July 22, 2009

A Cast of Characters

On Monday two former #1s take the court in Los Angeles in the LA Tennis Open's "Millenium Challenge" -- fourteen-time Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras will meet Russian Marat Safin in a rematch of the 2000 U.S. Open final, what turned out to be Marat's first career Major victory.

The exhibition promises to be an exciting match -- while maybe not one of the classics, there was certainly a real rivalry between these two stars around the turn of the century. Safin, who has announced that 2009 will be his last year on the Tour, took the #1 ranking away from my dear Pete with the help of that win in Flushing Meadows, and he holds a surprising 4-3 record over the legend. While the two couldn't have more disparate personalities -- Marat often brash and combative when a point doesn't go his way, versus Pete who rarely showed any emotion on the court -- when they got on the court, you knew sparks would fly.

There aren't a lot of players on Tour now that have that same energy -- while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are undoubtedly fascinating to watch, on the court they're all business. In a press conference today Safin was asked if he thought he was one of the last great characters in the sport. Marat seemed to think it was just a matter of time:

"Because tennis, actually they need somebody -- not a little bit not crazy, but just a little bit untender, but it has to come natural...Sooner or later it will come, people like that, and tennis will live another nice era."

Though he didn't offer any suggestions of who some of those players might be -- I'm not entirely sure he understood the follow-up question -- certain personalities do spring to mind.

There of course are the hot-heads: Tommy Haas and Lleyton Hewitt may have cooled off a bit in their old(er) age, but you can still see the fire in their eyes when they screw up. And more recently there was the odd -- and masochistic -- reaction from Mikhail Youzhny when he lost a point to Nicolas Almagro in Miami last year.

But now we have a bit more breadth in our emotions. Take the entertainers: Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils always enjoy putting on a show. The heartthrobs: Andy Roddick and Dmitry Tursunov always manage to look good, no matter how hard they sweat. And the crowd-pleasers: Andy Murray and James Blake perpetually get the hometown fans behind them no matter how well or badly they're playing. And, most comforting, the ingenues -- the kids whose innocence and genuine happiness to win even one match is enough to get the entire crowd excited.

So I'm not worried about the personalities of tennis -- there are plenty of players bringing their personalities, either through charm or idiosyncrasies, out to the court with them. And it all just adds to the fun!

No comments: