BY KEVIN FARIS
Are you ready for a sports pop quiz? Pencils in hand? Here you go….
Who won the 2003 Wimbledon Women’s Singles Title?
That one was kind of easy. In the world of women’s tennis, the correct answer 90% of the time is Serena Williams. Her sister Venus, initially the more successful of the two, has not displayed the ability to match her younger sister.
OK, part two of the quiz, and you know what is coming….
Who won the 2003 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Title?
This one is hard. Don’t be disappointed if you answered Pete Sampras. You are wrong of course, but he still has more name recognition than any active male tennis player out there with the exception of Andre Agassi, who also did not win. So, any idea, any at all? Well, the correct answer is Roger Federer. And do you know what he received from his home country of Switzerland? A cow. Seriously, he won the most prestigious tennis tournament in the history of the world and he was given a cow. That is priceless. Let’s see Paul Taglibue present a cow to the winning coach of next year’s Super Bowl. Adding some farm animals to the locker room champagne celebration would only liven it up and, come on, you know FOX would do it.
The point is that professional tennis is not exactly at its zenith right now. The ratings for the finals were not good. The women pulled a 4.0 with an 11 share and the men barely registered with a 2.7 and an 8 share. To be honest, who knows exactly what all of those numbers mean, but those are really bad. The NBA Finals, which had their lowest ratings in history, looked like the final episode of M.A.S.H. when compared to the men’s finals. So, what now? Is there hope on the horizon? If a new crop of tennis stars is going to rejuvenate interest in the United States, then it is possible it could start right here in Lexington?
Last year I called Lexington the “Home of Tomorrow’s Stars.” One of the reasons for this title was our fair city holds the Fifth Third Tennis Championships, which begins on July 21st and runs through the 27th. This event on the USTA Challenger series has previously hosted such players as former men’s #1 Lleyton Hewitt and this year once again hosts a horde of up-and-coming players hungry to make their mark on the tennis world.
Although they are newcomers to the professional tennis circuit, considering one is still at the University of Kentucky and one just wrapped up her college career, the Wittens figure to be the local stars. Jesse Witten is a former #1-ranked player at the collegiate level and advanced to the Men’s NCAA Singles Finals as a freshman. His sister, Sara Witten, finished her career at UK earning four career All-American selections and being named to the Verizon Acadmeic All-American team. Although they are wild cards in the main draw, they have the home-court advantage and maybe the home-crowd advantage. They will hopefully be featured on what may as well be called “Witten Night” July 22nd with 7:00 matches scheduled for them both.
Outside of the Wildcat Wittens, there are players on tour with pro experience that are looking to break into the next level, where victories at Grand Slam events are expected and not surprising. Jeff Morrison, who is expected to be seeded number one, is a great example of someone who could make that jump. The former Florida Gator and 1999 NCAA Champ was the last American standing at the 2002 Wimbledon, advancing to the fourth round. Entered as what is known as a “lucky loser,” meaning he was in the tournament because someone else withdrew, he upset Juan Carlos Ferrero, a top-five ranked player. He missed this year’s Wimbledon due to a torn stomach muscle he suffered during a match with former 5/3 bad boy Justin Gimlestob and this tournament will be one of his first after a 10-week layoff.
The women’s draw features some up-and-comers as well. Akiko Morigami of Japan, the expected number one seed, advanced to the third round of this year’s Wimbledon before bowing out to Jennifer Capriati. She is currently ranked 72nd and is rising fast. The hopeful #2 seed Ansley Cargill will also be able to make some noise. Despite being a former Duke Blue Devil, she hopes to succeed on the professional level, unlike her basketball counterparts. Although she is new on the tour, she has already developed a reputation as a tough and gritty player. During last year’s U.S. Open, she played, according to some, one of the finest matches ever during the U.S. Open qualifiers, defeating Anastassis Rodionova 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4). According to writer Jason Brown, she is the player with “the bigger heart” who is too tough to be “your average blonde.” She was ranked number one for a while during her freshman season at Duke in 2001 and has had a distinguished Juniors career.
The truth is, there is not enough room to list all the players with the potential to advance to the finals. Two0time NCAA champ Matias Boeker of the University of Georgia is back, as is 2001 finalist Jack Brasington. Lindsay Lee-Waters is a hot name on the women’s side and former 3-time Kentucky High School Champ and University of Vanderbilt star Julie Ditty has a chance to be victorious in her home state.
What is the status of professional tennis? Right now, to be honest, it is not looking good. American stars have not risen on the men’s side to take the place of Sampras and Agassi, and the women’s side is so dominated by the Williams sisters that no one knows if there are any challengers out there. If there is going to be a rejuvenation, it will begin at events like this; tournaments where hungry up-and-comers cut their teeth and look toward the big time. Much like the baseball players at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game hosted by the Lexington Legends last month dream of playing in front of the ivy at Wrigley Field or the monuments in Yankee Stadium, these tennis players dream of playing on the clay of Roland Garros, the grass of Wimbledon, and the hard courts of New York. If you long to see the stars of tomorrow, this is your chance.