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December 11, 1996 Article

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Higdon's Net Game By David Higdon
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"1996 Power Rankings"

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David Higdon

The 1996 pro tennis season came to a close with bangs (courtesy of the hard-serving duo of Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, the finalists at the ATP Tour Championships) and bruises (courtesy of the limping and cramping duo of Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis, finalists at the Chase Championships of the Corel WTA Tour). From beginning to end, there was enough action, excitement and controversy in 1996 to satisfy even the most vociferous tennis fan.

I'm usually not satisfied, however, with the year-end tour rankings. Often, they don't properly reflect the impact that the players had in the major tournaments, a.k.a. Grand Slams, nor do they truly rank one single season of January to November play due to sliding 12-month computations.

So I'm establishing my own subjective 1996 Power Rankings. They're not perfect, of course, but you can bet perennial Grand Slam gaggers--and ATP Tour top tenners--like Wayne Ferreria or Thomas Enqvist won't be cracking the list.


pete sampras
    1996 Power Ranking: 1
    Player: Pete Sampras
    ATP Tour Ranking: 1
    ATP Titles: 7
    Grand Slams: U.S. Open winner, French Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 65-11

Comments: For the second season in a row, Sampras turned it on during the second half of the year to salvage what appeared to be a sub-par 12 months. With the death of his coach, Tim Gullikson, upsetting his focus through Wimbledon, Sampras stayed above water long enough to make a resounding statement by capturing the U.S. Open and ATP Tour Championships: "I'm still the man." No one will dispute him.

1997 Prognosis: Watch out, world! With the emotional weight of the two-year struggle involving Gullikson behind him, Sampras embarks on a quest that he alone seeks: Securing the "title" of Greatest Player of All-Time. Sampras knows the window of opportunity doesn't stay open forever. He must make his big push now.

boris becker

    1996 Power Ranking: 2
    Player: Boris Becker
    ATP Tour Ranking: 6
    ATP Titles: 3
    Grand Slams: Australian Open winner
    Overall Record: 42-14

Comments: A book-end year for Boom Boom. He looked great in winning the season opener in Melbourne, dominating Michael Chang in the final, then all but disappeared as he struggled with injuries. His wonderful play indoors this fall and winter, including his run to the final of the ATP Tour Championships, pushed him past all but Sampras among the four "one Slam" contemporaries.

1997 Prognosis: He'll be tough to beat Down Under next month, though the prospect of hitting the wall, emotionally and physically, may be there. Can he continue to reach deep down over and over again? I counted him out once; I won't make that same mistake again.

    1996 Power Ranking: 3
    Player: Yevgeny Kafelnikov
    ATP Tour Ranking: 3
    ATP Titles: 3
    Grand Slams: French Open winner, Australian Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 80-25

Comments: Despite the breakthrough win in Paris, Kafelnikov did little to dismiss talk that he's a player of unquestionable ability hampered by a suspect attitude. He got waxed by Becker in Australia, he fell in the first round at Wimbledon, then pulled out of the U.S. Open, supposedly to protest his low seeding. A champion would have barked at the USTA and then proceeded to kick some booty on the courts.

1997 Prognosis: He'll have to win more than whine in 1997 to retain such a high Power Ranking. There's no reason he can't compete with the best on hard courts, and he's just as likely to sneak a Slam in Melbourne as he is repeat in Paris.

    1996 Power Ranking: 4
    Player: Michael Chang
    ATP Tour Ranking: 2
    ATP Titles: 3
    Grand Slams: Australian and U.S. Open finalist
    Overall Record: 65-19

Comments: Will Chang ever shed his bridesmaid label? The tenth anniversary of his 1989 French Open triumph is fast approaching, and he's yet to crack back into the Grand Slam winner's circle. But you can't fault him for trying. He revamped his game, he clawed his way into two 1996 Slam finals (Australian and U.S. Opens) and posted a killer .774 winning percentage, second only to Sampras' .855.

1997 Prognosis: Not bad, if he can avoid Sampras. He's lost nine of his last 10 showdowns with Pistol Pete. Also, Muster owns him on clay. And he's little threat on grass unless he strengthens his return of serve. Uh-oh....

Richard Krajicek

    1996 Power Ranking: 5
    Player: Richard Krajicek
    ATP Tour Ranking: 7
    ATP Titles: 0
    Grand Slams: Wimbledon winner, French Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 46-28

Comments: Like Kafelnikov, Krajicek had a hot two weeks when it mattered most, but the rest of the season solidified his reputation as a enigmatic talent. Wimbledon has crowned its fair share of one-shot wonders, but Krajicek may go down in history as one of its biggest underachievers. He was invincible during the London fortnight, yet couldn't win a single other event in 1996.

1997 Prognosis: He'd better be fit and focused from the get-go. He needs to return to Wimbledon with a title or two under his belt, rebuilding his confidence and reputation along the way, or he'll face a host of cocky opponents when he returns to Wimbledon. The pressure to repeat or be forgotten will be overwhelming.

    1996 Power Ranking: 6
    Player: Goran Ivanisevic
    ATP Tour Ranking: 4
    ATP Titles: 5
    Grand Slams: U.S. Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 77-26

Comments: A man in search of a major. For Ivo, a fairly consistent season, with a handful of titles and some solid play at the two final Grand Slam events. He may have been the second best player at Flushing Meadow, but he ran into a determined Sampras in the semifinals.

1997 Prognosis: Literally, a loose cannon. Dangerous when lit. The top players don't want to play him at a Grand Slam, from Sampras on down. But one must wonder if Goran's head is as messed up as that Bam-Bam hairdo he was sporting this winter.

    1996 Power Ranking: 7
    Player: Thomas Muster
    ATP Tour Ranking: 5
    ATP Titles: 7
    Grand Slams: U.S. Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 68-20

Comments: This is the third player who fits this profile: One magical moment (his ascension to the No. 1 ranking in March and April) surrounded by disappointment. Sure, he won seven clay court events, astonishing to everyone except Muster himself, but he faltered at the French Open, the tourney that crowns clay's champion for the season.

1997 Prognosis: He'll continue to be the warrior on clay, forgetting the controversy which surrounded his No. 1 ranking. All his focus will be on winning in Paris, so he'll return to his clay-friendly schedule of 1995 and pray for rain to keep the courts slow at Roland Garros.

MaliVai Washington

    1996 Power Rankings: 8
    Players: Michael Stich & MaliVai Washington
    ATP Tour Rankings: 16 (Stich) & 20 (Washington)
    ATP Titles: 1 each
    Grand Slams: French Open finalist (Stich) & Wimbledon finalist (Washington)
    Overall Record: 25-14 (Stich) & 33-24 (Washington)

Comments: These two players crack the top ten Power Rankings for one reason and one reason alone: They both overachieved considerably to reach a 1996 Grand Slam final. Stich played masterfully in Paris, bouncing back from injury with a spring in his step and a fairly friendly attitude. No former Wimbledon champ has gotten this close to winning the French since Stefan Edberg in 1989. Washington played on the final day at Wimbledon despite his mediocre Grand Slam history and the fact that he brandishes a weaponless game--unless you count perseverance and concentration as a weapon.

1997 Prognosis: Stich's been in a Grand Slam winner's circle before, so he knows how difficult it is to return there. Washington got his first taste, and boy, would he like to bite back. Count on more consistent seasons next year, but no singular achievement to match their moments in the sun in 1996.

Andre Agassi

    1996 Power Ranking: 10
    Player: Andre Agassi
    ATP Tour Ranking: 8
    ATP Titles: 3
    Grand Slams: Australian and U.S. Open semifinalist
    Overall Record: 38-13

Comments: Follow the bouncing Andre--he's up, he's down, he's all around! Get used to it: Andre Agassi's career will be marked by peaks and valleys, and 1996 certainly was the latter. His two late-round losses at Grand Slams came at the hands of Michael Chang, a player who can't compare to Agassi in the talent department but comes prepared to play every single day. A bummer year was made worse when his girlfriend, Brooke Shields, elbowed into NBC's Thursday night TV fall lineup with the single most obnoxious sitcom on the tube.

1997 Prognosis: Agassi's always dangerous after tangling with mediocrity. One must wonder if Brad Gilbert will be able to reach into his bag of motivational tricks to help rescue Agassi again. Or maybe there's a new guru on the horizon. Does Tony Robbins know anything about inside-out forehands? Enquiring minds want to know.


Steffi Graf
    1996 Power Ranking: 1
    Player: Steffi Graf
    WTA Tour Ranking: 1
    WTA Titles: 4
    Grand Slams: Winner of French and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon
    Overall Record: 54-4

Comments: Hard to believe she could duplicate--almost down to the match--her amazing play in 1995. But Graf did it, winning all three Grand Slams that she entered and the season-ending tour championship. She's simply the best, now and in history.

1997 Prognosis: As usual, things don't look so good for Graf. She's still struggling with injuries and her father's criminal trial in Germany. But someone's got to step up and declare herself ready and able to do anything she can to knock Graf off her perch. Know anyone who fits that description?

Monica Seles

    1996 Power Ranking: 2
    Player: Monica Seles
    WTA Tour Ranking: Co-No. 2
    WTA Titles: 4
    Grand Slams: Australian Open winner, U.S. Open finalist, French Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 48-8

Comments: Face it: She's just not the same player she was prior to the stabbing. There's the nagging shoulder injury which may threaten her career, but most upsetting in 1996 was her lack of willpower. Katarina Studenikova was cracking big-time during their match at Wimbledon, but Seles couldn't muster the strength to overcome her weakening opponent. Studenikova would have been toast the moment when she shed her first drip of nervous perspiration against the pre-attack Seles. Equally unnerving was her match against Graf at the U.S. Open. With dark crowds looming on the horizon, it was Seles who seemed intent on concluding the match before the rain temporarily halted it.

1997 Prognosis: Seles still may be mentally recuperating from the attack. She also may be playing in extreme physical pain. If she can heal physically, though, she may be able to find the strength to fire up those competitive juices again. No one savored winning big matches more than Seles once did. If she rediscovers the need to win, the results will follow.

Sanchez Vicario

    1996 Power Ranking: 3
    Player: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
    WTA Tour Ranking: Co-No. 2
    WTA Titles: 2
    Grand Slams: French Open and Wimbledon finalist, Australian Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 57-22

Comments: The Eveready player kept going and going, but failed for the second consecutive season to add another Grand Slam winner's trophy to her collection. She also showed less consistency this year, losing more early-round matches than usual at both minor and major events. You have to wonder what keeps driving her, though it's probably the hope that, like in 1994, the game's top duo will falter enough to allow her to sneak away with a major title or two.

1997 Prognosis: She'll be there, scrambling for a tournament win or two, playing in several finals, plenty of semifinals and countless--and I do mean countless--matches. Maybe she's going to take a break from the game in 1997? After all, if... What am I saying? This woman never, ever stops.

    1996 Power Ranking: 4
    Player: Martina Hingis
    WTA Tour Ranking: 4
    WTA Titles: 3
    Grand Slams: U.S. Open semifinalist, Australian Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 51-16

Comments: What pushed Hingis past the women behind her in the Power Rankings was the New York City followup. After her well-documented and spirited run to the U.S. Open semifinals, Hingis returned to the Big Apple in November with a host of competitors anxious to knock her off her high horse. But she responded like a champion in the making, surging to the Chase Championship finals, where she fell in five sets--after falling with leg cramps--to Graf. She's beaten both Seles and Graf during the past two years. That's more than most of the women can say.

1997 Prognosis: She's got everybody thinking, and on the women's tour, that's often enough to keep her on the upswing. She still can get overwhelmed by the game's power brokers at times, but the Mary Pierces and Anke Hubers tend to tighten up in big matches. That's when Hingis' strength--court smarts--can overcome raw power, and puts her on the short list of Grand Slam hopefuls in 1997.

Jana Novotna

    1996 Power Ranking: 5
    Player: Jana Novotna
    WTA Tour Ranking: 3
    WTA Titles: 4
    Grand Slams: French Open semifinalist, Wimbledon and U.S. Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 54-13

Comments: Novotna performed up to her own established high standards in 1996. She even beat both Graf and Seles during the season. Though the victory over Graf was at a warmup event prior to the WTA Tour championship, she beat Seles in a Big Event, the French Open. (She also beat Seles at the Olympics, but that tournament, like the Grand Slam Cup, still feels like an exhibition to me.) Solid, just not spectacular.

1997 Prognosis: As David Byrne of The Talking Heads once muttered: Same As It Ever Was. Novotna may not be as consistent as Sanchez Vicario, but she's got a versatile athletic game which may be ready to reap Grand Slam rewards in 1997.

    1996 Power Ranking: 6
    Player: Conchita Martinez
    WTA Tour Ranking: 5
    WTA Titles: 2
    Grand Slams: French and U.S. Open semifinalist, Australian Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 51-18

Comments: Martinez hasn't quite gotten over her Wimbledon hangover. After winning that tournament in 1994, she reached the semifinals at all four 1995 Grand Slams. This past year was pretty much status quo. She's capable of much more, but potential has a way of strangling a person sometimes.

1997 Prognosis: She needs a big win (i.e. a victory over Graf or Seles) to remember why she's playing this game. It can even be a minor event, but she needs to put it all on the line and go for broke. If she does that early in the season, she could be a threat in Paris and Wimbledon.

    1996 Power Ranking: 7
    Player: Anke Huber
    WTA Tour Ranking: 6
    WTA Titles: 3
    Grand Slams: Australian Open finalist
    Overall Record: 49-17

Comments: We tend to remember the most recent events, which in Huber's case were uninspired first-round losses at both the U.S. Open and WTA Tour Championship. But she started out the year with a bang, reaching her first ever Grand Slam final, and even won a tournament on grass, a surface she despises. Her performance in Melbourne alone, however, pushes her in front of the more consistent performers who follow.

1997 Prognosis: It doesn't look good for Huber. She faded miserably at the end of the season, and must get off to a good start in Melbourne or risk slipping out of the top ten. No longer the next Steffi, Huber now faces the prospect of facing the next Martina and other kids itching for their claim to fame.

    1996 Power Rankings: 8
    Players: Amanda Coetzer
    WTA Tour Rankings: 17
    WTA Titles: 0
    Grand Slams: Australian semifinalist, U.S. Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 33-24

Comments: Poor performances at the Grand Slams always have kept Coetzer out of the top ten (her highest career ranking is No. 12), but that's not the reason this year. She reached her first career Slam semifinal, beating Hingis along the way, and duplicated her previous career best by reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. She's a grinder, and she's beginning to wear some of her less mentally stable opponents down.

1997 Prognosis: See David Bryne lyrics above.

    1996 Power Ranking: 9
    Player: Kimiko Date
    WTA Tour Ranking: 8
    WTA Titles: 2
    Grand Slams: Wimbledon semifinalist
    Overall Record: 38-13

Comments: A swan song season for the now retired Date, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals where she proceeded to take a set off Graf. She was off the radar during the other Grand Slams, but she posted some decent wins at other events to earn her final spot in the Power Rankings.

1997 Prognosis: I guarantee that Date will not win a match the entire year.

Lindsay Davenport

    1996 Power Ranking: 10
    Player: Lindsay Davenport
    WTA Tour Ranking: 9
    WTA Titles: 2
    Grand Slams: French Open quarterfinalist
    Overall Record: 51-15

Comments: Davenport ekes into the Power Rankings despite underachieving at the Grand Slam events. Her hot summer, though, demonstrates promise, and Davenport should be able to build on the confidence she showed at the Olympics (which she won) and other events.

1997 Prognosis: She's never reached a Grand Slam semifinal, a milestone she should be able to cross next season. I also fully expect she'll bypass Date and return to a higher spot in the 1997 Power Rankings, an honor she's certain to be seeking all next year.

Photographs on this page by Clifford Kurtzman (Sampras, Agassi, Seles, Davenport), Dahlia Cunning (Becker, Krajicek), and Mark Cheers (Washington, Graf, Sanchez Vicario, Novotna)

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This column is copyrighted by David Higdon, all rights reserved.

David Higdon was named a senior writer of Tennis Magazine (U.S.) beginning with the December 1994 issue, which featured David's cover story on Andre Agassi. David worked for the magazine since August 1988, when he was hired by the magazine as a senior editor. In September 1991, he left his full-time editing position with the magazine to become a contributing editor, moving from Connecticut to Portland, Oregon. He currently works as a freelance writer, writing regularly not only for Tennis but also for publications such as Sports Illustrated for Kids, The New York Times, Self, Boys' Life and USAir Magazine. He also serves as editor of Rip City Magazine, the official publication of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers.


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