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Haynes, Dent back with renewed hope

3/17/2009 - Tennis
Despite personal loss and fitness problems, Angela Haynes is resolute about her future. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Deserts are dry by definition, but it's a little harder to analyze the American drought in the arid beauty that is Indian Wells.

From 1991 through '97, U.S. men passed the title around like a baton on a relay team as Michael Chang won three championships and Pete Sampras and Jim Courier two apiece. Since then, only one American man has prevailed: Andre Agassi in 2001.

That, of course, was the same year Serena Williams won on the women's side, and also the last time she or her sister Venus played here. Their much-discussed boycott of the tournament in subsequent seasons is a big factor in the absence of American women from the recent list of champions, although Lindsay Davenport, who won there in 1997 and 2000, was a perennial finalist in this event so close to her home base.

Yes, the Plexipave hard-court surface is medium-slow rather than lightning-quick. Yet it seems as if Americans should be more dominant here, given that they're home, and many of them have played one or several lead-up events in the U.S. in the weeks before.

Those hardy or resourceful enough to follow this year's newly renamed BNP Paribas Open in the absence of national television coverage -- a black hole that particularly irritates this homebound scribe -- have seen a mixed bag of results from the home crew.

Andy Roddick cruised through his opener, while the slumping James Blake -- runner-up to Roger Federer in 2006 -- lost his third-round match to nemesis Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, who has beaten him the past seven times they've played. Yet in second-round matches, Sam Querrey knocked off No. 18 Radek Stepanek in a contentious duel, and John Isner reached up from his position at No. 147 in the ATP rankings to swat away No. 9 Gael Monfils.

Of the six U.S. women in the main draw, only one -- Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- entered the week in the WTA's top 50. The lone American left standing is the seemingly indestructible 34-year-old ex-Florida Gator Jill Craybas, whose quarterfinal opponent, No. 2 Dinara Safina, sits exactly 100 rungs above her in the rankings and has a chance to get to No. 1 if she reaches the final.

Just for a change of pace, let's pause to reflect on two American players who lost early but whose mere presence underscored their love of the game.

Angela Haynes

If you overlooked the fact that Haynes clawed her way through qualifying into the main draw, she'd be the first to forgive you. At 24, she hasn't had the career she and her family once envisioned, but she's not ready to pack it in.

"The last two years have been really, really rough," Haynes told ESPN.com by telephone after upsetting Japan's 25th-ranked Ai Sugiyama in the second round. "My confidence has been really low. But then I would have these little glimpses of how I should be."

Perhaps the most encouraging of those peeks came this past fall in the Tier III tournament in Quebec City, at which Haynes ripped through qualifying and went all the way to her first WTA semifinal before losing to eventual champion and then-No. 11 Nadia Petrova.

"I was thinking going into it that maybe it should be my last tournament," Haynes said wryly. "Then I get to the semis.

"Now, my mind's back on it. My heart's back in it. For the last two years, it was up and down."

Haynes stepped into the world spotlight briefly at Wimbledon in 2005, when she pushed Serena Williams -- a neighbor and acquaintance from their common hometown of Compton, Calif. -- to the limit in the first round, winning a tiebreaker 12-10 before succumbing in the next two sets. That same season, the lefty cracked the top 100 and played in all four Grand Slams.

That autumn, Haynes lost her older brother Dontia in a motorcycle-car accident. The two were extremely close on and off the tennis court and he planned to travel with her on tour. Things have never been quite the same again, although Haynes said she has tried her best to move forward and stay on track as he would have wanted her to do. "He was the biggest fighter on the court," she said.

Haynes' father, Fred, still travels with her, coaches her and works her hard when she lets fitness slide as she did late last year. "He makes a good point -- that I should be grateful I have a job when so many people don't right now," Haynes said. Still, employment wasn't looking so rosy coming into Indian Wells: Haynes was winless in four matches so far this season and had collected just over $2,000 in prize money for her labors. She needed a wild card just to get into the qualifying draw.

Her mini-run came to an end in the third round against Italy's 15th-ranked Flavia Pennetta, but Haynes intends to continue working on her physical and mental game, convinced she can improve.

Taylor Dent

Dent's trials are well-known to tennis fans, many of whom might have assumed that his sparse play last year meant that two serious back surgeries and almost two years away from the sport were too much to overcome.

On the contrary. Dent, the strapping serve-and-volleyer with impeccable tennis bloodlines who will turn 28 next month, began the new year determined to play a full schedule. The half-dozen matches he played in 2008 were immensely draining, but proved to him that the doctors were wrong in their prediction that he'd never play tennis again.

"No one could be as hungry as I am," he said on his way to Florida, where he has a wild card to play in the qualifying rounds for the Sony Ericsson Open. "It's a shame, but most human beings have to have something catastrophic happen to them to change their perspective. I'm much stronger now."

Dent's life-altering event came when he decided to address a compromised spine with hairline vertebrae fractures that made everyday life, let alone tennis, unworkable. After a long period of avoidance, he opted for a new spinal fusion technique in which surgeons spread a compound on the bones to try to knit them together rather than inserting metal scaffolding.

The catch is that the patient then has to wear an immobilizing body cast for 23 hours a day while the mending progresses. And in Dent's case, after seven torturous months, it was obvious the procedure hadn't worked, and he had to go for the more radical version after all. "The fractures were too old and far apart for the bone grafting to take," he explained.

Dent lost more than 20 pounds and all of his fitness. When he did begin playing last season, he got injured almost every time out, as his balky muscles rebelled against activity. "But gradually, my body hardened," he said. "Last year was about dipping my foot in the pool and bringing it out."

He plunged in headfirst last January, taking the long trip to Australia and winning his first ATP match in more than three years, beating Steve Darcis in Brisbane. He followed with a stamina-affirming five-set loss to Amer Delic at the Australian Open. Dent won a match in San Jose and three qualifying matches in Delray Beach. Granted a wild card into the main draw at Indian Wells, he beat Argentina's unseeded Diego Junqueira but couldn't handle Austrian veteran Jurgen Melzer, as his usually reliable serve deserted him.

Dent, who's married to ex-pro Jenny Hopkins and trains at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla., has already played more this season than all of last year. He said he intends to continue to accept wild cards into ATP events "with open arms," but acknowledges that he'll have to step down to the Challenger level to collect ranking points. He began the season with a protected ranking (56), but that has since fallen away and he's technically -- if not spiritually -- in the netherworld below No. 500. Dent said his biggest challenge now is to achieve overall consistency, sharpen up his transition game and stay positive.

"Some people tell me the problem with my personality is that I don't relish where I've come from enough," he said.

That's OK. Everyone watching does.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.