Inside Tennis

June 08, 2003

Overpowered
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.

While she lacks the size of her 5'10" countrywoman Nadia Petrova,
who took out Jennifer Capriati on Sunday, Zvonareva hits hard off
both flanks and competes as though her salvation rests on the
outcome of each point. "If you play well and don't fight, you
can't win," she says. "But if you play bad and do fight, you
can."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN (2) Kuerten's deep blasts undid the crafty Arazi. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN (2) Zvonareva, who eliminated Venus, is No. 21 with a bullet.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)