The year produced its fair share of storied moments. Four different males captured the four singles Slamsa result that is no longer unusual. Pete Samprass winning of U.S. Open was probably the most lustrous Slam outcome. It was the fifth U.S. Open and 14th Slam triumph for Pete, who reached age 31 this year and was no longer among the worlds Top Ten. In the final he defeated old rival Agassi in four sets.
It was a fine year for Lleyton Hewitt at age 21, including his first Wimbledon triumph. The speedy Australian was ill early in the year but returned to capture Indian Wells and the grass-court event at Queens. His Wimbledon success raised him to first place in the years points race, a position he never relinquished. Hewitt reached the final at Masters Cincinnati, the semis at U.S. Open, and the semis at Paris Indoors, and he finished the year by capturing Masters Cup, held this year in Shanghai, and the Number One place in the final point standings, both for the second straight year. A quality record indeed.
Marat Safin at 22 finished third in the points race, behind Hewitt and Agassi. But the powerful Russians greater achievement came in producing Russias first-ever Davis Cup triumph. In the first round against Switzerland, with the team score tied at two matches all, Safin won the fifth and deciding match, defeating Kratochvil. In April, Safin contributed a first-day singles victory over Johansson enroute to Russias 3-0 sweep over Sweden. (Safin and Kafelnikov won the doubles against both the Swiss and the Swedes.) Safin added two singles victories in Russias semi-final win over Argentina in September. Then in the Cup final on indoor clay in Paris, Safin again contributed two singles wins, defeating French stars Mathieu and Grosjean, thereby creating a 2-2 score in matches and setting the stage for the deciding fifth match.
Other stars offer major achievements. Among these are Slam winners Thomas Johansson (Australian Open) and Albert Costa (Garros), along with Andre Agassi, who won three Masters events (Key Biscayne, Italy, Madrid) and finished second in the years rankings. The North American pair Knowles-Nestor won the mens doubles points race by a large margin.
But it seems clear that the prime male candidates for 2002s Player of the Year are our three earlier nominees--Hewitt, Safin, and Sampras. The accomplishments of these three are of roughly equal dimension, representing in Hewitts case sustained achievement during the year, in Safins case a team-oriented achievement, and in Petes a one-event achievement capping a full career of greatness. To me, the narrow margin goes to Pete, perhaps for reasons of nostalgia. Moreover I had been among those who wrote off his chances for another Slam.
But the above accomplishments were overshadowed by those of a young American woman, a superstar at age 21--Serena Williams. After missing the Australian Open, having hurt an ankle in the Sydney tune-up, Serena would then capture the years three remaining Slams, winning 21 consecutive Slam singles matches with loss of just two sets.
It was a convincing run. At Garros Serena defeated Capriati in the semis after losing the first set and surviving a second-set tiebreak. In the final, she defeated sister Venus in straight sets. During the summer she won both Wimbledon and U.S. Open without losing a set, in both cases again defeating Venus in the final. (The sisters won the doubles at Wimbledon, the only doubles Slam that they entered in 2002.) Over the full year Serena competed in 13 singles tournaments, winning eight of them including Italian Open, Key Biscayne, and the aforementioned three Slams.
Thus our Tennis Server Player of the Year for 2002 can only be the magnificent Serena Williams, easily the worlds most recognized female athlete and consistently a champion in how she represents our sport. On-court, she competes with determination and calm, staying ever focused on the business at hand, free of ill behavior. Off-court, her talk and manner are good-natured, self-confident far beyond her years but not overly self-serious.
How far can Serena go in tennis? She seems well on her way to a career of historic dimensions, with more Slams assuredly within probability. The way will not be easy, however, as the flow of strong, young female players seems to intensify every year. Three teenagers are now members of the Top Ten, for example, and one of themClijstersdefeated Serena in the final tour appearance of 2002 for both players, in the final of the year-end championships in Los Angeles. Australian champion Jennifer Capriati, who pressed and tired Serena in their semi at LA, will remain a determined rival. Hingis and Davenport, both still at prime age, will again reach for the top in 2003 after injuries in 2002. Meanwhile, Serenas most difficult opponent will remain Venus, who will bring enormous talent probably equal to Serenas along with clear potential for further improvement. Henin and Hantuchova are yet-rising threats, while on the horizon is 16-year-old Safina, sister of Marat. Can Serena amid fortune and fame find the will to make the sacrifices needed to continue improving?
It will surely be a fascinating new year.
The Tennis Nations
The recent Davis Cup final exemplified the best of international sport. Sadly the event was not seen on U.S. television, so I tried to keep up-to-the-minute by Internet, tracking the theater of the 3-2 Russian win.
At first I thought that French depth would prevail, especially given the French teams advantage in choosing an indoor clay surface and playing before a supportive, home crowd. That Safin could win two singles matches in these circumstances seemed unlikely. But Safin indeed did so, bringing the match score to 2-2 and leaving matters to be settled by two highly credentialed 20-year-olds. Hard-hitting Mathieu had recently won the fall indoor tournaments in Moscow and Lyon, while Mikhail Youzhny, the Russian substitute for a worn Kafelnikov, had shown clay-court ability last summer at Stuttgart, where he defeated Canas in a five-set final to win the event. Adding to the Cup milieu in Paris was the presence of Boris Yeltsin, who had supported and encouraged tennis as Russian head of state. There was drama, too, in the feelings of Kafelnikov, who watched the concluding match from the side after years of personal effort and frustration in Cup quests.
Mathieu won the first two sets, and a French successful Cup defense seemed impending. But Youzhny managed a comeback unprecedented in Davis Cup deciding fifth matches. In all five sets Youzhny committed more unforced errors than Mathieu, but in every set except the second he also produced more winners. Youzhny also led in net approaches, the ratio between the men increasing as the match lengthened. Thus in the end, it was Russian depth and perhaps nerve that prevailed.
The Davis Cup victory was not equaled in 2002 by Russias women, who lost to Germany in Fed Cup first-round action in April. But two Russian women finished in the worlds second ten, and a total of eight finished in the Top Fifty--two more than in 2001 and a total second only this year to that of the United States. Ranking highest was Anastasia Myskina, age 21, who recorded occasional wins over Top Ten finishers and ended the year in eleventh place, up from #59.
The U.S. women were far supreme among the nations in Slam competition, collecting all four singles Slams and three of the four runner-up places. The Williams sisters and Capriati finished as the top three singles performers in the years standings. A blemish for America was the dismal failure in Fed Cup following the expelling of Capriati just before first-round action against Austria. Meanwhile the American men placed two in the worlds Top Ten (Agassi and Roddick) and two others in the next twenty (Sampras and Blake), captured one singles Slam (Sampras), and, in Davis Cup, defeated Slovakia indoors and Spain on grass but then lost to France on unfriendly clay at Garros.
Another perennial power, Spain, showed a good year, leading all nations in placing three players in the mens Top Ten (Ferrera, Moya, and Costa) and two others in the next twenty (Corretja and Robredo). In Davis Cup play Spain followed a familiar pattern, winning at home against a dangerous team from Morocco but then losing to the U.S. on grass in Houston despite Corretjas surprising first-day win over Sampras. Spain was runner-up in Fed Cup, and in January won Hopman Cup, the mixed team event, employing Sanchez Vicario and Robredo. Several other nations showed worthy successes. Slovak Republic won Fed Cup behind Husarova and Hantuchova. Argentina won World Team Cup, the mens event on clay the week before Garros. Argentina placed six players in the mens Top Fifty, equaling the United States in this distinction and just ahead of Spain and France. France had a nice Davis Cup run, defeating three opponents at home prior to the close loss to Russia.
In naming a pro tennis nation of the year for 2002 the margins, indeed our criteria, are vague and arguable. My choice is Russia, honoring the wondrous Davis Cup victory and the continuing, unmistakable rise of the youthful Russian women.