Our pro tennis Player of the Year has sometimes been the year's newly crowned
male or female singles champion. That was the case with Andre Agassi in 1999
and Serena Williams in 2002. In other years we've honored achievement in a
narrower realm, as in 2001 when Nicolas Escude was chosen for his role in
bringing the Davis Cup to France. Jacob Eltingh was our winner in 1998 purely for his
mastery in doubles. Venus Williams won in 2000, having captured Wimbledon and
U.S. Open though she was not #1 in the year-end rankings. Intangible matters
have also mattered--our winner's conduct on and off court in all cases
contributed in a constructive way to the history and traditions of our sport.
THE FEMALE NOMINEES
Three superstars held ascendancy in women's pro tennis 2003. Together, the
triumvir captured all four Slams, along with seven of the nine Tier One
tournaments. (All three missed both Tokyo and Moscow.) The three thus held the top
places in the year-end point standings.
Serena Williams seemed at peak prowess in winning Australian Open in January
2003. She recovered late to defeat Kim Clijsters in the semis, and then won
from sister Venus in a close final. Her triumph completed an achievement of rare
magnitude--four consecutive Slam conquests, starting with Garros 2002--a
"Serena Slam," she called it. Throughout, Serena's aggressive play, power, and
mobility coupled with a superb serve and strong powers of concentration made her
Serena's run of Slams finally ended on the red clay at Garros 2003, where she
lost to Henin-Hardenne by 7-5 in the third set of their semi. Serena would
reverse this defeat soon afterwards at Wimbledon, defeating Henin by comfortable
scores enroute to her second Slam triumph of the year. Scarcely anticipated
was the disappointing aftermath--that Serena would be sidelined by leg pain and
then surgery, and would not compete again in 2003.
Our second nominee is Henin-Hardenne, who won both Roland Garros and U.S.
Open 2003, showing levels of mental strength, athleticism, and power amazing in a
player so slender. The world had seen Justine's picture-perfect backhand
before, but her other qualities as a champion--the quiet determination, the
rocketry off both sides, the ability to perform at her best when it counted most, her
strength of will in overcoming pain--was less well appreciated. Enroute to
first place in the year-end rankings, Justine also captured four Tier One events
during the year, including the German and Canadian Opens. She defeated Serena
in two of their three meetings in 2003, and she won four of eight head-to-head
meetings with fellow Belgian superstar Kim Clijsters. Of her wins over
Clijsters, two came in Slam finals and one in the final of a Tier One. All four of
Kim's wins were in lesser events.
Our third prime candidate is Clijsters, who recorded two Tier One
triumphs--Indian Wells and the Italian--along with, for the second straight year, the
year-end WTA championship. She also received many WTA points as runner-up to
Justine in the German, French, and U.S. Opens, so that Kim's point total at year's
end was only narrowly behind Justine's. Also Clijsters with Sugiyama finished
#2 in the year's doubles standings, capturing Garros and Wimbledon. Kim
brings to the sport a wonderfully warm temperament and seeming joy in the game.
In comparing the credentials of our Three, I give significant weight to
Clijsters's doubles success. But I dislike Kim's public refusal to go to Moscow
for the Fed Cup final week. (Henin also missed the event, although her physical
condition at the time seemed clearly prohibitive.) The Serena Slam alone is
certainly worthy of our award, but three-fourths of that wonderful achievement
came in 2002 and was recognized in our selection of Serena last year. But if
the margins among the three are close, in my opinion Justine's many positives
place her ahead of the others.
I also salute several other significant accomplishments in women's tennis of
THE MALE NOMINEES
- Amelie Mauresmo, who ranked #4 at year's end, won eight singles matches
without loss in France's four team victories enroute to the Fed Cup
championship. All these match wins took place while the team verdict was still undecided.
- Venus Williams was runner-up at both Australia and Wimbledon, losing
both finals to Serena in split sets. With Serena, she won the Australian doubles.
Venus's competitive year, like Serena's, ended at Wimbledon.
- Ruano Pascual and Suarez were the year's top point-gatherers in doubles.
They won the U.S. Open and the year-end WTA championship and were the
runner-up pair in Australia, Garros, and Wimbledon.
- Martina Navratilova at age 47 risked her historic undefeated record
(28-0) in Fed Cup combined singles and doubles. It had been said that this was a
record that would never be broken. She and partner Lisa Raymond won doubles
matches in both semis and final rounds of 2003 Fed Cup play. (In both cases, the
team outcome had already been decided.) Also, Martina with partner Kuznetsova
competed in all four Slams, reaching the final at U.S. Open. She and Leander
Paes won the mixed in Australia.
The 2003 achievements of two players, Roddick and Federer, both of them Slam
winners, clearly surpassed those of all others in men's tennis.
Andy Roddick's magnificent mid-year run began on grass when he won at
Queen's and reached the semis at Wimbledon. He then dominated the summer events in
America, winning the tournament at Indianapolis and then losing to Henman here
in Washington. I was surprised that amid so strenuous a season, Andy
nevertheless played doubles here. Indeed he and partner Vahaly won a match against the
Bryans--the year's #1 pair--behind Andy's strong serving. After the tournament
in Washington, Roddick kept to singles, winning six straight matches in
capturing the Canadian, another six in capturing the Cincinnati Masters, and
another seven in triumphing at U.S. Open. The streak included a close victory over
Federer in Canada and a straight-set win over Henman in New York. Andy's
marvelous serve and potent ground game, along with a newly discovered confidence in
attacking net, scarcely wavered during the streak. Widely noted was the
influence of Roddick's new coach, Brad Gilbert, whose role in tightening Andy's
focus seemed unmistakable. Roddick's summer successes recalled those of Pat
Rafter in his wonderful summers of 1999 and 1998, both of which included U.S. Open
triumphs. Andy's run carried him to #1 position in the ATP points race, which
he then defended through year's-end to earn the year's championship.
The achievements of our other prime superstar, Roger Federer, were of
comparable dimension. Roger won Wimbledon magnificently, and he won the year-end
Masters Cup tournament in Houston with almost equal brilliance. He also won five
other tournaments, and was runner-up on clay at the Italian, losing in the
final round to Mantilla by two points in a third-set tiebreak. He twice defeated
Roddick in three head-to-head meetings. These successes produced a year-end
point total only slightly behind Andy's. Federer also performed superbly in Davis
Cup play, which is not included in the ATP point calculations. He won two
singles matches in Switzerland's 3-2 wins over Netherlands in February and over
France in April. He, with Rosset, won the critical doubles point in the latter
meeting. Then in September on Rebound Ace in Melbourne, he again won his
first-day's singles. On the next day, he and Rosset lost the doubles to
Arthurs-Woodbridge in five sets. Then on the final day with the team issue not yet
settled, Roger lost to Hewitt in five sets in one of the year's most memorable
In my mind, Federer's achievements slightly surpass Roddick's. But what most
clears my mind in choosing Roger over Andy was the degree of perfection in
his Wimbledon triumph. In every department of the game--in power, control,
tactical imagination and variety, calm determination under pressure, Roger played a
level of sustained tennis that I have never before witnessed. During long
stretches of his seven successive victories on the historic grass, the world saw
the game played to a consummate and surpassing brilliance.
Several other stars recorded distinguished successes. Agassi won the
Australian Open, Ferrero won Garros, and the Bryan twins finished the doubles year at
#1. Lleyton Hewitt again excelled in Davis Cup play--defeating Federer in
September and then defeating Ferrero in five sets to close the Australian
final-round triumph over Spain.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Thus our final nominees are Justine Henin-Hardenne and Roger Federer, where
the soaring triumphs of both players showed the game at its highest
development. Forced to choose, in my opinion the quality of Federer's accomplishments,
detailed above, seem of the higher magnitude. I therefore deem Roger Federer our
Player of the Year for 2003.
THE TENNIS NATIONS
Last year we chose Russia as our pro tennis Nation of the Year, honoring that
country's remarkable Davis Cup triumph and its array of rising female
players. Cup competition was again fascinating this year, but I also found it
interesting to track how each nation's players fared in the great tournaments. In
three of the four Slams, the nation whose male players won the most matches was
the United States, while at Roland Garros the winningest nation was Spain. The
U.S. men also won the most matches in the four Masters Series events held in
North America and at the year-ending Masters Cup. Spanish players won the most
matches in the Masters events at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid, while
Argentina's won the most at German Open and Paris. In making the counts I used the
tennis nationality given by each player in the ATP publications.
I tried weighting these and other results, including Hopman Cup and World
Team Cup as well as high finishes in the individual singles and doubles points
races, seeking a ranking of the nations. Success in Davis Cup carried by far the
most weight, where Australia's wins in four consecutive rubbers earned a
total of 16 points. As the year advanced different nations held first-place in our
standings, changing in an interesting way. Here is the final tally:
United States, 27.5
America's lead came primarily from contributions by Andre Agassi and several
players in their early twenties including Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Mardy
Fish. The Bryan brothers added many doubles successes.
Our data from the men's side of pro tennis thus seem to show that the leading
nations for our 2003 selection are the U.S. and, recognizing the extreme and
perhaps surpassing prestige of Davis Cup success, also Australia.
Among the women, the Americans won the most matches in three of the four
Slams. Surprisingly, the leader at U.S. Open was Russia, which placed five women
in the final 16 in singles and three in the quarter-finals in doubles. The
Russians were second to the U.S. in the other three Slams. Fed Cup 2003 went to
France, where Mauresmo and Pierce in singles defeated the host Russian team in
the semis. In the other semi the U.S., without the Williams sisters, Davenport,
Capriati, or Rubin, defeated Belgium lacking its two superstars. Then in the
final against France, the Americans won only the doubles.
Thus a deserving nation for recognition in women's tennis would seem to be
Russia, reflecting the further rise this year of its many young stars. The
United States would be almost equal, and a case could also be made for honoring the
dominance of Belgium's two superstars once the Williamses became sidelined or
the success of France in winning Fed Cup.
But our ultimate answer has become clear. The strong performances of the U.S.
in both men's and women's competition require that the United States be
chosen as our Pro Tennis Nation of the Year for 2003.
STATE OF THE GAME
Big-time tennis remains healthy, with shamateurism now in the distant past.
Several matters of integrity, however, require vigilance among the game's
guardians. First, there is unmistakable potential for illegal use by athletes of
substances to enhance physical development or immediate performance. In many
cases secondary health effects are unpredictable or are unknown. Strong rules and
strong enforcement are needed to protect the honest and head off temptation.
Second, a fresh concern arose in 2003 when an abupt change in betting patterns
preceded an ATP match in Europe improbably won by the strong underdog. Like
pro baseball in America since 1919, tennis must be aggressive to protect its
Best wishes to everyone for a splendid Tennis 2004.
Arlington, Virginia, USA