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Between The Lines
January 12, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australian Preview 2001

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Ray Bowers

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.

Agassi, 4-1
Kuerten, Sampras, each 6-1
Safin, Hewitt, each 10-1
Kafelnikov, 15-1
Norman, 20-1
Ferrero, Henman, Rafter, Rios, each 40-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

PREDICTIONS

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 WOMEN

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.

Davenport, 3-1
Hingis, Venus Williams, each 4-1
Serena Williams, 10-1
Seles, 20-1
Pierce, 30-1
Clijsters, Dementieva, Dokic, Henin, Mauresmo, Capriati, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

PREDICTIONS

--Hingis (1), Frazier (16), Schnyder, Panova, Callens. Far too solid for this group. Hingis.

--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. Capriati.

--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 draw. Rubin.

--Davenport (2), Clijsters (15), Dokic, Black, Asagoe, Kruger. Serious trouble here for the champion. If she survives this far, she should win the tournament. Davenport.

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.

--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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