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Between The Lines
May 19, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Garros 2003 Preview

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Ray Bowers

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.

Spain 8.75
Argentina, 7.0
Australia, 6.75
USA, 6.0

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 the German.

#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 are undefeated.

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 scores.

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 dismissed.

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.

PREDICTIONS

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
Clijsters, 7-5
Henin-Hardenne, 5-4
Mauresmo, 3-3
Venus Williams, 2-2
Davenport, 2-4
Capriati, 0-6

Serena is thus confirmed as the clear favorite entering Garros. Here are the odds.

Serena, 2-1
Clijsters, 4-1
Venus, Henin-Hardenne, each 10-1
Mauresmo, 16-1
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.

--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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