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Safin has a good shot at No. 1

Click here for more on this story
Latest: Monday September 11, 2000 07:42 PM


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

Stay tuned next week for a new Mailbag feature: Long Lost Siblings.

An overstuffed bag of post-Open questions, so without ado ..

Of all the Grand Slams, which has the best and worst courts and stadiums? What makes one better than the other?
--LeeAnn, Lexington, Mass.

After going to all four this year, here's how I rank them:

1) French: You sit in an intimate stadium eating brie and raspberries on a brioche as the sun reflects on the red clay and figure whatever the scalpers are charging is a good deal. Players not named Martina Hingis love it too: skid on the least taxing surface and then take in Paris.

2) Australia: The court surface is too fast and the stadium is a bit sterile. But the people are so overwhelmingly nice, the players are at their most congenial, and the tennis tends to be first rate. The players love it: it has the field and prize money of a major, with the laid-back aura and media presence of the Indianapolis tournament.

3) Wimbledon: It's hard to underestimate the tradition and the quaintness of the place. Players, though, feel like they're shabbily treated. And it is a bit strange that the most prestigious tournament is played on the most aberrant surface.

4) U.S Open: The opposite of Wimbledon. The surface is the democratic and, in my mind, it tends to elicit the best tennis. On the other hand, the event is utterly chaotic, obscenely commercial and lacks anything resembling good taste.

Do you think Marat Safin will be No. 1 some day?
--Hawa Batwash, Israel


In a recent Mailbag, you received a question concerning the possible budding rivalry between Gustavo Kuerten and Marat Safin. However, a Kuerten-Magnus Norman rivalry appears more likely. What do you think? The two have been trading places in the Champions Race top spots practically the entire year, battled it out in Rome and Hamburg, as well as the Roland Garros Championship. I also recall (again, I could be wrong) Norman saying that he wanted another chance at Kuerten after losing to him in the fourth round of last year's U.S. Open, where Norman had to retire. Another question, who do you think, of the two, has the more potential of dominating tennis, as well as attracting more tennis fans? (The latter part is a bit biased toward Guga, but I am a Guga fanatic.)
--Katherine, New Jersey

First, I'll indulge your bias and say that if tennis has to rely on Magnus to attract fans, we're in some trouble. Guga -- and Safin as well -- is more colorful, both in his game and his appearance/persona. Guga and Norman have had some dramatic clashes this year, including the French final. But it's a lot of heavy baseline hitting. The two matches I've seen between Safin and Kuerten have featured a lot of variety and a compelling contrast in styles. Along the same lines, I look forward to seeing Hewitt and Safin play on a regular basis.

Andre Agassi and Michael Chang lose early, Todd Martin is injured most of the time, as is Sampras. Jim Courier is already gone. Which player will be the next from the Great Generation to hang up his racket? And who do you think will play on the longest?
--Aasmund Aadnoy, Stavanger, Norway

Good question that was the source of much speculation this week. I may have had a different answer in two weeks but as things stand today, I might predict that Agassi is the next shoe to drop. He vowed that if his career ever went into free-fall again, there would be second encore. Another early exit in a Slam and it's hard to see him out here much longer. Todd Martin will marry his ubiquitous fiancée Amy (she got more air time during the Open than Tracy Austin) in December, I believe. This will doubtless sap him of his strength, rob his resolve and blunt his intensity. He goes next. Sampras, too, will face the Delilah of marriage. Pete, though, at 80 percent still beats most players at their best. Even with his injuries and aversion to travel he's still got a few years left. I say the last to go is Chang. Ironically, he's had the worst results of the four in recent years. But he's so determined and tenacious -- and seems to have so few other distractions -- I can't see him leaving until the bitter end.

Do you think Damir Dokic can complete his career Grand Slam next Spring in Paris, becoming the first person man or woman to be thrown out of all four majors?
--Robert Pettry, Beckley, W. Va.

A career Slam, as it were. And to think: he's only been on the circuit for less than two years. Ordinarily, I'd say yes, particularly if the Beaujolais nouveau is flowing. But everything I've heard indicates a ban is forthcoming.

Couldn't agree more with your article on the Woodies. I will miss them. My only question: The outcome of a Woodbridge/Woodforde match against McEnroe/Fleming?
--Bill Wendt, Lawrence, Kan.

Obviously neither of the Woodies are in the same area code as Mac as singles player. But they play so well as a team, I think they attack Fleming's backhand and win in three sets.

Can we send Anna Kournikova a copy of Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly? I think he would be a great coach for her once Agassi retires.
--Jason Englisbe, Simpsonville, S.C.

I'm not sure if you're joking, but I've thought the same thing. Kournikova is tennis' answer to the NBA's tweener. Like a player who's neither a shooting guard nor a small forward, Kournikova is ill-equipped to simply bang from the baseline with the Williams sisters, Davenport or Pierce. At the same time, she's not instinctively clever, poised or creative enough to emulate Hingis or even Arantxa Sanchez Vicario . Her best option is some kind of "junk" tennis, where she learns first to hustle and second to combine a slice or a looping forehand with her flat strokes. The results may be hard on the eyes (insert joke here) but it would be better in the long run than the strategically vacant tennis she's played up to this point.

I was surprised to see Martina Hingis playing mixed doubles at the Open as well as women's, until Mary Pierce dropped out. It's my guess that Hingis figured Pierce was a good bet to default because of her shoulder, and entered the mixed as a back-up. I can't see Hingis sticking with Pierce as a partner for doubles, as their results have been disappointing for the year. Has there been any talk or speculation? Wouldn't it be wild to have the two Martina's as partners?
--Mary Durkin, Los Angeles

I can't imagine Hingis and Pierce sticking together much longer either. After reaching the finals in Australia and winning in Paris, the Pierce-Hingis consortium hasn't done much. (My moles also tell me that after the loss at Wimbledon, Melanie Molitor and David Pierce got into a shouting match over strategy outside the locker room.) Perhaps it's wishful thinking on the part of the fans and writers desperate at a too-easy storyline. But I think a Martina-Martina pairing would be outstanding.

I've written you before about your prejudice against small players and you keep reinforcing that it's all because of physics and physical ability. And I will also agree with you that if Amanda Coetzer or Anna Smashova were six inches taller, they'd be more competitive in the power department with the likes of Lindsay Davenport. However, you seem to rave a lot about Justine Henin even though she is only 5'3". What impressed me most is her ability to serve as hard as Davenport. How do you explain that? Does her ability to hit a big ball finally convince you that just because someone is small doesn't mean he or she can't hit hard?
--Leo, Quezon City, Philippines

I never said just because someone is small it precludes them from hitting hard. Just look at the men's tour, where most of the top young players -- with the glaring exception of Safin -- (i.e. Clement, Hewitt, Ferrero, Mariano Puerta ) could be mistaken for ballboys. I believe I wrote (at least I intended to write) that in women's tennis, it's becoming increasingly difficult for smaller women to enter that elite realm regardless of how clean their strokes might be. Henin, who is 5-6 -- not 5-3 -- by the way, is a brilliant player who hits a big ball and moves well. Still, didn't she lose that match, 6-0, 6-4, in large part because she was outhit?

How about some credit to Wayne Arthurs? The man has played spectacular tennis in the past few weeks -- nearly knocked Corretja out of the Legg Mason (Corretja was arguably saved by some bad umpire calls), and has put together a heck of a run at U.S. Open. Not bad for an old man.
--Stephan, Washington, D.C.

Not bad at all. For a player who's older than I am, Arthurs has had not just a great run here but a great end of his career. Here's a guy who, at age 24 (when he should have been in his prime) was ranked No. 1,013 in the world. As age 30 approaches, he's having the best year of his career.

With the competitiveness of women's tennis today do you think any one of the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova or Lindsay Davenport or the up-and-coming young guns could ever win at least 10 or more Grand Slams singles titles individually? If yes, who would be your bet?
--Rucel, Davao City, Philippines

That's it? Just 10 Grand Slams? Given that eight players have won the past 12 Slams, I'd say it's unlikely. As we saw this week, it's so hard to dominate with this field. Beat Serena and you still have to face Venus. Beat Hingis and you still have to face Lindsay. My guess is if the stars are align (and fashion school or another random pursuits don't beckon) Venus or Serena could win eight and nine more, respectively. It's a tall order, but they are only 18 and 20. On the other hand, it's worth bearing in mind that by the time she was Venus' age, Steffi Graf had already won the Grand Slam as well an Olympic gold medal.

Do the players usually stay in the same hotel and do they do so at their own expense? Or are they hosted by the tournament or others? What about the cost of airfare? For the lower-ranked players who don't earn a lot of money playing on the WTA circuit it must be very expensive and, for many, not profitable. I imagine they're happy to make enough money to pay the year's expenses. I can't imagine doing so much continual travelling for 11 months. It must be grueling.
--William Swint, Albany, N.Y.

It's unbelievably grueling. Players receive some comp lodging, based on what tier of tournament they're playing (the higher the tier the more gratis hotels) and whether they're still in the draw. As a rule, players disgorge in the neighborhood of $30,000-40,000 a year in expenses, most of it fully-changeable air fare. In short, a player outside the top 100 is barely breaking even.

Is the U.S. Open the only Grand Slam where play is scheduled at night? Working the graveyard shift is paradigmatic of the American labor culture, but I wonder how foreign players, say Carlos Moya, feel about having to be on the court at one o'clock in the morning.
--Chris Taty, Memphis

Yes and no. The Australian has night matches, and while the French and Wimbledon have no lights because the sun doesn't set till late at night in the summer, you can watch matches until 9:30 or so.

I was impressed by Carlos Moya's victory over Alex Corretja and his close five-setter against Todd Martin. Do those performances mean that Moya is on his way back to the top of the game?
--Elena Portman, Columbus, Ohio

You'd think so, provided he doesn't go by way of Greg Rusedski after losing such a dramatic match. There were reports that Moya was going to pull out of the Open with the same back injury that's been plaguing him for the better part of the past year. Then he comes within a point of the semifinals. Unlike Rusedski, who gagged and couldn't put away a reeling Martin, Moya was outright beaten. The quality of tennis at the match was extraordinarily high and despite the disappointing outcome, you'd think he'd be encouraged by his overall play. (All that said, the top of his game and top of the points race/rankings are two distinct destinations.)

I've got some questions about your favorite mixed-doubles love match. How good a doubles player is Lleyton Hewitt? He's made the doubles finals of a couple of Grand Slams, but I've never seen him play doubles. Is he a good volleyer or does he simply pick good partners? Also, now that Kim Clijsters has been "Ms. Love Hewitt" for a while, has she taken down her poster of Pat Rafter?
--Monica Williams, Cleveland

No word on the Clijsters décor.

Hewitt has never impressed me with his volleying in singles -- in fact, I wish he'd come in more, but I fear he lacks the confidence. In doubles, however, he proved this week that he has good instincts and a nice set of hands. Also, the ungodly reserves of intensity he possesses serve him well on those few big points that make or break an entire set in doubles. After their success here, I look for Hewitt and Mirnyi to be a full-time team.

What do I have to do to get washboard abs like Jan-Michael Gambill?
--Mark Almeter, Washington, D.C.

Do crunches instead of playing Olympic tennis.

I'm writing this on Thursday, so I don't know how he's going to end up doing, but how do you think the tennis public will remember Todd Martin's career? He seems to rival Jana Novotna in the gag department (and even Jana has a Wimbledon), but he also can't seem to go through an event without winning a match from two sets down. Will Todd be remembered as a nice guy who can get fired up when given time, or as someone who could have accomplished much more? (And, by the way, you still haven't given your list of good Wallace Shawn movies.)
--Joe, Madison, Wis.

I think the former. Unlike Novotna, Martin has never distinguished himself for athleticism or the aesthetic pleasure one receives from watching him play. In one of my harsher moments I think I once described him as having the comportment, if not the mobility, of Abe Lincoln. Yes, he gift-wrapped two matches at Wimbledon, but it's hard to affix the choker label to a player who rallied from two sets down to pull off two of the most stunning matches in recent memory. Also, you correctly infer that Martin's demeanor, sense of humor and overall "good guy-ness" will help ensure that he's recalled fondly.

As for my neighbor Wallace Shawn, I can't recall promising you any compendium, but I'm a sucker for these lists, so ...

1) Radio Days

2) Princess Bride

3) The Bostonians

4) Bedroom Window

5) Clueless

Incidentally, I'd rather watch Conchita Martinez plays five sets than sit through My Dinner With Andre again.

Finally, here's an intriguing correspondence from Jeff Davis of Denver (former Confederacy President turned tennis fan?) about tennis in Africa:

"Jon, this is not a question, but more of an embellishment to your comment on black African tennis players. I lived in Africa for 10 years (working as a Peace Corps volunteer and then as an education technical advisor to governments) and was an avid tennis player for the final three years. It's where I learned to play. I took lessons from and hit often with African players from countries such as Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Benin. There are some terrific African players, but most of them are rough around the edges in terms of technique, strategy and training. The reasons for the shortage of world-class black African players are the following:

"1. There are virtually no coaches.

2. There's very little money for support.

3. The existence of tournaments is rare.

"Each of the countries usually has a tennis federation of some kind. The federation receives money at times from an international federation. Usually, the money is mismanaged (by local officials) and does not go to help the players.

"It's really a shame, because, as I say, there are some fine African athletes. And many of them love to play tennis. I believe that African tennis players could develop in the same way as their football (soccer) players and runners do, if only given a chance."

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

Related information
Jon Wertheim's Tennis Hot List: Sept. 11
Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag Archive
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