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Between The Lines
June 13, 1997 Article

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Between The Lines By Joel Drucker
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Remains Of The Clay

What makes sports so compelling is its capacity for surprise. In politics, business and entertainment, so much of what we see and hear comes off as a done deal. But an athlete, no matter how much he or she is expected to win or lose, is still required to actually play the game.

In other words, who among any of us would have predicted the outcome of this year's French Open? In a rare tennis moment, men and women simultaneously yielded surprises galore. Every day, as the upsets rolled by, I watched my delicate predictions go down the tubes. But so what? After all, my picks weren't just slightly off. Like everyone else in the world, they were way, way, way off. Think of it as a whole new spin of the dial.

On the men's side, I should have probably sniffed a new direction when Thomas Muster, my pick to win the tournament, was stretched to a fifth set in his first-round match. Two days later, Muster was ousted by Kuerten.

Now if you'd watched the U.S. Davis Cup match in Brazil this winter you'd have seen Kuerten. Certainly he came off as a talent. But to think that someone like him could step up and make his first tournament win the French Open is incredible. Imagine: The tournament that's frustrated Sampras, Agassi, Edberg, Becker, McEnroe, Connors, Newcombe and dozens of other tennis legends -- and this guy wins it his first time out.

Let us hope Kuerten is no one-trick pony. He is a delightful, engaging, enthusiastic breath of fresh air in a sport that seems to age its players all too rapidly. From the baseline, Kuerten is mobile, strong and deceptively imaginative. Though his forehand is typically contemporary in its Western grip and big topspin, there's a certain panache and flexibility to it that's more compelling than most. It's also wonderful to see a player with such a powerful one-handed backhand. The backswing isn't pretty, but the forward motion is dazzling. Time and time again throughout the tournament, Kuerten would either rip it up the line or sharply angle one cross-court. His serve is deceptively good, and he seems to have a playful (albeit somewhat tentative) touch at net. Throw in his taste for hippie-like clothes, and you have a guy who's just sparked a Latin American tennis boom. (Sorry Mr. Rios, you're now the bad guy more than ever.)

It'll be interesting to see how Kuerten advances. I don't think he'll go that far at Wimbledon, but just the fact that he's willing to go out there and enjoy himself is a positive step. The real make or break for him will come this summer. Will he be able to translate his Latin sense of adventure to the summer hardcourt season? How will he fare at the U.S. Open's concrete jungle? My thinking is that he's very much for real, and has both the tools and the temperment to become a fixture at least in the top 20.

As for the rest of the men, Paris was heavily disappointing. Sergei Brugera acquitted himself quite nicely in whipping Michael Chang and Rafter. But in the finals he was overwhelmed by Kuerten's passion and played a miserable match. I'll be amazed if he ever reaches another Grand Slam final. The other Spaniards shriveled. Chang showed once again that despite his win in '89 he's now much more of a hardcourt player than ever. Sampras' umpteenth case of diarrhea was bad luck, but also another bleak chapter in his French Open tragedy. And the other contenders -- Muster, Rios, Krajicek, Philippoussis -- were miserable at rising to the occasion. Patrick Rafter, though, overachieved significantly in reaching the semis and showing that it's still possible to rush the net in contemporary tennis. His semi versus Brugera was one of the best matches of the fortnight. More importantly, the Aussie's ability to play such fit, vigorous tennis on clay shows that he could well make significant waves at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Though lacking in much early round intrigue, the women's event also proved extremely compelling. So much attention was focused on Hingis, Graf and Seles that even when Majoli won the outcome came off as an afterthought. But before addressing the first three players, let's assess Majoli's accomplishment.

When Majoli first came on the tour, she was likened to be an heir apparent to Seles. Powerful, grunt-filled and enthusiastic, she made a nice opening splash. But in the last two years, even after breaking the top ten, she's been an underachiever. This March she looked awful in blowing a match point and losing to Venus Williams. She seemed like a giant from the head down and midget in the brains department.

But in her own quiet way, Majoli has rebuilt herself (at least for now). In Paris, she overcome a 6-4, 4-0 deficit to vanquish Lindsay Davenport (this would hardly qualify as a match of geniuses). In the semis she scrapped out an ugly, tight, nervous battle over Amanda Coetzer. And in the finals, she proved unflappable in ripping through Hingis. She's now top five in the world, but I still question if she'll continue advancing. It would be great to see her press ahead while Graf is injured and Williams/Kournikova continue maturing, as she's a very nice person with an enthusiasm for playing and some big weapons. But I'll be amazed if she reaches the Wimbledon semis, and by the time the Open rolls around, let's see if she's still got the goods.

As for Hingis, this loss might be one of the best things that could happen to her. Had she won in Paris, it all would have come too easy. Now she's got to dig in and show us she's a true champion: Someone who digs deep and comes up for more. She whipped through the draw pretty easily 'til the semis, including a 6-2, 6-2 pasting of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (who at least played well but is becoming increasingly less of a factor by the minute).

The Hingis-Seles semi was a great match, a triumph of Hingis' imagination over Monica's resurgent grit. It was terrific to see Seles looking so hungry, but she's still out of shape and needs to work on both her volleys and her serve. I've never seen a southpaw take less advantage of their delivery than Seles.

The bad luck for Hingis is that she won't be able to go toe-to-toe with Steffi Graf. With knee surgery taking Steffi out for four to six months, Hingis will just assume the mantle rather than earn it in an on-court shootout. I hope, though, she can continue duking it out with Monica.

The ease by which Coetzer beat Graf (6-1, 6-4) was surprising. Coetzer has the similar gnat-like game of Arantxa, a style that's been known to aggravate Steffi (a player who, like Seles, is uncomfortable closing out points at the net). Steffi's a great champion, but it's questionable how much desire or focus she'll have to continue playing after rehab. She's 28, and has logged many, many miles -- both on-court and emotionally off-court. But she's also a proud, stubborn champ. She won't just go out following an injury. Graf will make one more go of it in '98 and then call it a career.

Now it's on to Wimbledon, and for all we know some guy with a 160 mph serve will become the next Kuerten. Or some mentally fragile women will at last deliver the goods. We'll see what's to come next week when the draw comes out.

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This column is copyrighted by Joel Drucker, all rights reserved.

Joel's background includes 25 years as a player, instructor, tournament director and writer. His stories have appeared in all of the leading tennis magazines (Tennis, World Tennis, Tennis Week, Tennis Match, and Racquet). He has also written about tennis for many general interest publications, including Cigar Aficionado, Diversion, Men's Journal, San Francisco Focus and the San Diego Reader.


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