On the formal occasion marking his retirement from military active duty, General Douglas MacArthur remarked that "
old soldiers never die, they just fade away." When it comes to mens professional tennis, "old" is a very relative term. Only four players at least 30 years of age or older have won a Grand Slam singles event in the Open era. Three of them were 32 years old or younger: Arthur Ashe (32) at Wimbledon 1975; Jimmy Connors (31) US Open 1983 and Rod Laver (31) winner of the Grand Slam in 1969. The only exception to this "young mens club" is Ken Rosewall, who at the grandfatherly age of 38, managed to win the 1972 Australian Open.
The game of mens professional tennis is in a difficult transition period, at least from the American perspective, as the "old guard" of Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier (who retired in March, 2000) and Andre Agassi appear ready to leave the sport within the next few years. Between them, prior to the U.S. Open, they had won 25 Grand Slam singles titles with Sampras claiming nearly half of that total with a record of 13 tournament victories, which he set at Wimbledon 2000. Pete's "streak" prior to the U.S. Open of 33 tournaments without a title was the longest drought of his stellar career.
There were many theories to explain why "Pistol Pete" seemingly had lost his edge. John McEnroe advocated a theory that Petes marriage to actress Bridget Wilson had somehow taken his focus off his tennis. Sampras dismissed that notion and replied that what he does on court is not Bridgets responsibility. "If you want to blame anyone for my play, blame me. I just picked a bad time to go into a slump." Sampras does admit to being happier off the court than he has ever been in his professional career. "Being married is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Im going to be a father and thats another great thing that were looking forward to. Ive done so much in the game and sacrificed so much that I didnt want my whole life just to be about tennis." CBS television analyst Dick Enberg asked Pete why he has struggled and he replied "I had enough; just physically, mentally, I had enough of being No. 1. It was too much tennis, too much playing during the year. Being # 1 just wasnt as important to me, I did that for so long; it wasnt why I was going to continue to play. It was great while I did it but winning majors, thats what were all trying to do."
To obtain a sense of perspective on how dominant Pete has been, compare his "futility streak" with that of Moroccos Younes El-Aynaoui. In his first 11 years on the ATP Tour (147 tournaments), El-Aynaoui won exactly ONE tournament (1999 in Amsterdam). This year, he has won three tournaments (Doha, Casablanca & Munich), despite turning 30 years old last September. Obviously, no one will ever confuse El-Aynaoui, whos best result in a Slam event was a quarterfinal finish at the 2000 Australian Open, with arguably the best mens professional tennis player of at least the last 25 years (and perhaps ever) in Pete Sampras. But it does provide some perspective in that while "Pistol Pete" has clearly struggled with his game and more importantly, his confidence, his "downside" is far greater than some players "upsides."
Pete commented on the difference between the way hes playing now as compared to when he dominated the game. "The difference is everyones a little bit better. Im not winning on my off days. Im losing the matches that, five years ago, I found a way to win. Now, when I dont play well, Im struggling to win those matches. Guys are using much more powerful racquets and its made it a little bit more difficult." Petes first opponent was coming in on a bit of a roll. Guillermo Canas won the Tennis Masters event in Toronto the week before the Western & Southern and, in the process, beat three guys in the Top 10 in the rankings (Federer, Safin & Haas).
Despite losing the first set, Sampras won the match 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-3. The next day, however, Pete had to play Wayne Arthurs, the talented Aussie left-hander. "He has got one of the best serves on Tour and he backs it up with a big second serve, has a lot of action on it," Sampras remarked. "It is like playing Goran (Ivanisevic) a little bit, hes going to pop in his aces, (and) throw in a few doubles, you have to be patient." Arthurs, who played in the qualifying tournament, advanced all the way to the quarterfinals where he lost to Juan Carlos Ferraro.
Michael Chang, who was the first of his generation to claim a Grand Slam Singles title (the French Open in 1989), has been playing on the Challenger (professional tennis equivalent of the "minor leagues") level for much of the year, going 2-13 on the ATP Tour. Changs entry system ranking was so low (# 112 as of July 29th) that he needed a wild card just to get into the main draw. However, for some reason, Chang has played especially well throughout his career in Cincinnati, posting a 39-12 match win / loss record, which was the best record of anyone entered in the main draw. That includes the 1993 & 1994 titles and two runner-up finishes in 1995 & 1996. He has played here 14 consecutive years before this years tournament and did not waste this years wild card. He ambushed 3rd-ranked Tommy Haas 6-3, 6-2 and dismissed Fernando Vicente 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-0 in the second round before falling to eventual tournament champion Carlos Moya 6-4, 6-3 in the Round of 16. It was the first time all year where Michael had been able to win back-to-back matches in a tournament.
Then theres Andre Agassi. Unlike the other players of his generation, he shows no signs of slowing down. If it werent for an unfortunate wrist injury to open the year, he might have claimed his 3rd consecutive Australian Open crown. Nevertheless, his year has been successful by virtually any standard. He got to the finals of the San Jose open in February, losing to Lleyton Hewitt in one of the best matches of the season. He rebounded to win Scottsdale, the Nasdaq-100 in Miami as well as the Tennis Masters Series event in Rome just prior to Roland Garros. With that victory, Agassi has now won six different Tennis Masters events throughout his career, best of anyone currently playing.
Agassi also won the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles a few weeks before Cincinnati. However, because he skipped the Tennis Masters Toronto event, he was fined $80,000. The well-intentioned rule requires all top-ranked players to play all nine masters series events. The idea is to encourage all top-ranked players to play the same schedule and the hope is to focus the casual tennis fans interest on the "big" events: Slams and masters series tournaments.
Participation in those events counts as part of their official ranking, along with the four grand slam events, Masters Cup (for those who qualify) and the best five performances in the international series of tournaments. For those concerned about their ranking, the fact that they cannot substitute another tournament in place of a masters series event provides ample motivation to show up. For the grizzled (and wealthy) veterans on Tour like Andre, the fines are merely an annoyance.
Agassi explained his decision to avoid Toronto by basically saying that at his age, he had to be careful to pay attention to any complaint his body might have. "The difficulty is the expectation that I can play the same schedule that a 20-year-old can play. I cant do it. So either I dont play anymore or I do it the only way I can and accept the penalties that go along with it, which is pretty darn steep."
Hopefully, that $80,000 can be put to good use towards the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy that opened its doors in August of 2001 in a downtrodden neighborhood in his hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. On a recent visit, Agassi recalled "It was heart-warming because these kids are learning a lot more than schoolwork, theyre learning about self-respect and dignity. And to me, thats what it all boils down to."
Agassis first-round opponent was the previously mentioned Younes El-Aynaoui, who was making his first appearance here. Although El-Aynaoui made things interesting, Agassi ultimately prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. Andres next match, against qualifier Guillermo Coria, was a bit easier in a 6-0, 6-2 victory that set up a Round of 16 tilt with Thomas Enqvist. The Swede held a 4-2 advantage in head-to-head play going into meeting but they had not played in nearly three years. The match really turned on the return game, which has been an Agassi trademark throughout his career. This year, he is averaging 33% of return games won, good for second place on the ATP Matchfacts Return Games Won Leaderboard. In the Enqvist match, he won 45% of the return points played to Enqvists 38% and came away with a 6-4, 7-5 victory.
To say that the # 1-ranked player in the world, Australias Lleyton Hewitt, had an interesting week in Cincinnati would be a colossal understatement. Given all that he has achieved in his brief career, winning last years US Open, claiming the # 1 ranking and winning Wimbledon this year, it is sometimes difficult to remember that hes only 21 years old. Hewitt enjoys cultivating a "me vs. the world" attitude and may be guilty of not knowing how to find the "off" switch, especially as it relates to his off-court activity.
Hewitt was asked on the Sunday before the tournament started by ESPN to do a brief interview that could be shown in conjunction with his match vs. American qualifier Robby Ginepri. Hewitt had already completed several "media obligations" for the week, citing interviews he gave for the New York Times and other various media outlets. Apparently, he also had additional media obligations to do as part of the run up to the US Open where he is the defending champion. Since this request by ESPN came out of nowhere and was just added to his schedule, without his consent, he felt justified to decline it.
At this point, ATP CEO Mark Miles intervened and Hewitt said "
two hours before the match, I was told that I had to do an interview when I came in from practice. I said, that's ridiculous, before I play a match, I have never ever, ever done an interview. So this crap is going on and in the end I wasn't going to walk out on the court, simple as that. They were going to fine me if I didn't walk out on the court. So ten minutes -- about an hour before I said, yeah, I will agree to do it. I said I will do five minutes before I go out. Nothing got solved. Then I am sitting in the locker room, my head is spinning, I didn't know what was going on; whether I was actually going to go out and play or not. It is a tough situation to be in, but when you got guys who can't make decisions within the ATP setup, it makes it pretty tough on everyone."
As it turned out, ESPN said that they did not have time to send a crew to the locker room on such short notice just prior to their live telecast. Reportedly, the fine Miles threatened Hewitt with was the greater amount of $20,000 or half his winnings for the week (which would have been substantial given that he made it to the finals and, despite losing to Carlos Moya, pocketed $206,000 for his efforts). Hewitt was serious in possibly pulling out of the tournament "
if I am going to get fined for going out, what is the point of me going out and playing? I really don't understand that. It's tough for me to go out there and try and concentrate 100% on your game when you got 15,000 things going through your mind."
Hewitt would not have to worry much about his concentration level for his first two matches. He embarrassed American qualifier Robby Ginepri 6-0, 6-0 in a mere 41 minutes, the fastest match on Tour this year. In Hewitts next match, he only had to play five games with Davide Sanguinetti, who retired following a foot injury. In the Round of 16, Hewitt got a little bit of a workout from Jarkko Nieminen. Hewitt lost the first set, 2-6 and attributed that to never having seen him play before. "I heard a little bit about him, but really didn't know how he sort of put it all together," Hewitt said. "That was probably the toughest part about today - wasn't really sure what to do at the start."
Hewitt made some strategic adjustments including coming in more from the baseline, as he explained: "(Nieminen) was sometimes rolling his first serve, then other times he would try and hit a 120 mile-per-hour serve out wide. As soon as I started getting a bit of a feeling for the match, I tried to come in a little bit more, tried to put a bit more pressure on him." The result was a workmanlike 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory, which set the stage for a quarterfinal showdown with Andre Agassi.
In the other quarterfinal, American Andy Roddick faced Chilean Fernando Gonzalez. Who? Thats what many Cincinnati tennis fans were wondering when Gonzalez started his improbable run to the semifinals here with a 6-4, 6-2 trouncing of Arnauld Clement, followed by a hard fought win over Tim Henman 7-6 (3), 6-2 and Richard Krajicek 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. Gonzalez started out 2002 ranked 135th in the world. He won the Vina del Mar BellSouth Open in Santiago, Chile in February (on clay) and beat Pete Sampras at the Nasdaq-100 on Key Biscayne a month later. Ironically, his best results this year have been on hard courts, not clay. Prior to Cincinnati, he played 10 clay court events but managed to post only a 12-9 record on dirt. Take away his title at Vina del Mar and the record drops to 7-9 on clay, which includes four first round losses. On hard court, he went to the Round of 16 at the Australian Open as well as the Nasdaq-100.
In retrospect, perhaps the time was right to have a strong showing in a masters series event. Perhaps he was motivated by the lack of attention he was getting from the media, who didnt even bother to talk to him for a formal interview following his matches until after his quarterfinal win over Andy Roddick. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Fernandos the kind of guy where you cant believe how hard he crushes the ball unless you see him live. He was playing like he had nothing to lose and was hitting winners from all over the court: backhand, forehand, over-the-head lobs and ferocious return of serves that had spectators gasping in disbelief.
"My game is like that. I mean, I play very aggressive," Gonzalez said. "I try to win the points, and I always want to play and try to make the winners. That's the way that I play."
Andy Roddick is definitely a star on the rise, although entering the Western & Southern; he had nothing to show for his efforts in Cincinnati, going 0-2 in two previous appearances. But he had been playing very well, going all the way to the finals of the Tennis Masters Series event in Toronto the previous week, where he lost to Argentinas Guillermo Canas. For the year, he won two titles, in Memphis and Houston and had a number of good showings in the other tournaments he played in. For his efforts, he broke into the Top 10 for the first time in his career, debuting at # 9. He was the first American teenager to appear in the Top 10 since Pete Sampras accomplished that feat back in 1991 when he was also 19 years old.
Roddick dispatched Michel Kratochvil in the first round 6-3, 6-3, and then bounced Nicholas Kiefer from the second round, 6-4, 6-3. Following that match, he went into the stands with musician Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews Band) to watch the Sampras Wayne Arthurs match. The band was in town for a concert the following night at Riverbend Music Center and was sold out well in advance. Roddick is a huge fan of Dave Matthews and responded to the question of what was one of the best parts about being a professional athlete, "if you want concert tickets you will probably find them." But there was the slight problem of being scheduled for the night match on center court against Wayne Ferreira. Solution? Destroy your opponent 6-3, 6-2, pick up your backstage pass, do the interviews and go.
Predictably, the Hewitt / Agassi quarterfinal got more attention than any other match in that round; and why not? Both players had the best hard court records on the year and the head-to-head career record was very close (3-2 Hewitt entering their Cincinnati match). The first set was a very tight and ESPN-TV commentator Patrick McEnroe thought that Hewitt had an edge on Agassi in the return game "
when hes stretching, I think, Hewitt gets more balls in play than Agassi." In the serve game, McEnroe noted that Hewitt "
goes for more aces. Agassi uses his serve a little better to set up his groundies." Andre broke Hewitt first and held serve to go up 3-0 in the set as Lleyton came out a bit tentative.
Early in the match, Hewitt had 10 errors to Agassis three in the first set alone, which suggests that Hewitt was feeling more pressure at the beginning of the game. Hewitt acknowledged as much when said "Hes ready to go right from the first point every time. Youve got to be on your game every time you step out on the court against him; otherwise hes going to whack you." Hewitt got the break back at 2-3 and then broke again at 5-4 to serve out the first set. However, he played a very loose service game and Agassi took the break right back on his first opportunity to even things at 5-5.
Agassi raced out to a 40-15 lead then the momentum for the match really changed. Hewitt executed an excellent backhand winner up the line then followed that with a forehand winner to the opposite court to get to deuce. Agassi dumped a volley into the net and then hit a forehand wide to deliver another break (and for all intensive purposes, the set) to Hewitt at 7-5 after an easy hold by the worlds # 1 player. The second set was relatively easy as Hewitt took it and the match, 6-3, to take a 4-2 edge in career head to head meetings between the pair.
Many in the crowd decided to call it a night after Agassis loss and unfortunately for them, they missed the best match of the tournament between Roddick and Gonzalez. Both players had met only once previously in their career, at the clay court tennis masters series event in Monte Carlo earlier in the year. Roddick prevailed in that one 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7). The logical reasoning was that if A-Rod could beat Gonzalez on his favorite surface, he would make easy work of his opponent on the hard court. So much for logic. Gonzalez held a huge advantage in total winners for the first set (23-12). Those came from either his solid play at the net (9 points won on 11 approaches) or his devastating forehand (nine winners). Gonzalezs forehand is one of his main weapons and Roddick was frequently running on the defensive as Gonzalezs shots always seemed to land deep in the backcourt. Gonzalez also held a distinct advantage in his first serve (71% to 49%).
In the second set, Roddick corrected his serving problems and enjoyed a 12-2 advantage in aces but it was not enough to offset Gonzalezs winners off his forehand (12-1) or backhand (6-1) as he continued to move A-Rod across the court virtually at will. That set ended in a 7-6 (6) tiebreak and Roddick embraced Gonzalez at the net to congratulate him on his win. His sincerity was genuine as he recalled with sheer amazement in his post-match press conference how well Gonzalez played: "First of all, it was a blast. It was so much fun, you know. It was a definite challenge playing against someone who is hitting the kind of shots that he was hitting tonight. He just played lights-out. I tried to scrap and claw my way back. But, you know, he was too good tonight
besides my serve; I was pretty much at his mercy. He was taking backhand up-the-line-winners on the rise off my inside out forehand. He was playing really good. His game relies on confidence. If he's confident, he's unreal...There really wasn't much I could do. I mean, you can try stepping in, hitting a backhand up the line and throwing his rhythm off. That's if you get a shot off him. His ball's so heavy, you're reacting most of the time."
Gonzalez played Hewitt for a spot in the final and kept him off-balance through much of the first set that he won in a tiebreak 7-6 (3). Count Hewitt as one of Gonzalezs admirers as Fernando even got a break up in the second set before falling 7-5, 6-2 in the final two sets. Although Hewitt didnt think he was going to lose the match, he did admit to a certain amount of confusion as to what Gonzalez was going to do next. "I had no idea. He's a tough player to play. You know, he gives you absolutely no rhythm. I thought Wayne Arthurs didn't give me a lot of rhythm just with his serve and that, but this guy was just -- he's just letting go from the back of the court or wherever he is. He hits the ball as hard as he can every time. It's tough to play that kind of player."
The other semifinal featured the resurgent Carols Moya against one of his best friends on Tour, Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain. Moya was rounding into form after the long recovery from a stress fracture in his back, which occurred during the second round of the 1999 US Open. His year-end ranking never dropped below the Top 50 and last year, he climbed back to #19, which was the first time in three years he ended the year in the Top 20. Ferrero owned Moya in career head-to-head; beating him five out of six times they have played each other. Only one match out of their previous six encounters was on a hard court and Ferrero won that one in straight sets. But Moya was determined to win and prevailed 6-3, 6-4. Moya felt that his serve set up his forehand, which was going in regardless of where he hit it.
The final between Moya and Hewitt was interrupted by a rain delay of more than two hours. When the rains came, the match was even at 4-all and Carlos used some of his down time to watch a televised replay of the match thus far. "I realized that I wasn't hitting the ball very hard. I thought that if I'm in final, it's because I've been taking a lot of risks; Ive been hitting the ball hard, and that's what I had to do. After the rain (delay), I came out knowing that I was going to have to hit the ball harder. It worked out pretty well," Moya said. "I was putting too much spin on my forehand and it didn't bother him because the ball wasn't bouncing that high. So, I decided to attack more, play a little more flat and go for the winner and try to get to the net and win the points faster," Moya said. In winning the match, Moya became the first Spaniard to win the tournament in its 103-year history. For his efforts, he took home the winners check of $392,000; not bad for a weeks work!