Old Timer's Day

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 /by

Mornin', everyone. It's shaping up as old-timer's day at the French Open, with Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt both cruising to relatively painless wins, and how about 35-year old Fabrice Santoro - a straight set winner today over Evgeny Korolev on Court 3!

Marat These results gave us much to smile about, and you probably couldn't get a better representation of the face of the game - blemishes and all  - than you have when you contemplate the careers, temperaments,  achievements and critical failures of these three pilgrims in the lonely tennis universe. Together, they demonstrate that tennis may be the most reliable, transparent test of the degree to which individual athletes build successfully on the main pillars of any sport: skill and character (and we're talking about competitive integrity, not the check-out lady gave you too much change - did you give it back? character).

First, there's Safin - TennisWorld's favorite Martian alpinist, (that is, if you subscribe to all that Men are from Mars, Women Are From Venus hokum). He's 28 now, yet it sometimes seems just like yesterday that he won the U.S. Open in 2000 with a display of skill so extraordinary that Pete Sampras, his victim in the final, says in his own, forthcoming autobiography:

I didn’t think I played badly in that US Open final at all – Marat was just returning my second serves like they were nothing, he was popping his own first serve, and anything I got back – well, he would just hit the crap out  of it. All I could do was mutter “too good”, shrug, and hope he wouldn’t be able to play that well throughout the match. But he did – just like that Sampras kid had in 1990. It was a great example of that truism, what goes around comes around. . .

I like to say that everyone has his window, and it all comes down to how willing you are to take advantage of the opening, and how long you can keep it open for yourself. Safin’s window opened at Flushing Meadow in 2000 and he took full advantage, much like I had, a decade earlier. He beat me with a demonstration that simply shocked and awed anyone who witnessed it.

But Safin, perhaps disoriented by that remarkable early-career statement and the pressures it brought to bear, was unable to follow up. He would reach the no. 1 ranking, and three more Grand Slam finals, winning one (the Australian Open of 2005). He had all the skills - no doubt about it. In fact, he may be the most skilled player (after Roger Federer) of his generation. But Safin's moody, auto-tormenting nature, part-and-parcel of his overall philosophical bent (further irritated by a steady stream of injuries, large and small), was unable to withstand the kind of weight that was being put on it.

Instead of becoming a dominant, always-in-the-mix champion, Safin came to represent a different and certainly happier if less celebrated type of player: the "tennis bum."  The term sounds harsh these days, when an all-obliterating professionalism is the norm even among lesser players, but a few decades ago the term was still used with affection, and thinly-veiled admiration and envy, to characterize the fun-loving, talented, roguish, n'er do wells  who stubbornly clung to boyhood by trying to make a living in a sport that didn't offer much of one. Safin, in some ways, has raged against the machine, but the machine ate him. What, did you think it wouldn't?

Lleyton Hewitt, who's just 27 but has come to personify Boris Becker's claim that you measure tennis players lives in "dog years," is struggling mightily to regain his place as an AIM (always-in-the-mix) player, and he's gone about that effort with distinctly Hewitt-esque ferocity. But cock your ears and you can hear his fingernails grinding and squeaking as he slides further and further down the face of the nearly vertical, rock-hard cliff of the rankings.

Unlike Safin, Hewitt's skills, and especially his skills as a ball-striker, never bowled over anyone. I still recoil when I see that service motion, with the odd, strained extension of the arms with which he prepares for his toss. The element that lifted him above the category of underpowered if consistent and quick Top 20 player was his character.

I think a better way to understand Hewitt's genius may be to substitute the word "energy" for "character." Hewitt, in his heyday, simply had a form competitive energy that fuelled his will, as well as his legs or concentration. If you've ever noticed how quickly fish, puppies or human children can grow despite, rather than because of, contributing elements like diet, exercise or adequate rest, you should have no trouble understanding how Hewitt shot to the top of the rankings and stayed there for a solid stretch. At some level, his success defied explanation. He just did it.

But he was also a more dangerous player than he may have appeared, at least to his peers. Here's what Sampras thinks of Hewitt's gradual fade:

For one, Roger Federer improved, and he figured Lleyton out cold. The game in general also improved while he (Hewitt) was at the top. Guys were playing with a little more power, partly thanks to advances in racket technology, but fewer of them were playing into Hewitt’s hands. Lleyton liked having a target, but in his era guys stopped coming to the net. Hewitt was a victim of his time.

As Lleyton became more and more vulnerable, he was having to work harder and harder to win matches. When you play with a grinder’s mentality, like Lleyton did, you rely a lot on mental intensity. But no matter how tough you are, it’s hard to keep up that hard-working, patient style, week-in, week-out. Eventually it catches up with you and you get a little burned out. Then the vultures gather.

And then there's Santoro. Unlike many of you, I'm not a big fan of Santoro's game. But I deeply admire and stand in awe of his unadulterated love of the game. This is a guy whose "outside interests" (you know, those activities that are meant to prove that you're much, much, much more than a mere tennis player!) are. . . collecting vintage tennis rackets and planning the creation of a tennis museum. Santoro has kept the faith: he's played in an open-era record 63 Grand Slam events, including 38 straight), and he was the oldest player to win a title last year (Newport) as well as the most senior member of the Top 50. 

Fabrice Santoro's bewitching, guileful game, and simple competitive passion have sustained him. He has formidable skills, but in a narrow sense that fails to encompass the big picture that every player and fan must consider. His strength lies in ball manipulation rather than ball striking, but the greatest of players are foremost ball strikers. That's a somewhat obtuse way of saying that they clobber the hail out of the ball, and win most of their matches by pressing the attack, even if it's from the baseline. By contrast, Santoro has made his living coaxing errors, either of execution or judgment, from his opponents.

But lest this sound too much like damnation with faint praise, let's also acknowledge that it takes great competitive courage to survive the way Santoro has, and for so long. If you think about it, he might have burned out from living on the run  - in the manner, some would say, of the more hug-able if less capable Hewitt. But something in Santoro's conception of the game, perhaps of competition itself, prevented that from occurring  - in fact, if anything, Santoro appears to have flourished from what so many players would describe as the basic pressure and strain of the game, and there's a lesson in there somewhere.

I'm not a big or enthusiastic predictor, but I'm going to suggest that one day Fabrice Santoro will show up, slightly more rotund (he's working up to it, you can see that already) and perhaps balding, as the coach in the player's box of some prodigy.

And remember, it was of Santoro that Pete Sampas said, after Santoro knocked him out of Indian Wells in 2002, "The guy is a magician." 

It's nice to know the magic is still alive.

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