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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

First Week Was a Tale of the Tape

January 21, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

MELBOURNE, Australia — Aces in this tournament don't refer to serves or the likes of Jiri Novak or Stefan Koubek.

Aces around here are bandages.

The Australian Open has long been sponsored by car makers.

Next year, how about another mode of transportation as sponsor ... crutches, perhaps?

A dark mood was cast hours before the first serve was struck at Melbourne Park on opening day when two-time defending champion Andre Agassi withdrew because of an injured right wrist.

The tournament's first week of the wounded and weary limped to an end Sunday when Spanish teenager Anabel Medina Garrigues suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in the first set against Monica Seles. She will require surgery and could be out more than four months.

In between the Agassi withdrawal and the frightening spill of Medina Garrigues was this long list of player casualties: Former champion Mary Pierce of France, American teenager Andy Roddick, Lina Krasnoroutskaya of Russia, Nicolas Massu of Chile, Agustin Calleri of Argentina and Alexandre Simoni of Brazil. These six retired from matches because of injury.

Not all of the injuries were attributable to the dreaded, often sticky Rebound Ace surface. But the most noteworthy injuries--Roddick's crash and burn and Medina Garrigues' tumble--were related to the controversial surface.

Not included in the list above are two former Grand Slam champions. Serena Williams, the 1999 U.S. Open champion, would have been seeded fifth but withdrew after injuring her ankle in a tuneup tournament in Sydney. Lindsay Davenport, who won the Australian Open two years ago, did not even make the trip because of knee surgery just before the tournament.

Then there are the survivors. Venus Williams had tendinitis in her left knee mysteriously appear and just as mysteriously disappear. Jennifer Capriati, the defending champion, has been hobbled by sore hip flexors. Kim Clijsters of Belgium carried on into the final 16 despite a sore right arm. Her boyfriend, top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, wasn't nearly as fortunate; weakened by a recent case of chickenpox, he lost in the first round.

Everyone--even those who report on tennis--seemed to be injured or ill, victimized by some strange Australian Open jinx. Is this some sort of cosmic payback for a successful Olympics in Sydney in 2000?

The star quality has been so diluted on the men's side that eighth-seeded Pete Sampras was to play his second consecutive night match later today in the fourth round against Marat Safin of Russia. Tommy Haas of Germany, at No. 7, was the highest seeded man left in the event.

Gone by the end of the first two rounds were Hewitt, Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia and Sebastien Grosjean of France, the top five seeded players--a first at a Grand Slam in the Open era of tennis.

From an American perspective, the first week featured the worst showing by men since 1988.

Sampras was the only one to reach the final 16, and only three Americans got to the third round. Wild-card entrant Taylor Dent lost in five sets to Adrian Voinea of Romania, and veteran Todd Martin went out in five sets against Haas.

On the women's side, the outlook is much stronger. Williams and Seles were to play each other in the quarterfinals, and Capriati joined them today, defeating Rita Grande of Italy, 6-3, 7-6 (9), in the fourth round.

Novak, Koubek, Jonas Bjorkman and Thomas Johansson aren't exactly household names in the U.S., but they don't have locals desperately trying to dump second-week tickets. Attendance was down only slightly from last year, by 11,500--2.5%.

Interest in the press room has not been quite as fervent--one British journalist tried to catch the next plane out of town after Tim Henman departed in typically underwhelming fashion in the third round. TV sets in one media row were fixed on cricket, Manchester United soccer, opera and Prince Harry's travails over the weekend.

Still, if there were to be a Slam with few (male) stars, it might as well happen in Australia. Names are nice but not a necessary accessory.

"Maybe they could have the tournament without the players," said Sydney Morning Herald columnist Richard Hinds. "They are interested in the tournament as an event.

"Jiri Novak could play Pete Sampras' racket stringer and they'd still show up."

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