Putting a Dent in the sport

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

He's 21, a professional athlete, lives with buddies in Huntington Beach, Calif., and has appeal among teenage girls.

If this sounds like the description of someone who parties every night, well, Taylor Dent would very politely disagree. There are no fast times. He's no Jeff Spicoli. Actually, not even half a Spicoli.

And his new Australian tennis coach, Paul Kilderry, backs him up, praising his work ethic and ability to keep his focus off the court.

This is necessary information because it helps put Dent's recent celebration after he won his first professional tournament into the proper context. He beat James Blake in the final at Newport, R.I., July 14, joining his father, Phil, in the record book as they became the first father and son to win ATP titles in the Open era.

"I never go out drinking, but I went out drinking and I got hammered," Dent said, chuckling, as he recalled the night of shooters. "Because my coach said that if you have a great career, you are probably going to win 50 tournaments, so this is going to be one of those 50. It doesn't happen often, he said, so I may as well enjoy it while it lasts."

Phil Dent, who won two ATP titles in the '70s and reached the 1974 Australian Open final, was the one who informed Taylor of the family milestone.

"I actually didn't even know afterward," Taylor said. "My dad called me the next day as I was fighting my hangover and he told me, `Hey, you put us in history yesterday.' I thought that was pretty neat, not many people get to make history."

Now, his father, family and friends will get the chance to watch him play close to home. Dent is in the Mercedes-Benz Cup, which began Monday in Los Angeles, and opened with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Neville Godwin of South Africa. He could face No. 7 Xavier Malisse of Belgium in the second round. They are in the same half of the draw as No. 1 Tommy Haas of Germany and No. 4 Andy Roddick.

Dent joined Roddick, who has won two tournaments, as two of the young Americans who have won a title on the ATP tour in 2002. They, along with Blake, were members of a Los Angeles Times list in July 2001 called "the Replacements," a group of 10 youngsters who would be followed with periodic updates. (Twins Mike and Bob Bryan count as one entry.)

Success, naturally, has varied wildly. Roddick reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open later that summer and nearly defeated eventual champion Lleyton Hewitt but has struggled in Grand Slam events since. Blake has lost in two finals this year, to Roddick in Memphis, Tenn., and Dent in Newport.

Talk about potential replacements started after the storied generation of American male players turned 30, with people wondering about the next Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi or Michael Chang.

It was Agassi who helped end Dent's hangover after his Newport win.

"I was back at it the next day--I had to be--I was hitting with Andre," Dent said. "I had to be on my toes. I was too nervous to have the celebration get in the way of my celebration."

Kilderry has helped make a noticeable difference in Dent's footwork. He seems lighter on his feet and his agility has improved, in particular, at the net. The work on his psyche has been even more important.

"He's definitely a player with a lot of potential, sort of like an uncut diamond really," Kilderry said. "At times, he was trying to be the best player in the world every day of the week. You just go out there and get the job done, rather than going out there to try to set the world on fire."

Said Dent: "Paul has really helped me improve my attitude, and I think that's the biggest thing he has done for me. In previous years, I didn't think the attitude was a big deal. I used to think that if your shots are good enough that you are going to be there, but that's definitely not the case."

THE NAMES TO KNOW

Andy Roddick

UP: Will turn 20 during the U.S. Open and already has won five titles, three in 2001 and two this year. DOWN: Stalled at recent Grand Slam events.

James Blake

UP: Reached two finals this year and earned spot on U.S. Davis Cup team in first two rounds. DOWN: Lost in the second round, at Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.

Robby Ginepri

UP: Second American teenager in the top 100 this year, joining Roddick, and reached the semifinals at Newport. DOWN: Played only one singles match at a Grand Slam event this year, losing opener at French Open.

Mardy Fish

UP: Won doubles point with Blake against Slovakia in the first round of Davis Cup in February. DOWN: All but disappeared until quarterfinals at Newport.

Michael Russell

UP: Reached the third round at Queen's Club on grass. DOWN: Has not been able to get out of the first round at a Grand Slam event since 2001 French Open.

Phillip King

UP: Won two matches in qualifying for the Mercedes-Benz event at UCLA. DOWN: Lost in the final round of qualifying to Jack Brasington, winning five games.

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