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COMMENTARY

It's Easy to Discern the Method to His Madness

March 15, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

For sports fans not interested in basketball's March Madness, all 11 of them, it is time for presentation of the tennis world's Final Four. Imagine turning on your TV and there is Dick Vitale in tennis shorts. On second thought ...

The Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells represents an ideal opportunity for a racket bracket. All the powers in the men's game are here in the desert. So, as they say in hoop circles, here's the way it will be at tennis' Big Dance when 2004 ends, baby.

In one semifinal, Andy Roddick, the rocket-serving American heartthrob ("It's funny, the more matches I win, the better looking I get," he says) will meet Andre Agassi, the veteran bright light from Las Vegas, who has wrist bands older than the other three competitors and correctly shrugs off these kinds of comparisons ("At the end of the day, it's champions against champions").

In the other semifinal, Roger Federer, the Swiss Mister currently No. 1 in the world and a recognizable hero everywhere ("I have to almost mentally prepare now when I walk out of the house in Basel") will meet Marat Safin, the promising Russian who is tired of hearing about his failed promise ("They keep saying my train is leaving and I'm not catching it").

And, drum roll ...

Agassi beats Roddick, Federer beats Safin, setting up the Big, Big Dance, baby.

Federer wins going away. Vitale calls him the best ever, which is what he called the other guy the year before and what he will call the guy who wins next year.

*

This fantasy league tennis is done after the first major event of the season since the Australian Open. Men's tennis, in somewhat of a mess a year ago, is recovering nicely, thank you.

Safin played the match of a lifetime to beat Pete Sampras and win the 2000 U.S. Open, and even made it to No. 1 a few months after that for a short stay. Since then, though, he seemed to have been searching for whoever was in his body that day in Flushing Meadow.

Two years ago, he played here with bad ribs and hit first serves in the 70-mph range. Last year, he got food poisoning and went out quietly to young American Robby Ginepri, 6-0, 6-1. If Ginepri is 6-0, 6-1 better than Safin, then the Moon is really Mars. But that was not an untypical outing for the fiery Russian, who was once projected to be the future great racket-thrower in the game by the master of such things, Goran Ivanisevic.

But then, after sitting out most of last season with injuries, Safin showed up at this year's Australian, hoping merely to get in some matches to improve his fitness. He ended up beating Roddick in the quarterfinals, Agassi in the semifinals and losing to Federer in the final. It appears Safin has finally gotten on the train.

A year ago here, Roddick was the adopted "He's Got Next" American. Pete Sampras still hadn't officially retired, but was certainly not the future of anything; Agassi was injured and out.

Fifteen months ago, Roddick was notable mostly for his televised verbal blowup during a crucial match in the 2002 U.S. Open. But then he went to the 2003 Australian, won an incredible quarterfinal against Younes El Aynaoui and played through a semifinal against Rainer Schuettler despite being injured, losing the match but winning the hearts of lots of tennis fans.

And then came the huge breakthrough, his first Grand Slam title, the U.S. Open of 2003. At the end of the year, Roddick was ranked No. 1.

A year ago, Agassi was, well, Agassi. He missed this event with an injury, but came back to win the next Tennis Masters Series event in Miami. He had already won the Australian in 2003, his eighth Grand Slam title, and was showing no signs of slowing as he eased into his early 30s. This year, he has started 9-2, taking Safin to five sets in Australia and talking as though he has a major title or two left in him.

A year ago, Federer was still just the player who upset Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 with the match of a lifetime that even he wasn't certain he could ever top. He made it to the fourth round of the Australian, but lost in the second round here and continued to be one of those players who is good enough to win the big ones, but doesn't. Then came Wimbledon and a performance so smooth and magical that many wondered how he could ever lose. And, since then, he hasn't lost much. He added the Australian this year, his second major title.

Safin, Roddick and Federer all won in straight sets Sunday. Agassi won Saturday. Because Safin was injured most of last year and hasn't gotten his ranking where it normally would be, he is seeded 30th and will play Roddick, seeded third, today. For Agassi and Federer to meet, it would be in a semifinal.

No racket bracket would be complete without the Cinderella entries. One is the No. 2 player in the world, Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, who had to drop out here with an injury. Another is Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, who has won the last two titles here.

Both are great players. Ferrero loves the clay and would be unbeatable at a construction site. Hewitt has won two major titles, but he may be Michael Chang in the long run, a gritty digger and runner without a major weapon to win easy points.

Neither will have the long-term impact of our Final Four.

That's the way it is, baby.

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