From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Arantxa Sanchez had been having an inconsistent year, and few people gave her much chance to defend her title. But even fewer people thought that Mercedes Paz, her doubles partner, would be the person to knock her out of the tournament.

Paz was a month shy of twenty-four and had been on tour for six years. People said she could really be a factor if she ever got in shape, but at the end of 1989 she weighed 184 pounds. Even at five feet ten, that was a lot of weight to be carrying. She had finally gotten herself on a training regimen at the start of the year and had lost twenty-five pounds. She was still bulky and lacked quickness, but the difference in her game was evident.

Sanchez, meanwhile, was going through a difficult time. She had changed coaches earlier in the year, hiring Mike Estep to replace her longtime coach, Juan Nunez. Estep had a simple philosophy when it came to coaching women: anybody can attack if they want to; he had made Martina Navratilova more aggressive when he began coaching her in 1983, getting her to come in behind her second serve, and he had preached the same kind of game to every player he had worked since then.
At forty-one, Estep was thinking it might be time to get off the tennis merry-go-round. But IMG had called to say Sanchez was looking for a coach. They were willing to meet Estep’s financial terms – which included first-class airfare for him and his wife Barbara – and wanted him to meet with Sanchez. he did, liked her and her family, and took the job. Right now, though, Sanchez was caught in the middle. Part of her understood why Estep wanted her to be more aggressive, but a major part of her still felt more comfortable hugging the baseline. An indecisive player is almost always a losing player.

“What you can say?” Sanchez said in her fractured English after the match. “Last year I win there; this year, I don’t. It happens.”

She was exactly right. What Sanchez had done in 1989 was extraordinary. The problem was, in tennis, everyone demanded that the extraordinary be repeated over and over again.

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

When the red clay dust had finally cleared on Friday night, the semifinal matchups were hardly as glamorous as might have been expected. Leconte, building on his victory over Mancini, had become the story of the tournament locally, by beating Andres Gomez and Horst Skoff. He would play Thomas Muster in one semifinal, Muster having beaten Aguilera. Often when a player pulls a huge upset, he has trouble coming back the next day. True to that form Aguilera had been a shadow of himself after the Edberg victory. The other semifinal matched Sanchez against Andrei Chesnokov, the talented Soviet with the great deadpan sense of humor.

Chesnokov – Chezzy to everyone on tour – could easily have been a stand-up comic. His English was a good deal better than he liked to let on, although he would occasionally end long speeches in English by looking at his companion and saying, “You understand the language I am speaking?”
In any language, Chezzy was funny. But his postmatch interviews in English had become legendary. Chezzy understood English but was not fluent. When someone asked him a question in English he had to translate it to Russian in his head, grasp it, think of the answer in Russian, translate back to English in his head, and then answer. Often this brought on long pauses. He also had developd an instinctive habit of starting his answer to any question with the words “but no … yes.”

A year ago, he had announced that he was tired of turning 90 percent of his money over to the Soviet Tennis Federation. By year’s end, after some lenghty negotiations, Chesnokov had been given permission to keep his prize money, as long as he agreed to play Davis Cup and the Olympics for his country. It was similar to Natalia Zvereva‘s deal. That made him happy.
Chezzy was never very happy with his tennis, though. He was as fast as anyone in the game and, even though he rarely betrayed emotion on the court, an intense competitor. All week Chezzy had been playing down his chances. After he beat Jaime Yzaga in the third, 6-2 6-1, he said he was happy to be in the quarterfinals but didn’t expect to go any farther. When he then whipped Marc Rosset, the six-foot-six-inch Swiss who could easily pass for Harpo Marx, he said he really wasn’t playing well. Someone asked Chezzy how he would get ready for the semifinals. “But no … yes. I go to disco,” Chezzy answered. “Maybe I loosen up that way.”

About the only thing Chezzy loved better than going to a disco was talking about it. If he spent as much time in discos as he claimed, he never would have beaten anyone. On Saturday he beat Sanchez in a strange three-setter. Sanchez dominated the first set, Chezzy the second. When Chezzy went up 5-3 in the third, he looked to be in control. But as he had done against Becker, Sanchez came back, winning three straight games to go up 6-5. Chezzy held serve to force a tiebreak, then surprised Sanchez by playing attacking tennis throughout the tiebreak. He won it 7-2. Chezzy, like most Soviets, is an excellent chess player. He had outthought Sanchez at the end.
Chezzy, of course, said he had no chance in the final. Muster had hammered Leconte; Chezzy didn’t think he could beat him.

“Thomas is playing very, very well,” he said. “But also I think maybe I take him out tonight. Buy him a vodka at disco.”

Chezzy was nowhere near a disco that night. but he played the next day as if he had taken some kind of elixir. Muster dominated the first set, grunting and pounding away on a hot, sunny day made for him. Down 5-3, Chezzy went to the afterburners. He won four straight games to take the set in seventy excruciating minutes, then was flawless the last two sets and won, 7-5 6-3 6-3. When the two-hour-and-forty-minute match ended, Chezzy threw his arms into the air, exhausted and thrilled.

The awards ceremony in Monte Carlo is second only to Wimbledon’s in simplicity and dignity. A representative of the royal family, Prince Albert in recent years, comes on court to present the trophies. No speeches, no endless thanking of sponsors. When the trophy has been presented, the flag of the winner’s country is raised above the scoreboard and his anthem is played. During the Soviet anthem, one of the loveliest in the world, Chezzy stood at attention, not rigid or melodramatic, just respectful. He was clearly moved by the moment. He was not alone.

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Becker and Edberg had reason to want to do well on the clay this spring. Each believed that he allowed the French Open to slip away the previous year. Becker had come from two sets down to go up a break in the fifth set against Edberg in the semifinals, but had run out of gas. That put Edberg in the final against Michael Chang. He went up two sets to one and had what seemed like a zillion break points in the fourth. But he never could convert, and Chang completed his miracle by winning in five.
Having come so close a year ago, each was pointing to Paris now. Lendl‘s absence from the clay-court circuit provided another bit of incentive. Both Edberg and Becker had a chance, if they played well, to take over the No. 1 ranking.

Edberg didn’t look close to being ready. In his first match, he played Jimmy Arias. For six games, Arias looked like his circa-1983 version, jerking Edberg all over the court. He got to 5-1 40-15, but collapsed. “I blew the two set points at 5-1, and the first thing that flashed through my mind was, Wouldn’t it be something if I ended up blowing the set?” he said later. “Not a great way to think.”
His premonition proved correct. Edberg won the set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-3. Arias knew that Edberg was very vulnerable.

“He plays someone who can return well, he’s going to get beat,” he said. “A good clay-courter will take him.”

The next evening, Edberg came up against a good clay-courter. Juan Aguilera had been ranked seventh in the world late in 1984, at the age of twenty-two. But the next four years had been miserable for him. He had fallen out with his coach Luis Bruguera, and his father had died of cancer. Also, assorted injuries had limited his court time.
But Aguilera, a quiet, sensitive man who played guitar and drums in a Spanish rock group, didn’t give up. He won a small tournament in 1989, his first since the splurge of 1984, and moved back into the top one hundred. The week before Monte Carlo, he moved back into the top forty for the first time in five years, winning the tournament in Nice. In the second round of this tournament, he had won an emotional match from Sergi Bruguera – his old coach’s son. That give him a chance to prove Arias right. And he did just that, beating Edberg in two tiebreaks. Aguilera was too steady for Edberg, who looked impatient and nervous on the big points.
Edberg, who once shrugged off an early-round defeat at Wimbledon by saying, “There’s always another tournament next week,” hardly semed disturbed by this loss.

“I’m just not playing well at the moment,” he said. “I missed too many easy shots, ones I would normally never miss. It’s just a matter of time to get my movement right on clay. This isn’t anything to worry about.”

Ion Tiriac was worried, however, about Boris Becker. In the quarterfinals, Becker looked to be on his way to an easy victory over Emilio Sanchez. he led 6-4 5-3, and had a match point with Sanchez serving. He even got a second serve. Here, though, Becker’s fast-court instincts took over. He went for too much on the return, pushing a forehand deep. Suddenly, Sanchez had life again. He proceeded to win seven of the next eight games – breaking Becker’s serve three times in four tries. On clay, that can happen, even to Becker. To his credit, Becker didn’t quit. He came back to force the final set into a tiebreak but lost it 7-3.
Sitting in the stands watching, Tiriac was not happy. Becker was doing exactly what Tiriac had told him he could not do – playing clay-court tennis. The match had taken nearly three hours. To Tiriac’s way of thinking, that was too long. Becker had to dictate the tone and style of the match, not be dictated to. Already, watching him practice, Tiriac had spoken to Bob Brett about his concern.

“I have told Bob that if Boris keeps playing this way, the entire clay-court season will be a disaster,” Tiriac snorted. “Actually, worse than a disaster. Will Boris listen? Probably not.”

The Sanchez loss seemed to confirm Tiriac’s speech to Brett. Yet Brett knew that trying to convince Becker of that right now would be impossible. He didn’t want to push too hard, too soon. There were still four weeks left before Paris.

A few weeks after her pro debut, the Capriati mania keeps going on:

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the month of April all the indoor tournaments are over. The marking time after the Australian Open is finished. The game moves to the clay courts, and everyone begins looking ahead to the next Grand Slam, the French Open.

Clay has always been thought as the surface of Europeans and South Americans. The red clay of Roland Garros, in Paris, and the Foro Italico, in Rome, are part of the sport’s heritage, and players from the Continent and from South America do grow up on, and for the most part, do most of their playing stuff.

[…] Since the Open left Forest Hills for the hard courts of Flushing Meadow in 1978, there has been no great clay-court tournament in the United States. The US Clay Court Championships, once played in Indianapolis, died there in the mid 1980s when the courts were paved (to induce the men to play there before the US Open). The USTA still runs a US Clay Court Championships in May, but very few players ranked in the top one hundred ever show up.

The women still have Hilton Head, though. For the past eighteen years, they have played the Family Circle Cup at the Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, South Carolina. It represents the opening of the clay-court season for the women and has the feel of a big tournament, though it still retains the charm of a small one. The stadium at the Sea Pines Racquet Club seats about five thousand people. It is surrounded by soaring South Carolina pines which give the place a feeling of isolation. The real world seems much farther away than just across a bridge that leads to the honky-tonk towns and paper mills of the South Carolina and Georgia marsh country.

The field for this tournament is always strong. The prize money is as high as a non-Grand Slam women’s tournament (other than the Lipton) can be: $500,000 meaning that, under Women’s Tennis association rules, at least one of the top two-, two of the top four-, and four of the top eight-ranked players must be entered. In 1990, Navratilova was there, Arantxa Sanchez was there, Zina Garrison was there, and so was Natalia Zvereva. But they were not the stars of this week.

Jennifer Capriati was at Hilton Head, courtesy of Gerry Smith’s string-pulling. The only people pulling harder for her to make it to the weekend than Smith were the ones from NBC. For them a Navratilova-Capriati final would be straight out of Fantasy Island. Not only would they have a classic princess-grand dame matchup, they would have it with the grand dame’s pal and the princess’ hero/mentor – Christine Marie Evert herself – making her network debut in the commentary booth.[…]

And so it was that The Queen came to Hilton Head with the network hoping that The Kid would come through. She did – with flying colors. Still unseeded because she didn’t yet have a ranking, Capriati had to play Sanchez in the third round. No problem: 6-1 6-1. In the quarters, Capriati struggled a little against Helen Kelesi, but roared back to win. Now NBC and Gerry Smith had part of their wish – Capriati had made it to Saturday’s telecast. She would play Zvereva in one semifinal. Navratilova would play a lanky young Czech named Regina Rajchrtova, a quarterfinal over Garrison.

Naturally, Capriati-Zvereva would be the Saturday TV match. To ensure that the court would be clear for The Princess when NBC came on the air at 2 pm, the other semifinal was scheduled for 11:30. This did not exactly please Navratilova. She didn’t relish the role of second fiddle, so she took her sweet time getting ready to go out and play. It was almost 11:50 before the match – which she won in a romp – actually began.

Navratilova may not have been thrilled with all the Capriati mania, but she understood it.

“She’s a fresh face, the new kid on the block, everybody loves her,” she said. “I understand that. It’s amazing how young she is, though. I had been on tour three years before she was born.”

Navratilova was in the final. And after she destroyed Zvereva, so was Capriati, who by now was joyiding though the whole thing. She had a crew fom HBO (which had reportedly paid the family well into six figures) dogging her for a documentary; she had a million questions on her friendship with Chris, and she had boys and men making eyes at her. When the HBO producer told her that a twenty-three-year-old had described her as “hot”, Capriati rolled her eyes and said, “Oh God, don’t tell my father.” She also confided to friends that she had dreamed about TV star Johnny Depp and had a serious crush on Stefan Edberg. The Kid was growing up fast.

But she still sounded like a kid when she talked. When someone asked her about giving Zvereva a crucial point – overruling a call that had gone in her favor – she shrugged. “I just wanted to be fair. The ball was good? I should still have done the other points good.”
As for playing Navratilova, well, that was really something.

“I mean, it shows I’m up there with the great players, I guess,” she said. “I mean, I always watched her play, and now I’ll be out there on the court with her. To be out there with her will be great, you know, she’s really a lege.”

Sunday was something straight out of a fairy tale: gorgeous and sunny, the little stadium sparkling, with the trees rustling in the spring breeze. Andy Mill admitted that the Capriati-Navratilova matchup made his wife a little nervous.

“I told Chrissie she shouldn’t try to sugarcoat the situation,” he said. “She and Martina are certainly friends, but she’s closer to Jennifer. One is a friend, the other is a protégée.”

[…]Evert turned thirty-five in December – three months and eight days before Capriati hit fourteen. Now she sat in the TV booth with Dick Enberg as Capriati raced on court two steps ahead of Navratilova – “I wanted to get my lucky chair,” she said – while Navratilova was nearly knocked over by the NBC cameraman pursuing the teenager. She was not amused.

That was Martina’s last bad moment of the day, though. She was still The Lege and played near-perfect tennis to beat The Kid 6-2 6-4 in seventy-five minutes. Capriati hardly seemed bothered by it all. During the awards ceremony she thanked just about everyone on the planet, and when Bud Collins, the master of ceremonies, started to pull the microphone back, thinking she was finished, Capriati grabbed it back. “Wait a minute, I’m not finished.”
Collins, who knows a star when he sees one, dutifully handed the mike over. Navratilova was thrilled to win – “God, it was nerve-wracking!” she said – and Capriati was thrilled to be Capriati. NBC got the highest rating it had ever gotten on the Family Circle Cup, and a higher rating than it would get on the Wimbledon final. Evert’s reviews weren’t great, but they weren’t bad. Gerry Smith couldn’t stop grinning. And why not?

The Kid had come through like … well … like a Lege.

From Monica Seles autobiography, Getting a grip:

Key Biscayne, Florida. A tropical island paradise of stunning beaches and the longtime venue for the annual Miami Masters. A prestigious and glamorous event, it is often referred to as the “Fifth Grand Slam” and is a mandatory stop on the WTA schedule. In 2000 it was renamed the Ericsson Open but for years it had been called the Lipton Championships and it had always held a special place in my heart. When I was a gangly sixteen-year-old with stick legs and an incurable case of the giggles, I won my first Tier I title on that hard court. But that was a decade ago and it felt like I’d live a lifetime since then. A month had passed since my Oklahoma revelation and I’d been a “good girl” in my eating and working-out habits – meticulously recording every bite of food and form of exercise in my journal – and I had high hopes for a solid performance in the tournament.

The first few matches went by quickly. I faced Anna Kournikova in the fourth round and she pushed me to three sets. I’d lost to her at the same tournament in 1998 and didn’t want to do it again. […]
Anna wasn’t just a good tennis player, she was also smart. she had blasted open the financially lucrative door by making tennis sexy, and dozen of girls followed in hot pursuit. Suddenly players were showing up for matches with flawlessly applied makeup and carefully coordinated outfits that flashed as much skin as possible. While I’d been away from tennis in the mid-1990s, it had turned into a speed game and I was still trying to catch up to it. There was no way I had the time or energy to bother with applying lip gloss and smudge- proof liquid eyeliner before a match. The tour was going in a completely new direction and i was firmly entrenched in the old school. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to walk onto center court for a hitting session feeling confident in a skimpy outfit and smiling flirtatiously at the guys in the crowd, but my head and body were in no condition to do so. That tracksuit was staying on during my warmups, thank you very much.[…]

Anna, whose reputation as an “overrated” player is unfair – she’s beaten Hingis, Graf, and Davenport, was a strong top-ten player for years, and dominated the doubles world – had beaten me in Miami two years earlier, so I wasn’t taking anything for granted. I took the first set 6-1 but stuggled in the second. It was the first set I’d lost at that tournament. I shook it off and was relieved to take the third 6-0. In the quarterfinals I beat Amy Frazier, a flat-hitter who excelled on hard courts, but the victory carried a hefty price. During the second set I lunged to reach the ball and sprained my ankle. The pain shot up my leg and I immediately knew what I’d done. Pushing far out of my comfort zone, I ignored the pain to close the match. The moment I got to the locker room I wrapped my ankle and began to mentally prepare myself for playing Martina Hingis in the semis the following day. It wouldn’t be pretty. Even on my best days, Hingis could beat me – she’d done it just two weeks earlier at Indian Wells – and I certainly wasn’t feeling at the top of my game when I woke up the next morning with my ankle throbbing. I shouldn’t have been playing, but I didn’t want to pull out. Sponsors were depending on me, fans were excited about the match-up, and major money is lost when a televised match is canceled at the last moment. My people-pleasing personality and my donkeylike stubborness kicked into overdrive. It was a mistake.
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