December 19, 2000
SEVILLE, Spain - Is it more appropriate to start a review of the tennis year by informing you that the old season finally ended Sunday in India or that the new season will begin in less than two weeks in India?
For a game that began as a lazy diversion for the monied classes, there is nothing languid about the modern version, which carpetbags around the globe for 11½ months before finally pausing - rather than stopping - to take stock (and presumably to issue a bit more of it as well).
Two weeks is not much time to savor a year's worth of rallies and trophies, precious little time for Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten to meet with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Brazilian president, and revel in being the first player from South America to finish the year at No. 1.
Tennis has long understood it has a scheduling problem. Addressing the problem was a more complicated matter, but after years of token gestures, the men's tour and, more convincingly, the women's tour will make a somewhat more earnest attempt to give the players and fans some breathing room in 2001.
The men will finish next Dec. 2, which will give them four weeks to rest. The women will finish Nov. 12 or Nov. 19, depending on which site is picked to host the final phase of the Fed Cup, a star-crossed team event whose format has been updated so many times in recent years that it ought to be labeled like software, to be fair to its few would-be consumers (Fed Cup Version 3.1, Fed Cup Version 4.1...).
But what about Tennis Version 2000? This reviewer would have to call it a good season, if not quite a great one. The only Grand Slam final that came close to being a classic was Kuerten's four-set victory at the French Open over Magnus Norman, who saved 10 match points before wearily shaking hands. The highlights were, in descending order of personal preference:
- Pete Sampras winning his all-time record 13th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon to break his historic tie with Roy Emerson.
- Venus Williams running the slick table at Wimbledon, the United States Open and the Olympics after missing the first four months of the season with injuries to her wrists and amour propre.
- Kuerten beating Yevgeni Kafelnikov, Sampras and Andre Agassi in consecutive matches indoors (of all places) at the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon to squeeze past Marat Safin on the last day of the yearlong race to No. 1.
- Spain winning the Davis Cup for the first time in front of its distinguished king and a surprisingly undistinguished crowd of soccer fans who happened to have purchased tennis tickets.
- Agassi homing in on perfection to win the Australian Open and his third Grand Slam singles title in an epochal eight-month stretch.
- Honorable mention: Safin overwhelming Sampras in the U.S. Open final; Mary Pierce, a Canadian-born U.S. resident, becoming the first Frenchwoman (sort of) in 33 years to win the French Open; Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge winning in Paris to claim the last Grand Slam doubles title they were missing; Pat Rafter's five-set victory over Agassi in the Wimbledon semifinals in what was for my virtual money (remember, journalists don't have to pay to get in) the finest big match of the year.
There were also lowlights, most of them involving that much and justly maligned group of well-intentioned yet hardly always well-behaved spectators known as tennis parents.
Damir Dokic, the father of Australian teenager Jelena Dokic, was the most prominent bad example, embarrassing his daughter and the sport at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with bizarre outbursts and belligerent behavior. Though Dokic is not nearly as menacing a figure as Pierce's father, Jim, was in the 1990s, he received the same comeuppance from the women's tour: a ban from tournaments. Dokic's ban expires April 1, but he has not been idle during his involuntary sabbatical.
Jelena was born in the former Yugoslavia before leaving the country and its problems with her parents at age 11. Thanks to her father, Jelena acquired a Yugoslav passport this autumn and the possibility of switching allegiance from Australia, where Damir has lost credibility. Such a move would not be without financial repercussions for one of the finest young players in the game. For the moment in the global marketplace, the top tennis player in Australia has access to a lot more sponsorship and perquisites than the top player in Yugoslavia.
For the moment, no one has more access to the game's goodies than the Williams sisters, and after younger sibling Serena had her moment in 1999, winning the U.S. Open, older sibling Venus more than made up the gap in 2000, compiling a 32-0 record on grass and hardcourts and joining the short list of international celebrities in the process.
Though Martina Hingis still finished the year at No. 1 by a significant margin by virtue of her consistent results during the season (she played nearly twice as many matches as Venus), not one of her nine tournament victories in singles came at a Grand Slam event, and she has now not won a major in nearly two years.
The third-ranked Venus, even on a part-time basis, was unquestionably the player of the year, and while there should be concerns about her long-term staying power, there should be no concerns about her freshness in 2001. After skipping the first four months of the season, she skipped the last month as well, including the prestigious Chase Championships, to heal from a minor injury and return to school.
Venus would appear to have her priorities right, and it would be nice if her father, Richard, would get the hint and stop calling unnecessary and undignified attention to himself as he enjoys the sight of his daughters overwhelming less self-assured opposition.
But parents do have their place in the game, and who will soon forget the scene on the final Sunday at Wimbledon when Sampras walked off the grass and into the stands to hug his mother and father, who had never seen him play in person at the All England Club until the day he got the better of both Rafter and Emerson?
After the whirl and blur of a manic season, that is the image that remains the most vivid: one of the game's greatest champions sharing his defining moment.