The eminence of Spanish players on clay was clear at Monte Carlo and
Barcelona in April. Their domination persisted at the Italian Open, where the
Armada took a strong early lead in matches won and maintained it to the end.
Barcelona-born Felix Mantilla, 28, won the tournament, defeating Swiss
player Federer in the final. Argentina was a distant second in total matches
won. Last year's leader in the event, United States, scored poorly, as the
two American elites--Agassi and Roddick--failed in early outings.
A week later it was the turn of Argentina's stars to monopolize the German
Open in Hamburg, where Gaudio, Nalbandian, Coria, and Calleri all reached the
Final Four. Far behind the Argentines in total matches won was second-place
Spain. Thus Spain and Argentina each acquired a total of 1.5 National Team
Points (NTP) from Rome and Hamburg in the unofficial competition outlined in
this column two months ago. Here is the NTP tally entering World Team Cup at
Dusseldorf and then Garros.
World Team Cup, held the week before Garros, is widely seen as primarily an
exhibition--a clay-court tune-up for the French. But the event fits nicely
into our NTP scheme. The winning nation will earn 2 NTP, the runner-up 1.
Eight nations are competing in round-robin competition. Each one-day contest
consists of two singles and one doubles. Spain with Moya and Corretja and
Argentina with Gaudio and Nalbandian are in opposite round-robin groups and
could meet in the final.
The recent tallies of match wins by nation produced some interesting results
among the women. At the German Open in Berlin, two Belgian players reached
the singles final, and one of them (Clijsters) also scored well in the
doubles. But no other Belgian women produced any match wins, so that the
large Russian contingent scored a greater number of victories, including five
in the first round. At the end the Russians led by just one-half match. The
outcome might be seen as a flaw, but it actually illustrated how the scheme
adds interest early in a tournament and in the doubles. A week later in Rome,
the Russian women again narrowly prevailed, followed by U.S., led by Serena
in singles and Navratilova in doubles, and France, led by Mauresmo.
THE ELITE SIX FOR GARROS
For the first time in years I was unable to view the European clay events by
television from here in metropolitan Washington. Presented below are the top
Garros contenders, ranked by each player's 2003 W-L record in singles where
clay-court results are given double weight.
#1 ANDRE AGASSI
Tennis historians are already comparing the careers of the sport's recent
mega superstars--Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. To date the balance has
tilted toward Pete, who leads in head-to-head meetings and has won the
greater number of Slams, 14 vs. 8. With Pete now essentially in retirement,
Andre at 33 seems as strong and almost as determined as ever. Agassi probably
cannot surpass Pete's Slam total, but a second triumph at Garros, where Pete
has never won, would greatly strengthen Andre's credentials. Could--dare we
imagine it--a classic single-year Grand Slam in 2003 shift the balance for
Andre? Reality quickly returns, for Andre's competition in every major event
is almost insuperably difficult nowadays. But two years of commitment and
success in Davis Cup, say, might turn my vote.
If slowish hard courts are clearly Andre's preferred surface, Agassi has
often done well on clay. He was twice runner-up at Garros early in his
career, and he won the tournament in 1999. Last year, he reached the final
eight, bowing out to eventual runner-up Ferrero in four close sets.
Certainly, Andre has the mental toughness, the shotmaking ability, the
strength and stamina to win this year. His patented power game from close on
the baseline thrives on slowish courts. But if Andre is the foremost
favorite, the field is deep and the odds are long.
#2 ROGER FEDERER
Federer was a top junior a few years ago and now, at age 21, is starting to
produce the superior results expected of him. His is a hard-hitting power
game but with ample capacity for variety and an ability to win on all
surfaces. His clay-court results have been excellent, including the German
Open championship last year, the BMW at Munich this spring, and second-place
honors in the Italian Open early this month. But the young Swiss star was
surprised by a resurgent Philippoussis at the German.
#3 JUAN CARLOS FERRERO
Ferrero, at 23, is close to becoming the leader of the Armada. He is a
stylish player, beautiful to watch, with fine power, mobility, and variety.
He lists at 160 pounds and seems less than robust for sustained heavy hitting
in long matches over two weeks. His best successes have been on clay, having
won the Italian and been runner-up in the German in 2001. He reached the
semis in his first two Garros appearances, in 2000 and 2001, and was finalist
last year, defeating Coria, Gaudio, Agassi, and Safin enroute to a
floundering loss to Costa. An enflamed shoulder, which caused his withdrawal
at Rome, probably hurts his chances at Garros.
#4 LLEYTON HEWITT
Lleyton's stormy disposition seems increasingly jarring off the court and
suggests that his commitment to building the sport is not strong. John
Fitzgerald, in defending his country's superstar, notes that this behavior
reflects Hewitt's competitiveness as a champion.
Hewitt, just 22, showed steady improvement in his annual results at Garros
until 2002, when his early-year performance was set back by sickness. His
superior court speed provides a huge asset on the slowish courts, and his
counter-punching skills should allow him to prevail against an aggressive
opponent. His most dangerous foes would seem the husky big-hitting clay
warriors who relish extended points, games, and sets in back court--last year
he lost to Argentine player Canas, a six-footer at 180 pounds. Hewitt's first
serve can open up points and his second is good enough to deter opponent's
attack. He missed the early clay events this year but he won two matches at
#5 CARLOS MOYA
Moya is a tall and powerful server and stroker, a former Garros champion
(1998) whose career at age 26 turned upward in finishing in fifth place for
year 2002. (He had been outside the year-end top ten since 1998 amid back
trouble.) In March this year, he finished second to Agassi at Key Biscayne.
He defeated Kuerten and Coria in Buenos Aires early in the current clay
season, and won the tournament at Barcelona in late April. There were also
disappointing losses, but Carlos's experience, his combination of variety and
power, and his size and ruggedness place him with Ferrero as the Armada's
strongest candidates. Both Moya and Ferrero are 4-0 in Davis Cup matches this
year, all on clay.
#6 GUILLERMO CORIA
Guillermo Coria is said to have been named after Vilas. This baby-faced,
smallish athlete at age 21 is rebuilding a promising early career after
testing for banned substance. He resembles Hewitt in his strengths, showing
blinding court speed and fine counter-punching skills. He was finalist to
Ferrero at Monte Carlo this year, lost to Ljubicic at Rome, and won the
German, defeating Gaudio and Calleri.
THE SECOND SIX
Our formula rather clearly defined the top six, above. Descending, the
margins become closer, the names somewhat less familiar. The Second Six
begins with two more Argentine players--Agustin Calleri and Gaston Gaudio, 26
and 24, respectively. Both have resided in the top hundred for several years
and have shown surges of success. Gaudio and countryman Nalbandian have
represented Argentina in Davis Cup singles this year, all on clay, and both
Barcelona-born Felix Mantilla, our #9 at age 29, was the unseeded winner at
Rome this year, defeating Federer in the final. His past tournament victories
have all been on clay, and he stood in the world's top 25 for four
consecutive years, 1996-1999. He was a Garros semi-finalist in 1998 but
withdrew with injury just before last year's event.
Our next candidate is a pleasant surprise. Australian star Mark Philippoussis
virtually absented the pro game in 2002 and 2001 with severe knee trouble.
Earlier, his physical gifts and all-out power game brought him close to the
top of the sport. Clay seems an unlikely medium for his strengths, so his
third-round win over Federer last week in the German was attention-getting.
But the big Australian (6-4 and 200 pounds) next lost to Coria by dismal
After Flipper in our ranking is Gustavo Kuerten, a three-time past Garros
champion and the game's #1 for year 2000. Guga is a master of the modern
power game mixed with finesse. Many deemed that he came back from hip surgery
too soon in 2002, and his up-and-down results have persisted a year since. In
the three Masters Series clay events of 2003, his record is 3-3.
American star Andy Roddick, 20, of the superb serve and power forehand, is
our #12. Andy almost defeated Agassi at on the red clay at Houston this
spring, but his later results in Europe have been disappointing. Early in the
year he seemed clearly trying to develop a stronger net game to exploit his
strength in opening the court with excellent ground and approach strokes.
Moving to net sooner during points seems an absolutely correct approach for
Roddick, in my opinion, though not regularly behind serve, and I hope that he
persists in it even on clay. His quickness in reaction, whether in volleying
or serve returning, may be a relative weakness, but his preparatory ground
game is so forceful that he must move forward confidently to finish.
Several others require note. Last year the strong Russian player Marat Safin,
now 23, was the only non-Spanish player reaching the Final Four at Garros.
Shoulder, wrist, and ankle injuries have spoiled his year 2003. His best
performance this year came in reaching the final at Barcelona, where he
withdrew in the fourth set against Moya. He has not won a match since, and
his participation in Paris seems doubtful. Meanwhile last year's Garros
champion, Albert Costa, seems mired in ordinary results this year, but he
remained capable of carrying Mantilla to three sets recently and cannot be
Finally, we heed 16-year-old Rafael Nodal, the newest Armada star, who burst
on the clay-court scene this spring showing phenomenal results for his age.
Nodal is six feet tall, left-handed, 165 pounds. At Monte Carlo he defeated
Kucera, Costa, and he carried Coria to a first-set tiebreak. He lost in three
sets to Corretja at Barcelona. In the German, he defeated Moya before losing
to Gaudio. He will be widely watched at Garros.
Here are what seem proper odds for winning the tournament.
Agassi, Ferrero, each 6-1
Federer, Moya, 10-1
Hewitt, Kuerten, 15-1
Coria, Roddick, 30-1
Mantilla, Gaudio, Nalbandian, Costa, Gonzalez, Ljubicic, El Aynaoui, 50-1
all others, 75-1 or longer
Because we are moving I will be out of touch during the draw. Offered here
anyway are my pre-draw predictions. I choose Moya to win the tournament,
Agassi runner-up, and Ferrero and Federer as the other semi-finalists. For
the other quarter-finalists, I pick Schuettler, Coria, Gaudio, and Kuerten. I
believe that among the nations the players representing Argentina will win
the most matches.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
At this time last year, Serena Williams's run of four consecutive Slam
conquests had not yet begun. Serena stood fourth in the year-to-date
rankings, not many points ahead of the fifth and sixth rankers. But Serena's
readiness to break out upward was detectable by looking at the outcomes of
recent head-to-head play among the elite women players. We try the same
exercise this year.
Serena ranks second to Clijsters in the official tabulation for year 2003 to
date. But Serena has won all three of their 2003 head-to-head meetings.
Serena also leads in the play among the current elite superstars. I believe
that this group consists of just seven players, who indeed are the top seven
in the running 12-month WTA rankings. Each of the four Americans in the group
has won at least two Slams, while the three Europeans have played at an
equivalent level for some time.
Here are the records of the seven in 2003 head-to-head play within the group.
Note that Davenport's two wins both came against Capriati, and that three of
Clijsters's losses were to Serena.
Serena Williams, 7-2
Venus Williams, 2-2
Serena is thus confirmed as the clear favorite entering Garros. Here are the
Venus, Henin-Hardenne, each 10-1
Capriati, Davenport, each 20-1
all others, 50-1 or longer
I believe that Serena will win the tournament, and that Clijsters will be the
runner-up. The other semi-finalists will be Henin and Mauresmo, in my
opinion. Also reaching the quarters will be non-elites Dokic, Zvonareva,
Sugiyama, and Conchita Martinez.
Thank you in advance, ESPN, ESPN2, and NBC.