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tennis

Tennis Results Players Stats
  Graf's comeback easy to root for

Posted: Tue July 21, 1998

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

Say this about Steffi Graf: she's not exactly going quietly into the night. The best 57th-ranked player women's tennis has ever known was in Mahwah, N.J., last weekend, playing an unsanctioned exhibition on a makeshift court in a hotel parking lot. Methodically dismantling Amanda Coetzer as if it were 1995 all over again, Graf was all business, slapping her thigh after unforced errors and inconspicuously pumping her fist after service winners.

  graf.jpg After 21 Grand Slam titles, Graf maintains a competitive fire.    (Manny Millan)
Still, one has to wonder why, at age 29, she continues to spend her day banging tennis balls in strange towns and living the insular life of a pro athlete. It's hardly about money. Her career earnings—to say nothing of endorsements and appearance fees for events like Mahwah—exceed $20 million. After a mind-bending 21 Grand Slam titles, Graf hardly needs to cement her place in history. And though Graf used to find sanctuary on the court from the travails of her creepy father, she now speaks of her "inner peace" and clearly no longer needs tennis as an escape.

Could it possibly be that, even after 15 years on Tour, Graf simply still likes playing tennis and is motivated by nothing more than a genuine enjoyment for the game? Her comeback from knee surgery would obviously be complete if she could win her first Grand Slam since 1996 or supplant Martina Hingis and regain her throne. But she's not ready to think in those terms. "Obviously, I want to do well," she said after beating Coetzer. "But the good thing about winning everything before is that you don't have to prove anything. What I can do is just go out there and enjoy myself." For that alone, it's hard not to root for her.

To the mailbag....

Why don't the top tennis players play doubles? I would love to see Pete Sampras, Marcelo Rios, and even Andre Agassi out there playing doubles. I think it would make the game more exciting.
—Amit Patel, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Time was, every player worth his wooden racket would play doubles as well as singles. (As recently as last decade, the hackneyed line was that best doubles team in tennis was John McEnroe and whomever.) But as prize money has gone through the roof, most of the top men want to conserve their energy and see no reason to risk fatigue by playing doubles. I, for one, don't get it. Doubles is a great way to improve your net game as well as get in some extra serves. (You'd think a player like Rios would be better off playing two sets of doubles instead of spending that time practicing with a coach.) As for the argument that doubles doesn't pay enough to make it worthwhile, I'm sure that if Sampras, Rios, et al were in the doubles draw, the prize money would leap dramatically.

Perhaps because their matches take less time to complete, the top women are better about this. Nine of the top 20 WTA players also have top 20 doubles rankings—compared to only three of the top 20 men. What's more, the top three women's doubles players are Hingis, Jana Novotna, and Lindsay Davenport. Just another reason why women's tennis is eclipsing the men's game in popularity.

Does Pete Sampras have enough momentum to win the U.S. Open?
—Manan Sharma, Athens, Ga.

It will depend somewhat on how he fares on the hard-court circuit later this summer, but he's not a player who needs a lot of momentum to win majors. In the tune-up prior to Wimbledon, Sampras was summarily dispatched in the first round by journeyman Mark Woodforde. We know, of course, how badly he was hobbled by that loss once he got to Centre Court. Sampras is simply a different player in the Slams than he is in Indianapolis or New Haven; and the chance to close in on Roy Emerson's record for majors is all the momentum he needs.

Who do you think is the best player/coach for the future U.S. Davis Cup team? John McEnroe, Jim Courier or Todd Martin?
—David Helfer, San Francisco

It would obviously be ideal if the U.S. could field a team with Sampras, Michael Chang and Agassi playing all at once. Since that is unlikely, at least until the final round, the team of Agassi, Courier and Martin that won in Indianapolis last weekend ought to suffice against Italy, the U.S.'s next foe. If only because he was a such a loyal Davis Cup participant, it would be nice to see McEnroe as coach after Tom Gullickson's tenure ends.

What enables players like Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic to hit their serves so hard? Even with fairly good technique and motion, most USTA tournament players aren't able to hit much over 100 or 105 mph. Where does that extra 20-30 mph come from? These players are obviously extremely fit, but they don't appear to have that much more muscle than most tennis players. Do they have a special technique?
—Clarence Lee, Vienna, Va.

I've heard Sampras say that the key to his serve is the "snap." Players like him and Ivanisevic get that extra juice by turning their shoulders extremely as they strike the ball. While most players do light weight training these days, any pro would agree that pinpoint technique is more crucial to power than muscle mass.

If the server faults, is it considered unsportsmanlike for the receiver to catch the errant serve, if it's hit behind the service line, and either place it in his pocket or roll it aside, out of play?
Name withheld

Unless you're doing so to mock the pace of your opponent's serve, go ahead and catch it. (It's probably just as easy, though, to swat the errant ball aside with your racket. And you won't risk jamming your fingers.)

What do you think about Monica Seles' decision to play all the major hard-court tourneys leading up to the U.S. Open, like she did last year? Will all this activity make her match-tough, or will she run out of steam like she did in '97?
—Jason Rainer, Carrollton, Texas

Now that so many other players can match her power, Seles' questionable fitness has become a bigger issue. While she would be well-served running laps, skipping rope and doing crunches, her playing so many outdoor tournaments in the summer heat ought to improve her stamina as well. My guess is that at this stage in her career, she knows enough to bag out on an event if she feels her tank is nearing empty.

I'd like to know what the problem is with tennis commentators and their incessant—and often irritating—chatter before, during and after points. The commentator I find the most annoying is Barry McKay. He never shuts up and to make matters worse, he repeats himself and encourages his co-commentators to do the same. I try putting on the mute button, but then I can't hear the whack of the ball. I'm not opposed to some commentating, but this is ridiculous.
—Steven Fleming, San Francisco

When, say, Andre Agassi is up two sets to love against his Davis Cup opponent, it's hard to follow a cardinal rule of sportscasting and let the action speak for itself. Still, your point is well-taken. (Ironically, John McEnroe is one of the best at knowing when to keeping his mouth shut.) More irksome to me is when former players speak as though the audience has never watched tennis before. Luke Jensen's line, "when a serve gets stuck in the net, it's funny but it's still a fault," is but one glaring example.

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
July 8: Novotna, Sampras earned the right to celebrate
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