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
I make the odds as follows:
Agassi, Sampras, each 3-1
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,
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.
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
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
Mauresmo, Tauziat, each 50-1
Capriati, Schett, Sanchez Vicario, Kournikova, each 100-1
all others, 200-1 or longer
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.
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
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
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