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Between The Lines
June 20, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Wimbledon 2003 Preview

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Ray Bowers

Just about all the champions of the great grass-court events at Wimbledon, Forest Hills, and Kooyong since 1945 have been relentless attackers of net, skilled in coming forward behind serve. The serve-and-volley style prospered because the very fast and often unpredictable bounce on grass made serve-returning and ground-stroking difficult. The low, skidding bounce of the sliced volley on grass also helped the net player.

Athletic American or Australian net-rushers dominated Wimbledon, from Jack Kramer in 1947 to Pete Sampras in the 1990's. The magnificent serve-returner and baseliner Bjorn Borg broke the pattern in winning five consecutive championships 1976-1980, though at Wimbledon Borg uncharacteristically attacked net regularly behind serve. Contemporaries of Sampras were net-game artists Krajicek, who won Wimbledon in 1996, and Pat Rafter, runner-up in 2000 and 2001. There was much beauty in the tennis of these wonderful players, but many match-watchers professed boredom at the dominance of servers and the shortness of most points.

Last year, Wimbledon officials made known that a new mixture of grass had been installed and that the turf would be firmer and drier than in the past. The idea was to obtain higher, slower bounces, more like those on hard courts. The changes followed years of gradual decline in net skills among the top pros as grass-court events became few. The pros still worked to perfect strong serves, but most of them followed up serve not by rushing net but rather by powerful hitting off the ground. Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon champion in 2001, exemplified this approach.

What happened last year, 2002, would once have been unimaginable. Two baseliners successfully made their way to the Wimbledon final. There, Australian Lleyton Hewitt defeated Argentina's David Nalbandian in a straight-setter played largely from back court.

Was 2002 an anomaly, or has the net game lost its eminence even on grass, as seems likely? Indeed, the greatest of the recent serve-and-volleyers have left the scene--Sampras and Rafter are gone, and Krajicek announced his retirement with recurrent elbow trouble just before the forthcoming Wimbledon.

Still, the remaining serve-and-volleyers are better off on grass than elsewhere. One such star is Greg Rusedski, who for years has been intermittently troubled by injuries but has played well lately. Another is Max Mirnyi, whose big serve goes with his physical size. Aussie Wayne Arthurs backs his fine serve with strong net play. Tim Henman, a fine net player, remains a perennial threat at Wimbledon, having reached the semis four times in the last five years. Inauspiciously, Henman, now 28, complained that his chances this year will be hurt by the slower turf conditions. Also possessing the weaponry to play a strong net game is Swiss player Roger Federer, though he can be tempted by the comfort of back court. Federer won the grass tune-up this month at Halle. Teen-aged Croatian Mario Ancic, at height 6-4, surprised Federer in the first round last year. Sweden's Bjorkman, France's Escude, and America's Dent and, to a lesser degree, Blake, can be expected to attack net persistently on grass. All the above stars find their best chance on grass.

Five players appear to have foremost chances of winning Wimbledon this year. Two of them--Henman and Federer--are among the net artists cited above. The others are primarily baseliners, including the defending champion, Lleyton Hewitt, now just 22, and Andre Agassi, Wimbledon champion in 1992, who reached the semis three times in the last four years. The fifth prime candidate, Andy Roddick, also is primarily a baseliner, having earned his recent triumph on the grass at Queen's largely by superior serving and excellent back-court hitting. I believe that the coming Wimbledon champion will be one of these five--whichever one is able to produce his best tennis for the full fortnight.

I also like the strengths of big-servers Rusedski, Ljubicic, Verkerk, and Mirnyi. (Dent withdrew with back trouble at Nottingham this week.) Impressive recently were Grosjean at Queen's, Youzhny at Halle. In last year's Wimbledon, Xavier Malisse at age 21 defeated Rusedski and Krajicek in five-setters, then bowed to Nalbandian in a five-set semi. Tall Schalken won the final tune-up tournament last year, then won four matches at Wimbledon before carrying Hewitt to five sets. Not since 1966, and only twice in the history of the tournament, has a player from Spain or South America won the men's singles at Wimbledon. This year's top clay-court players entering Wimbledon include Coria, Kuerten, Gonzalez, Nalbandian, and Ferrero, none of whom competed in the grass tune-ups.

Here are the odds to win the tournament, as I see them.

Hewitt, 5-1
Agassi, Federer, each 8-1
Roddick, Henman, each 15-1
all others, 35-1 or longer

LOOKING AT THE BRACKETS

Listed here are the eight sections of the main draw, seeded players shown first. Our task is to predict the eight quarter-finalists, choosing no more than four players highest-seeded in their section:

  • Hewitt, Clement, Gonzalez, Spadea, Mirnyi, Dent, Ljubicic, Bjorkman. In this section are many strong net-rushers. A foremost danger to the defending champion is unseeded Taylor Dent, now age 22, who carried Hewitt to five sets in Wimbledon 2001. Then last year, Dent won two matches before losing to Arthurs in four sets, all settled in tiebreakers. Dent withdrew with back trouble this week at Nottingham. The choice therefore remains Hewitt.

  • Roddick, Srichaphan, Robredo, Ancic, Rusedski. Almost equal in their chances are Roddick, Srichaphan, and Rusedski, while Robredo is not far behind. Rusedski can approach greatness when both he and the conditions are right. Rusedski.

  • Federer, Youzhny, Calleri, Gaudio, Davydenko, Fish, Gambill. The rising Swiss star is better than all the others here on any surface, and his advantage should be greatest on grass. Fish had a fine run at Nottingham. Federer.

  • Schalken, Schuettler, Kuerten, Chela, Santoro, Kratochvil, Todd Martin, Lapentti. Netherlander Schalken will be playing in his ninth Wimbledon though he is only 26. Last year he reached the quarters, where he carried Hewitt to five sets. Tall, but without a dominating serve or net game, Sjeng prefers back court. He lost to Dent at Queen's last week but started well at Hertogenbosch. Schalken.

  • Nalbandian, Henman, Verkerk, Wayne Ferreira, Kucera, Sa. Garros runner-up Verkerk would be an interesting candidate except that he stumbled in his first match at Hertogenbosch this week. Home favorite Henman remains the clear choice.

  • Ferrero, Grosjean, Blake, Mantilla, Arthurs, Rosset, Escude. Grosjean's mobility and shot-making skills are suggestive of Hewitt's. He has done well in past Wimbledons, he reached the final in the recent Queen's, but he slipped this week at Hertogenbosch. Escude has a 2-1 career edge over him in head-to-head play, however, including a four-set win at Wimbledon 2001. Blake's attacking, balanced game should prevail. Blake.

  • Coria, Novak, Kafelnikov, Nieminen, Arazi, Dupuis, Popp, Boutter. Coria has the speed of Grosjean or Hewitt but shows little past grass-court play. Novak's grass record is undistinguished but is a nice ball hitter. Dupuis, 20, had a good run at Queen's. Popp is an interesting grass artist but has been almost inactive for a year. Net-rusher Popp will probably miss the faster grass of two years ago. Arazi beat Mirnyi and Arthurs at Nottingham but lost to Rusedski. The going is easier here. Arazi.

  • Agassi, Malisse, El Aynaoui, Coretja, Philippoussis, Mathieu. Malisse would be a plausible alternative to Andre but lost in straight sets to the American at Queen's last week. Agassi.

I sense that the quarter-finalist winners will be Hewitt, Federer, Henman, and Agassi. Then in the semis Federer should defeat Hewitt, Agassi should defeat Henman. I believe the tournament winner, successfully blending net-rush and back-court tactics, will be Roger Federer.

THE DOUBLES

The men's doubles at Wimbledon should be especially interesting, as all matches are best-of-five sets. In contrast to the singles, we can expect to see all-out serve-and-volley tennis throughout, especially in the late rounds. There are many plausible champion pairs, including the winners and runners-up of the four preceding Slams--eight entirely different pairs. I pick the defending champions, Bjorkman-Woodbridge, to win the tournament and the current Garros champions, the Bryans, to reach the final round.

Which tennis nation will win the most singles and doubles matches during the tournament? The strong depth of the American contingent almost assures that the U.S. men will again prevail in this unofficial competition. Last year, Australia was a close runner-up, led by Hewitt in singles and Woodbridge in doubles. The U.S. scored very well in the doubles, placing two pairs (the Bryans and Johnson-Palmer) in the final four. Czech Republic was third in matches won.

THE WOMEN

Four players stand clearly at the top of women's tennis currently--two sisters and two Belgians--and it is conceivable that all four will make the Wimbledon semis. The Williams sisters dominated the tournament last year, both of them advancing to the singles final, won by Serena, and then together capturing the women's doubles. Venus won the singles in 2000 and 2001. But at Garros recently, the Belgian stars Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters announced that they have caught up. Henin defeated Serena in the semis and then Clijsters in the final after Venus lost earlier. Henin was Wimbledon finalist two years ago at age 19.

Here are the odds as I see them for winning this year's Wimbledon:

S. Williams, 2.5-1
Henin-Hardenne, 3-1
Clijsters, 5-1
V. Williams, 12-1
Capriati, 25-1
Davenport, Hantuchova, Rubin, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

Here are the eight sections of the draw and my picks:

  • S. Williams, Dementieva, Shaughnessy, Granville, Rittner. Serena.

  • Capriati, Myskina, C. Martinez, Tanasugarn, Schett, Sprem. Martinez is amid a late-career surge. Capriati.

  • Henin-Hardenne, Daniilidou, Raymond, Likhovsteva, Pierce. Raymond is strong at net and could be a spoiler. Henin-Hardenne.

  • Dokic, Stevenson, Bovina, Kuznetsova. Grass should be the American's best surface. Stevenson.

  • Davenport, Hantuchova, Coetzer, Chladkova. With Lindsay physically below her best, the choice is Hantuchova.

  • V. Williams, Zvonareva, Schnyder, Petrova, Tulyaganova, Srebotnik. The Russian teen has been steadily rising in the rankings. She defeated Venus at Garros. Zvonareva.

  • Rubin, Maleeva, Ruano Pascual, Farina Elia, Serna, Suarez, Majoli. Rubin did well at Eastbourne. Maleeva was a recent grass-court winner (Birmingham) and has shown consistent success against Chanda. Maleeva.

  • Clijsters, Sugiyama, Dechy, Pistolesi, Bedanova, Zuluaga. Dechy beat Sugiyama at Eastbourne but then lost to Capriati. Clijsters.

Serena, Hantuchova, and the Belgians should then safely reach the semis, whereupon Serena and Clijsters should advance to the final. I choose Serena to repeat as Wimbledon champion, starting a new run of triumph for the American superstar.

The women's doubles winners will be Serena and Venus over final-round opponents Davenport-Raymond.

Final note: I can hardly wait for late July, which will bring Fed Cup to Washington along with the Legg Mason and its usual array of ATP stars.

--Ray Bowers

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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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