Monday, March 22, 2004
Updated: March 24, 10:53 PM ET
Everyone else is chasing Federer
By MaliVai Washington
Special to ESPN.com
Now that we are through the first major of the year and the first Tennis Masters Series event, it's pretty obvious who the dominant player has been: Roger Federer.
At the beginning of the season, one might have thought Andy Roddick had a strong foothold on that No. 1 spot, having finished 2003 as the top player. But when you're ranked in that upper echelon of players, if you're not winning titles, your ranking will drop. Roddick has not won a title since the U.S. Open.
Whereas Federer has proceeded to increase his record to 27-1 dating back to last year's Masters Cup. Right now, it seems like no one can beat Federer. Andre Agassi said it perfectly after his semifinal loss at the Pacific Life Open when he said that Federer is playing a level of tennis that no one is playing right now.
It's really going to be up to the other players, now that Federer has a 200-point lead in the ATP Champions Race. They need to really step up their games. From an American standpoint, that charge will be led by Roddick. After Roddick played so well last summer, it is a little surprising that he hasn't won a title since the Open, but it should only be a matter of time until he does.
Usually there are a handful of Americans among the picks, but now it's shifting to a lot of Europeans and South Americans. It's a pretty scary thought to think that Guillermo Coria from Argentina will someday play as well on hard courts as he does on European red clay. He's continuing to show -- with his performance last week at the Pacific Life Open -- that he is more than just a clay-court player. He always has had the ability, but he's starting to believe that he can. It's interesting to see a guy, 5-foot-9, controlling points against bigger hitters.
Another name that we're going to see a lot of this year is Rafael Nadal. A teenage Spaniard who has as much fire in his gut and confidence as any teenager I've ever seen. It's his task now to harness his energy and talent to win titles.
Most people don't have as much ability as he does now by the end of their career. And he's just starting.
Tim Henman's surging performance is a pleasant surprise. He won his first Masters title in Paris last year. He's the only player to beat Federer in the last four months. And he reached the final of the Pacific Life Open.
Henman's year might make us appreciate the skill of his coach, Paul Annacone. It likely wasn't too difficult to coach a guy as talented as Pete Sampras, who likely would have been successful regardless who was coaching him. But if Annacone can improve a player who has some unrealized potential, and dare I say, turn him into a Grand Slam champion, it will really show some expertise. Don't be surprised if this is Henman's biggest year of his career.
It's difficult to talk about any tennis event without bringing up Agassi. He never seems to go away. I feel like I've been talking about Agassi for the past 15 years. Now, he's No. 3 in the world.
Agassi has a knack for realizing his limitations. He understands what he can and can't do. He understands exactly what he needs to do to prepare. He has his whole routine down to a science. Just imagine what Agassi could have accomplished if he'd had this routine down in the early 1990s.
Agassi poses so many problems for players because he rarely beats himself. He rarely succumbs to the pressures of a match. He has faced so many pressure situations that he's usually the one who prevails. There's no substitute for experience.
With Roddick and Agassi firmly positioned as the two top Americans, rounding out those top few spots are Mardy Fish and James Blake. This year is probably the biggest of Blake's career. This is the year he has to establish himself as an elite player. This is the year he has to turn his ranking slide around and start methodically moving up the rankings as he did in 2001-02. The worst thing that can happen to young players is to have a two or three-year period where their ranking stalls. Then you start to question and doubt your own abilities to move to the next level. For Blake, that next level is becoming a top-15 player.
For Fish, he just has to continue to do what he did in 2003. Last year, he established himself as this young player with a huge serve to be reckoned with. A lot of that confidence came with his victory in the relegation round of Davis Cup against Karol Kucera. It was no surprise that a few weeks later, Fish won his first career title in Stockholm. He just needs to continue to do more of the same, and soon we'll see him in the top 15.
However it shakes out, this year's Nasdaq-100 Open will be a great event.
MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.