The pros began their summer paved-court season at the Legg Mason Classic, July 18-26, in Washington, D.C. Among the competitors were the event's defending champion, Michael Chang, along with Andrew Agassi and Jim Courier, fresh from Davis Cup play against Belgium. There were no entrants from the Top Ten in the ATP rankings. (Greg Rusedski entered but then withdrew because of injury.)
Most people expected that either Agassi, Chang, or Courier would be the singles winner. Indeed, though there were many interesting matches in the early rounds, it gradually appeared that the three former Slam winners were playing at a level above all others. When Courier lost to Chang in a crowd-pleasing quarter-final, the prospect of a Chang-Agassi final seemed delicious. But an inflamed wrist caused Chang to withdraw just before his scheduled semi-final match. Meanwhile Agassi played almost perfectly both in his semi against Wayne Ferreira and then in the final against Australian Scott Draper, losing a total of only three games in the two matches. Although the margin for error in Agassi's shot-making is not large, if he can continue to produce this kind of accuracy, only a supreme performance by a championship-level player will stop him.
Early in the week, not wishing to offer stale news to Tennis Server readers, I decided to focus my attention on two special aspects. What follows are weeklong observations on two topics: (1) the rising stars of the future and (2) how the pros play doubles.
AMERICA'S RISING STARS
Playing in the Legg Mason were two 21-year-olds who have already been marked as possible future champions. Both arrived directly from practice with the Davis Cup squad at Indianapolis.
Jan-Michael Gambill's results here proved a disappointment. Ranked #64 on the ATP computer going in, he lost a first-round three-setter against a lower-ranked German player, Rainer Schuttler. I watched only a few minutes, but later I watched Jan-Michael playing doubles partnering younger brother Tory, age 16. Tory's game was too immature to allow the brothers to compete effectively against their opponents, the experienced South African pair of Grant Stafford and Kevin Ullyott. Jan-Michael seemed the equal of either opponent, however, and one could sense the strength in his singles game from his smooth and powerful service delivery.
The tournament was kinder to Justin Gimelstob, the other Davis Cup practice player. Gimelstob's first opponent was the Australian sensation, 17-year-old Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt is a smallish (145 pounds), extremely quick performer, a determined fighter able to generate surprising power.
Gimelstob, at six-feet five-inches, with high shoulders and at 190 pounds, depends heavily on a fluid and powerful first serve. Falling behind early in the first set, Gimelstob began returning many of Hewitt's serves with power and gradually outhitting his younger opponent in all-court play. But after Gimelstob won the first set, the effectiveness of his first serve suddenly vanished, and Hewitt, playing solidly, equalized the match. But Gimelstob recovered at the start of the third, his big serve returned, and the larger American displayed some powerful backhand crosscourts and strong volleys. Hewitt's backhand pass attempts began to find the net and, except for three stunning topspin lob winners, the youngster was plainly outclassed toward the end.
Although soaked in sweat from the heat and humidity, Gimelstob agreed to talk with me. We sat in the evening air outside the chill of the air-conditioned press tent. Gimelstob praised Hewitt's quickness and defensive skills, including those topspin lobs. After a while, I asked him what it was like playing mixed doubles with Venus Williams. (The pair won the 1998 Australian and French Open mixed, and reached the semis at Wimbledon.) Gimelstob said that he greatly likes partnering with Williams, who is a very strong doubles player and also a good-natured and likeable team player. Justin, somewhat unconventionally, played the deuce court because Venus grew up playing the ad court with sister Serena. (Serena won the Wimbledon mixed this year, playing with 20-year-old Max Mirnyi of Belarus.) Venus and Justin plan to play the U.S. Open as partners.
Gimelstob next faced the Australian Andrew Ilie. It was not a perfectly fair match, because Ilie had already played a three-setter that day in extreme heat and humidity. Ilie, who is currently ranked #56, won the first set in an extended tiebreaker. But as fatigue began taking its toll, Gimelstob pulled even and then ahead, while Ilie's flat shots began losing their earlier pace. I was told that Ilie is a transplanted Romanian. The match thus seemed a reenactment of old battles between Stan Smith and Ilie Nastase, partly because of the similar physiques of the players and also because Andrew Ilie began to display some of Nastase's playfulness and mannerisms. Ilie experienced arm cramps but finished out the match, losing 6-1.
The next day, Gimelstob played Jim Courier in the stadium court. Apparently recognizing his inferiority in baseline exchanges, Gimelstob heavily used serve-and-volley tactics behind his first serve. But in the fourth game, despite strong serving by Gimelstob, Courier was able to make good low returns, resulting in several volleying errors by Gimelstob. Following this first service break, Gimelstob never regained equality, losing 6-3, 6-4.
Can Gimelstob, from Morristown, New Jersey, be America's next world's champion? He is bigger than Sampras, and he seems similarly powerful, athletic, and mentally strong. His court sense and instincts to the net seem very good. A former national junior champion, he played one year at UCLA, turned pro in 1996, and has risen nicely in the rankings to #101 just prior to Washington. He has never played Gambill in ATP competition. Though Gimelstob stands behind Sampras at the same age (Sampras at 21 was ranked #3), Gimelstob's best would seem yet ahead.
Three new pros -- Paul Goldstein and the two Bryan brothers, all members of the Stanford varsity just a few weeks earlier -- attracted wide attention.
Goldstein, who had grown up locally, had just completed a four-year college career, having played on four NCAA championship squads and been NCAA singles runner-up this spring. Paul and Stanford teammate Bob Bryan, the NCAA champion, received wild-card invitations into the main singles draw. Both would lose in the first round.
Of the two, Goldstein achieved the better singles result. He won the first set against Sargis Sargsian, rank #88. But little by little, playing in the torrid and airless stadium court at midday, Sargsian's firmer serve, more-penetrating ground strokes, and slightly superior quickness and aggressiveness became evident. Later, Goldstein played well in the doubles, showing good quickness, but his game seemed a little soft against the same Stafford-Ullyott pair that had dismissed the Gambills. Meanwhile, Bob Bryan's pro singles debut was likewise ordinary. He lost to Mike Sell, a hustling American player now aged 26 and ranked #144. Sell ended the first set with a down-the-line backhand winner and took the second set at love. Bryan's looping strokes, including his backhand serve-return, seemed too heavy with backswing for timing the kind of power he will face with the pros. From the evidence here, it seemed likely that both Goldstein and Bob Bryan will, not surprisingly, need to improve to reach the first hundred.
But Bob Bryan and his twin brother, Mike, would soon become the tournament's sensation and, indeed, its salvation on semi-final evening after Chang's last-minute withdrawal. The two 20-year-olds are almost exactly alike in physique and facial appearance, except that Bob plays left-handed, Mike right-handed. Both are listed at 6-feet two-inches, 165 pounds. Both --especially Bob -- can pound their serves firmly, both have excellent groundstrokes and volleys, both are quick of foot and hand, and both have remarkable doubles instincts. Their on-court antics are delightful--they are constantly hopping between points, they trot onto court after each changeover, and they display open friendship in their on-court interactions. They dress nearly identically. All the mothers in the stands were delighted. Stanford sophomore Chelsea Clinton, who had earlier watched Goldstein, was seen to hold up a sign supporting the Bryans.
The brothers Bryan, who had won 14 straight doubles matches in non-championship-level pro events, won their first three matches here. Their victims included the tournament's seventh-seeded pair and also the pair that had upset the second-seeded team. In the semis, they won the first set against Stafford and Ullyott (once again the opponents of a young American pair). The twins played beautifully and seemed to thrive in front of the large crowd, which soon took the brothers to heart. Stafford and Ullyott finally prevailed in a drama-loaded third set. Afterwards, I was the only reporter to talk with Stafford or Ullyett. Stafford was happy to win, and he mentioned some of his and Ullyott's veteran insights that helped make it possible. He spoke very highly of the American pair, who had won the audience that night and, Stafford suggested a little enviously, would probably soon capture the whole nation.
While Americans can take pleasure in the performances of Gimelstob and the Bryans in Washington, to me it seemed that the player most advanced for his age was from elsewhere. The remarkable ability and court presence of Lleyton Hewitt, barely 17 and nearly five years younger than Justin Gimelstob, was unmistakable in his several appearances. Hewitt looks like the boy he still is, wearing his baseball cap backwards and tying his long hair at the back. Singles finalist Scott Draper, who partnered Hewitt in a nice doubles run, talked to me about Hewitt's amazing talent and confidence. Given another two or three years of growth in stature and muscle, Draper noted, Hewitt's potential seems unlimited.
HOW THE PROS PLAY DOUBLES
Pat Galbraith, the NCAA doubles chammpion in 1988, is now a veteran of the professional doubles wars. He became a doubles specialist early in his pro career. Currently, he and his customary partner, Brett Steven, stand eighth in the rankings to qualify for the eight-team world doubles championship in Hartford in November. The partnership is temporarily separated to allow Steven to be with his family as the birth of their second child approaches. Because Steven and Galbraith will play together in seven events before Hartford, Galbraith believes they should be able to maintain their ranking. Meanwhile, he will partner Wayne Ferreira in several events.
I wanted Galbraith to talk about about the pro doubles game today. I asked him how the new power rackets had changed doubles. He replied by noting that experiments had shown that serving speeds had been only marginally increased. Galbraith thus believes that the larger benefit of the new rackets is to the receiver. The expanded sweet-spot, he continued, helps the returner by making it easier to return a strong serve firmly and effectively. (Unlike most pros, Galbraith uses a somewhat old-fashioned-looking wide-frame Wilson.) He said that the power rackets make it easier to make a strong down-the-line return, and he added that the better teams are making increasing use of this tactic, especially at break point.
In the pro game, just as in good doubles among non-professionals, there is a premium on obtaining and exploiting close-in net position. I asked Galbraith to comment on the tactic, when pinned deep, of simply blasting hard shots at the net pair in hopes of eliciting a weak return. Galbraith replied that this is not effective against the Woodys or Eltingh-Haarhuis, who can handle just about any pace at any range. For himself, Galbraith added, the key is to keep his shots low -- just a couple of inches over the net. Galbraith also favors using the lob even in relatively close-in exchanges, and he noted that the great teams do so frequently.
One reason Galbraith stopped competing in singles was his relatively soft serve. He usually puts hard slice on his first serve, trying to put about 65 percent into play. He believes one of his strongest assets is his half-volleying ability, and he notes that other relatively soft servers, like Rich Leach and Pat McEnroe, have developed solid half-volleying skills.
Earlier, I had a chance to put similar questions to Jeff Tarango, who had just won his first-round singles and was beginning to think of his next-day's doubles with partner Justin Gimelstob. Tarango and Gimelstob had never competed as partners, but they had played together effectively in helping prepare the U.S. Davis Cup team for their 1997 final in Sweden.
Tarango thought that the partnership would be strong behind Gimelstob's hard serving, which should allow Tarango to play aggressively at net. Tarango when serving expected to rely on spins and placement variety. The pair would, as is customary in the pro game, communicate with one another between points to agree where the serve should be placed and whether the net player was going to poach. It was like a pitcher and catcher in baseball, Tarango said. Tarango seldom likes to poach on second serves, he added.
I asked whether Tarango, a lefty, would play the deuce or ad court with right-hander Gimelstob. Tarango replied that the matter was still uncertain because both preferred the deuce court, but, he continued, Tarango would probably prevail. I later noted that Tarango did indeed play the deuce court, as did Pat Galbraith, who is also a lefty. Thus both Tarango-Gimelstob and Galbraith-Ferreira put the forehands in the middle. I noted that several other lefty-righty pairs, however, lined up the other way.
Tarango, who won the Legg Mason doubles in 1995, seemed optimistic about about his and Gimelstob's chances. The pairing seemed like a natural, and I privately resolved to watch all their matches. Thus it was stunning to watch them lose their first match, against the unseeded pair Bobby Kokavec of Canada and Marco Osorio of Mexico. Kokavec is at least as big as Gimelstob, and his serving and his presence at the net seemed greater. Osorio is very small but played with great quickness of hand and foot. On this night, neither Kokavec nor Osorio could do anything wrong. Meanwhile Tarango missed often, and even when the flashing brilliance that one expects of him came into play, too often his shot was unluckily out by the narrowest of margins. The U.S. pair tried hard to turn things around, but things just kept getting worse.
Ferreira and Galbraith's opposition in the quarter-finals was the unseeded pair of Doug Flach and Greg Van Emburgh. I met Van Emburgh as he and Flach were going out for their pre-match hitting. I watched their 30-minute workout and then talked with Van Emburgh. He is a strongly built individual who at 6-feet 2-inches gives the pair much of its firepower. A former UCLA star, he has been ranked as high as #38 in doubles, He shifted to doubles years ago after elbow trouble and surgery. (Doubles entails less-frequent serving and hard-hitting, he explained.) He restrings his favorite racket before every match to reduce the risk of a broken string. Partner Doug is the younger brother of the former doubles champion Ken Flach.
That night I watched Van Emburgh and Flach take on the top seeds. A barrage of errors by Galbraith-Ferreira made me think of Tarango and Gimelstob in their disaster. Little by little, however, the favorites regained their usual form. Van Emburgh's consistent strong serving enabled the underdogs to close out the first set, however, and many hard-fought points and games followed. But Galbraith and Ferreira gradually pulled ahead to win in three close sets.
I had already discovered that the serve is more critical in pro doubles than I had thought. During the tournament final I took close note of the doppler speed readings. Most first serves toward the center were in the range 100-110 mph. Serves to the wide corners measured about 10 mph less, and when the server chose to use increased spin, first-serve velocities were often as much as 20 mph lower. In important situations including break-points, however, servers clearly stepped up the pace. Stafford, Ferreira, and Ullyott clocked 115-120 mph and occasionally in the 120's at such times. Second serves under pressure sometimes exceeded 100 mph. Stafford, in particular, seemed to have a knack for stronger serving when it mattered most. Clearly, the club player's occasional tactic of simply spinning the serve into play was not favored by most pros in pressure situations.
The final, matching Stafford-Ullyott against Galbraith-Ferreira, lasted less than seventy minutes. Galbraith's serve was broken in the opening game of both sets, and also in game 5 of the first set. In these disastrous games, Galbraith missed 12 of his 24 first serves, and he and his partner won only four of the 12 second-serve points. In break game of the second set, the pair twice tried the I formation, where Ferreira started the point in a position at the center of the net but bent close to the ground. The first I-formation try produced a serve-return error by Stafford, but in the second case Stafford returned a hard winner to gain the break.
Throughout the match, Galbraith and Ferreira produced some fine play, but not consistently enough to prevail. In their best chance to break serve, leading 15-30 against Stafford's serve early in the second set, the top seeds lost the next three points -- somewhat unluckily -- on big swings by Ferreira, each of which might have led to a winner but in actuality narrowly missed the court. With their win, Stafford and Ullyott moved up to #15 in the ATP rankings and could think about a possible place at Hartford.
Overall, the Legg Mason Classic was a success despite the usual torrid weather and Chang's withdrawal. Total attendance was down somewhat from 1997, mainly because fewer daytime sessions were scheduled. Commercial sponsorship was excellent, and many thousands of dollars were raised to benefit educational and tennis programs for the city's youth.
It was a fine celebration of the sport!
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2013
This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.
Featured events in the Tennis Server Ticket Exchanges: