Serena's knee problems.
Venus played well for several games against Serena but had trouble holding
serve. Serena's consistent and powerful serve-returning regularly took the
initiative from her sister and contributed to frequent Venusian
double-faults. It fairly soon became evident that Serena was better than her
sister in moving to and setting up for her ground strokes, thereby attaining
superiority in all-around power and consistency. Venus did better work at
net, but was seldom able to move forward in the face of Serena's power. The
final score was a respectable 6-4 6-3, but it looked as if Serena eased up
sometimes to keep things close.
COUNTDOWN TO SHANGHAI
Once again in 2002, four different male players won the year's four Slams.
Hewitt's reaching the semis at the Open preserves his lead in the year's
points race, with Agassi now second. Here are the leaders as of September 8,
immediately after the Open.
1. Hewitt, 690
2. Agassi, 554
3. Safin, 430
4. Henman, 420
Coming up are a series of indoor tournaments in Europe. Two are Masters
Series events--Stuttgart and Paris, each rewarding its champion with 100
points (half the amount for winning a Slam). Meanwhile, International Series
events in Vienna, Lyon, Basel, Stockholm, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, along
with the Japan Open outdoors in Tokyo will each yield 45-60 points to the
Last year no player dominated the aforementioned nine events. The only
double-winner was Tommy Haas, who won Stuttgart and Vienna. The year's
championship was decided in the year-ending Masters Cup in Sydney, where
winner, Lleyton Hewitt, captured 150 points, enough to pass Kuerten in the
standings. This year's Masters Cup will be played in Shanghai. The top seven
in the points race will qualify, and the eighth place will be reserved for a
Slam winner (who must, however, stand in the top twenty).
Hewitt's lead in the standings is substantial, very nearly beyond the reach
of the others, as Lleyton will surely add to his present total. The closest
challenger, Agassi, has played Stuttgart and Masters Cup regularly over the
years, and indeed won the Paris indoors three years ago. Any other player, to
overtake the leader, would nearly have to sweep those events he enters. The
three Slam winners other than Hewitt (i.e., Sampras, Costa, and Johansson)
will probably finish outside the top seven, so the one ranking highest of the
three will probably be the eighth competitor at Shanghai.
COUNTDOWN TO LOS ANGELES
The late-year gathering of the top 16 women in singles and the top eight
women's doubles pairs, held last year in Munich, will take place in Los
Angeles in early November. Interesting matches among the top stars can be
expected, but no player will be close enough to supersede Serena's place atop
the year' standings. The final event was held in Munich last year and was won
by Serena when Davenport withdrew with the bad knee. Venus did not compete.
DAVIS AND FED CUPS
Immediately forthcoming is Davis Cup weekend in mid-September. France will
host the U.S. at Roland Garros in one World Group semi-final, and Russia will
meet Argentina indoors in Moscow.
The American team's return to Garros stirs memories of the classic Cup
meetings at that site 1928-1930, when the Musketeers for three years held off
Tilden and the Americans. Playing on familiar clay, defending champion France
will be favored over the current Americans. The French reached the semis by
defeating Czech Republic in April, where the 3-2 verdict was sealed by
Santoro in the fifth match. Grosjean and Clement seem likely singles players
in the forthcoming tie, Clement having defeated Grosjean last week at the
U.S. Open, though his tournament record at Garros is undistinguished.
The Americans reached the semis by defeating Spain on grass in Houston.
Corretja upset Sampras, but Roddick won both his singles. The American team
for Garros has not yet been named, but Blake and Roddick seem likely singles
nominees, failing late discussions with Agassi or Sampras. Because Cup rules
allow only a four-member playing squad, Captain McEnroe will probably choose
a doubles pair that includes a possible singles substitute.
Meanwhile in the other semi, Russia will host Argentina on indoor carpet.
Kafelnikov and Safin should be favored, though the Argentines have an array
of fine singles and doubles performers from whom to choose. Canas has wrist
troubles, so Chela and Gaudio seem currently the strongest in singles.
Taking place the same weekend will be promotion-relegation competition among
16 nations. The eight winners will be part of World Group next year. Five of
the host nations, all strong tennis powers, seem safe--Australia, Germany,
Slovak Republic, Britain, and Brazil. The other outcomes are less
clear--Belgium at Zimbabwe, Switzerland at Morocco, Netherlands at Finland.
Changes in the format for Fed Cup have come too often. The annual women's
competition now stands at a low point. Last year the favored U.S.
team--already unhappy because of a rule change moving the final competition
away from the defending champion's homeland--withdrew after the terrorist
attacks. Then in early 2002, despite claiming the world's three or four best
players, the Americans lost dismally after Capriati was dropped from the team
just before her first outing. Then defending champion Belgium was eliminated
in the quarter-finals when that nation's top two stars did not participate.
Still remaining in this year's hunt are Spain, Italy, Austria, and Slovak
Republic. Their matches the week of October 28 should be interesting,
although the only top-tenner likely to participate is the Slovak teen-ager
It was a wonderful U.S. Open from start to finish. The accuracy of my
predictions was below standard, at least on the men's side, but I was pleased
that my three rounds of Fantasy Tennis selections put me currently in first
place among the 21 "Media Experts" at atptennis.com. A round of selecting for
the late-year events lies immediately ahead. The best picks for the price, in
my opinion, are Enqvist, Blake, Mirnyi, and Rusedski. Expect also Kafelnikov,
although pricey, to do well.