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Between The Lines
June 17, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Wimbledon 2004 Prospects

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Ray Bowers

The ranks of the top superstars in women's tennis have been almost impenetrable to outsiders for several years. Prior to Roland Garros 2004, the leading seven women had been the winners of the last fifteen Slams and runner-ups in most of them.

Since mid-2003, however, one after another of the superstars have been brought down by injuries. Then came the revolution of Garros 04, which affirmed what appeared to be a successor group, mainly populated by players aged 22 and younger. What was especially remarkable was that the successor group was made up almost entirely of players from Russia.

It may be that the Garros verdict was illusory, as cold and rainy weather greatly slowed conditions of play during mid-tournament. The slow conditions generally helped defensive tactics while hurting attackers. The heavier hitting power of the old guard was significantly reduced in effect. Thus if faster conditions prevail at Wimbledon, as seems likely, the familiar superstars could very well reassert their supremacy.

THE SUPERSTARS (OLD GUARD)

Especially hampered by the extreme slowness at Garros were Serena and Venus Williams. Serena's serve, which produced multitudes of aces in her past Slam triumphs, was instead returned consistently by Capriati in her quarter-final win over Serena. Serena furthermore had competed little since her Wimbledon triumph last year, though at Garros she seemed at full strength physically. Venus, who had withdrawn from the recent final in Berlin with an ankle sprain, also appeared in good health.

The sisters have captured the last four Wimbledons, each sister winning twice and Venus twice runner-up to Serena. Neither Henin-Hardenne nor Clijsters, the two Belgian players who took over the top rankings in late 2003, will be playing Wimbledon. (Henin has a viral illness, and Clijsters is having wrist surgery.) With both sisters robust and their foremost competition absent, another Wimbledon trophy thus seems a strong possibility for the Williams family, especially Serena, who is still just 22.

Davenport, Capriati, and Mauresmo complete the older elite group. All three lost to Russian players in late rounds at Garros 04 and may indeed be fading from superstar rank. Of the three, probably the strongest Wimbledon candidate because of her extreme power in serving and stroking is Davenport, 28, who won the event five years ago. Capriati, 28, and Mauresmo, 24, are strong hitters with good mobility, but are no longer at a level above all outsiders.

THE RUSSIANS

A year ago at Wimbledon the Russian contingent placed five members, all at age 21 or less, in the round of sixteen. Most of them faltered in the next round, thereby yielding to the U.S. women the badge of winning the most matches in the tournament. But in each of the subsequent Slams--the U.S., Australian, and French Opens--Russian females won more singles and doubles matches than the women from any other nation.

Most of the young Russian stars are from Moscow. They are generally tall, ranging from 5-8 to 6-2, all at 130 pounds or more. Nearly all of them have two-handed backhands. All are good movers on the court, all can drive the ball firmly as needed, and all seem to have excellent temperament and competitive outlook. Two 22-year-olds are the core--Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva--whose late-round victories at Garros over Venus, Capriati, Davenport, and Mauresmo dazzled the world. Meanwhile not far behind are Vera Zvonareva, 19, and Nadia Petrova, 22, who are both in the world's top twenty.

Two other members may be even more promising. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 19, is probably the most powerful of the group, at 5-9 and 160 pounds. When Svetlana played Myskina in the fourth round at Garros, the score reached six-games-all in the third set before the eventual tournament champion prevailed. Kuznetsova scored twice as many winners during the match as did Myskina, but she also committed almost twice as many errors. Perhaps even more precocious is Maria Sharapova, just 17, who talks like an American. Maria last month reached the final eight at Garros and last week won the grass-court event at Birmingham. A year ago at Wimbledon she carried Kuznetsova to a 7-5 third set.

Meanwhile Kirilenko, 17, took a set from Serena Williams at Garros. Safina, 18, sister of Marat Safin, is nearly six feet tall and reached the fourth round at last year's U.S. Open. Bovina, at 6-2 and 160, reached the fourth round at Melbourne Park 2004. Meanwhile Kuznetsova and Likhovsteva, who is 28, were the runner-up pair at this year's Australian and French Opens and rank #2 in the year's doubles race. Petrova and her American partner, Shaughnessy, are #3.

Strong serving provides extra advantage on grass. The young Russians are not superior in this realm. To illustrate, five members of the superstar group and four Russian players reached the fourth round at Garros. The fastest server of the Russians was Kuznetsova, at average first-serve velocity in that round of 95 mph (153 kph)--the same value posted by the slowest-serving member of the old guard, Capriati. (The average value for the other seven players reaching the fourth round was 89.)

But if grass benefits the big server, it can also help the weaker serve, adding penetration and unpredictability off the bounce. Surely the sliced serve of Dementieva, for example, which handicapped her at Garros, will be more effective on Wimbledon grass.

Meanwhile the wonderful court mobility, shot-making, and temperament shown by Myskina and other Russian stars at Garros should be just as admirable at Wimbledon. Without doubt, several Russians will penetrate very deep in the tournament this year. Indeed, a championship trophy for a Russian player is not beyond possibility.

THE PREDICTIONS

But it seems to me more likely that the general effect of the expected fast conditions at Wimbledon will turn matters toward the heavier-serving old guard, reinforcing that group's greater experience on turf. A healthy Serena must be favored to win the tournament despite her limited competitive play in the last twelve months. Venus is not far behind. There should be several fascinating match-ups across the Russian and the superstar groups. It should be especially interesting to track the tally of match wins by nation.

Here are the eight sections of the draw, players shown in seeded order. My own predictions, which always include at least four reversals of the seeded order, are offered.

--S. Williams (seeded 1), Schnyder, Schiavone, Daniilidou, Golovin. Golovin at 16 reached the recent final at Birmingham. But no problem for a healthy Serena here.

--Capriati (seeded 7), Petrova, C. Martinez, Dechy, Vento-Kabchi, Schaul. Although her record in 2004 has been indifferent, Petrova defeated Capriati in their last meeting, at Garros last year. Petrova.

--Mauresmo (seeded 4), Farina Elia, Pierce, Raymond, Kostanic, Asagoe. The Italian player had a nice run at Wimbledon last year, reaching the quarters and then winning a set from Clijsters. She won a set from Mauresmo in losing at Rome this year. Farina Elia.

--Kuznetsova (seeded 8), Suarez, Zuluaga, Safina. Kuznetsova keeps getting better.

--Davenport (seeded 5), Zvonareva, Loit, Dokic, Dulko. The Russian player has never defeated Lindsay. The choice is Davenport.

--V. Williams (seeded 3), Smashnova-Pistolesi, Maleeva, Shaughnessy. Venus is too strong for the others.

--Dementieva (seeded 6), Sugiyama, Rubin, Molik, Jankovic, Pisnik. Dementieva did not compete in the grass tune-ups after her disappointing final at Garros. The Australian player is a strong server, and she took a set from Myskina at the recent Garros. Molik.

--Myskina (seeded 2), Sharapova, Bovina, Frazier, Hantuchova. Though Myskina should prevail on another surface, Sharapova's record on grass has been excellent. Sharapova.

Having avoided a difficult showdown with Capriati, Serena should comfortably prevail over Petrova in their quarter-final meeting. Kuznetsova should defeat Farina Elia with equal comfort. I believe Venus will prove too athletic for Davenport, and that Sharapova will continue her rise, defeating Molik. In what should be superb semi-final meetings, both sisters will prove themselves yet ahead of their Russian teen-aged opponents. Serena then will continue her dominance over her sister to win her third straight Wimbledon.

THE MEN'S SINGLES -- TWO PRIME FAVORITES

A dominating serve has even greater extra value on grass in men's tennis. Until recent years, most players reaching the late rounds at Wimbledon were the ones whose strengths were in serving and net play--Sampras, Ivanisevic, Krajicek, Philippoussis, Rusedski, Henman, and Rafter. Things seemed to change in 2002, when baseliners Hewitt and Nalbandian reached the final, and of late the grass texture and soil firmness at Wimbledon have been adjusted to slow the bounce somewhat. But normalcy returned last year when the servers and the volleyers again ruled. The champion, Federer, came to net behind all or nearly all first serves, and the players who advanced to face him in the late rounds were big-servers Philippoussis and Roddick.

The analysis here rests on earlier calculations measuring how well various predictor tournaments correlated in their results with past Wimbledons. Then, by taking each player's results at recent predictor events and weighting them according to the historical correlations, I obtained values indicating each player's probability of winning Wimbledon 2004.

The exercise employed fourteen predictor tournaments. The earliest predictor for Wimbledon 04 is Wimbledon 2002, and the most recent is the Queen's/Halle 2004 pair, which is our heaviest-weighted predictor, at 12.0%. (The grass-court tune-ups at Queen's and Halle are played simultaneously two weeks before Wimbledon and are here treated as a single tournament.) The Nottingham/s'Hertogenbosch 2004 pair is held the week just before Wimbledon, too late for inclusion here. All Slams and Masters Series events of 2004 to date are used in the calculations. Grass-court events compose slightly over 50% of the total weighting. The predictors and their weights are listed in the footnote.*

Shown with each candidate below is his computed raw score along with numerical odds for his winning the tournament. The odds, which are rounded here, are calculated directly from the raw scores and scaled to an overall probability of 1.0. Two prime candidates emerged.

#1. Roger Federer, raw score 5.51 (odds 3-1)

It seems fitting that the defending champion, who performed so magnificently in winning Wimbledon 2003, should emerge as our top candidate. The completeness of his perfection a year ago is rarely glimpsed in our sport. We saw high mastery in the champion's forceful serving, in the variety, control, and accuracy of his stroking, in his net play, and in his court movement. What proved critical was Federer's ability to return Andy Roddick's serve consistently by blocking it back. (Andy summoned only three aces in their semi-final meeting; Roger hit 17.) Later in the year Roger won Masters Cup in Houston, and in 2004 he claimed Australian Open and Indian Wells. Now 22, he is probably now entering his prime years. Having just won the grass-court tune-up at Halle for the second straight year, Roger is deservedly the Wimbledon favorite, though his margin by our calculations is slight.

#2. Andy Roddick, 5.48 (odds 3-1)

Andy's first and second serves remain the game's best. During 2003, he led all tour pros in number of aces, far ahead of runner-up Philippoussis and third-place Federer. He also led in percentage of serving games won, at 91%. (Federer was second.) At Queen's last week, Andy set a new world's record with a serve clocked at 153 mph. He won the tournament, defeating Grosjean, Hewitt, Srichaphan, and Ancic, repeating his victory of 2003.

Along with his superior serving ability, Roddick, now 21, also brings a firm ground game including superior ability in attacking balls at or inside baseline. He has worked to improve his net ability, and is now seen in fore-court far more often than previously. But his reactions at net and his volleying skills remain behind the rest of his game. Still, it would seem that if Federer again decides to return serve conservatively, Andy must follow serve to net often, forcing Roger into riskier returns.

Federer and Roddick are seeded first and second and cannot meet until the final round. They have played each other twice in the last twelve months. Andy won at Canadian Open, winning a third-set tiebreaker. Roger won at Masters Cup. Our calculated odds prior to rounding are 2.84-1 for Federer to win the tournament and 2.87-1 for Roddick.

THE NEXT FIVE

A substantial gap separates the top two from the next five, who are themselves well separated from the rest.

#3. Lleyton Hewitt, 3.17 (odds 11-1)

Lleyton has often performed well on grass, having won Queen's three times, twice defeating Pete Sampras there. (This year Hewitt reached the Queen's final, losing to Roddick closely.) He won Wimbledon two years ago, but in 2003 he became the first defending champion to fall in the first round, losing to heavy-serving Karlovic. Reflecting his stated goals, Hewitt's prime achievement last year was in carrying Australia to the Davis Cup championship, defeating Federer on Rebound Ace in the Cup semi-final in September and then defeating Ferrero on grass in the Cup final. He has been remarkably successful in adapting his strengths, which are not in serving and volleying, to the grass-court game.

#4. Sebastien Grosjean, 2.89 (14-1)

With Andre Agassi having withdrawn citing hip trouble, Sebastien Grosjean moves into our fourth position. This 5-9 French star has lived in Florida since 1999. Last year his record on grass was excellent--he defeated both Hewitt and Henman at Queen's and then Henman again in reaching the semis at Wimbledon. He was again runner-up this year at Queen's, losing to Roddick in two close sets. In his court speed Grosjean is in the class of Hewitt and Coria.

#5. Sjeng Schalken, 2.86 (15-1)

The slender Netherlander, 27, at 6-4 is neither an overpowering server nor a persistent volleyer. His natural strength is in his ground game, but he reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in each of the last two years. He won the grass tune-up at s'Hertogenbosch last year but lost in the first round of that event this week to young Ancic.

#6. Tim Henman, 2.73 (17-1)

Henman has reached the quarters at Wimbledon in seven of the last eight years, missing out in year 2000 by just one match. But he has never reached the final. He played well at Garros last month, attacking net often including behind most first serves. He finally lost in the semis to Coria after leading by a set and a break. His good showing using attacking tactics in Paris suggested readiness to break out upward on grass, but then he lost his first match at Queen's. Still, his chances instinctively seem better than the odds stated here.

#7. David Nalbandian, 2.63 (20-1)

Nalbandian has been held back many months by intermittent troubles with his left wrist, which is employed in his two-handed backhand. He was an unexpected runner-up at Wimbledon two years ago, and last year he won three matches before bowing to Henman in four sets. He nearly reached the final at U.S. Open last year, narrowly losing to eventual winner Roddick in five sets. His strength is in relentless firm hitting, largely from back court.

BIG SERVERS AND OTHERS

For all other players, the calculated odds for winning the tournament are longer than 40-1. Still, the gradations of ability are narrow, and there are many with the ability to advance deep in the tournament, especially any big server when his serve is working well.

The super servers include Mark Philippoussis, who played very well as Wimbledon runner-up a year ago, and Marat Safin, who missed the tournament last year with injury. Left-handed Rusedski and Max Mirnyi are powerful players at 6-4 and 200 pounds, both relentless in serve-and-volley tactics. Rusedski advanced well in the early rounds at Nottingham. The Croatians Ancic, Karlovic, Ljubicic, and former champion Ivanisevic are high-velocity servers, as are Aussie Wayne Arthurs and German player Popp.

Not since Manuel Santana in 1966 has a player from Spain or South America won the men's singles at Wimbledon. Aside from Nalbandian, who is listed above, the most likely candidate from these clay-court places is Coria, who was hurting in the Garros final but played anyway in the grass tune-ups immediately afterwards. He lost in the first round at Queen's but won his first match at Nottingham. Guillermo has shown success on hard courts, having reached the final at Miami this spring, for example, where he won a set from Roddick. Coria ranks #9 in our Wimbledon-prediction calculations, at 57-1 odds. Other plausible candidates are hard-serving and hard-hitting Carlos Moya, who missed the last two Wimbledons, and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who was U.S. Open runner-up last year but has been ill in recent months. We will not enjoy the wondrous backhands of Gaston Gaudio, the recent winner at Garros, and Gustavo Kuerten, as both wielders will be absent with injury.

Of the U.S. contingent, after Roddick the strongest candidate is Mardy Fish, who was the only player to win a set from Federer in last year's Wimbledon. Fish reached the recent final at Halle this year but withdrew from Nottingham with hip trouble. Nearly co-equal by our calculations is Taylor Dent, an energetic serve-and-volley player. Still a warrior at age 33 is Todd Martin. From Asia is Paradorn Srichaphan, an all-around player who at #8 and 46-1 odds is just outside our top group. Relentless hitter H-T Lee, who won four matches at Queen's before narrowly losing to Grosjean, was eliminated in the second round of the Wimbledon qualifiers being held this week in London. From Europe are fine net player Bjorkman and Jiri Novak, who is #10 in our ranking at odds 59-1 and won three matches at Halle before losing to Federer.

THE PREDICTIONS

In making the official seedings at Wimbledon extra weight is given to grass-court events, though not as much as our analysis recommends. Last month our computer correctly named five of the eight quarter-finalists at Garros, outperforming the official seeded list where only three of the first eight seeds actually reached the quarters. The eight sections of the Wimbledon draw follow, players shown in order of raw scores from our number-crunching. The high-eight players in the official seeding are also shown. The predictions in all cases follow the computed scores.

Federer, 5.51 (seeded 1)
Srichaphan, 2.15
Kiefer, 1.54
F. Lopez, 1.22
Karlovic, 0.99

Hewitt, 3.17 (seeded 7)
Stepanek, 1.72
Youzhny, 1.54
Moya, 1.38
Safin, 1.35

Coria, 2.06 (seeded 3)
Fish, 1.85
Clement, 1.80
Bjorkman, 1.77
Kucera, 1.23
Arthurs, 1.20
Sluiter, 1.19
Ljubicic, 1.05
W. Ferreira, 0.83

Grosjean, 2.89
Ferrero, 1.90 (seeded 6)
Ginepri, 1.24
Mirnyi, 1.06
Gambill, 0.73

Henman, 2.73 (seeded 5)
Philippoussis, 1.79
Arazi, 1.25
Gonzalez, 1.24
Andreev, 0.66
Verkerk, 0.46

Nalbandian, 2.63 (seeded 4)
Novak, 2.05
Malisse, 1.75
Blake, 1.51
Ancic, 1.14
Robredo, 1.03
Dupuis, 0.96
Hrbaty, 0.95

Schalken, 2.86
Schuettler, 1.63 (seeded 8)
Rusedski, 1.53
T. Martin, 1.48
Chela, 1.37
Canas, 1.19
Spadea, 1.04
Reid, 1.03

Roddick, 5.48 (seeded 2)
Dent, 1.85
Pavel, 1.45
Nadal, 1.41
Popp, 1.00
Massu, 0.71

In the quarter-finals, our predicting scheme chooses Federer over Hewitt, Grosjean over Coria, Henman over Nalbandian, and Roddick over Schalken. Then Federer and Roddick become the strong choices to win in the semis. Finally, by narrow margin Federer should defeat Roddick to win the championship again.

I believe that pro tennis and its history bring people worldwide together in a splendid way. Fans everywhere can admire the skills and courage of players regardless of origin. Best wishes to all for a great Wimbledon.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

FOOTNOTE*

Here are the predictor events and weightings used here. Weights were determined from past correlations with four Wimbledons, years 2000-2003.

Grass
Wimbledon 2002, 10.6%
Wimbledon 2003, 11.6%
Queen's/Halle 2003, 9.2%
Nottingham/s'Hertogenbosch 2003, 9.2%
Queen's/Halle 2004, 12.0%
Newport 2003, 0.0% (past correlations negative)

Hard-court
U.S. Open 2003, 8.5%
Australian Open 2004, 10.8%
Indian Wells and Miami 2004, each 11.4%

Clay
Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens 2004, each 0.5%
Garros 2004, 3.8%

Grass-court events account for 52.6% of the total weighting, hard-court events 42.1%, and clay-court events 5.3%.

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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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