Redemption Has to Start Somewhere

by: Steve Tignor | October 31, 2005

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TENNIS.com

The pros got a look at the non-tourist towns of Europe last week—Hasselt, Lyon, Linz, Basel, and St. Petersburg (OK, you might want to visit that one). Sounds more like an itinerary for the senior tour, right? Actually, the old guys were just up the road in Essen, Germany, where Pat Cash and Thomas Muster proved again that they’re as mature as any 18-year-old rookie (but maybe more entertaining). More on them later. First, for those who weren’t watching—such as, everyone—here’s a partial tour of the week’s tennis happenings, starting in tourist central, New York.

That’s where TENNIS Magazine’s offices are located, and where readers have been responding to our yearlong series, “The 40 Greatest Players of the TENNIS Era.” We began this countdown in January as a way to celebrate our 40th anniversary. By “the TENNIS Era,” we mean 1965 to 2005, the years that TENNIS has covered the sport. If you’re wondering why champions like Bill Tilden or Maureen Connolly weren’t included, it’s because we didn’t consider any results prior to 1965. These kinds of lists are nothing if not controversial, but it wasn’t until we got down to naming our top eight players—8. Rod Laver; 7. Jimmy Connors; 6. Margaret Court; 5. Bjorn Borg; 4. Chris Evert; 3. Steffi Graf; 2. Martina Navratilova; 1. Pete Sampras—that we began to feel some heat.

It’s hard to imagine that any stat guru could reconcile all the changes that have occurred in tennis over the last four decades, from court surfaces to depth of competition to prize money to racquet technology. Our criteria were, loosely, major titles, year-end No. 1 finishes and weeks spent at the top, total titles, matches won, and, if needed, longevity and doubles skills. Intangibles like “impact on the game” weren’t considered. The trickiest part was deciding who was the more accomplished player within the context of their respective tours—choosing the “greater” player, Roy Emerson or Martina Hingis, was a somewhat bizarre exercise. (The right answer, of course, was Emerson at No. 21, Hingis right behind him at No. 22. But you could have told us that, right?)

I won’t defend every decision here, but I will address a couple of the problems readers had. First: What’s Rod Laver doing at No. 8? Laver may be the greatest tennis player of all time, and he’s the only one with two Grand Slams. But, as we noted in the first line of his accompanying essay, when you eliminate all results before 1965, you eliminate his Slam from 1962. In the TENNIS era, Laver won five majors, three fewer than both Ivan Lendl, who finished No. 10, and Jimmy Connors, who finished No. 7. After completing his 1969 Slam, Laver never reached the semifinals of another major—not surprising since he was already 31. (Margaret Court, our No. 6, suffered a similar fate. Eight of her record 24 majors came before 1965.)

The other controversy, naturally, involved who was selected No. 1. Why was Sampras ahead of Navratilova, Graf, and Evert, all of whom had more Slams and titles? This was primarily a depth of competition issue—the tricky “context” factor I mentioned above. There were three women (four, if you count Court) with similar all-world credentials, and one man, Sampras, who, by our criteria, stood above his peers. He won the most Slams, spent the most weeks at No. 1, and finished a record six straight years at No. 1— no other man challenged him in all three categories. It’s a career achievement that we considered the most outstanding of the last four decades. While he never won the French Open, no male player in the Open era, other than Laver and Andre Agassi, owns all four majors. As I said, our hands were tied with Laver, and Andre at his most honest would have to say that Pete belonged above him on this list. Of course, now Agassi might put Sampras behind Roger Federer, but that’s an issue for our 50th anniversary.

On to Lyon . . .
Is this where Andy Roddick’s mojo has been hiding all along, in a midsize French city? Time will tell, but Roddick did get his game back last week, winning the title without dropping a set. In the final, he schooled his French understudy, Gael Monfils, the first guy to successfully mimic Roddick’s serve. While the world has been down on Roddick—the headline of TENNIS Magazine’s recent profile was a simple question: WHAT CAN YOU DO?—he has won five titles this year and remains among the game’s elite. One thing I like about Roddick is the fact that, like any red-blooded American, he does care about being No. 1 and seems genuinely disheartened that he can’t get back there. He hasn’t won a Slam or even a Masters Series title this year; a win in the Paris Masters this week (he’s the top seed) could be a minor breakthrough. During the U.S. Open, “Mojo” famously quoted Andy as saying, “Redemption doesn’t hit the snooze button.” After Lyon, Andy may want to amend that: Redemption has to start somewhere.

Linz
Each month in TENNIS, Brad Gilbert analyzes a pro’s skills and tells rec players what they can learn. Thinking Brad to be a bit of a male chauvinist when it comes to tennis, we were surprised last month when he sung the praises of a relatively obscure WTA player, Patty Schnyder. But watching Schnyder in Linz, where she lost in the final, it was easy to see why Brad likes her.

First, Schnyder, a 27-year-old lefty from Switzerland, has a smooth, well-rounded game. She creates effortless racquet-head speed on her serve and forehand, moves the ball from corner to corner with ease, and mixes in a deft drop shot. All of this has helped her win two titles and reach two other finals in 2005. The player she reminds me of most is U.S. junior Donald Young, another loose lefty with a two-handed backhand.

Asked to describe his playing style, Young has been known to call himself a “pusher.” And that’s exactly Schnyder’s problem—she doesn’t seem to have an aggressive bone in her body, at least during points. Yesterday, she rarely stepped inside the baseline, allowing her opponent, Nadia Petrova, to dictate her way to a three-set win. It’s Petrova’s first title after four final-round losses. I began to come around to Petrova’s game—nice service motion, smooth backhand—when I saw her matched up against Maria Sharapova at this year’s U.S. Open. In contrast to the mechanical Sharapova, it was clear that Petrova is a more natural talent, in addition to being a terrific athlete.

Basel
Two notable events here. Marcos Baghdatis, a flashy young player from Cyprus who was a world champion junior, reached the final. After a disappointing couple of years, this could be a significant confidence-booster (he beat David Nalbandian along the way). He’s got an all-court game, and he’s a showman—when he bounces the ball before serving, he often goes between his legs.

Earlier in the tournament, young Andrew Murray registered a win over his fellow Brit and role model, Tim Henman. It was a big enough event in Britain for the BBC to rearrange its TV schedule and show the match live.

Essen
OK, the Cash and Muster affair. On Thursday, Cash drubbed the Austrian 6-0, 6-1. At one point, Muster took a short ball and drilled Cash in the chest. Naturally, the Aussie man’s-man challenged Muster to take it into the locker room. Muster said it had been an accident and refused to shake Cash’s hand at the end of the match. Older boys will be older boys, I guess. For the record, Goran Ivanisevic, who needs the money, beat John McEnroe in the final 6-3, 6-4.

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