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"You have to respect and appreciate a guy who can both win and show some class for his sport and himself while doing it. here's to hoping Pete keeps winning his way in a sport with way too many want-to-be champions who can't keep their mouth shut."
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  Waiting out the rain

Posted: Mon June 29, 1998

Jon Wertheim Tennis Mailbag Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions during Wimbledon. Click here to send a question.

"Ladies and gentlemen, play has been suspended by rain," seems to be the official mantra of Wimbledon 1998, but in between drops there has been some great tennis. The complexion of the men's draw is proof positive that the best way to win on grass is to serve-and-volley. The most dominant players so far—Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Tim Henman, Patrick Rafter—charge the net with near reckless abandon and win a lot of easy points on putaways from point-blank range. Those who don't are left to finger their jet black ponytails and blubber about Wimbledon being "overrated." As the week wears on and the soggy grass at the baseline becomes more emaciated, the player who gets to the net first will have a decisive advantage. I'll stick with my pick of Sampras to win, but with Greg Rusedski out with a torn ligament in his left ankle, the guess here that it will be against Krajicek in the final.

True to form, the women's draw didn't hold much excitement during the first week. Given Steffi Graf's scant match play and nagging injuries this year, her loss to Natasha Zvereva was only a mild upset, and Mary Pierce losing in the first round is about as shocking as rain at Wimbledon. The Serena-Venus matchup that every tennis fan outside the Williams family eagerly anticipated will have to wait, but the sisters served notice that they can negotiate grass just fine. I'm sticking by my pick here too: Jana Novotna over Monica Seles in the final. Regardless, it ought to be a great week of tennis. Assuming, that is, it stops raining.

We all know that Sampras is the best player of the modern era. Is he the greatest player of all time; the Michael Jordan of tennis? When Sampras is at the top of his game, can anyone beat him?
—Amar Mutnal, Three Rivers, Mich.

Without his high-tech racket, a bionic banger like Mark Philippoussis wouldn't have stood a chance against a top player in another era. Not so Sampras. Watch him get 40 inches above the ground to hit his signature slam dunk overhead, watch the impossible angles he generates on his ground strokes, observe his ironclad mental game. It's hard to imagine Rod Laver or Roy Emerson giving him much competition. If we could play tennis time traveller, I think the winner of John McEnroe (c. 1984) against Sampras (c. 1996) could rightfully claim the mantle of greatest player ever.

  Serena Williams
The first Wimbledon Williams summit didn't happen this year, but when it does Serena Williams (above) should have an advantage.    (Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT)
Venus and Serena Williams will probably meet in the fourth round; who will win that match? Who has the edge on grass?
—Sarah Lewis, Minneapolis

On account of a left-calf injury, Serena retired from her third-round match against Virginia Ruano-Pascal, so we'll have to wait a while. Had they played this week, I think Venus would have won. Her serve has been off the charts, she's been moving surpassingly well, and, most important, she seems to have a mental edge over her kid sister right now. In the long run, though, I think Serena will be the better player. Even their father, Richard, says, "She's the meaner of the two."

What is happening to the men's field with people like Marcelo Rios griping about a great tournament just because the surface doesn't suit him? If I were the Wimbledon coordinator I'd ban the guy for good. I think Rios should buy himself an attitude adjustment.
—Vijay Prabhakaran, San Diego

There's little need to ban Rios from Wimbledon—his unwillingness to adjust his game to grass will ensure that he'll never last more than a few rounds here anyway. I agree that his fairly transparent tank job against Francisco Clavet—nobody's grass-court specialist—and his subsequent philippic was disgraceful. And he wonders why Sports Illustrated called him "The Most Hated Man in Tennis" earlier this year. Speaking of Rios, have there ever been two more anonymous No. 2 seeds at Wimbledon than Marcelo and Lindsay Davenport? Together they have won a total of zero Grand Slams.

Do you think the Williams sisters are lacking in match strategy because they didn't play junior tournaments? They are the most talented players on the women's tour, but they make unforced errors and strategic mistakes that top-10 players cannot and do not make.
—Paul Walia, Morgantown, W.Va.

The success of the Williams sisters is tantamount to the kid who spends his youth in home school and graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard. Richard Williams, their father and coach, is wildly unconventional, but there's no arguing with his results. At a time when too many marginally talented kids waste their adolescence at a monomaniacal tennis academy, it's refreshing to see that talented players need not eat, breathe and live tennis to be successful. As for the unforced errors, both Venus and Serena are power hitters, and not unlike Mark McGwire, that means striking out now and then. As for the strategic mistakes, let's not forget that they're 18 and 16, respectively. In time, they'll both be champions.

Why do you say "to a lesser extent" Anna Kournikova could dethrone Martina Hingis? Do you think Mirjana Lucic has a better shot than Anna Kournikova? Lucic has not impressed me with anything other than her power. She seems to be a future Mary Pierce, a threat at each tournament but not a No. 1.
—Jason Englisbe, Simpsonville, S.C.

I think it's Kournikova who is destined to follow in Pierce's unremarkable footsteps. Right now Lucic is still feeling her way, and she suffers from deer-in-headlights syndrome—witness the 6-0, 6-3 waxing she got from Serena Williams last week. But when she learns to massage a point and not merely rely on her power, she should be awesome. As Steffi Graf has said repeatedly, "When I was her age, I was not nearly as good as Mirjana." The youngest of the teen sensations, Lucic has powerful, textbook strokes and moves well for a player who's nearly six feet tall. Perhaps most important, she has a desire to get better and a work ethic that Kournikova lacks.

In Sweden, we're a bit spoiled when it comes to tennis. Because of Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander, we feel as if we're in a down period, even though we're reigning Davis Cup champs and have capable players like Jonas Bjorkman, Thomas Enqvist, Magnus Norman, Magnus Larsson and Thomas Johansson. Also, we haven't done so well in the Slams lately, which leads to my questions: Which of the Swedes do you think has the best chance at Wimbledon this year? And who do you see as the next Swedish Grand Slam champion, and when?
—Stefan Alhag, Kiruna, Sweden

As you note, Sweden is the defending Davis Cup champion, so I don't much sympathize with your laments about a "down period." Anyway, even before Bjorkman lost, I would have predicted Larsson to fare the best at Wimbledon. Though he's not a natural serve-and-volleyer, he hits a big ball off both sides, he serves well and, at 6'5", he shouldn't have much trouble getting to the net. He seems to convey an insouciant-bordering-on-indifferent attitude on the court (it may just be the hair), but any player who beat Sampras twice last year has to be considered dangerous.

Realistically, Bjorkman has a shot at winning the U.S. Open —as he nearly did last year— but he's been struggling lately. He's at his best on the hard courts, and—with the exception of the faltering Michael Chang—he might be the quickest player on the tour. On the other hand, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Enqvist to strike gold. Only 24, Enqvist might be the most talented of the Swedes, but he has trouble winning big matches. That generally tends to bode ill for Grand Slam success.

What do you make of all of the negative comments being directed toward the Williams sisters? Whether people agree with what they say or not, aren't they entitled to their own views? What constitutes "showing respect"? Also, could you please explain the ranking system?
—Katrina, Montgomery, Ala.

I'm with you on the Williams sisters. Plenty of players bemoan their "lack of respect," but when pressed for details, they are unable to come up with any concrete examples. As far as I can tell, "show some respect" is code for "stop winning so damn often and so damn decisively." Somehow I fail to recall Steffi Graf showing much respect for Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova, or Martina Hingis showing one scintilla of deference for Graf or Monica Seles.

The intricacies of the ranking system are entirely too convoluted to explain here. The skinny: players are awarded points based on matches won, which are valid for 52 weeks. For instance, whoever wins the 1998 U.S. Open will receive a whopping 520 points that she will keep for an entire calendar year. At the 1999 U.S. Open, however, she must win the tournament again to "defend" all of her points.

Send a question to Jon Wertheim, and check back Monday to read more of his answers.  

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June 16: Who will rule Centre Court?
June 22: Sampras, Graf still have what it takes
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