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Quiet Career Exit for Martin

He retires after four-set loss to Santoro in the first round at the U.S. Open on a day when Serena Williams is anything but retiring.

August 31, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Todd Martin retired from competitive tennis, mostly all alone but for his wife, Amy; his son, Jack; his mother and coaches; and a smattering of French fans whistling approval for Fabrice Santoro.

It was a day match that went into the night on Louis Armstrong court and when it was over -- a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory for Santoro -- a United States Tennis Assn. official grabbed a microphone to say that Martin had just played his final competitive professional tennis match.

Martin brushed away some tears and thanked his family and friends. It was a touching moment for a graying, 34-year-old who never won a major title but who caused trouble at many of them. Martin was in one U.S. Open final, in 1999, when he played the foil for Andre Agassi and that's where most of the fans gathered Monday night -- on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court to first watch Serena Williams, fashion plate, and then Agassi, icon.

This was Martin's 15th consecutive U.S. Open and over that time he has played in 10 five-set matches here.

Once he beat Carlos Moya after midnight and did a lap around the court high-fiving the fans who had stayed.

Once he beat Greg Rusedski after Rusedski had won the first two sets easily and then led big in the fifth too. Martin ended up on an IV that time, but he also ended up a winner who earned a standing ovation.

No high-fives Monday, or standing ovations. Just thank-yous and tears and appreciation.

Twice Martin made the finals of a Grand Slam tournament -- he was a finalist at the 1994 Australian Open too -- and he always played Davis Cup when asked. But Martin was that other American for most of his career. He wasn't Agassi or Pete Sampras or Michael Chang or Jim Courier. He almost won Slams but not quite.

Martin retired on a court with nearly empty stands because the majority of Monday night's fans had gathered on Arthur Ashe Stadium to check out Williams and her "Rebel Without a Cause" outfit -- the name Serena gave the ensemble -- and to applaud Agassi, at 34, the oldest man in the draw.

Williams had been absent from the Open since she beat sister Venus to win the 2002 title after undergoing surgery on her left knee last summer.

She strutted onto the court Monday wearing black, knee-high "shoe-boots"; stone-washed denim pleated skirt; black midriff, defined by silver studs; black headband; and dangling silver earrings.

For anyone who cared to classify the fashion statement, Williams had a suggestion.

"It's like a rebel look," Williams said. "I'm being really rebellious."

Her tennis was worthy of the outfit. It was powerful and attention-grabbing. Williams had 35 winners. Her opponent, veteran Sandra Kleinova of the Czech Republic, had three. Williams hit a 123-mph serve. Kleinova said she was "terribly nervous" while playing her first night match at the Open. Kleinova said she'd never wear what Serena wore.

"I'm not that kind of person," she said.

She couldn't play like Williams either.

Other tennis players worried about different things. Jennifer Capriati, seeded eighth, fussed over the string tension of her racket and used the occasional obscenity to voice her displeasure about calls. She brightened considerably over the course of her 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Denisa Chladkova of the Czech Republic and was positively giggly by the end as she applauded the crowd for applauding her.

Moya, seeded third, fretted over the heat and humidity and the eagerness of his 19-year-old American opponent, Brian Baker, who won the first set. But Moya recovered to win, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Roger Federer was upset by having his serve broken when he was trying to finish out his straight-set victory over Albert Costa.

"I had a terrible service game," said the top-seeded Federer, who is trying to become the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win three of the season's four Grand Slam titles. But Federer won, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4, so he was nitpicking.

The pizazz was left to Williams.

She said she was partly inspired to go denim because that's what Agassi wore once in the early 1990s. Now Agassi is sedate in his white shirts and black shorts. He prefers to compress the game, squeeze the essence from his strokes and make his exit with as little effort as possible. Robby Ginepri, a 21-year-old American who seems filled with promise and who owns several troublesome shots, could not match Agassi's accuracy or cleverness.

So just after Martin announced his retirement, Agassi won his 68th U.S. Open match, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2. Agassi paid tribute to Martin.

"He was, as a competitor, as good as they came," Agassi said. "As a professional, top notch. Certainly well-respected as a person. It's always a bit sad when somebody you spent so much time with over the years, played so many matches against, decides it's time for them to move on."

Agassi remembered his 1999 final against Martin well.

"How was it possible I played five sets of tennis against him and didn't lose my serve?" he said. "Because he was one of the hardest to hold serve against. That was a high-standard match all the way till the end. I remember breaking him in the first game of the match, then nobody broke serve for about two and a half more hours."

A night that began with rebel wear ended with an appreciation of things dependable and old-fashioned. Todd Martin said goodbye.

"He'll be missed," Agassi said.

*

(Begin Text of Infobox)

Gray Era

*

Todd Martin, 34, announced his retirement Monday after a four-set loss to Fabrice Santoro in the first round of the U.S. Open:

* Grand Slam finals: 1999 U.S. Open (lost to Andre Agassi); 1994 Australian Open (lost to Pete Sampras).

* Grand Slam semifinals: Four times.

* Highest rank: In 1999 he reached No. 4 in the world.

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