The good and bad of 2003
Posted: Monday March 31, 2003 1:33 PM
Last week's NASDAQ-100 Open marked the end of tennis' spring hard-court season. SI.com asked Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim for his impressions after the first part of the sport's calendar.
SI.com: What are your general thoughts on 2003?
Wertheim: That's a broad question. This probably isn't the best analogy, but just as there is a great deal of turmoil in the real world, so, too, is there a fair amount of chaos and turmoil in the surreal tennis world. A lot of fighting, a lot of distrust, many bigger forces imposing their will, a pending regime change. And with that there is an urgent need for unity and consensus-building. Tennis always has these political fights and territorial skirmishes that, unfortunately, overshadow the game. But because of a confluence of factors, things seem particularly grim now.
SI.com: So let's talk about the game. Now that Serena Williams has won yet again and is still undefeated, has she pretty much become the Tiger Woods of tennis?
Wertheim: I'd go even further. As dominating as he is, Tiger Woods doesn't win week in, week out. Take last weekend, for instance. With Serena, she just doesn't lose. I spoke to her for SI.com in November and she said matter-of-factly that she didn't want to lose to a match in 2003. You waited for her to say, "Just kidding," but it never came. Preposterous as her statement sounded, she's 17-0 on the year and, frankly, has yet to play her best tennis. I think ultimately that's what makes this so scary. I didn't see her play in Paris, but in Australia and last week in Miami she wasn't close to being at her best. Realistically, running the table in an entire year is the tallest of tall orders; Martina Navratilova came close in 1983, but the competition wasn't as stiff as it is today. But who can beat Serena? Her sister, Venus, is in a bit of tailspin. Jennifer Capriati can hang with her during points but lacks the mental fortitude. Same for Kim Clijsters.
SI.com: So are you predicting Serena will have a perfect season?
Wertheim: No. If you look at her losses last year, she played a few loose matches and lost to the likes of Patty Schnyder and Chanda Rubin -- as well to Clijsters at the year-end championships. I think Serena will come out flat and, perhaps on clay, run into a hot player. But that's just me speculating. Right now, it's almost as though she's playing a different sport than the rest of the field.
SI.com: What about the men? Are you surprised by Andre Agassi's start, winning in Australia and in Key Biscayne?
Wertheim: While Pete Sampras is still missing in action, Agassi has raised his level. In the dog years by which men's tennis is measured, 32 or 33 is downright Paleolithic. Yet Agassi is such a brilliant ballstriker and so superbly conditioned that he shows no signs of slowing down. So doff your hat to him for winning the two biggest events so far this year -- all the while being the oldest player in the top 50.
Unfortunately, we still see a lot of underachieving from the rest of the field. Marat Safin is going through one of the ritual blue periods during which he can't win a match to save his life. Roger Federer is a beautiful player but seems in dire need of a mental upgrade. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick, Paradorn Srichaphan, Fernando Gonzalez -- a lot of these candidates to take the baton are in the throes of a slump. One of the nice things about sports is that someone has to win. Otherwise, the sport would really be in trouble.
As for positive sidebars: A few players -- such as Mark Philippoussis, Younes El Aynaoui and Carlos Moya -- are reclaiming their games. Plus, for all the Chicken Little talk of American men's tennis dying, nine U.S.-born men are in the top 50. At Indian Wells a few weeks ago, five Americans reached the quarterfinals, the first time that had happened at a Masters Series event since 1996. Roddick hasn't had a great start to the year, but his win over El Aynaoui in Australia was a classic and his win over Sebastien Grosjean in Indian Wells was one of the better matches I've seen this year. James Blake seems to have plateaued, but he beat Moya at Indian Wells. Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent have both made big leaps, as has Brian Vahaly, the only college graduate in the top 100.
The real pleasant surprise has been Robby Ginepri, who was always sort of a throw-in name but has emerged as a real player. After making the quarters at both Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, he's now a top-50 player. If we're taking bets, I wouldn't be surprised if Ginepri were the No. 3 American, behind Agassi and Roddick, at year's end. As much as everyone likes to ridicule the ineffectual USTA, it deserves some credit for the success of this new generation.
SI.com: Besides Ginepri, what other up-and-coming players should we keep an eye on?
Wertheim: Especially with the clay season upon us, a number of Latins are worth watching: Feliciano Lopez, Guillermo Coria, Fernando Gonzalez. On the women's side, Marion Bartoli of France has done well for herself lately. She has a unique habit of returning serve from well inside the baseline, even against Serena Williams. Then, of course, there is the gaggle of Russians. As a rule of thumb, if a player's name ends in -ova, -eva, or -ina, she's worth watching.
SI.com: Back to politics. What's the latest with the breakaway players' union, the IMTA?
Wertheim: Well, on the plus side -- for the organization, anyway -- a number of bigger players have signed on. Depending on whom you believe and the current rankings, that includes four of the top 10 guys. This was crucial. Clearly, some players are unhappy with the ATP and the job that Mark Miles is doing and want to break up what they see as a country-club atmosphere at ATP headquarters. I think the ATP has taken note of this dissatisfaction and, to its credit, has taken steps to bridge communication gaps and win back the players' trust and support.
I guess I have mixed feelings about the IMTA. If the players are expressing more interest in the tour's mechanics and have taken note of the fact that tennis isn't exactly thriving, that's a good thing. Too bad it took financial loss for them to finally notice the perilous state of the sport, but, hey, it's better than nothing.
However, talking to the players who have joined, there's a lot in the way of bitching and moaning and not much in the way of constructive ideas. Everyone wants to grouse about inflated ATP executive salaries and employees who have been there forever, are set in their ways and don't have the energy to advance the sport. Fine. But when the conversation turns to "What will you do differently?" and, more important, "How is this all getting funded?" you suddenly get a lot of vague answers. In a best-case scenario, the ATP does a better job of informing the players -- it is, after all, their tour -- and the players work within the existing framework.
SI.com: What about with the WTA Tour?
Wertheim: Well, the women have a new CEO, who, unlike his predecessor, knows tennis and the various special-interest groups that need to be mollified. Larry Scott, who had been the No. 2 at the ATP Tour, was formally announced over the weekend as the new WTA head honcho. This is a good choice for a number of reasons: First, he's a bright guy who's well regarded within the sport. Second, he is a "tennis guy," so you're not going to have to explain to him the role of management groups, which agents are not be trusted or why it is critical the top players become more receptive to showing up for sponsor functions. It may sound silly, but this is essential.
What intrigues me most is that this appointment opens the door to merging tours, a move that I think would really benefit the sport. I gather that Scott had to convince a lot of people on the WTA board that this isn't his intention, but it's an obvious move. And given his familiarity with the ATP, he's the guy to make it happen. One of tennis' great assets is that it's the most mixed-gendered sport going. No one says, "I like Serena but who's that bald guy from Vegas?" No one says, "I like Agassi, but who are those sisters?" The vast majority of fans like and follow both men and women -- maybe not in equal measure, but they are tennis fans, not ATP or WTA tour fans. The sport is at its best when the events are mixed. The television networks prefer the flexibility of mixed events. At least in some cases, it also makes sponsorships easier to peddle.
The way things are now is silly. In Miami the grounds crew screwed a Porsche emblem onto the Center Court net for the women's matches and then unscrewed it when the men took the court. Why? Because Porsche sponsors the WTA Tour but the men have a deal with Mercedes. Why not go to one or the other and say, "For $15 million or $20 million, you can be official worldwide car sponsor for tennis?" It's a silly example but another way in which right now 1+1=3.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com. Click here to send a question to his Tennis Mailbag.