I’d planned to write about last week’s activities in Australia but came up short in the subject matter department. I didn’t catch any of Martina Hingis’ re-debut. The Hopman Cup, despite its by-all-accounts-successful experiment with instant replay, lacked the star power it has had in the recent past. And Adelaide just looked hot (in a bad way).
So I’ll return to the big picture for another week. Here’s a second installment of my New Year’s preview, with five more topics for tennis fans and another round of explosively controversial, caution-to-the-wind predictions.
1. An Aging America
In the absence of a youth movement in the U.S., it’s been the veterans who have kept us watching. Three of them—Andre Agassi, Lindsay Davenport, and Mary Pierce—are in the twilights of their careers and playing as well as they ever have. What can we expect from these soon-to-be AARP members?
Agassi has pulled out of the year’s first major, the Australian Open, where he’s a four-time champion. But that may not be such a bad thing. In recent years, he’s peaked early and faded a bit as the season ground on. Now he has a month or so to get ready for the big March events, in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. And missing the Aussie Open should motivate him for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. (He hasn’t won a match at either venue since 2003.)
In 2005, Davenport finished No. 1 and reached two Slam finals. While she’ll be a consistent threat again in 2006, her chances for one more major may have passed her by. She isn’t getting any quicker at 29, and all the near-misses—she reached two finals and two semis at the Slams in ’04 and ’05—are bound to weigh on her as she goes deeper into the second week.
Pierce, the most unlikely of these late-career powerhouses, may be the most likely to win big in ’06. While she reached the finals at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open last year, her best chance to go all the way will come in the next few weeks, in Melbourne. In one of her previous lifetimes, Pierce won a title there. Her high strike zone and heavy-artillery attack will give her a puncher’s chance at another.
2. Quest for the Cup
Davis Cup is an alternate universe of men’s tennis, where we get to see the players compete for something other than themselves. Even these famously selfish monsters relish the chance. Just take a look at the photo in TENNIS’ most recent issue of Roger Federer screaming and jumping into his doubles partner’s arms after clinching a relegation tie for Switzerland this year. He looks crazed.
The Cup’s other great contribution is to showcase the sport’s unique variety. Players are forced to compete in utterly foreign contexts, on surfaces they didn’t know existed, in front of people who don’t like them. This year’s first round, which takes place in early February, features its share of oddball matchups, most prominently Spain’s long-haired dirtballers heading to Belarus to face buzz-cut net-charger Max Mirnyi. In 2004, another clay-court power, Argentina, ventured into Belarus. The hosts put down a frighteningly loud, lightning-quick court and leveled the Argentines in about two hours total.
For U.S. fans, Andy Roddick and Co. start off in San Diego against Romania. Andrei Pavel will do his best to pull an Ivan Ljubicic and break the Americans’ hearts again, but it’s hard to imagine lightning striking twice. If the U.S. advances, there’s a good chance they would play Chile in the next round at home, a potential barn-burner of a tie that would pit Roddick against the one guy in the world who hits harder than him, Fernando Gonzalez, and the Bryan bros. against the Athens gold medalists in doubles, Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu. But, of course, that’s looking ahead a little, something that’s never recommended in Davis Cup.
3. The Bloc Party Continues
In 2005, the Russian women suffered a collective sophomore slump. It’s clear now that Anastasia Myskina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, Slam winners in 2004, won’t be taking over the game. Only the single-minded Maria Sharapova, driven by an old-fashioned desire to make as much money as possible—and yeah, win big titles, too—remains a consistent threat for No. 1.
That shouldn’t obscure the fact that women’s tennis continues to go east. Not to China, yet, but to Eastern Europe. Twelve of the WTA’s Top 25 at the end of 2005 were from the former Eastern bloc—nearly half the tour’s top tier is now an “ic,” “ina,” “eva,” or “ova” (as well as a “Kirilenko”). This year has started with more of the same. When Hingis, a native of the Slovak side of the former Czechoslovakia, failed to reach the final last week at Gold Coast, she opened the door for 18-year-old Lucie Safarova, a smooth lefty from, you got it, the Czech Republic, to win her third career title.
4. Express vs. Pistol
Last week I touted the potential rivalry between Federer and Rafael Nadal, but it’s Federer vs. Pete Sampras that may prove to be longer lasting. At this point, Federer is basically Sampras 10 years later. We have a chart in TENNIS this month to prove it. Here are a few of its entries (Sampras’ stats are as of January 1996; Federer’s are as of January 2006):
Sampras: Aug. 12, 1971
Federer’s: Aug. 8, 1981
Sampras: 1 Aussie Open, 3 Wimbledons, and 3 U.S. Opens
Federer: 1 Aussie Open, 3 Wimbledons, and 2 U.S. Opens.
Each had won 6 of the last 10 Grand Slams, and two Masters Cup titles.
There’s more, but you get the point. Can Federer keep this up? He’s currently eight majors behind Sampras’ record of 14. Federer, 24, can match it before his 29th birthday if he wins two majors each year. But even Sampras, who had won seven Slams at 24, couldn’t keep that pace. He won his 13th major a month before he turned 29, but his 14th didn’t come until just after he turned 31.
Like everyone else, Sampras’ production declined as he lost a step and suffered injuries. What allowed him to set the record was his stranglehold on Wimbledon, where he won half his major total. While Federer has begun to struggle a bit with foot and ankle problems, he’s like Sampras in that he appears invincible at Wimbledon. Pretty much anything can happen in a six-year period, but I’m going to say that Federer will break the record sometime in his 30s (it’s there to be broken, right?), and that he’ll eclipse Sampras in the greatness department by winning one French Open.
5. Renaming the Tennis Boom
It seems the year has begun with another less-than-rosy article about the sport in a major U.S. publication. The L.A. Times’ “Tennis Anyone? Anyone?” was about the glut of private clubs in America, most of which were built during the boom years of the ’70s.While it had a legitimate business angle, the story was also symptomatic of the U.S. media’s general tennis-ain’t-what-it-used-to-be attitude. It’s not enough that the game has a century-old heritage, a place in the global marketplace, and an audience that enjoys both playing and watching it, something you can’t say for every sport.
Maybe it’s time to ask whether more would actually be better. During the game’s consensus glory years, Bud Collins wrote about the final U.S. Open at Forest Hills, in 1977. While recalling tennis’ quiet, classy past (evoked for him in the words “Forest Hills”), he referred to what we now call the boom as the “tennis epidemic.” He mourned the fact that the game had to leave one of its two most historic sites to accommodate the new crowds. Like anything else that inspires a passionate cult following, mass acceptance had its drawbacks. Let’s enjoy what we’ve got in ’06 and let the non-fans remember the epidemic years.