The fifth tennis grand slam drew huge crowds as usual this year and the action was definitely worth it. I made my way over the causeway bridge to Key Biscayne on several occasions and enjoyed hours of intense competition including a few major upsets.
The Ericsson is very well organized. Tennis reporters from all over the globe assemble in a modern media center overlooking live action on center court. While I always enjoy watching and charting matches, it's almost equally rewarding wandering around the tennis paradise watching practice sessions with a large smoothie and talking strategy with players and coaches. I became acquainted with several characters from the tennis media this year including the colorful Bud Collins. When Bud arrives on the scene, you know the tournament has finally kicked into full gear. He's a work of art.
Last year I wrote about the women's finals, so it's only fair in this age of equality to give the men the attention and credit they deserve. Let's take a look at Andy Roddick's match with Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi versus Jan Michael Gambill in the finals.
A new kid has arrived, and I believe he will be around for a very long time. His name is Andy Roddick and he grew up only a few miles from where I was raised in Boca Raton, Florida. I'll go out on a crazy limb here and predict that Mr. Roddick achieves the number-one spot in the world within the next two years. Although he made serious waves as a junior tennis player, and was #1 on the ITF junior rankings, few projected him to advance so quickly on the ATP Tour. When I spoke with him a few weeks prior at the Citrix in Delray Beach, he was very modest in trying to gain entry to the major tournaments. Playing Pete Sampras at the Ericsson would be a major opportunity to show his potential to the local crowds. Let's take a closer look.
Prior to this match, Roddick had defeated Harel Levy and upset Marcelo Rios. He described himself as feeling very comfortable in this Florida backyard event. One thing I always notice about Andy is that he appears to be extremely mature and confident for his age. He has a good sense of humor and playfulness, and a real take charge attitude which sets him apart from the others. I didn't even mention his booming 140 mph serve! Since we already know Pete Sampras, nothing more to say here.
The first set was a thrilling back and forth which Andy pulled out in a tiebreak. Let's pick up the action in the second set. Roddick served to start and clearly dominated with big service winners to take a 1-0 lead. With Sampras serving 0-1, Roddick kept up the pressure on Mr. Pete by hitting three great forehand winners down the line to go up 2-0. Sampras seemed rattled by Andy's raw confidence and Roddick continued his assault by hitting three powerful service winners to win the next game at love for a 3-0 lead! Was an upset brewing?
Sampras served well in the next game and won easily to close the gap to 3-1. Roddick took his game to an even higher level, slamming an Ace and two service winners to take a 4-1 lead. After winning the first two points of the game with amazing service returns, Roddick finally showed some nervousness, missing an easy volley, overhitting a return, and missing an easy backhand volley to make it 4-2. Re-focusing in a hurry (an essential mental skill), Andy again won four straight points on his serve to put Pete on the ropes 5-2. Sampras fought back hard and showed why his serve has been key for so long, hitting two aces and a service winner to take the set to 5-3. Roddick would not be denied, however, and again won four straight points with two big service winners, and an amazing 7-6, 6-3 victory.
The Men's Finals
This was a great tournament for the red, white and blue. Two home boys were dueling it out, while Venus Williams would defeat Jennifer Capriatti in the woman's final. Is this indicative of a major resurgence of tennis in the United States? Let's keep it going!
In any event, Andre Agassi was playing incredible tennis. He had rolled over Taylor Dent, David Prinosil, Tommy Haas, Ivan Ljubicic, and Patrick Rafter to soar to the finals. For his part, Jan Michael Gambill had continued his winning ways from his Delray Beach title by ousting Andrew Ilie, Thomas Enqvist, Jonas Bjorkman, Gaston Gaudio, and Lleyton Hewitt. When I caught up with Gambill prior to his first match, I advised him to keep hitting that backhand passing shot. He smiled and said, "you mean that backhand down the line?" He smiled and said he would. Something more than one shot clicked because he was on a serious streak before the finals.
The first set was close. Gambill was down 3-1, but raced back to take a 4-3 lead with that backhand winner and some great serving. Players held all the way to a first set tiebreaker. Andre hung in there with several key shots including an incredible backhand volley winner and his trademark forehand power groundstroke to wrongfoot Gambill, and then a big serve to grab the first set.
While most people thought this would be a great match, it was only great for Andre the Giant. Gambill would only win one more game the entire match! Agassi put on a USTA sponsored clinic for the whole world to watch. While Gambill's serve went South, Agassi began defining the word angle with his precisely controlled groundstrokes, and an attitude that defines killer instinct. The word "zone" also comes to mind. There was a singleness of purpose and awesome efficiency that rarely occurs in professional sports.
Agassi, in short, was the Tiger Woods of tennis on this day. He keeps getting better with age. Perhaps he is getting ready to endorse a new wine.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the 2001 Ericsson Open. It was red, white and blue all the way, and perhaps the biggest news was not Agassi's continued dominence, but the birth of a future champion that will eventually outshine them all. Go A-Rod! See you next month...