It was only a month ago when the tennis world reveled in the many superb head-to-head meetings at Melbourne Park among the world's top players. One by one the current male superstars--Federer, Safin, Roddick, Agassi, Nalbandian, Ferrero, and Hewitt--knocked one another out of Australian Open 2004 before an enthralled fandom worldwide. The last man standing was the magnificent Federer. Afterwards a period of recovery from the sizzling tennis seemed in order--a time for players and fans to summon the spirit for fresh confrontations.
But the pro schedule gave no respite. Five days after final-round Sunday in Melbourne, most of the aforementioned warriors again took the courts, now leading their national teams against ambitious opponents in first-round Davis Cup play. The drama began on Friday February 6 in Minsk, where the wounded Melbourne finalist, Marat Safin, faced powerful Max Mirnyi-Belarus's Number One. The clash lasted five sets, and the fifth set reached game score 9-9. The winner, by 11-9 in the fifth, was Mirnyi. One day later, Saturday, the Russian pair Safin-Youzhny won the doubles. But with Safin sidelined by his infirmities on Sunday, the Belarus team scored two singles wins to complete a 3-2 team victory. Concurrently in Bucharest, Roger Federer carried Switzerland to a 3-2 team win over Romania. Roger won his two singles matches, both in straight sets, and he also won the doubles (with Allegro) by score 10-8 in the fifth set.
Elsewhere, Andy Roddick of U.S. and David Nalbandian of Argentina led their nations to 5-0 victories over Austria and Morocco, respectively. Meanwhile in Adelaide Lleyton Hewitt won his first-day singles, but Sweden won the doubles (in five sets), and Jonas Bjorkman defeated Mark Philippoussis on the third day. Bjorkman's win completed an unexpected team victory for the Swedes. Thus the champion nations of 2003 (Australia) and 2002 (Russia) were both out of the 2004 competition. Meanwhile Clement won two singles to lift France over dangerous Croatia, and Spain's Robredo, Lopez, and Nadal all won singles matches at Brno to raise Spain over Czech Republic. Netherlands also advanced.
It had been a glorious Cup weekend, not only among the World Group nations but also at the far-flung places of zonal play. Second round of World Group comes in early April, when Sweden will visit U.S. and France will visit Switzerland. None of these four is a clear favorite to advance. Meanwhile, hosts Spain and Argentina will be strongly favored to defeat the visitors (Netherlands and Belarus).
On the second week of February began the South American clay-court circuit, bringing consecutive tournaments in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Nearly all the top South American stars competed along with several clay artists from Europe. Familiar names dominated the late rounds. Fernando Gonzalez and Kuerten reached the final in Chile, Gonzalez winning. Coria defeated Moya in the final at Buenos Aires, and Kuerten won in Brazil over Calleri. The pleasant Brazilian thus seemed the unofficial champion of the circuit. The clay wars will continue one more week at the Mexican Open, in Acapulco.
Meanwhile indoor events attracted many of the other top pros, yielding interesting insights on possible outcomes of the forthcoming events on hard courts. The current contingent of American stars performed at San Jose, where Andy Roddick won comfortably, defeating Mardy Fish who had beaten Agassi. But in Memphis it was the Europeans, especially the Swedes, who excelled. Thomas Enqvist defeated Roddick, who had back troubles, and Joachim Johansson, the 21-year-old Swedish heavy hitter, defeated James Blake and then Mardy Fish. American player Ginepri, who had played singles in Davis Cup two weeks before, lost in the first round. Johansson won the tournament. It was not an encouraging week for the U.S. Davis Cuppers in looking ahead to the meeting with Sweden.
Elsewhere, most European stars attended their winter indoor circuit--Milan, Rotterdam, and Marseilles. No top-tenners played in Milan, where the winner was French player Dupuis. Federer lost at Rotterdam to Henman, but it was Lleyton Hewitt who won the tournament, defeating Ferrero. In the Marseilles final, Hrbaty defeated Swedish teen-aged Davis Cupper Soderling after Safin and Ferrero exited early.
Injuries continued to trouble the seven current superstars of women's tennis. Thus there were no head-to-head confrontations among the group during February. Lindsay Davenport won the Pan-Pacific in Tokyo without loss of a set, and Kim Clijsters won at Paris and at Antwerp. The strongest threat to Kim appeared to be Italian player Farina Elia, who took a set from Clijsters at Paris and was her final-round opponent in Antwerp. It seemed that matters might heat up in February's final week at Dubai, where four members of the elite group were expected to compete. But Serena, who is recovering from knee surgery last summer, withdrew prior to start, and Venus and Capriati, both returning from injury troubles, stumbled in early rounds. Henin-Hardenne was left to claim the championship comfortably.
All in all, it was not a robust February at the top level of women's tennis. Russian player Kuznetsova, 18, who defeated Venus at Dubai and carried Henin to a first-set tiebreaker, thereby announced that she might be the Russian wonder who will eventually rise to superstardom. Another Russian teen-ager, Zvonareva, won at Memphis.
COMING: INDIAN WELLS AND KEY BISCAYNE
Behind the Slams in prestige and richness are the nine Masters Series tournaments. Nearly all the top male pros compete in these events, where the champions earn one-half the number of points awarded to Slam winners. The comparable events on the women's tour are called the Tier Ones, also nine in number.
March will bring two extravaganzas, each featuring a Masters Series and a Tier One tournament. The Pacific Life Open will start in the California desert at Indian Wells the week of March 8, and the Nasdaq-100 will begin at Key Biscayne (Miami) the week of March 22. Both will extend over two weeks, and in both cases the men's and women's main draws will have 96 players. (Main draws at Slams have 128.) Play will be outdoors on hard courts. The surface at Indian Wells is usually slower than at Key Biscayne, where a relatively fast bounce is sought similar to U.S. Open's. Contrariwise, the flight of the ball through the air should be faster in California because of the lower humidity there. In both cases ESPN and ESPN2 will telecast much of the second-week action, and at Key Biscayne CBS will carry the finals, which for the men will be best-of-five sets.
Men's tennis keeps getting better and better, but picking likely winners gets harder and harder. One likely choice at Indian Wells is Lleyton Hewitt, who won the tournament for the second straight year in 2003, defeating Gustavo Kuerten in the final. The winner in Florida was Agassi, also for the second consecutive year, who defeated Moya. All four of the above finalists competed well this year in Australia or during February and thus again seem strong candidates, especially Hewitt and Agassi. They join Roddick and perhaps Safin as the prime near-favorites. But all those just named seem slightly behind the player who is certainly the clear favorite at Indian Wells and probably also at Miami-the current champion of Wimbledon and Australian Open and recent Davis Cup hero, Roger Federer.
But there are many other stars capable of defeating any higher-regarded player if the latter is not at his best. Players like Ferrero, Coria, and Nalbandian from the clay-court nations certainly merit close watching. Tim Henman was a finalist at Indian Wells two years ago, and any of an array of European and U.S. young stars could go far in either event. The Swedish contingent-Enqvist, Bjorkman, Thomas Johansson, newcomer Joachim Johansson, and young Soderling--will be worth watching because of the Cup showdown with the U.S. immediately ahead. Mark Philippoussis remains as enigmatic as ever. Thus there should be wonderful matches daily from the first round on. I've put away my crystal ball after Australia (I picked Agassi), and I'm now using grandmother's old Ouija Board. It tells me that Federer will win at Indian Wells, and Nalbandian at Key Biscayne.
The women's results are easier to predict. Justine Henin-Hardenne is now the strongest force in women's tennis, having obviously raised her physical strength and stamina by hard work since claiming last year's French and U.S. Opens. It seems equally clear that Kim Clijsters is the world's second-best to Justine. Beginning with the start of Australian Open, Henin and Clijsters have a combined W-L record of 24-0 against all others.
The Williams sisters seem unready to compete at the necessary level and indeed neither has entered Indian Wells, where Venus underwent crowd displeasure three years ago after withdrawing from a semi-final against Serena at the last minute. (Venus played the next week in Key Biscayne and won the event.) The three other current superstars--Davenport, Capriati, and Mauresmo-continue battling recent physical problems.
Opportunities will remain for those players just behind-the young Russian women especially, who narrowly led all nations in matches won at U.S. Open last fall and again at the Australian. But the chances seem remote that any player can defeat both Belgians to win one of the tournaments. All-Belgian finals are possible, indeed almost probable, at both events. I'll choose Henin to win at Key Biscayne, Clijsters at Indian Wells. (Kim won the tournament last year.)
The easiest picking is for the unofficial national team winners. The U.S. will certainly win the most men's matches at both tournaments. Competing for second place will be Spain, Argentina, Sweden, and France. In the women's events, the Russians should capture the most wins.
Living and working here in our high-rise apartment overlooking northwestern Washington, I'm looking forward to many hours of great tv tennis. The cycle will include the intriguing meeting of the U.S. and Swedish Davis Cuppers directly after the tournament at Key Biscayne. How will Captain McEnroe and company meet the challenge of a blue-hot Swedish team that defeated the Aussies in Australia without using either Johansson in singles?