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ATP Circus Coming to San Jose
The traveling tennis circus rolls into San Jose shortly for the SAP Open. Thirty-two men will be competing February 13-19, some from opening round Davis Cup ties, others from a week off, all eager to throw themselves into the thick of the tennis year. Many are downright chomping at the bit, frothing to prove that their crummy results at the Australian Open were hardly indicative of what’s to come in 2006.
Andy Roddick is looking to become the first three-peat at this event since Hall of Famer Tony Trabert did it in 1955.
I’ve always felt it was terrible that the tennis year starts off so quickly with a Grand Slam event. From a fan standpoint, there’s little time for building up any kind of plot line. From a player’s vantage, the upside of just coming off the off-season is the downside of not quite feeling match sharp. Given the Aussie Open’s high stakes, it’s likely only a handful of people – such as winners Roger Federer and Amelie Mauresmo, as well as surprise finalist Marcos Baghdatis and resurgent quarterfinalist Martina Hingis – will come away from Melbourne feeling satisfied with their tennis.
So the good news for San Jose tennis fans is that the entire men’s field arrives here with a strong sense of urgency. It starts right at the top. Andy Roddick, hankering to become the first three-peat at this event since Hall of Famer Tony Trabert did it in 1955, will be looking to play highly-aggressive tennis. Outpositioned and even out-hustled in his fourth round loss to Baghdatis, I expect to see Roddick compete with exceptional edginess in San Jose.
After five arduous seasons on the tour, Roddick’s now entering the thick of his tennis career. Call it a case of boy meets world, the 23-year-old American well aware that the next four seasons will likely be the ones that determine if he’s strictly a fine player who peaked early when he became number one in 2003 – or a champion who left his mark across many years. In the wake of frustrating exits in Australia and New York, amid the apparent tidal wave of the Federer Era, Roddick’s motto through much of 2006 will harken back to the ‘70s: Today is the first day of the rest of my life. The good sign: Roddick returning serve aggressively and courageously, taking the kind of chances worthy of someone who led the tour in service hold percentage in ’05. The bad sign: Roddick playing too many points from several feet behind the baseline. One thing certain about Roddick is that no matter how hard he continues to weather the ups and downs of improvement, don’t ever expect to see him wave a white flag. For a number of reasons, I’ve always enjoyed his mix of passion, tenacity, confidence and classic American cheekiness.
Roddick plays way too many points from several feet behind the baseline.
If Roddick in some sense is that hyper jock in the corner who’s a smart-ass but a friend to all, then James Blake is the class favorite, appreciated by teachers, students and parents for his grace, friendliness and, of course, athletic prowess. Besides the emotional aspects surrounding his return to active duty last year, Blake also made a number of technical and tactical changes in his game, firming up his strokes (particularly his backhand) and playing more patiently. Hopefully that will translate into significant results in San Jose – and at this time in his career, that means at least reaching the semis.
Expectations are a bit different for former number ones Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi. Four years ago Hewitt and Agassi locked horns in what I believe was the best final in the tournament’s history, a three-hour, baseline grindfest that Hewitt won in a third-set tiebreak. Hewitt then was in the middle of a two-year run at number one in the world, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 21-year-old. Agassi that year turned 32. Since then, each has fought hard to play fine tennis. Hewitt’s beefed up his body and tried to add more juice to his game. Agassi’s lost weight, streamlined his physique and, as his U.S. Open runner-up effort last year proved, continued to pound away with the greatest forehand-backhand combo in tennis history (go ahead, TennisOne colleagues, name another).
And yet, as 2006 dawns, it’s the younger Hewitt, not the older Agassi, whose game looks like it’s repeatedly coming up against obstacles. It’s one thing for Hewitt to go out in Slams to the likes of Federer (this has occurred to Hewitt five times over the last two years). But the feisty Aussie lacked some of his customary brio during his loss Down Under last month to Juan Ignacio Chela. Hewitt is a supreme competitor, but I’ve always felt that at heart he’s always been much more of a juiced-up Michael Chang than a powerful counterpunching aggressor like Jimmy Connors. It will be interesting to see how much intensity he generates in San Jose.
Surprizingly enough, since their epic final here four years ago, it's been the younger Hewitt not the older Agassi whose game looks like it’s repeatedly coming up against obstacles.
Agassi’s commitment has been unwavering since the end of 1997. How he could injure himself playing racquetball is beyond me, but that’s precisely what took him out of the last few weeks of ’05 and the Australian Open. Assuming he’s healthy, I’m thinking he will feel quite fresh in San Jose and play with that special bounce of feet and racquet that’s made him one of the sport’s most compelling personalities. A two-out-of-three set match indoors is very much to his liking, even against such slashers in the field as Blake, big-serving Swede Joachim Johansson (eager to return to the top 20 after an injury-riddled ’05) and the even taller Croatian, Ivo Karlovic (the personification of the term “dangerous player”).
Besides these headliners, a few others figure to make waves in San Jose. Two-time champ Mark Philippoussis has been up and down more times than a start-up technology company. Has he recovered from yet another slew of injuries? Another talent, Xavier Malisse, is in my mind a poor man’s Marat Safin: dripping with skills, likeable, but constantly searching to piece the pages together. And then there are the grinders, in one case the goofy Vince Spadea, who at 31 can still play fine tennis but I suspect is also calculating ways he can make a name for himself post-tennis. Add to this mix Stanford alum Paul Goldstein, his career a testimony to hard work. Having spent his career shuttling back and forth between Challenger and ATP events, at the end of ’05 the 29-year-old Goldstein reached a career-high ranking of 68.
Finally, what to make of John McEnroe’s return to ATP doubles duty?
Finally, what to make of John McEnroe’s return to ATP doubles duty? For years he has believed he can mix it up with the best doubles players. I watched McEnroe play four singles matches in Houston last fall, and believe he’s more fit than he was ten years ago. One reason for this is that he’s hired Gary Kitchell, a likeable physical therapist who worked with McEnroe’s dreaded rival, Ivan Lendl. Moreoever, McEnroe’s been committed to playing lots of tennis in recent years. His eclectic game is built to last, and with a high enough first serve percentage and some keen returning on his end, he and Jonas Bjorkman (as superb a doubles player as McEnroe could ask for) should fare well on the HP Pavilion’s indoor court.
Two thousand six marks Joel Drucker’s 25th anniversary covering this event.
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