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Inside Tennis

July 08, 2002
July 08, 2002

Table of Contents
July 8, 2002

Inside Tennis

The Party's Over
The greatest generation of U.S. male players showed its age at
Wimbledon

This is an article from the July 8, 2002 issue Original Layout

Listen closely in the stands at Wimbledon and you can hear the
bells of St. Mary's Church. Last week they might have been
tolling for the greatest generation of U.S. male players. Pete
Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, all born
within 22 months of each other, combined to win 25 Grand Slam
singles titles, earn more than $100 million in prize money and
claim the year-end world No. 1 ranking from 1992 to '99. Yet
Courier wasn't even in this Wimbledon draw, and by the end of
the second round the other three weren't either. Regardless of
when Sampras, Agassi and Chang join Courier in retirement, it's
hard to escape the conclusion that a gilded era has ended.

For Chang, 30, just reaching the second round was an
achievement: It doubled his win total for the year. In 1996
Chang was No. 2 in the world. He never got the brass ring, and
he hasn't been the same player since. He lost a step in
quickness, and his deficit of power became easier to exploit.
Chang, who won his only Grand Slam title at the 1989 French
Open, is now struggling to stay in the top 100.

Agassi deserves heaps of credit for embracing fitness in his
late 20s and transforming himself from a talented player into
one of the greatest stars that tennis has known. But at 32 his
odometer appears to be down to its last few clicks. Lately his
ground game has resembled a cellphone connection unexpectedly
going out of range. Last week he simply couldn't find the court
in a straight-set loss to little-known Paradorn Srichaphan of
Thailand. Though Agassi won the Italian Open in May and was
still ranked No. 4, he hadn't reached a Grand Slam final since
the 2001 Australian Open.

The most puzzling case is Sampras. Two years ago at Wimbledon he
achieved his long-stated goal of setting the career record for
Grand Slam singles titles, with 13. Since then Sampras, 31,
seems to have aged in dog years, and he hasn't won a title.
Lately he hasn't merely been losing; he's been humiliated.

After laboring to beat British wild card Martin Lee in the first
round, Sampras fell to No. 145-ranked George Bastl of
Switzerland, a subjourneyman who before last week had never won
a grass-court match in 10 years on the tour. Before the loss
Sampras was ranked No. 13.

The week was equally brutal for all the other American men at
Wimbledon, leaving the tournament without a U.S. player in the
men's fourth round for the first time since 1922. But while the
next generation of Americans can't be expected to replicate the
achievements of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang, its failure
last week was an aberration. Andy Roddick, 19; James Blake, 22;
and Taylor Dent, 21, all have the game to do well on grass, and
former NCAA champ Jeff Morrison, 23, made a surprise run to the
third round.

Meanwhile, explanations for Sampras's stunningly precipitous
decline vary greatly--which is telling in itself. "What he's
going through is 90 percent mental," says Paul Annacone, the
coach whom Sampras abruptly dispatched last winter. Sampras's
current coach, Jose Higueras, says, "It's more his needing to be
aggressive, and he's not aggressive with anything except his
serve." It's also clear that he has declined physically; time
and again last week he hit his first volley with both feet
behind the service line. Courier put it bluntly: "Pete's slow."

There is also what one Sampras confidant calls the Bridgette
factor. During his six straight years as the sport's top player,
Sampras was, necessarily, self-absorbed. Since marrying actress
Bridgette Wilson in the fall of 2000, he claims he's never been
happier, but the presence of a partner has changed his routine,
and Wilson had influence in the major--and
uncharacteristic--career changes that Sampras made earlier this
year, including his switching agents.

"Pete's been so precise with his career for so long," says
Courier. "At this stage simplicity would probably serve him
pretty well."

Whatever the case, it's startling to watch arguably the best
tennis player in history struggle against the ATP's marginalia.
After his debacle against Bastl, Sampras's voice grew shaky as he
rejected suggestions that he retire. "I plan on being back," he
said, sounding almost as if he was trying to convince himself.
"I'm not going to end my time here with that loss."

Moments later he slung his black Nike duffel bag over his
shoulder and headed off in a courtesy car. It was his earliest
exit from the All England Club since 1990, and the sun was
setting fast.

Daniela Hantuchova
The New Anna? No, She Can Win

With the Williams sisters running roughshod over the field and
Anna Kournikova routinely getting bounced from tournaments
before she can create a stir, women's tennis is suddenly hard up
for another formidable player and a new glamour girl. It may get
both in the form of Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova. A slender,
blonde six-footer who seems to be all legs, Hantuchova, 19, has
game to match her gams.

A native of Bratislava who was first taught the sport by her
grandmother Helena, Hantuchova was touted as a player worth
watching when she turned pro in 1999 at age 16. Her star turn,
however, came this spring at Indian Wells when she beat top
players Justine Henin and Martina Hingis en route to winning her
first WTA tour title. Seeded No. 11 at Wimbledon, Hantuchova
beat No. 7 Jelena Dokic in straight sets on Monday to reach her
first Grand Slam quarterfinal. "I love playing on grass," says
Hantuchova, who is ranked No. 12 after starting the year at No.
39, "[but] I think I can do whatever I want on the court; it
doesn't matter which surface it is."

Elegant and graceful, Hantuchova hits the ball fluidly off both
wings, serves well and has no glaring weakness. Already a top
doubles player--she teamed with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to reach
the 2002 Australian Open final--she volleys well and, unlike most
of her colleagues, isn't afraid to head netward during a point.
She also has a strong will: Last month at Eastbourne, Hantuchova
blocked out the distractions and beat her idol and tour mentor,
Martina Navratilova, in three sets.

Though she has been anointed the New Anna by one of the British
tabloids and has attracted a loyal following that outstrips her
ranking, Hantuchova is unmoved by the attention. Asked why she
has been so well-received at Wimbledon, she shrugs and suggests
that it's because she has a British coach, Nigel Sears. (Right.
And fans who mob Kournikova's matches come to see her second
serve.) Whatever the attraction, the crowds around Hantuchova are
likely to grow--and be treated to yet more impressive tennis.

To submit a question to Jon Wertheim's weekly tennis mailbag, go
to cnnsi.com/tennis.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Sampras was as dismayed as anyone over how poorly he played in his second-round loss.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Hantuchova brushes aside questions about her sex appeal and keeps her eye on the court.COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN