A period of change in men's tennis

HOW many men have won at least two Grand Slam titles in the last two seasons, 2002 and 2003? The answer, believe it or not, is none.

HOW many men have won at least two Grand Slam titles in the last two seasons, 2002 and 2003? The answer, believe it or not, is none. Starting with Thomas Johansson of Sweden in the Australian Open in January 2002, and ending with Andy Roddick at the US Open last fortnight, we have had eight different men win Grand Slam titles these two years.

Apart from Johansson himself, no other winner may have been a clear outsider and none of this year's four champions came out of nowhere — as did two or three pros in golf this season — to win. Yet, the point is, no man has managed to win two titles.

In fact, if you considered the last three seasons, 2001 to 2003, only two men have managed to win two majors in those three years — Andre Agassi won two Australian Open titles (2001 and 2003) and Lleyton Hewitt won the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002.

What does this say of men's tennis? Obviously, it says a lot about the depth in the game, about how it has become increasingly difficult for even great champions to dominate a season or two in a row.

To win seven best-of-five set matches in an era when there is so much strength in depth in the men's game is not at all easy. Even the giants of the game will have to be on top of their games to accomplish this feat.

And this puts in perspective the 14 Grand Slam titles won by a gentleman who waved his last goodbye recently. What is more, Pete Sampras also held the year-end No.1 ranking six times in a row from 1993 to 1998.

The more we come to realise how deep the fields are in the majors, the more it strikes us that the great man's accomplishments may not be touched in a long, long time, if ever.

Then again, quite apart from the depth in the men's game, another reason why we are seeing so many different champions over two seasons has to do with the fact that this is a period of transition in the game.

Sampras is gone. So is Michael Chang. Andre Agassi, no matter the triumph at the Australian Open last January, looks increasingly vulnerable at 33 and may not last more than one more season. If the Sampras-Agassi era has not quite ended yet, then the new one has already begun.

In Juan Carlos Ferrero, the French Open champion, Roger Federer, who won Wimbledon in style, and Andy Roddick, the celebrated US Open champion, we have three young men who have the potential to dominate the men's game in the years to come.

Federer and Roddick surely have more powerful games than does Ferrero but the Spaniard is a gifted young man who may surprise a lot of critics who doubt his versatility. When you throw Lleyton Hewitt and, if his mind and body are willing — that is a big IF — Marat Safin as well, you have five players of exceptional merit.

But, then, the big question is this: who among these looks most likely to dominate the sport as Sampras did for much of the 1990s? Who among these looks good enough to join the immortals of the sport by winning seven or eight Grand Slam titles?

This is not a question which is easy to answer. There are too many imponderables. Yet, at this point in time, most experts will agree that Roddick and Federer are more likely to do this than the others.

The American is 21 and the Swiss is 22. In terms of their personalities, they are as different from each other as were Agassi and Sampras. Roddick is flashy and extroverted, Federer is laidback and introverted. But both have proved they have what it takes. Only time can tell if they can recreate half the magic of the Agassi-Sampras rivalry.

Like the Bjorn Borg-Jimmy Connors and the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalries of the 1970s and 1980s, the Sampras-Agassi contests were the high points of the 1990s in men's tennis, although the rivalry did stretch right up to the great man's last match at the US Open last year.

With Sampras gone, this is one duel that will be missed in the game. However long he lasts, Agassi will never again experience the special feeling again, the feeling of preparing to face the great man across the net from him. Nor, in fact, will the fans.

But men such as Federer and Roddick, as well as Hewitt and Ferrero, have the talent and the drive to enact epic rivalries of their own. If this happens, men's tennis will be so much the better for it.

On the other hand, the chances of the men's game finding in this decade the sort of dominant champion it had in the last are rather bleak. A Pete Sampras does not come along every decade — more likely once in one hundred years.