The last seven U.S. Opens have been captured by just three men. Pete Sampras
won three times during this period, Pat Rafter and Andre Agassi each twice.
This year's Wimbledon confirmed the eminence of these three superstars, when
Rafter defeated Agassi in a five-set semi and was then beaten by Sampras in a
well-fought final. The three thus are obvious favorites to capture the
forthcoming U.S. Open. But since all three bring recent injury troubles, the
door seems open to several other potential champions.
The hard-court events in August are good predictors of outcomes at the Open.
The Canadian Open and the ATP championships in Cincinnati, both held early in
August, have in recent years more closely than other major events foretold
who would reach the late rounds of the Open. Then last year, the results of
the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, which along with the RCA in
Indianapolis is held in third week of the month, accurately predicted the
Open's champion (Agassi) along with three of its four semi-finalists (Agassi,
Martin, Kafelnikov). In watching the Legg Mason a year ago, I was dazzled by
Agassi's level of play, but I nevertheless thought it likely that Sampras
would defeat Agassi in an Open showdown. The prediction was spoiled when
Sampras withdrew at the outset because of back trouble.
THE THREE SUPERSTARS
The three recent champions bring distinctive styles of play that are well
suited to the fast, hard courts at Flushing Meadow. Their past achievements
are of course superb, but in each case the recent summer produced
disappointments and serious questions.
Pat Rafter brings a magnificent attacking game, founded on a varied, forcing
serve and an agility at net surprising for a player Rafter's size. His is the
serve-and-volley game--a throwback to the times before high-technology rackets
began to favor the baseline power hitters. When his opponent is serving,
Rafter typically prolongs matters by slicing backhands patiently cross-court,
awaiting his opportunity to move forward. Sometimes, especially in pressure
situations, Rafter will attack net behind his return of serve. Rafter
contributed two singles wins in Australia's Davis Cup victory over Brazil in
July, then lost in the quarters at the Canadian. Renewed shoulder trouble
sidelined Rafter during Cincinnati and Indy/Washington. He won his first
match yesterday at Hamlet Cup in this final week before the Open.
Pete Sampras has a heavier serve than Rafter, and his second serve is
probably the strongest in tennis history, carrying vast energy in the form of
heavy overspin and pace. Sampras moves to net behind all first serves and
many second serves. He wields a strong net game and a signature, crushing
overhead. Sampras missed Davis Cup in July with the same leg problems that
had troubled him at Wimbledon. He lost to Safin in the quarters in Canada,
then played seemingly with restraint in losing to Henman at Cincinnati. At
Flushing Meadow Sampras will be seeking his 14th career Slam triumph and his
fifth U.S. Open. He first won the Open in 1990 at age 19.
Meanwhile last year's winner, Andre Agassi, maintains a reputation as the
current game's greatest hitter, whether off the serve return or from medium
depth in back court. He relishes punishing the ball as it rises, nailing
forehands and two-handed backhands close to the sidelines. His fast-paced
game thrives on the true bounces seen on hard surfaces. At its best, Agassi's
clean, consistent power hitting ultimately breaks the stamina and will of
most opponents. Meanwhile his serve carries good pace, often allowing him to
dominate points at their outset.
Agassi missed Davis Cup in July with back injuries stemming from a car
accident. He lost early in Canada and faltered with renewed back trouble in
Cincinnati a week later. At the Legg Mason, Agassi seemed to be at his best,
relishing the slowish Stadium Court and reaching the final without losing a
set. His semi-final victory over Prinosil was so convincing that an Agassi
victory over his final-round opponent, Alex Corretja, seemed asssured.
But nothing in sports is certain. Like 7,500 others in the sold-out stadium,
I was transfixed as events unfolded. The early games produced a tell-tale
clue, when Agassi seemed unable to react to Corretja's 110-mph serves to the
wide sidelines. But when Agassi served to the same location at the same
velocity, Corretja usually kept the point going.
It also became evident that Agassi was not going to win baseline exchanges
easily. Agassi was the flatter, harder, and more aggressive hitter, but he
could register winners or force errors only by plastering scorchers very
close to the lines. As Agassi went increasingly for high-risk shots, errors
began to occur. Meanwhile whenever Agassi softened his pace for variety,
Corretja ably counterattacked. As Agassi's frustration increased, so too did
his high-risk attempts and his errors. Meanwhile Corretja served nine aces
against Agassi's zero--a reflection of Corretja's fine serving and Agassi's
lethargy in returning. It ended in little over an hour, Corretja winning,
Afterwards a discouraged Agassi declined to say that his troublesome back had
been a problem or that his rare participation in doubles had cost him needed
Coming to mind was an episode two years ago, when a huge overhead by Agassi
struck Corretja, who was at the net, squarely in the chest. The Spanish
player fell to the ground in a frightening way. Agassi was visibly shaken and
extremely contrite, and although he had been well ahead in the score he went
on to lose the match. Agassi had never lost to Corretja before and has never
beaten him since. I asked Corretja about the episode. Corretja recalled it
well and even remembered the score. Are Agassi's troubles against Corretja
somehow related to the episode?
A year ago, Agassi breathed confidence in looking ahead to the Open. Now, the
great champion is worried about his troublesome back and how it might inhibit
his preparation. His outlook toward the Open seems no longer confident but
rather hopeful, indeed wishful.
Most of the other plausible Open winners have common strengths--powerful
serves and an ability to produce extreme power and consistency from back
The winner at Toronto this year was Marat Safin, 20. I first watched Safin in
early 1998 at Philadelphia and remarked that the tall Russian could become
the next Pete Sampras. I later almost gave up on this prediction, as Safin
showed problems in temperament and often lost ineptly after strong wins. Last
year here in Washington I watched him perform dismally against spinmaster
Fabrice Santoro. But Safin showed good results this spring, and at Toronto
his power hitting produced a close win over Sampras in the quarters and
eventually the championship. At Cincinnati he again lost to Santoro, but he
reached the final at Indy, losing in a third-set tiebreak to Kuerten.
Gustavo Kuerten showed at Cincinnati and Indianapolis how his potent serving
and ground-stroking--proven effective on clay in winning two French Opens--can
translate into victories on hard courts. Despite a nasty blister problem on
the finger, Kuerten reached the semis at Cincinnati, defeating a solidly
playing Todd Martin and losing to Tim Henman, both in third-set tiebreakers.
A week later, he captured Indy, defeating Hewitt and Safin.
I watched Jan-Mike Gambill closely at the Legg Mason. Gambill had reached the
quarters at this year's Wimbledon, where he fought well in a four-set loss to
Sampras. Gambill, 23, is now a powerful 6'3", blessed with a power serve and
heavy groundstrokes from both sides. Returning from injury, Gambill won two
matches in Washington before bowing to Nicolas Kiefer. It seemed to me that
Gambill's racket stringing was rather loose, giving his serve and two-handers
good pace but causing him trouble in volleying opponent's hard-hit shots.
I had looked forward to seeing Mark Philippoussis, 23, in Washington.
Runner-up in the U.S. Open two years ago, the 6'4" slugger can overwhelm any
opponent. But at the Legg Mason Philippoussis showed only an ability to spray
shots. He was unwilling to soften his power game in losing to Brazilian Andre
Sa, who simply fed the Aussie's determined error-making. Perhaps it is that
Philippoussis must not soften his shots if he is to defeat opponents like
Agassi, but his unwillingness to ease up at least temporarily in order to
compete against Sa seemed to me disgraceful.
Thomas Enqvist, 26, swept six matches in winning the tournament in
Cincinnati. The final was a fascinating contest of different styles, where
Enqvist's power serving and flattish hammering from back court were too much
for the net-rushing Henman. Few fans realize that Enqvist ranked fourth in
the year-long ATP rankings for 1999, behind only Agassi, Kafelnikov, and
Magnus Norman, 24, briefly led in the ATP standings this year after attaining
the semis in Australia, the finals at Garros, and the championship at Rome.
His hard serving and baseline hitting would seem well suited for hard courts,
but he lost early at both Canada and Cincinnati.
Last year's Open runner-up, Todd Martin, looked strong at Cincinnati. Against
Kuerten, Martin served for the match. But somehow things went awry. What is
it about Martin that produces wonderful performances that end in defeat?
Still, if Martin brings the strong serve, serve-return, and solid shotmaking
seen at Cincinnati, he can defeat any opponent at the Open. His strength in
serve-and-volley play provides a further dimension largely missing among the
other big servers and heavy hitters described above.
Although his successes have been fewer as his injury problems have become
more persistent in recent years, the wonderful serving and volleying of
Richard Krajicek will be, as always, splendid to watch. Meanwhile Tim Henman
is almost as persistent in attacking as Krajicek but with a shade less
firepower off the serve. Kafelnikov, who reached the semis last year, has the
all-court game if not the big serve needed to take the crown, but the
enigmatic Russian recorded disappointing results this summer.
Lleyton Hewitt, just 19 and now almost six feet tall, has increased his
physical strength and thereby added firepower to a game based on
determination, lightning-fast court speed, and counter-punching skills. In
July Hewitt joined Rafter in sweeping the Cup singles against Brazil, and in
August Hewitt upset Cincinnati-winner Enqvist to reach the semis at
Finally, the Legg Mason winner, Alex Corretja, seems to represent many other
European and South American artists raised on clay. His topspin forehands and
backhands are picture-perfect to watch--Agassi at Legg Mason complained of
endlessly addressing balls that bounced higher off the court than he wished.
Against Agassi, Corretja's court tactics and mobility were brilliant. In his
victory interview Corretja griped, probably correctly, that writers fail to
see him as a hard-court threat despite his several major triumphs on hard
surfaces, including at Indian Wells this year. Still, it is clear that
Corretja's greater strengths are in the defensive and counter-punching game,
assets not suited to hard courts faster than those at Indian Wells and
Washington. As Corretja himself noted in Washington, the faster courts in New
York will mean that he must be more aggressive.
ANDY RODDICK OF U.S.A.
A star came into view at the Legg Mason.
Just short of age 18, at 6'2" with high and broad shoulders and a 130-mph
first serve, Andy Roddick is assuredly ready to win at the pro level. He
advanced impressively through the first three rounds in Washington, defeating
Voinea, Santoro, and Kucera--European stars currently in the ATP top 100. In
watching the three matches, I marvelled at Roddick's powerful and well-placed
serves, his strong and error-free net game, his solid groundstrokes featuring
variety in placement, pace, and spin, and especially his ability to be
patient against these experienced baseliners before attacking. As each match
progressed, he seemed able steadily to raise his game, whether he was ahead
Roddick was finally eliminated in a rain-interrupted quarter-final by an
Andre Agassi who was hitting at his best, 6-4, 6-4. Roddick grasped that his
preferred location at net was a dangerous place against the rockets of
Agassi, so he tempered his serve-and-volleying habits. Baseline exchanges
ensued, where Roddick exploited the immediate advantage established by his
serving, and though the youngster used his fullest power in higher-risk shots
more often than in his three winning matches, this seemed a necessary
accommodation against Agassi. Roddick won eight of ten games on his own
serve. It was a different story when Agassi served, however, when Roddick won
only 10 of 50 points.
Clearly, the centerpiece of Roddick's game is his serving ability. In his
four Legg Mason matches, Roddick's first serves were in-court an exemplary
60% of the time, and the teenager won 78% of these points. He also won a very
fine 61% of his second-serve points. Roddick hit more aces than his
opponents, 40 vs. 23 (11 vs. 9 against Agassi), and fewer double-faults, 10
There is still a trace of the teenager's awkwardness in Roddick's movements
between points, along with a touch of swagger. His court manners are
impeccable, disguising a strong fighting spirit. There seem no major
weaknesses in his game, though his well-overspun second serve seems to land
short fairly often. His volleying ability, which is remarkable for a
teenager, yet needs improvement in order to handle pace like Agassi's.
Roddick was born in Nebraska and now lives in Boca Raton. He won the
international junior events in Florida last December, won the Australian Open
juniors this year, and attained the world's #1 junior ranking. He injured a
knee at the French Open juniors and did not compete at the Wimbledon juniors.
He played in three tour events prior to the Legg Mason, winning only one
match. With another year of growing and learning, Roddick can anticipate Slam
I deem odds for winning the Open as follows:
Kuerten, Safin, Enqvist, Martin, each 20-1
Philippoussis, Hewitt, Henman, each 30-1
Kafelnikov, Krajicek, each 40-1
Norman, Corretja, each 50-1
Gambill, Roddick, all others, each 100-1 or longer
Shown here are the main competitors and their seedings in the eight sections
of the men's draw. Surprisingly, Krajicek, Rafter, and Todd Martin are
Agassi (1), Lapentti (16), Pavel, Clement, Ferreira, Arazi. There could be
danger lurking here for the defending champion. Still, Agassi.
Enqvist (7), Hewitt (9), Rios, Novak, Woodruff, B. Black. Enqvist had little
success in past Opens. Hewitt is yet improving. Hewitt.
Sampras (4), Squillari (13), Haas, Gimelstob, Tarango. A favorable early draw
for a well-rested Pete. Sampras.
Kafelnikov (5), Henman (11), Krajicek, Hrbaty, Ivanisevic. Henman could
succeed here, but Krajicek outperformed him in last year's Open. Krajicek.
Safin (6), Ferrero (12), Koubek, Santoro, Grosjean, Federer. It's hard to see
Safin failing here. Safin.
Norman (3), Kiefer (14), Bjorkman, Roddick, A. Costa, Gaudenzi. A vote for
Roddick would be bold, but he starts off against Costa--a daunting though not
impossible assignment. It's hard to see why Norman hasn't done better this
summer. Perhaps it's time. Norman.
Corretja (8), Pioline (10), T. Martin, Moya, Chang, Rusedski. Corretja was
wonderful in Washington, but Martin has the game to prevail. Martin.
Kuerten (2), Philippoussis (15), Rafter, Gambill, Escude. Rafter simply knows
how to win at Flushing. Rafter.
All four quarter-final matches could go either way. I like Hewitt over
Agassi, Sampras over his former nemesis Krajicek, Safin over Norman, and
Rafter over Martin. Sampras and Rafter then should reach the final, with Pete
Sampras prevailing in this Wimbledon-final rematch.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
The analysis offered here is short, as the picture is clear. Wimbledon showed
that Venus Williams and sister Serena are finally ready to dominate women's
tennis. The summertime hard-court circuit in North America confirmed the
transition at the top, when Venus won at Stanford and San Diego, defeating
Davenport and Seles, and Serena captured Los Angeles, defeating Hingis and
An interesting match-up then took place at Montreal in mid-August, where
Serena's power totally dominated Hingis for one set. Hingis recovered to win
the second set, and Serena retired with a severe foot inflammation early in
the third. The match stats were astonishing--Serena struck ten aces to
Hingis's zero. Serena hit 32 winners to Hingis's 3 (at least two of Hingis's
winners were softies). Meanwhile, Serena committed 33 unforced errors to
Hingis's 9. The data confirmed the role of Serena's power.
True, Hingis still leads in the WTA points standings, but the combined power
and mobility of either Williams seems a level higher than that of Hingis or
Davenport. Venus's ability to move deep into the corner to rip clean backhand
winners against Seles was dazzling. It no longer seems necessary that Venus
and Serena develop stronger net-attack instincts in order to win, though if
this happened their ascendancy would be even more complete.
Lindsay Davenport's poor results this summer may be attributable to back
trouble, but even at her best, Davenport's powerful strokes are only
marginally ahead of, and her mobility is considerably behind, either
sister's. At Montreal, Davenport retired early with left-foot trouble.
Meanwhile, Hingis's magic is surely not gone forever, but it will seldom be
enough against the power of Davenport or either Williams. Pierce and Seles
remain dangerous, but their mobility disadvantage against the sisters is
probably as large as Davenport's. Meanwhile the newer teenagers seem unable
to break out upward.
Which Williams will win the Open? Venus won their insipid head-to-head
meeting at this year's Wimbledon, and during the summer the sisters avoided
competing against each other. The world has not yet seen the sisters play at
their best against each other. If for whatever reason the sisters fail to
produce a series of classic battles in future years, tennis history will be
the serious loser.
Here are the odds:
Venus Williams, 2-1
Serena Williams, 4-1
Pierce, Seles, each 20-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
How the top players respond to recent injuries will be critical.
Hingis (1), Testud (11), Sugiyama, Boogert. The Swiss Miss has reached the
semis or better the last four years. Hingis.
Seles (6), Capriati (15), Nagyova, Schett, Dechy, Rubin. Twice champion,
twice runner-up, and with a strong year to date, Seles clearly is the
favorite here. Capriati is the younger player and had a good Open last year
(though she lost to Seles). A risky pick here. Capriati.
V. Williams (3), Coetzer (13), Serna, Habsudova. A sure thing. Venus Williams.
Tauziat (8), Sanchez Vicario (9), Appelmans, Pitkowski. The marvelous fighter
lost closely to Hingis last year. Sanchez Vicario.
Martinez (7), Van Roost (14), Schnyder, Frazier, Suarez, Dementieva. All the
players named here have a chance. Every tournament has a surprise newcomer. Dementieva.
Pierce (4), Huber (10), Raymond, Dragomir, Stevenson. A favorable seeding and
good draw for Mary, who almost defeated Davenport in last year's quarters.
S. Williams (5), Halard-Decugis (9), Talaja, Dokic. No problem here if
Serena's foot has healed. Serena Williams.
Davenport (2), Kournikova (12), Clijsters, Srebotnik, Zuluaga. In a section
clouded by Davenport's recent injury difficulties, there should be
opportunity for the others. Clijsters.
The predictions now flow easily. The clear favorites--Hingis, Venus, Pierce,
and Serena--should win their quarter-final matches. The sisters should then
win in the semis, thereby setting up an all-Williams final. In contemplating
Venus vs. Serena, the possible condition of Serena's sore foot after two
week's hard-court play becomes a significant consideration. Largely for this
reason, I believe that Venus Williams will prevail to win her first U.S. Open.
Best wishes to all readers for a super Open.
Roddick photo by Ray Bowers. All other photos by Ron Waite.