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Between The Lines
May 24, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Garros Preview 2002

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Ray Bowers

By correlating results across different tournaments, I recently explored how well Roland Garros 2001 had been predicted by preceding tournaments of 2000-2001. Not surprisingly the strongest predictors proved to be the clay-court events including, especially, the previous year's Garros.

I then ascertained how the preceding tournaments should be weighted in order to reach a composite prediction closest to the actual Garros results. (I dropped Wimbledon from the exercise, as its results correlated negatively with Garros's.) Here were the weightings for best predicting Garros 2001.

--German Open, 17.3%
--Italian Open, 17.3%
--Monte Carlo Open, 17.3%
--Key Biscayne, 7.9%
--Indian Wells, 7.9%
--Australian Open, 4.2%
--U.S. Open, 1.4%
--the preceding year's Garros, 26.7%
--Total 100.0%

I then took each player's results in the same tournaments in 2001-2002 and applied the above weightings to them. I thus obtained a composite score for each player measuring his likely success in Garros 2002. (The calculations are described in a footnote at the end of this column.)

Here, then, are the players identified by the computations as most likely to succeed in Garros 2002, in order of rank.

#1 Gustavo Kuerten

Atop our list is three-time Garros winner and last year's undisputed clay champion, the lanky Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten. Guga, 25, underwent hip surgery in February this year but returned to competition surprisingly soon, in early May. He then competed at Mallorca and Rome, and reached the final eight in the German Open, where he was the only player to win a set from the eventual tournament winner, Federer. With another week for rehabilitation and training, it seems likely that we will once again witness Guga's wonderful brilliance in Paris.

#2 Roger Federer

Roger Federer, 20, was dazzling in capturing the German last week, his first-ever clay-court triumph. The Swiss star displayed his best all-court, attacking style featuring hard and consistent shotmaking, excellent footwork, and a solid, forcing serve. His one-handed, closed-stance backhand consistently produced precise and reliable overspin deliveries, along with frequent nasty underslices. Although Federer is generally regarded as strongest on hard courts, he reached the final eight on Garros clay last year and the fourth round the year before.

#3 Juan Carlos Ferrero

Ranking third in our scheme is Spanish star Juan Carlos Ferrero, 22, semi-finalist the last two years at Garros. Early 2002 was troublesome for this fine, all-court player, when he missed several events and withdrew from several others with a knee injury and a pulled abductor. He returning to the wars in April, capturing the Monte Carlo Open, defeating Moya and Grosjean. But he bowed out early in both the Italian and German, leaving his readiness to win at Garros unproven.

#4 Marat Safin Marat Safin, 22, has the big serve and baseline power game that can prevail over strong opponents on any surface. The tall Russian has reached the fourth round or better at Garros the last four years, losing in the round of eight last year to his erstwhile nemesis, Fabrice Santoro. He reached the final in the German Open last week, defeating several strong clay-court artists and also Lleyton Hewitt, but in the final round Federer's court skills answered Safin's power and matched it with Federer's own.

#5 Lleyton Hewitt

The computations next produce the mercurial Australian superstar, Hewitt, still just 21 and probably as fast afoot as anyone in the game. His U.S. Open triumph last year, his superb Davis Cup record yearlong, and his finishing atop the year's ATP points race all brought deserved recognition worldwide. Staying on top in 2002 was hindered by a troublesome bout with chicken pox early on. But he returned to win at Indian Wells in March and to reach the semis at Key Biscayne. On clay, he lost early to Moya at both Monte Carlo and Rome, but he made his way to the semis at Barcelona before losing to a Gaudio on a winning streak. Movement on clay is very different from on hard courts, but the more Hewitt competes on this relatively unfamiliar surface the better he should respond. His smallish frame (he is 5-11, 150 pounds vs. Kuerten's 6-3, 178) seems a handicap in sustaining seven best-of-five matches on slow clay given his hard-working style of winning.

#6 Sebastien Grosjean

At age 24 and only 5-9 tall, Marseilles-born Grosjean is a former Garros semi-finalist, having lost to Corretja last year. Like Ferrero, Grosjean is a righty with a backhand two-hander. His court speed, matching Hewitt's, is probably his strongest asset, along with fine shotmaking ability from back court. His pattern this year has been to bow out in the middle rounds of tournaments, though he excelled at Monte Carlo, where he defeated four strong opponents before losing in a three-set semi to Ferrero. But the disappointments returned at Rome and Hamburg.

#7 Andre Agassi

Over his long career, the popular American has competed relatively little on clay, usually playing just one of the Masters Series clay-court events as preparation for Garros. But his shot-making skills--his unusual ability at wearing down opponents by relentlessly pounding on the rise--is generally effective on clay and especially in best-of-five marathons. Agassi captured Garros in 1999, and last year he won four tough matches there before losing to Grosjean. This year he won the Italian Open in early May without loss of a set. Then, following his pattern, he withdrew from the German to be fresher for Garros. His physique, 5-11 and 170 pounds, seems close to ideal for clay.

#8 Alex Corretja

Alex Corretja was runner-up for the second time at Garros last year and, at 28, is now leader of the Armada. Early this year, Corretja produced a stunning victory over Pete Sampras in Davis Cup play on grass. His win, however, came with a hand injury that removed him from the rest of the three-day competition, thereby dooming the chances of the Spanish team. Corretja has had other successes on non-clay surfaces, but his favorite Slam is clearly the French, where he shows a lifetime 29-10 record. He can produce good power in serving and ground-stroking, has good net skills, can produce excellent variety and wield great patience. I can watch endlessly the Corretja backhand one-hander.

The Others

Our Second Eight produces several strong contenders. Leading the group at #9 is Tommy Haas, 22, a solid all-courter with fine clay-court skills. Haas was runner-up in Rome this spring, won three matches at Monte Carlo and two in Hamburg before losing to Ferrero and Robredo, respectively. Shoulder pain sidelined him at Dusseldorf this week, however. Former Garros champions Yevgeny Kafelnikov (1996) and Carlos Moya (1998) are also in our second eight, where Moya, at 25, seems the solider candidate. Other second-eighters are rising stars Tommy Robredo, 20, and Andy Roddick, 19. Robredo reached the final four in the German but retired from his semi with Safin with foot trouble. Roddick's strong serve and his consistent baseline power brought him an 8-3 record in the leading clay events in Europe after he won the clay-court tournament in Houston. His growing experience on clay surely improves his chances. But he split two matches in team play at Dusseldorf this week, then stepped down with wrist and knee pain. Completing the Second Eight are Jiri Novak, Tim Henman, and Albert Costa, all of whom could and should reach the middle rounds.

The official tournament seeds are chosen based on the last 12 months of play without any weighting that might reflect court surface. Five members of our Top Eight also appear in the officially seeded first eight. Ferrero, Grosjean, and Corretja, all dirt-ballers, in our group replace the officially seeded top-eighters Haas, Kafelnikov, and Henman.

THE PREDICTIONS

My selections are based almost wholly on the computerized results, above, except that my usual rules against choosing too many high-seeded players remain in effect. Here are the eight sections of the draw and my picks. (The upper sixteen seeds are indicated in parentheses.)

--Hewitt (1), Canas (15), Moya, Schalken, Philippoussis. A miserable draw for the tournament's highest seed, as he must surmount heavy-hitting Moya, who has twice defeated Hewitt on clay recently. But reassured by our computer, we hold to Hewitt in the thought that he should have now learned an answer to Moya. Hewitt.

--Kuerten (7), Sampras (12), Costa, Escude, Gaudenzi, Gasquet. Kuerten.

--Haas (3), El Aynaoui (16), Lapentti, Pavel, Mantilla.. Our computer wants shoulder-troubled Haas but picks Pavel next. Pavel.

--Kafelnikov (5), Johansson (9), Corretja, Ljubicic, Clement, Squillari. The computer clearly tells us this one. Corretja.

--Federer (8), Ferrero (11), Gaudio, Schuettler, Boutter. Two of the top three from our study are in this section. Though the margin is narrow, we slide to Ferrero on his favored surface and his 2-0 lifetime head-to-head record over Federer. Ferrero.

--Agassi (4), Novak (14), Santoro, Robredo, Youzhny. An easy choice. Agassi.

--Henman (6), Grosjean (10), Chela, Mirnyi, Malisse, Blake. Our computer leaves no ambiguity here. Grosjean.

--Safin (2), Roddick (13), Enqvist, Nalbandian, Arthurs. Safin and Roddick are similar in their strengths and are close in our computer hierarchy, though Safin is preferred. Safin.

I choose Kuerten to win the tournament, Agassi as runner-up, and Corretja and Safin also to reach the final four.

THE WOMEN'S SINGLES

I lacked the time for similar calculations to identify the favorites among the women. Instead, we here define our Top Eight using competitive results of 2002 to date--a period that included three months on hard courts and two months on clay. Lindsay Davenport is not listed, as she has been inactive since undergoing knee surgery early in the year. Here are the rankings in official WTA points earned from January 2002 through May 20.

  1. Capriati
  2. Hingis
  3. Venus Williams
  4. Serena Williams
  5. Henin
  6. Seles
  7. Clijsters
  8. Mauresmo

Here are the W-L records of the Top Eight in head-to-head play within the group during 2002. The dominance of Serena, not evident in the point standings, is disclosed here.

Serena Williams, 8-1
Venus Williams, 5-3
Capriati, 5-4
Hingis, 4-4
Clijsters, 3-4
Seles, 3-5
Henin, 3-6
Mauresmo, 1-5

Serena's only loss to an elite player came at the German Open in Berlin, where she lost to Henin in a third-set tiebreaker. Williams answered a week later by defeating the Belgian star in two close sets in Rome. Especially persuasive are Serena's three victories this year over the defending Garros champion, Capriati, without loss.

Serena is the heavy-hitter extraordinaire. She moves to the ball with excellent speed, then prepares energetically for her delivery. Her inclination is to rip most shots with all her strength and good topspin, pounding away toward the lines and corners, ever up on the baseline ready to find the extra angle. Her serve is simply the best in women's tennis, capable of aces beyond even sister Venus's. Her powers of concentration are superb. When spells of frequent errors intrude, she persists in her attacking mode for better or worse, confident that she can prevail if and when control returns.

Unquestionably the Garros clay will reduce slightly the advantage of Serena and the other heavy hitters of our Top Eight. But it remains very unlikely that an outsider to the game's elite can win seven consecutive matches at Garros including perhaps three matches against members of the top group. Indeed, the combined W-L record this year of the eight superstars listed above against lesser-ranked players is 162-16.

The most successful outsider has been Patty Schnyder, who scored three wins against members of the group, all at Charleston. Smashnova and teenagers Hantuchova and Dokic, who rank #9-11 in 2002 results, each have two.

Hingis will not compete at Garros because of recent ankle surgery. Venus and Seles missed the last major tune-up at Rome, but both are expected to play in Paris. For our enjoyment, the slow clay will bring forth variety, touch, and the off-speed and spin shots. But the final champion will be the superstar best able to pound away with weight and consistency, meanwhile neutralizing opponent's power with her own superior mobility. In my opinion, the only player who can beat Serena this year at Garros is Serena.

THE PREDICTIONS

--Capriati (1), Tulyaganova (14), Schnyder, Stevenson, Frazier, Kournikova. Schnyder is the only possible problem here for the defending champion. Capriati.

--Dokic (7), Shaughnessy (12), Myskina, Coetzer, Martinez. Myskina recently defeated Dokic in Rome. Myskina.

--S. Williiams (3), Sanchez Vicario, Smashnova, Sugiyama. A comfortable path here. Serena.

--Henin (5), Farina Elia (9), Tanasugarn, Torrens Valero, Pierce, Nagyova. Both Nagyova and Farina Elia offer plausible alternatives to favored Henin. Farina Elia.

--Testud (8), Mauresmo (10), Raymond, Dechy, Schwartz, Serna. Mauresmo.

--Clijsters (4), Dementieva (13), Maleeva (22), Bedanova (25). No alternative here to last year's runner-up. Clijsters.

--Seles (6), Hantuchova (11), Panova, Majoli, Montolio. Youth over experience. Hantuchova.

--V. Williams (2), Schett (16), Kremer, Grande, Rubin. Venus.

I strongly believe that Serena can and will win the tournament, defeating probably Clijsters in the final. Capriati and Venus should also reach the semis.

Best wishes to all for a great tournament.

--Ray Bowers


*(footnote on the computations) A score was first obtained rating each player's performance in each predictor tournament and in the target event, Garros 2001. How well the individual-player scores correlated between each predictor and the target event were measured by spreadsheet analysis, yielding the slope and intercept of the straight-line equation describing the predictor-target relation along with the correlation coefficient. The weightings were obtained in proportion to the products of the slope and correlation coefficient of each predictor-target pair. Note that a common weighting for the three clay-court Masters Series events was employed, and the Indian Wells/Key Biscayne hard-court events were also treated commonly. In then applying the weightings to predict Garros 2002, a player absent from a predictor event was assigned a score for that event equal to 15% of his average score elsewhere.

The above is a shorter and arguably more valid version of the procedures described in the Australian Open preview column earlier this year. The method could be used to determine objectively a tournament's seedings while giving appropriate weight to past performance on given surfaces. It should be especially interesting to explore correlations next month in the case of Wimbledon, as the idea of seeding that event based on past grass-court performance has been widely suggested.

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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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