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Old 12-27-2005, 05:30 PM   #13
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2005: Hit or miss




Unplugged Agassi-Blake classic emblematic of up-and-down year Tennis
UNION-TRIBUNE


December 27, 2005

The Match of the Year in men's tennis unquestionably was Andre Agassi coming from two sets down and finally closing out James Blake at 11 minutes after 1 o'clock in the morning in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

"I wasn't the winner," Agassi announced following his 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) escape. "Tennis was."


Uh, not to the degree Agassi likely suspected. In many sections of the country, the USA Network had pulled the plug on its telecast of the match in the middle of the third game of the fifth set. "Heidi," all over again.

So it went for tennis in 2005. It is a back and forth game and there was as much back as there was forth, particularly for Americans. The positive development was that a study commissioned by the U.S. Tennis Association and the Tennis Industry Association established that more Americans are playing the game – 24.7 million, the most since 1992.

But at tennis' top level, they aren't playing it all that well.

The only Americans who won Grand Slam championships were the Williams sisters, with Serena, 24, capturing the Australian Open and Venus, 25, prevailing at Wimbledon with a stirring three-set triumph over Lindsay Davenport.

At Melbourne, in the semifinals Serena was involved in the women's Match of the Year, when under a fiery sun she dismissed three match points against her and handled Maria Sharapova 2-6, 7-5, 8-6.

The sisters are unusual players. They aren't playing that much. Serena played only 28 matches all year, going 21-7, and the Australian Open was the only tournament she won. Venus was slightly more active, with a 37-10 singles record. Both the sisters regressed in the WTA Tour's rankings, Serena dropping from No. 7 at the close of 2004 to No. 11, her first time outside the top 10 since 1998. Venus fell from No. 9 to No. 10.

One can wonder if the Williamses have interests they prefer to tennis. They seem to withdraw from as many events as they complete. But let them be fully motivated, as they are for Grand Slam events, and they are players apart.

My women's Player of the Year is Davenport. Grand Slam championships eluded her, but she was a finalist in Australia and at Wimbledon and retained her No. 1 ranking. The Southern California woman is Billie Jean King's heir as the leading spokesperson for her sport. She recognizes its ills – that the season is too long – and on the court champions her game with her play and her conduct.

The men's Player of the Year, of course, is Roger Federer, the Swiss with the fighter's face and the silken strokes. "There is only one top player," declared Ted Schroeder, the onetime U.S. Davis Cup luminary whose judgments often are caustic but always thoughtful. "Everybody else is unidimensional. The only thing they know how to do is stand six feet behind the baseline and hit everything as hard as they can."

Federer is adaptable, able to fit his game to any surface. With his victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he now has won five of the last eight Grand Slams and six in all. Before losing his final match of the year – to David Nalbandian of Argentina in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup at Shanghai, Federer had swept 35 consecutive matches.

He lost only four times during his season. Two of his defeats were in the semifinals of the Australian Open and the French Open to the eventual winners of those events, Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal. When Federer surrendered to Nalbandian at Shanghai, he was getting around on a tender foot.

Federer's appeal, however, is not universal. He has not been as warmly received in this country as his accomplishments suggest he should be. He is the consummate technician, but American audiences seem to prefer tennis champions who are more earthy. Think of Jimmy Connors.

Meantime, if the U.S. is developing players who one day could replace such veterans as Davenport and Agassi, it is not reflected in the WTA and ATP Tour rankings. Four Americans finished in the top 20 on the women's tour in 2004; now there are three, Jennifer Capriati, No. 10 a year ago, having been eliminated because of injuries. On the men's side, the U.S. had four players in the top 20 in 2004; it currently has just three, Andy Roddick (No. 3), Agassi (No. 7) and Robby Ginepri (No. 16).

Roddick did not have a rewarding year. Neither did a number of others, including Sharapova, who may not possess the queenly qualities that were seen in her when she won Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17. She isn't always showing up when she is scheduled to do so – she already has withdrawn from next year's first event at Gold Coast – and in her public audiences she can be a bit snippy, I would say.

There are some interesting new figures, including Nadal, a powerhouse on clay, and such young women as Sania Mirza of India and Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic. Ready, 2006. Play.
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