Fans have their fill

If Sania Mirza is the prime candidate for the `rookie of the year' award, the `comeback player of the year' award should go to the women's singles champion, Kim Clijsters.-K. GAJENDRAN

THE US Open is the second oldest Grand Slam tournament in the world and in my book the second most prestigious title. The problem in following it from India is the time change. When play starts in New York, it is around 9 p.m. here and a bulk of the action takes place while we are asleep. Then there are night sessions when we wake up, the whole tournament becomes a blur and one loses sense of time.

Yet there was plenty of excitement in this year's last Grand Slam championship from every point of view and there were excellent performances by teenagers, twenty some things and a thirty five year old.

From the Indian perspective, the first week belonged to Sania Mirza. She had her best tournament so far in her young career by reaching the fourth round. Since the beginning of the year, she has been climbing up the rankings rapidly and should be ranked around 35 after her performance in New York. All this makes her a prime candidate for the `rookie of the year' award. What I liked about Sania's performance in New York was her ability to win close matches. Her three victories were all close affairs and it was her ability to be aggressive at critical moments that tilted the balance. I saw her third round win and her `stats' read something like 45 winners to 50 unforced errors. It is quite unique. It was her willingness to take risks that won her those matches.

But against Maria Sharapova, the `numbers' were different. The top seed had more aces and fewer double faults, more winners and fewer unforced errors. Simply put, she was willing to bide her time when Sania Mirza was aggressive and picked her spots to attack.

Playing Maria Sharapova in front of a holiday crowd in New York must have been a wonderful experience for Sania and I am sure she has learnt a lot from it.

If Sania Mirza is the prime candidate for the `rookie of the year' award, the `comeback player of the year' award should go to the women's singles champion, Kim Clijsters. Both Sania and Kim started the year ranked around 135 in the world.

Kim, of course had been ranked No. 1 in the world and had reached finals of Grand Slam tournaments, had come close to winning them but had never succeeded. So there was an asterisk next to her No. 1 status (never won a Grand Slam title). I feel that is a lacuna in the ranking system that a person can become No. 1 in the world without winning a `Slam'. Anyway she has put all that to rest.

Kim Clijsters has had a problem of performing to potential on the final day of a Grand Slam tournament and in that sense, the draw worked out in such a fashion that she played her tougher matches earlier on. She beat Venus Williams in the quarter-final and Maria Sharapova in the semi- final — both in three set matches. She was too strong for her final round opponent.

Kim Clijsters will be a very popular champion. She had a career threatening injury in 2004 due to which she had to sit out four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. Her ranking had plummeted. This apart, she had gone through a high profile break-up with Lleyton Hewitt and through all this, she has carried herself with dignity, always saying the right thing with a smile on her face.

Though Mary Pierce got wiped out in the final, she has had a remarkable run since May. She reached the final of French Open, quarter-final at Wimbledon and now a finalist at US Open, each time losing to the eventual champion. Not bad for a player who has turned thirty. Though she has won Grand Slam titles before, I wonder whether she has played this consistently well for this long a period.

The 2005 US Open also marked a mini-renaissance for men's tennis in the USA. Since the class of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang came through in the late 1980s, USA has not been able to bring out quality players (Andy Roddick being the exception). In fact, last year, no American male reached the last four here. James Blake and Robby Ginepri had very good showings at New York to give some confidence to the USTA that they are on the right track.

Both of them were a part of the US Davis Cup squad when India played them in 2001. James Blake defeated Leander Paes in straight sets on the opening day (I can't remember anybody else doing this to Leander) and I could see he was a quality player.

But a series of health related problems in 2004 saw Blake's ranking go down. In Ginepri's case, it was a case of making a smooth transition from being a good junior to a good senior player. And this summer, both their games came good. Blake reached the quarter-final and Ginepri the semi-final — each for the first time in a Grand Slam. And what is more, they both were very close to progressing further in the tournament. They lost in close five-set matches to the hero of the tournament.

The 2005 US Open championships will go down in history as Andre Agassi's tournament. What more can be written about him that already has not been written. At thirty five, he was by far the oldest player in the draw.

He had to win three consecutive five-set matches to reach the final. And in the final, he played an outstanding match, at least for the first three sets and it took a Roger Federer at his absolute best to prevent a fairy tale ending to the tournament.

This was Andre's 20th consecutive appearance in New York and over the years, he had given the crowd plenty to cheer about. I am amazed at his metamorphosis over this period. If you saw pictures or videos from back then, you would wonder if it is the same person.

Just as `dog bites man' is not news, so is Roger Federer winning another Grand Slam title — his sixth. So clear is his dominance that one expects him to win every time he goes on court.

He has had another outstanding year, third in a row. Pete Sampras' tally of 14 Grand Slam titles looks a distinct possibility. Roger has just lost three matches this year — two of those after he held match points. One has to think up newer and newer ways to praise him. He is the only living male to have won the Wimbledon and US Open titles, two years running.