This year's Wimbledon only further proved that Pete Sampras is tennis' Hank
Aaron: a low-key, incredible, underappreciated performer who is on his way to
shattering one of the sport's most sacred records -- that is, Roy Emerson's
achievement of 12 Grand Slam singles titles.
By earning his 10th Slam at the tender age of 25 (Emmo was 24 when he won
his first), Sampras has put himself into a territory occupied only by Bill
Tilden (10), Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg (11 each) and Emerson.
What's most amazing is that Sampras has done this all in the Open era. Borg
did too, but I'll assert that at least two, and possibly even three, of his
French titles were earned at a time when that tournament was heavily devalued
since many players either eschewed Roland Garros or played World Team Tennis.
Sampras thoroughly dominated Wimbledon, losing his serve only twice and
handily mowing his way through the field. His only trouble came when he
squandered a 5-1 lead in his third-set tiebreaker in the round of 16 versus
Petr Korda. Then, when Korda played a fine tiebreak to square the match at
two sets apiece, Sampras immediately broke serve and won 20 of 22 service
points in the fifth set.
With two Grand Slam titles already banked in '97, Sampras can head into the
U.S. Open supremely confident, relaxed and highly optimistic about earning
three Slams in one year for the first time in his career. And it's my belief
that only a Gustavo Kuerten triumph at the Open can dare threaten Sampras'
position as the player of the year for 1997.
The rub of all this is that Sampras' dominance has deadened interest in
tennis. Sampras is so good that he's never even had to play a fifth set in a
Grand Slam semi or final. There's a belief that he needs a rival to spark
the sport's popularity, that by so ruling the sport he has turned competition
into a farce. Two years ago the talk was all about Sampras and Agassi. But
Agassi hasn't won a tournament match since February and hasn't played a
single Grand Slam all year. Michael Chang is a great competitor but lacking
the artillery to be anything more than a wonderful spoiler. Jim Courier is
retreating faster from the top than anyone in the Open era. Boris Becker has
announced his retirement from Grand Slams after '97. And the others who
might threaten Sampras just don't seem able to generate the critical mass
So what to do? All I'll say is that we should enjoy Sampras while he reigns
supreme. It's one thing to wake up and read about another Sampras triumph.
But to see him in person as I did at Wimbledon this year is to truly see that
for all his greatness, he actually does have to play his matches. The care
and craftsmanship he demonstrated in whipping Becker, for example, was the
stuff of tennis legend -- not so much because the match was tight but for the
way Sampras utterly dominated one of Wimbledon's all-time performers.
Serving into every possible corner, volleying with authority, returning
precisely, Sampras made it all look so easy against Becker.
There was lots of other good tennis played at Wimbledon, too. Tim Henman's
14-12 fifth-set win against Paul Haarhuis and his four-set ousting of holder
Richard Krajicek were both wonderfully dramatic, punctuated by crisp
shotmaking from both victor and vanquished. Greg Rusedski's run to the
quarters also gave Britain a lot to cheer about. And the best match of the
tournament was played by Cedric Pioline and Michael Stich in the semis. Yes,
Michael Stich, the man with the intelligence I denigrated last column, played
fine tennis to reach the last four. Even after playing awful tennis to go
down two sets to one versus Pioline, Stich fought back, taking it into a
dramatic fifth set. With darkness nearing, Pioline barely squeaked it out,
But the real problem in tennis isn't so much a single rival for Sampras as
the lack of consistent contenders. The sport has become so fragmented -- by
surface, by playing style, by geography, by depth -- that we rarely see the
same faces competing week after week in quarters, semis and finals. I doubt,
for example, that any Wimbledon quarterfinalist save Sampras -- Pioline,
Stich, Henman, Rusedski, Kiefer, Woodbridge, Becker -- will go so far at the
U.S. Open. The result? A constant effort to reacquaint ourselves with new
players -- and a lack of story line from tournament to tournament. This more
than anything is what makes it hard to keep track of the men's game. Time
was when you could at least count on the likes of Brian Gottfried, Thomas
Smid or Tim Mayotte to at least act as sentry guards in the early rounds and
even create some mid-tournament familiarity. Time was when you'd look
forward to the invariable Becker-Edberg or Connors-Lendl clash in the semis
or finals. That's all been shattered by everything from the ATP Tour's
absurd "Best 14" rule (which permits players to play as much as they want and
only factor in their 14 best results) to the decline of doubles (which
narrowcasts playing styles) to, on the positive side, the incredible ascent
of so many players from all over the world.
As one ex-pro once told me, "At a Grand Slam, I'll watch the men for the
first week and the women for the second."
The good news at least at this year's Wimbledon was that rain forced both
genders to compete heavily during the second week. The women's event
featured many sparkling matches, including three featuring Jana Novotna: her
7-5 in the third round of 16 win over Mary Joe Fernandez, her exemplary
display of netrushing in the semis versus Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her
three-set final loss to Martina Hingis.
Though it's easy to call Novotna the Greg Norman of tennis -- the player who
just doesn't seem able to win the big one -- she didn't choke this final to
Hingis at all. Even though she was up 2-0 in the third, with a point for
3-0, Novotna continued to play attacking, athletic tennis. The trouble is
that Jana lacks a singular, powerful weapon that can add brio to her game.
In the finals she was like a baseball pitcher who hurled six good innings
and then, invariably, began running out of steam. Her chipped returns
started falling short and right into Hingis' strike zone. Her first serve --
never the best of shots -- started missing frequently. And her fragile
Continental forehand got even more dicey as the match wore on.
Yet a good deal of the credit for Novotna's erosion goes to Hingis. Like a
fighter, Hingis took dozens of body punches early on in the match. Novotna's
first set performance was a clinic in chipping, charging and seizing the
initiative on every possible opening. But there's no such thing as a
knockout in tennis. Hingis wisely began altering her game by doing
everything from serving from a wider position in the deuce court (the better
to find Novotna's shakey forehand) to sneaking into net, throwing in a few
lobs and, most of all, paying extra attention on passing shots.
Before Hingis finally asserted herself as the champ, the women making the
most news at Wimbledon was Anna Kournikova. At her first Wimbledon, the
young Russian had been the talk of the tournament, scoring wins over Chanda
Rubin (6-1, 6-1), Barbara Rittner (from a set and 5-1 down), number seven
seed Anke Huber and French Open champ Iva Majoli. Of course many of the
English tabloids were more interested in Kournikova's looks than strokes.
Tennis-wise, though, Kournikova's natural speed, well-trained footwork and
uncanny athleticism paid big dividends. Make no mistake: She's light years
ahead of Venus Williams and could eventually have some great matches with
Hingis. In their semi, Kournikova came out smoking, hitting big approach
shots and looking for ways to force the action. But right now she's still
putting her game together, still looking for ways to meld offense with
defense. I'm confident, though, that she'll soon find a potent combination
and enter the top echelon.
So while Hingis, Novotna and Kournikova were the big achievers of this
year's Wimbledon, those failing to make significant impressions included
Lindsay Davenport, Amanda Coetzer and Mary Pierce. Davenport and Pierce once
again went out of Wimbledon by showing how poorly each moves and how
inflexible they are for grass' foibles. Though a better mover, Coetzer's
fitness-based, retrieving game also lacks the variety necessary for such a
And what of Monica Seles? Alas, it was sad to see her play so poorly and
lose to Sandra Testud after having a match point. For now, I'm cutting
Monica slack as she deals with her father's imminent death. Even though her
court-ravaging innocence is now gone forever, her tenacity remains, and I'm
still keeping a candle burning for return.
But on a broader note, this year's Wimbledon continued tennis' decade-long
post-boom hangover: that sense that tennis is eroding, filled with players
lacking "personality" and seeing its share of "buzz" captured by golf.
Though to me much of this is a lot of garbage (you could find stories from
many past decades that decry that players hit the ball too hard), the reality
is that too many people these days perceive tennis as boring, and when that
herd mentality takes over coverage of a topic, efforts to redirect it are
more difficult than swimming upstream.