Greg Patton, storyteller and coach with the U.S. Tennis Assn., knows his way around words, cynical reporters and, more important, teenage boys with short attention spans.
He coached a junior team in the '80s that will probably put several members in the hall of fame--Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Michael Chang. Lately, his Sampras and Courier stories have been losing steam, not generating as much mileage with the Gen-14 crowd.
But one new name pulls them away from PlayStation.
"You talk about [John] McEnroe to kids and there is no relation," Patton said. "Now even Sampras and [Andre] Agassi, those guys are starting to fade into the sunset. The kids that are 15 and 14 and 13, they don't identify with those guys.
"You mention the name [Andy] Roddick--and he just entered the scene--kids who are into tennis, they are so sharp, so intuitive, they say, 'This kid is one of us.' The way he wears his hat and his youthful joy. They relate to that and want to be like that."
Patton paused and you could almost feel the next metaphor building.
"So I'm changing my stories," Patton said. "He's generating such great interest in the game, firing up the stove. Roddick is fresh out of the oven. When you get that bread or doughnut fresh out of the oven, it tastes so good. Sampras and Agassi have been out of the oven for a long time. They've been in the refrigerator."
There was a similar conversation with Patton about 13 years ago. Angst was growing in the post-McEnroe, post-Jimmy Connors era. Who were going to be the replacements? Patton started talking about a youngster named Sampras, another named Courier and then the leader of the pack, Chang.
And we all know what happened after that.
This happens often in American tennis. A generation of all-stars closes in on career endings and panic begins. Sampras, Agassi and Chang have to be flattered. There is nostalgia for them and they are still playing.
Even someone who should know better fell victim to the next-generation malaise. Last summer McEnroe, then captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, looked around during the semifinals in Spain and saw Vince Spadea playing for him, then, months later, walked away from the job he said he had always wanted.
Who knew Roddick was around the corner? But the 18-year-old who looks like a skateboarder won two clay-court tournaments, reached the third round in dramatic showings at the French Open and Wimbledon, and had a song written about him--suspect lyrics and all--less than a year after the Spanish loss.
Things change quickly. A year ago, Taylor Dent hadn't hit a 144-mph serve on Center Court at Wimbledon or defeated Magnus Norman on a hard court in India. Twins Bob and Mike Bryan had yet to reach the Wimbledon doubles semifinals, and Mardy Fish was months away from recording victories against Mark Philippoussis and Thomas Enqvist.
And so, The Times has picked a top 10--the replacements--and will follow this latest group of male prospects for the next couple of years, offering updates every few months. Roddick, who is ranked 33rd in the world, 20-year-old Dent of Newport Beach, No. 127, and 19-year-old Fish, No. 171, are at the top of the list.
Why only men?
There isn't this sort of concern about replacements on the women's side. There are five leading American women--Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles. All have won Grand Slam singles titles and Seles is the only one older than 25.
Of the male prospects, the oldest are three 23-year-olds: the Bryans of Camarillo, who occupy one slot together as a Davis Cup doubles team of the future, and Michael Russell. Russell, as a qualifier, had match point against eventual champion Gustavo Kuerten in the fourth round of the French Open.
In the middle are Phillip King and James Blake.
King, of Long Beach, will turn 20 in December. He won twice at Kalamazoo, Mich., in the most prestigious junior tournament in the United States, but found the professional circuit difficult, on and off the court. King went to Duke for a semester and is pondering whether to return this fall.
Blake, 21, left Harvard after two years and just had the best week of his career at the ATP stop in Newport, R.I., on grass, reaching the semifinals before losing to Britain's Martin Lee on Saturday, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (5). Along the way, he beat Vladimir Voltchkov, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year.
The three youngest in the group are Robby Ginepri, who turns 19 in October, 16-year-old Brian Baker and 17-year-old Rajeev Ram. Baker and Ram are still in the juniors. Ram won the Easter Bowl tournament this year, and Baker played in his first junior Wimbledon, losing in the second round.
Baker and Ram are ranked first and second in the USTA 18-and-unders. Baker is 31-2 in that division this year, and Ram is 35-7.