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Between The Lines
June 19, 2002 Article

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Wimbledon Outlook 2002

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Ray Bowers

The fast and irregular bounce on Wimbledon grass means that a groundstroke-based game will be less effective there than elsewhere, while extra rewards will go to net artistry, serve-returning, and--especially--serving ability. But most of today's pros, both men and women, are most comfortable in baseline play. Thus we will still see many matches where one or even both players try to win primarily from back court. The mixing of styles and the premium on attacking play will create fascinating tennis for the watcher, at least through the early rounds. But at the end, it will be the big servers who survive.

In preparing to write this column, I calculated how well various preceding tournaments predicted the results of the last two Wimbledons. (Such calculations have been described in previous Slam-preview columns here.) The weightings thus reached are used here to identify the players most likely to do well in the men's singles at Wimbledon 2002, as follows:

Grass-court predictors:
--Wimbledon 2000 - 19.1%
--Wimbledon 2001 - 19.1%
--Queen's and Halle 2001 - 4.8%
--Nottingham and Hertogenbosch 2001 - 4.8%
--Newport 2001 - 4.8%
--Queen's and Halle 2002 - 6.5%
Hard-court predictors:
--U.S. Open 2001 - 7.6%
--Australian Open 2002 - 15.2%
--Key Biscayne 2002 - 14.7%
Clay-court predictor:
--Garros 2002 - 3.4%
Total 100.0%

Ideally, five years of historical data should be used to determine the above weightings. An alternative, used here, is to dampen contrary-to-logic variations by grouping similar events together.

Here then are the players shown by the calculations most likely to succeed at forthcoming Wimbledon. Sadly, two familiar stars who earned places near the top are not shown, as neither Pat Rafter nor defending champion Goran Ivanisevic will be competing this year. Both are victims of long-standing shoulder troubles.

#1 - Andre Agassi

The veteran American's top ranking in our study comes from his strong performances in the last two Wimbledons and in U.S. Open 2001, along with his triumph this year at Key Biscayne, an event surprisingly strong as a predictor of Wimbledon.

Agassi won his only Wimbledon championship in 1992, the first of his seven Slam triumphs. His lifetime record at Wimbledon is a remarkable 40-10. Still, grass-court tennis seems not a good match for Andre's strengths--his heavy groundstroke artillery, his quickness and timing in shotmaking, his physical power and stamina. In his great rivalry with Sampras, for example, Agassi has lost both meetings at Wimbledon. On the other hand, Agassi delivers a firm serve which gains in effectiveness on grass, while his excellent skills in serve-returning, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the grass-court game, probably count inordinately in his favor.

#2 - Pete Sampras

Pete won seven Wimbledon championships in the eight years 1993-2000, relying on a superior first and second serve, strong volleying and overhead skills, and erstwhile net-rushing tactics. Wimbledon's grass seemed tailored for him, and many observers deemed him history's greatest champion, recalling that three of the four Slams were once played on that surface.

Sampras's amazing Wimbledon run ended last year in the round of 16, when Pete lost in five close sets to rising star Roger Federer. There had been an unexpectedly close escape earlier in the tournament, in the second round, when Britisher Barry Cowan carried Sampras to five sets. Then in early 2002, Pete was upset on grass by Corretja in Davis Cup play. Last week, Sampras lost to German player Kiefer on grass at Halle, Germany.

But if the great champion is no longer invulnerable on his favorite surface, as long as he can call on his magnificent serving and net game he remains capable of defeating the strongest opponent on grass.

#3 - Thomas Johansson

The Swedish star at 27 was the surprise winner of this year's Australian Open. His won-lost record at Wimbledon over the years has been very good, though he has never passed the fourth round there. Last year, he won the grass-court tune-up events at Halle and Nottingham, showing wins over Arthurs, Rusedski, Kafelnikov, Escude, and Bjorkman. Johansson is a hard hitter both in serving and off the ground, with fine net skills and temperament, strongly supporting his #3 ranking here.

Last week Johansson won two matches at Halle before losing to net-rushing Carlsen. He then returned to Sweden to seek treatment for back trouble, withdrawing from the tune-up event this week. His physical readiness to play his best remains uncertain.

#4 - Lleyton Hewitt

Our #4 star, now age 21, has won the tournament on the historic grass at Queen's the last three years. Last year, then 20, he also won at Hertogenbosch, then reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, where he lost a five-setter to French star Escude. At Queen's last week he won four consecutive matches in straight sets, then defeated Henman in their three-set final.

Hewitt's strengths are his court mobility, counter-punching ability, and fierce will to win every point. His slightness of stature and physique are probably minimized as weaknesses by the short points on grass, while the Hewitt serve--normally a neutral weapon on other surfaces--takes on added strength.

#5 - Tim Henman

Wimbledon has been by far Henman's best Slam, where his excellent serve-and-volley skills are most effective. He has been a center of attention there since his teen-aged years, and indeed reached the semis three times in the last four years. Last year he lost to Hewitt in the final at Queen's in two tiebreak sets, then carried eventual champion Ivanisevic to five sets at Wimbledon. This year Henman, now 27, again reached the final at Queen's, again closely losing to Hewitt. No Britisher has won the men's singles crown at Wimbledon since Perry in 1936.

#6 - Marat Safin

The tall Russian star won U.S. Open in 2000 and finished that year second in the ATP point standings. He struggled with injuries last year but reached the final eight at Wimbledon, losing in four sets to Ivanisevic. Year 2002 has gone better--Safin was runner-up at Australia and now leads in the ATP points race for the year to date. His huge serve--measured second-fastest to Roddick's at last month's Garros--assuredly will be effective on Wimbledon grass. Though he has the size and agility for strong net play, his natural inclinations are for the baseline, not forecourt.

#7 - Roger Federer

The rising Swiss superstar, now just 20, earned his place in our ranking by consistent solid performances in many of the predictor events. He scored a nice 5-2 W-L record at the grass warm-ups last year, then defeated Sampras at Wimbledon. He played well at Australia this year, reached the final at Key Biscayne, won the German Open on clay (this event is not one of our predictors), then lost in the first round at Garros. He again performed well in the grass prelims this year, winning three matches at Halle before losing in three to Kiefer, then defeating comeback star Richard Krajicek in the first round this week at Hertogenbosch.

For several years Federer has been seen as a future Wimbledon champion. His serving ability is outstanding, he moves well both in back court and at net, and unquestionably belongs among the favorites.

#8 - Jonas Bjorkman

Back in 1997, the Swedish doubles superstar was the world's #4 singles player, finishing the year strongly. Since then, he has been best known as partner for Rafter and now Todd Woodbridge, but he earned a place in our Top Eight here primarily by a 5-2 record in the last two Wimbledons and by reaching the quarters at Australia 2002, where he lost to eventual winner Johansson in four sets. At age 30, never before a Slam contender, and lacking an overpowering serve, he seems an unlikely Wimbledon champion. Last week he lost in the first round at Halle, falling to eventual champion Kafelnikov. But he defeated top-seeded Andy Roddick in the first round this week at Nottingham.

THE OTHERS

The margins dividing the members within our Second Eight are small. Among the group are recognized strong grass-court players Escude, Rusedski, and Todd Martin. Last November Escude repeated his Wimbledon win over Hewitt, defeating the mercurial Australian in critical Davis Cup play on grass, again in five sets. All three are plausible candidates to reach the late rounds.

The other Second Eighters are solid all-surface performers--Europeans Kafelnikov, Enqvist, Novak, Pavel, and American Gambill. All usually prefer hitting from back court, and each of them will have to choose how aggressively to seek the opportunities offered at net, weighing them against his own limitations in forecourt. Kafelnikov won the tune-up at Halle last week.

Other interesting candidates include Max Mirnyi, 6-5 in height, who showed awesome serve-and-volley skills at Garros last month, and heavy-hitting Philippoussis, who has been sidelined intermittently for two years with knee trouble. Also likely to command notice are serve-and-volley artist Wayne Arthurs, who defeated Sampras at Garros, net-rushers Prinosil and Popp, hard-working H.T. Lee, Voltchkov, and Youzhny, and rising American star James Blake. Andy Roddick has the game's consistently biggest serve and wonderful ground strokes, but is not yet superior in his serve-returning or net play. Also just outside our Second Eight is tall Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, who showed excellent results at Queen's last week. With Rios having withdrawn, the player from South America or Spain highest in our listing at #18 is Argentinian Canas.

THE OFFICIAL SEEDINGS

Tournament officials made this year's seedings in the men's singles using the standard 12-month "entry" points system except that grass-court events were counted double and a player's best grass event in the 12 months before that was added in at 75%. The result is that the highest eight seeded players are the same as our computer's Top Eight, albeit in much different sequence, except that Kafelnikov is included instead of Bjorkman. The Second Eights are quite different, however, as the official list brings in Ferrero, Canas, El Aynaoui, and Roddick, all of whom show strong clay-court results.

THE PREDICTIONS

My above calculations in all cases pointed to the highest seeded player in each section, but I also imposed my usual restrictions against choosing too many top seeds. Within each section of the draw shown here, players are listed in seeded order.

--Hewitt (1), Escude, Nieminen, Gaudio, Bjorkman, Youzhny, Rosset. Escude is a tempting alternative to the top seed, but our numbers say the Swedish star has a better chance. Bjorkman

--Federer (7), Ferrero, Schalken, Santoro, Pless, Golmard. Although Schalken or Santoro could be troublesome, the choice is Federer

--Henman (4), El Aynaoui, Robredo, Ljubicic, Sluiter, Ferreira. Henman

--Johansson (8), Canas, Schluetter, Koubek, Arazi, Dupuis. Johansson

--Kafelnikov (5), Roddick, Rusedski, Malisse, Larsson, Hrbaty. A vote for the serving and volleying skills seen in times past. Rusedski

--Agassi (3), Enqvist, Chela, Blake, Philippoussis, Krajicek. Although Blake is a tempting alternative and Philippoussis an unpredictable hurdle, I choose Agassi

--Sampras (6), Novak, Nalbandian, Mirnyi, Dent, Gambill, Massu. Mirnyi has the tougher road to the fourth round but has the big game to outplay Pete. Mirnyi

--Safin (2), Pavel, Lapentti, T.Martin, Clement, Carlsen, Pioline. I like the more-experienced and 10-year-older player here, whose physical weapons are not far behind Safin's. Martin

Relying heavily on messages from our computer, I pick Federer, Johansson, Agassi, and Martin to reach the semis, Johansson and Agassi to reach the final, and Agassi to win his eighth Slam.

THE WOMEN'S SINGLES

More clearly than in the past, the Williams sisters seem the dominant superstars of women's tennis and the prime contenders to win a forthcoming Slam. Venus and Serena possess the game's most powerful serves, both are excellent serve-returners--quick in their reaction and shot preparation, attacking in their instincts--and both have superior agility and quickness at net along with crushing overheads. The sisters are the Top Two both in the running 12-month and in the 2002 rankings--Venus leads in the 12-month, Serena in the 2002. For either to meet defeat prior to reaching the final at Wimbledon 2002 seems very improbable barring physical injury or an extended breakdown of control in shotmaking. The tournament could become a grand triumph for the sisters, as they have also entered the doubles as partners.

But nothing is certain in sport, and there are several other stars worthy of serious notice. Closest to the sisters in power, consistency, and athleticism is Jennifer Capriati, winner of this year's Australian Open, who last year defeated Serena in three close sets at Wimbledon. Capriati has, however, lost to Serena four times in 2002 including in the semis at Garros last month. Past champions Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis will not compete this year because of surgeries, while Monica Seles--a serious threat on slower surfaces--cannot challenge strongly on grass. The Belgian superstar Henin earned world attention in reaching the final last year and in carrying Venus to a third set. But Justine has slipped backwards in the rankings of late, having disappeared early at Garros with flu-like symptoms. Her countrywoman Clijsters has also shown disappointing results this year. Jelena Dokic, now in the Top Eight for 2002, showed grass-court success in triumphing last week at Birmingham. Meanwhile strong serving should lift Mauresmo, Stevenson, Molik, and Daniilidou to the middle rounds and perhaps beyond. Veterans Tauziat and Raymond bring volleying tactics reminiscent of an earlier era. Meanwhile in the doubles, the wonderful Raymond-Stubbs pair have the talent to counter the Williams power.

THE PREDICTIONS

Given the chasm that has recently marked women's tennis at about the #8 position, there are few plausible alternatives to the top eight seeds. We offer four here, mainly from guesswork.

--V. Williams (1), Raymond, Schnyder, Suarez. Venus

--Clijsters (5), Farina Elia, Coetzer, Maleeva. Clijsters

--Seles (4), Smashnova, Tanasugarn, Sugiyama. With a nice win at Vienna last week, Smashnova

--Henin (6), Dementieva, Majoli, Schett, Nagyova. Henin

--Testud (8), Mauresmo, Myskina, Pratt, Pierce, Molik. Mauresmo

--Capriati (3), Shaughnessy, Stevenson, Bedanova. Having shown a pattern of improving results lately, Stevenson

--Dokic (7), Hantuchova, Kremer, Dechy. Hantuchova

--S. Williams (2), Tulyaganova, Panova, C. Fernandez. Serena

For the semis I choose Venus, Henin, Stevenson, and Serena. To reach the final, I choose the sisters.

But which sister will it be? Venus is the tournament's two-time defending champion, while Serena seemed the stronger this spring, though for a time during their final-round meeting at Garros last month the two seemed about equal. The first serves of both will be more difficult to return at Wimbledon, the second serves less attackable, though both players should benefit equally from this circumstance. If Venus is the more patient striker of the ball and probably the better defensive player, these assets will pale somewhat on the fast grass. To win, Venus must choose to attack net regularly. Probably Serena is the more vulnerable to upset in the early rounds, but once both reach the final, once again in my opinion only Serena can defeat Serena. For Serena it will be easier on the fast grass than at Paris.

--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.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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