2004 ATP Tennis Preview: All Hail the Three Boy Kings and their Grandfather Andre
By Richard Vach, Tennis-X.com
While it wasn't a college football BCS Standings-level controversy, the 2003 year-end ATP Rankings gave everyone a little something to chew on during the "off season" in men's professional tennis.
The Andy Roddick faithful had their boy on top at No. 1, with a US Open trophy, a trophy girlfriend in singer Mandy Moore, and a potential all-Andy, all-the-time reality show in the coming year. Fans of the Swiss Roger Federer boasted the Wimbledon title, a stunning year-end run to capture the Tennis Masters Cup, and shouts that their man, who features every shot, was the "real" number one and best player. Aficionados of Juan Carlos Ferrero, the French Open champion and US Open runner-up, were understandably muted as their horse stumbled down the home stretch, losing his last six matches of the year to hand the American the top ranking.
As we segue into the year 2004, these "Three Kings" of men's tennis again take the spotlight, defending their respective slam titles while remaining roughly a tournament win apart from each other on the ATP Rankings. With legends of the game such as Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic (unofficially) and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (unofficially) going by the wayside in 2003, the game of men's tennis has seen a radical shift at the top and now rests in new, younger hands.
But as Andre Agassi showed with a sterling display through the first half the 2003, there are remnants of the old guard still lurking. If there were any questions as to whether the "old man" still had the will to compete in 2003, they were quickly dispelled when Agassi won four of his first five tournaments, including the Australian Open, San Jose, the TMS-Miami, and Houston (where he beat Roddick in the final). Agassi entered the US Open atop the ATP Rankings, but left the year-end No. 1 for the younger generation when he took a sabbatical after the Open for the birth of his daughter Jaz.
In 2004 there is no reason to expect anything less from Agassi, who thanks to a tireless off-season regimen, has enjoyed a number of exceptional starts to the year during his career, and has the strong support of his rock-solid team that includes wife Steffi, coach Darren Cahill, childhood friend and manager Perry Rogers and trainer Gil Reyes.
"Steff has been so good to me and good to my dreams that are still left on the tennis court. I just have a network," says Agassi. "I'm a very blessed man in reference to all the people I have around me."
Reyes, for his part, is always optimistic on his protégé's chances, and always on the ready with a quip.
"I don't know if he's in a class by himself, but it sure don't take long to call roll," Reyes said. Don't quit your day job Gil.
Watch Agassi during the year, as he will be a case study in resilience during the 2004 campaign. Many times last year it appeared the former No. 1 was losing the ability to "pull the trigger" as he once did during points. If you don't believe us, pop in a videotape of the 2003 Masters Cup final, when Federer made Agassi's ground game resemble Chris Evert during a charity event.
Federer, despite cutting ties with longtime coach Peter Lundgren this off season, looks ready to enroll in Agassi's elite class in the coming year. The only one of the "Three Kings" who has yet to ascend to the top spot on the ATP Entry Rankings, the big question in 2004 will be just how many times Federer will be able to conjure up that magical game he displayed at Wimbledon and at the year-end Masters Cup, where he drew himself within only a handful of points of the top-ranked Roddick.
The Federer-Roddick match-up looks to be the most intriguing rivalry entering 2004, with the American working to play catch-up to the Swiss' dazzling array of shots under the tutelage of coach Brad Gilbert. The two-handed backhand, unarguably the weakest shot in the American's arsenal, will be first on the list for Gilbert, and also adding a bit more serve-and-volley play.
For Roddick, 2004 will be a barometer as to just how good the 21-year-old really is and can be. A No. 1 finish brings with it greater pressure, higher expectations and more demands, things surely not lost on both Roddick and Gilbert. It will be quite revealing to see just how Roddick handles his rock-star status and if can maintain his form, avoiding past slumps (mainly mental) like the one suffered during last year's claycourt season and, most importantly, again stay injury free.
Back across the pond, Ferrero, who suffered an agonizing finish to last season, figures to fulfill expectations in challenging for the No. 1 ranking in 2004. The Spaniard proved in 2003 that he's not just the King of Clay anymore, and he remains eager and driven to prove his mettle on other surfaces.
Aside from predicting which newcomers will rise into the Top 10 or 20, a big storyline in 2004 will be which former superstars can rebound from injuries or self-imposed exiles.
Lleyton Hewitt is already talking about a return to No. 1, and as the Aussie showed in leading his country to the Davis Cup in November, it is only a matter of commitment for the man who finished the year in the top spot in 2001-02.
"At the moment I'm playing as well as I've ever played...that gives me confidence that I can get No. 1 back," Hewitt said right before leading Australia to the Davis Cup title against Spain. "I have no doubt that I can beat anyone in the world on any given day...the next thought's going to be trying to prepare myself as well as possible for the Australian Open."
Marat Safin tumbled out of the Top 50 in 2003 with his wrist injury, and it remains to be seen if the Crushin' Russian can return to form in the early months of 2004, or will finally bow again to wrist surgery. If Safin's head is in the right place, there's no reason that the former US Open champ cannot contend. But with Safin a question mark and countryman Yevgeny Kafelnikov nearretirement, keep an eye to see if Top 50 Russians Mikhail Youzhny and Nikolay Davydenko can carry the load, or if Top 100 Russians Igor Andreev and Dmitry Tursunov can make their expected leaps.
Tim Henman will start 2004 in full form after slowly recovering from shoulder surgery throughout his 2003 campaign. Tommy Haas, who unexpectedly sat out all of 2003 after shoulder surgery, says you'll see him in January, but also hinted that his shoulder is still dicey. The popular Gustavo Kuerten has had his share of injuries during his career, and with his gangly frame, the odds are not good that the Brazilian will be able to last through too many more physical setbacks.
Sebastien Grosjean should challenge for a Top 8 spot in 2004 after working through a series of niggling injuries in 2003 that saw him finish in the Top 10 but fail to win a title for the first time in four years. The Australian hardcourt swing will be an early indicator of who is still struggling with injury and who will look to regain form. The early season will also be a measuring stick for top German Rainer Schuettler, whose simple, blue-collar game easily translates on any surface and to any continent.
And let's not forget the Argentine Army, with Davide Nalbandian clearly showing that his Wimbledon final was no fluke, and Guillermo Coria's stellar second-half of the season arguably only bested by Roddick's heroics. As for the rest of the "Gauchos," evidence suggests we have yet to see their best stuff.
Up-and-coming players to definitely watch include Spain's Rafael "The Prodigy" Nadal, who manhandled a couple of the top players in 2003; another Spaniard in the aggressive lefty Feliciano Lopez; Chilean Nicolas Massu, who finished the year under the radar at No. 12; Americans Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri who have shown great promise if they can stay uninjured; and Swedish comer Robin Soderling.
Wildcards for 2004 include Martin Verkerk (can he improve upon or even maintain his 2003 results?), Top 20 player Mardy Fish (will his rush-and-crush game continue to improve?), and James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez (big forehands but no follow-up?). France also has a whole host of comers in Paul-Henri Mathieu, Richard Gasquet, and Nicolas Mahut who could put the slumping country back on the map after the almost-ran seasons of Grosjean and the oft-injured Arnaud Clement.
Suffice to say, 2004 will hold just as many surprises -- probably more -- as the past year. One thing we will guarantee is it will be no easy walk for the Three Kings during the new year, with the men's game continuing to show astounding depth -- four straight years with four different Slam champions. With the multitude of talent at their heels, the triumvirate of Roddick-Federer-Ferrero will have a near-impossible task of finishing 1-2-3 in the coming year.
"It's almost been scripted with Juan Carlos (Ferrero) winning on clay, Roger (Federer) winning on grass, me winning in the States -- it's kind of been almost a fairy tale year for us," Roddick said. "I think it's nice for all of us, and it's a big relief for all of us. Even though we're pretty young, people are already starting to say, 'When's it gonna happen? When's it gonna happen? It's a big relief now. I think all of our best tennis is ahead of us still."
Richard Vach is a Senior Writer for Tennis-X.com. He can be reached at email@example.com