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Between The Lines
June 21, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Wimbledon 2000 Preview

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Ray Bowers

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 Garros.

Sampras is the strong favorite. But should he falter, the array of possible champions is large. Here are the odds:

    Sampras, 2-1
    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.

THE PREDICTIONS

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 here. Krajicek.

--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. Agassi.

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 exploit.

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:

    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

And here are the predictions:

--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 Kournikova.

--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.

--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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