FEET OF CLAY
True to form, the top men crumbled in Paris
Is the men's tour trying to commit suicide? Players have spent
most of the spring inventing ways to turn off the public, and
when the tour descended on Paris last week for the French Open,
it sank to new depths.
It's bad enough that the men's two standard-bearers and the
tournament's top seeds, No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov and No. 2 Pete
Sampras, drifted aimlessly into Roland Garros and then floated
out in the second round looking haggard and half awake. Worse
than draining the draw of two desperately needed marquee names,
their pathetic performances reinforced the popular notion that
some men have lost interest in their own game. Which prompts the
ugly question: If they don't care, why should we?
Just six weeks ago, in the appropriately effete enclave of Monte
Carlo, Kafelnikov celebrated his elevation to No. 1--despite
having lost six straight first-round matches--by declaring, "I
don't really care how I play in Hamburg, Rome, whatever." A day
later former No. 1 Marcelo Rios, who has amassed almost $7
million in tournament winnings, called the ATP tour "pretty
boring. There's nothing to do. They don't do anything to make it
fun." At the next tour stop, in Prague, the promoter refused to
pay Kafelnikov and Goran Ivanisevic their hefty guarantees
because he suspected both of having tanked their first-round
"Those guys play 30 weeks a year, get paid 200 grand just to show
up, and they don't give a s--- in the first round," says 1998
U.S. Open women's champ Lindsay Davenport. "That happens way too
much. Half the weeks they don't even care."
Such a perception, naturally, has officials at the ATP tour in a
panic. Mark Miles, the tour's chief executive officer, met with
Kafelnikov in Rome in mid-May to tell him to stop bad-mouthing
the tour, while another ATP official met with Rios. Tour
executives then spent the first week in Paris saying that, in the
words of ATP chief operating officer Larry Scott, "the kind of
comments Kafelnikov made will not be put up with." The penalty
for such comments could be a fine of as much as $25,000 and/or a
one-year suspension. "If a player says it," Scott says, "that's
what will happen."
Believe it when it happens. The ATP has never suspended a player
for self-immolating remarks, but, Scott says, "the stakes are
higher now." The heightened interest in the women's game
threatens to overshadow the men's tour in the U.S.; for eight of
the last nine Grand Slam events, TV ratings have been higher for
the women's final than for the men's, and at Wimbledon this year
HBO plans to devote 70% of its coverage to the women. Moreover,
ATP execs are eager to justify the 10-year, $1.2 billion
marketing and TV deal that the Swiss broadcast giant ISL
Worldwide recently gave the tour.
The best hope for the men is that their game may have hit rock
bottom and can only go up. One improvement may come from a new
ranking system that will go into effect in 2000 and be more
reflective of recent performance. Another helpful change is a
rule that requires participation by all qualified players in the
Super Nine and Grand Slam events.
Ultimately, though, the solution lies not in fines and TV
contracts but in the players. That was evident last week when
53rd-ranked Australian firebrand Andrew Ilie won his
second-round match at Roland Garros in five emotional, raucous,
delightful sets and tore off his shirt on the court to
celebrate. "Every good result is just a joy for me," Ilie said
after his victory over Martin Rodriguez. "I don't think it's
boring. It's boring when you lose. It doesn't get boring when
Sampras's French Woes
FOR PETE'S SAKE, JUST DO IT
The list of players Pete Sampras has made famous at Roland
Garros is long and ridiculous--Thierry Champion, Gilbert
Schaller, Magnus Norman, Ramon Delgado--but his second-round
loss last week to 100th-ranked Andrei Medvedev may be the most
ominous yet. Sampras's haplessness on clay is well known, but in
his five-set, first-round win over 92nd-ranked Juan Antonio
Marin and in the loss to Medvedev, he looked as lost as he ever
has at the French. His serve a mess, his footwork faulty, his
volleys dropping off his strings like rocks, Sampras seemed
paralyzed by indecision.
His partisans will point out that coming into Roland Garros he
had played fewer matches this year than any other seed--15,
including only five on clay--and that he always revives at
Wimbledon, but his troubles may go deeper than anything a frolic
on the grass can fix. "His level was domination, and he won't
dominate anymore: It requires too much work, and I'm not sure
he's putting it in," said Andre Agassi, who cruised into the
quarterfinals on Sunday. "His movement is a little bit off. He
used to cover the running forehand a lot quicker. He's a lot
like [Ivan] Lendl used to be: If he's not putting in the time on
the court, he's not going to hit the ball real clean. And if he
doesn't hit the ball real clean, he's a different player."
Lendl, with his three French Open titles and his famous failures
at Wimbledon, knows better than anyone what Sampras is going
through--certainly better than Sampras's coach, Paul Annacone, who
as a tour player in the 1980s had an unwavering serve-and-volley
game and never did well on clay. Last year Lendl offered to help
Sampras prepare for the clay season, but Sampras declined. The
offer still stands. So does the refusal.
"I know what I need to do," Sampras said after his loss to
Medvedev. "Paul knows what I need to do. It's not because of the
coach, it's not because of anything but me."
Message to Pete: If anything, your game on clay is regressing.
For starters, you might get over to Europe early in the spring
and play the clay-court season that precedes the French Open. You
might also take some advice on clay-court strategy, if not from
Lendl, then from USTA coach Jose Higueras, who guided both
Michael Chang and Jim Courier to titles at Roland Garros. It
certainly can't hurt.
Capriati's Movable Feast
A QUIET AMERICAN IN PARIS
More than any other Grand Slam event, the French Open specializes
in the unexpected. But who could have predicted that Jennifer
Capriati would last longer at Roland Garros than Venus and Serena
Sure, the margin was measured in minutes. Capriati's
fourth-round loss to No. 2 Lindsay Davenport ended moments after
Venus fell to 125th-ranked qualifier Barbara Schwartz. But while
Venus's limp performance--she blew three match points in the
second set--sealed the Williamses' embarrassing Parisian
face-plant, Capriati's showing was something to be proud of.
With a tournament win in Strasbourg on May 22, her run at Roland
Garros gave Capriati an eight-match winning streak, her longest
since 1993. For the first time since her comeback began in '96,
she was training consistently, handling attention from the media
and taking charge of her life. "I was ready," Capriati said
after her third-round win over Silvia Farina last Saturday. "It
feels good, no, great. I just have a lighter feeling about
everything. It's not like a dark cloud is hovering over me, like
I used to feel all the time. I'm happy, and that shows in my
As recently as February, Capriati's vague commitment to
training--"I would just kind of wander around, and so many other
things would be going through my mind," she says--and her
refusal to take on a coach made observers question whether she'd
ever regain the form that took her to three Grand Slam
semifinals in the early 1990s. When her father, Stefano, first
contacted coach Harold Solomon in December, Solomon told him, "I
want her to call me." She didn't.
"I didn't want to go for it," says Capriati, 23. "Fear of
commitment." But at the beginning of March she decided enough
was enough. She called Solomon, who'd worked with Jim Courier,
Mary Joe Fernandez and Justin Gimelstob, and they talked for two
hours. "I was really impressed," Solomon said last week. "I had
worked with her about a year and a half ago for about four days,
and she wasn't ready then to do the work. But when I got the
phone call, I said to my wife, 'This is not the same girl.'"
The result: While the Williamses continued their Grand Slam
routine of predicting victory and then gagging--Serena's three-set
third-round loss to Fernandez ended with a 6-0 surrender and a
racket smashed against a chair--Capriati snuck up on the draw and
recharged her career. In the process, the woman so often held up
(by the Williams family as much as anyone) as the poster child
for tennis's ills provided the brash sisters with a good example.
"The last word is really the tennis," Capriati says. "Any other
thing I do or say doesn't matter; it always gets twisted around.
So really the best way for me to talk is with my racket."
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Sampras again wilted early in Paris, but he still refuses to seek help from clay-court experts.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN With a new attitude and coach, Capriati evoked memories of the wunderkind of yore.
BY THE NUMBERS
Rank of the highest-rated player (Karol Kucera) Pete Sampras
has beaten in 1999.
American boys and girls seeded in the French Open junior
Months the Women's Tennis Association has been seeking a title
Double faults by Anna Kournikova after four rounds at the '99
Double faults by Kournikova after four rounds at the French Open.
Times Jennifer Capriati used the phrase you know in the press
conference after she won her second-round match at Roland Garros.