Even on clay, the artistic shotmaker is helpless before today's big hitters
It was a week of adieus at the French Open. Playing Paris for the last time, Michael Chang, the 1989 champion, left in tears after his first-round loss. Three-time winner Monica Seles, in pain from a chronic foot injury, also lost her first match, and she admitted that her career might soon be over. Pete Sampras had sent word from Los Angeles that it's likely he's through playing. Martina Hingis made a cameo appearance on the grounds of Roland Garros and reiterated that she, too, is finie. Even Air France's Concorde, the top players' preferred mode of transport to Paris, flew its final flight last week.
It seems we can also bid farewell to the tennis player as stylist. Time was, the sport accommodated ethereal players- Maria Bueno, John McEnroe and Hingis, to name three—who performed like jazz musicians and trusted their instincts. No longer.
Last Thursday, France's Fabrice Santoro, a shotmaker so clever that he's nicknamed the Magician, was up to his usual tricks against the Netherlands' Sjeng Schalken. Using two hands from both sides, he sliced and diced, made headlong dashes to the net, and unfurled drop shots with the delicacy of a parent placing a blanket over a sleeping baby. It was spectacularly entertaining. It was also, alas, spectacularly ineffective. Santoro's guile was no match for the penetrating flat strokes of Schalken, who won in straight sets.
Simultaneously, Morocco's Hicham Arazi, another capricious and flashy player, was getting his chapeau handed to him by Gustavo Kuerten, 6-1, 6-0, 6-1. Later in the day France's Marion Bartoli, perhaps the most creative player on the women's tour, had no response to Jennifer Capriati's power and lost quickly.
Predictably, the initial autopsy on the death of whimsy in tennis shotmaking blames technology (and the power it creates). "Most of the fault lies with the rackets," says Martina Navratilova. "A finesse player like McEnroe would have a hard time today because of the power."
But the explanation is more nuanced than that. The players' vastly improved athleticism means that drop shots are more easily retrieved, topspin lobs are more likely to be picked off as overheads, angles are increasingly hard to manufacture. Also, there is a conspicuous lack of variety in playing styles. Most players take big cuts on their forehands, run around their backhands, treat the net as terra incognita and take few risks. "It's easier to play my game when the opponents take chances," says Santoro. "It's harder to play clever when the court never opens up."
But if Santoro, 30, is in danger of becoming an extinct tennis species, he keeps a sense of humor about it. "It is hard to survive everywhere as an artist," he says. "Why should tennis be different?"
Up-and-comer Vera Zvonareva
From Russia, With Pace
In just a few years, the upper reaches of the women's tour may be overtaken by Russian players. The main draw at Roland Garros last week featured a dozen former Soviettes, five of them seeded, nine of them in their early 20s or younger. The most promising is Vera Zvonareva, 18, a compact Muscovite whose face invariably turns borscht-red midway through the first set of her matches. At last year's French Open, Zvonareva was an unknown before she qualified, won her first three matches and took a set off eventual champ Serena Williams before wilting. This year she went to Paris ranked No. 21 and breezed through the first three rounds before toughing out a three-set win over Venus Williams on Sunday.