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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

Young Tennis Stars Offering Hope to Desperate U.S. Fans

August 27, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

NEW YORK — It's not fair but it is inevitable.

Taylor Dent, a 19-year-old from Newport Beach, and Andy Roddick, a 17-year-old from Boca Raton, Fla., have won a couple of tennis matches on the ATP circuit this summer and the talk has started.

Maybe, finally, at last, the United States has some men's tennis players to take the place of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

For the last five years U.S. tennis fans have waited for a sign, a puff of white chalk dust, something to indicate that as soon as Sampras, 29, and Agassi, 30, retire, there will be some other American men ranked in the top 10.

And it's not just Americans who have that hope.

Like it or not, the ATP Tour is in trouble if no U.S. players emerge to challenge for Grand Slam tournament titles.

And they'd better emerge soon.

Agassi's back has been a summer-long problem. Sampras seems to have some body part causing him agony every tournament. He was hanging on by a thread at Wimbledon, and the odds are better he'll get sick or hurt than make it to the second week of the U.S. Open, which begins Monday.

Despite the decade-long domination of men's tennis by Sampras and Agassi, there has not been a great flock of junior players eager and talented enough to take their place.

In the last five years the only new American names to crack the top 50 have been plodding, moody Justin Gimelstob and Jan-Michael Gambill, who is known more for his movie-star looks than any tennis achievements.

The men's cupboard is so bare that when Sampras and Gambill turned down the opportunity to play in the Olympics, 31-year-old Jeff Tarango, ranked 81st in the world and once expelled from Wimbledon for bad behavior, was named to the U.S. team. If that's not the bottom of the barrel, it's close.

So forgive us tennis fans our enthusiasm over Dent and Roddick.

Dent has good genes. His father, Phil, was a top-10 player, an Aussie who has taught his son the delights of serve-and-volley tennis and of good sportsmanship.

Last month in Cincinnati, Dent made it through the qualifier and into the main draw of the Masters Series event, beat Tarango in the first round and then held his serve throughout a 7-6, 7-6 loss to Sampras.

"The difference in me now," Dent says, "is that when I go play against a Sampras or Agassi, I think I can win. I didn't believe that even a year ago."

Roddick had a breakthrough tournament two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., where he beat Adrian Voinea, who is ranked 89th in the world; Fabrice Santoro, who is ranked 24th; and Karol Kucera, who is ranked 61st, before losing, 6-4, 6-4, to Agassi in the quarterfinals.

It was pointed out to Roddick that, as a 17-year-old, Agassi also got to the quarters of the Washington tournament.

"I already knew that," Roddick says.

There has been no shortage of top American women. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, African-American women who started playing on cement courts in Compton, have sparked interest in the game from new demographic groups. Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles join the Williams' sisters near the top of the rankings.

"I don't think you can compare the men and women," Roddick says. "The talent is a lot deeper on the men's side."

Sampras had won the first of his 13 Grand Slam tournament titles by the time he was 19 (the win came at the U.S. Open), and Agassi had his first big year as an 18-year-old, when he won several tournaments.

"But it's a different time now," Roddick says. "Because the game is deeper, it's much harder to win when you're that young."

Dent says that he doesn't mind accepting the pressure of succeeding Sampras and Agassi, but he does mind it if people write him off if he doesn't win a Grand Slam event by age 20.

"People mature at different rates," Dent says. "Things start to click for people at different times. For me it has started this year and I don't know why, exactly."

Roddick is also happy to be compared to Sampras and Agassi.

"I know people are out there looking for some of us to step up," Roddick says. "I do believe Taylor and I could have a real good rivalry like Pete and Andre have had. I think we've got the talent."

Dent and Roddick are teaming up at the Open in doubles. Dent, ranked 139th in the world, will play 27th-ranked Byron Black of Zimbabwe in the first round of the singles. Roddick, ranked 148th, will play No. 20 Albert Costa, a Spaniard.

"There are these big shoes to fill," Dent says, "and people have been looking for replacements for Pete and Andre for a long time. They are two special players. It's not just going to happen, two guys like that coming along again."

But it would sure be nice if Dent or Roddick stuck around for a week or so at the Open, won a couple of rounds, got some more confidence.

Men's tennis needs them. Needs them badly. Because, nice guys though they may be, Magnus Norman and Gustavo Kuerten won't draw American fans to the television.

And without another Sampras or Agassi, men's tennis will become a marginal sport, barely catching our attention during the Grand Slam tournaments and not at all the rest of the year. And once that attention is lost it may not be captured again.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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