Of comebacks and breakthroughs
Since our last column, the tour has been operating on all cylinders, with events on four continents in the last two weeks. Our attention was caught by three notable comebacks, not too successful so far, as well as four impressive breakthroughs by youthful prodigies.
The hard road back
Three tour veterans took their first steps back on tour since lengthy absences. They have all found out what they probably already knew, that it wouldn’t be easy…
Sandrine Testud, the popular former top-tenner out of Lyon, had not played on the circuit since the 2002 Wimbledon, having retired to have a baby and raise a family with her husband and coach, Vittorio Magnelli.
Sandrine had picked up her racquet again toward the end of last year, when she played some club competitions in France and Italy.
Encouraged by her form, she decided to return to pro tennis this year. Testud received a wild card for a Challenger event two weeks ago in Ortisei, Italy, where she suffered an abdominal injury in her quarterfinal loss to Virag Nemeth. She tried to compete the following week at her WTA comeback in Paris, but retired during the opening set of her first round match against Daniela Hantuchova.
Hopefully Testud, who withdrew from the Dubai event this week, will be back in action soon.
It was not pregnancy that forced Tommy Haas and Goran Ivanisevic out of action, quite obviously. Rather, both were victimized by shoulder injuries and required surgery. Like Testud, they are just now making their return to the tour and have each played two tournaments. Haas and Ivanisevic -- coincidentally both once ranked number two in the world -- are labouring to recover their form in the early stages of their return to the circuit. Ivanisevic managed a three set win over Bohdan Ulihr
ach before losing twice, while Haas has lost both of his matches decisively.
Haas said his biggest problem will be recovering his service speed as well as the mentality required for match play. "I'm not hitting my serves consistent and hard,” noted the German. “You can practice as much as you want, but playing in
a match is different.”
As for Ivanisevic, now a venerable 32 years of age, he also found that his serve has lost his power, and the former Wimbledon champion struggled to adapt the rest of his game to make up for that deficiency in what was the core strength of his game when he was a danger man on tour. "It was obvious that I've played just five matches in the last two years," Ivanisevic commented. "In the past I never worried about returns but now I have to be prepared, now my service has no longer that power."
We shall see how the comeback road treats these star players as the season unfolds.
Young upstarts make a statement
On the other side of the spectrum, several youthful prospects broke through with eye-opening performances in the past two weeks.
In Paris, 16-year-old Tatiana Golovin, a promising junior out of France, thrilled the locals with a surprising run to the semifinals, confirming her equally surprising eun to the Australian Open round of sixteen last month. She also showed a little attitude in Paris after upsetting a cramping Anna Pistolesi, whom she had also defeated in Australia. “She’s known to be very strong physically, and I wore her down,“ said the youngster with a laugh.
Golovin had come into the Australian Open with a ranking of 364, and now finds herself in the top 100, at 93. Quite a leap!
A slightly older player who broke through with a title in Memphis was the 21-year-old Swedish giant, 6’6” (198 cm)
Joachim Johansson. This lad, who can bring in his serve at impressive speeds, came into the pros with high expectations following a fine junior career. But he never really got his pro career untracked until late last season, when he won Challenger events in Nottingham and Ishgl. Johansson has begun the 2004 season well. After making a winning debut in Davis Cup (in doubles alongside Jonas Bjorkman), Joachim reached the quarterfinals in San Jose two weeks ago, then last week claimed the Memphis tit
le. Much of the credit for Johansson’s development has been given to his new coach Mikael Stripple, the former coach of Thomas Enqvist. “He has a great coach now, my old one,” commented Enqvist, “so he’s going to help him understand the game better. With that kind of serve, it’s very easy to play the game and Mikael really told him how to use that serve in the best way possible.”
Another youngster who might be winning titles soon is a 19-year-old from Argentina named Juan
Monaco. Monaco had first caught our attention when
he reached the final of the prestigious Orange Bowl
tournament in 2001. Initially under the guidance of the staff of the Emilio Sanchez academy in Spain, Monaco is now based in his homeland, and is coached by former doubles specialist and ex-coach of Marcelo Ríos, Luis Lobo. Last week in Buenos Aires for his initial ATP tournament, Juan made good use of the wild card he was offered, shocking tour veterans Nicolas Lapentti and Juan Ignacio Chela before stretching top seed Guillermo Coria to three sets in a quarterfinal loss. Lobo is impressed with his char
ge’s maturity and talent. “His strongest point is that he knows how to compete. He is a fighter,” said the coach in Buenos Aires. “He goes out with a clear plan and knows how to execute it. And only the great players can do this.”
One teenybopper who didn’t exactly sneak up on us this month was another standout in Buenos Aires, Richard Gasquet. Big things have been expected from the 17-year-old French prodigy for the last two years. While he did well on the Challenger circuit, winning
four titles last year, he had yet to reach the second round of an ATP event until last week. Furthermore, Gasquet’s entourage has been unstable, as he has already gone through two experienced coaches (Eric Winogradsky and Tarik Benhabiles) and is now coached by his father Francis. But Gasquet had his first breakthrough last week in Buenos Aires. He accounted for two seeds -- Agustin Calleri and Nicolas Massu -- before falling in the semifinals to the same player who had halted Monaco’s progress, Coria.
And he left no doubt among those who
saw him play regarding his remarkable talent.
"Gasquet is a great player and he is very solid, when he plays relaxed,“ observed Coria. “I think today, he needed to be maybe a little calmer to think the important points."
Will any of these rising stars have enough talent and calm to reach the pinnacle of the sport?