For most of the century now ending the leading nations in men's tennis have
been Australia and the United States. The two held the Davis Cup trophy more
than half the time since 1900, and their singles stars captured an even
larger proportion of Slam titles. But Australian and U.S. victories seldom
included Roland Garros, the world's premier clay-court event. For more than
thirty years after 1955, for example, no U.S. male triumphed on the red clay
in Paris, and as of this date, no Australian has captured the crown since
Laver's win in 1969.
Which, then, are the top nations in men's clay-court tennis? Last year, the
fantasy team crown at Garros went to the Spanish Armada. Ten different
Spanish players contributed at least one singles win, adding up to a total of
19 matches won.. The United States was second with 13 victories including
Andre Agassi's 7 in winning the tournament. So far this year, tallying
results at the Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens, both France and Spain
claim a total of 29 matches won. Argentina, with 20 victories, is an
The conquest of Garros by the American Agassi last year was doubly
unexpected. Just before the event, Agassi's return to the top of his
profession seemed stalled by an early loss at the Australian Open and
intermittent sidelining with injuries. Agassi retired early from the last
Garros tuneup, at Dusseldorf. Thus his chances seemed nil, and I gave him
little notice in previewing last year's French Open.
Agassi's triumph in Paris, then, began an extended run which carried him to
the top of the pro rankings and included magnificent performances in this
year's Davis Cup play. Currently Agassi is the reigning champion of three of
the four Slams. His relentless heavy hitting, his pinpoint accuracy, and his
superior physical stamina break down the resistance of nearly every opponent.
Unquestionably, the defending champion heads the favorites at this year's
The other top American and Australian stars will command interest, though
only Lleyton Hewitt seems a prime contender. Hewitt has the court mobility,
shot-making ability, and determination to succeed on clay, but he may lack
the heaviness of firepower to prevail over two weeks of long matches. Still,
he made an excellent run at the recent Italian Open, defeating four strong
performers before losing to Magnus Norman in the round of four.
The on-and-off physical troubles of Pete Sampras are now in their third year.
Still, whenever it seems that the great champion's career is downsliding, his
game seems again to regain its heights. Sampras won the Ericsson this spring
and won the deciding match against the Czechs in Davis Cup. But a nagging
thigh injury and an early departure from the German Open indicate that this
is not to be Sampras's year in Paris. Likewise Australian Pat Rafter, who
showed an ability to win on clay at Rome last year, seems not yet ready for
extended combat in returning from shoulder repair.
Thus, the prime challengers to Agassi are found in the array of stars from
South America and continental Europe. Most of these clay-court top-notchers
are able to deliver endless heavy artillery from the baseline, complete with
topspin and consistency. A clay surface puts a premium on such firepower in
preventing an opponent's domination, but it also slows down the game and
produces the low bounces that allow a skilled player to employ variety in
pace, angle, tactic, and spin. Thus the player having the heaviest firepower
is not always the winner on clay.
The top candidates are those players who stood out in this year's clay-court
play to date. Heading the list is Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, champion at
Garros in 1997 and since then a consistent member of the world's top ten. The
lanky power-hitter of the sweeping serve and groundstrokes was seriously
troubled early this year by back pain. Recovering, he reached the final of
the Italian Open in early May. He then captured the German Open at Hamburg,
reversing his loss in Rome to Magnus Norman. Kuerten has the power game, the
lateral mobility, the touch shots, and the ability to close out points from
close-in--all critical for winning seven matches at Garros.
Two other heavy hitters rank close to Kuerten, though neither has the
Brazilian's capacity for variety. Magnus Norman passed Agassi atop the
12-month pro rankings by winning the Italian Open, defeating six fine
clay-courters including Kuerten, Hewitt, and former Garros champion Moya.
Norman recorded three more good wins the next week at Hamburg, reaching the
quarters. Even more unexpected has been the emergence this season of Marat
Safin, the hugely promising but hitherto disappointing Russian star, still
just 20. Safin won the early clay tournaments at Barcelona and Mallorca over
an array of fine clay artists. He defeated Rios at Rome and Hamburg. In the
German final he and Kuerten went at each other with huge serves and
groundstrokes for four sets. Matters were settled in an extended fifth set
flavored by countless drop shots and fascinating cat-and-mouse play,
generally favoring maestro Kuerten, as both men approached exhaustion.
The next tier of challengers is close behind. Leading a strong Argentine
contingent is Mariano Puerta, who excelled in the early clay circuit in South
America, recording two wins over Kuerten. Meanwhile Marcelo Rios, returning
from surgery last winter, briefly seemed close to his former excellence,
winning four times to reach the semis at Hamburg, but the unpredictable
Chilean retired the next week at Dusseldorf with lingering thigh trouble.
Leading the modern French musketeers is Cedric Pioline, who triumphed at
Monte Carlo and narrowly lost to Safin at Hamburg. In defeating Dominik
Hrbaty of Slovak Republic in the final at Monte Carlo, Pioline showed how the
varied game can sometimes reverse matters against a superior baseline
heavy-hitter. Hrbaty's tournament record on clay in 2000 is a fine 10-4,
including a destruction of Agassi in Rome. Finally, do not overlook the
Spanish Armada, led by Corretja, who won Indian Wells in March and is 9-4 on
clay this year. Moya, returning from lower back stress fracture last fall,
won Estoril and is 13-5 on clay. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 20, is also 13-5,
showing wins over Rios and Moya at Barcelona.
Many other players are capable of major surprise, and it is conceivable
albeit improbable that someone not mentioned here could win the tournament.
One player meriting special notice is the 1996 Garros champion, Yevgeny
Kafelnikov. Kafelnikov is a remarkably durable performer whose splendid
all-court game keeps him close to the top place despite long periods of
inexplicable losses. He currently shows a dismal record on clay this year,
but the past shows that the Russian star can emerge from such doldrums with
Here, then, are the odds for winning the men's singles at Garros:
Norman, Safin, each 15-1
Hewitt, Hrbaty, Pioline, each 20-1
Corretja, Rios, Medvedev, Kafelnikov, each 40-1
Mantilla, Zabaleta, Moya, Ferrero, Puerta, Haas, Rafter, Lapentti, Meligeni,
Pavel, Sampras, each 60-1
all others, 100-1 or longer.
Here are my predictions for the eight sections of the draw:
--Agassi (1), El Aynaoui (15), Kucera, Squillari, Novak, Stoltenberg, T.
Martin. There are many dangerous possible foes here for the champion, but
none has quite the needed weaponry. Agassi.
--Enqvist (7), Hewitt (9), Moya, Di Pasquale, Koubek, Prinosil, Ivanisevic,
Gumy, A. Costa. The talented teen has the shots and the determination to work
through these heavy hitters. Hewitt.
--Norman (3), Hrbaty (14), Rosset, B. Black, Mantilla, Medvedev, Clement,
Escude, Tillstrom. Reaching the top of the pro 12-month standings is no
accident. Though the presence of last-year's finalist Medvedev along with
Hrbaty make this the strongest section of the draw, the Swedish star should
advance. Magnus Norman.
--Pioline (6), Safin (12), Ilie, Rios, Haas, Pavel, Bruguera, Rafter, Portas,
Santoro. Pavel and Haas seem to be rising, and Pioline's career might be
reaching its zenith. Ilie seems able to threaten anyone. But Safin's recent
record cannot be ignored. Safin.
--Kuerten (5), Lapentti (11), Chang, Vacek, Ferreira, Voinea, Alami,
Johansson. The fourth-round showdown between the two seeds could be titanic.
--Kafelnikov (4), Henman (13), Vicente, Spadea, Mirnyi, Grosjean, Zabaleta,
Fromberg. The enigmatic former champion has the talent to turn around his
disappointing season. Kafelnikov.
--Kiefer (8), Corretja (10), Meligeni, Federer, Krajicek, Gambill. The road
is open here for the veteran Spaniard. Corretja.
--Sampras (2), Ferrero (16), Rusedski, Philippoussis, Puerta, Clavet, Arazi,
Woodruff. The rising Argentinian, 21, defeated Ferrero at Rome and should
humble Sampras. Puerta.
In the quarters, then, I offer Agassi narrowly winning over the scrappy
Hewitt, Norman reversing an early-spring loss over Safin, Kuerten winning
solidly over Kafelnikov, and Puerta too much for Corretja. In the semis,
Agassi, by now peaking, is the choice over Norman. Kuerten should defeat
So it will be two former champions, Agassi and Kuerten, in the final. At his
best, Agassi's superiority over any opponent is rock-solid, whereas Kuerten's
knife-sharp shot-making can be fragile. But when his game attains and
sustains its magnificent heights, Kuerten can dominate anyone. Kuerten to win.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
Gone from the scene is last year's French Open champion, Steffi Graf, who
defeated Martina Hingis in a three-set final. Graf's magnificent career
included six Garros championships. For perspective, none of last year's big
four in women's tennis--neither Hingis, Davenport, nor the Williams
sisters--have yet triumphed at Garros.
At one time it seemed that surely the dominant foursome would provide the
champion at Garros this year. But Venus Williams was forced to the sidelines
with bad wrists, while Serena encountered back difficulties last fall and,
relatively recently, renewed knee trouble. Things went better for Davenport
and Hingis. The American won this year's Australian Open and Indian Wells,
and Hingis answered on the hard courts at the Ericsson. But the clay season
brought fresh physical troubles for both. After winning the Barclay Cup at
Hamburg, Hingis dropped out of the German Open in Berlin with a foot injury,
while Davenport returned from the sidelines to enter the Italian Open, only
to withdraw with lower-back troubles. Thus Serena will miss Garros, and the
readiness of the other three is unclear. Still, Hingis is the clear favorite
because of (1) her recent success in the Ericsson and Barclay and (2) the
advantages that clay give her game--reducing the effect of Davenport or
Williams power and enhancing Hingis's advantage in precision and mobility.
But if the door seems slightly ajar, who among the many outsiders bring
In recent weeks, veteran stars have filled the vacuum left by the sidelining
of the big four. Monica Seles, a three-time former Garros champion, won the
recent Italian Open, and Spain's Martinez captured the German Open, where
Amanda Coetzer was runner-up. Coetzer won the Benelux. Sanchez Vicario,
another three-time Garros winner, reached the Barclay Cup final. But though
these warriors still sometimes sparkle, the relatively moderate firepower of
each seems inadequate to produce seven wins at Garros against the younger
No French woman has been champion at Garros since Francoise Durr in 1978. But
there is an interesting array of current French challengers, led by Mary
Pierce, who is not far behind the big four. Amelie Mauresmo and Nathalie
Dechy, 20 and 21 respectively, have been competing around the top twenty for
some months. Mauresmo's power game took her to the recent Italian Open final.
Sandrine Testud, with an awesome backhand, and mobile Nathalie Tauziat are
top tenners, and Julie Halard-Decugis's comeback from injury has progressed
well. The French national team, competing without Pierce, narrowly failed to
reach the Fed Cup final four this spring, but should be favored at Garros to
capture our private tally by tennis nationality.
None of the other current teenagers seem quite ready to make a strong
challenge. Australian Dokic, who won all three of her singles matches in
Australia's failed Fed Cup try, may be the closest. Dokic comfortably
defeated Venus Williams at Rome recently before losing to Seles in three.
Kournikova, still just 19, is returning from ankle ligament damage and seems
an unlikely threat. Watch for Clijsters in coming years.
Here are the odds:
Martinez, Pierce, Seles, Mauresmo, each 20-1
Dokic, V. Williams, Testud, Coetzer, Sanchez Vicario, Clijsters, Morariu,
all others, 100-1 or higher
--Hingis (1), Halard-Decugis (12), Chladkova, Raymond, Dragomir. No threat
here to the Swiss Miss. Hingis.
--Tauziat (7), Capriati (15), Zuluaga, Callens, Suarez, Rubin. Zuluaga won
four matches in Rome, defeating Tauziat, but this is just her first Garros.
Although she is no acrobat on clay, Capriati was twice a Garros
quarter-finalist as a teenager. Capriati.
--Seles (3), Mauresmo (13), Schnuyder, Talaja, Dokic. Talaja should not be
ignored, but this section is too difficult for her. Seles defeated both
Mauresmo and Dokic at Rome in close matches. But the new generation must soon
have its way. Mauresmo.
--Pierce (6), Testud (10), Torrens Valero, Dechy, Grande, Majoli, Frazier.
Pierce is a former Garros finalist, but Testud should come through here. Testud.
--Sanchez Vicario (8), Schett (10), Nagyova, Srebotnik. Schett has been
sidelined with sinus infections. The youngsters are interesting, but the
veteran Spanish player should advance. Sanchez Vicario.
--V. Williams (4), Huber (11), Morariu, Schwartz, Tanasugarn. With Huber
showing achilles trouble, Schwartz returning from elbow surgery, and Williams
clearly not at her best, chances seem good for Morariu. Morariu.
--Martinez (5), Kournikova (14), Molik, Sugiyama, Clijsters, Black. Both
seeds skipped the Italian with ankle or achilles troubles. The door could be
open for Clijsters. But the choice is the recent German Open winner. Martinez.
--Davenport (2), Coetzer (9), Spirlea, Van Roost, Sidot. If she is healthy,
the American should easily dominate here. Davenport.
I offer Hingis over Capriati in the quarters, Mauresmo over Testud, Sanchez
Vicario over Morariu, and Davenport over Martinez. Then in the semis, Hingis
over Mauresmo and Davenport over Martinez. Thus another memorable
Davenport-Hingis final seems destined. In another classic between the great
protagonists of our tennis time, Hingis should defeat Davenport to capture
her first of several Garros titles.