Work in Sports
Posted: Monday July 10, 2000 01:07 PM
Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions weekly. Click here to send a question.
LONDON -- In very different ways, it was now or never for both Wimbledon champs. The meter running on his career, the odometer on his body down to its last clicks, Pete Sampras achieved his holy grail, beating Pat Rafter to win his 13th Grand Slam and eclipse Roy Emerson's record. History may remember this Wimbledon as the Pete Sampras Invitational as he faced no seeds until the final. But that only made his challenge more difficult. Had he not achieved his long-avowed goal under such favorable circumstances, would he ever have another chance? Under immense pressure, Sampras submerged concerns about his assorted injuries and summoned some of his best tennis of the year. With his parents making a rare appearance in the stands, he not only succeeded in his decade-long quest, but took a giant step toward rendering moot the "best ever" debate.
Though only 20, Venus Williams was also at a crucial point of a career. Since reaching the U.S. Open final three years ago, her career has been marked by injuries and underachievement, compounded by the ascent of her little sister, Serena, whom most observers had deemed the better player. Somehow when her father floated the rumor this spring that Venus was pondering retirement, it didn't seem altogether preposterous. Yet just as the world was starting to play pop psychologist at her expense, she registered the first Grand Slam title of her career, beating world No.1 Martina Hingis, her sister, and defending champ Lindsay Davenport in succession. She still has a long way to go before she emulates her role model, a fellow named Sampras, and etches her name in record books. But after her play last week, retirement couldn't be a more distant thought.
So did Jan-Michael Gambill get lucky at Wimbledon or is he emerging as a top 20 player? I believe I read in your column a few years ago that he was going through a late growth spurt. Has this helped his game? How has he changed his playing style to take advantage of his new height?
Yeah, after his out-of-nowhere run at Indian Wells in 1998, Gambill was untracked by an unexpected growth spurt that saw him sprout to nearly 6' 4". After some middling results earlier this year, he came together at Wimbledon where he fought well but lost to Sampras in the quarters. I'm not sure he took pains to adapt his game to his height, but he definitely added some juice to the serve and has more reach at the net than he once did. (On the other hand, a guy 6' 4" just has no excuse for hitting a two-fisted forehand.)
It's hard to say he got lucky, given his draw: taking out Lleyton Hewitt and Thomas Enqvist (even on grass) in the same event is big-time. At the same time, grass probably complements his style more than any other surface. He hits a big serve, strikes the ball cleanly from the backcourt and showed some deft touch at the net last week. With little aptitude on clay, a top 20 ranking might be pushing it, but if he puts together a nice hardcourt season, it's not out of the question.
One trifling complaint about Gambill: He's an awfully nice guy and is handling his stardom (such as it is) with poise. But I wish he'd lose the Jaguar shtick. At a time when tennis is desperate to shed its upper crust image and furnish players to whom kids can relate, it's hard to stomach a pro who's won one career title talk incessantly about owning six of the most expensive cars in the world. Any of you share this beef?
Don't you think that Anna Smashnova got off lightly for deliberately aiming a ball into the crowd and striking a woman? Several years back Tim Henman was defaulted from Wimbledon when he accidentally hit a ballgirl after striking a ball in anger. Smashnova deliberately hit a spectator (although the wrong one) and only got a fine. Isn't there a standard rule as to when players are defaulted and when they are fined?
In keeping with her name, Smashnova became angered when she thought her opponent's husband was giggling after her errors. So she did what any good sport would and rifled a ball at him. Problem was, it missed and konked an innocent spectator instead. In truth, she ought to have been defaulted then and there. Alan Mills, the tournament ref, said there are no hard, fast rules for punishing a player for this kind of misconduct. You're right, though, Henman was DQ'd for essentially the same act a few years ago. After the incident, Smashnova was contrite and even shed a few tears. If my childhood is any indication, that's always a good ploy when seeking leniency. Also, she won her match, so perhaps the officials were reluctant to halt her progress. Bottom line: it was judgment call and she got lucky.
Now that Lilia Osterloh has made the Round of 16 at Wimbledon, what are your thoughts on her tennis future? She does have an NCAA title from Stanford, but this is the farthest she has advanced in a major tournament. Is she going to be a former college player with a lot of potential who just lurks out there (see Lisa Raymond) or can she crack the top 15?
Osterloh is a nice enough player but I think she's lucky to get to Lisa Raymond status. She had a nice run here, reaching the Sweet 16, she registered some nice wins earlier this year and she hits a clean ball. But otherwise, she's relatively small, plays a lot of loose points and can't serve her way out of trouble. Her match against Magui Serna in Round 4 showed there's still along way to go. Let's leave aside the top 15. If she ever gets within the top 30 it will be an achievement.
Lleyton Hewitt's latest debacle just confirms for me that, although he is only 19 and arguably still developing, he is definitely a big-event choker. You do not go beating up on Pete Sampras on grass at Queen's and then lose in straight sets to Jan-Michael Gambill at Wimbledon's Centre Court just days after declaring you were ready for the big stage. Granted Gambill played very well, but so did Sampras in the Queen's final. Hewitt is a choker, you have to agree with me on this.
Easy there, Voshon. Give the kid a break. First, it's hard to label any player a choker when he's barely had two full years on the tour. Second, the guy is money in Davis Cup matches, which are saturated with more pressure than any first-round match at a Slam. Third, I saw the Gambill match in person and Hewitt didn't play that badly, or nervously -- his opponent simply served out of his head. I agree that Hewitt has under-performed in the 2000 Slams, but let's wait a bit before anointing him tennis's answer to Scott Norwood.
One statement in your column from last Monday caught my attention: "Rusedski, one of the least popular players on tour to begin with...". This I didn't know. Why is Rusedski unpopular among the other players?
My moles tell me that the perception in the locker room is that Grinning Greg is something other than sincere and has never been accused of being a sportsman. He's also looked down upon for having switched his nationality from Canadian, once he realized there was more money to be made aligning himself with British tennis.
Did anybody audition Martina Navratilova before adding her to the announcing team? She is terrible. How about Marv Albert? Does he have a clue? He probably thinks the serve comes "from downtown!"
Lots of questions about this. Fact is, being in England, I didn't see any of the U.S. television coverage so I'm not really in a position to comment. Just be glad Luke Jensen wasn't pried from the ESPN booth. Better to have serves come "from downtown" than "from downtown, dude."
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