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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

Unremarkably, Johansson Fills Void

January 28, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

MELBOURNE, Australia — MELBOURNE, Australia--There had been close calls before, but cosmic forces and mere happenstance saved other men's Grand Slam finals from the abyss. For instance, if Andre Agassi had not pulled himself together, there would have been a Dominik Hrbaty-Andrei Medvedev final at the 1999 French Open.

But eventually, the day came and it wasn't pretty.

How long will sports fans--of a non-Swedish variety--remember that Thomas Johansson won the 2002 Australian Open?

An invisible man for an invisible Slam.

Now, Johansson has a game of fine variety. But along the way, he had to beat only one player seeded ahead of him--Marat Safin, in the final.

At 26, he is hardly a star of the future.

This wasn't like a teenage Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1985, pounding and tumbling his way through the draw, beating Henri Leconte, Anders Jarryd and Kevin Curren in the last three rounds.

Johansson had to take out Adrian Voinea, Jonas Bjorkman and Jiri Novak to reach the final.

It's difficult to find an adequate comparison. On the women's side, this would be something like 20th-seeded Rita Grande, who turns 27 in March, winning a Grand Slam without having to beat Venus Williams, Martina Hingis or Kim Clijsters.

Here, the top men were either injured (Agassi) or ill (Lleyton Hewitt) or upset early (Gustavo Kuerten and Yevgeny Kafelnikov). American youngster Andy Roddick filled two categories by himself, injured and an early upset victim.

Once they were all gone, the question became clear: Who is the next star?

"It's tough to have semifinals with Rafter, Hewitt, [Pete] Sampras, Agassi every year," Johansson said. "I think if you have new players coming up, that's a great thing because you would have all the time the top four guys in the semis, and I don't think that's fun.

"I think it's nice to have new guys coming up, and I'm not a new guy."

Neither were several of the other quarterfinalists, 30-year-old Wayne Ferreira, 29-year-old Bjorkman and 26-year-old Marcelo Rios.

Tommy Haas, who lost to Safin in the semifinals, is, along with Safin, considered one of the "New Balls, Please" group.

Safin didn't help matters. His often-desultory effort in the final against Johansson was sharply criticized by television commentators.

He seemed almost insulted at having to chase after drop shots, and his backhand was often hit at half-speed--at times playing as if it was a practice hit, not a championship final.

Certainly, Safin did have an exhausting semifinal. But he showed he could turn up his level of intensity, if he wanted, in the fourth set, especially when Johansson started to quiver and shake with nerves.

"I already won a Grand Slam, and here I was the favorite," Safin said. "Just, I couldn't manage to win it. So it's not very good for me, but you know, it's a good lesson for me for the future. He overpowered me today. I have to be more clever."

That may not be the correct answer. The solution may have been there the previous day, in the women's final, where, guts, not cleverness, won it. Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis staggered around in the heat for 2 hours 10 minutes. Hingis squeaked and squealed. Capriati swore after what she perceived as a bad call.

Capriati survived four match points in the second set and won it in three, defending her title.

She spotted a TV cameraman moving onto the court during one of the match points against her and it annoyed her. Later, Capriati was sitting in the players' lounge with some American reporters and she took note of that moment.

"That's sort of ironic," Capriati said. "I hate it when they do that. Maybe that did help. Like, 'Yeah, it is not over yet.'"

Hingis could not convert on the four match points and it went into a third set. No female player had survived four match points in a Grand Slam final, and Capriati and Hingis headed into the dressing room for a 10-minute break because of the heat.

It was as though they were boxers in a championship fight going back to their corners between rounds.

"It was really like that," Capriati said. "Martina's not too far away and they're doing the same thing to her. We were both in the training room."

Even on the court, they needed to sit. Hingis leaned against the scoreboard and Capriati took a chair at the back of the court. "I would look up and she would be gone," Capriati said. "Where'd she go?"

Capriati said she is a boxing fan.

"I like the special matches," she said. "Whenever [Mike] Tyson is boxing too, you know it's going to be kind of interesting. But it doesn't mean I like to fight."

Three Grand Slam singles titles suggest a fighting spirit, though. Let's just say her fighting skills are of the forehand and backhand variety.

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