It is rare when one of the top eight or nine women pros loses to a player
outside this group. The pattern was at least temporarily broken, however, at
the Morgan-Chase Open outside Los Angeles in early August. Both Capriati and
Clijsters lost to non-elite players, while Serena Williams, Dokic, and
Davenport were in turn defeated by lower-ranked Chanda Rubin. Order was
largely restored, however, the next week at Canadian Open in Montreal, except
that Clijsters lost to Barbara Schett in the third round. Mauresmo, showing
heavy topspin and good variety, defeated Capriati to win that Tier One event.
It is clear that the Williams sisters when healthy are at a level of their
own, one almost surely never before seen in women's tennis. Serena captured
this year's Wimbledon and Garros, and Venus has won the last two U.S. Opens.
Their power, mobility, and mental strengths of the sisters are superlative.
Serena's triumphs this spring would make her the Open favorite except that
she withdrew at Montreal with knee trouble. Venus thus requires the shorter
Two other candidates have plausible chances of denying one of the sisters the
crown. Three-time Slam champion Lindsay Davenport has made a good start in
her comeback from January surgery. Her power in serving and stroking is
devastating, though her court agility is well below that of both sisters.
Davenport's flattish rockets require a level of precision not evident in her
loss to Rubin in California. Meanwhile current Australian Open champion
Jennifer Capriati probably equals the sisters in power, consistency, and
fighting spirit though her results have slipped slightly on this summer's
hard courts. Her second serve remains vulnerable to attack by the sisters.
If the crown seems only remotely within the reach of the other elites, all of
them are capable of defeating Capriati or Davenport occasionally, or indeed
either Williams sister playing at less than her best. We include in this
group the young Belgian stars Henin and Clijsters, rising Dokic, and veteran
Seles. (Dokic withdrew against Capriati last week with thigh trouble.) We add
Rubin for her win in California, Mauresmo for hers in Canada along with
consistent strong results, and newcomer Hantuchova. Also included is
superstar Martina Hingis, who returned from surgery to move nicely through
two rounds in Montreal before faltering to Dokic, 6-4 6-3. Just outside the
group is strong Eleni Daniilidou, 19, who this year shows five close losses
to the above primes along with wins on grass over Henin and Mauresmo.
Here are the odds as I see them:
Capriati, Davenport, 15-1
Clijsters, Henin, 20-1
Hingis, Seles, Mauresmo, 50-1
Dokic, Rubin, Hantuchova, 75-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
Here are the eight sections of the draw and my predictions. The usual rule
allows choosing only four of the top eight seeds to reach the quarters.
--S. Williams (1), Myskina (15), Bedanova, Dechy, Tulyaganova, Safina. No
problems here. Serena.
--Henin (8), Hantuchova (11), Majoli, Tanasugarn, Granville. Hantuchova
defeated Henin in straight sets at Indian Wells this year. Hantuchova.
--Davenport (4), Farina Elia (13), Kremer, Sanchez V, Callens. Davenport.
--Dokic (5), Dementieva (12), Panova, Stevenson, Schiavone, Bovina,
Kournikova. With Dokic hurting, it's perhaps Anna's last good chance for
another Slam quarter. This year she has defeated Dementieva and twice taken
Dokic to three sets. Kournikova.
--Clijsters (7), Mauresmo (10), Schnyder, Daniilidou, Nagyova. Coming off her
triumph in Montreal, Mauresmo.
--Capriati (3), Maleeva (16), Sugiyama, Shaughnessy. Capriati.
--Seles (6), Hingis (9), Smashnova, Suarez, Pierce. Hingis defeated Seles
three times early this year, and has a lifetime 16-4 record against her.
--V. Williams (2), Rubin (14), Raymond, Schett. Venus.
Davenport, Capriati, and the Williamses will prevail in the quarter-finals.
The sisters will each win their semi, and the Open will remain Venus's
tournament. Venus will defeat Serena in a close-fought final.
THE MEN'S SINGLES
The widespread parity in men's pro tennis persists. Only one player, Andy
Roddick, reached the quarters of both recent Masters events--Canada and
Cincinnati. This is remarkable because the two events are held on consecutive
weeks on similar surfaces with essentially the same entry field. Then Roddick
failed to reach the quarters at the Legg Mason last week here in Washington.
Another general observation is the growing ability of players from Spain and
South America--the supposed clay-court specialists--to win on faster courts.
Argentina's Canas triumphed in Canada, and Spain's Moya in Cincinnati. Also
reaching the semis in Cincinnati were Gonzalez of Chile and Ferrero of Spain.
A week later, Rios of Chile and Mantilla of Spain reached the semis in
Washington and Indianapolis, respectively. These results echoed a message of
Wimbledon, where three other South Americans reached the quarters.
There is today much commonality in the playing styles of the top male
warriors. Most of them play an attacking game from back court. They rally
with astonishing power, often gunning for the corners and sidelines. They are
able to rip outright winners against medium-paced shots from baseline center.
Their forehands and backhands usually carry good topspin for control, and
they often keep margins over net small, especially for finding the short
corners (near service line). Their strong first serves can produce easy
points, and their second serves are difficult to attack. They are in superb
physical condition, and their court mobility is as astonishing as their
ground-stroke power. Variety in pace and spin is advantageous for them but
less important than consistency in strong hitting. Many of them are not
excellent volleyers. Indeed for most players, the net is not the place to be
unless opponent is placed in deep trouble.
But what can be done against an opponent who on a given day is the better
player at all the above? In my opinion, superior net skills can become a
crucial asset in such a case, at the pro level as elsewhere.
Here are thoughts on three prime candidates to win the U.S. Open, from
watching and questioning them last week at the Legg Mason.
ANDY RODDICK, age 19
This was Roddick's third year here. As a pro rookie in 2000 having only four
previous tour matches, he defeated three opponents in or near the Top 100.
Last year he won the tournament, convincingly. Since then his ranking has
continued to climb, and it has been interesting to watch his progress
regularly by TV.
Roddick's foremost weapon remains his strong serving. His first serve carries
the highest velocities in the game, and his second is loaded with severe spin
and good pace. Both produce many points outright or often elicit soft
replies. His ground strokes are superb for gaining the upper hand in
exchanges and attacking weak offerings. Meanwhile his serve-returning,
volleying, and court-covering abilities remain short of world-champion
quality. Andy, who will be 20 on August 30, is a year older than Sampras in
1990 when Pete--then like Andy a prime strong-serving teenager--captured his
I had been wondering whether Andy, now listed 6-2 in height, envisioned
becoming more of a net attacker. Thus in an interview session early last
week, I asked him whether he thought he has the ability to become a dominant
net player like Sampras. He became a little irritated by the question but
gave a polite answer. He said that he certainly wants to add every weapon he
can, including a stronger net game. But his immediate and prime focus now is
in winning matches. That means that he must depend on his strong serving
ability and his attack game from back court. Legg Mason watchers this week
would see him at net sometimes, he added, but they will by no means see a
persistent serve-and-volley artist.
Two nights later against Brazilian Meligeni, Roddick trailed by a set and
began serving to equalize the second set at 5 games all. To my surprise,
Roddick came to net behind practically every first serve in that critical
game. He came in behind his second serve once, indeed successfully. But these
unaccustomed tactics worked only briefly. After the score reached 30-all,
Andy's volleys lacked depth, power, or touch. Meligeni ran down several of
them for immediate winners, extending the game. Finally a Roddick
double-fault ended the game and the match.
The disaster seemed to confirm my growing belief that that to reach the
highest level, Roddick urgently needs to build his big-game skills at net. He
will meet difficult opponents--like Meligeni that night--who are able to get
his serve into play and answer his baseline power. And also there will be
times--like against Meligeni-- when his own serve and ground-stroke rocketry
are not at their best.
I afterwards asked Meligeni how he assessed the final moments of the match.
The Brazilian answered that the entire match had been a mental battle, and
that toward the finish Roddick had lost that battle. The pressure came from
everything that had gone before--the strong crowd presence and its expectation
that Andy should win, a disputed break point that went against him, and
Meligeni's own consistent serve-returning and shot-making. As Meligeni saw
it, there was an element of desperation in Andy's resort to serve-and-volley
tennis at the critical time--a product of the mental struggle of the evening
to that point.
ANDRE AGASSI, 32.
Agassi three years ago reconstructed himself, basing his game on excellent
stamina and physical strength, consistent power hitting on the rise from
close on the baseline, strong serving and overhead work, and superior
patience and determination. He sometimes talked of breaking down an
opponent's resistance, and matters often seemed to happen just that way. The
formula is still effective, though the annual increments of strong newcomers
keep advancing and Andre is no longer #1 in the rankings. Still, he remains a
plausible candidate to win the coming Open. By my count, no player has a
better two-year W-L record on the summer hard courts (years 2001 and 2002
combined). A two-time U.S. Open champion, last year Agassi lost to Sampras in
the quarters in four tiebreak sets.
One of the finest matches I've ever attended was Andre's quarter-final win
Friday night over Thomas Enqvist. The two players have very similar
strengths--both pound away toward the sidelines and corners with consistency
and power, both serve with excellent authority, both have nicely compact
forehands and two-handed backhands, neither comes to net except to end an
occasional point. Sitting in the press area high above stadium court, I was
dazzled by the pace and geometry of their wonderful exchanges. Enqvist's
superb serving and baseline power game seemed slightly stronger than Agassi's
through most of the going, but with the Swedish star serving for the match in
the second set Enqvist's serving ability disappeared. Andre somehow leveled
matters and eventually prevailed. He afterwards confirmed that the tough
match had been superb preparation for U.S. Open, though of course he would
have preferred an easier time. It had been three hours of tennis wonder.
In an earlier session I asked Agassi whether he still works as hard as ever
between events. He replied that he likes to think so. But there was no strong
affirmation in his voice, and I took it that the almost fanatical resolve
that drove his stunning comeback three years ago has withered somewhat,
hardly surprisingly. Thus even before Agassi's loss the next evening to
Blake, the remark made it hard to see Andre as the top candidate for this
Meanwhile Enqvist's strong performance, both against Agassi and earlier
against Burgsmuller, suggested that he might do well on the faster courts at
JAMES BLAKE, 22
James Blake's semi-final demolition of Agassi on Saturday evening was
stunning in its completeness. Only in the final few games, when Blake's
perfection faded briefly, could the capacity crowd escape its amazement. Just
a few months ago in writing about another match, it seemed appropriate to
write that Blake's weaker backhand side had managed to hold up adequately.
But on this night, the Blake backhand was a superb weapon, capable of
producing sizzling winners seemingly at will, either down-the-line or
severely cross-court. Meanwhile Blake's short-backswing forehand produced
even better power and placement, often in unexpected situations. His net
game, too, was very good, and his first serve excellent at regularly above
120 mph. Blake also looked good digging to the corners for Agassi hard ones.
Assuredly, Agassi was not fully rested after his ordeal with Enqvist the
night before. But there is no denying that James Blake that evening was a
superstar. Probably times of such perfection will come only sometimes for
Blake. (James at one point shook his head and smiled in disbelief after yet
another outright winner.) But the fundamental arsenal, including the
potential for more-persistent net attack, is unquestionably there. Blake has
improved every month since he first came on the world scene. What we glimpsed
here against Agassi confirmed his vast talent.
But Blake's work was not done. In 100-degree temperatures on Sunday
afternoon, he and Paradon Srichaphan performed yet another amazing drama.
During the first set Srichaphan moved and stroked with marvelous flexibility,
in both respects outperforming the American. Blake in contrast was obviously
tight both mentally and physically. I wondered if he had stretched amply
since playing Agassi the night before. But Blake resolutely hit though his
problems, gradually loosening his body and mind, capturing a close second
set, and eventually dominating an exhausted and cramping Srichaphan.
Blake's game should be even stronger on the somewhat faster surface at the
Open. He corrected a reporter during one interview last week, explaining that
he is not a serve-and-volley player though he likes to be at net a few times
per game. His best tournament this year prior to Legg Mason was on grass at
Newport, where he reached the final. Against Krajicek at Wimbledon he lost
11-9 in the fifth set.
There is much to admire in Blake's personal character. I also admire his
fluency in expressing himself. After his third-round tough win over Coria
here I asked him to describe the Argentine player's court mobility. Blake
gave an impromptu and perceptive review of Coria's game, including court
speed that is "as good as Hewitt's" and an ability to produce strong shots
from positions of seeming adversity.
Roddick, Agassi, Blake, and Enqvist are among the prime favorites entering
U.S. Open. Four other primes played last week at Indianapolis--Hewitt, Safin,
Haas, and Henman. Of these, only Haas reached the Indy quarters, and he
showed severe arm pain in losing to Rusedski, who won the tournament. Clearly
the possibilities at the Open are wide. We here list 25 candidates whose odds
to win the Open, as I see them, are shorter than 100-1.
Roddick, Haas, Henman, Blake, Rusedski, 33-1
Sampras, Federer, Canas, Ferrero, Srichaphan, Enqvist, 45-1
Grosjean, Kuerten, Clement, Kafelnikov, Mantilla, Pavel, Dent, Gonzalez,
Krajicek, Philippoussis, 70-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
--Hewitt (1), Novak (14), Rios, Blake, Rusedski, Krajicek. This is a very
tricky and interesting section. Blake took Hewitt to five sets in last year's
Open and is now improved. Rusedski defeated Hewitt at Indy recently. The
Aussie has gotten tangled in another public controversy. Krajicek and Rios
are dangerous. The choice is Blake.
--Costa (8), Johansson (12), El Aynaoui, Robredo, Arazi, HT Lee. Pick a
clay-courter here. Robredo defeated Ferrero in last year's Open. Robredo.
--Kafelnikov (4), Federer (13), Malisse, Mirnyi, Nieminen. Federer is clearly
ahead of Kafelnikov and Malisse in head-to-head play. Kafelnikov's high seed
seems bizarre. Federer.
--Agassi (6), Moya (9), Gaudio, Pavel, Gambill. Moya was very impressive in
Cincinnati and has been strong elsewhere. Moya.
--Henman (5), Roddick (11), Corretja, Chela, Dent, Ulihrach, Mantilla.
Roddick defeated Henman at last year's Open. Roddick.
--Haas (3), Canas (15), Sampras, Enqvist, Srichaphan, Kratochvil. Haas has
defeated Enqvist six straight times. Either player, as well as Canas, is too
much for Pete. Haas.
--Ferrero (7), Grosjean (10), Schuettler, Gonzalez, Clement, Arthurs, Coria.
Grosjean is probably the faster on court. Ferrero has won the last two
head-to-heads and has the better history in the Open. Ferrero.
--Safin (2), Nalbandian (16), Schalken, Lapentti, Santoro, Kuerten,
Philippoussis. Safin has been disappointing lately and withdrew from Indy
with flu symptoms. Kuerten and Philippoussis could show equivalent firepower.
I see Blake, Moya, Roddick, and Safin reaching the semis and the two
Europeans then advancing to the final. Moya will finally prevail against a
very tired Safin.
Please be advised that in four years of picking Slam champions here (a total
of 16 men's and 16 women's Slams), I have been right 37.5% of the time.
WATCHING THE DOUBLES
Having watched mostly singles this year on TV, I found the doubles at Legg
Mason appealing, especially early in the week before the theater of the
late-round singles claimed attention. I took in three doubles matches the
first day, Monday, including a nice win by David Adams and his partner,
Schalken. Adams is an attractive doubles artist--animated, hard-hitting,
aggressive, who nicely balances the stiffish but usually accurate Schalken.
Also advancing was a well-tempered, team-oriented Justin Gimelstob with a
seeming inward-focused Mike Hill. But my favorites of the day were
Argentina's Lucas Arnold and Spain's Alex Corretja. The two were expert at
producing very low and medium-paced replies--seeking opponents' feet,
extending the points, avoiding errors and gift sitters. Along with their
wondrous touch, they were also good at jumping on soft balls at net and in
firing bullets when appropriate. The victims were the young pair of Frank
Dancevic and Alex Kim, where Canadian Dancevic, just 17, showed credentials
impressive for his years. If, as seemed likely, his ground strokes equal his
doubles skills, tallish Dancevic should be a future singles champion. (The
next day I watched Dancevic claim his first pro singles win, over the
21-year-old Russian Davydenko. Toward the end of the match, Dancevic indeed
revealed the kind of baseline power and consistency that I expected.)
Next day I enjoyed watching the Chilean pair Fernando Gonzalez and Marcelo
Rios. I earlier wondered whether the sometimes uncommunicative Rios could be
an effective senior partner for the mercurial Gonzalez. But when the two
Chileans entered the packed Grandstand Court, Rios was grinning
uncharacteristically to the mild ovation. Their opponents, the undersized
Rochus brothers of Belgium, were even more avid grinners, and their twinkling
manner persisted as long as the score stayed close. The Rochus grins faded,
however, as the superior serving power and net play of the Chileans began to
prevail. It was a wonderful match for watching, marked by good
serve-returning by all and plenty of close-in action. Only occasionally would
someone--usually Gonzalez--tee off for an all-or-nothing blast of the kind
often seen in Monday's play. Rios showed soft hands in volleying remindful of
Corretja's. Later in the week I was disappointed when, with Rios still in the
singles and Gonzalez hurting, the pair withdrew from the doubles.
Doubles fans like to argue that a pair of pro doubles specialists will
usually defeat a pickup pair of highly ranked and better-known singles stars.
I thus looked forward to watching Argentine doubles artists Etlis-Lobo play
singles stars Richard Krajicek and his partner Hrbaty. I guessed that
Hrbaty-Krajicek would be uncomfortable and that the Argentines would win.
My prediction proved correct for one set only. Krajicek at first missed many
easy volleys and seemed out of sorts, though his fine serving preserved his
own service games. Etlis-Lobo played solidly and with conventional
aggressiveness at net. But in the second set, the Europeans began cutting
down their errors and picking up the power. The Argentines continued
routinely to capture net position when serving, but the Hrbaty-Krajicek
rocketry from back court began consistently skimming the net, often producing
errors or weak replies. Hrbaty-Krajicek lost only five games in the last two
I later watched Hrbaty-Krajicek lose to the Bryan twins. The Bryans play
strong doubles tactics like the others, while their serves, returns, and
volleys are especially firm. They are quick, strong, and they almost never
miss. I also enjoyed watching the fourth-seeded Czech pair Damm-Suk twice
advance, including over Adams-Schalken. Damm is the heavier hitter of the two
Czechs, Suk the more agile and the finer craftsman. They use the I formation
often and comfortably.
The most emotional match was the quarter-final win of Gimelstob-Hill over the
top-seeded pair, Johnson-Palmer. In three exciting sets filled with varied
action, the superb backhand of Gimelstob in serve-returning and in general
play plainly made the difference.
Not once in five days did I observe a doubles server fail to follow his serve
to net. But having been intrigued by the first-round success of
Hrbaty-Krajicek in winning points by back-court firepower, I decided to
attempt measuring the value of the net position. I tallied those situations
in the Gimelstob-Hill upset of Johnson-Palmer where one pair (usually the
servers) had successfully attained good net position with the other pair
fairly deep and the point's outcome still in contention. In 45 such
instances, the pair at net won 26 points, the pair in back court won 19.
I did not watch the semis or final. All were won by the higher-seeded pairs.
On Sunday, second-seeded Wayne Black-Ullyett won the tournament by defeating
the third-seeded Bryans in three close sets. More than ever, I wished that
the year-end doubles championship was still in Hartford, within my driving