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Tennis Results Players Stats

Time for a few backhands

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Posted: Wednesday January 06, 1999 03:45 PM


Click here to send a tennis question to Jon Wertheim's Mailbag.

After a brief winter recess, the Mailbag has returned. And so has professional tennis. Not only was 1998 a good year for the game but it left us with plenty of drama to follow in 1999. Will Pete Sampras , who has already begged off from the Australian Open, have enough gas in the tank to match/surpass Roy Emerson 's mark of 12 career Grand Slam titles? In its 100th year, will the Davis Cup receive a much-needed infusion of renewed prestige? Will Lindsay Davenport be able to fend of the minors and hang on to her No.1 ranking? Will this be the year Venus Williams , or her sister for that matter, makes her long-anticipated move? Will Anna Kournikova win her first tournament? Will the WTA Tour land a title sponsor? For which tennis-related jobs will John McEnroe deem himself uniquely qualified? Stay tuned ...

While we're at it, I'll repeat this column's credo: The success of the Tennis Mailbag depends on you folks far more than it does me. So don't be bashful about firing off questions and comments.

Without further ado....

I was reading one of your recent columns (forgive me, I was really bored) in which you commented on tennis fans in Indiana and how you've now seen it all. Evidently, you've never been to Indiana or else you'd know that we're not all inbred farmers who spend our time in the corn fields. A few of us actually have some common sense and spend quite a lot of time on the courts. Now there's a few more of us with the common sense not to waste our time reading your comments anymore.
-- Anonymous, Indiana

Ouch. Must have been a bad harvest year. This message actually came by e-mail, not via c.b. radio. Seriously, with only marginal shame, I admit that I in fact hail from the great Hoosier state. Indeed our hypersensitive reader is correct: there are a number of folks in the heartland who actually "spend quite a lot of time on the courts." For a relatively small state with a climate better suited to basketball (and, of course, inbreeding) Indiana has furnished some pretty good players. (Tragically, the best of the lot, Todd Witsken , who beat Jimmy Connors in the 1986 U.S. Open, died last summer of brain cancer.) I should note that the Midwest in general is responsible for a disproportionate number of top pros: Aaron Krickstein , Todd Martin , Mal Washington , Amy Frazier , and those bubbalicious Jensen brothers .

Do you think Natasha Zvereva deserved to be the No. 1 WTA doubles player? After winning a rare doubles Grand Slam, Martina Hingis still finished at No. 2. Furthermore, Hingis won more doubles titles than any other woman in 1998.
-- Tim, Gainesville, Fla.

Your point is well-taken. It's hard to believe that Hingis won all four majors and finished out of the money. But it's not as though Zvereva's No. 1 ranking was subjective. She accumulated the most points last year, so, yes, I suppose she deserved it. By the way, if you have the chance to watch Zvereva play, take advantage. She's wildly aggressive, takes all sort of risks, plays crazy angles and hits some of the sharpest volleys on tour. Why she's not a better singles player, I'll never understand.

With the global awareness that steroid and drug use are against the rules, along with the fact that players are subjected to regular drug testing, do you believe that Petr Korda didn't know he was consuming a banned substance?
-- Mark Gabriel, Atlanta

I have no idea whether Korda knew he was consuming a banned steroid. But take one look at the guy -- the ATP Tour media guide lists him as 6'3'', 160 lbs. -- and you tend to believe him.

Why don't tennis tournaments have third-place matches like some other sports do? It seems to me that the fans would pay to watch and the players would be interested in the extra money.
-- Eugene Whitlock, Miami

Honestly, I'd never given that any thought -- and now that I do, I think you might be on to something. Too often fans (and networks) pony up serious cash to attend the finals of a tournament only to see a 50-minute whitewash. It would surely soften the blow if they were treated a preliminary match between the two losing semifinalists. Even if there weren't ranking points at stake, you could give each player 20,000 extra bones and it would make an awfully good exhibition. There would, of course, be some complications. After injuring his thigh in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, Pete Sampras would have been less than psyched to come back the next day and play Carlos Moya for third place. Also, it might be a hard sell with the top players who don't really need the extra lucre and complain persistently that the calendar is overcrowded with events. But overall, I think your idea's a good one.

Considering that 1998 produced four different winners in the four Slams, do you think the men's circuit will repeat this pattern in the next few years? What about Marcelo Rios's chances of winning a Slam? Also, with Petr Korda obviously out of the running to defend his Australian Open title, who do you think has a good chance to win?
-- Ayaz Abdulla, Karachi, Pakistan

I wouldn't be surprised if the men produced four different Slam winners again this year. Sampras has already excused himself from the Australian and the French will continue to elude him. I'd bet on him winning either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open -- but not both. With Sampras on the shelf and Patrick Rafter still nursing a bum knee, Rios has an excellent chance to silence his critics in Australia. I'll do my picks for the Australian in the next 10 days, but you're correct in your assertion that Korda ain't going to repeat.

About your comment that the French Open should be deprived of Slam status: You are probably not the only person in the U.S. never to have played on clay and thus cannot appreciate the ability of the players who compete on the demanding surface, but you certainly must be the only person to think of Michael Chang, Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster as "one-hit wonders."

Are you smoking crack?
-- Thiru, Madras, India

First I'm told I've never been to Indiana, now I've never played on clay. As I recall, my point was not that the French ought to be stripped of its Grand Slam status; it was simply that the Australian may have passed it in terms of prestige. As for the assertion that Chang, Muster and Bruguera were one-Slam wonders, maybe you can fill me in on which majors any of them have won besides Roland Garros. (Muster, by the way, is surely the only former No. 1-ranked player never to have won a match at Wimbledon). And I have, incidentally, played on clay. In Indiana no less.

I'd like your thoughts on two players I've been keeping track of since last year. The first is Younes El Aynaoui. Although he is currently ranked in the top 100 (No. 45) most of his success has been on the Challenger Circuit. How do you think he will fare in higher-level tournaments? The second player is Takao Suzuki, who has made tremendous strides, but also on the Challenger Circuit. What are his chances of putting Japan on the charts for the men, as Date, Sugiyama, Sawamatsu, and others have done for the women?
-- Richard Rivera, New York City

Following the vowel-intensive Younes El Aynaoui and Takao Suzuki ? That has to make you the epitome of a hard-core tennis fan. El Aynaoui, who finished 1997 ranked No. 444, made quite a run last year. He's big -- 6'5'' or so -- but like another Moroccan, Hicham Arazi , he plays imaginative, crafty tennis. He's one those guys who can get hot and play an unbelievable match and then lose to a Marc Goellner in straight sets the next day. Particularly if he loads up on clay events, El Aynaoui could rank somewhere between 30 and 50 this year, but I don't see him making much noise in the Super Nines. And at age 27, he likely doesn't have many good years left. Donning sackcloth and ashes, I shamefully confess to know nothing about Suzuki's game. He's already 22 and he's never broken the top 100 so I doubt he's any better than, say, Shuzo Matsuoka, who cracked the top 50 in the early '90s.

John McEnroe says he should be playing doubles for the U.S. Davis Cup team. You said this was ridiculous. Can you name five American doubles players who are better? If Jimmy Connors can reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open at age 39, why can't McEnroe compete in doubles at that age?
-- Alan Simpson, Toronto

Shouldn't an esteemed former U.S. senator have more pressing concerns than Mac's incessant self-aggrandizing? (Sorry, I'm sure you've heard permutations on that one a million times.) First, Connors took (takes?) much better care of his body and was playing enough matches to maintain a top 10 ranking well into his mid-30s. For all intents, Mac, who turns 40 next month, hasn't played a full schedule in a decade. Trying a couple of hit-and-giggle senior events against Johan Kriek and Jose Luis Clerc is a long way from being in match shape. In his prime, Mac was a great, great doubles player. Agreed. But if I were fielding a team today, I'd rather have Jim Grabb, Rick Leach, Alex O'Brien, Jonathan Stark, Donald Johnson or Francisco Montana . By the way, after the debacle in Milwaukee, it would nice to see Tom Gullikson enlist a real doubles tandem (a la Johnson and Montana) rather than cobble together a team of two singles players.

For a long time, Boris Becker was my favorite men's player, because he was such a burst of fresh air with his recklessness and unorthodox play. Yet, as I followed his career, I became frustrated by his inconsistency. He was the most gifted player of his generation -- complete with a physique that was meant for the game -- but he never truly dedicated himself and became the classic underachiever. I always felt that if he had half the mental game Sampras does and half the work ethic Chang does, Becker would've won the Grand Slam every year. Now that he's "semi-retired", I'd like to know what you think Becker's place in tennis history will be?
-- Lisa Davis, Los Angeles

I'd say you're being a tad harsh. True, you don't hear Becker's name bandied about with Rod Laver and Sampras when talk turns to the best player of all time. But it's hard to label a former No. 1 player and six-time Grand Slam champion an "underachiever". To invoke the old cliché, Becker, whose interests always extended beyond a fuzzy yellow ball, needed tennis much less than it needed him. If he had more personality than drive, so be it.

Click here to send a tennis question to Jon Wertheim's Mailbag.

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