Friday, January 26, 2007

Wilander, Sampras...Gonzalez?

After Fernando Gonzalez continued his blitz through the draw, demolishing Tommy Haas in straight sets early this morning, I immediately thought of two previous historic dashes through a tournament which resulted in a Grand Slam triumph: Mats Wilander at the 1982 French Open and Pete Sampras at the 1990 US Open.

Unseeded and with little attention paid to him, Mats Wilander stunned the tennis world by shredding the draw at the 1982 French Open, claiming wins over the number 2, 3, 4 and 5 seeds - #2 Lendl in the fourth round, #3 Vilas in the finals , #4 Clerc in the semifinals and #5 Vitas Gerulaitis in the quarterfinals.

While Pete Sampras was not the unknown entity that Wilander was, his number 12 seeding didn't exactly focus early attention on himself during the 1990 US Open fortnight. But starting with his 4th round defeat of sixth seeded Thomas Muster, Sampras defeated three Hall of Famers to claim the first of his record fourteen Grand Slam titles - Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals, John McEnroe in the semifinals and his long time foil Andre Agassi in the finals.

Can Gonzalez pull off the impossible and defeat the seemingly impenetrable Roger Federer? If he did, I would rank his run through the tournament as equal to the Wilander and Sampras marches.

If he were to defeat the Swiss star, Gonzalez will have defeated the number 1 (Federer of course), 2 (Nadal), 5 (James Blake), 12 (Tommy Haas) and 19 (Lleyton Hewitt) seeds. Now, Wilander's victories of four of the top five seeds is more impressive on sheer numerical rankings and Sampras played a brand of tennis never before seen, introducing the greatest serve ever to be on display in men's tennis - a win over Federer at the peak of his career on a surface perfectly suited to him - and yes, this style hard court favors Federer's game even more than grass, contrary to some belief - would elevate Gonzalez' play to equal standing with the afore-mentioned.

What separates Gonzalez potential Grand Slam title from the inaugural salvos from the careers of Wilander and Sampras is that the two Hall of Famers were just starting out. Gonzalez is in tennis' version of late middle age. But in some ways this is what makes his level of play so impressive. He was not an unknown coming into Australia, as players were well aware of the raw talent and power he possesses. And the manner in which he has played Federer-like, flawless, error-less tennis has already made this a career changing event for the soon to be 27 year old Chilean.

My predictions have been so awful that I'm going to throw objective, seasoned analysis aside and select Gonzalez to win in four sets. This pick is generated more from a rooting interest and a desire to prove that Federer is indeed human! But if Gonzalez does indeed play at the level he has exhibited thus far in his lambasting of his previous three foes, I can't imagine this match not being very close. It should be entertaining to watch.