Tumult and talent are the watchwords in today’s pro tennis. Though Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis reigned supreme in 1997, collectively taking five of the game’s prestigious Grand Slam titles, the pro game is brimming with unprecedented depth and new faces. Yet even as Sampras and Hingis are likely to continue to provide most of the correct answers, the sport’s competitive anarchy also poses many questions. Here are 10 quick queries:
1. Will Pete Sampras continue to dominate?
Yes. Sampras is tennis’ Michael jordan, a highly gifted, driven superstar who delivers in the clutch and might well be the greatest ever. While it’s easy to drink he relies strictly on his unrivaled serve, Sampras’ forehand is deadly and his volleys are solid. Most underrated of all is his panther-like movement. Having already notched 10 Grand Slam singles titles, Sampras could break Roy Emerson’s record of 12 this year. Hungry and more fit than ever, Sampras will be a force into the next century.
2. Who will emerge as the heir to Sampras’ throne ?
Australian Patrick Rafter heads the pack of distant contenders. A year ago, Rafter stood a measly 62nd in the world and had never reached the quarters of a Slam. By the end of ’97, he’d taken the U.S. Open and shot up to No. 3. His net-rushing style conjures up memories of former Aussie greats John Newcombe and Rod Laver. But now that Rafter’s nearing the summit, he’s admitted it’s a challenge when people expect you to win. Other possibilities include Britain’s Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski (who vaulted from No. 48 in ’96 to No. 5), mercurial Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Rafter’s fellow Aussie, Mark Philippoussis. But they’ll also have to get by the likes of Michael Chang, Richard Krajicek, Jonas Bjorkman and Carlos Moya.
3. What’s up with Andre Agassi?
In two abysmal years, tennis’ most talented, popular player has sunk from Sampras’ biggest rival to a woeful No. 139. Agassi claims to have the desire, but it’s also clear that the qualities that make him so charismatic — his intelligence, his community involvement, his marriage to Brooke Shields, his endorsements — are distracting him from being the grinder he knows he should be. While Agassi certainly can return to the top 20, he’ll never take another Slam.
4. What about America’s other great hopes?
The generation that rose with Sampras and Agassi — Chang, Jim Courier, Todd Martin and Mal Washington — is nearing twilight. Chang remains a gritty force, but his slight stature and arduous game make it difficult for him to go the distance in a Slam. Injuries, long seasons and a lack of artillery have taken their toll on the others. More troubling for American tennis is that the bottom drops out once you get past these guys. Justin Gimelstob, Vince Spadea and Chris Woodruff will be lucky to ever crack the top 20.
5. Is men’s tennis these days simply a dreary power game?
Don’t let that once-a-year servefest called Wimbledon deceive you. From the all-court brilliance of a Sampras to the athletic volleying of Rafter, the versatility of Kafelnikov, the inspired exuberance of French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten, the McEnroe-like touch of Marcelo Rios, the relentless drive of Thomas Muster, and the diversity of Spanish players (no other nation has more in the top 100), there’s more stylistic variety in men’s tennis than ever.
1. Can Martina Hingis continue to bury her competition?
Not necessarily. Hingis’ mind is remarkable, but as time goes on, it’ll be interesting to see if she has the physical appetite necessary for maintaining her edge. Unlike past champions Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, Hingis is predominantly a counterpuncher, albeit an aggressive one. She certainly can improve her game, most notably her serve and forehand, and if she does make a physical commitment off thee court, she’ll become even stronger.
2. Who can beat Hingis?
Graf would like to make one more push for the throne. Out for most of’97 with injuries, Graf was never literally ousted by Hingis. Their rivalry could heat up significantly at the French Open and Wimbledon. Though she’s won 21 Grand Slam titles, Graf’s gutsiness is underrated. If her body can hold out, she and Hingis could play several matches for the ages.
3. Is Monica Seles finished?
Let’s hope not. Unable to close our matches with the extraordinary intensity that made her a champion, Seles had the worst year of her career in’97. Life since her stabbing in ’93 has been a hell of courtrooms, hospitals (both her parents have had cancer and her father has been on his deathbed for months) and loneliness (Seles felt abandoned by her pro colleagues during her absence). Monica is now 24, an age too young for someone to be so world-weary. But if she can generate strong results early in the year and come into the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open physically primed and emotionally grounded, she’ll certainly be a strong contender. She’s too great a player to fade into a spoiler role just yet.
4. Are last year’s newcomers ready to step up?
By 1999, Venus Williams, Anna Kournikova and Mirjana Lucic will join Hingis as the tour’s elite, but each needs. one more year of polishing. While Williams and Kournikova have received most of the publicity, Graf believes Lucic is the best player. This Croatian can belt the ball off both sides and should make solid progress in’98. The other two could learn a lesson from Andre Agassi: Get your endorsement deals, but don’t let money corrupt the path to improvement. Williams must learn how to harness her skills strategically. Less preening and more oncourt patience will aid Kournikova.
5. Why is the women’s top 20 such a revolving door?
Biology makes it possible for a woman to play world-class tennis at 14-an age when the evolution of the mind lags behind the body. Too many young women rely predominantly on their physical assets to reach the pros. Subsequently, when confronted with the combination of equally gifted rivals and the lonely grind of the pro game, they find themselves lacking the mental resources necessary for improvement. Burnout comes next, as most tragically demonstrated by Jennifer Capriati. Hingis’ sparkling intellect makes her an exception — and a champion.