August 25, 2000


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Where's the depth?

Rohit Brijnath

John Patrick McEnroe would stand arms akimbo, his face contorted in fury, spewing invective, behaving like a teenage undertrial who'd got lost on a tennis court.

James Scott Connors would point his racket like a phallic symbol, grab his crotch, give the crowd the finger, and say things to umpires that weren't in any form a Sunday morning church greeting.

People will tell you they were lousy role models, their behaviour reprehensible, their manner uncouth.

You know what I say. Find their number, give them a call, fall on bended knee, and plead: guys, come back.

So Jimbo is 48, and Mac is 41, and they're better at changing nappies than hammering forehands, but tell me this: wouldn't a fiesty Connors, the same guy who roared his way to the US Open semi-finals at 39, still be more fun on his creaky legs than brooding Tim Henman or Magnus Norman who's got just about a little more personality than a wall clock.

Truth is men's tennis sucks, it's boring, tedious, unimaginative, like spending three days at a convention of used car salesmen. Two days ago I told my friend David McMahon, a Wimbledon-visiting-tennis-writer once if you please, that I prayed that Marat Safin would stop breaking rackets and win a Grand Slam, at least get to a final, and he turned around and said, "Marat who?".

Not his fault, tennis is peopled by men who leave no memory. Kuerten, Norman, Safin and Henman sounds like a second grade law firm, not No.1, 2, 4 and 10 on the ATP Champions Race list. Kuerten, for instance, is a double French Open champion and all-round good guy, but the man who turned pro five years ago, leads the ATP Champions race and is No.2 seed at the US Open won his first hardcourt title last week!!!

For years McEnroe has been crying that sitting at tennis matches has all the excitement of watching clothes dry. We've had Pete Sampras and his clinical genius, we've had Andre Agassi's off-Broadway theatrics, we've had……nothing else. Jesus, even Henri Leconte, who never won nothing, but played like Indiana Jones let loose on a tennis court, would be welcome.

The fact is it's all Sampras' fault, he's too damn good. At Wimbledon this year, his shin hurt, he couldn't run freely, he never practised a single day between matches, but not a man alive could take him to five sets. For years I've said Sampras hasn't been No.1 in the world, he's been No.1 to No.10 all by himself. It's not just that he's so good, it's just that the others don't play like Top Tenners should.

Relax, everyone tells me, tennis, like all sports is cyclic. Well then someone's taken their foot off the pedal because the cycle hasn't arrived.

Borg, Vilas, Gerulaitis, Connors became McEnroe, Connors, Lendl became Lendl, Becker, Wilander, Edberg became Sampras, Courier, Agassi, Chang…became what? Point is 1996 onwards at least someone should have appeared to start pushing Sampras (and Agassi when he was in the mood), issuing a challenge, forging a rivalry, winning multiple Grand Slams, but nothing happened.

Instead this is what we got.

There were the watch-me-win-nothing brigade comprising the unstable Goran Ivanisevic, volatile Marcelo Rios, slow fading Andrei Medvedev, gentlemanly Todd Martin.

There were the one-Grand-Slam-title-and I'm-an-all-time-great wonders like Richard Krajicek and his miracle summer at Wimbledon (1996), the French Open grunters Thomas Muster (1995) and Carlos Moya (1998), and Petr Korda's high-kicking but later, drug-clouded Australian Open (1998) triumph.

And finally there were phew-yippee-we've-made-it-two-Grand-Slam-titles heroes like the disinterested Yefgeny Kafelnikov who won the Australian(1999) and French (1996) but bemused by refusing to chase strongly for No.1, the relentless Sergei Bruguera whose French Open wins (1993-94) showcased his big heart but his passion for only clay, and the charming, stylish Patrick Rafter who fought through nagging injury to find time to take home the US Open twice (1997-98).

No man won more than two.

In contrast Sampras has won 13 Grand Slam titles, Borg 11, Lendl 8, Connors, 8, McEnroe 7, Wilander 7, Becker 6, Edberg 6, Agassi 5, Courier 4.

Let's look at it another way. America hasn't produced another star since Sampras, Germany hasn't found a successor to Becker-Stich, Sweden haven’t had a Grand Slam winner since Edberg, and Spain's great generation of Corretja, Moya, Beresategui, Costa (both Albert and Carlos) and Felix Mantilla were men with feet strictly of clay (only Moya made the leap beyond with some success).

It's no point everyone beating their chests about the depth in the men's game, how Mr. 120 can knock off Mr. 7 on a good day. That's all very nice but at the end of the US Open people want to see Mr. 120 but also Mr. 1,2 and 3 in the semi-finals; they want the top guys bleeding to beat each other; they want someone to knock Sampras' grin off his face; they want tournaments like the 1988 Australian Open where the semi final line-up was Cash-Lendl-Wilander-Edberg, not the 1999 Australian Open where it read Kafelnikov-Haas-Enquist-Lapentti.

Peturbed surely by the fact organisers will soon be issuing NoDoze tablets with tennis tickets, the ATP Tour have launched a campaign called New Balls Please, featuring Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero and Nicholas Lapentti et al. They are the future, they say. It is like some cry of hope, for the ATP owns a kingdom that has no apparent heir.

To be fair Hewitt is but 19, and Safin 20, and their rough hewn games still in need of some sandpapering, but as much as we celebrate their promise remember that Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Boris Becker, John McEnroe had already won a Grand Slam title by that age.

Safin, who hits the ball like Frazier hit Ali, is temperamental but tall, wild but inspired, could be lethal once he finds consistency. Gordon Forbes, former player and author of the terrific book 'A Handful of Summers', recounts standing with the legendary coach Harry Hopman and watching a young Australian player spray the ball all over the court. Forbes mentioned this wildness, till Hopman replied, "Well, imagine the day the ball starts to fall in." The boy was Rod Laver, so Safin can breathe easier.

Hewitt is dynamic too, as swift as a hungry eagle, returning serve so fluently you wonder if there's a sophisticated radar implanted in his brain; but it obscures too the lack of a penetrative attacking weapon. Lapentti (24) is attractive too, as is young Roger Federer (19), not to mention the gigantic Mark Philippoussis (24) whose power though cannot disguise his penchant for self-inflicted losses.

But potential, that they all possess, must translate into performance. It is time for redemption, to atone for the sins of the past, of Ivanisevic and Muster and Kafelnikov who looked at the gauntlet thrown down at their feet and walked right past it.

Otherwise the hottest act in tennis will remain Williams, Williams, Hingis and Davenport and they're names you won't find on the men's tour.

Rohit Brijnath

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