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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

This Young Gun Ready to Make a Dent

July 22, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

He's 21, a professional athlete, lives with some of his buddies in Huntington Beach and has a certain appeal among teenage girls.

If this sounds like the description of someone who parties every night, well, Taylor Dent would very politely disagree. There are no fast times. He's no Jeff Spicoli. Actually, not even half a Spicoli.

Really.

And his new Australian tennis coach, Paul Kilderry, backs him up, praising his work ethic and ability to maintain his focus off the court.

This is necessary information because it helps put Dent's recent celebration after he won his first professional tournament into the proper context. He beat James Blake in the final at Newport, R.I., July 14, joining his dad, Phil, in the record book--they became the first father and son to win ATP titles in the Open era.

"I never go out drinking, but I went out drinking and I got hammered," Dent said, chuckling, as he recalled the night of shooters. "Because my coach said that if you have a great career, you are probably going to win 50 tournaments, so this is going to be one of those 50. It doesn't happen often, he said, so I may as well enjoy it while it lasts."

Phil Dent, who won two ATP titles in the '70s and reached the 1974 Australian Open final, was the one who informed Taylor of the family milestone.

"I actually didn't even know afterward," Taylor said. "My dad called me the next day as I was fighting my hangover and he told me, 'Hey, you put us in history yesterday.' I thought that was pretty neat; not many people get to make history."

Now his father, family and friends will get the chance to watch him play close to home. Dent is in the Mercedes-Benz Cup, which starts today at UCLA, and opens against Neville Godwin of South Africa. He could face No. 7 Xavier Malisse of Belgium in the second round. They are in the same half of the draw as No. 1 Tommy Haas of Germany and No. 4 Andy Roddick.

Dent joined Roddick, who has won two tournaments, as two young Americans who have earned a title on the ATP tour in 2002. They, along with Blake, were members of a roster of young male tennis prospects The Times assembled in 2001 called "The Replacements," a group that would be followed with periodic updates. (Twins Mike and Bob Bryan count as one entry.)

Success has varied wildly. Roddick reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open later that summer and nearly defeated eventual champion Lleyton Hewitt but has struggled in Grand Slam events since. Blake has lost in two finals this year, to Roddick in Memphis, Tenn., and Dent in Newport.

Talk about potential replacements started after the storied generation of American male players turned 30, with people wondering about the next Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi or Michael Chang.

It was Agassi who helped end Dent's hangover after his Newport win.

"I was back at it the next day--I had to be, I was hitting with Andre," Dent said. "I had to be on my toes. I was too nervous to have the celebration get in the way of my celebration."

Kilderry has helped make a noticeable difference in Dent's footwork. He seems lighter on his feet and his agility has improved, particularly at the net. The work on his psyche has been even more important.

"He's definitely a player with a lot of potential, sort of like an uncut diamond really," Kilderry said. "At times, he was trying to be the best player in the world every day of the week. You just go out there and get the job done, rather than going out there to try to set the world on fire."

Said Dent: "Paul has really helped me improve my attitude and I think that's the biggest thing he has done for me. In previous years, I didn't think the attitude was a big deal. I used to think that if your shots are good enough that you are going to be there, but that's definitely not the case."

Replacements Update

Roddick--Up: Will turn 20 during the U.S. Open and already has won five titles, three in 2001 and two this year. Down: Stalled at Grand Slam events with a second-round exit at Australian Open, first-round loss at the French Open and third-round loss to Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon.

Blake--Up: Reached two finals this year and earned spot on U.S. Davis Cup team in first two rounds. Down: Continued trend of losing dramatic five-setters in the second round, at Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.

Robby Ginepri--Up: Second American teenager in the top 100 this year, joining Roddick, and reached the semifinals at Newport. Down: Played only one singles match at a Grand Slam event this year, losing opener at French Open.

Mardy Fish--Up: Won doubles point with Blake against Slovakia in the first round of Davis Cup in February. Down: Seemed to have disappeared until making the quarterfinals at Newport.

Bob and Mike Bryan--Up: Won four doubles titles in 2002 at Memphis, Acapulco, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Newport, and reached semifinals at Wimbledon. Down: What do they have to do to get on the Davis Cup team?

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