Back throughout the 80s, one name among coaches stood out. Nick Bollettieri. It's not because he was the best coach around. What he did do was start a tennis academy in Florida where talented players of the day went. Players like Jimmy Arias, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Jim Courier, and David Wheaton. They all attended Nick's.
Nick's background was a bit unusual. He had been a paratrooper before going into tennis. He basically let his players hit they way they wanted. He didn't mold players into holding the racquet in a particular way. Even so, the successful players from his academy seemed to share traits in common. They hit big forehands, but they couldn't really serve, nor volley.
The first phenom to find success was Jimmy Arias. Jimmy was a scrapper. He'd run, dig out shots, and then try to beat you with his forehand. But the serve was eh, His volley was eh. He found success in the summer American clay court circuit, back when there was such a clay court circuit. It's hard to believe it even existed. With the US Open having been played on hard courts since 1978, there weren't that many hard court tournaments leading up to the US Open, until nearly ten years later.
Four big clay court tournaments were held. The first was at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston. Then, the following tournament was held in Vermont or New Hampshire. Then, Washington DC hosted a clay court tournament. Finally, the clay court championships held in Indianapolis. The big names of American tennis didn't play much on these surfaces. McEnroe and Connors preferred to take the time off.
Even the great players of Europe or South America also took a pass. Wilander and Vilas never really played. Jose Luis Clerc played well one year. Arias once won three of four these clay court tournaments.
Shortly after Arias came out, there was Aaron Krickstein. Arias was an affable, outgoing players. Krickstein, by contrast, was very quiet. While Jewish athletes are uncommon in many sports, in tennis, they were reasonably well-represented. Krickstein, the Gottfried brothers, Brad Gilbert, Harold Solomon, and players from Israel like Shlomo Glickstein. No, really, that was his name.
Krickstein was a bit like Arias. Big forehand, so-so serve, so-so volley. Krickstein, however, had a two-handed backhand, and this meant he was much steadier on the backhand. You could bully Arias on his backhand, which he flung around as if his arm would fall off. In the best year Arias had, he reached the US Open semifinals, where Lendl just bullied him into submission. Lendl hit harder off the ground than Arias, but more important, Lendl could serve. Arias was game, but no match for the more powerful Lendl.
Krickstein would be known for three matches. All three were played at the US Open. Two wins and a loss. One of his wins was against Vitas Gerulaitis in the third round of the 83 US Open. Vitas was a solid player, but he could play nervous. He double faulted fifteen times to give Aaron the match. He also beat then-unknown Stefan Edberg in the first round. Edberg is the only player to have won the junior Grand Slam. Krickstein was only 16 years old. He would lose in the following round to the acrobatic Yannick Noah, who had won his only Grand Slam event earlier that year at the French Open.
In 1991, Krickstein would upset Andre Agassi in the first round, and make it to the fourth round where he faced a resurgent Jimmy Connors. Connors had already pulled a rabbit out of the hat by winning his first round match against Patrick McEnroe, John's younger brother. Patrick had more in common with Krickstein than his brother John. He played baseline. He had a two handed backhand. He didn't serve particularly well. Where John won several Grand Slam titles, the closest Patrick ever got was a semifinal appearance at the Australian. And, much unlike John, Patrick rarely complained on court. He knew how to keep his temper.
Even though it appears, at the age of 39, that Connors would have a quick exit, he kept digging and digging. With the support of the New York crowd, he came back and won a match that lasted til 1 AM. I remember attending the daytime US Open, and seeing Agassi lose to Krickstein, as well as Chang beat Mark Woodforde of Australia. Came back to my brother's, and watched the late match that Connors played.
Connors faced Krickstein. Now, normally, Krickstein had a tough time with Connors. Although Krickstein hit as hard as anyone, Connors was aggressive. He exuded confidence, and could rattler Krickstein. Connors had a pretty good record against Krickstein, but it looked as if Krickstein would win this match. The crowd, whipped on by Connors, kept rooting for Connors, and Connors came back and eventually beat Krickstein in five sets.
Krickstein had a pretty solid career. He's retired from the main circuit, and probably plays the occasional senior event. Still, the Krickstein family has produced another athlete. His sister has a daughter, Morgan Pressel, who was runner up at the US Open this year to Birdie Kim. His older sister Kathy, mother of Morgan, unfortunately, died of breast cancer. His wife also had cancer, but through chemotherapy, she seems to have recovered.
It would be great to find out more about the players that never quite made it to the next stage. Krickstein was maybe the tenth ranked player in the world. He may have been a little higher than that, but not much more so. Yet, history may not remember him so well. The quiet man from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who started his career off in a big way, and was a stepping stone in Connors one last hurrah. Yet, he prefers to look beyond that one moment that seems to define him.
It's strange how sports can do that. What saves Krickstein, other than memories of many other matches, is simply that tennis is not that well-followed a sport in the US. People just don't watch it that much. But there will be those of us who remember him and say that was a pretty good player in the day.
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