One of the nice aspects of doing this job as long as I have is that the older you get, the more often you come across artifacts and elements from the past that bring a smile to your face. You come across a picture buried in a desk drawer. It's a Polaroid of you and long-retired Boris Becker, mugging for the woman who snapped the picture—Barbara Feltus, now the ex-wife of that German icon.
A drawing of a cat, presented to you by Evonne Goolagong's daughter Kelly when she was a toddler. Or, you rummage through a file and find a draw sheet from the 1998 Orange Bowl, an event that you covered and forgot until your hand fell upon that draw sheet. Why was it that I chose to unearth that draw?
Oh, I know. I was going to do a piece on the rise and fall of various nations in tennis. And I chose the Orange Bowl because it has a rich history as the most important of junior events. That was partly because it was the last major junior tournament before any given year's crop of 18-year olds turned pro (thus the active interest of agents and other insiders), but also because it's always been played in the United States, the epicenter of the tennis boom that has created the game as we know it in the Open era. I also wanted to acknowledge what a great year that was, and how it was where I had my first glimpse of, among others, Roger Federer.
You've heard of him, right?
That also explains why, stapled to that Orange Bowl draw, I also retain a smudgy, difficult-to-read fax that provided me with the entry list for the Orange Bowl of 22 years earlier, 1976. That year, if my elementary math (meaning, "counting") is up to snuff, just 66 of the 128 first-round entrants were from nations other than the USA.
By 1998, the Orange Bowl draw was down to 64 players, among whom a mere 10 were Americans. Do the names L. Harper-Griffith, Z. Fleishman, R. Kowalczyk, or P. King mean anything to you? Didn't think so. Only one of those 10 players had any kind of an ATP career to speak of, and his was a fine one. That was Andy Roddick. He lost in the first round of the tournament to now less well-known J. Adaktusson of Sweden.
One of the pleasures, albeit a melancholy one, of perusing old draw sheets is that it underscores just how difficult it is to become a successful pro. And it suggests how many other critical factors go into becoming a day-to-day ATP or WTA player. Many of those variables must be mental and/or emotional, for the players who compete in the Orange Bowl are already the cream of the 18-and-under crop in terms of athletic talent and technique. I've often wondered how it must feel for one of the successful pros to look back on such draw sheets, presumably in wonder, thinking, "Whatever happened to that J. Adaktusson, who beat me in the first round of the Orange Bowl in '98?"
We sometimes forget that the years leading up to a career that has finally made its way into the limelight is filled with also-rans, failures, quitters, and other truly wonderful, amazing players in whom something vital was missing—something, or things, that caused the technicolor dreams of their youth to fade into the dark night of a barely recorded and generally unremembered history.
This, incidentally, is true of the WTA as well as the ATP. How well I remember being blown away at that 1998 Orange Bowl by the distinctly Martina Navratiova-esque talents of one Petra Rampre of Slovenia. Seeded No. 7, she was, to my eyes and mind, a can't-miss prospect. A Belgian by name of Kim Clijsters was also in that draw, seeded No. 10. Rampre made the semifinals, while Clijsters lost in the quarters. They were bumped out, respectively, by eventual finalists Nadia Petrova and Elena Dementieva, who went on to win the tournament.
Rampre knocked off Anastasia Myskina in the third round, but while Myskina would become Russia's first Grand Slam champion (she won the French Open), Rampre spent her entire career struggling to get out of qualifying. But she kept plugging away, unlike some, and she was rewarded with a career-high ranking of No. 162 in 2000. Daniela Hantuchova, Stefanie Foretz, Iveta Benesova, and Anita Kapros were also in that draw, but it still paled in comparison to the boys' line-up.
The semifinalists in that Orange Bowl for boys were No. 1 seed Federer, No. 4 seed David Nalbandian, No. 6 seed Guillermo Coria (who had upset No. 3 seed Fernando Gonzalez) and the obligatory "surprise semifinalist," Feliciano Lopez.
Some of the players who joined Roddick by the wayside were Jurgen Melzer, Ricardo Mello, Jarkko Nieminen, Mikhail Youzhny, Filippo Volandri, Santiago Ventura, and Igor Kunitsyn. Upsets happen, and going back eight or 10 years you can find many tournaments where the quarters and semis are littered with names long gone from the rankings list. But this had to be perhaps the greatest starting field of any junior event. And they delivered: Every quarterfinalist but for Artem Derepasko had, or continues to have, an excellent career. Derepasko, a Russian seeded No. 8, threw a no-hitter in the third round, winning 6-0, 6-0. But he feel victim to Lopez.
Gone missing: The No. 2 seed, one Julien Jeanpierre of France. His career-high ranking was No. 133 (August 2004) and his match W-L record in ATP events is 3-2. But like Rampre, he gave it his best shot; he played a full schedule of minor league events until the end of 2009.
It's funny, but once you start poking around in the past, it's pretty easy to become bewitched by it. And a few decades of history certainly enriches the perspective. That Orange Bowl was the first place where I interviewed the winner, that Swiss kid named Federer. At the time, his hair was dyed blond over dark roots.
I wish I could say that watching that final I suspected I might be looking at the man destined to become the all-time Grand Slam champion, but I can't remember feeling that way that.
But I did think, "Heck of a nice kid, hope he has a good career."