The retirements of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf this year have left a void in the field of German tennis players -- a void at the top. Nicolas Kiefer, a 29-year-old who was the second-highest ranked German on the ATP Tour last year and has climbed to a career-best No. 16 in the world this year, hopes to close that gap by winning the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.
He moved in that direction yesterday by defeating Mashiska Washington, 6-4, 6-2, in a second-round match at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. But he was not the only German player to advance yesterday. Nineteen-year-old Bjorn Phau defeated Roger Federer, 6-2, 6-3, in a first-round match. And the tournament field includes another promising German, 10th-seeded Rainer Schuttler, who plays Tomas Zib in a second-round match today.
Initially a bit overwhelmed by the heat and humidity, the sixth-seeded Keifer took longer to dispatch Washington than most had expected. He struggled in the first set with Washington's pesky forehand, which drew Kiefer into an unusual number of unforced errors.
"I started slow, but at the end played much better," said Kiefer, who took a 3-1 lead in the opening set, then dropped three straight games. "Once I pulled even at 4-4, I felt much better. I started playing better from the baseline, much more aggressive. That is my game."
Kiefer won three straight games and closed the set with an ace. He then rolled through the second set, yielding the first game to Washington before going ahead 5-1.
This is Kiefer's first appearance in the Legg Mason. For Phau, yesterday's win was his second on the ATP tour.
A member of the Mercedes Benz Junior team that Becker sponsors in an attempt to further the careers of up-and-coming German players, Phau joined the tour in June after passing his final high school exams in May.
Phau, who said Becker continues to practice with the junior team to stay in shape, said that while he is saddened by the retirements of Becker and Graf, he also has high hopes for the future of German tennis. That future appears to lie at the feet of Kiefer and the 23-year-old Schuttler.
"For the German tennis world, it is not very good to see them retire," Phau said. "But then we have other great players like Kiefer and Schuttler, and I think both of them can reach the top 10."