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No rest for the best

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Monday January 22, 2001 12:07 PM


Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Putting another shrimp on the barbie ...

While the women's game overall has improved immensely, I'm consistently frustrated by the fact that the top players (with the exception of the amazing yet annoying Wiliams sisters) have failed to round out their games. Martina Hingis, in particular, stands out as somebody who refuses to improve her serve or learn how to finish off points at the net. What's your take?
—Carmen Phillips, Bethesda, Md.

I see your point but I think you're being a bit uncharitable. A class of players exists on the WTA Tour who are more or less content to be in the top 30, reach the occasional Slam quarterfinal and make a good living without posing a realistic challenge to top players. On the other hand, I think the top players do what they can to round out their games. Is Lindsay Davenport serving-and-volleying? No. Is Hingis experimenting with a one-handed backhand? No. But the cream of the tour still do little things to improve their games -- Hingis, for instance, has been volleying exceptionally well here -- and I don't sense that any of the top, say, seven players gets much satisfaction from reaching a semifinal.

I thought you side-stepped the question regarding fitness on the WTA Tour. Envy aside, racket technology (and possibly ball and court construction) have clearly impacted the game. Clean winners from behind the baseline used to be rare. The shotmakers, not the Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario run-everything-down grinders, reign supreme. With competition thin, has overall fitness actually declined as a result? Are current players lazier? Will Venus Williams' legacy be to reassert the standard of fitness set by Martina Navratilova 20 years ago? Or does money and "buzz" deem the issue moot? Come on Mr. Hard-hitting, it's a fair -- if impolitic -- question, though I'd rather hear it posed by Martina ...
—John, Sacramento

It's a fair question. At some level there's probably an empirical answer. We could compare the sprint times, bench presses, endurance runs, etc., among generations and get a definitive answer. But given that I lack Wendy Turnbull's time in the 40, I can only tell you what I see. I see players in the hotel gym at 7 a.m. getting a workout on the same day of their matches. I see junior girls players running sprints in the car park under Rod Laver Arena. I see players competing in both the singles and doubles draws without wilting like lettuce in the 120-degree heat. Without question, players are as fit as they've ever been.

Is there room for improvement? Definitely. Are there a number of players who, like most of us, could stand to shed five or 10 pounds? Naturally. But so far as matches aren't being won or lost because of conditioning -- and they seldom are -- it's almost a moot discussion.

Is it just me, or are Monica Seles and Martina Hingis shaping up to be a phenomenal doubles team? Not only do they beat the Williams sisters a week before the Aussie Open, but they also wipe the floor with the No. 1 seeds in Melbourne, Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs! I see visions of dancing Grand Slam trophies and bundles of prize money. The only problem might be the intensity of their singles matches wearing them out -- or maybe that's a blessing in disguise. Playing doubles consistently could be the key for Monica in terms of becoming truly fit, and for helping Hingis staying that way. Any thoughts?
—Misty, New York City

It's not you. Even though Hingis claims they still lack a certain synchronicity, she and Seles have already beaten the defending champs (Raymond and Stubbs) here, the team of Jelena Dokic and Jennifer Capriati, as well the Williams sisters previously. You're right that logistics could be an issue: Hingis admitted feeling "dead" last week while she did double duty in both draws. With both players destined to be in the singles draw late into tournaments (not always the case when Hingis played alongside Anna Kournikova), don't be surprised if they default their share of matches.

It's great to see Seles having fun playing doubles -- something she hasn't done in years -- but I don't see it having much impact on her fitness. Truth to tell, from a fitness standpoint players are better off working with a coach than covering half the court and resting for 90 seconds every few minutes in playing a few sets of doubles.

I read that Monica Seles is now coached by Jennifer Capriati's ex-coach, Harold Solomon. Do you expect him to bring Monica's game to a new high? I think Bobby Banck did a terrific job getting her into better shape. Is there any reason they split after last season?
—Ken, Boston

Solomon is just helping out Seles for a few weeks while Banck tends to his ailing father. Sadly, I don't think anyone will bring Seles' game to a "new high" inasmuch as she won six Slams in a 20-month window. But I agree that Banck is a good fit. He recognizes that Seles is an adult and that most of her motivation needs to come from within.

Strictly on a professional note, which outfit do you prefer: Anna Kournikova's gold top and hot pants, Martina Hingis's Jekyll and Hyde look, or Venus Williams' three-piece?
—Sandra, Sydney, Australia

Lots of question about fashion this week, both in the interview room and from Mailbag types. Personally, I'm from the Lindsay Davenport err-on-the-side-of-conservative school. (Not that Davenport has been immune to the fashionistas: Her shoes were described by a local paper as looking as though they'd been "dipped in strawberry jam.") If I have to pick one outfit, I'll go with Serena Williams' pink/orange day-glo shirt and boot ensemble. The colors work. And on a clear night, it can be seen in Perth.

I see that Andy Roddick is not playing in Australia and wonder how this affects his chances of being selected for Davis Cup against Switzerland. I'm asking because of Pat McEnroe's comments about wanting to go with younger players (probably anticipating that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would not be willing to play DC).
—Mary Durkin, Los Angeles

Many thought Pat McEnroe was going to turn the Davis Cup into the youth brigade and give the likes of Roddick some big-match experience. But the word here is that this business about bringing along brother John is no canard; even Agassi gave his former captain a nod of endorsement.

As for Roddick, understandably he bagged on Melbourne because he would have had to qualify. He'll get plenty of wild cards in San Jose, Memphis and Key Biscayne, so he's working on his game in his backyard this week and then playing a challenger in Hawaii. Even if he makes the trip to Switzerland, it's hard to give him a singles spot over Chris Woodruff, who had a good tournament here and beat Jan-Michael Gambill, and Todd Martin, who has reached the quarterfinals by upsetting Sampras.

Just in time for the new year, how about some new balls? You know -- from the ATP's innovative "New Balls" campaign. (Well, maybe "innovative" is not the best adjective here.) Anyway, who will be the "Hot New Balls" for 2001? (Gee, how I would love to serve as the creative director for this campaign.)
—Jessica Block, Chicago

I can hear your panting from here. It's just tennis. If I were going to add five more pledge brothers to the frat, I'd tap: Andreas Vinciguerra, Arnaud Clement, Sebastien Grosjean, Mariano Puerta and Andrew Ilie.

I loved your predictions for 2001 (and your homage to Karl Malone), but you failed to forecast what the coming year holds for Andre Agassi. A return to his old glory, for one last Grand Slam run? Consistently up and down? Or so frustrating that he quits the game mid-year?
—Ezra Perlman, San Francisco

Agassi has a singular gift for making prognosticators look ridiculous. Anoint him as a threat to win the Grand Slam, as Pat Cash, among others, did a year ago, and Agassi doesn't win another tour event. Write his epitaph, and he comes back to breeze through the first few rounds of the Australian without dropping a set. Given that in his "old glory" Agassi was reaching the finals of four straight Slams sandwiched among some strong Super Nine showings, that's an exceedingly tall order. But here it is the middle Sunday of the Australian and he's playing as well as anyone in the draw.

I was wondering if you could tell me about the state of Indian tennis. I know Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were a great doubles duo and that Paes won the Olympic bronze medal in 1996, but why has neither of them done a whole lot since then? Are there any prospects for a decent men's or women's player any time soon?
—Kabir Julka, Chicago

The good news is Paes and Bhupathi have put aside their differences and committed to playing out the year. They lost early here, but with the retirement of players like the Woodies and Rick Leach, they could return to the winners' circle. The bad news is that I know of no other men's prospects. As for the women, Nirupama Vaidyanathan (hereafter known as "The Big V") is the top-ranked Indian woman, finishing 2000 ranked in the top 200 in singles and doubles.

With Wayne Ferreira having a solid year in 2000, what are your thoughts on him making a return to the top 10 again, and possibly even winning a major?
—Grant Adams, San Diego

Wayne Ferreira will not win a major in 2001, and I'd put the odds pretty low that he'll return to the top 10. Last year he won a Masters Series event, generally played well, yet still only finished No. 13. That said, he's the rare player who is capable of beating or losing to anyone. Also, don't read too much into his loss to Vinciguerra here. In warmups he tried to catch one of his opponent's serves -- either the epitome of boneheaded or a psych-out tactic against a 19-year-old kid -- and bruised a finger. After that, he lost the first seven games and couldn't grip the racket.

With all of these restructurings at CNN, is your job in jeopardy? Let's hope not.
—Gordon Plocher, Jacksonville, Fla.

Hey, thanks. I haven't heard anything yet. My guess is that when the good folks in Atlanta took inventory of the staff and considered the indispensable positions, "the guy who answers tennis questions" was right up there with Larry King and Tucker Carlson.

Click here to send a question or comment to Jon Wertheim. And don't forget to check out his daily On the Court report from Down Under.

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