The 1999 US Open Wrap-Up
by Ken Kamlet
Ken Kamlet has written for numerous publications on and off the Internet ranging from the Washington Post to Spotlight to America Online. He currently has two feature stories in the US Open issue of TENNIS magazine (including a profile of Althea Gibson) and previously caused all kinds of havoc for On The Line Tennis Magazine with his diatribe about Pete Sampras. He may be contacted at KKamlet@aol.com.

US Open Sunset
The Beginning


As tennis geared up for the final grand slam event of the century, the quality and depth of both men's and women's tours suddenly faced upheaval and seemingly became more intriguing by the day.

After a dismal finish to 1998 and a series of lackluster performances in early 1999, Pete Sampras lost his #1 rank and watched (perhaps bemused) as it passed from one guy to the next like a hot potato. But he returned to the scene of his last major triumph, the grasscourts of England, and re-established his decade-long dominance of grand slam titles by winning Wimbledon and equaling Roy Emerson's record with 12 grand slam titles. Sampras then put together a decent summer, marred by the Davis Cup debacle where his late entry to the team resulted in controversy and a level of indecisiveness that ultimately caused captain Tom Gullickson his job.

Still, Sampras seemed on-form and looking to break the grand slam record on home turf. Then, just days before the start of the US Open he had to make a devastating withdrawal due to a herniated disc in his lower back that will likely take him out of contention for the remainder of the season.

The start of the event also saw Mark Phillipousis still sidelined with a knee injury; Carlos Moya (world #1 for a split-second earlier this year) dropping like a brick in the rankings due to a string of early losses; and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter retiring with a shoulder injury to very much uncalled-for boos and hisses in the fifth set of his opening match against former US Open finalist Cedric Pioline.

The women, who have been upstaging the men in media attention and in competitive depth for the better part of two years, were dealt two significant blows to their draw. Just two weeks before the start of the US Open, Steffi Graf, riding on a crest of public adoration and in the glow of returning to form by winning this spring's French Open and reaching the finals of Wimbledon, stunned the sports world with her announcement of immediate retirement. This was followed by the withdrawal of Anna Kournikova because of a stress fracture in her foot. While Kournikova has yet to win a singles title and emerge as a top contender, she remains a top box-office and TV ratings draw.

Aces & Faults

Amy Frazier On The Comeback Trail Ace: The 1999 US Open turned into a memorable and dramatic final slam of the millennium … and while the level of play and officiating was up and down throughout, the tournament was rarely without excitement, drama, thrilling wins and heartbreaking losses. While two of the all time greats were suddenly and unexpectedly absent, the draw saw the emergence of young and new talent, the struggles of fading stars and even the reemergence of several former contenders who had been otherwise regarded as finished.

Fault: A grand slam tournament without Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf or Boris Becker! Also, recent grand slam champions Sergi Bruguera and Petr Korda failed to make the main draw. Bruguera has struggled for several seasons with injuries; Korda recently retired from the sport rather than face the public humiliation of being the first tennis player in history to be banned for drug abuse.

Todd Martin electrified the Men's draw Ace: The old guard returns. Todd Martin led the comeback brigade of several players said to be washed up. His unexpected run at the final included two five-set thrillers. In the first round he choked away a two sets to love lead over French journeymen Stephane Huet before gutsing out a fifth set tie break. But Martin saved his real heroics for his fourth round encounter with 9th seed Greg Rusedski. After Rusedski blew Martin off the court in winning the first two sets with surprising ease, the New York night-crowd began leaving in droves. Perhaps slightly embarrassed and with a rare show of emotion ranging from anger to ultimate joy, Martin staged a 5-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 come-from-behind rally that had the remaining in attendance literally jumping out of their seats and screaming with excitement. The climactic fifth set left both men teary-eyed, Rusedski devastated and Martin a hero for an inspired performance that will long be remembered.

Jennifer Capriati, the ever-so promising teenage phenom who rose to #6 in the world and won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics had long since fallen out of the upper echelon of the women's tour. After dropping out of sight in 1993 for nearly three years due to personal, legal and physical problems, Capriati's comeback attempts have been lackluster and undisciplined leaving onlookers to question her commitment and desire. Beginning in late 1998, Capriati finally hired a full time coach, former top-10 tour player Harold Solomon, who has clearly helped her with her fitness, confidence and focus. Her ascension from a ranking out of the top 200 back to the top 30 has been focused and purposeful in 1999. She took the title in Strasbourg this spring and continued with steady, if unspectacular, results this summer.

Jennifer Capriati Back on Track She began with a straight set dismissal of 1997 French Open champ Iva Majoli, her first win in a singles match at the US Open in 6 years. Capriati followed that with a run at the fourth round with wins over Seda Noorlander (a player she had lost to twice before) and a 3rd round upset over 11th seed Nathalie Tauziat, before falling to American Monica Seles.

Other veterans who gave unexpectedly solid performances included Mary Joe Fernandez (who upset 13th seed Dominique van Roost in the 3rd round before extending Venus Williams to three sets), Julie Halard Decugis (who was off the tour for more than a year with a variety of injuries, now finds her self in the top-10 for the first time in her long career), Sabine Applemans (suffering a dismal year she was a surprise to reach the 4th round), Anke Huber (formerly #4 in the world but unseeded this year, upset #8 Jana Novotna and #15 Amélie Mauresmo before falling to #1 Martina Hingis in the quarterfinals), Chris Woodruff (also off the tour for a year with injuries, reached the 3rd round), Magnus Norman (also struggling to come back, made the 4th round before being forced to retire against 5th seeded Gustavo Kuerten with an injury), Andrei Medvedev (once a top 10 player who fell well out of the top 100, began his comeback by reaching the French Open finals in May and continued his success by advancing to the 4th round of the US Open before being excused by his pal Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the 3rd seed) and Cedric Pioline (a promotor's nightmare because of his stoic and rather bland demeanor, he reached the SF round unseeded showing outstanding form).

Fault: Just as the draw saw unexpected success stories, it also witnessed surprising exits as well as the continued disappointments of several struggling players. Iva Majoli who has rarely won more than a match or two at any tournament since shocking Martina Hingis in the 1997 French Open finals, was easily dismissed in round 1. Jana Novotna was routined off the court in straight sets by Anke Huber in the 3R and then lost a disastrous match with new doubles partner Natasha Zvereva to the unheralded team of Liezel Horn and Kimberly Po. Several days later she admitted that her peak had past when she announced she would hang up her racquets by the end of the year. Amanda Coetzer was the only women's seed to go out in the 1R, Irina Spirlea, who danced the infamous "bump" with Venus Williams in the SF of the 1997 US Open was routed in the 3R by Elena Likhovtseva and Joanette Kruger who made the top 20 in 1998 failed to advance out of the qualifying rounds.

Goran Ivanisevic's Grand Slam Heartbreaks Continue On the men's side, Tommy Haas continues to show promise but was upset by veteran Cedric Pioline in the 4R. Likewise, Marat Safin, whose exciting game and movie-star looks could be just the new attraction the ATP is searching for, was out by the 2R. Star names like Jim Courier, 17th seed Felix Mantilla, Wayne Ferreira, 6th seed Tim Henman and 13th seed Alex Corretja were all out by the 2R, mostly to journeymen from the rank-and-file level of the game. Goran Ivanisevic, unseeded, did manage a 3rd round appearance (after struggling twice in four set wins over qualifiers) before being embarrassed easily by Kuerten.

Ace: Once again, a tennis fan did not necessarily need an overpriced ticket to the Arthur Ashe Stadium Court to enjoy spectacular matches. In fact, the two other show courts (The Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand) as well as the outside courts more often than not were the place to be, especially in the first week. For example, while Yevgeny Kafelnikov drew mostly yawns during his ho-hum win over Serena Williams' sometimes mixed-doubles partner Max Mirnyi on the Stadium Court during the night session, a left over day match was played out on Court 7. The packed stands were treated to a climactic, roller-coaster women's doubles match as Rumanians Catalina Cristea/Ruxandra Dragomir surprised the much more famous Mirjana Lucic/Jennifer Capriati in a 3rd set tie break in a jewel of a match that lasted over 3 hours.

The Bryan Twins: Doubles Action on the Outside Courts Fault: The USTA continues to ignore strong criticism that the US Open is one of the least fan-friendly set-ups on the tour. Very few players were asked to give autograph sessions (although it was a delight to see the ever-beautiful 1990 US Open champ Gabriela Sabatini in the Fila booth). The practice courts for the feature players continue to be obscured by unnecessary masking.

USTA security guards, while challenged with difficult crowd control issues, continue to be overly gruff and aggressive. Witness one 6 year old child who was nearly assaulted when he tried to get close enough to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to ask for an autograph and another young lady who was physically shoved by a guard escorting an almost unknown player from his doubles match back to the lockers.

Matches were often scheduled in a clearly sexist manner (even though the new head of the USTA is Julia Levering, a woman). Women's matches were often the earliest scheduled and in between television broadcast times. Men are still getting preferential treatment for showcourts. This, despite the facts that the television ratings for the women's matches are regularly beating the men's matches and the stands were filled at least as much for the women as for the men's. Still, kudos to the USTA for remaining the only Grand Slam event to offer equal prize money.

The Arthur Ashe Stadium continues to be the travesty of American tennis. While it is more attractive than the old Louis Armstrong stadium and it seats many more, the average fan is much further away from the action, the USTA continues to charge full value of tickets without warning of seats that have obstructed viewing, elevators are still not for use by the public and on-court interviews are not broadcast for the fans to hear. When lower level seats are empty, even at the end of a session, the USTA still absolutely refuses to allow spectators to move down and fill them. They don't seem to mind the embarrassment of a main draw match being televised internationally with a sea of empty blue seats in the background.

The worst example of this consequence occurred in Jim Courier's opening round debacle against Slava Dosedel. Struggling with a foot injury and a flat game, it seemed Courier just couldn't get the fire going even though he started the match playing reasonably close to Dosedel. The match was scheduled in the later afternoon session on the Arthur Ashe Stadium in between USA Network's coverage of day and night sessions. Most of the lower level seats were empty but the upper promenades were packed with fans wanting desperately to cheer on Courier. But being so far away and feeling so excluded, the effort seemed futile and eventually the fans, and Courier, conceded the unfortunate circumstances as Dosedel earned a 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 decision.

Ace: The re-dedicated Louis Armstrong Stadium's refurbishing is finally complete and it is, in fact, a treasure. Although it seats some 10,000 spectators it now as a very intimate feeling and even in the worst seats the fans are made to feel a part of the action. The perimeter of the arena now features a red tile motif that matches the rest of the tennis center as well as nicely appointed new shops and a mini-museum dedicated to the history of tennis complete with many esteemed trophies, such as the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup.

The naming of the stadium after Louis Armstrong is curious, however. Armstrong was a talented musician and a resident of the neighborhood of Flushing where the tennis center sits, but still … he was not related to tennis in any known way. Surely, there must have been some American tennis star who might have received such an honor as Arthur Ashe did.

Fault: The most embarrassing and unsporting display came from American Alexandra Stevenson. The little known, big-hitting Stevenson made a splashy run at Wimbledon earlier this summer, becoming the first qualifier ever to advance to the semi-final round. Her mother (Samantha Stevenson) succeeded in upstaging her on-court achievements, however, with coy comments to the press that brought up questions of homophobia, racism and Alexandra Stevenson's parentage (eventually revealed to be basketball star Dr. Julius Erving). Samantha Stevenson, a professional sportswriter, also wrote a very subjective story about fellow tour player Jelena Dokic's father for the New York Times (the Times later decided to drop Stevenson as a tennis writer when they became aware of the conflicts of interest).

Following her sensational run and all the media attention, Alexandra Stevenson spent the summer losing matches to virtual unknowns in qualifying events. Perhaps she should have spent more time on the practice court. Instead, she invested a great deal of energy giving press interviews (including a nationally televised conversation with Barbara Walters and a Alexandra Stevenson: Back to the Drawing Board feature story for Sports Illustrated For Women) in which she spent a shocking amount of time trashing fellow players such as Lindsay Davenport, Jelena Dokic, Conchita Martinez and Anna Kournikova.

Looking unprepared and without a game plan, Stevenson flailed away in her opening round simply believing she could win with power alone. Her more experienced opponent, 11th seed Nathalie Tauziat made her look pedestrian with an easy 6-2, 6-2 victory. While the crowd was largely split in their loyalties between the players, Stevenson's post-match display left folks shocked and in some cases laughing. Immediately after losing, Stevenson over-dramatically rushed to her mother in the stands and wept. She accepted the condolences of her mom and her coach Craig Karden. After a prolonged display, in which she clearly turned and pandered to the cameras so everyone could feel her pain, her mom patted her on the back and she finally headed back for the lockers.

The End

By the time the final four players in both draws reached the semifinals, the level of excitement was at a fever pitch. On the men's side, one didn't have to guess who the officials were hoping would advance … a Cedric Pioline/Yevgeny Kafelnikov final would have been a promoter's nightmare. The USTA got its wish when superstar Andre Agassi and everyone's new hero Todd Martin advanced decisively to an all American final.

The ladies' story was different. No matter what the outcome of the semis, the USTA was blessed with a dramatic, provocative and unpredictable final. The possibility of an all Williams final (and also, first all African-American final) was tantalizing. Early in the tournament, pop Richard Williams boldly predicted a Venus/Serena championship match was nearly inevitable. Martina Hingis took exception to that and a very mild exchange of verbal barbs ensued over the next two days. Ultimately, Serena and Martina had a laugh over the matter while Martina presented Richard with a signed T-shirt (his request) as a peace offering. The media (particularly the CBS and USA broadcast teams) tried desperately to inflame and overly hype the non-event but both the Williams and Hingis family would have none of it and all concerned essentially conducted themselves with respect, goodwill and professionalism.

Martina Hingis - the Swiss Missed in the Final Another potential final was a Lindsay Davenport/Martina Hingis battle. Already enjoying a close, solid rivalry this match-up would also essentially decide the #1 rank for the year. For Davenport, it was her first chance to defend a grand slam title. For Hingis, she was looking to re-establish her position as one of the leading contenders for the major titles after back-to-back disasters at the last two grand slam events. In the French final, Hingis choked a winning lead against the more composed Steffi Graf and then collapsed in a display of poor sportsmanship and emotional panic. A few weeks later, she became the first #1 seed at Wimbledon to lose to a qualifier when she was sent packing in straight sets by Australia's Jelena Dokic.

Neither the Williams/Williams nor the Davenport/Hingis final materialized. In the first SF, Serena Williams seemed to mature with every shot and to gain strength with every stroke as she survived a 3-set power struggle over Davenport. In the 2nd match, older sister Venus struggled (as she had the whole tournament) with her serve and finally gave into muscle cramps as crafty Martina Hingis ran her to all areas of the court during their 3 set battle.

The men's final was close, but the younger and fitter Andre Agassi hung in to Andre Agassi, 1999 US Open Champion force a fifth set where it became evident that his legs had even more strength than Martin's heart had convictions. In winning his 2nd Grand Slam title of the year, Agassi continued to establish himself as one of the most successful and complete players of the Open Era. A player once regarded as one who was throwing away his talent in favor of gloss and glitz, Andre Agassi has become the indisputable current #1 ranked player.

The women's final proved to be a surprise and a thrill. Hingis seemed still somewhat tired from her SF match. Serena Williams started off looking understandably nervous in her first major final. Ultimately, it was the less experienced and younger Serena Williams who took control of the match with a Marat Safin, Russia's Next Big Hope straight-set triumph. While Williams was unable to close out the match when she first served for it at 5-3 in the 2nd set, she pulled herself together and raised the level of her game once gain in the tiebreak to clinch the title and earn her place in tennis history.

By winning, she became only the only the 2nd African American woman (Althea Gibson won 5 slams, her last one coming in 1958 at the US Nationals) and only the fourth black player ever (Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Yannick Noah are the others) to win a major singles title. In fact, Serena was only the 7th black finalist ever in a slam singles event (Gibson, Ashe, Noah, Zina Garrison, Malivai Washington and Venus Williams were the others).

While there was a definite sense of finality to this event … it was the final slam of the century, the last chance for players to secure the #1 rank for the year and the end of at least a few careers, the tournament actually paved the way for the future. Serena Williams has arrived, and in all likelihood, she has only just begun. How much longer will Agassi be able to maintain his phenomenal resurgence and dedication? There was a clear revitalization in a number of players … Hingis, Martin, Capriati, Davenport, Kuerten, Venus etc. And the plethora of newbies … Jelena Dokic, Amélie Mauresmo, Safin, Stevenson, Gambill, the Bryan Twins, Xavier Malisse, Haas and many more. And of course there will be the surprises and the unforeseen dramas ...

All I can say is … is it time for the Australian Open yet? Bring it on!

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