The 2004 version of the Legg Mason here in Washington drew an interesting
entry field, only slightly below the usual quality and depth even though the
Olympics were being held simultaneously. The headliners were Andre Agassi and
Lleyton Hewitt, who had been the finalists at Cincinnati ten days earlier. Andre
has been a prime seat-filler here for many years. Hewitt played here only once
before, in 1998. I remember seeing him in the player lounge when he was barely
17 years old, hanging out by himself over a game machine. Now he was a twice
world champion, a two-time Slam winner, and with Agassi the main gate
The draw also included a nice contingent from Europe along with those
American stars not in Athens. By tradition, the Legg Mason has often showcased top
new and rising talent, and this again seemed the case. Thus I decided to report
primarily on the fine contingent of young pros, age 21 and younger, in vague
hopes of glimpsing a future superstar.
Early-on, I witnessed the talent of Brian Baker, who became 19 this spring.
Brian had been the top American junior player, runner-up at the Garros juniors
in 2003. His first-round opponent here was Kristian Pless, 23, from Denmark,
himself once a leading junior who had finished in the ATP top hundred for 2001
and 2002. The product was a close three-setter, finally won by Pless.
It didn't take long to admire the surprisingly advanced game of Baker, a tall
(6-3) and slender (170 pounds) right-hander. His forehand and two-handed
backhand are delivered with relatively little backswing, so that he hits with
excellent accuracy even as he harnesses his body weight and timing to produce good
power. (Pless, at 6-2 and 185, uses lots of backswing--high on the forehand
side--and thus generates more sustained power.) At first, Baker seemed to
produce the more-effective serve, showing excellent variety and placement, clocking
in the 120's, though the speeds clearly faded as the match lengthened. A brief
faltering after a 30-minute rain break cost Baker the first set, but a run of
errors by Pless in the second set allowed Baker to equalize. Baker had
discovered that while the Pless backhand two-hander could be devastating, the Dane's
one-handed slice, which he used too often, was both soft and erratic under
attack. Baker often took advantage of this knowledge, coming forward and
volleying away Pless's repeatedly cross-court pass attempts. But late in the third
set, it seemed to me that Baker moved away from this ploy, so that Pless's
superior backcourt power forced a deciding tiebreak and then prevailed.
In my opinion Baker's wonderfully varied and balanced skills should produce a
fine pro career. He is probably already close to the ATP top hundred in
ability and should break into this realm in 2005. I very much like his compact
strokes, but in learning to answer the extreme power of his future pro opponents,
Brian will probably be forced to lengthen the backswing sometimes.
Superstardom will depend on his continuing physical development and on gaining still more
penetration in serving and stroking.
I also watched 18-year-old Daniel Yoo in his first ATP main-draw match. A
lefty, Yoo is smallish--I'd say 5-6 and 130 pounds, though he's listed at 150.
During the first point both he and his opponent, French star Mathieu, must have
resolved not to make the first error. After what seemed five minutes of
moonballs, Mathieu finally pushed one long. But after that the French player
unleashed his heftier weaponry and inexorably drove through to his 6-2 6-2 triumph.
Yoo, who was born in Korea and lives in Florida, showed fine speed and
counterpunching ability, contesting many points very well. By coincidence, a similar
match took place on the next court. (I sat in the top row between the courts and
thus could watch both matches.) There, Taipei 19-year-old Y.T. Wang dueled
against huge-serving Gilles Elseneer. Wang seemed a slightly more advanced
version of Yoo, and took the first set convincingly before the more-powerful
European untracked himself. Both Yoo and Wang were enjoyable to watch.
The only 20-year-old in the main draw was Colombian Alejandro Falla, who
proved unable to display his strengths in the face of a demolition administered by
Lleyton Hewitt. The field's three 21-year-olds were luckier in the draw.
Dmitry Tursunov lives in the U.S. but lists Russia as his tennis nation. I watched
him and his partner, Travis Parrott, defeat veterans Rick Leach and Brian
Macphie. Tursonov seemed clearly the dominant player on court, showing excellent
racket quickness and firm volleying ability. The pair would win two more
matches before losing in the final round. In singles Tursunov lost in two
tiebreakers to Swiss player Kratochvil, who throughout the week played at a much higher
level than his ranking would suggest.
Rob Ginepri, also 21, has been in the world's top hundred for more than a
year. I watched him in all three of his victories before he lost in the semis to
Hewitt. At 6-0 and 170 pounds, he competes very well, displaying fine court
mobility and sustained pace on serve, forehand, and two-handed backhand. On
Monday night, he defeated Alex Corretja in three sets, though the Spanish veteran
first put on a 30-minute display of backhand brilliance. Alex's sweeping
one-hander has long seemed the epitome of backhand perfection, but I have never
seen it generate the extreme power shown repeatedly during this run. Alex led 4-1
in the first set and nearly broke Robbie's serve a second time. But though he
seemed disspirited, Ginepri was already the fresher, stronger player, and he
went on to claim the victory. Wednesday brought another tough opponent in
Harel Levy, who brought an attractive varied game, winning points with astonishing
drop shots, attacking net--sometimes by surprise--and showing excellent use
of spin. But once again, Ginepri's game was heavier than his opponent's, and
late in the third set, Harel's penetration vanished when hitting against a
stiffening wind. Softish second serves were Levy's downfall, as Ginepri moved
inside baseline for the serve-return--especially with the wind behind. At the end
Ginepri was pasting everything.
But the star of our 21-and-under group turned out to be tall Gilles Muller of
Luxembourg. Muller had won the U.S. Open juniors and been runner-up in the
Wimbledon juniors in 2001. Since then, he has travelled the world tennis
circuits, playing in Challenger tournaments and in the qualifying rounds for ATP
events. His credentials at higher level are few. (This year, he advanced through
the qualifiers at Australian Open to reach the main draw, and in February he
won two singles in Davis Cup play against Finland.)
Muller at 21 is now a well-developed athlete--a left-hander with a two-handed
backhand, 6-5 tall and 165 pounds according to the official data (he looks
heavier). On Friday night, I watched most of his three-set win over Kratochvil.
Muller served consistently in the 120's, covered court well, and displayed
good control of his heavy ground-strokes. I missed the finish, but it seemed to
me that either he or Kratochvil might give Agassi a good fight on Saturday.
But Gilles's upset win over Agassi nevertheless came as a stunning surprise.
Muller again showed good control of his heavy game, and many points were
superbly fought by both men. Andre lost the first set rather abruptly in the tenth
game, and then continued to struggle in set two. Still, the veteran warrior
moved ahead, and served for the set at 5-4. But amid several breathtaking
exchanges where Muller produced his very best shot-making and Andre fought back
well, the younger player equalized the set at 5-5. After that, it became clear
that the motivation advantage shifted to the younger player. The last two days
had been laden with Washington's midsummer heat and humidity. (I was absolutely
drained after three sets of social doubles Friday morning followed by my stint
at the Legg Mason.) With a surely grueling final-round match with Hewitt the
reward for the winner, Andre's resistance in the final two games was gone. It
was Muller, 6-4 7-5. Afterwards Andre withdrew from the next-week's tournament
on Long Island.
Muller lost to Hewitt in the CBS-televised final round on Sunday. But his
consistent performance during the week, it seemed to me, verified that the young
European was now close to the promise he showed three years before. He was
strong mentally when in trouble and, as Agassi later noted to reporters, seemed
able to produce his best tennis when things mattered most. His court mobility
and superb physical stature, coupled with the strong lefty serve and excellent
volleying and overhead ability, argue that his near future is bright. Is he
the future superstar I sought? Perhaps, but first he must make his way through
the qualifiers at U.S. Open.
I deemed the Legg Mason a successful event. Hewitt all week showed his
magnificent court speed and tenacity, along with a very effective serve, and Agassi
produced his usual charisma. Each of the aforementioned "21-and-unders" should
be worth watching at the Open and in 2005. (A few days later on Long Island,
Tursunov would defeat the rising Croatian Ancic, who is seeded at U.S. Open,
and Ginepri would lose to Finland's Nieminen.) There had been several superb
matches, including a fascinating qualifying-round match where Kratochvil
defeated the excellent serve-and-volleyer Wes Moodie. Besides Hewitt's achievement
and Muller's upset of Andre, the tournament's most distinguished performance
was by French player Cyril Saulnier, 29, who won two matches and then carried
Hewitt to a third-set tiebreaker. It seemed the tournament's best-played and
best-contested match, where the main reason for Hewitt's triumph was probably the
Australian's serving ability.
Thinking over how the pros now play the game, it seemed to me that today's
players are quicker to attack in their shotmaking than several years ago--i.e.,
lengthy neutral exchanges are less frequent. All the higher pros are good
movers and are power hitters from both sides. They can nail the down-the-line
corners if allowed moderate preparation, and all are confident in delivering the
short cross-court sizzler. Most are ready and willing to come to net when the
opponent's shot is soft, though the net player's advantage is usually thin and
requires good execution in volleying. In doubles, all pairs work for close net
position--the rallying from back court seen, for example, in the women's
doubles final at the Olympics was absent here.
U.S. OPEN PREVIEW -- TWELVE PRIMES
We offer here the twelve males whose chances seem best for winning U.S. Open
2004. Until four weeks ago the general outlook seemed clear. There were two
outstanding favorites--(1) last year's winner Andy Roddick, whose recent victory
at Indianapolis implied that he was ready to repeat his 2003 summer run, and
(2) Roger Federer, the world's current Number One, winner of this year's
Australian Open and Wimbledon. This year the two met in the final at Wimbledon,
where Andy had been devastating for one set before fading, and also in the final
at Canadian Open, where Roger again won.
The engagements between the two are becoming historical. Andy's assets
include his matchless ability in delivering both first and second serves, along with
a fine power ground game, both from back court and especially in delivering
penetrating approach shots. Roger is the superior in serve-returning, variety,
consistency, and court mobility.
In their recent July match-up in Toronto, Roger--as in their Wimbledon 2003
meeting--was able to consistently return Andy's big serves. Roger seldom
attacked with his serve-return but instead floated the returns back--sometimes with
good depth, sometimes shallow. Andy meanwhile was always ready for immediate
attack off the ground, and often his big forehand produced prompt success. But
Roger's quickness enabled him to reach many of Andy's rockets, often
generating successful counter-attack. Only occasionally did Andy move to net directly
behind serve to take away Roger's softish serve-return game. Thus although Andy
remained the dominant player during his serving games, he lost one of them in
each set, which was all Roger needed. Roger later pointed out that a turning
point happened in the first set when he, Roger, recovered from love-40 with
three consecutive aces. Federer, who won by score 7-5 6-4, at the end approached
the brilliance shown at Wimbledon 2003.
Thus as of August 1, neither Federer nor Roddick had lost to an outsider
since Garros. But then Federer lost to Hrbaty in the first round at Cincinnati,
seemingly a victim of the last-week's-winner syndrome. Afterwards, Roger talked
about his tiredness from Toronto and his problem in adjusting immediately to
the faster playing conditions at Cincy. Meanwhile Andy--facing the same
pitfalls--only narrowly survived his first-round encounter with Mirnyi. But once past
Max, Andy gained strength in each match thereafter.
But the biggest story at Cincinnati became the resurgence of Andre Agassi.
Andre seemed at his best in defeating Moya in their Friday quarter-final, in
then upsetting Roddick in a magnificently played and very close semi-final on
Saturday, and then in controlling Hewitt successfully to win the tournament on
Sunday. In all three matches, Andre moved and drove the ball extremely well,
seldom missing and producing some fine crowd-pleasing winners. Against Moya and
to a lesser extent against Roddick, he came to net often and almost always
successfully. But against Hewitt he played very conservatively, seemingly
confident he could (1) run down Lleyton's heaviest artillery and then (2) outsteady
the speedy Australian in extended exchanges. Most of Andre's shots landed many
feet inside the lines, leaving most of the risk-taking to Hewitt. Because of
the court speed and defensive abilties of both men, the spaces for hitting
winners were extremely small, and Andre's conservatism prevailed by keeping his
error count well below Lleyton's. We add both Agassi and Hewitt to our
highest-elite group for the Open. Doing so is also supported by their performances at
the Legg Mason, noted earlier, especially Hewitt's.
In naming the second echelon within our Big Twelve, we rely heavily on what
happened at the Olympics. Of the 26 matches won this year prior to Athens by
Nicolas Massu, all were on clay. Massu's Olympics run began with a creditable
split-set win over Kuerten in the first round. Four consecutive wins followed,
all in straight sets. Then television worldwide showed his final-round conquest
of his own fatigue and cramping, and his eventual victory over Mardy Fish.
Surely disoncerted by the Chilean's distress, Mardy somehow missed too many of
his big shots. Massu showed a nice ability to function from very deep court in
the fashion of many clay-courters, as well as--more often--in more-aggressive
Joining Massu in our second echelon are German players Nicolas Kiefer and
Tommy Haas, both of whom rekindled the promise of several years ago in their play
of 2004 to date. Kiefer's W-L record on this summer's hard courts is 15-5,
second in total wins to Roddick. Haas's is 9-3. We add to the group Carlos
Moya--a top tenner in 2002 and 2003, who now ranks #4 in the ATP standings.
Completing our list of nominees are Silver Medalist Fish, Bronze Medalist Gonzalez,
Cyril Saulnier for his showing in Washington, and Marat Safin, whose vast
talent must soon change his long run of disappointing results.
MEN'S DRAW AND THE PREDICTIONS
We here list the eight sections of the men's draw, shown in officially seeded
order, along with my predictions.
--Federer, Pavel, Ljubicic, Santoro, Tursunov. Interesting opponents but no
problem for the top seed. Federer.
--Agassi, Massu, Dent, Novak, Mathieu, Ginepri. Though Andre is sharp, the
Chilean has plenty of momentum from Athens, Massu.
--Moya, Srichaphan, Hrbaty, Ancic, Malisse, Baker. Malisse has flair and
usually does well early in the Open. But I'll stay with the favorite. Moya.
--Henman, Gaudio, Kiefer, Fish, Rusedski, Saulnier, Mirnyi. Many interesting
match-ups here. Kiefer.
--Nalbandian, Grosjean, Chela, Bjorkman, Haas, Youzhny. A thin section and an
ailing favorite gives Haas a good chance. Haas.
--Hewitt, Gonzalez, Kuerten, F. Lopez, Arazi, Philippoussis. Riding high in
--Ferrero, Schuettler, Spadea, J. Johansson, Melzer, Gambill.This is the
weakest section. Johansson.
--Roddick, Safin, Robredo, Canas, Enqvist, Escude. A huge obstacle for Andy
is Safin, who faces a tough road first. Roddick.
Lleyton Hewitt has the lifetime career edge on both Roddick and Federer. He
prepared in North America, avoiding the Olympics, and has been playing at his
fiery best. In the quarters I choose Federer over Massu, Moya over Kiefer,
Hewitt over Haas, and Roddick over Johansson. Federer and Hewitt will advance in
the semis, and in the final Hewitt will defeat Federer to win his second U.S.
WOMEN'S SINGLES--THE TWELVE PRIMES
There are two top favorites to win the women's singles at U.S. Open 2004. One
of them established herself during the summer on the hard courts in North
America. The other emerged from the Olympics.
The main happening of the North American circuit was Lindsay Davenport's
three tournament victories--at Stanford, Los Angeles, and in the newly elevated
Tier One event outside San Diego, where Lindsay absolutely dominated Garros
champion Myskina in a 6-1 6-1 final. Davenport, slender at 6-2 and age 28, showed
the devastating serve and ground-stroke artillery that once carried her to the
sport's top ranking, along with an improved court mobility. Her supremacy was
remindful of her summer of 1998, when her run in California led to her U.S.
Open crown. Two weeks later she played in the first-time women's event in
Cincinnati, where she defeated Zvonareva in the final. Her summer record W-L thus
came to 18-0.
Our other leading favorite for the Open is the new Olympic champion,
Henin-Hardenne, whose triumph at Athens capped a year that had run from triumph to
misery. As last year's pro champion, Justine began 2004 by winning the Australian
Open and then the Masters Series event at Indian Wells. But during the spring
she was seriously hit by a viral infection that attacked her immune system.
Except for an unwise attempt to compete at Garros, she became inactive after
Justine's returned to the tennis wars at Athens, where she won six straight
matches to capture the Olympic Gold. The only set she lost was in the semis to
Myskina. She beat Mauresmo in a straight-set final. Her achievement surely
establishes her readiness to defend her U.S. Open championship and places her in
our top echelon.
The second group within our Twelve is headed by the player who one year ago
had won five of the preceding six Slams. But Serena Williams had knee surgery
in summer 2003 and then remained outside the pro wars until spring 2004. She
returned at Key Biscayne, which she won, and competed regularly thereafter,
reaching the final round at Wimbledon. (She was victim of Maria Sharapova's
wonderful run.) But she lost to Davenport at Los Angeles, then withdrew from the
third round at San Diego with recurring knee trouble, and then withdrew from the
Olympics. Still, Serena has shown her ability to win after long absence, so if
the knee is finally right her chances at the Open are certainly very good.
Very dangerous will be Amelie Mauresmo, who won the Canadian Open early this
month and was then runner-up at the Olympics. Amelie is now 24, presumably
close to her peak. She was inactive early in the year with back trouble but since
her return in April has reached the late rounds of all major events. She has
yet to win a Slam but her chances seem best at U.S. Open, where she has been a
quarter-finalist or better the last three years. We thus place Amelie in the
second group with Serena.
Two Russian players compose our third echelon. Prima ballerina Myskina at 5-8
and 130 pounds is the current Garros champion. She also shows an 11-4 summer
W-L record on the summer hard courts, including a very close loss to Henin at
the Olympics. Her compatriot Zvonareva is still only 19 and has similarly
athletic measurements, slightly shorter and stockier. Vera's summer hard-court
record is 13-4, including a loss that was a near-win against Myskina in San Diego
(Vera had nine match points) and a final-round loss to Davenport at
Completing our Twelve is a six-player group beginning with Venus Williams,
who has been recently hampered with wrist trouble and achieved no major wins
this summer. The suspicion grows that Venus's big game has reached its zenith in
the face of the rising newcomers. The group also includes Wimbledon champion
Sharapova, who in limited summer competition shows losses to Myskina at San
Diego, Zvonareva in Montreal, and American player Washington in the first round
at Long Island. Russians Dementieva and Kuznetsova also belong in this group.
Another familiar star placed here is Jennifer Capriati. Capriati lost to Serena
at Wimbledon 6-1 6-1, and after that has been largely out of competition
because of a damaged hamstring. Her return began with a first-round win at New Haven
Completing our list is Australian player Alicia Molik, who upset Mauresmo at
San Diego and defeated four opponents at the Olympics before Amelie took her
revenge. At age 23, just under six feet and 160 pounds, Alicia may be a later
developer than most champions. She shows an overall winning record in her five
past U.S. Opens. Just missing our Twelve is another newcomer, Karolina Sprem,
19, from Croatia, whose height and weight are much like Myskina's and
Zvonareva's. Sprem shows a win over Venus Williams at this year's Wimbledon and a
nice 6-3 record on the summer hard courts. She took Mauresmo to a 6-4 third set
THE DRAW AND THE PREDICTIONS
--Henin-Hardenne, Petrova, Farina Elia, Likhovsteva, Kirilenko. A soft draw
for the defending champion. Henin-H.
--Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Frazier, Pierce, Loit, Stevenson. Poor results since
Wimbledon downgrade Maria's credentials.Kuznetsova.
--Myskina, Suarez, Smashnova-Pist., Daniilidou, Schett. Myskina.
--Davenport, Venus Williams, Rubin, Bovina, Washington. Lindsay's summer run
repeats 1998. Davenport.
--Capriati, Sugiyama, Shaughnessy, Sprem, Dulko, Kostanic. Sprem.
--Serena Williams, Schnyder, Molik, Golovin, Hantuchova, Schaul. Molik.
--Dementieva, Zvonareva, Zuluaga, Dechy, Dokic, Safina. Stronger this summer
than her countrywoman. Zvonareva.
--Mauresmo, Schiavone, Vento-Kabchi, Maleeva, Koukalova. Mauresmo.
To win in the quarters: Henin-H, Davenport, Molik, and Mauresmo. To win in
the semis: Henin-H and Mauresmo. Wining the championship in a repeat of the
final at Athens: the woman of the iron will, Henin-Hardenne.
THE TENNIS NATIONS
The tallies of matches won by nation again proved interesting. At Toronto,
the nation winning the most men's matches was Sweden, when both Johanssons
reached the final eight in singles and Bjorkman added wins as a doubles finalist.
In Cincinnati, the top nation was U.S.A. behind Roddick and Agassi, narrowly
ahead of Australia led by Hewitt in singles and Woodbridge in doubles and Spain.
In Athens Chilean players won both the men's singles and doubles gold and
also the most men's matches.
Among the women, the Russians won the most matches at both Tier Ones, at San
Diego and Montreal, taking three of the final four singles berths in the
latter event. At the Olympics the winning nation was France, which tallied eleven
match wins, ten of them by Mauresmo and Pierce in singles and doubles.
(Dechy-Testud added an important doubles win, knocking out the top Russian pair.) The
U.S. women are likely to score highest at U.S. Open, led by Davenport,
Capriati, and the Williamses in singles and Navratilova-Raymond in doubles. The
Russian contingent is deep enough to outscore the Americans, however, and the
outcome will probably depend on three or four head-to-head meetings across the
groups. My guess is that the Americans will prevail.
Best wishes to all for a great Open.