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Between The Lines
March 28, 2000 Article

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MAKE WAY FOR THE CLAY-COURTERS 2000

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Ray Bowers

The term "clay-court specialist" is widely used. Two or three decades ago, many of the so-called clay-courters were moonballers, accustomed to extending points interminably by delivering floating shots deep in opponent's court. Opponents, finding it difficult to attack the moonballs, sometimes overhit (making errors) or unwisely attacked net, thereby becoming vulnerable to passing shots. Disillusion with this style of tennis helped bury the movement in North America to hold the summer tournament circuit, including the U.S. Open, on artificial clay.

Lendl, Vilas, and Borg brought heavier hitting to the fore, as these three stars won ten championships at Roland Garros in the fourteen years through 1987. All three were able to pound away from both sides and were almost unbeatable at the baseline given their relentless consistency and power. A newer generation was led by Mats Wilander, who won Garros three times, and Michael Chang. Both men were superbly fast on the court and able to win by patience and all-court tactics, not primarily by heavy hitting. But the dominance of relentless power was not over, as the era arrived of the inveterate pounder, the great Thomas Muster.

Today, top clay-court players are sometimes very effective on hard courts as well, as controlled and consistent power is a major weapon on either surface. Semi-western forehands and two-handed backhands are seen widely, styles enabling the hitter to relentlessly pressure his or her opponent. On clay, where the ball loses more of its energy in the bounce--i.e., the bounce is slower and lower--difficulties increase for the power hitter and the net attacker, whose near-winners are more readily reached by the baseline defender. But if power on clay is somewhat less an offensive weapon for forcing a weak reply or error, it remains a valuable neutralizing tactic, making it difficult for opponent to seize domination during a point. Heavy overspin is especially helpful on clay in contributing to the velocity of the ball off the bounce. Clay also offers greater scope for stylish shotmaking--angles, droppers and other low shots, offensive lobs--and for maneuvering the opponent. The clay-court player is adept at on-court movement, and is able to maintain good balance while sliding the feet during shotmaking.

In recent years, these differences between clay-court and hard-surface play have produced surprisingly distinct populations at the top levels of the men's game. Listed here, for example, are the eight leaders in 1999 ATP points earned in clay-court play (data unofficial):

1999 ATP point leaders, clay events

  1. Marcelo Rios
  2. Gustavo Kuerten
  3. Albert Costa
  4. Felix Mantilla
  5. Fernando Meligeni
  6. Dominik Hrbaty
  7. Andre Agassi
  8. Mariano Zabaleta

Four of the above players are from South America and two are from Spain, though the Armada's brightest stars of the previous year, 1998--Moya and Corretja--are not listed.

Only two of the top clay-courters listed here--Kuerten and Agassi--also finished in the top eight counting all tournaments on all surfaces. (A similar dichotomy is evident in comparing the top sixteen of both lists.) Those who appear only on our clay list, who might fairly be called the leading clay-court specialists, sometimes do well on hard courts but typically earn their principal successes on clay. A few of them play almost all their tennis on European and South American clay.

Of the three Super Nines held on clay in 1999, Rios won the German Open, while Kuerten won the Italian and the Monte Carlo Opens. Agassi's low ranking, above, is deceptive because he only entered two clay events--the French Open, which he won, and the Italian, where he reached only the second round. Because Agassi and others competed in only a few clay events, it is also useful to list the top eight point-gatherers counting only results in the clay Super Nines and Garros, events entered by nearly all the top pros.

1999 point leaders in the clay Super Nines and Garros

  1. Kuerten
  2. Rios
  3. Agassi
  4. Meligeni
  5. Mantilla
  6. Hrbaty
  7. Moya
  8. Rafter

Note that six names remain from the earlier list, that Agassi rises significantly, and that there are a few other changes in rank order.

THE SEASON OF 2000

This year's clay-court play began with tournaments in February and March in Mexico City, Santiago, and Bogota (Colombia). Rios competed only at Santiago, losing early there. Kuerten entered all three events, winning the Chilean championship. Most remarkable was the emergence of the Argentines, led by two 21-year-olds, Juan Ignacio Chela and Mariano Puerta. In all, five Argentine players made the final eight at Mexico City. (Zabaleta, who finished #8 in the 1999 standings, above, was not one of them!) In the Mexican event, Chela defeated Puerta in an all-Argentine final. Puerta then reached the final at Santiago, losing to Kuerten, and then captured the Bogota tournament, defeating Kuerten in the semis. These were not small achievements. Among the clay stars departing early in one or more of these events were Lapentti, Koubek, Di Pascuale, Meligeni, Vicente, Bruguera, and Clavet.

As the clay season now begins in Europe and extends into the Super Nines (now called the Masters Series events) and the French Open, can we expect continued success by Mariano Puerta? Puerta is a left-hander, listed at 5'10" and 165 pounds. He jumped to #39 in the world rankings in 1998 but slid back last year, faltering early in many of the clay events he entered.

Certainly much is expected of Gustavo Kuerten, the big-swinging Brazilian, whose on-court manner seems to reveal a wonderful joy for the game. Rios if healthy will be likewise magnificent to watch, while the steadily rising Spanish player Vicente, who finished 1999 at #49, bids to become the newest leader of the Armada.

Likely to compete at Garros and the Masters Series events will be the current ATP tour leaders Agassi and Kafelnikov, both former champions at Paris. Many eyes will be on two Americans--Agassi, whose surge to his present dominance of tennis began at Garros last year, and Pete Sampras, who needs to add a Garros crown to complete his claim as the game's greatest-ever player. One suspects that Sampras's best chance is to play the style where he is the best--getting to net often and early--and to do so at his absolute best, despite the handicap presented by the slow conditions. Lleyton Hewitt, though seemingly slight of body, has the quickness of foot, accuracy of shot-making, and fighting spirit that serve well on clay. The surprise recent winner on hard courts at Indian Wells, clay artist Alex Corretja, now seems healthy after fatigue problems a year ago. Meanwhile, though his comeback from surgery is yet early, Pat Rafter will command attention, having shown considerable clay-court ability in reaching the semis at Rome last year.

THE WOMEN'S CLAY CIRCUIT

The women's schedule parallels the men's, leading into the Italian and German Opens in opposite weeks to the men's and then Garros. Results in women's tennis seem less drastically affected by the court surface, though those women who depend on power serving or strong net play can find the going difficult on clay. Powerful and mobile Venus Williams won the German last year, defeating Hingis and Pierce. Hingis won in Italy, and Steffi Graf triumphed at Garros, taking successive three-setters from Davenport, Seles, and Hingis.

With Graf having retired and the Williams sisters recently troubled by nagging injuries, the women's game is again dominated by Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport. Hingis has improved her power but Davenport has prevailed in their recent head-to-head meetings, including the finals this year at Australian Open and at Indian Wells. If Hingis is going to reverse matters, her chances seem best on clay, where Davenport's superiority in heavy serving and hitting is minimized and Hingis's in variety and racket expertise is enhanced. The slowish surface may also amplify Hingis's advantage in court mobility.

Modern clay-court tennis entails a variety of shotmaking, placement, and court mobility--along with power hitting--that make the game wonderfully attractive. Best wishes to readers of Tennis Server for a season of great watching.

--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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