Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Men's tennis may not be dominating the sports headlines these days, but the quality of play has never been better, led by the likes of "New Balls" stars Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
The American Roddick (U.S. Open), Swiss Federer (Wimbledon) and Spanish Ferrero (French Open) account for the last three Grand Slam titles and Ferrero was the only man to reach a pair of major finals this past season. New Balls also captured six of the nine Masters Series events, including a pair of lucrative wins for Roddick (Montreal and Cincinnati) and Ferrero (Monte Carlo and Madrid), and Federer corralled the season-ending Masters Cup.
Roddick officially arrived this year by claiming the Champions Race, the year- end No. 1 ranking and his first-ever Slam title, in Flushing. The Nebraska native was second only to Federer in titles (6) and match wins (72) in 2003, with most of his damage coming after he hired Brad Gilbert as his coach following a stunning opening-round loss at Roland Garros. Roddick's torrid play included a seemingly-unstoppable 19-match winning streak at one point.
The 21-year-old Roddick raced into at least the semifinals in three of the four Slams, including his running of the table at the U.S. Open, where be pasted Ferrero in the final at the USTA National Tennis Center.
Roddick's most-memorable match in '03 came in the Australian Open quarterfinals, when he survived amicable Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui in an epic five-setter that lasted just under 5 hours (4 hours, 59 minutes), including a classic 21-19 fifth set. Unfortunately for "A-Rod" he suffered a wrist injury that day and was not at 100 percent when he lost to determined German Rainer Schuettler in the semis Down Under.
Roddick's U.S. Open title propelled him to the world No. 1 ranking.
The laser-serving Roddick would, however, go on to become the second-youngest year-end No. 1.
The 22-year-old Federer finished the year No. 2 after piling up a tour-best seven titles and 78 match wins. He was also the only male to eclipse $4 million in prize money and is, in my eyes, the most-talented performer to come along since the legendary Pete Sampras.
Federer claimed his first major title by handling big-serving Aussie Mark Philippoussis in the Wimbledon final and capped his brilliant campaign by going a perfect 5-0 at the Masters Cup in Houston, where he hoisted the coveted trophy (and more importantly a $1.52 million paycheck) after blitzing the ageless Andre Agassi in the final.
The silky-smooth Federer restored serve-and-volley order at the venerable All England Club, as he was forced to carry that particular torch without the likes of Sampras, Richard Krajicek or Goran Ivanisevic on hand at the most- prestigious of tennis events.
The biggest story at Wimbledon 2003, however, was the stunning first-round loss by defending champion Lleyton Hewitt, who was shocked by 6-foot-10 Croat Ivo Karlovic on opening day at SW19.
I'll get back to Hewitt later on in this article.
The 23-year-old Ferrero crossed the '03 finish line with four championships and 67 match wins. After posting a runner-up finish at the 2002 French Open, the "Mosquito" returned to the final this year and dismantled monster-serving Dutchman Martin Verkerk in a lopsided 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 final. The Spanish star also proved that he can play on surfaces other than clay by reaching the championship round at New York's Open and winning at least 30 matches on both clay and hardcourts, a feat that hadn't been done since the great Ivan Lendl turned the trick in 1980.
The 2003 season wasn't all New Balls, however, as the time-defying Agassi prevented a Grand Slam sweep by the kids with an amazing performance at the Australian Open way back in January. The 33-year-old American didn't play a whole lot of tennis, but he went 47-10 with four titles, including the one in Melbourne when he blasted the aforementioned Schuettler off the court in the final. The title gave him Grand Slam crown number eight, with four of 'em coming at the Aussie Open. Agassi rolled to victory in Melbourne while losing only one set in seven matches. Very impressive.
Agassi also reached the final at the Masters Cup despite taking off for two months after bowing out against Ferrero in the semifinals at the U.S. Open in early September.
The sport said goodbye to a trio of stars this year, most notably the amazing Sampras, who officially called it a career on opening night at the U.S. Open, the site of his first Grand Slam title as a skinny 19-year-old in 1990. A now 32-year-old Sampras hung up his racquet after amassing a record 14 Grand Slam titles and over $43 million in prize money, to go along with his incredible six consecutive year-end No. 1 finishes (1993-98).
The Wimbledon and Masters Cup champion Federer led the ATP in titles and match wins in 2003.
A tearful Sampras was honored with a ceremony at Ashe Stadium, as the Washington, D.C. native rode off into the sunset. Fittingly, his last match was his 2002 U.S. Open final victory over his long-time rival, Agassi.
FYI: Sampras was a comfortable 20-14 lifetime against Agassi.
Is Sampras the best ever? You'd probably have to ask "Rocket" Rod Laver or Bjorn Borg that question. At least I would. Both Laver and the ultra-cool Borg boasted exquisite all-court games, while Pistol Pete's Achilles' heel was anything red...specifically clay in south Paris.
Sampras will now enjoy his family life with actress wife Bridgette Wilson and one-year-old son Christian Charles.
The sport also said goodbye to 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang and rocket-serving 1996 Wimbledon winner Richard Krajicek, who finally gave way to injuries, most notably a failing right elbow.
Chang, who ranked as high as No. 2 in the world at one point, probably should have retired last year, as he closed out his miserable '03 season with an embarrassing 2-10 record, including first-round losses at his only Slams, the U.S. and French Opens.
Back to the present.
What happened to the two-time year-end No. 1 Hewitt in '03?
The fiery Aussie decided to play less tennis this year, and it appeared to cost him. After opening the year at No. 1, the Adelaide native finished at No. 17 and failed to make it past the quarterfinals at all four Slams, including the opening round debacle at Wimby.
Hewitt faced a number of distractions in 2003, like a feud with the ATP, a coaching change and his head-over-heels relationship with Belgian star Kim Clijsters, but I do believe he'll rebound in 2004 and re-join the top 10. He already showed signs of a comeback of sorts last week when he defeated the free-swinging Ferrero in five sets in the opening rubber of the Davis Cup final in Melbourne. As a matter of fact, Hewitt closed out his year with victories against both Ferrero and Federer, as the Aussie bulldog propelled Australia into the Davis Cup final by beating the "Fed" in five sets in the semis against Switzerland back in September. How 'bout that mate!
The men's season ultimately came to a close with the Davis Cup final, as Australia notched its 28th title when the oft-injured Philippoussis fought off a shoulder problem to overcome Ferrero in the fourth rubber of the best-of- five tie with Spain Down Under. The "Scud" gave the Aussies an unassailable 3-1 lead, just as he did four years earlier when he bested Cedric Pioline to give Australia its 27th championship, at the expense of a French contingent.
Honorable 2003 mention goes to rising Argentine Guillermo Coria, who was part of the exclusive eight-man field at the Masters Cup after going 60-16 with a quintet of championships and a trip to the French Open semis.
Even without Sampras the game is capable hands right now, with Agassi still rolling along and a budding great rivalry between Roddick and Federer. The sport also needs the controversial Hewitt to return to prominence and can only be helped with the emergence of more American stars, i.e. Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent, Robby Ginepri and James Blake. It would also be nice to see the former world No. 1 "Guga" (Gustavo Kuerten) regain the once-brilliant form that catapulted him to a trio of French Open crowns.
Looking into the future, keep your eye on 17-year-old Rafael Nadal (who I guess you could call a Spankin' New Ball). The Spanish prodigy posted a number of surprise victories in his rookie year, including big ones over countrymen Carlos Moya and Albert Costa, a pair of former French Open champs.