It's hard amid North American winter to picture summertime at Melbourne Park,
where temperatures sometimes reach brutal heights. The main arena, its court
named for Rod Laver, has a retractable roof that is closed when it rains, and
a second stadium is being opened this year with the same feature. The courts
are made of Rebound Ace, a rubberized material that until last year's Open
produced a relatively slow bounce and, on very hot days, a stickiness to the
feet that sometimes made for injuries. The slowish conditions helped to
equalize matters between the fast-court attackers, who are generally from
Australia, North America, and Britain, and the clay-court, slow-court artists
skilled in defensive and patient play, who are primarily from South America
and continental Europe.
Thus the slow-court players sometimes did well. An extreme year was 1997,
when six of the eight quarter-finalists were recognized clay-court artists
(Costa, Moya, Mantilla, Muster, Chang, and Rios). No Australian male has
reached the final eight since 1996. Perhaps to change this trend or perhaps
to reduce the stickiness, last year a smooth top surfacing was applied. As a
result the bounce was fast, much like that at the U.S. Open. Only two
recognized clay-court specialists reached the final eight (Arazi and El
Aynaoui), while players whose strengths were adaptable to either slow or fast
courts did well. (The finalists were Agassi and Kafelnikov.) Tournament
officials say that the courts this year will be like before, while Agassi and
Sampras after hitting last week, pronounced them about the same as last year,
perhaps a bit slower.
Major-tournament results in recent years show that the best predictors of
Australian Open outcomes are the U.S. Open and the late-year indoor events at
Stuttgart and Paris. These events are relatively close in time to the
Australian and are likewise played on hard surfaces. Not even the previous
year's Australian as closely predicts results at Melbourne Park.
Logical favorites to win this year in Melbourne are the two rising stars who
finished first and second atop the ATP standings for 1999--Gustavo Kuerten and
Marat Safin. Both are powerful servers, and both have incredibly powerful
groundstrokes, forehand and backhand, capable of establishing dominance in
any point. Both men are essentially baseliners, though Kuerten is distinctly
the abler in net play. Both did well in the late-year events of 2000, Safin
playing brilliantly to defeat Sampras in the U.S. Open final and then winning
at Paris. Kuerten overtook Safin in the points race, however, by capturing
the year-ending Masters Cup in Lisbon, defeating Agassi who had defeated
Safin. Safin would probably be the favorite at Melbourne, but recent elbow
trouble, which caused his withdrawal this week from the Colonial Classic,
clouds his chances. I like the variety in Kuerten's game.
The first rank of candidates also includes two veteran Americans, both of
them twice Australian champions. Sampras and Agassi were late-year
semi-finalists at Lisbon (with Kuerten and Safin). Agassi is the defending
champion at Melbourne, and Sampras was a semi-finalist last year. The margin
between them could be the court speed--Sampras's serving and volleying
strengths are most effective on fast courts, while Agassi's relentless
pressure from the baseline is favored by somewhat slower conditions. We note
that our four elite candidates, named above, happen to be the four
Slam-winners of 2000.
Just behind this group is Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who won the Australian in 1999
and was runner-up last year. The Russian star won the Olympics singles in
Sydney last fall over a field including Safin, Kuerten, Hewitt, and Rafter,
but lost to both Agassi and Kuerten at Lisbon. Kafelnikov at 27 is still in
his prime years. His is a varied and balanced game including net skills,
though he lacks the extreme power of Kuerten and Safin in serving and
stroking. In the past, it has been unwise to overlook him because of
undistinguished recent results.
The leading Australians can expect home-nation crowd support. Peppery Lleyton
Hewitt, still just 19, is delaying sinus surgery that should overcome his
recent weakness in stamina. Slowed-down courts will help Hewitt against
extremely powerful opponents having stronger serves than the teenager.
Meanwhile Pat Rafter, despite his brilliance in winning two U.S. Opens, has
never reached the final eight at Melbourne Park. The Queenslander, who at 28
is younger than Agassi or Sampras, is physically large at six-one and 190
pounds, and the athleticism required of his net-attacking style, especially
on hard courts, demands much from his body. He intends to retire from
competition after this year, so this may be his last chance to win his
long-expected championship at Melbourne Park. Power-hitting Australian
Philippoussis will not compete because of recent knee surgery.
Several European stars complete the upper ranks of candidates. Tim Henman's
strong serving and excellent net skills have translated into many match
victories but no major tournament triumphs. Magnus Norman's heavy serving and
relentless pounding from backcourt are remindful of Safin's, and the
sometimes fiery Swede has the stronger mental equipment. Tommy Haas claims
respect for having won the tuneup event at Adelaide this year, defeating
Hewitt in the Aussie's home town. Corretja's absence makes Juan Carlos
Ferrero, recent Davis Cup hero, the leading Spanish entrant. Marcelo Rios,
now married, won the tuneup at Doha.
Here, then, are the odds as I see them.
Kuerten, Sampras, each 6-1
Safin, Hewitt, each 10-1
Ferrero, Henman, Rafter, Rios, each 40-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
Here are the eight sections of the men's draw along with the predictions.
--Kuerten (1), Clement (15), Rusedski, Koubek, Escude, Federer. Last year's
Number One loose as always, entered no tuneups. Still, Kuerten.
--Kafelnikov (5), Ferreira (10), Gambill, Kiefer, Vinciguerra, Medvedev,
Popp. Unquestionably the class here. Kafelnikov.
--Norman (4), Grosjean (16), Chang, Santoro, Gonzalez, Schalken, Johansson.
Many tight battles here. Grosjean.
--Hewitt (7), Squillari (11), Rios, Moya, Haas, Rosset, Schuttler, Bjorkman.
The favorite not likely to slip before home-nation fans. Hewitt.
--Agassi (6), Ferrero (9), Ilie, Zabaleta, Prinosil, Goldstein. If he is at
his best, his punishing shotmaking will win the tournament. Agassi.
--Sampras (3), Pioline (13), Vicente, T. Martin, Chela, Vicente. A perennial
contender due for some good fortune. Martin.
--Henman (8), Rafter (12), Mirnyi, Lapentti, Arazi, Arthurs. Ready to finish
his career in style. Rafter.
--Safin (2), Hrbaty (14), Clavet, Pavel, Bastl, Fromberg. A solid
slow-courter able to exploit the favorite's uncertain elbow. Pavel.
Then Kafelnikov narrowly over Kuerten, Hewitt narrowly over Grosjean, Agassi
comfortably over Martin, and Rafter comfortably over Pavel. Hewitt will
defeat Kafelnikov, Agassi will defeat Rafter, and in the final showdown
Agassi will overcome Hewitt thus repeating as Australian champion.
The new year in women's tennis should be fascinating. Three superstars are
the elites at year's start. Martina Hingis, now 20, won last year's WTA
points race including the late-year indoor events at Zurich and Moscow and
the Chase championship in New York. These recent victories, along with her
4-0 record at Hopman Cup, bode well for success at Melbourne. Last year Venus
Williams, now 20, won Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and the Olympics, though she has
competed little since then. Lindsay Davenport, 24, won the Australian Open
last year, was second to Venus at Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and finished
second to Hingis in the overall points race.
Three other stars provide the next echelon. Monica Seles, 27, a four-time
Australian champion, finished year 2000 strongly, battling Hingis superbly in
the Chase final and joining with Davenport to win the Fed Cup for U.S. Mary
Pierce, champion at Melbourne in 1996 and turning 26 next week, has the
hammering groundstrokes to do contend if the courts are at all slowish. She
has been sidelined since early September by a shoulder injury and lately
complained of ankle soreness, then more recently of vision trouble. Serena
Williams, now 19, had been inactive with a stress-fracture of the foot since
winning the Olympics doubles with Venus. The brilliance seen when she won the
U.S. Open in 1999, could reappear in any event. She lost two close sets to
Hingis in the Sydney tuneup.
All six stars, above, are most comfortable in baseline play. All are
distinctly heavy hitters except perhaps for Hingis, who has been adding power
to her magnificent all-court game. Excluding Hingis, their average height is
just under six feet and average weight is 157. Hingis is smaller but scarcely
tiny at five-seven and 130 pounds. Power and size seem clearly the trend at
the highest levels in women's tennis.
Nearly as tall and strong are three rising stars of 2000, all heavy hitters
and all seemingly closing rapidly on the leaders. Elena Dementieva, 20, born
in Moscow, finished last year solidly, reaching the semis of U.S. Open and
defeating Davenport in the first round of the Chase. Kim Clijsters, 17,
carried Belgium to the Fed Cup semis where she lost a three-setter to
Davenport. Jelena Dokic, 17, reached the semis at Wimbledon, and achieved a
3-0 singles record in Australia's failed Fed Cup quest. Early in 2001, Dokic
defeated Dementieva and Kournikova to win in Hong Kong. Whether one of these
new faces can move into the top echelons adds zest to the new year and the
Open. Meanwhile, her early play in 2001 propels 18-year-old Justine Henin of
Belgium into the same group. Henin won the Open tuneup event in Gold Coast
and has now reached the semis at Canberra.
Indications should also emerge on the future of several more-familiar stars,
again all of them big hitters. Jennifer Capriati, still just 24, was twice a
quarter-finalist at Melbourne back in 1992 and 1993, and indeed reached the
semis last year. Amelie Mauresmo, now 21, won world attention by reaching the
final at Melbourne Park two years ago. Since then, her career has been held
back by injuries. In defeating Seles at Sydney last week she experienced
renewed back pain, and she subsequently withdrew from the event. Finally,
Anna Kournikova, 19, finished the year with a runner-up finish in the Tier
One tournament at Moscow and reached the final four in the Chase. Can these
fine players realize the promise they once displayed?
Here are the odds for capturing the Open.
Hingis, Venus Williams, each 4-1
Serena Williams, 10-1
Clijsters, Dementieva, Dokic, Henin, Mauresmo, Capriati, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
--Hingis (1), Frazier (16), Schnyder, Panova, Callens. Far too solid for this
--Serena Williams (6), Dementieva (9), Bedanova, Maleeva, Carlsson. Ready now
for top billing. Dementieva.
--Venus Williams (3), Mauresmo (13), Shaughnessy, Chladkova, Habsudova.
Mauresmo's bad back is a concern. Venus.
--Pierce (7), Coetzer (10), Talaja, Raymond, Dechy, Molik. Too many troubles
for the favorite. Raymond.
--Martinez (5), Capriati (12), Morariu, Gagliardi, Oremans. Power over style.
--Seles (4), Testud (14), Henin, Serna, Sidot. A classic fourth-round meeting
with Henin. Seles.
--Kournikova (8), Rubin (11), Likhovsteva, Dragomir. The veteran has a good
--Davenport (2), Clijsters (15), Dokic, Black, Asagoe, Kruger. Serious
trouble here for the champion. If she survives this far, she should win the
The four high seeds--Hingis, Venus, Seles, and Davenport--should reach the
semis. Then Hingis over Venus, Davenport over Seles. Finally, Davenport will
repeat as Open champion over a wearied Hingis.
THE CHAMPION NATION
Which nation's contingent is likely to do best at Melbourne Park? (We measure
this mythical competition by counting match wins starting in the third round,
in singles, doubles, and mixed.)
Among the men, home-nation Australia will be strong especially in the
doubles, but Philippoussis and newly retired Woodforde will be missed.
Meanwhile, Agassi and Sampras promise many wins for the United States in
singles. The French, who usually prepare for Australia at a common site, have
good depth with Clement, Pioline, Grosjean, Escude, Santoro, and others. If
all matches were counted starting with round one, France's chances would
improve. Sweden will lack Enqvist. Spain and Russia will also bid to be top
nation of Eurasia. The clear choice is the U. S., both among the men and,
more comfortably, among the women, with Russia second in the combined.
Best wishes to Tennis Server readers for a great two weeks of tennis
watching. Fans in North America should store up some sleep.