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TENNISLISA DILLMAN

A Strong Replacement Team

June 30, 2003|TENNIS

WIMBLEDON, England — Two of them are dating actresses, and one is still kicking, and serving, in the singles draw at Wimbledon. Yet another has been signed by a modeling agency. And one teenager became the object of a heated off-court skirmish between the leading management agencies.

We're talking, first of all, about 20-year-old Andy Roddick, who is four match victories away from his first Grand Slam singles title and has impressively managed to keep his relationship with actress Mandy Moore from becoming tabloid fodder during this fortnight. Another 20-year-old, Robby Ginepri, wasn't able to maneuver below the radar because his new acquaintance, 32-year-old English actress Minnie Driver, showed up at Wimbledon for the completion of his interrupted five-set loss to Arnaud Clement of France in the first round.

The "model" is James Blake, and the recent target of everyone's courtship was young Brian Baker of Nashville, who reached the French Open junior final earlier this month. The 18-year-old is in the Wimbledon junior tournament and recently signed with SFX Sports Group.

This group of young American players is just as disparate geographically. A handful are Florida-based -- Roddick, Mardy Fish, Blake and Mike Russell. Four are from Southern California -- Taylor Dent, Phil King and French Open doubles champions Mike and Bob Bryan -- and another, Rajeev Ram, grew up in Indiana.

Something of a wide net was cast nearly two years ago. One group of American male tennis stars was fading -- or so it was thought -- and the search for Generation Next started, the panicked rummaging through the junior ranks you see every decade or so.

In this newspaper, the exploration resulted in a list of 10 spots, which included 11 players, called "the Replacements." It was compiled after interviews with coaches, players and agents, with some wiggle room left for pure whimsy. Russell made the list by playing one sensational match against Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in the fourth round of the French Open in 2001, losing after holding a match point in the third set.

Now, Russell isn't even in the front section of the voluminous 2003 ATP player guide.

The 11 players are Roddick, Fish, Dent, Blake, Ginepri, Russell, Ram, Baker, King and the Bryan twins, who occupy one slot. Roddick was the first to win an ATP Tour title, on clay, no less, at Atlanta in April 2001. Fish reached two ATP finals this year, and went out in the third round at Wimbledon, losing in four sets to Roger Federer.

The Bryan twins are the first to win a Grand Slam title with their doubles championship in Paris in June. Mike Bryan joked that there was a celebration at home in Camarillo without them because they haven't been home since winning the French Open.

After a strong start in 2003, Blake has stalled, losing in the second round in Paris and exiting in the second round at Wimbledon, his grass-court preparation hindered by a sore right shoulder. But Blake did join Roddick and Dent as winners on the ATP Tour, having broken through last summer in Washington.

Dent won his first title earlier this year, beating Roddick in the final at Memphis, Tenn., in February. Still, he remains an enigma at the Grand Slam events, failing to progress beyond the third round.

Because of Dent's serve and pure power, he frequently makes the short list of outside challengers at the Grand Slam events, and the same thing happened at Wimbledon.

Dent withdrew from a grass-court tuneup at Nottingham because of a sore back and departed quietly in the first round at Wimbledon, losing, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, to Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia. Even Andre Agassi said he was surprised Dent didn't do better here.

"We have some great young players coming up, between James and Andy, Mardy Fish, who is playing really well right now, sort of showing that his game is well-suited for the grass," Agassi said. "Then you look at ... [it's] surprising to not have Taylor late in this tournament because I really expected him to do well here. We have some guys that really play well on this surface."

Though none of the three reached the second week here, at least Blake, Dent and Ginepri were in the singles draw. Russell's last main-draw appearance on the tour, non-challenger level, was in New Zealand in January. His last Grand Slam event was Wimbledon in 2002.

King, the two-time national junior champion, went the college route, playing for Duke, as did Ram, who was Big Ten freshman of the year for NCAA champion Illinois.

Roddick and Blake have been considered several steps ahead, but Fish finally made up some ground on Blake during the British grass-court season, breaking into the top 50 (at No. 45) after reaching the Nottingham final, which he lost to Greg Rusedski. He lost to Federer in the third round at Wimbledon, but he increased his profile by winning one set in a pressurized situation on Centre Court.

"Apart from some of the errors I made, people will see maybe that they like my game and that I have fun out there, and I'm just really a normal kid that happens to be good at tennis," Fish said. "There's a couple of people out here with some egos and things like that. That's not me. I'm just a normal guy, playing a game. And hopefully people will see that."

The players in this group, at least those on the pro circuit, are known for their friendships off the court. They go to each other's matches and eat and train together, unlike the most recent generation of American men. It has been pointed out that they are more like the Spanish or French players, forming a team-like unit, as much as is possible in an individual sport.

Fish went to Blake's matches here and joked about the favor not being returned.

"James didn't watch me play one time here," Fish said, smiling. "You better put that in there."

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