It's time to cheer U.S. men's tennis

OTHER VOICES

September 13, 2005|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

STILL BEAMING from his electrifying quarterfinals win over James Blake, Andre Agassi stood in the middle of Arthur Ashe Stadium in the wee hours Thursday morning and declared - over a scratchy microphone to a jam-packed crowd - the sport of tennis to be the big winner.

Correction, Andre. After the show you, Blake and a number of your countrymen put on during the U.S. Open, American tennis is the big winner.

In the year's final major tournament, a number of American tennis players finally reached their potential, especially Blake and semifinalist Robby Ginepri. It was good to see Agassi rock the crowd nightly like no one has since Jimmy Connors in 1991, and, yes, it was even better for tennis as a whole to have Agassi face the impeccable Roger Federer in the final.

But the two weeks preceding Sunday's Federer victory tell a better story for this country. Andy Roddick, widely considered the top, if not only, young American who could challenge Federer, got bounced in the first round.

It was the best thing to happen to the Americans. With no Roddick to face in the second round, Ginepri survived until the semifinals before losing to Agassi, whose will took over the fifth set in the same manner his personality took over the crowd.

Ginepri, though, had nothing to be ashamed of. He, 18-year-old Scoville Jenkins, Taylor Dent and Blake kept crowds on their feet and gave hope to fans that better things may be ahead for the home-grown players.

This may sound a little bit like flag-waving patriotism, but tennis is better when American players give the public personalities and talent to latch on to. Look at the women. Serena and Venus Williams are living proof of that.

Intriguing American men, less Agassi, have been missing the past few seasons; some would argue since Connors and John McEnroe in the 1980s.

Those guys had talent and charisma. Pete Sampras, for my money the best hard-court tennis player ever (although Federer is gaining ground fast), had all of the former but little of the latter.

When success combined with showmanship is missing among the players, tennis in America becomes a fringe sport, losing more interest to golf on a seemingly daily basis. And that is a shame.

I grew up in a tennis hotbed - South Florida - during the McEnroe-Connors era, and those two kept tennis in the news and on the television in my house. My dad, a fairly good recreational player who regularly played in amateur tournaments, tried to hip me to the sport when I was a little kid, but I preferred swinging a baseball bat over a tennis racket.

My loss.

You won't find a sport that combines individual athleticism with mental toughness better than tennis. It's boxing without the violence, a physical version of chess.

Which brings us back to its place in America. If golf can vault itself into mainstream sports consciousness, why can't tennis? Let's hope tennis ratchets itself up a notch if the players can keep the momentum from a memorable Open (attendance was an all-time high for the tournament).

Jenkins deserves some credit for sparking a possible resurgence. His second-round match with Rafael Nadal lasted only three sets, but his hustle and determination set a tone the rest of the Americans followed. Blake dusted Nadal off in the next round, relying on his blistering forehand to blast the tournament's second seed out.

Meanwhile, Ginepri, in shape and committed to the sport after a soul-searching summer, won two five-set matches before falling to Agassi, dialing back on some of his gambling shots and displaying a better defensive game.

In the top half of the draw, Dent took Lleyton Hewitt to five sets in the third round, silencing the world's second-best player's usual vocal antics while riveting a raucous crowd.

Blake, Ginepri, Dent and Jenkins are all under 26. Blake and Ginepri have an air about them that, if they win, should keep people interested. Jenkins could be the best of the lot five years from now.

Agassi, 35, will evaluate how much he has left at the end of the year. If this past tournament is any indication, should Agassi choose to retire, he will be leaving the game, and hopefully its place in American sports culture, in talented and deep hands.

Let's thank the tennis gods for that.

Brent Jones is a Sun sports reporter. E-mail him at brent.jones@baltsun.com.

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