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J.A. ADANDE

Martin Becomes Wild Cat at Open

Two emotional victories make the gray-haired veteran a semifinalist and a crowd favorite.

September 08, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

NEW YORK — When it comes to the men's draw of the U.S. Open, my objectivity just left on the No. 7 train back to Manhattan.

I'm rooting for Todd Martin because he's the only one of the semifinalists who went to college with me--and when you go to a school as athletically deficient as Northwestern, colleagues in the professional sports ranks are hard to come by.

Like all the great American success stories, Martin left school early. So while I was finishing my last two years, he was getting started on a career that would bring him some $7 million in prize money.

He has carved out a nice career for himself, cracking the top 10 on the ATP Tour rankings. He has flirted with Grand Slam championships (a runner-up here last year, a runner-up at the Australian Open in 1994) and here he is again, staring across the room at one more chance for glory.

He beat Thomas Johansson, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, in the quarterfinals Thursday night, and judging by his slowly increasing fan base that gave him the home-court advantage, it looks like I'll have to make room on the Martin bandwagon.

He won over the hearty folks who stuck around until 1:22 in the morning to catch end of his match with Carlos Moya in the previous round. It was so late and Arthur Ashe Stadium was so empty that officials invited fans from the upper deck to sit in the lower-level seats. When Martin completed his comeback from two sets down to beat Moya in five sets, he slammed his racket to the ground like Pete Townsend trashing a guitar at the end of a Who concert, then did a victory lap around the court, high-fiving everyone left in the place.

If Martin were to face Pete Sampras in the finals, Martin would have to be the sentimental favorite. Sampras already has his place in history with a record 13 Grand Slam championships. Martin is going for his first--and, at age 30, what could quite possibly be his last--Grand Slam title.

But first there's the matter of Marat Safin, the hard-hitting 20-year-old Russian, in the semifinals.

That's fine with Martin. He likes what he has on his side: experience.

"I feel old," Martin said, "but I don't feel elderly."

Instead, Martin is feeling as if he's playing some of the best tennis of his career.

"The game gets simpler as you get older," Martin said. "I don't do some things physically as I used to, but I make up for it with what I know."

Sometimes it used to look like he thought too much on the court. Whenever he got caught in the middle of the court, with a high ball coming his way, he wouldn't know whether to volley or swing volley or hit an overhead or let it bounce, and you could see his mind getting tangled up before he invariably played the wrong shot and dumped it into the net.

Now he knows precisely what he wants to do, what he should do.

Johansson was the harder hitter in Thursday night's match. Martin showed more creativity and variety in his shots.

And after Johansson broke him to start the fourth set, Martin decided to come to the net more.

"You know, not try to make things so pretty, I guess," Martin said. "Trying to scrap some ugly points too. You know, that's part of the game, and it's part of the reason why I've been able to do well here this week."

Martin isn't overly concerned with the way things look. That's why he hasn't even thought about adding some Grecian Formula to those gray hairs around his temples that make him look even older.

And it's why he isn't worried about the aesthetics of his game.

"I think the uglier the tennis, typically the better tennis player wins," Martin said. "I go out against some guys--and Thomas is not one of them--but I go out against some guys, I look across the net, I think, 'No matter how badly I execute, I feel like this guy's got to play very well to win.' It's because I feel like I know what to do at what times, which shot to hit during the rally, so be it, better than a lot of the guys."

He thinks Sampras is the best at winning ugly, winning on those days when he is far from the top of his game. Sampras certainly does it better than Martin, whom he has beaten 17 times in 19 meetings.

But maybe it's Martin's turn to be Jimmy Connors, whose rousing celebrations made him a fan favorite in his 1990 trip to the Open semifinals. Martin accented some key points and the end of the match with Johansson with some fist pumps that played to the crowd.

When asked if he had a little Connors in him, Martin replied: "No, I'm Todd Martin, first of all. I've never grabbed myself on the court. And I don't plan on it.

"However, you do need to draw on whatever energy is there. Consciously, you don't say, 'What can I do to get the crowd going?' You play good tennis to get the crowd going. From there, their energy inspires more energy from you."

When the questioner remarked that this was more emotion than he displayed earlier in his career, Martin said, "I don't think you've watched me enough."

Believe that. He showed plenty of emotion his freshman year when he upset Michigan's No. 1-ranked MaliVai Washington.

And he still shows emotion 11 years later. Because even though he has learned so much, there's one thing he never forgot.

"I still get a little kid's feeling," Martin said, "When I go out and play the little kid's game."

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J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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WOMEN'S SEMIFINALS

Russian teen Dementieva crashes party, but Hingis-Williams is the marquee matchup. Page 11

DAVIS CUP

U.S. goes to Switzerland for a first-round match and will have to return to Europe with a victory. Page 11

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