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Okasu
Dec 31st, 2002, 03:33 PM
As The World Turns


Photo By Susan Mullane By Andrea Leand
12/30/2002

Winston Churchill said, “You make your livelihood by what you get; you make your life by what you give.” When tennis stars are young, they usually feel that their performances alone fulfill the giving part. These days they seem to believe that a more limited number of appearances is justified. As 2002 ends and 2003 begins, the big questions seem to center on who is going to show up and who is not.



Will either Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi jump-start their rattling joints for another season or call it quits to settle comfortably into the record books? Is 2002 No.1, Serena Williams, going to take time off from her acting pursuits to repeat her championship achievements in 2003 or rest on her French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open laurels? Will sister Venus rise to the challenge posed by her more passionate sibling? Will Jennifer Capriati find the form that catapulted her to No.1 or exhibit the half-hearted commitment to her career that caused her teenage pedestal to crumble?

Will the newly married Justine Henin-Hardenne and recently engaged Lindsay Davenport pursue titles with the same vengeance, even though they now have more personally fulfilling things to do with their time? What will happen to Lleyton Hewitt after he stops trudging around the world wasting bagloads of everyone’s money appealing the ATP fine levied for his failure to fulfill a mandatory press request? If nothing else, will he ever pop the question to girlfriend Kim Clijsters, who has proven herself to be just as resourceful and opportunistic on court as he? Are Patrick Rafter, the father of a newborn, Joshua, and Martina Hingis really gone for good or just MIA? And will Anna Kournikova ever mend those ever-present injuries to complete a full tournament schedule, or, if that is too much, at least win one?

Quite frankly, all these stars have, arguably, accomplished enough to call it a day. Each year, as the dollars pour in and trophies gather dust, it seems more difficult to find motivating reasons for them to put themselves on the line and produce their best tennis. There is no clear-cut answer for any of these athletes. The better guess is that they will feel their way through the year and make decisions about their futures based on their results at the majors.

Back on court, practicing this December after a frustrating year, Venus Williams seemed set on reclaiming No.1 bragging rights, even if it means bumping the baby of the family off the perch. Those who worried that Venus may not find the gumption to outduel her big-hearted sister, need not fret anymore. The psychological issues of competing against Serena seem more mute now; as losing to her sister in three Grand Slam finals was about as bad as it could get.

Venus licked her wounds the last few months and found appropriate diversion in forming an interior decorating company, but has regained her focus in preparing for the Australian Open. Those who were expecting the elder Williams star to gently fade from the game, will get a rude awakening in Melbourne at the Australian Open. Without pressure to defend major points at the year’s onset (like Capriati) or uphold the top spot (like Serena), Venus has nothing to lose coming into this season. But she still has potentially the most lethal weapons on tour. If she gets some momentum going, she will combine the fighting spirit and her big first serve delivery to return to the top.

Serena, instead, may struggle to maintain the intensity that earned her three Grand Slams in 2002. Her newfound maturity made the difference then, but her nerve will be tested in 2003 as she competes as the favorite rather than the underdog. It will be worth watching to see if there is enough savvy behind her megawatt smile to keep her Grand Slam streak alive. Like Venus, Serena has the game to demolish anyone on any given day. But she also is the tour’s most volatile star, subject to wild swings of highs and lows. Capriati and Venus begrudgingly tipped their hats to her last year, but will not give an inch when coming right at her this season. Their battles with Serena should once again provide the best entertainment for the sport in the new year.

Although Capriati possesses the best combination of game and grit to unhinge the Williams’ hold on the game, she must battle herself first to find her form. After capturing the Australian Open in 2002 with a dramatic three-set victory over Hingis, Capriati looked well on her way to adding to her legacy. But her not-so-subtle off-court shenanigans have once again created concern over her state of mind. Tennis is her livelihood and her life. (Remember, she tried other life options like attending school or holding another job, but did not like them.) Now she must wrestle with her own restlessness. She is the best fighter on tour and still possesses enough raw talent to turn things around at anytime; she is attracted to the attention and fast-lane life of globe-trotting superstar. Still, she must find better balance between her personal and professional lives and make a sharper commitment to the game to earn any more glory.

On the other hand, Pete and Andre really do not have to show up at every match with their best stuff to have an impact. In the last years of their endorsement contracts, both legends must be thinking about exit strategies. Agassi’s erratic 2002 season proved that the bad days do not get him down and the good ones only add to his legacy. Once again in 2003, Agassi will fulfill his commitments… winning some, losing others. His No. 2 finish this year proves that he can still trade shots with the best – just not on a regular basis. Enjoy the flair, the flailing and the fun of Agassi any chance you get because a sudden retirement announcement at any time in 2003 really will not be much of a surprise at all.

In contrast, do not expect Sampras to show up too frequently or even attempt to play a full tournament schedule. He never could tear himself away from his actress-wife Bridgette Wilson, and now with baby Christian Charles to boot, the task will be that much more difficult. If changing diapers and late-night feedings lose their luster, look for Sampras to gear up for a Wimbledon finish. His 2002 U.S. Open victory provided the perfect adieu to his fans, but Pete always wants the last word on everything and will not let his second-round demise on Court 2 at the All England Club stand as his last statement at his most beloved Grand Slam event.

Of course, triumph at SW19 is no longer assured for Sampras, particularly with Hewitt stamping his name throughout the men’s game. A naysayer could dismiss the Aussie’s 2002 Wimbledon title, earned in a baseline-hugging final, as a fluke, courtesy of all the early-round upsets. But Hewitt is two-time champion at Queen’s Club, too. It will be no surprise if the Australian counter-puncher retains No. 1. And if he isn’t the guy to reject a storybook ending for Sampras at Wimbledon, what’s to keep a Marat Safin, emboldened by Davis Cup glory, from doing it? Andy Roddick? Even Goran Ivanisevic, having spent an entire year rehabilitating his shoulder, is talking about reclaiming the Wimbledon title he never had a chance to defend properly in 2002.

While on the subject of former Grand Slam champions making comebacks, it would be a pity if the effervescent Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten does not make it all the way back to championship form. He loves life too much to dwell on the disappointments of 2002, and his return to the courts after hip surgery was far more successful than Magnus Norman’s. So there is hope that his zeal and his on-court panache, both far too valuable to the sport for him to get lost among a rising wave of South American talent, can be resurrected at least in time for the French Open.

Let’s face it, Hewitt might have snatched the No. 1 ranking from Kuerten more than a year ago, but he is no Guga when it comes to popularity. Hewitt’s just-begun work with Special Olympics might soften his image some, but he can certainly make it very difficult, at times, for fans to like him – at least those fans in Cincinnati. Will they remember that he won Wimbledon this year or that he spent the final months of 2002 fighting a justified ATP fine that he received at the Tennis Masters Series event in Cincinnati? Is he really serious about defending his refusal to do a mandatory one-minute television interview? Is there anyone in his camp who provides any sort of reality check?

What, then, is left when you take away the biggest names in the game? Plenty.

There is James Blake, who has the potential to be a major crossover star. His looks, his intelligence and his easy demeanor will not fade anytime soon. But he cannot afford to let his game fade if he is to reap the benefits of stardom.

There is Daniela Hantuchova, whose 44-inch legs caused as much a stir as her impressive performances in 2002. In fact, anyone with Russian roots or an ‘ova’ in her name is worthy of a second glance this coming season. No group of athletes is hungrier to prove themselves. Even Kournikova. Glimpses of a game resurrected last year, created some hope. But the tennis model must first prove that she can stay healthy long enough to make a mark.

Maybe Anna should make a career out of playing doubles with Hingis. This is the stage from which both of these young women still have the most fun and success these days. With their best playing days behind them in singles, they still make the most engaging doubles pair on tour, by far.

In the end, all these players must understand that at times when the economy and world politics are so uncertain, fans want stars who give not just get. Who make life more than just a livelihood. In that vein, won’t the player who gives the most this year whether on- or off-court, take the biggest prizes of all?