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Between The Lines
January 14, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australian Open Preview 2000

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Ray Bowers

The annual tennis cycle begins in Australia with the first of the Slams. The two weeks at Melbourne Park can be an ordeal for the athletes. Temperatures often rise to brutal levels, and the severe foot-traction on the rubberized hard surface can be punishing to legs and body.

For tennis-watchers the matches are often superb, as the usually slowish surface creates varied and extended points. Contests between players of contrasting games can be fascinating, as little advantage is offered to players of any style, whether big server, power baseliner, finesse player, or net rusher. Since 1988, when the tournament abandoned the grass at Kooyong, champions have come from all of these groups--power baseliner Lendl won twice, serve-and-volleying stars Becker won once and Sampras twice, patient Mats Wilander won in 1988, and the relentlessly accurate Agassi won in 1995. Last year's winner, Kafelnikov, claimed his only previous Slam on clay, at Garros.

This year, however, the balls will be harder and less fluffy (i.e., faster) than in the past. Big servers and heavy hitters should benefit somewhat.

Among the major tournaments the best predictors of men's singles outcomes in Australia have been the fall indoor tournaments at Stuttgart and Paris, probably in part because they are closest in time to the Australian season. Of the four Slams, the U.S. Open has been the best predictor of Australia. Wimbledon has been second-best, the previous year's Australian Open third-best, and Roland Garros the poorest.

Last year's Australian Open was loaded with surprises. Of the top eight seeds in the men's draw, only one actually reached the tournament's final eight. That player was Karol Kucera, who promptly fell in a five-setter to young Lapentti. Unseeded players reached the final in both the men's singles (Enqvist) and women's singles (Mauresmo). Expect more of the same this year--at Sydney this week all seeded players in the men's draw fell before reaching the semis.

THE MEN'S SINGLES

As year 1999 ended, two players stood commandingly atop the men's game. Andre Agassi's triumphs in the French and U.S. Opens and his runner-up finish at Wimbledon earned him #1 in the year's point standings. Meanwhile Pete Sampras, though often sidelined with injuries, dominated Agassi in head-to-head matches, winning four of five meetings including the final at Wimbledon and at the year-ending ATP World in Hannover.

Thus the two Americans, Agassi and Sampras, are the clear favorites for Melbourne Park. Sampras's history of back problems raises uncertainties, but both players should have gained from the two-month break since Hannover. The sometimes oppressive heat should trouble Agassi less than Sampras.

Who are the other prime contenders?

Yevgeny Kafelnikov shows a remarkable career 16-3 mark at the Australian. The Russian star faded after winning the event last year, however, though he reached the semis at the U.S. Open, losing to Agassi. This month Kafelnikov showed his determination to defend his Australian title by entering the January tune-ups at Adelaide and Kooyong, but lost in the first round of both.

Last year's runner-up, Thomas Enqvist, started year 2000 by reaching the final at Adelaide. The Swedish star has been troubled by injuries in recent years but now, at 25, should be entering his peak years. His career record in the Australian is an excellent 18-7. He won the Stuttgart indoors last fall, defeating Agassi and Krajicek, and finished a surprisingly high fourth in the 1999 standings, behind Agassi, Kafelnikov and Sampras. Enqvist is a persistently hard hitter, whether serving, returning, or ground-stroking.

No Australian player has won the men's singles championship since 1976. But the current rise of Hewitt and Philippoussis assures that the Aussie drought at Melbourne Park is nearing its end. Lleyton Hewitt is just 18 and is already renowned for his court speed and competitive nature. He recently defeated Enqvist to win at Adelaide, then won his first four matches at Sydney, thus announcing that he may be ready to sweep seven consecutive matches in the Melbourne crucible. Meanwhile the crushing game of Mark Philippoussis, 23, has grown spectacularly. In last year's Melbourne, Philippoussis won three matches before bowing to Enqvist in a superb five-setter. Later, at Wimbledon, the big Australian, playing magnificently, had a solid lead over Sampras before badly injuring his knee. Recovering from the injury in time for the Davis Cup final in December, Philippoussis won two singles matches for Australia over France. Recent achilles and shin-splint troubles lengthen Philippoussis's odds at the Open, but the faster-than-usual courts at this year's event may help him. He defeated Kafelnikov at the Kooyong tune-up, delivering 25 aces, to create a semi-final meeting with Sampras, won by Philippoussis in two tie-break sets.

The above players compose the upper echelon. But there are other plausible champions. Today's best clay-courters are also fine hard-courters, among them Kuerten, Lapentti, Moya, Corretja, Chang, and the young Germans Haas and Kiefer. (Haas reached the final four in Australia last year, and Kiefer holds the valuable fourth seed this year.) Todd Martin, a former finalist and a quarter-finalist last year, has the heavy weaponry--serve, return, and groundies--to do well. Karol Kucera's steadiness has been effective in Australia in past years. Ivanisevic and Krajicek possess big serves like Philippoussis, and Krajicek is superior at net. Big-serving Croatian Ivan Ljubicic, 20, defeated both Martin and Kucera in early rounds at Sydney this week. Not playing the Open because of injuries will be Rafter, Rios, and Rusedski.

I make the odds as follows:

Agassi, Sampras, each 3-1
Philippoussis, 7-1
Kafelnikov, Hewitt, Enqvist, each 20-1
Kuerten, Krajicek, Kiefer, each 40-1
Haas, Martin, Lapentti, each 60-1
Kucera, Moya, Henman, each 80-1
all others, each 100-1 or longer

THE DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

Here are the eight sections of the draw showing the seeded players and leading contenders, along with the predictions.

Agassi (1), Philippoussis (16), Schalken, Zabaleta, Ilie. The fourth-round meeting of Agassi and Philippoussis could easily produce the tournament's champion. In head-to-head play, Agassi won easily at the Stuttgart and Paris indoors last fall when Philippoussis was returning from his knee injury. At this writing, the two were to meet in the Kooyong final. Agassi's greater big-match experience and seeming advantage in conditioning gives him an edge. The narrow choice is Agassi.

T. Martin (8), Krajicek (9), Courier, Escude, Arazi, B. Black. An intriguing section with many interesting competitors. Courier is a twice former champion, Martin has the skills, but Krajicek's serving and net play should carry him through. Krajicek.

Sampras (3), Kucera (14), Dosedel, Rosset, Arthurs, Lareau. Kucera defeated Sampras at Melbourne in 1998, but the American should be at the top of his game by their fourth-round meeting. Sampras.

Enqvist (6), Henman (11), Schuttler, Grosjean, Ljubicic, Golmard, Fromberg. But for Enqvist's recent shoulder trouble, the choice would be easy. Still, Enqvist.

Kuerten (5), M. Norman (12), Hewitt, Corretja, Voinea, Spadea, Stoltenberg. Spadea defeated Agassi last year in Melbourne. Kuerten has the potential to win the tournament. But the Australian teen-ager's recent run is impressive. Hewitt.

Kiefer (4), Pioline (13), Ivanisevic, Johansson, Hrbaty, Meligeni. Kiefer is solid but so are the others. Up-and-down Ivanisevic has been down of late. I like the heavy hitters Johansson and Hrbaty. The Swede has the easier path here and beat Kiefer on hard courts last summer. Despite his injury-troubled late-1999, the choice is Johansson.

Lapentti (7), Haas (10), Chang, Medvedev, El Aynaoui, Clement. Lots of clay-court talent here. Both Lapentti and Haas are rising. Haas, though unimpressive last week, is the younger. Haas.

Kafelnikov (2), A. Costa (15), Safin, Koubek, Vacek. Kafelnikov's disappointing results in early 2000 warn against his chances. But there is no-one in this section that he should not be able to master. Kafelnikov.

In the quarters, Agassi over Krajicek, Sampras over Enqvist, Hewitt over Johansson, and Kafelnikov over Haas. Then Sampras should out-serve Agassi in the semis, Hewitt should outlast Kafelnikov.

Finally, Sampras at his best will defeat Hewitt to win his thirteenth Slam, surpassing all others in tennis history.

THE WOMEN'S SINGLES

After the retirement of Steffi Graf, women's tennis in 1999 was dominated by four other superstars. The four--Hingis, Davenport, and the Williams sisters--captured all the larger titles of the year except the French (won by Graf). The ascendancy of the top group is so complete that it seems almost inconceivable that any other player could win the Australian Open. The recent withdrawal of Venus Williams from the tournament with a wrist injury leaves three premier favorites.

The defending champion is three-time winner Martina Hingis, whose precision game seems ideally suited to the ordinarily high bounces at Melbourne. After winning at Melbourne last year, the Swiss miss reached the finals at the French and U.S. Opens and ended the year #1 in the point standings. But Hingis's reign seems precarious. Her power, especially in serving, is less than that of Davenport or Williams. Meanwhile her main rivals appear to be improving faster than she.

Lindsay Davenport, at 6'2" and age 23, has a career 26-7 record at the Australian, having reached the semis the last two years. She won Wimbledon last summer, then came back from wrist trouble to win the Advanta in Philadelphia and the year-ending Chase tournament in New York, defeating Hingis in straight-set finals in both events. If conditions are indeed faster than usual at Melbourne Park, Davenport's heavy hitting will count against Hingis, and the American's less-than-outstanding court mobility will be less of a handicap.

Serena Williams's stardom flared brilliantly in late summer 1999. She captured the U.S. Open in September, winning four consecutive three-setters and then defeating Hingis in a straight-set final. Later in the month she won Grand Slam Cup, defeating Davenport and Venus. For the year Serena, still only 18, achieved an amazing win-loss record of 6-1 against Hingis and Davenport. Her ability to deliver aces with her fluid and powerful serve is astonishing.

The top three at Melbourne are clearly separated from the rest. Their chances will moreover benefit from the effect of the seeding, which assures each of them a path to the semis without facing one of the other giants.

But there are many other stars worth watching. The fourth seed, Mary Pierce, a former champion, has the power and consistency to slug it out with the big three, though she seems inferior in mobility to Hingis or Serena. Jennifer Capriati, now 23, rose nicely in 1999 and won an exhibition event in Hong Kong recently, defeating Hingis. In Sydney this week, however, Capriati lost to Kournikova, who seems to have again mastered her wayward serve. Kournikova, like Serena, is just 18. The old guard is obviously fading away although, as usual, fighter Sanchez Vicario will merit watching. Regretably, four-time champion Monica Seles will be absent with thigh trouble.

Tennis writers always hope for new faces. Last year unseeded Amelie Mauresmo, now 20, reached the final by defeating Davenport, finally losing to Hingis. Mauresmo is an athletic and powerful player like the Williamses, and like them she is capable of beating anyone if she can avoid excessive errors. Other young players having excellent mobility and power are Stevenson, Lucic, and Dokic, all of whom soared at 1999 Wimbledon. Newcomers Srebotnik and Clijsters also bear watching with view to the future.

The women's game seems to be moving to favor the heavy hitter who can seize the advantage from the baseline and maintain it, meanwhile keeping her opponent on the move, avoiding errors, and closing out points from either deep or closer in. Though her greater strengths lie elsewhere, Hingis has nevertheless managed to prevail at Melbourne for three years. Though the best of the bigger hitters now clearly surpass her on very fast surfaces, Hingis will not go down easily in Australia.

Here are the odds:

Davenport, Serena Williams, each 2.5-1
Hingis, 3-1
Pierce, 20-1
Mauresmo, Tauziat, each 50-1
Capriati, Schett, Sanchez Vicario, Kournikova, each 100-1
all others, 200-1 or longer

THE PREDICTIONS

Hingis (1), Testud (12), Lucic, Talaja, Srebotnik. No problem here for Hingis .

Schett (6), Sanchez Vicario (13), Raymond, Serna. Both seeds should reach the fourth round, where the veteran should outlast her improving opponent. Sanchez Vicario.

Serena Williams (3), Likhovsteva (16), Rubin, Frazier. An even easier road than Hingis's for the U.S. Open champion. Williams.

Coetzer (8), Martinez (10), Spirlea, Plischke, Dragomir. A weak section. Martinez is a former finalist, but Coetzer is a battler. Martinez.

Mauresmo (7), Van Roost (14), Schnyder, Capriati, Sidot, Clijsters, Schwartz. Nearly every match in this section should be worth watching. Capriati is strong, Schnyder is still young, and Clijsters may be the superstar of the future. But Mauresmo is clearly peaking, having just defeated Hingis at Sydney. Mauresmo.

Pierce (4), Huber (15), Stevenson, Sugiyama. Pierce has been disappointing lately. Stevenson has the big game but must bring it under control, something that may be happening as her experience grows. Stevenson.

Tauziat (5), Halard-Decugis (9), Nagyova, Suarez, Dechy, Zuluaga. Nagyova defeated Tauziat in a first-round meeting at New Haven last fall. Dechy is another unseeded rising player. Here, Nagyova.

Davenport (2), Kournikova (11), Dokic, Morariu, Kremer. Not an especially easy path for the favorite. Still, despite an on-form Kournikova, the choice is Davenport.

In the quarters, Hingis over Sanchez Vicario, Williams over Martinez, Mauresmo over Stevenson, and Davenport over Nagyova. Then, Serena Williams to defeat Hingis, and Davenport to defeat Mauresmo.

And in a memorable final, winning by the thinnest of margins mainly attributable to Serena's relative inactivity last fall, Davenport to prevail over Williams.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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