If the start of the 2000 ATP Tour season was marked by the controversy surrounding the new player ranking system, the end of the long campaign may have coincided with a quiet acceptance of a new generation in men's tennis heralded by 24-year-old Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil. In fact, the prestigious year-end # 1 ranking went down to the final match of the Tour season at the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, Portugal, between Kuerten and Andre Agassi. Both players had met a few days before the championship with Andre winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Had Guga lost that final match to Andre, Marat Safin would have ended the year #1.
The two most appealing features of the new ranking system are (1) that everyone starts the year fresh with no points and (2) an emphasis is placed on the major (i.e., Grand Slams) and Tennis Masters Series (formerly known as the "Mercedes Super Nine") tournaments. If a player misses a Slam or a Tennis Masters series event, they receive no points and cannot substitute another tournament in its place; even if they have a note from their mother as to why they couldn't play.
The most glaring flaw of the new "ranking" system is that it is wholly inadequate as a basis for seeding players in tournaments. So the confusion it was designed to replace (who is the best player in the world?) was ultimately multiplied throughout the season until the final event of the year had concluded. If that wasn't enough, the "Race" allowed a player to add his best performance in five tournaments of his choice while ignoring his worst outings and establishing "collective amnesia" that those poor performances ever took place to begin with. No ranking system will ever be complete unless every event a player enters COUNTS. Anything less than a basic acknowledgement of this undeniable fact renders any "ranking" system meaningless.
Despite the political considerations of the just concluded season, no one can deny that it was a relatively good year.
For the third time in the last five years, a different man won each Slam. About the only consistent theme running through the Tour is that Pete Sampras will win Wimbledon (even if he's injured). His performance this year was nothing short of miraculous: injuries prevented him from even practicing between rounds until just before the finals (and even that was merely a light workout). If it were not true, Sampras' record during the last eight fortnights at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club (53-1) would be too absurd to believe. Agassi said it best in 1999 after his loss in the Wimbledon Championships to Sampras when he responded to a question as to how many Wimbledon titles he thought Pete could win by remarking that Pete "...can win as many as he wants; no one is better on grass than he is."
Pete's last Wimbledon title was a record-breaking one in that it shattered the previous record of 12 Grand Slam wins set by Australia's Roy Emerson. Of course, everyone in tennis (including Sampras) realizes that the record was simply a number produced under unusual circumstances just prior to the Open era when the best player of that time (Rod Laver) was ineligible for competition at the majors due to his professional status. Being the diplomatic gentleman that he is, Laver has been on the record as stating that Pete is a better player than he was but Sampras' view seems to be that even being ranked in the same category as Laver (his boyhood hero) is enough of an accomplishment itself.
A truly fair comparison between the two athletes (i.e., Laver and Sampras) can never be made due to the vastly different circumstances each player competed within. Laver enjoyed playing three of the four Slams on grass. It is a bit frightening to think of the number of majors Pete could have won playing in similar circumstances. Another key difference is the level of competition each person played. Much has been made of the fact that Sampras has never won the French Open and his record at that event (23-11) pales in comparison to his lifetime record at any other Slam (Australian 39-7, Wimbledon 59-5 and the U.S. Open 58-8). However, even Laver admits that in his day, the top players rarely lost before the quarterfinals and he never dealt with so many single-surface specialists Pete has had to combat in his struggle to emerge the victor at Roland Garros.
Whether or not Sampras can win the French Open one day is a story that bears watching in the next few years as his career winds down. One thing that decidedly won't happen is that he will never succumb to the single-minded focus that plagued Ivan Lendl in his futile quest to win Wimbledon. Although the French Open remains Sampras' biggest challenge, he has continually expressed his sense of contentment that whatever happens there, and he is totally comfortable with the amount of dedication, sacrifice and performance over his stellar career.
In more ways than one, his 2000 season was a watershed mark in his career as he married actress Bridgette Wilson and took the rest of the year off after the U.S. Open to enjoy life apart from tennis. Skipping the fall indoor season may be the rule, rather than the exception, as Pete seeks to take a little more time off from the sport and have more of an "off season" in the coming few years. Surprisingly, the longest, non-injury layoff of his career appears to have had little affect on the quality of his tennis. Despite no match play in almost three months, Pete got to the semifinals of the Tennis Masters Cup and lost to eventual winner Gustavo Kuerten 7-6 (5), 3-6, 4-6. Aside from the one embarrassing match in that tournament (a loss to rising Australian phenom Lleyton Hewitt 5-7, 0-6), Pete acquitted himself well, defeating Alex Corretja 7-6 (2), 7-5 and Marat Safin (6-3, 6-2), who had defeated him at Flushing Meadows. Pete finished the year ranked #3.
The battle for the # 1 ranking at year's end featured two stars of the next generation of men's tennis: Marat Safin of Russia and Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil. Safin's year got off to such a rocky start (he never got out of the first round in the first five tournaments he played) that he seriously contemplated retiring from the Tour. The fact that going into 2000 he had won only one tournament in 3 years (Boston, 1999) on Tour might have had something to do with that. Add to that professional futility his highly volatile emotional temperament and you have the makings of a classic head case: where a player's unquestioned talent threatens to be overwhelmed by his inability to control his temper. Safin leads the Tour in racquets smashed in anger.
All these factors make his triumph over Pete Sampras in the finals of the 2000 U.S. Open seemingly inexplicable. Going into that contest, Sampras possessed a near flawless record in Grand Slam finals (13-2) with his last loss being to Andre Agassi in the 1995 Australian Open. And yet, Safin prevailed in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. What happened? "He hit a great return to break me at 5-4. Boom, with his serve, one break is the set," Sampras said. "Even though I lost the first, I still felt I was playing fine. Then I kind of lost a little bit of rhythm on my serve, just kind of dug myself a hole in the second. It just kind of steamrolled into the third. Before I knew it, I was down two sets and a break. That's a tough hole to get out of. But I felt fine. I mean, I wasn't at my best, but I think Marat had a lot to do with that. I was trying everything against Marat. I mean, trying to chip-and-charge, stay back a little bit. Whatever I tried, he had the answers, he really did. I give him all the credit because he returned my serve and passed me just about as well as anyone," Sampras concluded.
From Safin's perspective, confidence going into the biggest match of his career was not a problem. "I think from the baseline I'm better than him. He has to accept this, that I'm better than him on the baseline. But in other parts of the game, he's much better than me. So with my baseline, I can win my service games easy because I didn't actually have big problems with this." Safin's strategy was simple: "I have to return (to) his legs and after (that) I have to pass him. It's simple. I know it's not simple, but it's simple to understand. Otherwise, you have no chance to beat him. If you start to make great returns, 200 kilometers per hour, you're not going to beat him. So it's very simple. (I had to) return to his legs and (then) pass him."
The rematch between Safin and Sampras in Lisbon took on an aspect of revenge. For Pete, the memory of his disturbing loss at the Open finals still burned. "You always remember your losses much more than your wins," Pete said. "I'm a competitor. I wanted to get back at him. It's a big match. Either I win or go home. At the Open, I was cautious, not doing much with the second serve. Today I made it a point to be aggressive, use the backhand up the line, make use of the whole court. (I wanted to) make him move. Fortunately I was hitting the ball well, (and) was able to do that."
As his results suggest, Safin is equally comfortable on either clay or hard courts, which makes him an interesting candidate to win both the French and Wimbledon back to back one day, if he can figure out how to win on grass. Safin won back-to-back titles at Barcelona and Mallorca then was a runner-up at both the Tennis Masters Series -- Hamburg as well as the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf, Germany, prior to the start of the French Open. At Roland Garros, he made it to the quarterfinals before falling to Magnus Norman, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 5-7.
After a thoroughly forgettable grass court season, Marat returned to clay for two tournaments before making the transition to the North American hard court summer circuit. Safin won his first Tennis Masters shield in Toronto, which included a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (10) victory over Sampras in the quarterfinals. In Cincinnati, Safin's temper got the best of him as he lost to unheralded Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, who maintains a 5-1 edge in career head-to-head match ups with the Russian.
The following week, Safin lost to Kuerten in the finals of the RCA Championships, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (2). After his Open victory, Safin won the very next week in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The other two titles were in St. Petersburg, Russia and in the Tennis Masters Series -- Paris Open. For the year, he went 73-27 and finished ranked second in the world. If he doesn't burn out from too much tennis and can get his on-court emotions under control, the 20-year old has a very bright future in the game.
It took a few months for the man from Florianopolis to get his game in gear as he lost in the first round of the Australian Open before winning a clay court title in Santiago, Chile, in early March. Beginning with that title, Kuerten went on a 32-6 tear through the clay court portion of the schedule adding his 2nd career French Open title as well as the Tennis-Masters Series Hamburg title to his growing collection of tournament championships. He got to the finals at Rome, losing to Magnus Norman (who he would eventually defeat at Roland Garros).
Included in that run was a surprising finalist appearance in the Ericsson Open losing to Pete Sampras 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (10) before a Davis Cup-like atmosphere. The highly partisan crowd seemed evenly split between North and South Americans. In fact, watching the crowd was almost as entertaining as watching the superb tennis unfolding on stadium court. The Brazilians almost willed their man to win. They would chant, wave their flag, dance in the aisles between points and cheer every Sampras mistake (which kept them fairly busy) during the three-hour, fifteen-minute championship encounter. March Madness was in the air and it wasn't on a basketball court. Each point was closely fought and it was the type of match where you didn't even want to go to the bathroom for fear of missing some of the action.
After the match, Pete was asked if the crowd was a factor and he said, "...it was a Grand Slam atmosphere. The crowd was huge today --- I got chills up my spine a number of times. But it is a big win. I think a lot of the players look at this event as the fifth major. Certainly the prestige just got greater and greater over the years; crowd was tremendous today. It was a great atmosphere and certainly I enjoyed my week." Sampras also critiqued Kuerten's game and noted that "...everyone might look at Guga as someone who just plays on clay, but he has transformed his game. He became more aggressive, came up with some great passes and served big. He also played well last year (1999) at Wimbledon (where he reached the quarterfinals). He is just as effective playing on hard courts as he is anywhere." As if to prove his point, Guga went on another tear before the U.S. Open, getting to the semifinals at the Tennis-Masters Series Cincinnati. He also won the title the following week in Indianapolis, beating Marat Safin of Russia 3-6, 7-6 (2) 7-6 (2). Injuries limited his performance in the fall indoor season with his best showing a semifinal loss to Mark Phillipoussis at the Tennis Masters -- Paris Open.
Including his performance at the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, Kuerten ended the year with an overall match record of 63-22 with the same number of match wins on hard courts (28) as he had on clay.