Tis the time of year that we usually concede to the power servers.
Wimbledon traditionally belongs to those male stars whose technique, physical
strength, and physical stature allow them to produce serves of 130 mph or
more. Such velocities, along with the skidding and often-erratic bounces
presented by the grass surface, put the serve-returner at huge disadvantage.
At Wimbledon, nearly all players move to the net behind their first serve,
and many behind their second, looking to dispatch any weakly returned
offerings. Receivers generally try to return low at the feet of the incoming
server, or may try a high-risk bullet in an attempt to handcuff or pass him.
Because most points are very short, critics have called the men's grass-court
game boring--mainly a test of serving ability.
Indeed, the success of the big servers has been almost unbroken for twenty
years. Six of the last seven Wimbledons have been won by Pete Sampras, a
superior all-around server and probably the greatest hitter of the second
serve in the game's history. To his serving weaponry, the American star adds
superb volleying skills, a devastating overhead, and an ability to produce
accurate and sometimes powerful serve returns, often in clusters. The player
whose triumph in 1996 interrupted Sampras's Wimbledon run was Richard
Krajicek, whose serving ability rivals Sampras's and whose volleying touch
probably exceeds that of the American. A third standout has been Goran
Ivanisevic--power server extraordinaire and three times a runner-up since 1992.
The era before Sampras was that of Boris Becker, three times a Wimbledon
champion and four times a runner-up. Becker in 1985 at age 17 became the
youngest Wimbledon champion in history. Becker's punishing serve was, like
Sampras's later, the foundation of his success. Before Becker came John
McEnroe, a finalist in five consecutive Wimbledons and champion in three of
them. McEnroe's net-attacking game started with a slashing serve delivered
with precision and disguise.
But before these superstars came the remarkable career of a different kind of
champion. Bjorn Borg was unquestionably the finest baseliner of his time,
essentially an antithesis of most Wimbledon winners. His serve was modest and
carried little topspin, but Borg was lightning-fast in back court, and could
pound away with heavy forehands, two-handed backhands, and infinite patience
from anywhere. The unemotional Swede was almost unbeatable on clay, and he
was champion at Garros six times. But also, amazingly, Borg captured the
championship on Wimbledon grass in five consecutive years, 1976-1980. Since
Borg's time, only one player has won a Wimbledon and a Garros championship,
and that player won each of them only once.
How was it that the baseliner Borg could succeed at Wimbledon, where
conditions were at the opposite extreme from those on clay? Two reasons were
primary. First, Borg's quickness and remarkable eye-hand coordination allowed
him to return effectively the strongest of serves despite the speed and
unpredictability of the Wimbledon bounce. Second, when serving Borg himself
became a serve-and-volley player, allowing the Wimbledon grass to converted
his undistinguished serve into a forcing delivery. The quiet Swede became
skilled in coming to net behind serve.
Could it be that today we are amid an era of men's tennis recalling the time
of Borg? There are two stars in today's game who, by the nature of their
skills and how they play the game, are strongly remindful of how Borg
performed at Wimbledon. One of them is at a late peak in a long career, the
other is just now reaching the topmost rungs.
The first is the player who after Borg won both Wimbledon and Garros. Andre
Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, Garros in 1999. Like Borg, Agassi is a natural
baseliner, expert at breaking the stamina and will of any opponent by heavy
and accurate hitting from back court. Like Borg, Agassi is probably the
finest serve-returner of his time. And finally, like Borg, Agassi improved his
serve on fast courts and learned to attack behind it when needed.
Agassi was runner-up to Sampras at last year's Wimbledon and currently stands
as reigning champion of two of the four Slams (U.S. Open and Australia). He
was favored to win this year's French Open but lost early amid a severe
foot-blister problem. Then he retired from the Wimbledon tune-up at Queens
after spraining his lower back. But if he can overcome these infirmities
Agassi is undeniably capable of again bringing down the big servers.
The other player comparable with Borg is scrappy Lleyton Hewitt, who like his
predecessor combines foot speed and counter-punching ability with probable
strengths for the attacking game. Last year Hewitt, then 18, showed success
on grass, defeating Philippoussis, Pioline, and winning the first set over
Sampras at Queens and then winning two matches at Wimbledon. This year on
grass, Hewitt won Australia's opening Davis Cup match against Germany and won
the recent tournament at Queens, defeating Sampras in the final. In my
opinion, both Hewitt and Agassi can--and indeed should be expected to--reach
the forthcoming Wimbledon final.
The regular array of strong servers and volleyers will of course be present.
Stylish Britisher Tim Henman has reached the final eight at Wimbledon in each
of the last four years. Richard Krajicek, who for several years defeated
Sampras regularly, now seems healed from intermittent injuries. Meanwhile Pat
Rafter, a semi-finalist last year and now gradually recovering from shoulder
surgery, remains an interesting challenger. Rafter's attractive
serve-and-volley style seems well suited to grass but is slightly hampered by
the slippery footing and the low bounces which will dull his favored kick
serves. Finally, recent attention has turned to German player David Prinosil,
27, a solid server, returner, and volleyer, who won the grass event at Halle
last week, defeating Kafelnikov and Krajicek. Prinosil's career shows many
successes in doubles and in grass-court singles, but he must fight his way
out of the Wimbledon qualifying rounds this week.
Perhaps the most powerful servers among the top players are Mark
Philippoussis and Greg Rusedski. Philippoussis adds relentless power in
returning serve and in his all-court play along with an adequate net game. In
last year's semis Philippoussis led Sampras by a set before retiring with a
serious knee injury. Meanwhile left-hander Rusedski, who often produces the
fastest serve in tournaments, also brings excellent volleying ability,
probably exceeding Philippoussis's. Rusedski comfortably defeated Magnus
Norman at Wimbledon last year but then lost to Philippoussis in four sets.
Other big servers seem too one-dimensional, even for Wimbledon. Ivanisevic
seems no longer a threat, though he upset Philippoussis recently at Queens.
Marat Safin lacks good volleying skills, and Wayne Arthurs faded from
attention after his 1999 Wimbledon splash. At 6'4", the young Croatian
Ljubicic is close but is not yet ready for top stardom. Marc Rosset, Magnus
Larsson, and Todd Martin are experienced warriors having heavy serves and
solid all-around games, and any of them could produce one or two surprises.
Among the high-achieving baseliners at the recent French Open, a plausible
Wimbledon contender is the Garros runner-up, Magnus Norman, whose power
groundstrokes are delivered with compact backswing. Last year at Wimbledon
Norman won two matches before departing as victim of Rusedski. Meanwhile the
looping strokes of the recent Garros champion, Kuerten, seem unsuited to
grass, though the Brazilian star is a strong server and reached the Wimbledon
quarters last year, bowing to Agassi. Most of the other South American and
Spanish players who shined in the middle and late rounds at Garros are
likewise uncomfortable on grass.
It remains to discuss the enigmatic Yevgeny Kafelnikov, whose game can rise
to magnificent heights on any surface. The Russian star brings good
serve-returning ability, good volleying skills, and an effective serve behind
which to attack. Kafelnikov won two matches at last year's Wimbledon before
retiring because of injury. Then he reached the semis on the fast courts at
U.S. Open, and later the finals at this year's Australian Open, where the
courts and conditions were uncharacteristically fast. The Russian may be
approaching his best tennis at this moment, having played well at the recent
Sampras is the strong favorite. But should he falter, the array of possible
champions is large. Here are the odds:
Agassi, Hewitt, each 10-1
Krajicek, Philippoussis, each 20-1
Rusedski, Henman, Kafelnikov, Rafter, each 25-1
Ivanisevic, Pioline, Kuerten, Ferrero, Safin, Prinosil, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or longer.
Forecasting Slam winners is not ego-inflating. Since I joined the game here,
seven Slams have unfolded, wherein I've managed to predict the men's champion
three times, the women's champion three times. Interestingly, though the
women generally seem the more predictable, not once during this period has
the top-seeded woman become the champion.
Looking at the eight sections of the men's draw:
--Sampras (1), Lapentti (16), Kucera, Ferrero, Corretja, Medvedev, Bjorkman,
Vicente. This is not an easy draw for Sampras. Every player listed here could
be a serious threat if the champion is just slightly below his best. Still,
he should survive. Sampras.
--Hewitt (7), Enqvist (9), Gambill, Stoltenberg, Clavet, Santoro. No
insuperable problem here for the young Australian. Hewitt.
--Norman (3), Rusedski (14), Novak, Ljubicic, Hrbaty, B. Black, Fromberg.
Rusedski probably deserves to be favored strongly with Norman not far behind.
But I like the chances of an underrated player who defeated Sampras in Cup
play this year on Sampras's ground. Make it Novak.
--Pioline (6), Krajicek (11), Pavel, Mantilla, Ferreira, A. Costa, Nestor. If
the former champion remains healthy, on grass he should defeat any opponent
--Kafelnikov (5), Rafter (12), Mirnyi, Moya, Escude, Siemerink, Federer. The
two seeded players should meet in the fourth round, offering a memorable
match-up. The narrow choice is Rafter.
--Kuerten (4), Kiefer (13), Haas, Vinciguerra, Rosset, Chang, Agenor. The
French Open champion has the firepower and volleying ability. His first three
matches are winnable and should allow him to prepare for the survivor of
Kiefer-Haas-Vinciguerra-Rosset. The easy choice is Kuerten.
--Henman (8), Philippoussis (10), Ivanisevic, Rios, Larsson, Arazi.
Ivanisevic defeated the younger Australian recently, but Philippoussis is the
solider hitter. Philippoussis.
--Agassi (2), Safin (15), T. Martin, Koubek, Golmard, Vacek. Agassi must find
a way to handle Safin's serve but once this is done the rest should be easy.
In the quarters, then, it will be Hewitt over Sampras, as at Queens, Krajicek
over Novak, Rafter over Kuerten, and Agassi over Philippoussis. Hewitt and
Agassi should advance in the semis, creating a final where both contenders
are listed below six feet in height. In a brilliantly played spectacle,
Agassi will overcome the rising Australian to win his second Wimbledon.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
Women's singles can be enchanting on Wimbledon grass, where mobility, attack,
and exciting cat-and-mouse play are favored. The fast surface assuredly
affects outcomes, but less so than among the men. Net-attacker Navratilova,
for example, won nine All Englands but only two French Opens. Meanwhile Chris
Evert won seven times at Garros but only three times at Wimbledon. Although
heavy-hitting baseliners now dominate the women's game on other surfaces,
just two years ago net-play artists Jana Novotna and Nathalie Tauziat met in
the Wimbledon final, won by Novotna.
Last year, Lindsay Davenport stopped Steffi Graf in the final. Hingis had
unravelled in the first round, and Venus Williams lost to Graf in three sets.
Serena did not compete. The previous runner-up, Tauziat, won four matches but
then lost to teen-aged Lucic, one of several very young players who at
Wimbledon announced their readiness to enter the top rank. (The others were
Stevenson, Dokic, and Clijsters, none of whom proved able to cross the
threshold upward in the months to come.)
Novotna and Graf have now retired, leaving Hingis and Davenport as the prime
favorites for Wimbledon 2000. Hingis and Davenport have alternated in leading
the pro rankings since early 1997, and early this year between them the two
women captured the Australian Open and the early Tier Ones, at Tokyo, Indian
Wells, and Miami. The two met each other in the finals of all but one of
these events. But the recent clay-court season brought misfortunes--a foot
injury in Hingis's case, which kept her out of the Italian Open, and
lower-back trouble for Davenport, forcing the American's withdrawal in Rome
and explaining her first-round loss at Garros.
Both have already savored the winner's champagne at Wimbledon one time. This
year Hingis's chances seem good, as the Swiss Miss has been the healthier of
the two. Hingis has obviously worked to increase her overall power,
especially in serving, but her distinctive strengths remain in the quickness
of her shot preparation and in the accuracy and variety of her ground
strokes. She excels in handling the power of her opponents, while the
Wimbledon grass should enhance the effectiveness of her own sometimes
vulnerable second serve. The surface will make it difficult for opponents to
produce the kind of sustained bludgeoning delivered by Mary Pierce in
removing the edge from Hingis's game at Garros.
Davenport, of course, is the player best able to produce such bludgeoning at
Hingis's expense, including especially the shredding of Hingis's serves. The
two superstars have not played each other at Wimbledon, but it seems clear
that the outcome of a meeting there would depend on Davenport's ability to
attack the Hingis serve. Hingis cannot regularly serve-and-volley against
Davenport's returning, so it seems likely that Hingis when serving would find
herself often on the defensive. Hingis is a good defender and superb
counter-puncher, but on grass defense is a losing game. Davenport's serve, in
contrast, will be difficult for any player, even Hingis, to return much less
Does the new French Open champion, Mary Pierce, belong in the elite group
with Hingis and Davenport? Not on Wimbledon grass, in my opinion, given the
large backswing in Pierce's stroking. Pierce has never made the quarters at
Wimbledon--last year she bowed in straight sets to young Dokic, a player she
subsequently handled on clay.
Venus and Serena Williams are as much enigmas as ever. Both have the strong
serve and overall power game to succeed on any surface, and both clearly have
the volleying talent if not always the volleying inclination to prevail on
grass. Venus reached the final eight at Wimbledon before losing to the
eventual tournament champion in each of the last two years. A run of
consecutive Wimbledon championships is not inconceivable for either Venus or
Serena, but the journey must begin with the first triumph. If either sister
is healthy--and Venus's wrists and Serena's meniscus remain huge
uncertainties--and if that sister is determined to attack net ruthlessly and
prepares accordingly, then that sister can be the champion. Neither one
played in the grass-court tune-ups for Wimbledon, however. Overall, there
seem too many "ifs" in this elocution, certainly in Serena's case.
Ordinarily, it would be difficult to envision an aspirant other than those
mentioned above winning the championship. At 32, this will be Tauziat's
sixteenth Wimbledon. (Novotna was 29 when she won in 1998.) Former champion
Martinez was superb in reaching the recent Garros finals, but her topspin
baseline game will surely be solved by one of the rocketeers. Seles's
attacking firepower will not be easy to produce on grass, and her relative
deficiencies in mobility will be telling. Last year's sensations Lucic and
Stevenson, along with huge-serving newcomer Molik, all lost early in the
recent tune-up at Birmingham. Powerful Jennifer Capriati merits watching,
however, showing a lifetime 18-6 record at Wimbledon, though most of these
victories came seven or more years ago. Both Mauresmo and Kournikova (a
former Wimbledon semi-finalist) have the strong serve and athletic power game
to match any opponent, but neither shows a major tournament triumph to date.
American Lisa Raymond, 26, known for her volleying ability, won the grass
tune-up at Birmingham, defeating Tauziat and Capriati, but then lost early at
Eastborne. But if none of these stars is without negatives, in this year of
uncertain physical readiness among the frontrunners it is conceivable that
the second tier could provide the champion.
Here are the odds:
And here are the predictions:
Hingis, Davenport, each 3-1
Pierce, Venus Williams, each 10-1
Tauziat, Serena Williams, each 20-1
Seles, Capriati, each 40-1
Mauresmo, Raymond, Kournikova, each 60-1
all others, 80-1 or longer
--Hingis (1), Huber (11), Lucic, Spirlea, Talaja. The path is dangerous, but
Hingis should come through here. Hingis.
--V. Williams (5), Halard-Decugis (14), Rubin, Sugiyama, Dechy. There are no
easy opponents here for Williams, but the tough matches early could pay off
later. Venus Williams.
--Martinez (4), Schett (15), Nagyova, Kremer, Raymond. Grass should be the
American's best surface. Raymond.
--S. Williams (8), Testud (10), Kournikova, Sidot, Zvereva. Serena has been
too long inactive and has competed too seldom on grass. If she can survive
her first-round meeting with Testud, Anna should prevail. The choice is
--Tauziat (7), Mauresmo (13), Clijsters, Dokic, Brandi. The rising Australian
star should be ready to shine. Dokic.
--Pierce (3), Coetzer (12), Serna, Srebotnik, Stevenson, Farina. The Garros
champion is playing at her best. Make it Pierce.
--Seles (6), Sanchez Vicario (9), Schwartz, Grande, Vento. The veteran
Spanish star has done well in past Wimbledons. Sanchez Vicario.
--Davenport (2), Van Roost (16), Capriati, Morariu, Schnyder. Look for a
Capriati-Davenport showdown in the fourth round. Davenport.
In the quarters, make it Venus over Hingis, ending the possibility of another
Hingis-Davenport classic, Raymond over Kournikova, Dokic over Pierce, and
Davenport over Sanchez Vicario. Venus and Davenport should advance to the
final, setting up an intriguing final-round match-up where both women will be
power players well over six feet tall. Then Davenport's heavy serving and
returning will prove too much for Williams. Look for a second-straight
Wimbledon triumph for Davenport.
Here's wishing a wonderful Wimbledon to tennis addicts worldwide. Your
messages of condolence will be appreciated if, as sometimes happens, the
prophecies offered here become unrecognizable in reality.