Todd Martin is happier today than he was yesterday and certainly happier than he was Tuesday, when he was almost eliminated from the U.S. Open in the first round. Since then, he has thrown out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium -- Roger Clemens told him to "throw yourself a strike" -- and come to terms with the gray hair around his temples, a change he thinks has come too soon for someone who is only 29 years old.
But mostly, the seventh-seeded Martin is happy because he is playing better, winning his second-round match against fellow American Richey Reneberg, 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
"It was embarrassing to go out and do something you are supposed to be a professional at, and you don't conduct yourself that way," Martin said, referring to his 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (7-2), 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3) marathon with qualifier Stephane Huet in the first round. "It was almost inexcusable because I almost lost. It's a situation where you owe it to the people who are watching to fight through bad conditions on the court, long changeovers or whatever, and not wimp out and complain."
In every way Martin was shaky on Tuesday, he was sharp today, belting out 56 winners and 20 aces. His match led a strong day for almost all the seeds here, although No. 8 Jana Novotna lost, 6-3, 6-2, to Anke Huber and No. 13 Dominique Van Roost fell to Mary Joe Fernandez, 7-5, 6-0.
American Jan-Michael Gambill had a tough day, retiring from his second-round match against Fabrice Santoro after cramping up in the fifth set, but seeds Martina Hingis (1), Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (10), Greg Rusedski (9) and Tommy Haas (14) all won their matches. Venus and Serena Williams even had a chance to shine, winning their doubles match to advance to the third round of that draw.
With his strong performance today, Martin suddenly became one of the favorites to emerge from the top half of the men's draw. That bracket was left wide open after the departures of top seed Pete Sampras and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter, both of whom were beset by injuries.
It is a chance for the Hinsdale, Ill., native to win his first Grand Slam, something he's been poised to do since 1994, when he reached the final of the Australian Open and the semifinals here and at Wimbledon. And it is also a chance for Martin, the No. 7 player in the world, to step out of the shadow of his very famous American counterparts. In another era, Martin's career, which has earned him more than $6 million in prize money, would already be considered a success. But with the stellar class of Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang ahead of him, Martin has remained hidden in the bushes of the American tennis landscape.
"You know, contrary to popular belief, making it to the finals or semis [of a Grand Slam] is doing well," he said. "If our best players didn't have the microphone in their face all the time saying that just making it to the finals or semis was disappointing, I think you'd realize how important it is, and how rewarding it is to do that well, albeit not the sweet prize."
Martin almost scored what would have been his most high-profile victory at the Davis Cup quarterfinal matches between the United States and Australia in July. A controversy had erupted over whether Martin, who had been on the team all year, should play in the deciding singles match against Rafter, as scheduled, or whether Sampras, who had joined the team late and had been scheduled to play only doubles, should step in.
The rules dictated that the only way Sampras could substitute for Martin was if Martin were ill or injured. Team captain Tom Gullikson hinted the night before the match that the Americans might attempt to pull such a switch.
Unfortunately for them, Gullikson never talked to Martin about it, so Martin told reporters later that night he was in perfect health. When he showed up the next morning claiming heat exhaustion, the tournament's neutral doctor did not believe him and made him play anyway.
Martin looked pale for most of the match but almost won it anyway, taking Rafter to five sets.
"Heat exhaustion is a subjective thing -- if I was really looking for an underhanded way of getting out of playing, that's not the way it would have been done," Martin said. "I mean, I've had surgery on my elbow. I've had stomach pulls. There would have been some easier things to point to. It was very disappointing and sad for me, walking on the court, feeling like the Australian doctor and the neutral doctor doubted my word at all.
"That really turned me off -- I don't know if I have a great memory, but I really think they may have been the first two people in my life to really doubt my word on a serious matter."