Mens’ Tennis 2009 review – Part two

By Online Editorial

Juan martin del potro

In part two, Simon Mundie looks at the big stories in tennis that made the headlines in the second part of the year including the emergence of a new breed of player, the retirements of two of the most colourful players in the game and the revelations that shook the tennis world.

Here come the new breed

This year’s US Open may have been representative of a significant power shift in men’s tennis, as the next wave of players vying for the number one spot really made their presence felt. The two prime examples are the champion, Juan Martin Del Potro (6.6 to win the Australian Open), and Andy Murray’s conqueror Marin Cilic (40.0), who play a similar game that fuses two very different generations of players into one scarily effective specimen.

Both players are tall and long-limbed and go for their shots much like the serve-volley specialists of the mid 1990s, but instead of charging in after booming serves like the exponents of the serve-volley game did in their pomp, Del Potro and Cilic prefer to hit the ball as hard as possible from the baseline, keeping the points short that way.

What chance the likes of Nadal 8.8, with his spins and never-say-die attitude; or indeed Andy Murray, who has already shown he can struggle against a power player on top of his game? Anyone who saw Federer 3.6 chasing shadows in the US final as Del Potro unleashed a relentless stream of forehand winners, amongst the hardest ever hit, bore witness to the likely future of the men’s game.

Israel reaches the Davis Cup semi-finals

One of the shock achievements in 2009 was Israel reaching the semi-finals of the Davis Cup, beating the powerhouse nations of Sweden and Russia on route. Never known for their tennis prowess, their previous best result was a quarter-final defeat way back in 1987. The star man on their dramatic run was the diminutive Dudi Sela, who rocketed up to 29th in the rankings over the course of the season, ably backed up by the veteran Harel Levy, ranked outside the top 100, and the accomplished doubles pairing of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram.

The semi-final against Spain was described as “One of the nation’s biggest ever sporting events” by Ram, who put Israel’s Davis Cup success down to the rapport between the players, saying “One of the reasons is that we all go out together and have formed strong friendships. We are a family, have good connections as players and always cheer for one another regardless of the tournament.” The might of the Spanish stopped Israel in their tracks, but a last four finish was an outstanding achievement nevertheless.

Safin and Santoro sign off

Marat Safin was given quite a send-off after his last ever match on the ATP tour, a three set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro in the Paris Masters. There’s no doubt Safin left his mark on the sport and will be missed, but he is unlikely to go down as the great that many pundits thought was a given after his extraordinary dismantling of Pete Sampras in the US Open final of 2000. Aged just 20, the mercurial Russian was expected to go on and dominate the sport, but he didn’t win his second Grand Slam crown until 2005 at the Australian Open, which marked the beginning of the end for him.

Safin’s game was built around a terrific serve and powerful groundstrokes, particularly his outstanding backhand. He also moved well for a big man, but he never quite got to grips with the mental discipline and strength that is needed at the very top level. Frequently Safin would break rackets or scream obscenities at himself, and he even chose to drop his shorts mid-match if the mood took him. Players increasingly realised that if they could stay with Safin for as long as possible, there was every chance he would crack, particularly if he was frustrated by a lack of pace and a mixture of spins and angles.

One player who seemed to be able to get under Safin’s skin like no other was the ‘French magician’ Fabrice Santoro, who led their head-to-head meetings by seven matches to two and ironically retired within weeks of the Russian.

In many ways they were polar opposites on a tennis court. Santoro was relatively short at just five foot ten, and had nowhere near Safin’s power; but what he lacked in brawn he made up for in brains. He would slice the ball with his double handed forehand, and look to tie his opponent in knots by stubbornly refusing to hit any two balls the same. It’s hardly surprising then that Santoro was Andy Murray’s favourite player to watch on tour.

The Frenchman won six titles in his career, and carried on playing until he was the grand old age of 37, while Safin managed to bag 15 career titles and decided to throw in the towel a couple of months short of his 30th birthday. Tennis may never see their likes again.

Andre Agassi

The most explosive news of the year involved a man no longer active on tour, Andre Agassi, who admitted that he had failed a drugs test and successfully lied to escape punishment. It sent huge shockwaves through the sport, with legions of players; both current and former, queuing up to either vilify or defend him publicly. Some accused the Nebraskan of being a cheat who deserved to be stripped of his titles and his reputation; despite the fact that crystal meth would clearly not give him any competitive advantage.

The more serious matter centred on how easy it was for Agassi to escape punishment, purely by denying that he intentionally took drugs. It appeared the ATP was more concerned with losing their biggest box office name than they were with sticking to the letter of the law, no matter how draconian. The whole episode may have possible repercussions for some players still on tour, like Richard Gasquet who claimed he unwittingly took drugs in a similar way to Agassi, and who could yet still face further censure.

Agassi’s reputation and legacy has certainly been tarnished by many people in light of his admissions. As far as I am concerned however, the more shocking revelation was the fact that he had worn a toupee in a Grand Slam final.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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