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Between The Lines
May 25, 2001 Article

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Roland Garros Preview 2001

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Ray Bowers

The armada from Spain led all tennis nations a year ago in the men's singles at Garros. Ten different Spanish players contributed at least one win in the main draw, and their successes added up to 20 singles victories. Juan Carlos Ferrero was the leader, reaching the semis with 5 match wins, followed by veterans Costa and Corretja, each with 4. Not far behind Spain in total singles wins was the contingent from Argentina, where ten different winners notched a total of 16 matches, including 5 by Squillari. (The overall men's crown went to the Australians, however, because of superior performance in doubles by the Woodys and others.)

Again this year Spain's singles depth assures strong representation in the late rounds. Ferrero, now 21, won clay-court championships this spring at Estoril, Barcelona, and Rome, and clearly is now the armada's prime performer. Ferrero was hero of Spain's Davis Cup triumph last year when he defeated both Rafter and Hewitt. He wields a powerful, accurate, and consistent forehand capable of seizing dominance amid any point, allowing him to play aggressively on the baseline and occasionally approach net. His recent five-set ordeals in consecutive finals of the Italian and German Opens raise concern, and indeed a groin injury required him to miss the final tuneup event in Dusseldorf. Meanwhile Albert Portas, who conquered Ferrero at Hamburg, has shown fine results all spring and should also contend strongly at Garros. Portas's power-and-topspin game is complemented by his skill in hitting short angles, drop shots, and their sequences--especially valuable assets in long matches as competitors tire.

The Spanish talent seems endless. Former Garros champion (1998) Carlos Moya and Felix Mantilla are showing signs of regaining former heights. Vicente won three matches at Garros last year before bowing to Kafelnikov in five sets. Just this month, Albert Martin won the tournament in Mallorca, and Diaz upset Kafelnikov at Hamburg. Balcells is rising. Costa and Corretja will be back.

Closest to Spain in singles depth are Argentina and the host nation, France. The array of Argentine stars is led by Squillari, Gaudio, and teenaged Coria. Two rising French performers--Clement and Grosjean--reached the semis at Australian Open this year, while Jerome Golmard seems on the brink of similar success, having reached the final of the U.S. Clay in Houston in early May. French veterans Pioline, Dupuis, and Santoro should score, while Escude has been close to breaking out upward for years. Though the odds are very long that any of the above individuals will win the tournament, clearly several could reach the late rounds.

Sweden, too, has a wide array of talent, including prime prospect Vinciguerra, 20, and last year's Garros runner-up Magnus Norman. Norman shows a series of losses recently, but he has the physical tools to win the tournament. Meanwhile Russia offers two superstars--Kafelnikov is a multi-talented former Garros champion (1996), and heavy-hitting Safin was last year's winner at U.S. Open and runner-up in the year's points race. Both men reached the final eight at Garros last year. Kafelnikov lost to eventual champion Kuerten in five sets, Safin to runner-up Norman in four. Neither shows significant triumphs in 2001, though both were doing well at mid-week in Dusseldorf.

Meanwhile Andre Agassi, now 31, keeps getting better. He won the Australian Open this January, and then took the tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, thus sweeping the three big events of the early year. But clay is not his best surface, and he started the current clay season poorly, bowing out early in Atlanta, Rome, and Hamburg. Still, he was champion at Garros two years ago, becoming only the fifth man in tennis history to win all four Slams at least once. Agassi's superior conditioning gives him a huge asset in the lengthy points, games, and matches common on clay.

Otherwise, U.S. chances seem weak. Todd Martin, Michael Chang, and Mike Gambill seem unlikely to survive more than one or two matches against the likes of the armada. Sampras revealed his seriousness of purpose by entering the Italian and German Opens along with the final clay tuneup at Dusseldorf. Pete lost most of his outings, but he showed clear progress including wins over Squillari and Grosjean. An exciting newcomer is teen-aged Andy Roddick, whose serving and volleying skills seem best suited to fast courts but who recently captured clay events in Atlanta and Houston, the latter on red clay imported from Europe. Most impressive were Roddick's second serve, which seemed to explode upward and accelerate off the clay-court bounce, along with his ability to hold down errors both in patient baseline exchanges and also in delivering high-energy attacking shots to the corners. He is also quite athletic in close-in cat-and-mouse exchanges. The top Spanish and Argentine players did not compete in these events, but Roddick defeated several very fine European artists on their preferred surface. Last summer I watched him overcome several top-100 European players on slowish hard courts in Washington. It is clear that Roddick, who is already close to matching Sampras in serving and volleying ability, is also a serious contender on clay. This will be his first appearance at Garros. Being unseeded, he will probably meet seeded opponents early.

The Australian lineup in singles is, as always, interesting. Mark Philippoussis is sidelined following knee re-surgery, and Pat Rafter has not yet reached former heights following elbow surgery. Lleyton Hewitt remains a strong candidate to win the tournament. He reached the recent semis at Hamburg where he competed well against Portas. Hewitt is probably still improving, and his experience with the footing and the bounces on clay is surely improving. His typically flattish ground strokes argue against his chances, while his limitations in physical size and his past stamina problems will be tested.

One other superstar, not discussed above, stands out as prime favorite to win the individual championship.

Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, 24, Garros champion in 1997 and again last year, offers superior power in serving and from both sides. Guga's lanky, relaxed frame generates endless rocketry difficult for any opponent to withstand. He is capable of patient baseline play, though he sometimes whips unexpected winners from back court. He moves easily over the court, and operates in forecourt with sophisticated aggressiveness and touch. Kuerten ended 2000 by winning the Masters Cup in Lisbon, defeating Sampras and Agassi in six consecutive sets. He thus finished the year atop the ATP point standings, ending an eight-year run by Americans (Agassi, Sampras, and Courier). This spring, he triumphed on clay at Monte Carlo and reached the final at Rome, where he lost to Ferrero in five sets. His unexpected first-round loss in the German should translate into a valuable period of rest in preparation for Garros.

Other clay artists highly capable of reaching the late rounds are Pavel of Romania, Medvedev of Ukraine, and Lapentti of Ecuador.

Which contingent will win the unofficial nation's crown? It seems to me that Spain's depth in singles will provide enough victories to outweigh excellent runs by Hewitt and possibly Rafter along with traditional Australian strength in doubles.

Here are the odds as I see them to win the men's singles:

Kuerten, 3-1
Ferrero, 6-1
Agassi, 8-1
Hewitt, 15-1
Kafelnikov, 20-1
Norman, Corretja, each 30-1
Grosjean, Safin, Sampras, Rafter, each 45-1
all others, 50-1 or longer

THE PREDICTIONS

We look at the eight sections of the main draw:

Kuerten (1), Gambill (15), Malisse, Coria, Calleri, Levy. Kuerten starts against Coria but if he survives the teenager his path seems clear. Kuerten.

Kafelnikov (7), Clement (12), Gaudio, Puerta, T. Martin, Hrbaty. It's hard to pass on Kafelnikov but Clement defeated him comfortably last week. Clement.

Ferrero (4), Enqvist (14), Pavel, Ilie, Koubek, Novak, Gustafsson. Pavel is Ferrero's most dangerous threat here. Ferrero.

Hewitt (6), Henman (11), Chang, Roddick, Bjorkman, Canas. Hewitt meets young Roddick before facing Henman, but he should make it through here. Hewitt.

Sampras (5), Grosjean (10), Medvedev. Escude, Haas, Blanco. A good draw for Sampras. Escude is close to Grosjean and may be ahead on clay. Escude.

Agassi (3), Squillari (16), A. Costa, Lapentti, Vinciguerra, Boutter. The road is not easy but Agassi should prevail. Agassi.

Rafter (8), Norman (9), Rios, Federer, Moya, Kiefer, Balcells. The Swedish star has the weaponry and determination. Norman.

Safin (2), Corretja (13), Santoro, Arazi, Vicente, Zabaleta, Portas. Lots of clay-court talent here, dooming Safin. Portas has too much firepower for crafty Corretja. Portas.

The quarter-finals will be interesting. I pick Kuerten over Clement, Hewitt over a less-than-healthy Ferrero, Agassi over Escude, and Portas over Norman. Next, Kuerten and Agassi will win their semi-final matches. Finally, Kuerten will win the tournament, defeating Agassi in a classic final.

THE WOMEN'S SINGLES

During the four years prior to 2001, four women held a near-monopoly in the winning of Slams other than at Garros. Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, and the Williams sisters captured 11 of the 12 Australian Opens, Wimbledons, and U.S. Opens during the period. (Only Novotna's thrilling Wimbledon triumph in 1998 broke the pattern.)

But no member of the aforementioned Big Four has yet captured Roland Garros.

Perhaps it is that physically large and powerful players like Venus and Davenport find court mobility more difficult on clay, even as the effect of their own big serves and ground strokes are reduced by the relatively slow bounce. Still, the group's dominance elsewhere makes their lack of success at Garros surprising, especially given our observations last month that clay-court and fast-court results in top women's tennis are less divergent than among the men.

We nevertheless count the Big Four among the prime candidates to win at Garros, albeit cautiously. All four are young, and all when healthy still play at their career bests. Hingis currently stands atop the running 12-month WTA rankings, while Venus and Davenport are second and third, respectively. Serena is farther back, having been sidelined last fall with a stress fracture in the right foot and now with a nagging knee injury.

Jennifer Capriati's convincing victory in the Australian Open this year, defeating Davenport and Hingis, announced that the Big Four were now the Big Five. An interesting succession of head-to-head meetings on hard courts then ensued among the Five. Davenport won the Pan-Pacific in Tokyo and the tournament at Scottsdale. Serena captured Indian Wells, Venus the Ericsson. Marring this superb stretch of competition was Venus's controversial withdrawal from Indian Wells just before a semi-final meeting with Serena.

The Five then became Six. Strong-hitting Amelie Mauresmo, who extended Venus to three sets at Melbourne Park, then captured hard-court indoor events in Paris and Nice. She skipped Indian Wells and the Ericsson in Miami to prepare for the clay-court tournaments to come, and then won the green-clay tournament at Amelia Island, Florida. Mauresmo faltered to Hingis the following week at Charleston, where Capriati won the event.

Mauresmo, Capriati, and Hingis competed in the clay-court German and Italian Opens. Mauresmo defeated Hingis in both events, defeated Capriati in the Berlin final, and lost to teenager Jelena Dokic in the final at Rome. In winning over Capriati, Mauresmo showed the greater variety in shot-making, including superior use of heavy topspin off both sides as well as in use of angled shots. Dokic's win was unexpected, but her overall 10-2 record on European clay this month argues that her relative inexperience on that surface is fast ending.

There is little recent evidence to help in assessing the chances of Davenport and the Williamses at Garros. All three have knee troubles. Neither Serena nor Davenport have yet competed on clay this year, and ultimate success at Garros seems unlikely in both cases. Venus Williams comfortably won the clay-court Barclay Cup event in Germany, achieving a one-sided score against Dokic, but then lost early in Berlin and missed the Italian because of her knee. But even if she is slowed by injury, Venus's talent and physical strength place her among the tournament favorites.

Several other stars merit note, though their chances of capturing Garros seem small. The Spanish veterans Sanchez-Vicario and Martinez have been competing effectively this spring. Sanchez-Vicario is a three-time Garros champion, and Martinez was runner-up last year. Justine Henin defeated Venus at Berlin before retiring against Capriati with a leg injury. Mary Pierce and Monica Seles are out. Anke Huber missed the early clay season with wrist trouble.

In our mythical team competition the U.S. women should comfortably prevail, claiming four Big Six members. Spain and France should also score well.

Here are the singles odds:

Capriati, Mauresmo, each 4-1
Venus Williams, 5-1
Hingis, 7-1
Serena Williams, 20-1
Sanchez-Vicario, 25-1
Davenport, 30-1
Dokic, Huber, Seles, Martinez, Henin, each 45-1
all others, 50-1 or longer

THE PREDICTIONS

Hingis (1), Maleeva (13), Leon Garcia, Dominikovic. Smooth sailing for the Swiss Miss. Hingis.

C. Martinez (8), Coetzer (10), Sidot, Montolio, Boogert, Ruano Pascual. Coetzer on clay should defend her seed and go one better. Coetzer.

Capriati (4), Shaughnessy (16), Garbin, Weingartner, Tu. Shaughnessy has been climbing rapidly, but Capriati has all the weapons. Capriati.

S. Williams (6), Sanchez-Vicario (11), Frazier, Serna, Pitkowski. Serena is doomed by inadequate recent clay-court competition. Sanchez-Vicario.

Dementieva (7), Clijsters (12), Dechy, Nagyova, Marrero, Kruger. Dementieva is returning from foot injury, and Clijsters is not yet a threat on clay. The opening is there for Dechy.

Davenport (3), Dokic (15), Sugiyama, Majoli, Grande, de los Rios. The showdown between Davenport and Dokic could be memorable. Dokic.

Mauresmo (5), Tauziat (9), Chladkova, Farina Elia, Kuti Kis. Not an easy road here for Mauresmo, but she should come through. Mauresmo.

V. Williams (2), Henin (14), Schett, Suarez, Testud, Talaja, Huber. Nothing easy here for Venus starting with formidable Schett. Nor is Henin certain to advance over Huber. The clear choice must be Venus. Williams.

In the quarters, Hingis should win over Coetzer, Capriati over Sanchez-Vicario, Dokic over Dechy, and, in our only surprise, Mauresmo over Williams. Then in the semis, Capriati will be too strong for Hingis, and Mauresmo too solid for Dokic. Mauresmo will then win the tournament by defeating Capriati.

Finally, as to the unofficial competition among the tennis nations, we choose Spain to capture the men's crown, the U.S. to win the women's, and Spain, narrowly over France, to achieve the highest men's and women's combined score.

Warm wishes to tennis watchers worldwide for a splendid Garros.

--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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