The competitors quickly discovered that playing conditions at Melbourne Park
would be unusually fast. Tournament officials had chosen a firmer tennis ball
and a smoother court coating than had been used in the past. It seemed likely
that the fast conditions would benefit the power servers and skilled net
artists (Sampras, Krajicek, Philippoussis, Henman, Ivanisevic), and that many
players would compete aggressively for net position, the traditional tactic
on very fast courts.
The above tendencies were indeed there, but only to a limited degree.
Sampras, who criticized the fast conditions early, said that he intended to
use "grass-court tactics." Pete regularly followed both first and second
serves to net and often attacked by moving forward against opponent's second
serve. It was interesting to watch baseliner Kiefer trying hard to turn the
tide of defeat in his quarter-final meeting with Magnus Norman by following
every first serve to net. Even Norman sometimes moved forward aggressively
after striking a forcing forehand or backhand. Meanwhile, in her early matches,
Martina Hingis showed an uncharacteristic interest in net position,
occasionally trying serve-and-volley tactics and often, with much success,
advancing unexpectedly to deliver a swinging volley and claim net position.
But in actuality most of the points, especially in the first week, were
contested from back court. The winning players in the early rounds were those
best able to adjust their ground-stroke timing to the fast, and often windy,
conditions. Such players included Agassi and Kafelnikov along with unseeded
competitors Hewitt, Norman, Clement, and the Moroccans El Aynaoui and Arazi.
Relatively ordinary servers attained unaccustomed pace off the bounce.
Meanwhile net artist Krajicek went down early, hampered by his eternal knee
troubles, and heavy-hitting favorites Enqvist and Serena Williams found the
conditions troublesome. Woodruff's five-set win over Henman demonstrated that
a solid baseliner could prevail against a top serve-and-volleyer. Vicente's
upset of Todd Martin offered a similar message.
Probably a distinction should be made between matches played on the outer
courts in windy conditions the first week and matches played in the
well-protected, and sometimes entirely enclosed, centre court inside Laver
Arena. Much of the early play seemed ragged, as conditions hindered precision
and consistency in ground-stroking. But on centre court, which was used for
all the principal matches in the second week, conditions often approximated
those in indoor play.
There were plenty of rallies to relish. Basil Stafford wrote by e-mail from
Melbourne that the baseliner was still favored, that good footwork and court
coverage were being fully rewarded. To Basil, Lleyton Hewitt's first-round
engagement with Paul Goldstein, for example, produced "some of the fastest,
cleanest hitting, error-free tennis you could wish to see."
The Agassi-Sampras semi-final met all expectations. Agassi preserved his iron
will throughout the struggle, squaring things at two sets all against a
Sampras close to his best amid conditions seemingly favoring Sampras. The
fourth-set tiebreaker, which in effect decided the match, was a classic.
During the tiebreak, Sampras delivered two second-serve aces, one of them at
116 mph, and tagged two superb forehand crosscourt winners. But despite his
rival's brilliance, Agassi kept his intensity. The fast courts seemed to help
Agassi when it counted most--when Sampras, just two points from victory,
failed to return two consecutive Agassi serves.
Then in the final against Kafelnikov, Agassi's relentless pressure--making
every point a war in itself -- ultimately wore down the Russian star. Kafelnikov
played brilliantly, indeed courageously, at the outset and at extended
Meanwhile Martina Hingis advanced impressively through the early rounds. The
improved pace of her serve and forehand was obvious. Davenport's march to the
final was less awesome, though like Sampras she seemed to gain in control
with each outing. Meanwhile the Serena Williams of last fall proved
unrecognizable, and the athletic Mauresmo lost inexplicably to Schnyder, who
then fell to Capriati.
The women's final seemed like three separate events. For the first thirteen
games Davenport dominated as both players hammered away from back court. Most
points ended with a Davenport rocket to a corner followed by a Hingis error
or soft return. Davenport's extreme power denied Hingis (1) her usual
accuracy in hitting to the corners, (2) her recent tactic of attacking behind
a swinging volley, and (3) a soft game, which would have been suicidal amid
But with Davenport leading 6-1, 5-1, suddenly the American's shots softened
and began finding the net. Hingis meanwhile ripped away, keeping her shots
well within the lines. At 5-5 in games and serving at love-fifteen, Davenport
seemed in serious trouble.
Then, just as abruptly, the old pattern returned. Davenport cashed the next
four points to hold serve, and Hingis, perhaps happy at reaching a
respectable score, served dismally as matters ended 6-1, 7-5.
Only two of the eight highest-seeded women actually reached the quarters, in
contrast to four of the top-seeded men, reversing recent patterns. The top
two seeds reached both men's and women's finals.
The final set of the women's doubles, shown live by ESPN, illustrated the
weaknesses in not coming to net behind serve. Still, the persistent offender
(Mary Pierce) managed to hold serve throughout the set, while partner
Hingis's serve was broken twice. The fine Raymond-Stubbs pair captured the
championship, stopping Hingis's four-year undefeated record in doubles at
Melbourne. In the men's doubles, the all-lefty combination of Ellis Ferreira
and Rick Leach prevailed over Wayne Black and Kratzman, 18-16 in the fifth.
Black-Kratzman had defeated the Woodys in a close semi.
THE MASTER'S RACE FOR 2000
The decision by ATP to announce weekly standings based on results since the
start of the calendar year should make the pro wars more intelligible to
fans. To illustrate how it will be, we list here the leaders as the
Australian season ended, also showing the Australian Open points and win-loss
records. Results from Hopman Cup and Colonial Cup competition, preceding the
Open, were not counted (nor will future Davis Cup play). As in the old
scheme, winning a tournament is not adequately rewarded -- i.e., a runner-up in
two Slams will earn more points than the winner of one, for example.
Year 2000 Standings, as of January 31
Agassi, 200 (Aus Open 200, W-L 7-0)
Kafelnikov, 141 (Aus Open, 140, W-L 6-2)
Norman, 140 (Aus Open 90, W-L 13-2)
Hewitt, 100 (Aus Open 30, W-L 13-1)
Sampras, 90 (Aus Open 90, W-L 5-1)
LOOKING AHEAD TO FEBRUARY AND MARCH
The sixteen World Group nations face off in early February for the first
round of Davis Cup play. After that, the men's tour will feature several
weeks of indoor events followed in March by two outdoor Master's Series
tournaments (formerly Super Nines), at Indian Wells and Miami. Meanwhile the
women will play three Tier Ones -- the Pan Pacific in Tokyo, then Indian Wells
and Miami. The clay-court season will start in April.
The Sampras-Agassi saga is surely not ended, though Sampras's hip muscle
injury will delay the next chapter. Clearly Agassi is a stronger player than
ever before, and he should be capable of winning any event he enters.
Who will be the other contenders in February and March? Mark Philippoussis,
who played well in his fourth-round loss to Agassi, heads the list.
Kafelnikov's showing at Melbourne marks him for contention, though his many
losses after winning Melbourne last year create doubts. Lleyton Hewitt is
obviously rising, Swedes Enqvist and Norman should like the hard courts, and
the big-swinging Kuerten will remain delightful to watch. The physical
readiness of Krajicek and Todd Martin is uncertain, and the sidelined Rafter,
Rios, and Rusedski all seem unlikely to contend soon.
Among the women, the top echelon -- Davenport, Hingis, and the Williamses -- are
clearly separated from the rest. There are other fine players on the scene,
but it is hard to see any of them winning events where the leaders are
present. Jennifer Capriati, who defeated Hingis in a Hong Kong exhibition in
early January and looked strong in her slugfest with Davenport at Melbourne,
may be the closest. Disappointing at Australian Open was Mauresmo, who had
just defeated Davenport and Hingis at Sydney. Hingis will play the Pan
Pacific, and Davenport will join her in Scottsboro, Indian Wells, and Miami.
The Williams sisters will take turns in skipping events and may continue to
suffer from their comparative inactivity. Although she remains at her best
and should win in Tokyo, Hingis must thereafter find a way of coping with her
larger and stronger rivals.
Thank you, ESPN, ESPN2, and sponsors, for a marvelous two weeks of Australian