SPORTS

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January 11, 2004

Young stars will shine in 2004

With the first tournaments of the 2004 tennis season underway this week and the Australian Open less than two weeks away, professional tennis players all over the world are looking for that first elusive tournament win, another successful year staving off retirement, or even just improvement from 2003.

Last year, the men's tour saw the ultimate realization of a wish that was made long ago. The wish, embodied in the ATP advertising campaign "New Balls Please," called for the injection of a prominent cast of talented young players into the sport's top ranks. Before 2003, only two of the original prospects, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, had won grand slam titles and had entered the world's top three rankings. The game's superstar marquee players Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, and Andre Agassi were all ageing fast and people worried that they would retire before the other set of players realized their potential.

Yet those fears were unfounded as everything seemed to work out perfectly. Several of the young stars finally achieved their breakthroughs: Juan Carlos Ferrero won the French Open, Roger Federer won Wimbledon, and Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open. These developments could not have come at a better time for the men's game, considering both Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter officially said goodbye to professional tennis. Roddick's success in particular was the best thing that has happened to the tour. The American star, the current world number one, is a charismatic crowd pleaser and is very fan-friendly.

Now for the women: ever heard of Justine and Kim? If not, you'd better become acquainted with those names because they likely will be dominating the top ranks of the women's game for a long time. The 2003 season is best characterized by the rise of the Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters. Henin-Hardenne won four of the nine WTA Tour Tier 1 events, won two of the four grand slams (the French Open and the U.S. Open—each time at the expense of Clijsters), and she finished the year ranked number one in the world. Clijsters, despite having less prestigious wins than Henin-Hardenne, was a clearly dominant force in the game as well. She made it to the finals of two grand slams, she won two WTA Tour Tier 1 events, she managed to hold the number one ranking in the world for a large part of 2003, and she made the most prize money in one year for all women athletes ever.

And what of Venus and Serena? Are the Williams sisters still the best? Not exactly. The Williams sisters were definitely a presence on the tour and they were particularly forceful at the beginning of the 2003 season. However after both reached the finals of Wimbledon in July, neither has played in a tournament since. Both have been sidelined due to injury and their rankings have dropped considerably—Venus even slipped out of the top ten.

Clearly, if the Williamses had been healthy they would have been forces with whom to reckon until the end of the season, but this is not to say that the Belgians would not have been key players as well. They arrived on their own and they already had asserted their dominance on tour well before the sisters' retreat. They were both finalists in the French Open, they each won WTA Tour Tier 1 events, and they were semi-finalists in Wimbledon—all with the Williams sisters in the competition pool. In addition, Henin-Hardenne was the only person to beat Serena in early 2003.

Who will be the movers and the shakers in 2004? What kinds of drama will tennis fans witness? One such development in the 2003 season was the premature retirement of Martina Hingis, the 23-year old former world number one and multiple Grand Slam champion. Will the Belgian dominance on the tour continue? Will the Williams sisters recover from their injuries? What about the men—will Roddick hold onto the top spot? Will some of his fellow "new-ballers" provide us with the next great rivalry on the men's tour? Tennis fans say the Australian Open is the most unpredictable slam, and the weeks leading up to it are often the most surprising during the year: anything can happen.