Can anyone stop the run of the two superstar women from Belgium?
It seems not. With Serena Williams out because of recent knee surgery and
Venus long sidelined with an abdominal strain, one or the other of the Belgian
stars have been triumphant every week since Wimbledon. First, Clijsters and
Henin-Hardenne swept Slovak Republic in Fed Cup play. Then the two took turns in
capturing Stanford, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Toronto--all good predictors of
the Open. Except that Clijsters lost to Henin in the San Diego final and to
Krasnoroutskaya in Canada, the pair have been undefeated in singles play during
Both are hard-hitting, all-court players, capable of strong, aggressive play
primarily from back court. Kim Clijsters, age 20, has above-average size at
5-6 and 150 pounds. Probably her signature strength is her wonderful footwork
and mobility. It is dazzling to watch her feet as they move in reaction to
opponent's power thereby gaining Kim early position for strong reply. Her forehand
and two-handed backhand are extremely accurate especially in passing opponents
at net. Henin-Hardenne, at 5-6 and 126 pounds, is just 12 months older than
Clijsters. Her slender physique belies a powerful body, and her full-stroked
one-handed backhand is as magnificent to watch as any in tennis. It is remindful
of Corretja's backhand, and is relatively more powerful in the women's game
than is Alex's in the men's. Justine and Kim played each other six times so
far this year, each player winning three. Henin won their most notable
meeting--the straight-set final at Roland Garros.
Who are the prospective spoilers to a likely Open championship for one of
these two? There are only two other plausible possibilities. Venus Williams, with
a 3-0 record against the Belgians earlier this year, could probably summon
the game to prevail if she is again healthy and close to her best form. Her play
in the early rounds at Wimbledon, prior to the injury, was very dominating.
In the past she has returned from periods of absence with immediate success.
Powerful Lindsay Davenport also remains a threat, though she has lost four times
to Clijsters this year and once to Henin without defeating either. In the
recent final in Los Angeles, Davenport played well to reach a third set against
Clijsters, but Lindsay then faded after apparently hurting an ankle.
The odds fast lengthen thereafter. Jennifer Capriati shows three losses
against the Belgians this year without a win, was sidelined at San Diego with a
pectoral strain, and was scheduled to return in New Haven this week. Mauresmo and
Chanda Rubin likewise have been recently held back by injuries. Mauresmo is
0-2 against the Belgians this year, Chanda is 1-3, showing a win over Henin at
Key Biscayne. Meanwhile the next level of players--Sugiyama, the young Russians
including Krasnoroutskaya, and perhaps a half-dozen or so others--remain
capable of knocking off a headliner but are extremely unlikely to capture three or
more late-round matches at the high level required to win the Open.
Here, then, are the odds to win the Open, as I see them.
Venus Williams, 5-1
Rubin, Mauresmo, Hantuchova, Dementieva, each 50-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
So which superstar shall we choose to win the tournament, Justine or Kim? Let
us look to the fortunes of the final draw, just announced.
THE WOMEN'S DRAW
Readers are again invited to join in choosing the winners of the eight
sections of the draw. The rule is that only four players seeded in the top eight may
be picked. In each section the four seeds are listed first, in order. My
--Clijsters, Zvonareva, Shaughnessy, Kuznetsova, Pennetta. Clijsters.
--Mauresmo, Hantuchova, Schnyder, Krasnoroutskaya. Krasnoroutskaya.
--Davenport, Coetzer, Petrova, Raymond, Schett. Davenport.
--Rubin, C. Martinez, Suarez, Daniilidou, Molik, Likhovsteva. Martinez.
--Capriati, Dementieva, Dechy, Stevenson, Frazier. Dementieva.
--Venus Williams, Sugiyama, Farina Elia, Schiavone, Pisnik. Venus.
--Myskina, Maleeva, Dokic, Serna, Nagyova, Pierce, Srebotnik. Maleeva.
--Henin-Hardenne, Bovina, Pistolesi, Mikaelian, Safina, Weingartner. Henin.
The top four--Clijsters, Davenport, Venus, and Henin--should safely reach the
semis. Then Clijsters should continue her domination over Davenport. In the
other half, the choice is Henin over Venus, guessing that the recently injured
American might be at less than her best. Then in the all-Belgian final, the
hard, fast courts and the earlier draw (with Kim avoiding Venus) seem to favor
Clijsters. But my choice is the talented Henin-Hardenne, reflecting her superior
performance this summer to date, especially at Toronto.
THE MEN'S SINGLES
Probably the best indicators of likely success at the Open among the men are
the mid-summer Masters Series tournaments in Canada and in Cincinnati, along
with the less wealthy events in Washington, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Long
Island. All, like the Open, are played on hard courts in outdoor summer
Andy Roddick has nearly swept the summer so far, capturing Indianapolis,
Montreal, and Cincinnati. Tim Henman won in Washington, Wayne Ferreira in LA. Here
are the season's W-L leaders, listed by plurality of wins over losses, as of
the start this week at Long Island. Clearly, the momentum is with Roddick.
Schuettler, Nalbandian, each 8-2
Fish, Srichaphan, each 8-4
Agassi, Henman, 6-2
I have watched Andy closely each summer here in Washington since his debut in
2000 and, of course, regularly on television. He was impressive in his first
appearance here, at age 17, when he defeated three well-known pros before
losing to Agassi. He won the tournament here in his second year. Since then, he
has filled out physically, so that his body power probably approaches Pete
Sampras's at the same age. His serve remains his foremost weapon, capable of many
aces in matches against most players. Against Federer, both in Montreal this
month and earlier this year at Wimbledon, Andy's aces were relatively few, but
his first and second serves both yielded neutral returns, thereby setting up
Andy's extremely strong approach game. His volleying is improving, and he is
plainly using it more frequently. When at net he is surprisingly agile in
covering the sidelines, his overhead game is excellent, and he is quite good in
close-in cat-and-mouse exchanges. His occasional use of serve-and-volley tactics
adds to opponent's difficulties in making consistent serve-returns. His courage
was good in winning the final tiebreaks against Federer in Montreal and
against Fish in Ohio. His only loss this summer--to Henman in Washington--was
probably attributable to fatigue after several weeks of unbroken competition. Andy's
chances at the Open should be enhanced by his decision to sit out this final
week at Long Island.
If Roddick, who will be 21 on August 30, seems perhaps ready to claim his
first Slam, this result is hardly certain given the depth of the entry field.
Probably most difficult for Andy are the players who are comfortable at net and
willing to move forward aggressively behind serve. Andy has wonderful rocketry
off the ground, but he can be rushed in serve-returning, so that lately he has
been returning from very deep thus conceding the net-rusher an extra step or
two forward. Max Mirnyi and James Blake played stand-off first sets with Andy,
Tim Henman won their close match, and Mardy Fish all but prevailed in their
meeting in Ohio.
Though his summer W-L record, at 5-2, places him just outside the group
listed above, Roger Federer, 22, is essentially a co-favorite with Roddick to win
the Open. Federer's superb play in capturing this year's Wimbledon remains in
vivid memory. In limited action since, his performance has been only a little
short of that level of absolute excellence. The expected fast bounce at the
Open will probably cause Roger to attack net frequently against Andy, including
behind his own serve. Net-rushing is not his preferred tactic but he is very
good at it.
Meanwhile Andre Agassi, at 33 a two-time U.S. Open past champion and last
year's runner-up, as usual seems to have prepared himself according to his own
pattern, having skipped Cincinnati. French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero has
the advantage of a high seed, but his leadership among the clay warriors this
summer has been taken by Guillermo Coria. Coria's court speed and
counter-punching ability compare very well with Hewitt's. (Coria, it will be remembered,
reached the semis at Garros before dominating the midsummer clay circuit in
Europe.) Lleyton Hewitt has reached the Open semis in each of the last three
years, winning the tournament in 2001, but this year Hewitt shows only a 5-3
record on the summer hard courts, where most of the wins came against a relatively
weak field in LA. Various other stars are capable when at their best of
winning any match, among them Philippoussis, Rusedski, Blake, and Gonzalez, strong
hitters all. To this list must be added Mardy Fish, who showed improved
control of his power game, including a forehand to match his backhand, in his fine
run at Cincinnati. Marat Safin has not competed since April.
Being the favorite on paper nowadays scarcely assures winning. To defeat any
player ranking in, say, the top fifty, a frontrunner must push his own limits
in power and direction of hitting. To become too soft in either tactics or
execution can quickly lead to dismissal. Upsets at the Open will probably be
frequent, even in early rounds. Often sets will turn on just a few
points. But plainly the top two, defined here, have the best chances of winning
the required seven match victories.
Here are the odds to win the tournament, as I see them.
Roddick, Federer, each 4-1
Blake, Fish, Henman, Hewitt, Mirnyi, Philippoussis, each 40-1
all others, 50-1 or longer
THE MEN'S DRAW
The men's draw at the Open could scarcely have turned out worse for the
tournament's co-favorites. Roddick must start against Tim Henman, who is the only
player having defeated Andy this summer. Next ahead looms hard-serving
Ljubicic, followed by the survivors of the likes of Kuerten, Spadea, Malisse, and
Calleri. Meanwhile Federer faces probable early meetings with James Blake and
either Philippoussis or Nalbandian. Finally, in the event that our two favorites
both manage to reach the final four, they will then have to play each other.
Meanwhile in the other half, favored Agassi must surmount either Mirnyi or
Gonzalez to reach the last eight.
--Agassi, Gonzalez, Mirnyi, Kafelnikov, Dent, Corretja, Chela. Agassi.
--Coria, Grosjean, Fish, Clement, Popp, Rusedski, Bjorkman. Fish.
--Ferrero, Verkerk, Safin, Ferreira, T. Martin, Canas, Ginepri. Ferrero.
--Hewitt, Srichaphan, Robredo, F. Lopez, HT Lee, Santoro. Srichaphan.
--Schuettler, Schalken, Mantilla, Kiefer, Arazi, Burgsmuller, Boutter.
--Roddick, Kuerten, Calleri, Spadea, Henman, Mathieu, Ljubicic, Malisse.
--Moya, Novak, El Aynaoui, Gaudio, Ancic, Massu, Gambill. El Aynaoui.
--Federer, Nalbandian, Philippoussis, Zabaleta, Blake, Nieminen, Youzhny.
In my opinion, Agassi, Srichaphan, Roddick, and Federer should then advance
to the semis, where Agassi and Federer should prevail. Having found an answer
to defeat Andy, I believe that Federer will then win the tournament.
THE TENNIS NATIONS
The U.S. and Argentine contingents have dominated the summer's biggest
events. At Montreal both nations scored four wins in the first round of singles. The
U.S. players pulled ahead thereafter, led by Roddick, who contributed six
match wins during the week, and Agassi, who contributed three. The Bryans added
two wins in doubles. Nalbandian's quarter-final win over Lopez assured second
place for Argentina over Spain.
A week later in Cincinnati, the Argentine challenge was even stronger. Both
U.S. and Argentina placed five players in the final 32 in singles, and,
amazingly, all ten of these stars advanced to the round of 16. Thus after three days,
Argentina led the U.S. narrowly, helped by fine second-round victories by
Gaudio (over Ferrero) and Nalbandian (over Federer), and two doubles wins by
Etlis-Rodriguez. Then in third-round play, both nations placed three players in
the final eight. An interesting showdown came on Friday, when Etlis-Rodriguez
faced the Bryans. The Bryans won, and their countrymen followed by producing
wins in several singles head-to-heads. Thus the U.S. again led in the final tally
of matches won, having claimed both finalist places (Roddick and Fish) and
winning the doubles (Bryans). Here are the resulting standings in unofficial
National Team Points (NTP) for 2003 to date.
United States, 11.5
The U.S. earned 1 NTP and Argentina 0.5 at both Montreal and Cincinnati.,
included in the above tabulation. Based on the summer results to date, it seems
likely that one of these nations will claim the 3 NTP to be awarded for winning
the most matches at U.S. Open. (Second place will earn 1.0, third place 0.5).
Note that 4 NTP will go to the Davis Cup semi-finalist winners in
mid-September. Spain will be hosting Argentina, and Australia will be hosting Switzerland.
Best wishes to all for a great U.S. Open.