Melbourne Park annually produces superb tennis and arresting drama. Discussion persists about the Rebound Ace courts, where the rubberized subsurface produces a spongy quality enjoyable for most players but where the high traction leads to injuries. The speed off the bounce, which decreases when more grit is mixed into the top layer, is this year said to be faster "by about ten percent" than last. Extreme heat sometimes raises concern for the health of athletes and spectators, feeding the seemingly sensible idea of holding future Opens in March. Currently, past great champion Margaret Smith Court is being honored in the naming of the second convertible arena at the site. Although more name players will be absent from the Open this year than usual, I will be joining inveterate tv-tennis watchers worldwide in late-night fascination.
Here, we identify the leading contenders by weighting results in various predictor events. To determine the proper weights, I used data from three recent years to correlate tournament results with subsequent results at Melbourne Park. (The method is discussed in a footnote at the end of this column.) Here are our weightings for predicting Australian Open 2003:
--Australian Open 2002, 29.2%
--Roland Garros 2002, 7.0%
--Wimbledon 2002, 24.2%
--U.S. Open 2002, 32.1%
--Early Jan 2003 tune-ups, 7.5%
(Note that players not yet age 23 are boosted by an allowance of 10% in expectation of better-than-average improvement.)
The calculations produced four prime candidates, of whom onePete Samprasis not competing and is therefore omitted from our discussion. An unexpected player thus moves into our top four, ahead of several officially seeded stars.
LLEYTON HEWITT, #1
With blinding court speed, solid ground-strokes from both sides, good serving ability, and the sports highest game-winning percentage when receiving serve, Lleyton Hewitt at age 21 stands atop the pro game. Top-seeded at Melbourne last year but weakened by illness, he lost in the first round. But after that he won Wimbledon, reached the semis at U.S. Open, and captured Masters Cup in Shanghai to finish atop the point standings for the second straight year.
Hewitt began new year 2003 at Hopman Cup in Perth, where after winning two matches he lost to Jiri Novak in split sets. Hewitts serving was below his standard, and in returning Novak was able to press Hewitts second delivery. Then in the championship round, Hewitt lost to James Blake playing at his best. In a post-match interview, Blake said his plan had been to avoid offering pace with his backhand and try to dominate with his forehand. Hewitt, who is not competing this week, should be fresh for Melbourne Park.
Hewitt is admired worldwide as an athlete and champion but is not especially beloved. His feisty ways on court surely annoy his opponents, and his shrill public protests after a recent ATP fine left an image of self-absorption.
An Australian Open championship seems surely in his future, and despite his slow start in 2003 his chances this month appear excellent.
ANDRE AGASSI, #2
Last year Agassi withdrew just before the start of Australian Open after hurting his hand and wrist against Sampras the week before. But he finished the year #2 in the point standings, having captured three Masters Series events and reaching the final against Sampras at U.S. Open. He played in only 16 tournaments. (Hewitt played 23 events, Safin 30, and both played Davis Cup.)
Andre at 32 remains one of the games few male superstars. His patented strengths also remainexcellent physical strength and stamina, relentless pressure with every delivery, superb ability to drive the ball on the rise, good ability to attack opponents serve, and a little-noted second-serve effectiveness. (Last year he led all pros in second-serve point-winning percentage, at 56%.)
Andres strengths have been well suited to Melbourne Park, where the courts have been typically on the slow side. He has competed in six Australian Opens, triumphing three times and never losing prior to the fourth round. Fresh from several wins in the tune-up at Kooyong (Melbourne) and advantaged as the second seed at the Open, he could very well collect his eighth Slam.
MARAT SAFIN, #3
The powerful Russian star at 6-4 and 195 pounds will turn 23 during the tournament--superb numbers promising yet higher greatness ahead. A year ago he was the runner-up at Melbourne Park, losing in a fourth-set tiebreak to Johansson. He finished 2002 strongly, winning the Paris Indoors (where he defeated both Hewitt and Agassi) and contributing two singles wins in Russias Davis Cup triumph in Paris. (In the interval between these events, he lost all three of his matches at Masters Cup.)
Safin is among the worlds strongest servers, having ranked fourth among the pros last year in total aces. He is also extremely powerful off the ground, able to move athletically and deliver rockets from either side with little seeming effort and with excellent consistency. He can be imposing at net, but he generally wins points from back court. He is dangerous on all surfaces, especially when rested and fully healthy. But he withdrew after winning two matches in the Sydney tournament this week, citing trouble in the right shoulder and blaming excessive practice.
JIRI NOVAK, #4
Occupying fourth place in our calculated seedings is Czech star Jiri Novak. Novak, now 27, has finished in the worlds top 100 every year since 1995, rising to a #7 finish last year. He reached the semi-finals at Melbourne Park last year, then lost to Johansson in five sets. He started 2003 strongly, winning all three of his singles matches at Hopman Cup, defeating Hewitt, and winning his first two matches in this weeks tune-up at Auckland..
Novaks forte is the return of serve. He finished second to Hewitt last year in game-winning percentage when receiving (31%), and he led all pros in converting break points (47%). Tall at 6-3, he appears neither speedy nor extremely powerful when matched against the other top pros, but he brings a solid game with a strong forehand and admirable two-handed backhand.
Many of Novaks laurels have been in doubles, where his serve-returning strengths from the left court have sometimes produced astonishing statistics. He became a favorite of mine at the year-end ATP world doubles championship in Hartford several years ago for giving an extended locker-room interview and for his unfailing friendly manner to Helen and me in the tournament breakfast room.
Novaks name is surprising among the prime contenders here, but his credentials for success are real.
#5 THROUGH #16 AND BEYOND
Absences for physical reasons seriously deplete the field at the next level. Six players who would have been in our top sixteen will be absent--defending champion Thomas Johansson, Britishers Henman and Rusedski, Europeans Haas and Clement, along with Sampras. Also away is Marcelo Rios, who would have moved up into the group.
Prominent in our sixteen are several rising stars, all age 22 or underXavier Malisse, Fernando Gonzalez, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian, and Mikhail Youzhny. Of the group, the strongest credentials belong to Federer, who at age 21 last fall reached the final four at Masters Cup and finished the year as world #6. All were defeated in the first or second rounds of the final tune-ups at Sydney and Auckland this week, however.
Also in our first sixteen are veterans Schalken, Ferreira, El Aynaoui, Costa, Lapentti, and Kafelnikov. Schalken occupies our #5 position and brings a strong ground game including a remarkable backhand two-hander, though his serve is surprisingly ineffective given his physical stature and strength. Both Ferreira and El Aynaoui made excellent gains in the rankings last year, but at age 31 neither can be expected to make the further jump to a Slam championship. The others too are unlikely winners. Kafelnikov is close to retirement, and clay warriors Costa and Lapentti lost in the first round at Sydney.
In looking beyond our prime sixteen we encounter two young, improving players of similar age and physique. Paradorn Srichaphan of Bangkok, at height 6-1, is a strong server and attacking hitter, blessed with fine overall match skills. American James Blake, also 6-1, is equally powerful with a fast-improving backhand and good net-attack inclinations. Both are age 23. Both broke into the worlds top 100 relatively late for future superstars, Blake in 2001, Srichaphan in 2002 when he jumped to #18. The two met in a superb final here in Washington last summer where Blake outlasted Srichaphan, who was fatigued after an extended semi. Blake had beaten Agassi in a stunning display the day before. Both started well in 2003, Srichaphan winning the tournament at Chennai and Blake defeating Hewitt in the Hopman Cup final. But at Sydney this week, both men lost to Spanish stars--Srichaphan to Ferrero and Blake to Moya.
Both winners just noted--Moya and Ferrero--require a close look. Neither player did well in the 2002 Slams heavily weighted here, but both reached the semis at Masters Cup last fall, played on indoor hard courts in Shanghai. In their semi-final meeting Ferrero, 22, defeated Moya in split sets. Ferrero then carried Hewitt to a five-set final. Neither Ferrero nor Moya can any longer be called clay specialists, though the term probably fits Ferrero the closer. Moya, 26, is a former Australian Open runner-up (1997). The remaining array of fine Spanish and South American performers seems endless, including Corretja, Canas, and Coria. Expectedly, their chances will weaken if indeed the courts are toward the fast side. Kuerten continues his return from surgery but brings a strangely weak past record at Melbourne.
The field is loaded with other interesting performers, any of them capable of at least one major surprise and perhaps an extended run. American Gambill had a good tournament at Doha last week, but Koubek won their final and followed with a good start at Auckland. Serve-and-volleyers are represented by Aussie Wayne Arthurs, who led the tour in aces last year, and Max Mirnyi, who just misses our second sixteen. Hard-hitters Ljubicic and H.-T. Lee are ever-dangerous. Russian Davydenko, 21, won the Adelaide tune-up last week. Speedy French star Grosjean was a Melbourne semi-finalist in 2001. Krajicek and Philippoussis persist in their comebacks.
Here are my odds for winning the tournament:
Novak, Federer, each 25-1
Roddick, Schalken, Ferrero, Moya, Srichaphan, 50-1
Blake, Youzhny, Malisse, Kuerten, Nalbandian, 75-1
All others, 100-1 or higher.
Here are the eight sections of the mens draw. Players are listed in the order of their official seed. In predicting the eight survivors, I allow choosing only four who are seeded in the first eight.
--Hewitt, Corretja, El Aynaoui, Kuerten, Ljubicic, Arazi. Kuerten at his former best against Hewitt could be a classic third-rounder. Whoever wins must then meet Corretja or his conqueror. The section offers nice depth and plenty of potential trouble for the tournaments top seed, who nevertheless in my opinion has the necessary stuff. Hewitt.
--Novak, Roddick, Chela, Youzhny, Mirnyi, Gasquet. The margins are narrow among the first five named here, and Gasquet at 16 is rising fast. Novak.
--Safin, Gonzalez, Blake, Schuettler, A.Martin, Krajicek. A healthy Safin could and perhaps should win the tournament, but his right shoulder is an uncertainty that could open the way for a surprise. I choose improving James Blake over last years runner-up. Blake.
--Federer, Nalbandian, Malisse, Koubek, Hrbaty. Malisse stands between Federer and the quarters. The two have played many close matches though Federer almost always wins. But the Swiss stars 2003 start has been rocky. Malisse.
--Moya, Srichaphan, Gaudio, Robredo, Ferreira, Philippoussis, Enqvist. The lower half holds most of the clay artists, of whom Moya is nearly the best. The margin is close here, but I like the Thai star. Srichaphan.
--Ferrero, Schalken, Pavel, Santoro, Arthurs. Schalken has the groundies to prevail, but the Spanish player is younger and still getting better. Ferrero.
--Costa, Grosjean, Lapentti, Gambill, Kucera. A semi-finalist two years ago, the French player has a good draw here, though Gambill has the muscle to make the outcome different. Grosjean.
--Agassi, Canas, Kafelnikov, Escude, Coria, Ferrer, Lee. No problems here for Andre. Agassi.
I choose Hewitt, Blake, Srichaphan, and Agassi to win their quarters. Hewitt and Agassi will reach the final, andheeding the voice of the computer--in my opinion Hewitt will win the tournament.
THE WOMENS SINGLES
Ive not yet attempted correlations calculations for the womens game, where identifying the top contenders seems less difficult and where the effect of playing surface on outcomes seems less strong.
Top-seeded Serena Williams is the undisputed favorite to win her fourth consecutive Slam in Melbourne. But the verdict is by no means assured, as magnificent Serena must survive perhaps three opponents capable of defeating her if she plays even slightly below her best.
A still-dangerous threat to Serenas hegemony is sister Venus, runner-up at both Wimbledon and U.S. Open and possessor of power and mobility essentially equal to Serenas. If both sisters reach the final, from both we can expect to see breathtaking angles and pace along with almost incredible mobility and reach. There will be some net-attacking but mainly to finish points. (More than three-quarters of the points in their Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals ended with both sisters in back court.) The stat-sheets verified that Serena won both meetings by making fewer unforced errors while matching her sister in power and aggressiveness. At U.S. Open Venus committed ten double-faults against Serenas one, probably reflecting the pressure of Serenas punishing serve-returning.
There is a reasonable chance that the four highest-seeded players will all reach the semis, though Venus is, as often, an uncertainty, having retired during the tournament in Los Angeles, while Capriati has drawn Davenport in the quarters. The nearly certain semi-final of Serena vs. Clijsters will be intriguing. Clijsters overcame Serena in the final of the WTA championship event at Los Angeles last November, but Serena prevailed in a straight-set win last week at Hopman Cup.
With Hingis, Mauresmo, and Dokic away, only a few serious threats to the elite four remain. Slender Justine Henin, of the picture backhand one-hander, finished 2002 at #5. She reached the quarters at Melbourne Park last year but lost to Clijsters, and lost again to Clijsters, by one-sided scores, at years end in Los Angeles, and yet again this week in Sydney. Her name is now Henin-Hardenne. As strong as ever is Monica Seles, now 29, who has won the Australian four times. Last year she defeated Venus in the quarters and took Hingis to three sets in the semis. Hantuchova, 19, took a set at Melbourne Park last year from Venus and ended the year as world #8 but of late seems to have reached a plateau, probably temporarily.
Extremely dangerous to the first four is Lindsay Davenport, whose low seeding at #9 reflects her absence from the tour during much of 2002. A slim Davenport returned in the years second half, reaching the final four at U.S. Open before losing to Serena, then bowed out in the first round at Los Angeles to Seles. Lindsay is competing this week in Sydney and has defeated her first four opponents, including Hantuchova, to reach the final against Clijsters. She has a 5-2 career edge over Capriati, whom she will face in the quarters.
A bright performer in the new year has been strong-serving Australian Alicia Molik, 21. Molik defeated Hantuchova and two others before losing to Serena at Hopman Cup last week, and this week won the tournament at Hobart. Watchers should also pay attention to teenagers Daniilidou, Mikaelian, and Safina. Also be advised that Anna Smashnova is now Anna Pistolesi. Here are the odds.
Serena Williams, 3-2
Venus Williams, 5-1
Capriati, Clijsters, each 10-1
Seles, Henin, 40-1
all others, 100-1 or higher.
--S. Williams, Dechy, Daniilidou, Tanasugarn. No worry for the #1 seed until round four against either Daniilidou or Dechy. Serena.
--Seles, Maleeva, Bovina, Shaughnessy. Choosing against Seles seems lunacy. But tall Bovina at 19 had many fine performances against top players last year. Bovina.
--Clijsters, Pistolesi, Coetzer, Majoli, Schett. No problem here for the favorite. Clijsters.
--Myskina, Rubin, Dementieva, Fernandez, Mikaelian. The top three here are quite close. Rubin.
--Henin-Hardenne, Davenport, Panova, Srebotnik, Molik, Safina. A difficult section for all. Davenport.
--Capriati, Stevenson, Kremer, Husarova, Asagoe. Jennifer won the tournament the last two years. Stevenson has been improving in her results but remains far behind. Capriati.
--Hantuchova, Schnyder, Sugiyama, Martinez. Schnyder.
--V. Williams, Farina Elia, Suarez, Raymond. Venus has the weaponry to once again become the games dominant player. Venus.
Then, Serena, Clijsters, Davenport, and Venus should reach the semis. Clijsters defeated Serena where it counted most, in Los Angeles, and her solid recent results suggest that she could repeat here. In the other semi my choice is Venus over Davenport. I pick Clijsters to win the tournament. We can look forward to these four, and perhaps Capriati, dueling one another fiercely throughout 2003.
*Footnote on the calculations. The method is similar to that used in previous Slam-preview columns here. Individual-player results are analyzed by spreadsheet to measure correlations in results across pairs of tournaments over several years. Tournaments are then weighted according to how well each predicted the results of a common target event. Finally, using these weightings, later tournament results are weighted to predict a future event, in this case Australian Open 2003. Our predictors here are the four Slams of 2002 along with the early-January 2003 tune-up events at Chennai, Doha, Adelaide, and Hopman Cup, which are treated as a single tournament lacking semi-final and final rounds. Innovations in the current exercise are (1) the use of three full years of data in determining the proper weightings, (2) in cases where a player missed or did poorly in a predictor event, substituting 40% of that players score from the same event the previous year, and (3) raising by 10% the composite score of each player aged 22 or younger. The latter percentage reflects my sense that the younger players are the most likely to improve. An empirical determination of the proper correction should be possible but remains for the future. The method has some, albeit limited value in analysis, but it suggests an objective way of seeding major events while giving appropriate heed to results on different surfaces.