You can choose to define the career of now-retired Taylor Dent by his 147 mph serve. Or his first title, in 2002, on the grass at Newport, R.I., if you like.
For me, however, it will always be that teary moment at the end of his four-hour and 12-minute, five-set victory over Ivan Navarro in the second round of the 2009 U.S. Open, a match which, in the general scheme of things, was of no particular importance to anyone but Taylor and the Spaniard he defeated.
After clapping his racket to an audience that had been chanting “Dent, Dent, Dent” right through the 11-9 tiebreak in the final set, Taylor went back to the umpire’s chair and asked for the microphone.
“I just want to say,” he said, more than a trifle choked up, “that you guys are unbelievable.”
It was one of those moments. You know what I mean. One of those all-too-rare instances when spectator and player connect in a very personal way.
Taylor Dent is not going into anyone’s Hall of Fame, unless there is one for Good Guys in Sports. His career won/lost record was a very ordinary 151-140. He won four titles – solid but hardly brilliant, and all on fast surfaces that were much more comfortable for a guy lugging around 190 to 205 pounds – whatever his weight was at any point in his 12-year ATP journey. And, though he once reached No. 21 (in August of 2005), he retired from tennis last week at No. 85.
But ask anyone who competed against him and he’ll invariably make the top 10 among the best sportsmen in the game.
That 2009 U.S. Open was special not just because of the drama of the Navarro match, but because it was Dent’s first major since recovering from multiple back surgeries, one of which left him in a full-body cast for about nine months.
Two days earlier, he had upset No. 37 Feliciano Lopez, realizing one of the goals he had set for himself in those dog days of 2006 and 2007, when everything about his life seemed in limbo – to win a Grand Slam match again.
He lost to Andy Murray in the third round, but that was OK. He had his moment.
“Winning a title is a big deal, but earning my way into a Grand Slam after back surgery. . .that was emotional. And the Navarro match. As emotional as anything I’ve ever been in. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt,” Dent explained when I caught up with him by phone Tuesday at the home of his wife’s parents in Leeward, Kansas.
He retired, he said, because it was time. Not because the back had flared up. “No, I wasn’t hurt and I wasn’t hurting. But it was a question in the back of my mind. How far could I get in my comeback. I had achieved pretty much all my goals, and that was gratifying. But there wasn’t one thing that factored into the decision to retire.”
He and wife Jennifer Hopkins-Dent, the former WTA Tour player, had talked from time to time about what would have to happen for Taylor to retire from competition.
Finally, last week, “it just felt like the right time. I’d been on tour 12 years and, you know, it’s not an easy life. Having a son, wanting to be a good father, wanting to be a good husband. . .that all factored in.”
I asked Dent how difficult it will be to leave the game that has dominated most of his 29 years. “Absolutely it’s hard, but it would be so much harder if I wanted to detach myself from tennis. I’m really excited to stay involved as much as I can. I’ve always loved tennis and the love has been about more than just competing. I want to help promote it, grow the game in the U.S.”
How does he stay in the game? Coaching is a possible, but he’s not anxious to travel much. Broadcasting is an attraction. And if USTA development executives Patrick McEnroe and Jose Higueras phoned to ask him to conduct a one- or two-week seminar at one of their junior training facilities, emphasizing serving and volleying, the main weapons in his arsenal, he’d be there.
But for now, “we’re just hanging here,” he said. Taylor, Jenny and 9-month-old Declan James Phillip Dent. Declan? They took the name from the 1997 film The Jackal. “We always loved that name and decided, if we ever had a boy, we’d name him Declan.”
The Dents probably are ultimately going to settle in Kansas, a bit surprising for a guy who grew up near the beaches of Southern California and later bought a home in Sarasota, Fla.
But, despite his residential venues, Dent is not a glitzy guy. And maybe that’s one of the reasons we’ve treasured him all these years.