Throwback Dent on verge of greatness

The Californian's old school style is winning over fans and opponents.

Published March 23, 2005

He chips. He charges.

He smashes his serves.

He races to the net.

In an era dominated by baseliners, Taylor Dent is one of the exceptions. He plays the game the way it used to be played, with a serve-and-volley style reminiscent of yesteryear, when three of the four majors were contested on grass and baseliners routinely got clobbered.

He is, pardon the cliche, old school.

"He's a throwback," ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale said. "There's not many left that play that way. He has a kamikaze style."

Dent's go-for-broke attitude has made him one of the game's most exciting players, if not yet one of its most recognizable. Dent, ranked No. 33, is one of only four Americans in the top 50. But because No. 3 Andy Roddick and No. 10 Andre Agassi have won a combined nine major titles, they receive the bulk of the media attention and Dent remains somewhat of an unknown commodity among the sporting public.

That could be about to change.

Dent, a 23-year-old native of Newport Beach, Calif., appears to be playing the best tennis of his life. And recent victories over No. 4 Marat Safin, this year's Australian Open champion, No. 2 Lleyton Hewitt and No. 9 David Nalbandian have given him an injection of confidence heading into today's Nasdaq-100 Open at Key Biscayne.

"For the first time I'm really excited about where I'm at," Dent said. "I want to see if I can climb over the top."

Will it happen?

It's difficult to tell, of course. Dent has four career titles and played for the bronze medal at last year's Summer Olympics, but he has had limited success in Grand Slam events. His best finish is a fourth-round showing at the 2003 U.S. Open.

And yet, there is reason for hope.

Recent history shows that serve-and-volleyers peak later than those who spend the bulk of their time on the baseline. And for Dent, who turned professional in 1998, that could be good news.

"We saw it with Patrick Rafter," said tennis legend and Dade City-native Jim Courier. "It took awhile for him to develop. And with Tim Henman. It takes a little bit more time because you have to understand all the angles."

Baseliners, Courier said, get an earlier start. He said when players learn the game today, they focus on groundstrokes, not net play. And physically, he added, most players aren't ready to serve and volley until they are 15 or 16.

As Dent contended, "It's just a tougher game. You have to be able to do everything."

Still, Dent does not necessarily buy into the argument that it should take serve and volleyers longer to find their groove. "I don't believe it has to be that way," he said.

His greatest struggle thus far, he says, has been with consistency. At times he hits all the shots. At others, he stumbles. Minor injuries also have caused havoc, and all of this has made maintaining his patience a difficult task.

He wants to be a top-10 player.

He craves Grand Slam success.

And he would rather have this sooner than later.

"It can be frustrating," Dent said.

Dent learned the craft from his father, Phil Dent, an Aussie great and former Top-20 player who reached the Australian Open final in 1974. Drysdale, a close friend of Phil Dent, said the elder Dent had a style similar to his son's.

It's no coincidence Taylor Dent lists Rafter among his favorite players. Rafter achieved great success, winning U.S. Opens in 1997 and '98. His first Open title came when he was 24. Up to then, he had never advanced past the third round at the Open and only earlier that year - in the French Open - did he reach the semifinals of a major for the first time.

"There are a lot of parallels," Dent said. "I go for more but he had more consistency. In some ways I've tried to copy him."

In the recent victory over Safin, one he says is "up there" among his biggest, Dent thought much of his game came together. Most important, he said, was that he won almost 60 percent of his second serves, long a weakness of his.

"That's very, very big for me," Dent said. "The top four players in the rankings win those points 60 percent of the time ... all the time."

In the past, Dent spent too much time trying to perfect every aspect of his game, he said. Now he concentrates on a few select parts. Otherwise, his plan hasn't changed. He is staying the course and has no intention of changing his style.

"I'm only 23 and I feel like I have a lot of tennis left," Dent said. "I'm playing good, solid tennis. I can see consistency coming. It's just a matter of time."