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Between The Lines
July 30, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Midsummer Musings

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Ray Bowers

Midsummer in Washington often brings heat, humidity, and air pollution. At such times even this fanatic avoids hard singles play outdoors. Late July also begins the pro tennis wars in the northern half of this continent--the Masters events in Canada and Cincinnati, the excellent tournaments at Indianapolis and here, a final week of tune-ups, and finally U.S. Open. The women pros have a different itinerary, also finishing at the Open.

The strongest memories of recent summers are of Pat Rafter's astonishing runs of 1997 and 1998, both of which led to triumphs at the Open. One also savors Agassi's victories in consecutive years here in Washington, where Andre annually provides the main drawing card. Then came Corretja's impossible upset of Agassi in the final round here two years ago and, last year, Andy Roddick's triumph, fulfilling the promise he showed here as a tour rookie in 2000. Among the women, we treasure the triumphs of Venus Williams at U.S. Open the past two summers, in both cases following victory at Wimbledon.

THE WOMEN'S RACE 2002

Serena Williams's Garros and Wimbledon championships this year, sister Venus's runner-up finish in both events, and Jennifer Capriati's triumph at Australian Open have left these three American women firmly atop the WTA point standings for 2002 to date. Each of them has superior power off the ground along with the superior mobility needed to neutralize an opponent's power. To produce a softish, defensive shot against any of them is guaranteed to elicit ever-heavier bombardment. It is hard to believe that women's tennis has ever produced the ferocity and energy that happens whenever two of these three superstars meet.

The first three weeks of this summer's tour are in California, the traditional homeland of hard courts. We can expect early answers to several questions, including the readiness of Californian Lindsay Davenport to reclaim her accustomed place at or close to the top following absence because of knee surgery in January. Her extreme power will surely return, as will her former mobility and mental strengths. Whether she succeeds will depend on her ability to send her thunderbolts to the corners with the consistency of the past--i.e., without missing too often. Lindsay made an encouraging start in Fed Cup and then at Stanford.

California should also give answers on the Belgian teen-agers Clijsters and Henin, who in 2001 ranked in the world's top eight and together captured Fed Cup for their nation. Can they continue to rise or have they reached plateaus? Clijsters, returning from injuries, reached the final at Stanford, losing to Venus. Henin has played well so far this year but was diagnosed with a finger fracture at Stanford and will be sidelined for several weeks.

We will see the other top stars this summer--Seles, Dokic, Mauresmo, though Seles withdrew from San Diego with foot trouble. Especially interesting will be the play of the only newcomer to our top group, Daniela Hantuchova. The Slovak teen-ager finished last year at #38 but is now #10 in the 2002 race, having won at Indian Wells. She has an impressive winning record this year against the other top players discussed here but has been inconsistent against outsiders.

Later this summer we can expect Martina Hingis to return from her foot, knee, and hip problems. She will again face her standing challenge--to summon the weight of power needed to compete with the aforementioned sluggers. Her 2002 record against the top players named here prior to her departure was 5-5, but she was 21-0 against all others.

Listed here are the leaders for 2002 to date (July 29). Serena's superiority is even stronger than indicated, as she has defeated Venus or Capriati a total of seven times this year without loss.

  1. Serena, 3936
  2. Venus, 3426
  3. Capriati, 2759
  4. Seles, 2409
  5. Henin, 2319

THE MEN'S RACE 2002

The men's race has been less orderly. Last year's champion, Lleyton Hewitt, lost early at Australian Open and was then sidelined with health problems. The surprise winner at Melbourne Park was Swedish star Johansson. Hewitt came back to win the tournament at Indian Wells, defeating Henman in the final. Agassi then won Key Biscayne, defeating Federer. At the end of March, still the leader in the year-to-date standings was Johansson.

A new look emerged from the two-month clay season. Strong performances by Marat Safin and the triumph at Roland Garros by Al Costa moved these two stars to first and second place, respectively. In early June Italian Open winner Agassi was third; German Open winner Federer was fourth. Then came the grass-court season, where Lleyton Hewitt captured both Queens and Wimbledon and thus took command in the standings. Here are the year-to-date leaders, as of July 29, just prior to the Canadian.

  1. Hewitt, 524
  2. Safin, 397
  3. Henman, 378
  4. Costa, 378
  5. Agassi, 367

Hewitt's margin in first place is strong, and as defending champion at U.S. Open and probable top seed there, the Australian superstar will be difficult to pass. But in Toronto, in his first North American outing this summer, Hewitt was outplayed and defeated by veteran clay artist Felix Mantilla. Mantilla drove the ball vastly more effectively than when I last watched him a year or two ago. The most dangerous rival to overtake Hewitt in the standings this summer is probably second-place Marat Safin, winner of U.S. Open two years ago. The tall Russian complained of overwork last year but is well rested now, having not competed since Wimbledon.

Pat Rafter, who is now retired, had the best W-L record on the North American hard courts last summer (18-3). Next was Gustavo Kuerten (19-4). But the pleasant Brazilian, having recently returned to the tour from hip surgery, withdrew from his first-round match at Toronto today with tenderness in the hip area. Just behind Kuerten in last summer's results were Sampras (15-4) and Haas (16-5). Since then, Sampras's path has been downward, that of Haas distinctly upward except that he withdrew from competition when his parents were hurt this spring. Haas, at 24, could be approaching his prime.

I wish the players success this summer. I admire all of them, including the artists from the clay-court countries, who seem on the verge of winning on hard courts more frequently. I look forward to watching the new generation of U.S. stars, including Dent, Blake, Roddick, Morrison, and others. Still, the summer favorites remain the former U.S.Open champions--Hewitt, Safin, Agassi, and, despite many recent disappointments, Sampras.

WORLD TENNIS TODAY

Reminiscences of summers long ago make one appreciate that--with all the criticisms of things that are wrong with today's pro game--tennis is vastly better today, both for the players and for the sporting public. No longer are the top players divided among amateurs and pros, where one group competes in the great international championships, the other tries to earn a decent living on court. Every week fans can now follow, and often watch, the world's stars--superbly trained and at prime condition--in match and tournament competition. Unlike in most other pro sports, in tennis the income of the players is linked immediately to their competitive results. Watchers sometimes forget that for most competitors the outcomes of the early rounds on Monday and Tuesday are just as vital as are the finals on Sunday for the superstars. The same can be said of the qualifying contenders the previous weekend. Meanwhile television makes it possible for aspiring tennists, young and old, to see and copy the techniques of the world's best, inevitably growing the game and its values. Of the world's women athletes, tennis players are by far the best known and paid. Practically none of all this existed in my boyhood.

Best wishes to readers everywhere for a fine summer watching or following the pros in North America. If you see me at the Legg Mason in Washington, please introduce yourself so we can talk.

--Ray Bowers

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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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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