Ask Bill: Here Comes Taylor Dent

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It is great to see Taylor Dent taking his first steps on the comeback trail. He entered $50,000 Challengers in Carson, Calif., last week (losing in three sets to former NCAA champion Cecil Mamiit) and will play Yuba City, Calif., next week. TD is a net-rushing Californian who has been sidetracked for over two years with a career-threatening back injury. In fact, his situation seemed so dire that he began a career as an on-court teaching professional.

Dent applied for, and easily passed, the U.S. Professional Tennis Association certification (his level: Professional 1). The fact that a young man in his mid-twenties who had won four ATP Tour titles would go through the studying, preparation, and two-day certification course along with other aspiring coaches says much about his character. He does not have a sense of entitlement.

I had pegged Taylor Dent to be the best prospect among his American generation, which includes Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, and Robby Ginepri. If Wimbledon had not slowed the grass courts down after the 2001 tournament (and, make no mistake, that formerly slick and uneven surface has played like a high-bouncing, slow hard court ever since) and the Slazenger balls that are currently used do not play like soft melons (and getting seemingly softer every year) then Dent probably would have already had some deep runs at SW19. Along with their penchant for excellence in old-school volleys, he could share this lament with Britain’s Tim Henman as well.

It would be wonderful to see him make a full recovery. If his back can handle the stresses of today’s game, then his mind certainly can. After the injury ordeal that he has been through, facing break points in a third set will not seem nearly as daunting.

My favorite Taylor Dent story was from when he did an appearance for a U.S. Open sponsor during his injury respite. At the time, he could do anything except serve. He participated in a Pro-Am and was the first to arrive and the last to leave. Suffice to say that usually the “pros” in the Pro-Ams do not share this same enthusiasm. He was definitely the star of the day, and left the amateur participants feeling great.

Early in the day, Dent warmed up with one of the summer staff teaching professionals at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and their hitting session drew a small crowd of curiosity seekers. When he was done with his hit, a few of the teaching pros challenged him to try hitting a ball into Arthur Ashe stadium from the outside. To reach the upper deck of the massive stadium, it was probably 250 feet high and 100 feet away from the practice court where he was standing. A few of the teaching pros made attempts first, and failed miserably. Dent was amused. From the middle of court 5, he took a ball and with a smooth swing he generated enough force to loft the ball into the stadium. People looked surprised and gave him the ‘try that again’ look. He took another ball and did it again, perhaps even more easily. He smiled and walked away. There are onlookers from that day who still talk about that feat.

Sam Querrey is training with Gil Reyes, the long-time fitness guru for Andre Agassi. Sudden Sam is already moving better. This is a great career move for a determined American athlete. Querrey’s volleys remain suspect, but the grass courts of Wimbledon have been slowed sufficiently that this weakness will not be as pronounced. He will be a big factor at Wimbledon this summer.

If the US whips Spain on clay in the Davis Cup semifinals, will the media stop with the Americans Cannot Play On Clay theme? They will be underdogs, but it could happen. Every potential member of Captain Patrick McEnroe’s team – including potential members of the practice squad – has had some positive results on this “foreign” surface this spring.

Serena Williams looks fit, for what it’s worth. Aside from maybe her sister Venus, there has never been another player who gives her opponent so little say in the matter. If Serena is playing well, then she wins. It is as simple as that.

Lefty Wayne Odesnik beating Argentine Guillermo Canas in straight sets at Roland Garros was pretty damn impressive. Recall that Canas bullied Federer twice last year on American hard courts. As John McEnroe quipped, Americans are not supposed to dominate Argentines on clay.

In college tennis, it was a great week in the NCAA team tournament for UCLA and Georgia. It is also a dreadful time at Arizona State and Arkansas-Little Rock.

The coverage of the NCAA team tourney on ESPN-U was a welcome sight. The good people of Tulsa, Oklahoma were treated to a special week of team tennis, with the individual singles and doubles tournaments following the team competitions.

Firstly, the good news: Congratulations to coach Stella Sampras Webster, who led the UCLA Lady Bruins to their first-ever NCAA title with a decisive victory over Pac-10 rival California in the finals. Stella’s little brother Pete, a big supporter of the UCLA team, knows more about tennis championships than anyone and he must be so proud of his sister.

Manuel Diaz led his University of Georgia men to their second straight NCAA title. The Bulldogs are the first team to go back-to-back in a decade, and this is the first title UGA has garnered outside of Athens, Ga. Georgia has now won six titles, with Diaz at the helm for four of those. They defeated a game Texas Longhorns squad in a nail-biter of a match.

Sadly, that very same Pac-10 conference that produced the two women’s finalists has suffered the loss of the Arizona State men’s program. ASU announced that it was being cut for budgetary reasons. Also getting unceremoniously dumped was the University of Arkansas-Little Rock men’s program. This really, really sucks.

People lament the fact that foreign-born players are dominating collegiate tennis in this era. Well, maybe. I agree that this is an issue, and I will address it later. It is a secondary issue, however, to the number of programs (especially men’s teams) that are getting euthanized.

These cuts are having a dramatic and negative effect on the number of young children who are getting steered toward competitive tennis. This is understandable. If you are an American parent with an athletic child, or athletic children, and you are choosing a sport that might lead to someday getting financial assistance- or even a scholarship- in college, then tennis is looking like an increasingly crappy option.

Title IX has been brilliant, in so many ways, for young women. It was not (never, ever) created to deny young men equal opportunities.

The colleges and universities that have been dropping tennis programs has become epidemic. The arrogance of athletic directors who justify their decisions by stating that it is based on budgetary concerns is insulting. Lousy football teams cost millions of dollars per season. This bounty includes a massive number of scholarships, remuneration packages for head coaches that are out of proportion with reality, constant stadium and facility upgrades, etc. It is sickening. Collegiate tennis programs cost a mere fraction of the other sports.

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2 Responses to Ask Bill: Here Comes Taylor Dent

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  • Bill Behrens says:

    Best photo ever…

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  • Lynn Mennillo says:

    A little late in responding, but I visited the Carson challenger while I was vacationing in California. I missed Taylor (and wish him the best of luck in his comeback), but really enjoyed watching the young players trying to break in the the top. I particularly enjoyed seeing two American: Michael McClune and Nicholas Monroe. And a young Aussie, Nick Lindahl.

    If anyone ever has an opportunity to go to a challenger, I highly recommend it!

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