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Roddick excites American fans

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Monday May 07, 2001 12:26 PM

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

Some random jottings: Pretty soon, seats on the Andy Roddick bandwagon are going to be available through scalpers only. ... Venus Williams will be your 2001 French Open women's champion. ... From the rumor mill: TNT officials are trying to talk Charles Barkley into providing television commentary at Wimbledon. (If he's looking to get in shape for the upcoming NBA season, two weeks of the "food" at the Wimbledon cafeteria can't hurt.) However, no truth to the rumor that, in a swap, Tracy Austin is being courted for NBA playoffs telecasts. ... We have a Magnus Larsson sighting: Out of action for nearly a year following knee surgery, our man fell in the second round of the U.S. Clay Courts. Still, good to see him back. ... Likewise, nice to see Patty Schnyder string together a few good wins -- against the struggling Barbara Schett and Conchita Martinez -- in Hamburg. Schnyder has never been the same since her odd entanglement in 1999 with "guru" Rainer Harnecker. Here's hoping this is the start of a return to the top 10 for the talented lefty.

In case we weren't sure who she was, Anna Kournikova has been showing up at assorted NHL games in a leather number with the letters A-N-N-A embroidered on the side. Yep, she hates unnecessary publicity. ... Yevgeny Kafelnikov may have outdone himself in losing an early-round match to Werner Eschauer (a German chancellor or a little-known qualifier?) last week. ... Major props to the Canadian Fed Cup team. During last week's dustup against Venezuela, Sonya Jeyaseelan blew a gasket after losing a singles match and, among other rage-fueled antics, whizzed a ball into the stands. The team decided that Jeyaseelan's outburst was sufficiently grave to warrant benching her for the decisive doubles match. With their best player on the sidelines, the Canadians dropped both the match and the tie. But they did so with dignity in tact. ... WTA Tour CEO Bart McGuire recently announced that he will step down at the end of the season. ... Maybe it's just the samurai ponytail, but to my eyes Roger Federer looks an awful lot like the Sacramento Kings' dirty-work warrior, Scot Pollard.

Onward ...

I know that you have been touting Andy Roddick as an emerging star for the last year or so. With his recent results on the tour, your predictions have certainly panned out. Now here's one to go out on a limb for: Do you think Roddick has a chance to sneak up on everybody and win the French Open, à la Michael Chang? What surface do you think his game is best suited for?
—Phil O'Donaghue, Florence, Mass.

Easy there, Phil. Andy Roddick is a wonderful young player, the likes of which the U.S. hasn't produced in more than a decade. Winning two straight events on clay is serious business. But let's hold onto our hats and resist the temptation to anoint him as a Grand Slam contender quite yet. Lost amid the buzz of his Key Biscayne dissection of Pete Sampras was his routine, straight-set loss to Lleyton Hewitt a few rounds later. (And let's throw a little water on his fire and point out that he didn't have to play a top opponent in either Atlanta or Houston.) In the span of just a few months, Roddick has cast aside the "potential" tag and shown that he's "the goods," a rare talent with a big-time serve, all-court prowess and, perhaps above all, a strong will to win. But he's not ready to win 21 sets of tennis, particularly not on clay. If you're looking for a young player to break out in Paris, Juan Carlos Ferrero is a much better bet.

Like most Americans, Roddick's game is best suited to a medium hard court. As he said after he beat Sampras in Miami, the conditions were nearly ideal for his game. Still, part of what makes him so promising is his versatility. Thanks in no small part to his coach, Tarik Benhabiles, Roddick has precocious talent on clay, as evidenced by his performance these past few weeks; his big serve and his net play would appear to make him a threat on grass; and he ought to do fine indoors.

Maybe it's the same in all sports, but I've noticed that in tennis the media is very quick to anoint or dethrone players on the basis of relatively few events. For example, when Andy Roddick won his first ATP tournament, that seemed to cement his position as heir apparent to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Doesn't this put needless pressure on young players and contribute to them flaming out? Why can't we wait for future legends to earn their accolades? Is it so that writers have something to write about when the players finally crack? I don't mean you, of course; only lesser talents need resort to this.
—Scott Rohr, Minneapolis

Thanks. Far be it from me to so much as mention Roddick's name until he wins a Slam. Your question is a valid one, but I think you're being a wee bit harsh on us media types. Part of the fun of sports is the human element, the soap-opera drama: Characters fade in and out, fortunes waver, upstarts try to unseat champions. Like picking a promising stock, finding an up-and-coming band or spotting an undiscovered restaurant, part of our job is to try and reveal the Next Big Thing before it becomes just that. We would be derelict in our duty if we waited until Roddick won Wimbledon before covering him and speculating on his long-term potential. Is there "needless pressure" on his 18-year-old shoulders? Probably. On the other hand, in part because of his "heir apparent" status, as you put it, he's been able to get a whopping guarantee from SFX, a shoe deal and tournament wild cards. No harm, no foul.

With Roddick, context is important as well. His success comes at a time when there is but one American under age 25 ( Jan-Michael Gambill ) in the top 50, the U.S. Davis Cup team has lost two straight ties, and there hasn't been a Yank with legit Grand Slam potential in more than a decade. After countless prospects -- Ivan Baron, James Blake, Justin Gimelstob, Mike Russell, the Bryan brothers, Rudy Rake, Mike Joyce, etc, etc. -- were hyped, unfairly perhaps, only to struggle to crack the top 50, Roddick's encouraging early results are writ particularly large.

Given Andre Agassi's inspired play of late and Pete Sampras' descent into mediocrity, I've wondered what Andre would have to accomplish to be considered to have had the better career. I think the argument could be made that Andre's career Grand Slam is more impressive than anything Pete has done and warrants rating him at least Pete's equal. But Pete's seven Wimbledon crowns are difficult to ignore. I think if Andre wins two more Slams, he will have had the better career, given his superior all-around game and Pete's ineptitude on clay. What's your take? If Andre wins the Grand Slam this year, you would clearly agree that his career accomplishments best Pete's, correct?
—Jonathan Cantor, New York

I think most of us are in agreement that the distance between Sampras and Agassi is narrowing quickly. Lots of you downplay Sampras' seven Wimbledons, arguing that he simply has an unrivaled talent for playing on an aberrant surface. Fair enough. But here's another statistic regarding Sampras that can't be brushed aside as easily as a bead of sweat on an eyebrow: Sampras finished six straight years as the top player in the game and hasn't been ranked lower than No. 6 since 1989. This isn't merely excellence; this is sustained excellence. Agassi's rescuing his career from the rankings hinterlands -- he's become practically as tied to the number 141 as Roger Maris is to the number 61 -- makes for a great story. But it doesn't exactly make him a benchmark for consistency.

As for your hypotheticals, if Andre wins two more Slams -- and, as implied, Pete is done winning majors -- you could make a credible case that he's had the better career. (I for one wouldn't buy it, but you wouldn't be laughed out of the room.) If Andre wins the Grand Slam this year, admittedly the longest of long shots, he eclipses Pete. He would have three fewer career Slams, but his mastery of all surfaces and his double career Slam would compensate.

One final controversial point that cuts in Agassi's favor: When history makes its final assessment, his aura, his rock-star appeal and his flamboyance will surely earn him special dispensation. As evidenced by our discussion two months ago, Sampras supporters will complain that a player's legacy ought to be limited to wins, titles and records, not the cult of personality. But let's face it: Image is, if not everything, at least something. Otherwise Mats Wilander would be considered the equal of John McEnroe.

When I was watching the coverage of Monte Carlo, every match featured Guillermo Coria! Is this guy supposed to be the next big thing or what? Is he a French Open contender of the future?
—Dan, Toronto

Willie Coria is indeed Next Big Thing material, especially on clay. He reached the finals at Mallorca last weekend, losing to Alberto Martin in three sets. En route he beat Tommy Robredo, another young player on the make, with strong clay-court results. One more young French Open sleeper: Juan Acususo.

Which male player has won the most different Masters Series events? In other words, of the nine events, who has won the most of those nine?
—Jason Englisbe, Simpsonville, S.C.

Good question. By my unofficial count, among active players, three have won five of the nine. Sampras, Agassi and ... anyone? ... anyone? ... Bueller? ... anyone? ... Marcelo Rios. Michael Chang has taken four. Thomas Enqvist has won three. Gustavo Kuerten has bagged three as well, not including the Masters Cup -- though it says here that he has a shot at winning all nine before he retires. Here's a bit of trivia: For all of his Grand Slam success, Kafelnikov has never won a Masters Series event. Nor has Hewitt, Todd Martin or Tim Henman.

What has happened to Sandrine Testud? For a while, she was keeping up with the top players. I remember a few instances where she had the chance to beat Lindsay Davenport but just couldn't finish her off. Now she has really slipped in the rankings and is not doing so hot. What's going on?
—Steven Baker, St. Louis

Testud has always been one of those players who has played well against the "Big Babe Brigade," as a reader last week put it, but has never had the certain je ne sais quoi to pull out the match. Today, Testud fights nagging injuries, she's pushing 30 and, though she travels with husband/coach Vittorio Magnelli, doesn't seem particularly happy on the court. Can't imagine her playing more than another year or so.

OK, this isn't the mother of all tennis questions but, with the Slams rapidly approaching and given how often players (without naming any particular siblings, of course) have been pulling out of tournaments lately, what's the difference between a "default" and a "walkover"? I tend to think of them as synonyms.
—Jordan Segura, San Francisco

You lost me with that sly siblings reference. The Rochus brothers aren't known for pulling out of tournaments. To whom else could you possibly be referring?

Seriously, a default and a walkover are quite different. Walkovers are awarded when players cannot compete because of injury. A default is occasioned when a player commits a violation(s) of the code of conduct sufficient to end the match. While an injured player who hands an opponent a walkover does not lose money, a defaulted player forfeits all points and prize money earned during the week and takes a zero pointer in the ESP ranking. A third class of stoppage: A player who retires during the match with an injury is given a "retirement."

In response to last week's question on seeding, you didn't mention what I see as the main problem with a seeding committee. Given the importance of high-profile matchups and TV ratings, who is to say that the subjective evaluations of grass- or clay-court performance isn't actually a way of making sure that, say, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras or Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski are placed far enough away from each other in the draw to ensure that they won't meet as early as they otherwise might with straight-up seedings based on rankings. Aren't you suspicious of this kind of manipulation as well, or as a tennis journalist are you on "their side" on this one?
—Steve Griesemer, Chicago

Did you know you share your name with an Ivy League tennis legend known for his doubles aptitude and his mysteriously youthful good looks? As for your take, it's a little too Paul -is-dead, magic-bullet-theory conspiratorial for me. True, an indirect consequence of subjective seeding is that, as a tournament progresses, there is a likelihood of more ratings-friendly matchups. But given that tennis is a worldwide sport, who's to say a late-round match between Agassi and Kuerten (a player who, theoretically, will be victimized by the seedings) will draw lower ratings than, say, Agassi-Henman?

I think what's ultimately driving Wimbledon's seeding decision is the notion that a player's seeding ought to reflect his ability to advance in that particular tournament. And regardless of what the rankings say, Pat Rafter, for instance -- who wouldn't have been seeded last year had the Wimble-dons gone by the book -- deserves a nod over Albert Costa, who's never advanced past the second round at the All England. Besides, "manipulating" competition in order to generate better ratings is all the rage in other sports. Why else does it take longer to play a first-round, best-of-five NBA playoff series than it does to play a Grand Slam?

Why isn't Don Budge considered the best male tennis player ever? He had every shot in the bag and won everything.
—Paul Morgan, Detroit

Because he played in long pants.

Since John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova each would love nothing more than one more Wimbledon mixed doubles title, why on earth won't they play together? Is there some ancient enmity I am unaware of? Couldn't they win for the next five years?
—Ezra Perlman, San Francisco

Good question. Alas, I don't have a good answer. While McEnroe is no favorite among the women, I know of no specific enmity with Navratilova. Mac was burned playing mixed doubles with Steffi Graf two years ago, so maybe that has something to do with it. I do, however, have this Mac-related rumor to pass on: He and Boris Becker may be entering as a doubles team.

FINALLY, THIS submission comes from ATP communications manager David Law in Monaco. The section on the Williams sisters is classic ...

"Still want to know what happened to Karsten Braasch (as a user inquired in your Mailbag last November)? I interviewed him recently, so read on:

"Karsten Braasch will forever be remembered as the man with the uncoachable serve, who smoked like a chimney, scared Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, and beat both the Williams sisters in the same afternoon. Braasch is a polite, intelligent man, but even at 33, his tennis days are far from over, as he's proving this week at the Mallorca Open in doubles with partner Jens Knippschild . So what is it that keeps the German going? 'I'm still having fun,' he explains.

"But how on earth did he learn that remarkable serve, which sees him run, jump and launch his body at the ball in the most bizarre fashion? 'I think everyone learns his own style,' says Braasch. 'Agassi, Sampras -- nobody taught them to play the way they do. With me it was just a normal development, and as long as it is working, it doesn't matter.'

"Sampras found out just how well it worked at Wimbledon in 1995. Returning as the defending champion for the second time, the American walked onto Centre Court for their first-round encounter, probably expecting to steamroll Braasch in about an hour. But the German played by his own rules, and with a mix of delicate chips and thunderous drives he won the second set to level matters at one apiece, and looked capable of pulling off one of the biggest shocks in Wimbledon history. Digging deep, Sampras prevailed, but he paid tribute to his opponent. "He's a pain to play," said Sampras.

"The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, wouldn't argue with that assessment. Their request for a male opponent at the 1998 Australian Open was met by the German, who had been on the golf course all morning. This is how Braasch remembers the day: 'They came into the ATP Office and said that they would like to play one of the men. I just happened to be in the room and they were saying that they thought they could beat someone who was ranked 200 in the world. At the time I was No. 203 and I said, "If you think you can beat me, we can go out there right now." With Serena, the score was 6-1 and then Venus came and asked to play, and I said, "If you want to play, we can play." That was 6-2. When they first came in they were looking at the media guide because they had seen someone practicing who they thought they could beat, and they wanted to know who it was. It was Francisco Clavet. When they said that, there were 10 guys on the floor. Afterward, Venus spoke to the press and said that maybe she could actually beat someone who was 350 in the world. But the thing is that I was due to lose all my points from the 1997 Australian Open the next week, so I told the press, "We can do it again next week when I am 350 if you like!"'

"Three years later Braasch has no plans for a rematch. 'I don't think it's necessary,' he says. 'I don't think after that match that you heard anything about men and women's tennis from the Williams sisters. Sometimes when I walk past them at a Grand Slam, they don't say anything, maybe they don't see me, but maybe they are a little bit embarrassed.'

"Braasch is known for having a rather unusual fitness regime to go with his unorthodox style of play. He smokes 15 cigarettes each day and he's fond of having a beer or two (he admits to having drunk a couple of 'shandies' the morning of the matches with the Williams sisters). But Braasch has shown that he can compete with the best. In a career spanning 14 years, he has racked up wins over Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl among others, and his proudest moment was playing in the Davis Cup for Germany. At 33, he won't be around forever, but retirement isn't in the cards yet. 'As long as I can still compete, and as long as people still want to watch me and don't say, "What's this old guy doing out there?" I will play.'"

Click here to send a question or comment to Jon Wertheim.

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