A good predictor of outcomes at the U.S. Open is the immediately preceding
circuit of hot-weather, hard-court tournaments. The circuit begins in Los
Angeles in late July and takes the pro warriors to Canada, Cincinnati,
Indianapolis, and Washington. The sequence ends on Long Island the week
before the Open.
Last year, Marat Safin was the surprise of the summer, achieving an
impressive hard-court record of 13-2 prior to the Open. The young Russian won
the Canadian Open and reached the final at Indianapolis, recording a win over
Sampras. His fine summer foreshadowed his U.S. Open triumph.
Two years ago, Andre Agassi showed a 15-3 summer hard-court record before the
Open. Two of his three losses were to Sampras, whose summer record at 12-1
was better than Agassi's. But Sampras did not play the Open because of
injury, and Agassi bore the leader's mantle to win his second U.S. Open.
The pattern was also evident in the years of Pat Rafter's Open triumphs, in
1998 and 1999. In 1998, the brilliant Australian won the Canadian and at
Cincinnati as well as the event at Long Island, achieving a 17-2 summer
hard-court record going into the Open.
RAFTER AND KUERTEN
Based on their superior summer performances this year, two popular superstars
are clear favorites to win the 2001 Open. Shown here are their records for
the hard-court season.
Pat Rafter, 15-2
Gustavo Kuerten, 15-3
Pat Rafter's brilliant net-rushing style and deft ground game seem ideally
suited to fast courts. He has never won Wimbledon, but was a close runner-up
there this year and last. The Queenslander's greatness was most evident in
his back-to-back U.S. Open triumphs. But damage and repeated surgeries to the
right shoulder have held back the Australian star in recent years. Rafter
failed to win a match in the last two U.S. Opens, and from a world #4
standing at the end of 1998 his ranking slipped into double digits amid his
Is Rafter now ready to capture his third U.S. Open? His fine performances on
the hard courts this summer have brought back memories of 1998 and 1999.
Rafter missed Los Angeles, which was won by Agassi, but he reached the finals
the next three weeks. He lost in the final at Montreal to surprise champion
Andrei Pavel and in Cincinnati to top-seeded Kuerten. Then in Indianapolis,
he followed a close semi-final win over last year's U.S. Open champion Safin
by reversing his previous week's loss to Kuerten. (The win over Kuerten at
Indy was tainted, however, as Guga had played a three-set semi earlier in the
day and retired early against Rafter.) If Rafter's relentless attacking style
remains rock-solid, his serving and his baseline play seem stronger than
ever, both superbly designed to complement his net-game skills. Rafter has
taken an uncharacteristic step, sitting out the current Long Island
tournament in order to rest for the Open, a move likely to improve his
chances at Flushing Meadow.
Gustavo Kuerten of the sweeping groundstrokes and pleasant court manner has
won the French Open three times, including this year, and is today the
world's top clay-court player. But he also shows fine hard-court credentials,
including wins last year at Indianapolis and in the Masters Cup, and a
runner-up finish at the Ericsson. He finished last year #1 in the overall
rankings and is again the leader for 2001 to date. His summer record includes
the championship at Cincinnati and the aforementioned appearance in the final
at Indy. His recent victims include Henman (twice), Kafelnikov, and Wimbledon
champion Ivanisevic (twice). His losses to Roddick and Rafter were more than
balanced by impressive victories over each in adjacent weeks, while his loss
to Agassi in Los Angeles was a close three-setter. A rib-cage injury at Indy,
however, stirs uncertainties.
FOUR OTHER PRIMES
Here are the summer's W-L records (excluding Long Island, now in progress) of
stars close behind the two leaders:
It seems likely that the above players will do better at the Open than their
12-month rankings would suggest. Four of them, discussed below, seem prime
candidates to go far.
Andy Roddick, who will turn 19 during the Open, demands close attention. The
young American won the August tournament in Washington, the Legg Mason,
sweeping through the field without losing a set. Although conditions were
very slow, in part because of the gritty Deccoturf surface and in part
because of week-long heavy humidity, Roddick's powerful serve proved the
tournament's dominant force. Especially impressive was his ability to
dominate Marcelo Rios, who played very well earlier in the week. In the
final, Andy faced Sjeng Schalken, who had defeated the tournament's perennial
favorite, Agassi, by showing dazzling power and consistency off both forehand
and backhand. Schalken and Roddick matched equally in their heavy baseline
exchanges. But nearly every time the scoreboard showed trouble for Roddick,
the American was able to escape by unleashing 130-mph service rockets.
I made a set of photos at the Legg Mason last year showing Roddick's serve
motion. His delivery is so fast that it is difficult to study by eye alone. I
was lucky enough to capture views showing how Roddick's hips, upper body, and
shoulders are turned to face the net with left-shoulder lowered just as (or
perhaps just before) the racquet starts its upward thrust. (The first view
shows the Roddick hips and shoulders still perpendicular to the net just
before they turn.) The leg push, the stored torque in the turned torso, and
the work of the right shoulder, elbow, and wrist seemingly combine to produce
high racquet velocity.
Can Roddick capture the Open in 2001?
It is not an impossible notion. The groundstrokes are indeed powerful and
consistent--Schalken had more trouble with them than with Agassi's. And
Roddick's serving ability is magnificent--a first serve of almost
unreturnable pace and a second serve of enormous kicking energy. Then there
is the fearlessness of youth, the willingness to remain bold in crisis. On
the other hand, yet to be proven are Roddick's volleying skills and his
ability to react to very fast serves--aspects that rise in importance on a
very fast playing surface, as is expected at Flushing Meadow.
I strongly believe that Roddick will go far in this year's Open. If he plays
his best, even the very top players will have trouble withstanding his
baseline power and heavy serving well enough to win three out of five sets.
Andre Agassi began well at the Legg Mason, reaching the quarters without
difficulty. On the stadium court that he seems to own, he displayed his
customary power game from close on the baseline, running his opponents from
side to side as the temperature and humidity took their toll.
Some said that Agassi's quarter-final meeting with Rusedski was the
tournament's finest match in years. Rusedski showed his customary left-handed
serving and volleying excellence, along with surprisingly effective baseline
skills--all-in-all a problem for Agassi equal to that when he faces Rafter.
Agassi finally prevailed in an extended third-set tiebreak, the crowd roaring
with every point.
The emotional battle with Rusedski probably weakened Agassi for the next
evening against Schalken. Agassi took the first set comfortably over the tall
Netherlander after leading 5 games to 1. But even then, it was evident that
Schalken had the strokes and mobility to neutralize Agassi's favored pounding
style. I wrote in my notebook, however, that Schalken lacked the weapon that
could give Agassi trouble. But the missing weapon appeared at the start of
set two, when Schalken's magnificent backhand picked up in pace and when the
Netherlander began occasionally to flatten out his forehand, producing
rockets to the corners that became outright winners. With Schalken serving
first, Agassi seemed always hard-pressed to stay even. The single service
breaks of a slightly fading Agassi came late in both second and third sets.
Earlier in the summer, Agassi won the tournament in Los Angeles, but he then
lost in the first round at both Montreal and Cincinnati. The veteran
American's loss to Schalken in Washington and his difficulties against
Rusedski seemed to signal that despite his high (#2) seed, the two-time Open
champion is headed for disappointment at this year's Open.
Greg Rusedski's near-success against Agassi in Washington was achieved amid
slow conditions intensified by a downpour and recurring sprinkles that forced
the players back to the locker room three times during the warmup. Rusedski
should match up even better on the faster courts and presumably dryer
conditions at Flushing Meadow. Rusedski also played well the week before
Washington, in Cincinnati, where he reached the quarters before losing in
three close sets to Rafter. Rusedski reached the final at the Open in 1997.
Fellow Britisher Tim Henman reached the semis at Wimbledon this year, losing
to eventual champion Ivanisevic after leading, two sets to one. Henman showed
good success in North America, losing in late rounds twice to Kuerten in
third sets, 7-5 and 7-6. Clearly, Henman is not far behind the leaders. But
he has never reached the quarters at the Open in six tries.
Andrei Pavel deserves note for his triumph at Montreal on fast courts.
Several other stars also solid in their summer records are also capable of
triumphing at the Open. Pete Sampras is a four-time Open champion and was
runner-up last year. Mobile shotmaker Lleyton Hewitt, just 20, reached the
semis last year. Last year's champion, powerful Marat Safin, now 21,
struggled with injuries this year but at Indy last week battled Rafter to a
third-set tiebreaker. Also reaching the semis at Indy was Wimbledon champion,
superb-serving Goran Ivanisevic, who lost in three sets to Kuerten.
I see the odds for winning the Open as follows:
Kuerten, Rafter, each 3-1
Agassi, Roddick, Rusedski, each 13-1
Henman, Sampras, Safin, each 30-1
Ivanisevic, Pavel, Hewitt, Enqvist, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
In here picking the eight quarter-finalists, by rule only four of the top
eight seeds may be chosen.
Shown are the eight sections of the men's draw along with each player's
summer hard-court record (prior to Long Island). In each section, the four
seeded players are listed in order followed by one or two others.
From among our six prime favorites identified earlier, I unhesitatingly
choose Kuerten, Roddick, Rafter, and Agassi to win their sections. But a
choice is needed between Henman and Rusedski, who are in a common section.
Henman has the better summer record, but I choose Rusedski from watching his
fine performance in Washington.
- Kuerten (15-3), Ivanisevic (6-2), Hrbaty (2-3), Canas (4-2), Mirnyi (7-4).
- Kafelnikov (3-3), Clement (5-3), Moya (2-3), Escude (4-3), Prinosil (0-3).
- Hewitt (6-3), Haas (8-4), Enqvist (0-2), Portas (0-2), Mantilla (1-2).
- Ferrero (4-2), Corretja (1-1), Todd Martin (3-2), Roddick (9-3), Golmard
- Grosjean (0-0), Henman (7-3), Santoro (7-3), Rusedski (7-4), El Aynaoui (3-1).
- Safin (4-4), Johansson (3-3), Pavel (8-2), Arazi (5-3), Rios (3-1), Ljubicic
- Rafter (15-2), Sampras (5-2), Gambill (8-4), Lapentti (2-3), Ulihrach (4-2),
- Agassi (8-3), Federer (0-0), Schalken (6-4), Kiefer (3-3), Koubek (2-2).
In the second section, Clement shows the slightly better summer, but I choose
Escude for his better net skills. Hewitt is the easy choice in section three.
In the sixth section, it's hard to pass on last year's Open winner, Safin,
based on his performance in Indianapolis. But I choose Pavel here for his
wonderful win in Canada.
The quarters are easy. Kuerten over Escude, Roddick over Hewitt, Rusedski
over Pavel, and Rafter over Agassi. Kuerten then will prevail over Roddick,
Rafter over Rusedski, thereby producing a repeat of the Cincy and Indy
finals. I pick Rafter to win his third U.S. Open.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
The women's summer hard-court circuit consisted of three successive events in
California followed by the Canadian Open and finally the Pilot Pen in New
Haven. Here are the winning and losing finalists, from whom we identify our
elite stars preceding the U.S. Open.
Stanford: Clijsters d. Davenport
San Diego: Venus Williams d. Seles
Los Angeles: Davenport d. Seles
Canada: Serena Williams d. Capriati
New Haven: in progress
Of the six summertime stars named above, five of them--Davenport, Capriati,
Seles, and the Williams sisters--compose our current elite group. We leave
out Clijsters, whose results after Stanford have been disappointing. Except
for Venus at Stanford, none of our elite five lost to any outsider during the
period (through Toronto). All are powerful hitters.
Missing from our top group is Martina Hingis. She is in effect replaced by
Seles, who defeated her twice during the summer, at San Diego and Los
Angeles. Hingis did not compete thereafter because of foot trouble.
Hingis remains Number One in the 12-month rankings, however, and surely
belongs in our second rank of players. The young Belgian stars Clijsters and
Henin (this year's Wimbledon runner-up) are also at this level. Close behind
are Mauresmo and Dokic, and we add improved American Meghann Shaughnessy, who
upset Venus at Stanford.
Last year's champion, Venus Williams, stands first among the near-equals.
Venus this year repeated her Wimbledon triumph of 2000. Her loss at Stanford
came after two weeks away from competition, and was followed the next week by
her triumph at San Diego. Her appearance this week at New Haven likewise
follows two weeks of rest, creating the parallel thought that the matches
there will prepare her for the Open. The other members of our Big Five remain
strong candidates to win the Open, but Venus's superiority over the others in
power and mobility is irrefutable. If she is at her best she should prevail.
It mainly depends on her consistency in play and her physical health.
Here are my odds:
Venus Williams, 2-1
Capriati, Davenport, 6-1
Serena Williams, 8-1
Hingis, Henin, Clijsters, each 20-1
all others, 50-1 or longer
Here are the eight sections of the women's draw. The higher-seeded players
are listed first.
Of the top-seeded players in each section, Venus, Capriati, and Davenport are
clearly superior to their opposition. Hingis and Seles seem only slightly
less secure, but based on this summer's outcomes, I choose Seles to survive
against Shaughnessy, Hingis to falter to Dokic.
- Hingis, Dokic, Sanchez Vicario, Frazier, Osterloh
- Seles, Shaughnessy, Suarez, Tanasugarn, Lamade
- Davenport, Coetzer, Likhovsteva, Montolio, Oremans
- Henin, S. Williams, Serna, Torrens Valero, Kremer, Schnuyder
- Clijsters, Dementieva, Huber, Nagyova
- Venus Williams, Farina Elia, Testud, Raymond
- Mauresmo, Tauziat, Rubin, Tulyganova
- Capriati, Maleeva, Schett, Schiavoni, Ruano Pascual
In the fourth section, Serena's triumph in Canada requires her selection over
Henin, while Anke Huber's fine run there, including a win over Mauresmo,
propels her above Clijsters. In section seven, I choose Tauziat, who defeated
Clijsters in their meeting in LA.
In the quarters, I like Seles over Dokic, Serena over Davenport, Venus over
Huber, and Capriati over Mauresmo. An all-Williams final will ensue, with the
fresher superstar, Venus, taking the family crown.