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April 1, 2002 Article Article

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The Clay Court Warriors 2002

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Ray Bowers

Critical for success in today’s clay-court game are excellence in power groundstroking, court mobility, consistency, and stamina. Strong serving ability is also helpful in producing early dominance in rallies and an occasional easy point. Meanwhile verdicts are still sometimes won by a player’s tactical skills, including use of the secondary shots–short angles, drop shots, and lobs. Players raised in South America and continental Europe are the traditional clay-court experts, characteristically showing heavy overspin in their groundstrokes and an antipathy to forecourt.

Early April brings nine straight weeks of clay-court play in men’s pro tennis, primarily in Europe. The cycle includes three Masters events–the Monte Carlo, German, and Italian Opens–and ends in Paris on the red dirt at Roland Garros.

In seeking top prospects for the coming weeks perhaps overlooked elsewhere, I decided to look at two distinct groups–(1) last year’s leaders in clay-court play and (2) the leaders in all-surface play during this year’s first three months. Any player ranking high on both lists would seem a superior clay artist who is also now playing close to his best.

2001 CLAY LEADERS

We begin by listing the leaders in last year’s clay-court play, ranked by plurality of wins over losses:

    1. Kuerten, 36-3
    2. Ferrero, 33-6
    3. Corretja, 25-8
    4. Robredo, 23-9
    Portas, 29-15 (tied at plurality +14)
    6. Coria, 23-11
    7. Roddick, 12-1
    Novak, 15-4
    Canas, 18-7
    Grosjean, 19-8 (all tied at plurality +11)

By any measure, the clay-court champion of 2001 was Gustavo Kuerten, who captured the French and Monte Carlo Opens and was runner-up in the Italian. But the pleasant Brazilian is recovering from recent hip surgery and will not return to the courts until late spring at best.

Our next four performers, ranking #2-5 above, are all from Spain, and clay is undeniably the favored surface for all of them. Ferrero, now 22, was closest to Kuerten last year, winning the Italian in a five-setter over Kuerten, making the final in the German, and reaching the semis in the French. Corretja, who has been in the world’s Top 100 since 1992 but is not yet 28 years old, was runner-up at Garros last year, while Portas, now 28, won the German, where he displayed a remarkable use of droppers and other off-pace deliveries. Robredo, who is rising fast in the ATP standings, is still just 19. Our #6 player, Guillermo Coria of Argentina, is only a few months older than Robredo. Smallish of stature at 5-9, Coria has excellent court speed. I wrote about him two years ago when he performed here in Washington, and since then his play has vindicated my early notice. He is now returning from a suspension after testing for prohibited substances.

American Andy Roddick at #7, 12-1 in wins and losses, would be tied with Kuerten if based on winning percentage. Most of his clay wins came in his triumphs at Atlanta and Houston, where neither Kuerten nor any of the top Spanish stars participated. In both events Roddick showed excellent power and consistency from backcourt along with his superior serve, essentially pounding his opponents into submission. In his only European clay appearance, at Garros, Roddick claimed two early-round wins and then split sets with Lleyton Hewitt before hurting his leg. Three others are tied with Roddick at plurality +11--doubles standout Novak, who won the clay events at Munich and Gstaad (Sweden), Argentine Canas, who won at Casablanca, and Grosjean, who reached the semis at Garros.

Our Second Ten, with pluralities ranging from +10 to +8, includes such artists as Argentinians Gaudio and Squillari, and Armada stars Moya, Albert Martin, and Mantilla. Australian Lleyton Hewitt is also in the group, having produced a 14-5 clay record including four match wins at both the German and French Opens as well as two Davis Cup wins over Brazilians Kuerten and Meligeni.

2002 LEADERS TO DATE

Our quest now takes us to the first three months of 2002. Our leaders for the period are taken from the official ATP champions race standings. Nearly all the points shown have been earned on hard courts, mainly outdoors. Some clay results from tournaments in Latin America are also included. Cup play is not included. Weighted most heavily are Johansson’s triumph in Australia, Hewitt’s at Indian Wells, and Agassi’s in Miami. Here are the year’s Top Ten, as of April 1, 2002. Interestingly, the ten leaders are from ten different tennis nations.

    1. Johansson, 253
    2. Henman, 197
    3. Federer, 191
    4. Safin, 188
    5. Hewitt, 181
    6. Novak, 162
    7. Agassi, 160
    8. Escude, 126
    9. Chela, 123
    10. Rios, 123

Remarkably, only one player appears on both our 2001 clay and 2002 all-court lists. That individual is Jiri Novak, a player I greatly admire, having watched and talked with him at the ATP World Doubles in Hartford two years ago. His presence on both lists is surprising, however, as his court mobility seems well below, say, Grosjean’s or Hewitt’s. Instinct says he is an unlikely candidate to rule on clay this year, but our methodology here warns us to watch this fine Czech player closely.

Two players–Hewitt and Roddick–are in the Top Ten of one category and the Second Ten of the other. (The Second Tens are listed at the end of this column.) Lleyton Hewitt, 21, who won Indian Wells, ranks fifth in the current year’s race despite a round of chicken pox early in the year. Though Hewitt narrowly missed our 2001 clay Top Ten, his clay successes were of extremely high quality, as we noted earlier. His superior speed, shot-making ability, and tenacity amply support the indications of our data, making him our standout choice for success in the coming season.

Also intriguing are the prospects of Andy Roddick, a clay Top Tenner last year and a Second Tenner for 2002 to date. The rising teen-ager turned his ankle at Melbourne Park this January, but he won the subsequent indoor event in Memphis and reached the final outdoors at Delray Beach. This spring Roddick can look forward to only one clay event in the United States, in Houston, where he should be favored to defend his title. His greater challenges will be the clay events in Europe, where his inexperience will be tested, but the record strongly suggests that Roddick should be a prime performer on clay anywhere.

An unexpected product of our search is Moroccan star Younes El Aynaoui, 31, the only player to rank in the Second Ten of both lists. This year, El Aynaoui won two matches at Melbourne Park and won his first set against eventual champion Johansson. Several weeks later, he defeated Johansson on hard courts at Dubai. His career seems clearly on an upswing.

Our selecting criteria failed to produce robust results. But it will be interesting to see whether the stars highlighted here–Novak, Hewitt, Roddick, and El Aynaoui–produce major surprises in the coming clay season, as our data suggest. As the 2002 race continues to unfold, some of the other clay leaders from last year will unquestionably make major gains. It will be interesting to see which of our two, nearly exclusive groups does the better in the coming season.

WOMEN’S CLAY PREVIEW

Clay-court 2001 and all-court 2002 outcomes are far more alike in women’s tennis. Six players are common to the Top Ten of both lists.

Here are last year’s clay leaders, in order of plurality of wins over losses.(Fed Cup play on clay is included.)

    1. Montolio, 27-11

    2. Capriati, 16-2
    Henin, 18-4
    Mauresmo, 18-4
    Suarez, 21-7 (all tied at plurality +14)

    6. Sanchez Vicario, 20-7

    7. Hingis, 17-5
    Torrens Valero, 23-11 (tied at plurality +12)

    9. Farina Elia, 22-11

    10. Clijsters, 15-5
    Coetzer, 16-6 (tied at plurality +10)

Angeles Montolio, 26, from Barcelona, seems an accidental leader, as her plurality of wins over losses largely stemmed from her 14-1 record in three lesser events–at Estoril, Bol, and Madrid. Her victims included such clay artists as Henin, Grande, and Kremer, but her candidacy is weakened by her failure to win more than one match at any Tier One or higher clay event.

The true clay champion last year was Capriati, who captured the French, was runner-up in the German, and also won the Tier One at Charleston. The American’s consistency in power hitting, her tireless court mobility, and strength of will present an almost superhuman test for any opponent. Runner-up at Garros was Kim Clijsters, where the semi-finalists were Hingis and Henin. Mauresmo won the German, and Dokic won the Italian.

Most significantly absent from the credits just noted were the Williams sisters, who entered few clay events in 2001. Serena looked strong at Garros, however, winning four matches before losing to Capriati in three sets. Venus won the Tier Two Barclay Cup in Hamburg but bowed out in round one in Paris, and also lost to Henin unimpressively in the German Open. Neither Davenport nor Seles competed during the clay season because of injuries.

Next we turn to the point standings on all surfaces for the first three months of 2002, compiled by WTA. Preeminent in the data are the Australian Open (won by Capriati) and the three Tier Ones–the Pan-Pacific (Hingis), Indian Wells (Hantuchova), and Miami (Serena Williams).

  1. Hingis, 1861
  2. Seles, 1606
  3. Capriati, 1521
  4. Venus Williams, 1387
  5. Serena Williams, 1063
  6. Mauresmo, 842
  7. Hantuchova, 768
  8. Henin, 751
  9. Clijsters, 678
  10. Farina-Elia, 635

Close to the top of both lists is Jennifer Capriati, who thus becomes our leading favorite for the coming weeks. Hingis and Mauresmo are nearly as strongly positioned on both lists. In clay-court head-to-head play among the three, the leader is, surprisingly, the French star. Mauresmo has defeated Hingis in their last two meetings, both times on European clay. Capriati defeated Hingis in their last four meetings, twice on clay. And Mauresmo defeated Capriati in their only clay meeting in 2001, in Berlin, though Capriati has won twice since then on other surfaces. The muscular Mauresmo recently won the February hard-court event at Dubai but did not compete in the March tournaments in North America.

Our three prime performers for the coming season–Capriati, Hingis, and Mauresmo–all appear in the Top Six for 2002 to date. The other three Top Sixers this year–Seles and the Williams sisters–are missing from the 2001 clay list mainly because of inactivity a year ago. Still, all have plausible clay credentials, especially Seles, who claims three triumphs at Roland Garros. Both sisters showed some success in their limited clay appearances last year, noted earlier, though the power serving of both and the aggressive shot-making of Serena will be hurt slightly by the slower surface where consistency counts heavily. Lindsay Davenport remains sidelined in 2002 after knee surgery in January.

Listed in both Top Tens are the Belgian teen-agers–Henin and Clijsters. Henin brings superb clay-court skills but has played below expectations in early 2002. Meanwhile Clijsters has been troubled by stress-fracture injury of the right arm, but she seemed healthy in her three-set loss to Seles last week at Key Biscayne. As the taller and heavier of the two young stars, Clijsters seems the better suited to the tough grind of the larger clay events.

Teen-aged Daniela Hantuchova, #7 in our 2002 list, spectacularly defeated Hingis last month at Indian Wells, showing astonishing pace, accuracy, and consistency off the ground–qualities basic to success in today’s clay game. Her clay record last year, while creditable, was not strong enough to penetrate our Top Ten.

One other player has quietly attained both our Top Tens. Silvia Farina Elia, 29, reached the fourth round at Garros last year and has proven able to beat players outside the world’s elite consistently. But though she can threaten them, she is unlikely to defeat the bigger hitters enumerated earlier here.

For several years in women’s pro tennis, the top six or seven players have been almost invulnerable to defeat, even occasionally, by lower-ranking opponents. The phenomenon may weaken slightly during the forthcoming clay season, but it will surely persist. The heavy-serving, power-hitting superstars will see their strengths slightly blunted by the slower conditions, but all of them are so mobile, consistent, and conditioned that any shift in head-to-head results toward the clay-preferring artists like Montolio, Suarez, and Sanchez Vicario will be faint.

–Ray Bowers

* (footnote) Here are the Second Ten in clay-court play for 2001 in men’s tennis:

11. Moya, 18-8
A. Martin, 21-11
Gaudio, 21-11 (all tied at plurality +10)

14. Hewitt, 14-5
Gaudenzi, 14-5
Mantilla, 20-11
Squillari, 26-17 (all tied at plurality +9)

18. W. Ferreira, 13-5
Nalbandian, 14-6
Golmard, 16-8
El Aynaoui, 20-12 (all tied at plurality +8)

Here are the Second Ten for 2002 on all surfaces to date:

  • Haas, 122
  • Roddick, 112
  • El Aynaoui, 111
  • Schuettler, 110
  • Sanguinetti, 97 Gonzalez, 97
  • Rusedski, 94
  • T. Martin, 91
  • Enqvist, 87
  • Sampras, 86

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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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