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Between The Lines
November 2, 2003 Article

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Masters Cup Preview 2003

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The annual year-end event in pro tennis, now called Masters Cup, was held for many years in Madison Square Garden and later in Germany. The format has been the same since 1972. Eight contestants are divided into two groups for round-robin play followed by semi-final and final rounds. A similar event in doubles has been held most years at a separate location.

This year both the singles and doubles will be played at the stadium of West Side Tennis Club in Houston, home town of Tennis Server. Play will be on an outdoor hard court, 10-16 November. The singles will be telecast on ESPN and ESPN2. Tennis Channel will carry the doubles.

THE SINGLES RACE

The eight Masters Cup singles qualifiers were determined by the standings in the ATP points race. This year's top eight included all four Slam winners--Agassi, Ferrero, Federer, and Roddick. All were high in the standings and all were early in cementing places at Houston. The other four qualifiers asssured their places in recent weeks--first Coria, then Schuettler, Moya, and finally Nalbandian.

It seems possible that some of the qualifiers will withdraw, however. Andre Agassi has not competed since U.S. Open and has a history of skipping events, though a spokesman recently insisted that Andre will compete at Houston. David Nalbandian has a sore left wrist (used in his two-handed backhand) and since U.S. Open has played only the Swiss Indoors, where he withdrew just before the final. Coria also was inactive after the Open because of injury, returning at Madrid Indoors but then withdrawing midway through Paris Indoors because of illness. Meanwhile Carlos Moya ceased competing after Madrid once his place at Houston became assured. The unavoidable conclusion is that our pre-tournament scrutiny, below, should include the players next in line--namely Philippoussis, Grosjean, Srichaphan, and Novak, in that order.

THE PRE-TOURNAMENT OUTLOOK

To zero in on likely results at Houston I needed better predictors than the year-long standings, which reflected many results on alien surfaces or many months old. It seemed to me that a particularly valid indicator would be the late-summer U.S. Open, which was played in humid, sea-level environment on outdoor courts comparable to Houston's. Other strong predictors, it seemed, should be the European hard-court, indoor events played during the four weeks (starting October 6) just preceding Houston. These included the Masters Series tournaments in Madrid and Paris. Listed here, then, are each contender's W-L record in the October predictor events and U.S. Open combined.

Ferrero, 12-2 (.857)
Coria, 10-2 (.833)
Agassi, 5-1 (.833)
Roddick, 14-3 (.824)
Nalbandian, 9-2 (.818)
Federer, 14-4 (.778)
Schuettler, 14-4 (.778)
Moya, 8-3 (.727)
Srichaphan, 9-5 (.643)
Novak, 7-5 (.583)
Grosjean, 4-5 (.444)
Philippoussis, 2-3 (.400)

A clear message is that the four possible substitutes, shown at the end of the list, have failed to perform in our designated events at the level of the eight prime qualifiers. None of the possible subs show a win in our specified events over any member of the top eight except for Novak, who upset Ferrero last week in Paris.

Head-to-head play within the group offers further insight, though there have been few such tests in our chosen events given the effects of seeding. The best head-to-head record in our events is that of Nalbandian, who shows wins over Federer, Roddick, and Philippoussis against just one loss, to Roddick at the Open. (Nalbandian also lost by walkover to Coria in the final at the Swiss.) Ferrero also claims three wins, over Federer, Agassi, and Srichaphan, against losses to Roddick and Novak. Roddick shows wins over Ferrero and Nalbandian. Agassi defeated Coria at the Open, while Coria has no win over a group member except for the Nalbandian walkover.

We therefore make Juan Carlos Ferrero our prime favorite, by narrow margin. Juan Carlos, 23, brings an superior all-court game built about excellent mobility and fine shot-making. Clay has been his best surface, as he holds an amazing 23-3 W-L record in his four appearances at Garros. But his runner-up finish at this year's U.S. Open and his triumph in the Madrid Indoors--the achievements that place him atop our analysis here--confirm his ability on hard surfaces. Additionally, he was runner-up in last year's Masters Cup, played on an indoor hard court in Shanghai, where he lost to Lleyton Hewitt after holding an early break in the fifth set of the championship match.

Not far behind in our hierarchy is Andy Roddick, 21. Andy's triumph in this year's U.S. Open capped a summer of spectacular success in the North American hard-court circuit. His matchless serving along with his solid baseline power game, featuring an ability to nail the corners with high-overspin deliveries from on or inside the baseline, seem ideally suited to a medium-fast hard court like the one expected at Houston. At Paris last week Andy seemed positioned to win the tournament, but he lost in the semis to Tim Henman in two tiebreak sets. (Henman would go on to win the tournament.) Tim also upset Andy here in Washington in July, when it appeared that Andy was overtired from a busy season. Texas will be home country for Andy, who lived in that state for five boyhood years and has been a popular tournament winner on clay in Houston.

The candidacy of David Nalbandian is intriguing. Nalbandian, 21, is an often overlooked warrior who brings powerful and consistent rocketry from both sides. We saw his ability to perform on fast courts when he reached the Wimbledon final in 2002. This year he reached the semis at U.S. Open, losing to Roddick, whose firepower may have aggravated David's wrist problems. David returned to the pro wars at the Swiss, where he defeated Andy before withdrawing. Our data show that Nalbandian can be a strong candidate to win at Houston, but his current injury seems likely to prohibit great success.

Andre Agassi also seems an unlikely winner, having not competed since U.S. Open, though playing conditions at Houston seem certain to suit his customary strengths. Andre led the pro tour last year in winning percentage on hard courts (82.2%). Another interesting candidate is Guillermo Coria, 21, who has fine shot-making ability and lightning court speed both suggestive of Hewitt's. Undersized at 5-9 and 145 pounds, most of his success has been on clay, but in the Swiss last month he claimed a straight-set win over the tough indoor star Ljubicic, who had beaten Federer two days before.

Roger Federer, 22, was spectacular in winning this year's Wimbledon, showing an all-around level of power, precision, and variety that seemed as brilliant as any performance ever seen in our sport. He has won many matches since, but he lost to Nalbandian in the fourth round at U.S. Open, to Hewitt in a dramatic five-setter on Rebound Ace in Davis Cup, to Ferrero in the semis at Madrid, to Ljubicic at Basel, and to Henman in Paris. The lustre of Wimbledon has been dulled by these close losses, and our scheme seems correct in placing Roger below the top tier for Houston. Still, looking ahead to Tennis Server's year-end Player of the Year award, in my mind his magnificence at Wimbledon by itself makes him a possible first choice.

It is hard to realize that Carlos Moya is just 27. He broke into the year-end top hundred in 1995 at age 19, reached the top ten in 1997 and 1998 and ranked #1 briefly in 1999. Sidelined by a back injury, he was outside the top ten for the next three years but re-entered in 2002. His only Slam triumph came at Garros (1998), but his hard-hitting, baseline game has produced many successes on hard courts--a career 67% winning record at Australian and U.S. Opens. But somehow 2003 seems the time for the younger gunners, and Moya like Agassi seems out of place.

Offered here are the odds as they seem to me for winning Masters Cup 2003.

Ferrero, 3-1
Roddick, 4-1
Nalbandian, Federer, each 8-1
Agassi, 10-1
Coria, 15-1
Moya, Schuettler, each 20-1
all others, 50-1 or longer

Although Ferrero has the better chance, my guess is that the winner will be Roddick.

THE YEAR'S NUMBER ONE

The acknowledged marker identifying the year's pro champion is first place in the ATP point standings. Lleyton Hewitt, now 22, won this distinction in each of the last two years. Kuerten and Agassi won in 2000 and 1999, respectively, and Pete Sampras reigned for six conseutive years before that.

Only two men now have plausible chance of capturing the 2003 points race. Roddick is currently in first place, ahead of Ferrero by just 26 points. (Each win in the round-robin phase at Houston will earn 20 points, the semi-finalist winners will each receive 40 more points, and the champion will earn still another 50 points.) Roddick and Ferrero will be placed in opposite round-robin groups. A head-to-head meeting in the semis or final could decide the year's crown. One other player, Federer, has a remote chance of finishing on top but only if both Roddick and Ferrero fail dismally. Here are the pre-Houston standings in ATP points.

Roddick, 867
Ferrero, 841
Federer, 725

THE DOUBLES

Pro doubles matches are often decided by sudden, brief lapses. Still, the top pairs tend to be consistent winners, and in the case of the current year, four pairs have established a clear gap separating them from the others in the year's points race.

This year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion pair is the marvelous Swedish-Australian combination Bjorkman-Woodbridge. Todd Woodbridge, 33, was one of the renowned Woodys, the all-Aussie pair that dominated doubles in the 1990's. Woodbridge himself, with fifteen Slam conquests in men's doubles to date, is sometimes called the game's finest right-court serve-returner. Jonas Bjorkman, 31, with five men's doubles Slams to date, partnered Pat Rafter for several years before joining with Woodbridge in 2001. Bjorkman-Woodbridge finished #1 in the final rankings for 2001 and #2 for 2002. Lacking the extreme serves important for reaching the top in today's singles game, Woodbridge and, to a lesser degree, Bjorkman have achieved their greatness primarily in doubles.

The North American pair Knowles-Nestor finished last year at #1 in the pro rankings. The two have been together many years, regularly attaining the top ten during the late 1990's. Knowles is a strong and fiery partner for Canadian Nestor, who returns serve from left court and has a superior, left-handed doubles serve. (Nestor and countryman Lareau won the Olympics gold in 2000.) Mark Knowles, 32, is from Nassau, Bahamas. Dan Nestor, at 31, lists residences both in Canada and Nassau. Both men are 6-3.

Winners at Garros and finalists at U.S. Open this year were the American brothers, Bob and Mike Bryan. The twins, 25, are enjoyable to watch, always animated between points. They play firm, aggressive doubles, showing excellent quickness and finishing power in forecourt. Lefty Bob has the stronger serve, and returns serve from left court. (Mike is right-handed.) They finished last year at #3, up from #7 in 2001, their first year in the top ten. Since winning Garros 2003 their record has drifted off, and they lost in the first round at both the Madrid and Paris Indoors recently.

Mahesh Bhupathi of India, 29, and Max Mirnyi of Belarus, 26, have recorded a splendid year to date, including a recent triumph in Madrid. The pair skipped Paris but are expected to compete at Houston. For many years Mahesh in left court brilliantly and solidly supported his mercurial countryman and partner, Leander Paes. The pair won the #1 world ranking for 1999. Watching Bhupathi-Paes at Hartford several years ago, I kept detailed data on each partner. To my surprise, it was Bhupathi who recorded the stronger individual statistics in that match. Bhupathi later became regular partner of Max Mirnyi, finishing #5 in the rankings in 2002. Mirnyi at an athletic 6-5 brings an imposing presence at net, firm volleying carried over from his net-rush singles style, and an unusually strong serve for doubles.

Three of the above four top pairs entered Paris Indoors last week, but the finalists were Llodra-Santoro and Arthurs-Hanley, who will head the second tier at Houston. The French pair Llodra-Santoro won Australian Open 2003. Santoro contributes two-handed hitting artistry from both sides featuring accuracy and and deception. The Aussies Arthurs-Hanley are a solid, hard-hitting twosome, certainly capable of matching well with the top pairs. Wayne Arthurs's left-handed serving provides a nasty weapon, whether delivered with spin or at full velocity.

The Czech pair Damm-Suk will compete, along with the Argentines Etlis-Rodriguez as replacements for Paes-Rikl--out because of Leander's current illness. Zimbabweans Black-Ullyett earned the alternate place. These are all fine pairs but none have the horsepower to claim the championship.

Two pairs have realistic chances of claiming the year-end points championship. The Bryans lead Bhupathi-Mirnyi in the current standings by 25 points. (Points will be awarded in the doubles identically with the singles, described above.)

Acknowledging that Bjorkman-Woodbridge are the deserved favorites and that Bhupathi-Mirnyi have been relatively inactive since Madrid, my personal choice to win at Houston is the latter pair, primarily because of their heavier firepower, especially in serving.

ALSO IN NOVEMBER

The week before Houston will offer the WTA year-end championships in Los Angeles, telecast by ESPN2, featuring the top eight women in the points standings. The year-end champion in the points race will become known, whether Henin-Hardenne or Clijsters.

The week after Houston will bring the Fed Cup semis and final in Moscow. Russia and France will meet in what should be a fascinating semi-final featuring the top stars of both nations. The winner will be favored over the survivor of U.S. vs. Belgium, where both nations will lack their superstars. The solid American line-up--Shaughnessy, Rubin, and Navratilova-Raymond in doubles--should prevail in this semi. Though the Americans could make it interesting in the final, my feeling is that the home nation should be favored and will indeed win the Cup.

One week later, the Davis Cup final between Spain and Australia will end the tennis year. A grass court is being built in Melbourne for the occasion. If all are healthy, Hewitt, Philippoussis, and Arthurs-Woodbridge should prevail.

Let's hope for four weeks of November fireworks.

--Ray Bowers

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Between The Lines Archives:
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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