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Between The Lines
May 27, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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French Open 2000 Preview

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Ray Bowers

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 interesting third.

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 Garros.

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 little notice.

Here, then, are the odds for winning the men's singles at Garros:

Agassi, 3-1
Kuerten, 6-1
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.

THE PREDICTIONS

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. Kuerten.

--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 Puerta.

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 convincing credentials?

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 pounders.

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:

Hingis, 2-1
Davenport, 3-1
Martinez, Pierce, Seles, Mauresmo, each 20-1
Dokic, V. Williams, Testud, Coetzer, Sanchez Vicario, Clijsters, Morariu, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or higher

THE PREDICTIONS

--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.

--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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