Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Tennis desperately needs a star-studded hierarchy



The Associated Press

WIMBLEDON, England - The Williams sisters are so accustomed to being in Grand Slam finals that they had a camera at the ready for the trophy ceremony when Serena beat Venus at Wimbledon.

Winning a major title was all so new to Roger Federer that he broke down in tears a few times minutes after defeating Mark Philippoussis.

And therein lies the big difference between men's and women's tennis at the moment: The women have a pair of dominant players - who happen to be from the same family - while the men keep spreading the wealth.

A case could be made that both are good for the game's popularity.

Rivalries and dynasties tend to help sports attract fans, and you get two for the price of one with Team Williams. Some might argue, however, that there is something to be said for new match-ups and changing champions, which keep the sport fresh.

The truth is, though, that individual sports need someone at the fore, a Tiger Woods or a Martina Navratilova, for example.

Someone whose majesty attracts even casual fans.

"Tennis needs a clear hierarchy," three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker wrote in Monday's The Times of London. "It needs players of talent who are seen to dominate."

Serena and Venus have played each other in five of the past six major finals, with Serena winning each time. Going back to Wimbledon in 2000, the sisters claimed nine of the past 13 Grand Slams. Only two other players won a major in that span: Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Now take a look at the men's game, where everyone seems to get a turn. Federer is the seventh player to win in the past seven Grand Slams, one shy of the Open era record set in the 1970s and equaled last year.

Not too many people in the United States have heard of Federer - and that number didn't get much larger Sunday. His victory against Philippoussis drew the lowest overnight rating on record for a Wimbledon men's final.

The question now is whether Federer can take the next step and become a consistent champion, a la Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi Or, will he be a one-hit wonder a la Marat Safin, who seemed destined to collect a slew of majors when he broke through for his first at the 2000 U.S Open but hasn't followed up?

Becker is convinced of Federer's capabilities.

"The leader of the pack is Roger Federer, the man who always knew he would be the best in the world and is ready to take over for a long time," Becker wrote.

Most important for his future success, Federer pushed aside all those questions about whether he could perform on the biggest stages and fulfill the promise he showed by stopping Sampras' 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon two years ago.

The clear choice to lead the women, according to Navratilova, is Serena.

Williams, 21, already owns six Grand Slam titles. Only Steffi Graf and Monica Seles won more majors by a similar age. Navratilova had just one by that time.

"If Serena keeps training hard and really gets some technical glitches out of her game, which is pretty scary," Navratilova said, "then she'll be the greatest of all time."

And that would only help tennis.




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