There are seven superstars of prime age in today's women's tennis--four
Americans and three Europeans including two from Belgium. Five of the seven have
won two or more Slams, and the other two were the finalists in the 2003 year-end
championship in Los Angeles.
Injuries have plagued the above superstar group for many months. Reaching
championship level in women's tennis seemingly makes severe demands of the
athlete's body and raises chances of early breakdown. Might the all-too-brief career
of the magnificent Hingis exemplify the future norm, in contrast to the
extended reigns of many champions in the past?
One thing is clear. Evaluating the likely success of the female superstars at
Garros 2004 requires attention to recent injury history as well as recent
One year ago, Serena Williams, then 21, was the current champion of all four
Slams, holder of what she called the "Serena Slam." Her run of greatness
ended at Garros 2003 in a three-set semi-final loss to Henin-Hardenne. Serena
would soon reverse this defeat by beating Justine in a Wimbledon semi. But the
latter triumph would be followed by knee and quadriceps troubles, and then
surgery in August 2003 to repair a torn tendon. She returned to action in spring
2004 in Miami, where Serena won the tournament though without facing another
member of our superstar group. April brought another withdrawal because of knee
pain, from the Tier One tournament at Charleston.
Serena's comeback resumed at the Italian Open in May, where she advanced well
but lost to Jennifer Capriati in the semis. But with another week now for
practice and preparation, it seems likely that Serena will be strong at Garros.
If her knee is wholly ready she is vulnerable only against one of the other
superstars, and that opponent must summon very nearly a career-best performance.
With Serena sidelined after Wimbledon 2003, Justine Henin-Hardenne, then 21,
dominated last year's summer tour, capturing the Tier One at Toronto and then
U.S. Open. Her improvement continued, as her slender frame seemed able to
deliver increasing power, her movement seemed ever more athletic. But at year's
end 2003 Justine seemed plainly in need of rest. The new year brought blisters
and an ankle sprain, but she won Australian Open and Indian Wells. A viral
infection has sidelined her since mid-April, however, and it had been uncertain
that she will be able to compete at Garros.
If she is at her best, she merits co-favorite status with a healthy Serena.
Clay is probably Henin's best surface and probably Serena's poorest. But
Justine's recent sickness and her recent absence from competition make it unlikely
that the long-anticipated showdown of the two will happen.
Venus Williams has won four Slams--two Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens. Since
achieving these triumphs she has reached the final of four Slams but lost them
all to Serena. After Wimbledon 2003, Venus was sidelined the rest of the year
with abdominal strain, and since her return in January she has been further
troubled with knee pain. Her renewed comeback started well with victories on
clay at Charleston and Warsaw, but she sprained an ankle in Berlin and withdrew
just before the final. She then missed the Italian.
Kim Clijsters, almost 21, is a strong clay player, taller and heavier than
Henin and just as speedy with plenty of credentials in the form of past
successes. But she has withdrawn from Garros 2004 because of recurrent wrist trouble.
Lindsay Davenport, now nearly 28, has won three Slams but none since
Australia 2000. She exited from Garros 03 with foot trouble in the fourth round, and
was sidelined by knee surgery in October. She returned in January 2004 to mixed
success but further physical troubles. She won four matches at Australian
Open 2004 before losing to Henin, won the Pan Pacific in Tokyo, and reached the
final at Indian Wells where she again lost to Henin. She has not competed since
losing early at Charleston.
She has worked to improve her court mobility, but she remains behind the
other elites in that realm. Clay, where speed is critical and where power hitting
is reduced in its effectiveness, is understandably her least favored surface.
But prior to Charleston she won the clay event at Amelia Island, Florida,
Muscle strains of the pectoral area, shoulder, and back spoiled late 2003 for
Jennifer Capriati, 28. Back trouble then forced Jennifer's withdrawal from
Australian Open 2004. Her return began slowly, but she defeated Serena at Rome
and lost in a split-set final to Mauresmo. Capriati is a determined, mobile
hard-hitter, who has already proven herself at Garros, having won the tournament
in 2001. She should routinely defeat any player outside the Big Seven, and
when at her best she can threaten and sometimes defeat any of the top group.
Though afflicted with a variety of ailments in 2003, which necessitated
mid-tournament or mid-match withdrawals in four tournaments, Mauresmo, 24, ended
the year ranked #4. Her physical troubles continued at Australia 2004, where she
defaulted after reaching the quarters because of recurrent back injury.
Sidelined for more than two months, she returned recently to win both the German
and Italian Opens.
Mauresmo has size, mobility, and athletic talent, and her triumphs in Berlin
and Rome are assuredly attention-getting. But so far Garros has been her least
The galaxy of fine Russian players provides the foremost threat to the
superstar group. Young Russian women have recorded many close matches against the
elites and indeed a few wins. Which of them will be the first to break into the
top echelon? The answer may very well come at Garros 2004.
Probably the most likely eventual riser is Kuznetsova, 18, who stands #5 in
the points race for 2004 to date, up from a year-end ranking of #36 in 2003.
Svetlana, who was Navratilova's doubles partner last year, shows a fine court
temperament, moves well, and is tall and large--more so than nearly all the other
Russians. But there is no shortage of other Russian stars perhaps a little
ahead of Kuznetsova at present. Nadia Petrova at 21 reached the semis at Garros
last year. Zvonareva was a quarterfinalist at 18 last year. Myskina, now 22,
was #7 in both the 2003 rankings and #7 the 2004 race to date. Among other
candidates are Sharapova, now 17, who won three matches at Wimbledon last year,
and Safina, who won three at U.S. Open at age 17.
The Russian women have regularly been winning more matches at tournaments
than women from any other nation, having claimed these laurels at U.S. Open 2003,
Australian Open 2004, and four of the five Tier Ones of 2004 to date. Unless
all or nearly all the top Americans regain full health, the Russian run seems
certain to continue.
Here are the main principals in the eight sections of the main draw. Seedings
are given in parentheses. The predictions follow.
Henin-Hardenne (1), Suarez (14), Dokic (24), Loit (31), Zheng, Harkleroad
Petrova (8), Zvonareva (10), Sharapova (19), Daniilidou (27), Frazier
Mauresmo (3), Farina Elia (15), Maleeva (21), Raymond (28), Shaughnessy
Davenport (5), Dementieva (9), Smashnova-Pistolesi (19), Safina (32), Pisnik
Myskina (6), Kuznetsova (11), Sprem (22), Mandula (29), Schett, Molik
V. Williams (4), Rubin (18), Zuluaga (23), Pierce (30), Kostanic, Jidkova
Capriati (7), Sugiyama (32), Schiavone (17), Bovina (25), Czink
S. Williams (2), Schnyder (16), C. Martinez (20), Dechy (26), Hantuchova,
For the most part the highest-seeded players should win their sections. But
in guessing at the winners, I like to pick at least four reversals. Here are
I choose Suarez to win the topmost section. Paola has a winning record in ten
years at Garros, and is presently at her career-highest ranking in singles,
having shown strong results at Berlin recently. Meanwhile an already weakened
Henin will have to work to win three matches before facing Paola.
I pick Zvonareva to unseat Petrova. These two are very close in performance,
and the latter won their only past tour meeting, at Garros last year, in split
sets. But Petrova lost in the first round at Rome recently, while Zvonareva
reached the semis.
In head-to-head meetings, Davenport has won eight of eleven against
Dementieva. But Elena won their most recent meeting on clay, in 2003. I'll pick
Dementieva, who is 5-11 and age 22.
I also choose Kuznetsova over Myskina, though Anastasia last year at Garros
won their only clay-court meeting. But Myskina withdrew at Berlin several weeks
ago with arm strain.
In the quarter-finals, I pick Zvonareva over Suarez, Mauresmo over
Dementieva, Kuznetsova over Venus, and Serena over Capriati. Then Mauresmo should defeat
Zvonareva to reach the final, while Kuznetsova seems yet a year away from
defeating Serena. Finally, in my opinion, Mauresmo will win her first Slam in a
terrific final against Serena.
THE MEN'S SINGLES SEEN BY COMPUTER
Players from Spain or South America have won six of the last seven men's
championships at Garros. But not since Vilas won the Australian in 1979 has a male
from Spain or South America won any of the other Slams.
Of the top six males to be presented here as favorites to win the Garros
singles this year, two are from Spain, two from Argentina, and one each from
Australia and continental Europe. Four of our six are also among the top six in the
ATP points race for 2004, though in quite different sequence. Our list
differs even more from the official seedings, which are determined by the running
In here predicting results at Garros 2004, we employ player results at the
main predictor tournaments of the last twelve months. The predictor events are
weighted as follows:
Garros 2003, 17.0%
Wimbledon 2003, 3.3%
U.S. Open 2003 and Australian Open 2004, each 5.6%
Indian Wells and Key Biscayne 2004, each 6.8%
Monte Carlo, Italian Open, and German Open 2004, each 18.3%
total of above weightings, 100.0% (71.9% clay)
These weights were calculated from how well the predictor events correlated
with actual results at Garros over the four-year period 2000-2003. Readers will
recognize that we have used this method in past Slam previews here. A new
refinement is the introduction of a small correction for player age, described in
THE BIG SIX
Our number crunching identifies these six as the prime favorites, listed in
order of rank from the calculations. We also show the calculated raw score for
1. Guillermo Coria, score 4.48
I first watched Coria here in Washington in August 2000. It was a brutally
hot afternoon, and a brand new pro from Argentina, age 18, was performing on
center court before a small crowd. It was one of those early matches on the day's
card that few people notice. I wanted to try some photography, so I passed up
the shade of the press section in favor of an empty seat on the rail behind a
baseline. At first I mostly fiddled with the camera, but I soon realized that
the youngster's opponent, Kiefer, who had ranked #6 in the world for 1999,
was not having his way with the teen-ager. Coria--I later learned--was one of the
world's most successful junior players, having won the Garros junior title in
1999. I made note that this baby-faced fellow with the scrawny body possessed
remarkable court mobility, and that he was able to produce hard and accurate
shot-making from any court position. My vantage point was very close, and I
remember noticing his self-assured manner. Kiefer eventually won in split sets.
I was impressed by Coria, but I didn't realize that Guillermo would one day
become my choice to win Garros.
Coria, now 22, has traveled far since those first days as a pro. There was a
period of injury and suspension in 2001. He came back to Washington in 2002,
when he seemed taller and stronger than before. Today, the baby face is still
there, but he now lists at 5-9.
Coria's top place in our ranking largely stems from superior performances at
three of our clay-court predictors. But he was also runner-up on hard courts
at this year's Key Biscayne, where won the first set from Roddick, lost the
next two, and then withdrew with back trouble. He won 31 straight matches on clay
before he lost to Federer in the recent final of the German. Against Roger he
won the first set but then lost the next three. Did Roger figure out what he
must do to defeat the Argentinian?
2. Carlos Moya, 4.23
Moya is one of six former Garros champions competing this year. He won the
tournament in 1998, but since then has gone as far as the quarter-finals only
once, in 2003. The intervening years brought extended back trouble, but Carlos
once again finished in the top ten in 2002 and 2003. He now ranks second in the
2004 points race, boosted by an upswing this spring on clay. (He won Italy
2004 and scored well at both Monte Carlo and Germany.)
At 6-3 and 185 pounds, Moya is a strong and hard-hitting clay-courter,
apparently at his prime at age 27, favored by long experience in top-level
3. Roger Federer, 3.81
Since his first pro appearances in 1997, every year Roger has climbed higher
in the annual rankings. He finished 2003 in second place, up from #6,
suggesting that his destiny this year is #1. Indeed, now 22, he has won Australia,
Indian Wells, and the German this year and is far ahead in the year's point
There are only a few stars in tennis history who have won all four Slams at
least once during their careers. But it seems likely that Roger will be the
next. Winning Garros will probably be the most difficult hurdle, as his past
results have been best on fast courts. But there seem no aspects of the game where
he fails to excel, so proper adjustments to his strengths and tactics may be
all that is needed to prevail on clay. His recent wins over Moya and Coria at
Hamburg argue that he is ready to do so.
4. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2.87
Ferrero is the defending Garros champion and at 24 is an obvious candidate to
win again, but year 2004 has not been kind. After Australian Open in January
he complained of varied injuries and a need for rest, and he was subsequently
sidelined with chicken pox. He has not competed since a bleak first-round loss
to Alex Corretja at Monte Carlo.
If at full health, Juan Carlos assuredly belongs in the company of the first
three mentioned here. But the grueling requirements of winning seven
best-of-five matches on the red clay, where any round can be tortured, probably ask too
much for a player weakened in health and showing no recent success.
5. David Nalbandian, 2.65
Having learned to play on concrete in Cordoba, David is less the clay
specialist than most of his Argentine countrymen. His strongest Slam finish came on
grass, in his first Wimbledon in 2002, and he has yet to pass the third round
at Garros. He rose to enter our elite group, however, by reaching the final at
the recent Italian, where he lost to Moya in straight sets. Now aged 22, he
had an outstanding career as junior player. (He was runner-up to Coria in the
Garros juniors aforementioned.) Tendinitis in his left wrist has been an
on-and-off problem for a year.
6. Lleyton Hewitt, 2.57
At just 23, Hewitt has played in every Slam starting in 1999, winning U.S.
Open in 2001 and Wimbledon 2002. His game like Coria's is based on outstanding
court speed and counter-punching ability in ground-stroking, but he is an inch
or two taller and several pounds heavier than Guillermo. Unlike Coria,
however, Lleyton competes on clay relatively infrequently. One would expect that his
clay record will improve with experience on that surface, and we may have seen
evidence of this when he attained the semis at the recent German Open.
It is remarkable that all but one of our leaders are in the age group 22-24.
That age cohort also has representatives in our next six. Thus we are probably
witnessing a major intrusion likely to color tennis history for many years.
THE SECOND SIX
The margins among our second six are close. It is conceivable that a member
of this group could win the tournament, but the odds have lengthened
7. Albert Costa, 2.44
8. Tim Henman, 2.37
9. Andre Agassi, 2.29
10. Fernando Gonzalez, 2.22
11. Marat Safin, 2.20
12. Andy Roddick, 2.19
Costa won Garros in 2002. Now 28, his is the heavy-hitting baseline style
with much overspin, par excellence, from both forehand and one-handed backhand.
Henman's good score here is perhaps surprising, as he is not known for
clay-court prowess. But he showed a fine 8-4 record in the four clay-court predictors
used here, along with consistently good results in the fast-court events. His
court mobility is excellent, and he is willing to play the patient game.
Agassi won the tournament in 1999 but has largely refocused his game to the
hard-court style. He lost in the first round at St. Poelten, the only European clay
event that he entered this year. Fernando, 23, is a big hitter from South
America who can be almost unbeatable when steadiness sometimes intrudes. Safin and
Roddick at 21 and 24, respectively, are powerful and consistent hitters from
back court, and both bring big serves that enable them to seize the upper hand
at the outset of points. Both are capable of patience for at least a few
hours. Safin seems the likelier candidate on clay, having been runner-up twice at
Hamburg in past years, a Garros semi-finalist in 2002, and winner of eight of
eleven matches at the recent Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens.
We next show the eight sections of the draw as ranked using our scheme. We
show each player's computed score along with, in parentheses, his official
seeding in the tournament. Having not watched any European clay competition this
year, I will entrust the computer's scores to do all the predicting.
Federer, 3.81 (seeded 1)
Schalken, 1.22 (15)
Lapentti, 1.15 (not seeded)
Kiefer, 0.96 (n.s.)
Kuerten, 0.92 (29)
F. Lopez, 0.53 (24)
Nalbandian, 2.65 (8)
Safin, 2.20 (20)
Ljubicic, 2.11 (26)
Grosjean, 1.41 (10)
Calleri, 1.19 (n.s.)
Mantilla, 1.08 (n.s.)
Arazi, 0.92 (n.s.)
Ferrero, 2.87 (4)
Novak, 1.72 (14)
Ferrer, 1.38 (n.s.)
Gaudio, 1.05 (n.s.)
Bjorkman, 1.00 (24)
Mirnyi, 0.85 (29)
Hewitt, 2.57 (12)
Costa, 2.44 (26)
Schuettler, 1.96 (7)
Verkerk, 1.61 (19)
Saretta, 1.47 (n.s.)
Melzer, 1.12 (n.s.)
Escude, 0.66 (n.s.)
Moya, 4.23 (5)
Robredo, 1.69 (17)
Massu, 1.59 (11)
A. Martin, 1.17 (n.s.)
Stepanek, 0.98 (n.s.)
Hrbaty, 0.87 (31)
Coria, 4.43 (3)
Gonzalez, 2.22 (16)
Pavel, 2.19 (21)
Zabaleta, 1.77 (30)
Davydenko, 1.53 (n.s.)
Youzhny, 1.29 (n.s.)
Henman, 2.37 (9)
Agassi, 2.29 (6)
Spadea, 1.50 (27)
Horna, 1.18 (n.s.)
Philippoussis, 0.84 (18)
Roddick, 2.19 (2)
Chela, 1.51 (22)
Srichaphan, 0.97 (13)
T. Martin, 0.89 (n.s.)
Clement, 0.86 (32)
Santoro, 0.77 (n.s.)
We note just two cases--Schuettler and Agassi--where the highest-seeded player
in a section is displaced in our calculations, but there are many inversions
involving other seeded players. Here is the computer prediction for the late
Quarter-finals: Federer over Nalbandian, Ferrero over Hewitt, Coria over
Moya, and Henman over Roddick. Semis: Federer over Ferrero, Coria over Henman.
Final: Coria over Federer.
The luck of the draw at Garros appears to disfavor Coria and Moya, who are
the two highest-ranked players by our computer but are drawn into the same
quarter. Also unlucky is Albert Costa, whose raw score is among the high eight.
Lucky is Roddick, whose computed score is lower than Costa's but is good enough
to win his section. Also fortunate is Henman, whose raw score is lower than
Moya's, whose place he takes in the projected final four.
Best wishes to all for a great Garros 2004.
*The age correction was derived from Slam results since 2000, which yielded a
straight-line equation telling player improvement/decline each year as
function of player age. The statistical age where performance ceased to improve and
began to decline turned out to be 24.6 years. The amount of the correction
proved to be fairly small. For example, Andre Agassi's score in each predictor
event was reduced by 0.020 (same units used throughout the column) for each
month that the predictor preceded the target event, Garros 2004. Andre's
correction at age 34 is an extreme case.
Note that in determining the weights, the three clay-court Masters events,
the two hard-court Masters, and the two hard-court Slams are treated not
individually but as groups. This served to enlarge the data populations and remove
contrary-to-logic variations within the groups.