Not since Jimmy Connors made his sentimental journey to the '91 semis has
the U.S. Open been so action-packed. Final set tiebreakers, compelling
upsets and sparkling new faces all made the launching of the new Arthur Ashe
Stadium wonderfully captivating. So much of what happened this year will
dramatically propel the plot of tennis -- both for the balance of '97 and
well into '98.
Unquestionably, the biggest story was Venus Williams reaching the finals.
Say what you will about the mental fallibility of those she conquered --
Anke Huber, Sandrine Testud, Irina Spirlea -- the truth is that Williams
repeatedly delivered the goods. Her backhand down the line pass against
Spirlea from match point down in the decisive tiebreak was the shot of the
Now the question continues: Is Venus Williams for real? She's not planning
to play any more tournaments this year, which means she'll be no factor in
the jockeying for position going on beneath Martina Hingis. Should Venus
make a full commitment to the tour in '98, there's the potential for a
wonderful set of emerging rivalries between her, Anna Kournikova and Mirjana
Lucic. While I have many doubts about Venus' manner and strategic approach
towards tennis, there's no questioning her talents, innate intelligence and
sincere enthusiasm for competing.
But no matter what happens between now and the end of 1997, Martina Hingis
is the queen of the Corel WTA Tour. The key story is lower in the ranks.
I'm still convinced that Monica Seles can reemerge as a factor. Though this
was her first full season since her rookie year of 1989 that Seles did not
win a Grand Slam title, throughout the summer she started to show signs of
her trademark tenacity.
Jana Novotna, Lindsay Davenport and even Irina Spirlea are eager to firmly
establish themselves as bonafide contenders rather than pretenders. Each has
the physical weapons, but it remains to be seen if they have the intestinal
fortitude to ever accomplish what Hingis has done with a vengeance this year:
win Grand Slam titles. I'm sure each will be competing aggressively this
fall and look to make a mark at the season-ending Chase Championships.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Armada of Martinez and Sanchez Vicario appears to be
sinking in the sea. Something vital seems to have been taken from Arantxa.
All those close finals she's lost brought her to the summit but then pushed
her back down the hill. And as for the talented Conchita, it's not clear
what kind of passion she wants to bring to the court.
And through all of this Hingis just blithely and innocently plowed her way
through the U.S. Open. However successful her '97 season, it's hard to
imagine her as a dominant player. There's still a slight, counterpunching
quality to her that makes you wonder why opponents don't just rip the
daylights out of her second serve and expose her seemingly fragile forehand.
But as I wrote months ago, the biggest weapon Hingis has is her brain, a
tool that will continue to serve her well against all comers.
But probably the biggest potential story in the women's game over the coming
fall and winter is the comeback of Steffi Graf. After all, there was
something unfortunate about Hingis merely assuming the crown rather than
wrestle it away from Steffi. Rumors are floating that Graf will be given a
wild-card into the Chase Championships. More significantly, she intends to
play the '98 Australian Open. Now that could be the beginning of a very
serious rivalry between her and Hingis -- at least for the short duration of
As for the men, I was delighted to see Patrick Rafter at last fulfill his
potential. For me, there's a feeling that all is right with the world when
an Australian wins a Grand Slam, a belief that the game's fundamental tenets
have been upheld: exemplary sportsmanship, aggressive play, hearty
athleticism and reverence for history. In the locker afterwards, it was
wonderful to see Rafter chatting up Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe
and Fred Stolle. One champion to another. It's hard to imagine Jimmy
Connors (or even Don Budge) doing likewise with Pete Sampras.
Rafter is now in position to make a significant run for the number two spot
in the rankings. Next week's Davis Cup tie will give him a prime shot at
Sampras. With a fall schedule of indoor tournaments that favor his
netrushing game, Rafter will start to see what it's like to be expected to
win rather than just be one of the pack. Still, he has few points to defend
and can look to firmly establish himself as an elite player. But to do this
he'll need to beat the likes of Kafelnikov (another U.S. Open underachiever),
Kuerten, Rios and many more.
Of course Sampras is all too eager to remind him who's boss. Though
naturally upset about his loss to Korda at the Open, with two Slams in the
bank I don't think Sampras was too angry. A year ago he absolutely needed to
win in New York if he was to salvage his year. But not so in '97.
Two players who now must wonder what's going on with their progress are
Michael Chang and Mark Philippoussis. The loss to Rafter was crushing for
Chang. With Sampras eliminated, here was a golden chance to Chang to at last
earn his second Grand Slam title. But the Australian exposed Chang's
fundamental conservatism, manhandling his serves, pounding volleys and all
too eloquently showing Chang the limits of his game.
As for Rafter's big-serving Aussie mate, it's been a horrible summer.
Seeded seventh at Wimbledon, Philippoussis lost in the first round, and then
performed poorly in New York in losing in the third round to slashing Daniel
Both Chang and Philippoussis will spend the fall trying to regroup in hopes
of making strong showings at the '98 Australian Open. It won't be easy for
either of them.
Even more befuddled than these two is Andre Agassi, who now sinks to a
ranking of 103 -- his lowest ranking since joining the tour in 1986. For all
the hype surrounding Agassi's three wins in New York, Rafter dismantled him.
No matter how talented or eager Agassi is, my feeling is that after 1998
it's all downhill for him, Chang, Courier, Washington and Martin. Sometime
in the middle of next year there'll be oodles of articles lamenting the
decline of American tennis.
Yet on a global basis, the game has never been more eclectic. Kuerten,
Kafelnikov, Rusedski, Henman and Rios are just are a few of the exciting
talents that will be making noise into the next century. It would be great
to see as enthusiastic and gifted a player as Jonas Bjorkman continue making
progress in singles.
But what's most exciting is to see the dynamic influx of depth and quality
in the men's game. An unseeded player reached the finals of every Grand Slam
this year. What remains to be seen is if these four -- Moya/Australia,
Kuerten/French, Pioline/Wimbledon and Rusedski/US -- will consolidate those
gains or merely slip back into the extremely competitive pack. My advice for
tennis lovers is to pay attention to those early round matches. The guy
losing in the first round of Cincinnati one day could be a Grand Slam champ
the next. Stay tuned for even more shifts in the top ten in the coming year.