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Australian leftovers

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Posted: Monday January 31, 2000 12:38 PM

  Jon Wertheim

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

Staving off jet lag as best I can, here are some questions and answers ...

Andre Agassi won the Australian Open this year and the French and U.S. last year. He lost to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon last year, but he just beat Pete on a surface that was comparable to grass. With all this in mind, what are Agassi's chances for a Grand Slam this year?
—Ethan Nadorlik, Johnstown, Pa.

The question was posed to Agassi in Australia and his response was blunt: "This is an absurd conversation to be having." Later he likened his winning the Grand Slam to you and I winning the lottery.

I'm not so sure. As you point out, he's already won three of the four majors within the past calendar year. And while Wimbledon is Sampras' personal grass playground, Agassi's ability to take the ball early -- and his quick hands -- make him formidable on fast surfaces. Beyond that, Agassi's focus has been unreal lately. There's no clowning around, no grandstanding, no tantrums as there were earlier in his career. He simply goes out, takes care of business and prepares for his next match. There's nothing to prevent Agassi from simply having an off-day and losing to some Karim Alami at the French -- and a healthy Sampras can certainly take him out on any surface other than clay. But right now, the notion of Agassi emulating his lady friend and winning all four majors is far from absurd.

As long we're being whimsical, here's a truly absurd point that was made in Australia: If Agassi does win the Grand Slam, he'll have nine majors to his name. Though he'll be 30 in April, with all the half-hearted seasons he's put in earlier in his career, what's to prevent him from playing until he's 33? Does he have a chance of catching Roy Emerson and/or Sampras? My response: that happens the same year Santa Claus plays Davis Cup for the North Pole in World Group IV.

Pete Sampras cannot win the French Open because he does not have a good enough backhand. Is there anyone of either sex who is not a two-hander who can win the French?
—Jerry White, Mineral, Va.

Steffi Graf is the first name that comes to mind. What about Alex Corretja, Ivan Lendl or Gustavo Kuerten? As I see it, Sampras' troubles on clay are a function not of his backhand -- which many, by the way, see as his stronger stroke: less spectacular but less erratic than the forehand -- but rather his stamina. Clay makes for long, grueling matches that demand patience and endurance, neither being a Sampras strong suit. Until he can win his early matches in 80 minutes as he does in New York and Wimbledon -- straight-set, ace-laden affairs in which quick points abound -- he'll be in trouble in Paris.

So I have read that John McEnroe is none too pleased with Pete Sampras pulling out of Davis Cup. McEnroe suspected that he never wanted to make the trip to begin with, but others speculate he might have gone had he won the match against Andre Agassi. What do you think?
—Nicole, New York City

Yeah, ghostwriting a column for an Australian newspaper, McEnroe claimed he never got the feeling that Sampras wanted to go to Zimbabwe in the first place. Also, allegedly, McEnroe was irate --not sympathetic or concerned -- when Sampras phoned him to explain his status. Knowing McEnroe, this was a just mind game to ensure that Sampras doesn't shirk on a future commitment and comes back strong for Round 2. Knowing Sampras, though -- a player who's justifiably sensitive to speculation about his injuries -- those comments will stick in his craw.

Here, by the way, is a hypothetical to gnaw on: Say Zimbabwe gives the Yanks a run for the money -- a reasonable possibility -- and the U.S. wins behind a heroic effort from Chris Woodruff. Will McEnroe, a rah-rah guy who's immune from the politics and politesse that plagued his predecessor, really be willing to demote Woodruff for the next round?

What do you think of the chances of Steffi Graf playing at Wimbledon this year on a wild card? By June, I think she'll be fresher, fitter and more relaxed than in years; still in tune thanks to her exhibitions; and surely a massive draw for the tournament committee. Add to this the already voiced speculation that she will partner with Boris Becker or Andre Agassi in the mixed doubles ... well, whaddya think? And if she does, what are her chances?
—Robert Green, London

The odds of her playing singles are nil. She is already scaling back her worldwide tour and declining to play exhibitions this summer. She could pick up a racket tomorrow and beat any player outside the top 10. But as long as she isn't in shape to realistically win against Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and the Williams brood, she wouldn't risk embarrassing herself. Also, her career ended on a classic note -- two Slam finals -- so I doubt she'd want to trivialize that with a Beckeresque one-shot comeback.

Mixed doubles is a titillating possibility, though I wouldn't give great odds on that, either. Were she and Agassi to play together, it would be the event of the century (it's still early) and would relegate that day's singles matches to the back page. Problem is, if Agassi is still in the running for the Grand Slam at that point, he won't want to divert his focus with a mixed-doubles sideshow. This much is certain: Graf won't be playing again with Johnny Mac.

In the last two Grand Slam finals, Martina Hingis started slow and let a more powerful, aggressive player get a big lead. Then she tried to catch up but still came up short. I think it's because she doesn't have legitimate weapons to hit her way out of trouble (unlike Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, who used to win coming from behind all the time), and she's really not the fastest and fittest player out there. She says she works on all her shots and fitness but she always seems exhausted at the end of a two-week tournament. I get the impression that she thinks she works hard but really doesn't. If she doesn't do that she will certainly lose the top ranking soon because it is quite evident that all her finesse and court smarts are just not enough anymore. What do you think?
—Leo, Quezon City, Philippines

I think the real problem with Hingis is one of genetics. A generation ago, she'd have been a top player. But in today's game, she is simply too slight to keep up with the heavy hitters. We saw it a few weeks ago against Amelie Mauresmo in Sydney and we saw it the other day against Davenport. Hingis is plenty fleet afoot, I still say she's the most cunning player on tour, and her stamina is improving. It's just until she grows a few inches and learns to hit a 115-mph serve, she'll forever be playing retriever, unable to dictate points against more prodigious foes.

I'm under the impression that Martina Hingis was trying to win the Australian Open doubles title with a different partner each year. I can't think of another reason why she would dump Anna Kournikova for Mary Pierce. Do you think Pierce will be history soon now that Hingis' attempt to win failed?
—Kimiko Yamuhiro, San Francisco

I don't think it's anything that contrived. It's just that Hingis acquires and discards doubles partners the way the rest of us do socks. And she's so good that players will still line up to play with her. The scuttlebutt is that she and Kournikova parted ways because Hingis' coach and mother, Melanie Molitor, thought Kournikova was a bad influence on her daughter and had no use for Anna's new coach, Eric Van Harpen. According to Van Harpen, Kournikova found out about the breakup not from Hingis but from a leak in the Pierce camp.

Anyway, while Pierce looked shaky for most of Australia, she was the better player in the their finals loss to Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs. Hingis cut off any questions about their future, claiming that she and Pierce were committed through the spring, enjoy each other's company, etc. But when Pierce gets the heave-ho for, say, current doubles bachelorette Natasha Zvereva, you heard it hear first.

Kudos to Andre Agassi -- he truly is the best player in the world. His concentration has become airtight. Unlike the Agassi of old, who used to just flail away at the ball, the new Agassi is a thinker out on the court. He is also quick as hell. And how he hits with such pace and accuracy with such a low unforced-error count-- correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't it seem like we have a 2000 version of Mats Wilander in his prime? Agassi is playing like Wilander with more pace and a put-away shot.
—Jason Shand, New York City

I'm not sure Agassi would be flattered by that comparison. Though I maintain that his career is woefully underrated, Wilander isn't the first player who comes to mind when we talk dominance. Irony of ironies, here's an alternative comparison for you: Doesn't it seem like we have a 2000 version of Steffi Graf in her prime, albeit it with more pace and a put-away shot off the backhand?

I was surprised at the way Pete Sampras lost in the fifth set of the Aussie semifinals against Andre Agassi. It looked like Sampras choked or tanked, though I've never seen him choke or tank a big match away before. What's the deal?
—Lexie Cartwright, Manhattan Beach, Calif.

It was neither tank job nor choke. Sampras, already slowed by a hip injury, simply ran out of gas. Once he lost that fourth-set tiebreak it was a fait accompli.

During the Agassi-Sampras match, ESPN showed a lot of stats on rivalries, many of which included Ivan Lendl. What is Lendl doing now? He just faded into the sunset. Is he a businessman? Or playing golf all day? Do you think he'll play the senior tour? I know he was not well liked, but no one ever says a word about him. Do you think he feels slighted by the lack of respect?
—Mary Durkin, Los Angeles

I tried to get in touch with Lendl about a year ago and was told by his old coach, Tony Roche, that he has no use for returning to the public. His back is too enfeebled for him to play tennis even casually, much less on the senior's tour, but Lendl still golfs. He lives with his wife, Samantha, and kids -- including twins -- in a mansion in northwest Connecticut. Unquestionably. he's a player whose robotic game and personality encroached on his popularity and, in turn, his legacy. But having a higher Q rating would have meant spending more time in the public eye, so he made a conscious decision.

I hate to bring this up, but about the time Andre Agassi was starting his latest comeback in 1998, you opined that he would never win another Grand Slam. In view of his outstanding success since, could you kindly review your opinion and give a new projection for the rest of his career?
—Habatwa Mweene, Lusaka, Zimbabwe

You misunderstood me. I meant Phil Agassi. And, look, the guy hasn't won a damn thing. Seriously, even as recently as a year ago, Andre, then the fifth seed, I believe, lost in Australia to Vince Spadea -- this on the heels of falling to Karol Kucera at the 1998 U.S. Open. The consensus was that while it was admirable that Agassi had whipped himself into shape, at age 28, he simply lacked the stamina and extended focus to win another title. He obviously proved us dead wrong.

His remarkable second wind pushes him from the Lendl-Wilander domain into the true-legend category. As for predicting the remainder of his career, a 2000 Grand Slam sweep is a loooooooongshot. But he ain't done winning majors just quite yet.

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

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