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Tennis Results Players Stats
  Novotna, Sampras earned the right to celebrate

Posted: Wed July 8, 1998

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

As much as anything, this year's Wimbledon was about just desserts. This, in other words, was the rare tournament in which the two players who were most worthy of winning walked away with the biggest bowls. Only the most misanthropic among us weren't pulling for Jana Novotna to exorcise her Centre Court demons and win her first Grand Slam.

Entering the tournament, she seemed destined to have a choke collar engraved on her tennis epitaph. But Novotna, at age 29, won a personal battle with her nerves that we all could appreciate. Her tenacity was rivaled only by her tennis. In my mind the most aesthetically pleasing player on either side of the draw, Novotna thrashed seven players—including Venus Williams and defending champ Martina Hingis—by getting to the net and then executing masterful volleys, many from angles that would have had Pythagorus scratching his head. After the match, Novotna spoke movingly about the virtues of hard work and perseverance. And one couldn't help wish that the Williams sisters and Anna Kournikova, et al., were tuning in from their poolside televisions and taking heed.

Before Wimbledon, not too many folks would have taken issue when Richard Krajicek boldly assessed Pete Sampras the 10th best player on the ATP tour. It had been a year since Sampras had won a Grand Slam and speculation was that, at age 26, his motivation was in short supply. It's hard to discuss Sampras without unleashing disdainful clichés, but, particularly when he plays at Wimbledon, "statistics mean nothing," "he has the heart of a lion" and "he simply refuses to lose."

Sure, Sampras has a complete package of shots, including a howitzer serve. But it's his mental game that distances him from the legions of other talented players. Time and again, Sampras won the clutch points at the clutch moments, which deflated his opponents more than any 135 m.p.h. ace ever could. Like Michael Jordan, Sampras not only wins, but he wins like a champion, making the big plays when he has to. For this, more than for his stash of Grand Slam trophies, I think history will remember him as the greatest tennis player of all time.

Onward, to the Mailbag.

  Jana Novotna
Jana Novotna may deserve even more prize money than men's champ Pete Sampras.    (Mike Hewitt)
How do you feel about equal prize money for the men and women at Grand Slams?
—Jason Rainey, Carrollton, Texas

Particularly now that the women's game has so many more personalities and rivalries than the men's, if anything, the women ought to get more money. I don't buy the argument that Martina Hingis would be lucky to win a game off the No. 500-ranked male, so, therefore, the superior players should make superior money. Sport, distilled to its essence, is entertainment, and I think most paying tennis fans are every bit as entertained watching, say, Jana Novotna play Venus Williams, as they are watching Sampras thump whomever.

Last week you stated that the winner of Pete Sampras-John McEnroe could lay claim to being the best of all time. I believe that Bjorn Borg's accomplishments in winning the French and then three weeks later winning Wimbledon are often overlooked. Moreover, Borg pulled off this double five consecutive years while neither McEnroe nor Sampras has done it once. Given that, where does Borg stand amongst the greats?
—Dave, Philadelphia

I don't mean to give Borg the short shrift, but his success came in an era with fewer surface specialists and fewer bionic players, like Mark Philippoussis or Goran Ivanisevic, who could simply get hot and serve opponents off the court. Also, the field of talented players didn't run nearly as deep 20 years ago as it does now. I guarantee that Borg never started his Wimbledon run with an opponent as talented as Dominik Hrbaty, Sampras' first-round foe this year. That said, I can't imagine that we'll see a player win both the French and Wimbledon anytime soon.

We hear about all the teenage women like Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters, but are there any young male players to look out for?
—Richard Mitchell, Kansas City

Sadly, not really. Don't look now but Mark Philippoussis, anointed as the next big thing, will turn 22 this year. Sure, he's a talented, exciting, hard-hitting player. I'm just not certain he's champion material. Germany's Tommy Haas, cursed with the tag of "the next Boris Becker," is already 20 and is barely in the top 50. Russian Marat Safin, who beat Andre Agassi in Paris, might be the best bet. He's only 18 and his ranking, now 73, is steadily climbing. The good thing about tennis—and sports in general, for that matter—is that someone has to win. So time will obviously tell who will fill the Sampras vacuum.

Your comments concerning the Williams sisters are like saying, "Morals are not required to be the President of the United States." Their father may have taught them tennis, but that's all. They are demonstrating no class and poor sportsmanship. They either blame judges or fake injury in matches where they face competition.

Come on, Jon, race is not the issue; common sense and personal class are.
—Mike Cary, Lexington, S.C.

Rightfully so, Serena Williams took a lot of grief for her questionable default against Virginia Ruano-Pascal and her subsequent failure to shake Ruano-Pascal's hand. If for no other reason than she's 16, I'm inclined to give Serena the benefit of the doubt and call it an honest, if impolitic, mistake. She seemed genuinely contrite afterwards and my guess is that she's learning the first lesson of stardom: The strings that are attached to fame and money are responsibility and (hyper)scrutiny.

You're correct that this is not about race but rather common sense and personal class. Common sense tells me that if a 16-year-old, frazzled by the prospect of an injury, neglects to shake her opponent's hand, it's not an affront to Western Civilization. And if her 18-year-old sister, playing in the Wimbledon quarterfinal, goes ballistic for 20 seconds over a bad line call, Armageddon hasn't quite arrived on Centre Court.

Sure, the Williams sisters could use a little tutorial from Dale Carnegie. But what teenager couldn't? I've seen Anna Kournikova stare down Bud Collins—perhaps the most esteemed tennis writer ever—because he asked her a question that didn't meet her standards for rigorous intellect. Martina Hingis can't play a match against a decent player without chucking her racket a half-dozen times. Even Monica Seles and Steffi Graf were given to fits of pique in their younger years. Bottom line: The Williams sisters are well on their way to doing for tennis what Tiger Woods has done for golf. If, in the process, they make a faux pas or two, it's a small price to pay.

Why is Michael Chang having a disappointing year so far? His brother, Carl, has been coaching Michael for a long time, yet Michael still has not been able to win another Slam. Should Michael change coaches before he retires?
—Felix W. Yan, San Francisco

Ever since squandering the chance to become No. 1 at last year's U.S. Open, Michael Chang has disappeared like a federally protected witness. In 1998 he's suffered a string of bad losses and wasn't even seeded at Wimbledon, before bowing to Magnus Gustafsson in the second round. Some of Chang's problems are strictly physical. He might be the fastest player on Tour, but at 5' 8" and 150 pounds, he will lose his share of matches by simply getting outhit. Hard to believe, but Chang is already 26, so time is running out on his quest to add a Grand Slam title to French Open he won—get this—more than nine years ago. A coaching change might well help but I don't see it coming. The Chang clan is extraordinarily close-knit, and my guess is that family loyalty trumps tennis.

Why do tennis players need such long breaks between every second game? I would regard squash and badminton as much more strenuous, yet breaks are very short after playing many more points with longer rallies. Has it just become a convenient advertising break?
—Bill Sherlock-Lynn, Munich, Germany

Certainly recreational players don't require 90 seconds to decompress on every changeover. Even at the college level, it's not uncommon for players to simply switch ends without taking a break. In the pros, where players are chasing down a lot more balls and covering a lot more ground, a break every other game is often a necessity. What's more, it gives TV networks time to air three commercials—which, in the end, pays for a chunk of prize money—so I doubt the WTA or the ATP have any objections.

Send a question to Jon Wertheim, and check back the beginning of each week to read more of his answers.  

Related information
Previous Mailbags
June 16: Who will rule Centre Court?
June 22: Sampras, Graf still have what it takes
June 29: Waiting out the rain
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