Australian Open 2002 produced its share of drama, especially among the women
where the members of 2001's Top Ten proved at a level well above all others.
None of them lost to a lesser-ranked woman.
Some of the superstars went down with injuries. Lindsay Davenport and Serena
Williams withdrew prior to start-of-play, and the tournament favorite, Venus
Williams, troubled by knee and thigh injuries, lost in the quarters. Her
conqueror, Monica Seles, played with power, consistency, and mobility that
seemed as strong as in her championship years.
Seles and Hingis, who together brought seven past Aussie singles titles,
produced a semi-final of near-historic quality. Seles began superbly, smoking
flattish shots to the corners that, again and again, exceeded the Hingis
reach. Whenever Seles could set up close on the baseline, especially if near
centerline, her artillery quickly ended matters.
After a set of this, Hingis's efforts to hit hard and keep the ball out of
Seles's large sweet zone began to take effect. Seles continually menaced the
Hingis second serve, but little by little errors by Seles began to creep in.
Meanwhile Hingis won all eleven of her occasional net approaches, and her
deserved win was the product of consistency and court sense.
Meanwhile Jennifer Capriati's path to the final was not comfortable. With
both thighs wrapped, she needed three sets to survive her third-round
opponent, Greek teen-ager Daniilidov, who showed a backhand suggestive of
Henin's. The defending champion was next tested by Rita Grande, who delivered
remarkable angles from backcourt. Grande's softish, sliced backhands also
seemed not to Capriati's liking, but the American persisted and claimed her
win in a second-set tiebreaker. Clearly improving with each outing, Capriati
next yielded only four games in defeating Mauresmo to gain the semis.
Simultaneously Kim Clijsters swept through five matches without loss of a
set. Each of her first four opponents failed to win more than three games
against the 18-year-old Belgian, and teen-aged countrywoman Henin managed to
carry Clijsters only to score 62 63. Clijsters clearly registered her
credentials as a likely future champion.
The Capriati-Clijsters semi immediately followed. Both women displayed high
court mobility and stamina in repeatedly replying to opponent's rockets to
the corners. If Capriati's hammering seemed slightly the heavier, Clijster's
court movement seemed slightly the better. After a close first set, won by
Capriati, and a second set won by Clijsters, errors began to inflict
Clijsters's hitting. At the end Capriati's superior consistency in the heavy
exchanges prevailed, comfortably.
The Capriati-Hingis final was riveting. It was hard to envision that Hingis
could withstand the defending champion's pounding, but the Swiss Miss had
learned her lessons well from the battle with Seles. Hitting with as much
power as she could summon withour error and keeping Capriati on the move as
much as possible, Hingis claimed the first set and took the first four games
of set two. Both players showed early distress at the scorching temperature,
which measured 95 degrees and was surely much hotter on court. If anything,
it seemed that the larger and seeming harder-working Capriati would be the
first to fade.
The turning of the tide was abrupt in the game score but gradual to those
watching closely. Still, four times Hingis was only one point from triumph.
But on these occasions as well as in much of the play otherwise, it was
Capriati who maintained her boldness, going for the lines with full power
when the opportunity seemed right, and it was Hingis who sometimes retreated
to backcourt, scorning net-attack opportunities. More important, it was now
Hingis who was fatiguing most. When Capriati finally won the long second-set
tiebreaker to equalize the match, the ultimate verdict was sealed. Hingis
knew it, and she slinged her racquet almost the length of the court.
Two magnificent warriors on this day earned the admiration of the world.
THE MEN'S SINGLES
If predictability was high on the women's side, it was utterly absent among
the men. Of the top-seeded eight only Tommy Haas managed to defend his seed
by reaching the quarters. Similarly only one of the highest eight in my
computer-based predicted ranking actually reached the quarters (Safin), while
my predictions in Tennis Server likewise correctly placed in the quarters
only one player (Johansson).
The intruders to the final eight were, for the most part, veterans playing at
close to their career-best--perennials like Wayne Ferreira, Marcelo Rios, Jiri
Novak, and Jonas Bjorkman.
The early rounds produced several stories of special interest. Philippoussis
returned from long absence with injuries, but was now trimmer by twenty
pounds and looked strong. Young Federer confirmed his obvious promise by
moving through three matches without loss of a set. He then carried Haas to
the limit before yielding, 86 in the fifth. Escude, our Player of the Year
for 2001, took Sampras to five sets by coming to net regularly, a tactic that
helped minimize Sampras's advantage in weight of backcourt firepower. By
following serve to net, Escude narrowed Sampras's margins in returning, and
also denied Sampras the opportunity to advance behind chipped serve-returns.
Escude is an above-average volleyer who is learning to integrate aggressive
net play into his solid ground game, which includes the two-handed backhand.
Both semis were fascinating five-setters. In the final, Johansson prevailed
over Safin by virtue of fine serving and serve-returning, superb footwork,
power ground-stroking that almost matched Safin's, and solid if occasional
net play. Safin looked tired after the first hour, though the temperature was
less severe than the day before.
The U.S. contingent, both men's and women's, led the nations in our fantasy
competition to win the most matches. The host nation, Australia, failed to
show the strength in doubles that gave it the honors on the men's side last
year. France was second this year among the men, narrowly ahead of Czech
Republic. Spain and Italy tied for second among the women. Spain was second
in the combined men's + women's.
The injuries to Roddick and Medina Garrigues seemed further evidence that the
Rebound Ace surface gives too much traction. Early in her fourth-round match
against Seles, Medina Garrigues crumpled in agony after planting her front
leg for a backhand reply. In replay it could be seen that her leg was twisted
at the knee as the weight descended. The high-friction court prevented the
foot from turning to adjust, so that the joint was forced to, and could not,
accommodate to the weight-bearing twist.
The tournament's present court surface provides wonderful tennis and is a
good complement to the other Slams. But there seems little doubt that the
surface will be seriously reviewed. It was said that the bounce this year was
on the slow side, which is otherwise desirable but probably goes with the
The men's doubles were unusually interesting. The top seven pairs in the 2001
rankings all competed, there having been little of the usual early-year
partnership-scrambling. But none of the top seven pairs actually reached the
final, won by veterans Knowles-Nestor over Llodra-Santoro. (Earlier, in a
match among four Americans, Johnson-Palmer defeated the Bryan brothers,
probably complicating Captain McEnroe's plans for the Davis Cup team.)
Of the teen-aged women discussed in this column two months ago, the standout
at Melbourne Park proved to be Clijsters. Henin too defended her seed to
reach the quarters. Dokic did not compete. Daniela Hantuchova of Slovak
Republic looked strong, winning three matches and then a set from Venus
before departing in the singles, and also doing well in doubles. She and
partner Sanchez Vicario reached the doubles final, losing in three-sets to
Hingis-Kournikova, while Hantuchova and Kevin Ullyett won the mixed.
Hantuchova will be Navratilova's partner at Indian Wells in March. Meanwhile
teen-ager Tulyaganova won two singles matches before losing to Grande in
three sets. Entering our scrutiny were teenagers Medina Garrigues and
Daniilidou, both noted in our discussion above.
I did calculations comparing the men's singles results at Australia 2002 with
those of the four preceding Slams. Australia 2002 correlated best with the
results of U.S. Open 2001, second-best with Australia 2001. Not surprisingly
given this year's carnage at Melbourne Park, the correlations were much
weaker than in similar calculations for last year. Indeed, the correlation
was slightly negative between Australia 2002 and Garros 2001. Using the
calculations from this year and last, we offer weights for use in predicting
Australia 2003 as follows:
Australia 2002, 38.4%
Wimbledon 2002, 16.2%
Garros 2002, 3.5%
U.S. Open 2002, 41.9%
Davis Cup play commences in early February for the sixteen nations of the
World Group. The Cup seems in good health worldwide, there having been four
different champions in the last four years--Sweden, Australia, Spain, and
France. There are many plausible contenders for 2002, including the U.S. if
both Sampras and Roddick are physically near their best.
Several of the leading teams will face immediate tests in other lands.
Seemingly in possible jeopardy are Sweden against host Britain, Brazil
against host Czech Republic, and Germany against host Croatia. Australia,
without Hewitt, Rafter, and Philippoussis, looks outclassed at Argentina.
U.S., Spain, France, and Russia, all playing at home, appear safe.
March will bring the hard-court, outdoor tournaments in the southern U.S.--the
Pacific Life at Indian Wells and the Ericsson in Miami. Success in Australia
often carries over to these events, so we can expect strong performances from
Johansson, Capriati and the others who reached the late rounds at Melbourne.
The major clay-court events will start in April.