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Between The Lines
April 1, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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High Achievers on the Clay

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Ray Bowers

If moon-ball tactics are largely absent in modern clay-court tennis, the back court remains the preferred place to be--a launch pad for power-laden forehands and backhands. To present one's opponent with a softish or shortish offering risks surrendering dominance probably for the rest of the point. Heavy ground-strokes off both sides are thus required among the pros, whether attacking, defending, or in a position of neutrality. Also needed is excellent court mobility--to reach the opponent's rockets and obtain body position to reply with equivalent heat. A strong serve, too, is important, to produce errors and weak replies from opponent and deny them the initiative.

But clay-court tennis at the pro level is not purely a power contest. The characteristically slow and low bounce seen on clay helps the clay-court artist in delivering overspin lobs, angled low shots, and droppers--weapons for moving the opponent about and creating openings. Variety can be the key to engineering points which culminate in the coup from forecourt. Such artistry produces a kind of tennis thoroughly delightful to the watcher.

The European clay season opens in mid-April at Estoril (Portugal) and Casablanca. Then come tournaments at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Mallorca, and Munich, leading into the Italian, the German, and the French Opens, ending in June. (A few European clay events are also held in the weeks after Wimbledon and after the U.S. Open.)

Players from continental Europe and South America learn the slow-court game from youth and are typically the world's best at it. (Players from North America, Australia, Britain and South Africa generally learn on hard courts and rely to a greater extent on their volleying and serving abilities.)

Here, we seek to identify the 16 warriors whose performances on clay in recent times make them the prime contenders in the circuit just ahead. We start with last year's clay-court Top Eight, as determined by results at last year's Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens (Masters' series events), and the French Open. These are the clay-court events that are entered by virtually all the top pros.

  1. Kuerten (won French and German)
  2. Norman (won Italian)
  3. Pioline (won Monte Carlo)
  4. Ferrero
  5. Corretja
  6. Safin
  7. Squillari
  8. Hrbaty

We next add the winners of the recent clay-court circuit in South America and Mexico--four tournaments that ended in early March. Vicente of Spain won at Bogota (Colombia) and Coria of Argentina, 19, won at Vina del Mar (Chile). Kuerten won at Buenos Aires and Acapulco. Kuerten is already on our list, and we now add Vicente and Coria.

Guillermo Coria.
Guillermo Coria.

Coria's youth calls for a closer comment. I watched him closely last summer in a three-set duel with the German star Nicolas Kiefer on a slowish hard court in Washington. A baseliner, Coria, then just 18, took an early lead by virtue of Kiefer's errors and served out the first set at 5-4 by delivering four consecutive first serves, none of which were returned by the German. I wrote in my notebook that Coria plays basically defensively, hitting firmly but not overpoweringly. He moves very well and hits regularly toward the corners, I noted. After set one, Kiefer picked up his game and eventually comfortably defeated the teenager. During the three sets, Coria must have tried 8-10 droppers, all of which found the net. Kiefer then went on to defeat Manta and Gambill before losing in the semis to tournament-winner Correja. I noted mentally that Coria was one to watch for.

We next look at several proven winners in big-time clay events. Agassi, Kafelnikov, Moya, and Chang are former French Open champions, and Rios, Costa, Medvedev, and Sampras have won at least one clay-court Masters' event. (Pete won the Italian in 1994.) The player who has won the most such victories, perhaps surprisingly, is Medvedev, still only 26, who has won three German Opens and one Monte Carlo and was also a finalist in the French. We choose four of these stars for our prime list--Agassi and Kafelnikov, both of whom rank very high in current rankings on all surfaces, along with Medvedev and Moya. The Spanish player is gradually returning to contention after injuries.

Two places remain, and we find our choices in the recent tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. From Indian Wells, where the hard courts are on the slowish side, we choose Lleyton Hewitt. The Aussie reached the final four by defeating clay-court stars Costa, Ulihrach, and Escude, and then became victim to Agassi in split sets. (In the final, Agassi defeated Sampras in three straight sets.) Finally, from the Ericsson in Miami, we pick Gaston Gaudio, 22, who there defeated both Kafelnikov and Ferrero and last year reached the semis at Monte Carlo.

All of our sixteen clay elites are from South America or Europe except for Agassi and Hewitt. (Four are from Spain and three from Argentina.) A majority are six-footers, including Safin and Medvedev at 6-4. The median age is 24; the oldest is Pioline at 31, the youngest Coria, 19.

Thus, behold our 16 nominees. But be wary, especially of the host of Argentine and Spanish players virtually co-equal with their better-known countrymen named here.

Who will break out of the pack this season to thrill tennis fandom everywhere?

--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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