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
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