Young Americans look next to U.S. Open


The U.S. Open, final Grand Slam of the year, is only a month and a half away, and when young American prospects Andy Roddick and Taylor Dent arrive in New York they're going to find the courts fast and friendly.

There will be no complaint about court speed from Venus and Serena Williams or from Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport, either. The best U.S. players and the stars of the future are big hitters who will profit by fast court speed.

One day after the first extended Wimbledon since 1988, American tennis seems to be in finer shape than it has been in years.

While Pete Sampras appears to be in decline, Roddick, 18, of Boca Raton, did a good job at Wimbledon. After a great run of wins that included back-to-back clay court titles and a brave five-set win over Michael Chang at the French Open, where he cramped badly, he needed to pass the next test -- grass.

He won two matches, including a major victory over Thomas Johansson, who had streaked to 11 straight grass court victories, and he lost to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic in the third round.

Dent also profited at Wimbledon. He won three qualifying matches and extended No. 5 seed Lleyton Hewitt to five sets before losing in the second. He looked very good. "Now, he needs to learn to play as well in the smaller tournaments," said his father, former Australian Davis Cup player Phil Dent.

On the women's side, the U.S. is the dominant world power. While Martina Hingis of Switzerland is ranked No. 1, a powerful argument could be made that Venus Williams, Capriati and Davenport are the three best players in women's tennis.

Nothing could be more encouraging for women's tennis than Venus Williams' proclamation after defeating Justine Henin in the final that she is going to be much more serious about her tennis in the second half of this season.

Does that mean more tournaments? With the Williams family, that's always hard to say. Venus played only seven tournaments entering Wimbledon, but she is so good that she could walk into this tournament without playing a grass warm-up event and flow through seven matches to the title.

Her absence at other events, however, is not good for tennis.

Not everything among American tennis players is bouncing along swimmingly. Jan-Michael Gambill, the two-hander off both sides, is in a curious slump.

When he left Key Biscayne, where he lost in the Ericsson final to Andre Agassi, he was 24-10 and playing the best tennis of his life. It was predictable that he wouldn't do well on clay (2-7), but he was a major disappointment at Wimbledon, playing tentatively in losing a five-setter to Chris Woodruff.

He is 4-10 since the Ericsson with first-round losses in the three Slams that have been played.

The road to the U.S. Open for the men winds through Los Angeles, the Canadian Open, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Washington and Long Island. For the women, through Stanford, San Diego, Los Angeles, Canada and New Haven.

There are bright new stars out there -- Henin, who reached the semis at the French and final at Wimbledon; and Roger Federer, Sebastien Grosjean, Meghann Shaughnessy and Kim Clijsters, in addition to Roddick and Dent.

There will also be focus on the more established players, beginning with Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Where Sampras goes from here is largely up to him. The talent is still there, but he needs higher motivation, more match play and better conditioning. He went home to Los Angeles immediately after Wimbledon to contemplate his future. He is expected to play Los Angeles, his hometown tournament.

Agassi is still near the top of his game. He was beaten by Patrick Rafter in the semis because Rafter is the better grass court player. On a hard court, Rafter's beautiful slice backhands, which floats down into the corner, would not stay as low and give Agassi more of a chance to return.

And what of Rafter? Despite reaching a second straight Wimbledon final, he says he's not wavering from his plan to take at least six months off following this season.

Can he do that and still come back effectively next June? John McEnroe tried at age 27 (Rafter is 28) and found it very difficult to recapture the magic. Rafter is aware of the history, but he's not changing his mind. It's going to be six months and, in fact, he may never play professionally again.

If Gambill is the major American question mark on the men's side, Serena Williams is the uncertain American in women's tennis. For years her father insisted she would eventually surpass Venus because she had a better all-around game.

That doesn't have the ring of truth any longer because Serena has a larger problem -- nerve. She comes unstuck badly at crucial times in big matches at big tournaments.

As tennis moves toward its final Slam, the men's game is in transition with young players, including defending Open champion Marat Safin, working for more consistency to replace the old guard at the top.

The women's game is Venus' to dominate, if she wants it. She can be as dominant in her era as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were in theirs. She says she is going to take her tennis more seriously this summer and fall. She has said a lot of things in her five years on the pro tour.

Now is the time to prove it.

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