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Between The Lines
June 20, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Wimbledon Preview 2001

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Ray Bowers

Decades ago, tennis on grass meant pure serve-and-volley tactics for nearly all male pros. Getting to the net early and often was correctly seen as the key to winning. Because three of the four Slams were held on grass courts, young players especially in Australia and the U.S. learned to excel in the net-attacking game. Grass gave a skidding, fast, and irregular bounce, turning ordinary serves into difficult ones and plaguing baseliners. The singles game was thus a struggle for command of net. If one player lagged in coming forward, his opponent would promptly do so.

Grass has not changed, and the net remains a good place to be. Wimbledon watchers will see players moving forward more boldly than on other surfaces. But by no means will we see net-rushing to the extent practiced in former times.

Some players, perhaps a majority of the men, will charge forward behind their first serves. But only a few will come in behind their second serves. Many of today's warriors are comfortable staying back and relying on their wonderful mobility and firepower. Indeed, some points, games, and even matches will be played mainly from back court.

The back-courters are favored by improved racquet designs that help the serve-returner and groundstroker. Some of them will surely win successive matches in the early rounds at Wimbledon. But by and large it will be the net attackers, especially among the men, who will be the survivors late the second week. Grass still favors the bold, though the margin is smaller than in the past.

THE MEN'S SINGLES

For our prelude we look to the last two Wimbledons. Pete Sampras in 1999 and 2000 captured his third and fourth consecutive Wimbledon championships, making a career total of seven. His final opponent in 1999 was Andre Agassi, who defeated Pat Rafter in their semi. His final opponent in 2000 was Pat Rafter, who defeated Agassi in a five-set semi before losing to Pete in five. These three superstars--Sampras, Rafter and Agassi--are our prime favorites this year.

Sampras is probably history's finest server for grass-court tennis. His first serve is devastating in its velocity, deception, and accuracy, and his second is equally energetic and almost as forcing, with powerful overspin. On grass, he follows nearly every first and second serve to the net where his athleticism, strength of arm and shoulder, and superb eye and hand for volleying can be dominating. His crushing overhead approaches perfection. Consistency in back court is not his strength, but he is capable of scorching service returns and groundstrokes, which he seems to unleash in bunches to create service breaks. If Pete's dominance has been fading elsewhere, at Wimbledon he remains close to unbeatable.

But Sampras has been less than formidable in early 2001. He lost a fourth-round meeting to Todd Martin in Australia, skipped Davis Cup in February. He reached the final at Indian Wells, where he lost to Agassi, and was then upset by Andy Roddick at Key Biscayne. His clay record in Europe was dismal. But on grass at Queen's he won his first three matches without losing a set, giving the impression that his Wimbledon preparation was on track.

Last year's runner-up, Pat Rafter, seems the strongest obstacle to another Sampras triumph. Rafter electrified the tennis world in capturing the U.S. Open in 1997 and 1998 behind an all-out net-rushing game of a kind rarely seen nowadays. Since then, his aspirations have been spoiled by his physical problems, including long-lasting shoulder and now elbow trouble.

At 6-1 and 190 pounds, Rafter is a large player, and he blankets the net with imposing presence and superb athleticism. His serve has good velocity but is primarily designed for placement and spin to set up Rafter's volleying game. His baseline skills are adequate, including an ability to attack behind a heavily undersliced backhand. Like Sampras, he periodically moves to net behind his serve return. Last year, he won the grass tune-up at 's-Hertogenbosch--the Heineken Trophy--prior to his six match wins at Wimbledon. This year, showing his resolve, he played in both weeks of this year's pre-Wimbledon grass season, winning three matches at Halle but losing in the first round of the Heineken to net-attacker Peter Wessels. It is becoming clear that Rafter's competitive days are numbered, but his chances seem good for 2001 Wimbledon. I like his style of play and his unfailing sense of purpose.

Our third favorite, Andre Agassi, is an erstwhile pounder of the ball on the rise, a tactic that seems not well suited to grass. But Agassi adds other assets, which he skillfully adapts to the grass-court game. His serve is firm, and he mixes in sidespin and good placement to exploit the grass-court skid. Meanwhile he is sometimes called the best serve-returner in the game--an important advantage on a surface where serve-returning can be critical. His candidacy this year rests on his Wimbledon performance in the past two years as well as on his success in winning the first three big tournaments of 2001--Australia, Indian Wells, and the Ericsson. His clay-court season this year was disappointing, however, and he did not enter the Wimbledon tune-ups.

Two British stars have grass-court credentials almost as solid. Tim Henman reached the Wimbledon semis in both 1998 and 1999, both times losing to Sampras in four sets. He is the last outsider to have defeated at Wimbledon one of our three elites, having beaten Rafter there in 1998. Henman is a firm server, a skilled and aggressive net-attacker, and a more-than-adequate serve-returner and backcourter--i.e., a strong grass-court player. At age 26, Henman should be reaching his prime. He can expect strong crowd support. Meanwhile the transplanted Canadian, Greg Rusedski, has an extremely fast left-handed serve, often sliced, along with good volleying skills. If he is at his best physically, there is no-one he cannot defeat on grass, including Sampras, though their past head-to-head record firmly favors Pete. Rusedski won three matches on grass at Queen's before bowing to Hewitt, then played at the Heineken, winning over Gambill in his first match.

Australia's cast after Rafter is also interesting. Lleyton Hewitt won Queen's last year, defeating Sampras, and won again this year, defeating Rusedski, Sampras, and Henman. He also played at Nottingham, winning his opening match comfortably. Hewitt's game rests on quickness, superb shot-making, and a more than adequate serve. His strengths are remindful of Bjorn Borg's, whose ordinary serve took strength at Wimbledon and whose quickness allowed him to overcome the difficulties in returning on grass. Meanwhile left-handed Wayne Arthurs will deliver a very fast, sliced serve that is extremely effective on grass. (He won 111 consecutive serving games at Wimbledon 1999 before bowing to Agassi.) Since then, his results have improved on all surfaces. . He won two matches at Queen's this year before losing to Henman in a third-set tiebreaker, then won his opening match at Nottingham.

U.S. members of the second tier--Todd Martin, Mike Gambill, and Andy Roddick--all have potentially dominating serves, making them plausible challengers at Wimbledon. Of the three, Martin's superior experience and height put him above the others. In last year's Wimbledon, Todd lost to Agassi in five, while Gambill lost in the quarters to Sampras in four competitive sets. Though Roddick's potential is obvious, his inexperience in returning serve on grass seems an insurmountable weakness this year.

Other members of the second and third tiers include Kafelnikov, who also started well on grass this year, winning his first three matches at Halle. The Russian star's athleticism and shot-making skills suggest that he should do better at Wimbledon than he has in the past. The taller Russian Safin is working to recover from elbow and back ailments and to dispel a disappointing record since his U.S. Open triumph last year. Sweden's Thomas Johansson is a heavy hitter who won the grass tune-up at Halle this year, defeating Kafelnikov in a semi. (He has never lost to the Russian.) Roger Federer, 19, showed in Davis Cup against the U.S. an ability to produce solid, aggressive tennis on a big occasion. He played Rafter to a near-standoff at Halle, losing in a third-set tiebreaker. David Prinosil, a natural net attacker, lost closely to Federer at Halle. Vladimir Voltschkov was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year. Fabrice Santoro, whose shot-making magic makes for attractive matches, can defeat big hitters but is not a threat to win seven times.

Absent will be Philippoussis, Krajicek, Kuerten, Corretja, Rios, and perhaps other clay stars.

Here are what seem proper odds to win the men's singles crown. Note that the odds given here are generally longer than those suggested in other tennis magazines, where the stated values do not approximate an overall probability of 1.0.

Sampras, 2-1
Rafter, 4-1
Agassi, 10-1
Hewitt, 12-1
Henman, Rusedski, each 20-1
Safin, Martin, Federer, each 40-1
all others, 50-1 or longer

PREDICTIONS

Here are the eight sections of the main draw as first announced. If some players withdraw prior to start of play in protest of the seeding method, as has been threatened, there will be changes. The 32 seeds were awarded on the basis of 12-month player rankings modified to give weight to past performances on grass. We identify only the top eight seeds.

Sampras (1), Federer, Norman, Lapentti, Clavet, Chang, Malisse
Henman (6), Gambill, T. Martin, Schalken, Bjorkman, Novak
Safin (4), Clement, Hrbaty, Portas, Prinosil
Ferrero (8), Johansson, Moya, Rusedski, Ivanisevic, Roddick, B. Black
Kafelnikov (7), Enqvist, Haas, Gaudio, Kucera, Canas
Rafter (3), Voltschkov, Santoro, Arazi, Arthurs, Mirnyi
Hewitt (5), Grosjean, Escude, Squillari, Vinciguerra
Agassi (2), W. Ferreira, Kiefer, Coria, Siemerink, Meligeni, Pioline

As always, I choose at least four cases where in my opinion the highest seed in a section will fail to reach the final eight. I believe Sampras, Henman, Rafter, and Hewitt will defend their positions. I then choose the net-rusher Prinosil to displace Safin, Rusedski to displace Ferrero, Enqvist to displace Kafelnikov, and Pioline to displace Agassi.

In the quarters, I pick Sampras over Henman, Rusedski over Prinosil, Rafter over Enqvist, and Hewitt over Pioline. Sampras will defeat Rusedski in the semis, and Rafter will defeat Hewitt. Then, repeating the match-up in last year's final, Sampras will again prevail over Rafter.

Sampras has won the tournament in seven of the last eight years. But choosing him is no sure thing, as the great Pete is clearly wearing. But he remains the finest grass-court player in tennis history, and as long as that magnificent serve is still in his arsenal, it will be difficult to deny him the crown.

THE WOMEN'S SINGLES

Still with us are Hingis, Davenport, and the Williams sisters--the big four of women's tennis in recent years, who almost never lose to outsiders. That their domination is changing, however, has been evident since the start of 2001. Partly explaining the change are injuries that have troubled Davenport and the Williamses. But we are also seeing the rise of several newer stars, all of whom are physically strong and able to drive the ball with consistency and exceptional power. All are heavy hitters and good movers able to slug from the corners with Davenport and the Williamses. Meanwhile Martina Hingis--still the world's number one--continues to play well and often defeat the others, but it is difficult for her to win events where she must meet two or more of them in succession. All the prime contenders are baseliners who can sometimes finish points at net. None has made the commitment to become a relentless attacker of net--the dimension that one day could allow one of them to produce repeated Wimbledon championships.

The foremost intruder to the elite has been Jennifer Capriati, winner of this year's Australian and French Opens. Capriati is very strong in the areas demanded in the modern game--in shot-making and serving power, consistency, mobility, stamina, and determination. At age 25, a sweep of the four Slams, or Grand Slam, is plausible for her this year. This will be her eighth Wimbledon, where her career record is 21 -7, so grass is scarcely new for her. Last year she lost in straight sets to the defending champion, Lindsay Davenport, who went on to reach the final.

This will be the third Wimbledon for big-hitting Amelie Mauresmo, 21, who has shown little success there to date. This year, Mauresmo defeated first Hingis then Capriati to win the German Open in May, then reached the final at the Italian. But she lost, inexplicably, in the first round at Garros. The heavy topspin at which Mauresmo excels will be of limited value on grass. But if Mauresmo succeeds in reaching the second week, the wearing-down of the grass could improve her chances.

In her first match at Wimbledon, in 1999, Jelena Dokic, then just 16, upset a an unsettled Hingis enroute to reaching the quarter-finals. Then last year Dokic reached the semis, losing to Davenport. This year, she won the Italian Open, defeating Mauresmo, then lost in the third round at the French.

The Belgian stars Clijsters, 18, and Henin, 19, surprised the world when both reached the semis at Garros this spring. Clijsters won their head-to-head semi, coming from behind. Two days later, Clijsters met Capriati in the tournament final, where she lost to the American 12-10 in the third set. Although she is younger than Henin, Clijsters is the better known, having at age 16 won three qualifying and three main-draw matches at 1999 Wimbledon, upsertting Coetzer. A few weeks later at U.S. Open, she led eventual champion Serena Williams by 5-3 in the third set. Last year at Wimbledon she defeated net artist Tauziat, and at the U.S. carried eventual runner-up Davenport to three sets. Henin, who is inexperienced at Wimbledon, has a game that is both elegant and powerful, including a fine one-hander backhand.

Several stars will be particularly interesting to watch, though their chances of winning the championship are small. Probably the closest thing to a true net artist among the top women is French star Nathalie Tauziat. Tauziat, 33, has been talking of retirement. She lost to Clijsters in the first round last year, after ten consecutive years reaching at least the third round. She won the tournament this spring on grass at Birmingham.

Missing with injuries will be Mary Pierce, Monica Seles, and Anna Kournikova. American Stevenson and Croatian Lucic, 19, were among the unusual group of young players who made a mark at Wimbledon 1999. Lucic is already out this year, having lost in the first round of the qualifying.

Here are the odds:

Capriati, 2-1
Venus Williams, 4-1
Hingis, 7-1
Clijsters, 12-1
Dokic, Davenport, each 20-1
Mauresmo, Serena Williams, each 25-1
Henin, 40-1
all others, 50-1 or longer

PREDICTIONS

Here are the eight sections of the main draw:

Hingis (1), Sanchez Vicario, Martinez, Rubin.
Henin (8), Dementieva, Huber, Raymond
Capriati (4), Testud, Suarez, Panova, Sugiyama
Serena Williams (5), Maleeva, Frazier, Kremer, Bovina, Brandi
Clijsters (7), Coetzer, Shaughnessy, Grande
Davenport (3), Dokic, Schett, Schnyder, Molik
Mauresmo (6), Tauziat, Tanasugarn, Nagyova, Black
Venus Williams (2), Farina Elia, Serna, Likhovsteva, Plischke, Stevenson

Of the top eight seeds, Henin, Serena, Davenport, and Mauresmo in my opinion will fail to reach the quarters--Henin because of her inexperience, Serena because of her injuries and inexperience on grass, Davenport because of her injuries and disappointing year to date, and Mauresmo because of her dismal outcome at Garros. Thus I choose Raymond to prevail in her section over Henin, Frazier over Serena, Dokic over Davenport, and Tauziat over Mauresmo. All will lose in the semis to the higher-seeded players--Hingis, Capriati, Clijsters, and Venus. In the semis, Capriati should overcome Hingis, Clijsters should defeat Venus. An unusual repeat of the Garros final will ensue, except that Clijsters will this time prevail over Capriati, ending the latter's bid for a Grand Slam.

In our mythical competition between nations, the Australians should lead on the men's side, scoring well in the doubles. The U.S. should win one-sidedly among the women, by sufficient margin to prevail also in the combined men's + women's.

The doubles draw was posted unusually early. Top seeded Bjorkman-Woodbridge seem clearly the class among the men. I also admire former champions (1999) Bhupathi-Paes. The heavy hitting of the defending champion Williams sisters should bring them another triumph.

Good wishes to tennis people worldwide for a wonderful Wimbledon.

--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.

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