The future has arrived

Published : Dec 29, 2001 00:00 IST

IN the last few years, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), one of the governing bodies in tennis, has run a promotion campaign called 'New Balls Please'. The idea behind this was to introduce some of the new, to-be champions to the public.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were ruling the tennis world and had a healthy rivalry going. But the ATP were not sure how long this duo would carry on and wanted to plan for the future - to ensure that the interest level in the game was sustained world over.

One of those featured in this campaign, Lleyton Hewitt, has finished the year 2001 as the No. 1 player in the world - and the 'future' has arrived. The Aussie had been earmarked for superstardom but he did not give an indication as to how soon he would achieve this status. The first three-quarters of the year was quite ordinary. In fact, he did not distinguish himself in the Grand Slam tournaments.

Come September, at the U.S. Open, it all came together. He broke through to win his maiden Slam and did it in style as well. In the final two matches, he defeated Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Pete Sampras in straight sets. In fact, but for a tie break set with Sampras, he did not lose more than two games per set. Lleyton Hewitt, the champion had arrived.

Lleyton followed it up with the ATP Tour championships in November and by then, he had also become the No.1 player in the computer. In another year where we saw four different Slam champions, the Aussie will be the undisputed No. 1. Not to forget his effort in leading Australia to its third consecutive Davis Cup final.

Lleyton's best effort came in a quarter-final Davis Cup win on the slow clay courts in Brazil. He won his two singles matches (which included a straight sets victory over Gustavo Kuerten, considered both the king of clay courts and king of Brazil) plus a win in doubles. The only blot on his otherwise perfect finish to the year was a loss to Nicolas Escude on the first day of the Davis Cup Final which eventually cost his country the cup.

Lleyton is young enough to learn from all these setbacks and will play a major part in the tennis scene for many years to come. He has publicly stated that Grand Slam tournaments are his priority now and that should sound as a warning to his rivals. I feel he has not performed up to par in some of the majors by playing too much prior to the event, just peaking too early and running out of steam.

I am curious to see how he does in the first major of the year, the Australian Open. The courts are ideally suited for his style of play.

But the intense pressure he might feel from local expectations could be a negative factor. No Australian has won their native championship in more than a quarter century. And the Australian public is hard to please. They will not settle for anything less than a title from Lleyton. (I was amused to see an editorial in The Australian newspaper the day after their loss in the Davis Cup Final which asked the question 'What is wrong with Australian sport'?).

Gustavo Kuerten is another of the players featured in the ATP promotion package. He has already won three French Open titles and is the player to beat on clay. However, he has not been able to fully adapt to other surfaces. I say fully, because he did show brief glimpses as he won the 2000 year-end ATP Tour championships with wins over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi on an indoor surface. While he will be the player to beat in Paris, it is to be seen whether he can make the necessary adjustments to do well at the other Slams.

Marat Safin is also a major threat. He won the 2000 U.S. Open but was quiet through all of 2001. He has age on his side plus enough power in his game to go through any opposition. He is a Russian, which means that he could be his worst enemy. But if he is able to control the demons inside, he could be a factor, especially at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open.

While I expect these players to have major presence in the year 2002, I must also mention the supporting cast of players who could also make an impact. Spaniards are always a threat in men's tennis and their charge will be led by Juan Carlos Ferrero. He won the Italian Open last year and could prove to be the major threat to Gustavo Kuerten's clay court dominance.

Roger Federer's claim to fame in the past year was to put out Pete Sampras from the Wimbledon championships in the fourth round. Even taking into consideration Sampras' slip from his peak, this is still a tall ask. Federer also reached the quarter-finals at the French Open and the fourth round at the U.S. Open. Two things are evident - he is an all-court player and a big occasion player. Both these could work in his favour.

While we are talking about "generation next", let us pause for a moment and spare a thought for the "senior citizens", Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Sampras has not won a title since his record breaking 13th Grand Slam victory at the 2000 Wimbledon championships. Clearly he is on the decline but come Wimbledon, I would certainly not discount his chances, of course depending on his form and fitness. Don't forget that he has won there seven out of the last nine years.

As far as Andre Agassi is concerned, one must always expect the unexpected. He is the author of numerous comebacks but in the last few months, he got married and became a father - simultaneously. Either one of these is enough to displace a person from the top but Andre has chosen to deal with both. He is the defending champion at the Australian Open and his performance there will give a clearer picture of what is in store for Andre Agassi in the year 2002.

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