Tennis Server's Player of the Year honors (1) superior achievement in
top-level competition, along with (2) less-tangible contributions to the
history and values of our sport. Candidates normally include the year's male
and female champions as well as high achievers in international team play, in
doubles, in senior pro competition, or like realms. A single triumph of
surpassing distinction can be honored. Last year, we chose Jacco Eltingh of
the Netherlands, who during 1998 came close to achieving a Grand Slam in
DAVIS AND FED CUPS
Fed Cup produced little excitement in 1999 because of the dominance of the
U.S. team and the absence of the leading stars from last year's finalist
nations, Spain and Switzerland. The Americans first overcame a Croatian team
weakened by the absence of the young star Lucic. After that, the availability
of the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport assured an American victory
over all comers. A streamlined format for Fed Cup for year 2000, one hopes,
will bring the top European players once again into the competition.
Davis Cup was a different story. In the hundredth year since its beginning,
the competition produced many superb engagements and raised vast fan interest
in many countries. The present format continued to enhance the Cup in its
important role building the game among youth worldwide.
Reaching the Cup final in December were the French and Australian teams, in
both cases largely because of a single player. For France, Cedric Pioline won
all five of his meaningful singles matches enroute to the final, including
critical wins over Krajicek and Kuerten. Meanwhile, with first Philippoussis
and then Rafter out with injuries, Australia's teen-aged Lleyton Hewitt
filled in magnificently against the U.S. and Russia. Hewitt won his three
meaningful singles matches, over Courier, Safin, and Kafelnikov. Then in
December, with Rafter still unavailable, Hewitt was again named. Thus it
happened that the two undefeated Cup heros--Pioline and Hewitt--faced each
other in the opening match in Nice. It seemed to me that if either of these
stars could carry his team to final victory, then he would have completed a
Davis Cup run plainly worthy of consideration for our award.
In an intense first-day encounter, it was Pioline who prevailed over Hewitt.
The French veteran won all three sets, two of them extended tiebreakers. But
then two days later, Pioline's remarkable Davis Cup year came to an end in a
superbly played, four-set loss to the heavy-hitting Mark Philippoussis.
Philippoussis's two singles victories amply redeemed his disappointing
contribution in Australia's first-round meeting with Zimbabue and returned
the Cup Down Under.
Meanwhile, the Americans struggled to overcome the absence of both Sampras
and Agassi from singles play. The quest began brilliantly when Courier and
Martin overcame the favored British hosts. But the same stars failed against
the Australians in July. A new U.S. team captain was then chosen, who since
then publicly (1) deprecated the Davis Cup format and, oddly, (2) called for
the removal of men's doubles from the pro tour.
THE WOMEN'S CIRCUIT
The year was a fascinating one in women's pro tennis. Perhaps the singular
achievement was Steffi Graf's, who won her sixth French Open and later
gathered warm feelings worldwide in announcing her retirement from
competitive play. Still later, Graf announced that she would play a worldwide
tour of exhibitions.
It briefly seemed, during Wimbledon, that several very young players might
now be ready to challenge the recognized stars. But instead four well-known
players--Hingis, Davenport, and the Williamses--continued to dominate the
women's game. These four would capture all fifteen of the year's major events
other than the French (i.e., the other Slams, the Tier Ones, Grand Slam Cup,
and the year-ending Chase).
Hingis and Davenport finished the year #1 and #2, respectively, in the
official rankings. Hingis won the Australian and was runner-up at the French
and U.S. Opens and at the season-ending Chase. Her loss to Graf in the final
at Garros was followed by a personal crisis including a falling-out with her
mother and a first-round loss at Wimbledon. Hingis also won the German and
Canadian Opens along with two other Tier Ones. Meanwhile Davenport won
Wimbledon and the Chase, and was the only player in women's tennis to reach
the quarters of all four Slams. In head-to-head play, Davenport won three of
four meetings with Hingis, including the final of the Chase. In doubles,
Hingis won the Australian, Davenport won Wimbledon. Off the court, Davenport
handled better than Hingis public comments demeaning Mauresmo early in the
year, while Hingis was further stained by her ungracious remarks in leaving
her doubles partner of last year, Novotna.
The two Williams sisters followed in the point standings, Venus at #3 and
Serena at #4. Serena won the U.S. Open along with the Tier One at Indian
Wells and the Grand Slam Cup, while Venus took three Tier Ones. Playing
together, the sisters won the French and U.S. Open doubles. Both contributed
in Fed Cup play. They played against each other twice, Venus winning at the
Lipton, Serena at Grand Slam Cup. Serena stands out because she won six of
seven matches against Hingis and Davenport. (Venus's record against the two
higher-ranking players was 5-6.) Serena missed Wimbledon and the Chase with
physical troubles, but amply showed that when she is healthy, her powerful
and athletic game can be too strong for any opponent. Clearly, Serena's
greatness is at hand.
A strong case can be made here for any of the three--Serena, Hingis, or
Davenport. My narrow choice among the three is Hingis, who has just turned 19
but has already won six Slams, including one in 1999. (At the same age, Graf
had won five Slams, Seles seven, Evert two.) Despite her doll-like appearance
and manner, she is a decidedly tough competitor, who courageously and
intelligently faces disadvantages in size and strength against her foremost
rivals. She improves, though in the last two years Davenport and the
Williamses have improved more. Her success in making an early return after
her mid-year crisis re-certified her competitive qualities. But did any of
the three women make as large a mark during the year as either of the two
American male superstars?
SAMPRAS AND AGASSI
It was an amazing year for Andre Agassi, who dominated the year's tennis news
beginning with his triumph in the French Open. His victory at Garros was
wholly unexpected, as the American had withdrawn from an event the previous
week with shoulder trouble. By winning, Agassi joined a select group of
players who have won all four Slam events. Almost as surprising was Agassi's
Wimbledon run, where he defeated Rafter in a straight-set semi before losing
to Sampras in the final.
The story of Agassi's return from seeming career-ending obscurity two years
ago is, as Agassi himself explains, as much a tale of off-court determination
and hard work as it is one of matches won. He gained in overall muscle
strength and physical stamina even as the extra pounds came off. With his new
power and endurance returned his old shotmaking and mobility, which underlie
his unique court tactics.
Agassi is a remarkable champion off the court, highly intelligent and
genuinely compassionate toward others. When last year a patented Agassi
overhead from the baseline felled Alex Corretja at net, Agassi's extreme
concern over hurting his opponent, albeit unintentionally, was obvious.
Agassi was so upset that he lost his playing edge that day and the match. Yet
he can also be highly opinionated and indeed intolerant of those with whom he
disagrees, as in his criticisms of U.S. Davis Cup officialdom.
Meanwhile Pete Sampras's year was spoiled by the great champion's physical
troubles. He skipped Australia, then had little success in the spring events.
He seemed strong in winning the Wimbledon tune-up at Queens, and at Wimbledon
he won his first four matches without losing a set. In the quarters, however,
he lost the first set to Philippoussis and fell behind in the second. The
Australian, whose play was equalling Sampras's in power and control, then
hurt his knee and was shortly forced to retire from the match. Sampras then
went on to crush Henman in four sets and Agassi in three, winning his sixth
Wimbledon. Sampras's magnificent first and second serves were simply too
strong for Agassi, at his best, to blunt.
Sampras again prevailed over Agassi a few weeks later, in Los Angeles, in two
tiebreak sets, and again in the semis at Cincinnati. A week later, however,
at Indianapolis, Sampras withdrew with hip flexor trouble, though he was
expected to be ready for the Open.
Meanwhile by winning the U.S. Open tune-up in Washington convincingly,
defeating Kafelnikov, Agassi showed that he was at the top of his game. He
talked confidently of the forthcoming Open, and that he looked forward to a
week of rest. I asked him what he must do to defeat Sampras. The euphoria
vanished. Agassi thought for a while and then answered. To beat Sampras, he
said, he must "play well when it counts," "bring my best game," and "get a
little lucky." It did not seem like a confident champion.
The climactic Sampras-Agassi confrontation would, of course, not yet be, as
Sampras withdrew at the Open's outset with a fresh problem, back trouble.
Agassi would win his second Slam of 1999, defeating Kafelnikov in the semis
and Martin in a five-set final, earning firm grip on #1 in the rankings.
During the fall Agassi would capture the Paris Open, an indoor Super Nine.
Sampras entered the event but withdrew with renewed back difficulties. Thus
Sampras's chances in the year-end ATP World in Hannover, Germany, seemed
Tennis fans know what happened at Hannover. Agassi defeated a rusty Sampras
in a round-robin match early in the week. But in the Sunday final, Sampras's
heavy serving and the regained consistency in his power groundstrokes were
too much for a seemingly disheartened Agassi. The reversal of the outcome
three days before almost defied belief, but the message seemed clear. Sampras
at his present-day best will always defeat Agassi, indeed any other player,
on a fast or medium-fast surface.
THE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Choosing the Tennis Nation of the Year is easy. The Australian recapture of
the Davis Cup, more than in any case in recent memory, was clearly a team and
a national victory. The U.S., which claimed two of the top three male and
three of the top four female performers in the year-end singles rankings, and
indeed won the 1999 Fed Cup, cannot match the quality of this achievement.
Meanwhile the Aussies also won the clay-court event World Team Cup (primarily
with Philippoussis and Rafter), and also won Hopman Cup (with Dokic and
Choosing the Player of the Year is more difficult. It seems clear that the
dominance of both Agassi and Sampras surpassed that of any of the women. But
which of the two Americans should we choose? Agassi won two Slams, Sampras
one plus the ATP World. Agassi led in the year-end standings but Sampras led
convincingly in head-to-head play. I like Agassi's success on both fast and
slow surfaces but I dislike his having shunned Davis Cup duty, though this
has been partly redeemed by Agassi's announced willingness to participate
next year. Sampras's absence from Cup singles (he played doubles against the
Aussies) is easier to accept in view of his increasing physical difficulties.
By the margin of his totally decent representation of tennis on the world
stage, his substantial commitment to the underprivileged, and his superb
example to young and old in rebuilding his career through renewed off-court
effort, the choice becomes clear. The Tennis Server Player of the Year for
1999, chosen narrowly over his long-time rival and countryman, is Andre
Agassi and Sampras photos by Cliff Kurtzman. All other photos copyright 1999 by Ron Waite.