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Between The Lines
September 30, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Countdown to 2005

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Ray Bowers

Roger Federer's triumph at U.S. Open confirmed that Roger would be the Number One male for 2004. But much else remains undecided. Still ahead are indoor circuits in Europe including two Masters Series tournaments for the men and two Tier Ones for the women. The Masters Cup final follows in November, outdoors in Houston, along with the WTA tour championships, indoors in Los Angeles. Finally, ending the tennis year will be the concluding rounds of Fed Cup and Davis Cup.

DAVIS AND FED CUPS 2004

Both home nations were heavily favored in the Davis Cup semi-finals, September 24-26. As expected, the French team without the injured Grosjean was defeated by host Spain, but matters became interesting when Mathieu won the opening match against Moya. Fabrice Santoro next lost to Ferrero in four sets in a match carried over to the second day. Fabrice then withdrew from the doubles because of an injured wrist, thereby depriving the French team of the world's #5 doubles pair, Llodra-Santoro. The replacement pairing, Clement-Llodra, lost in five sets to Nadal-Robredo, thus producing a 2-1 match lead for Spain. Then on Sunday, Raphael Nadal, 18, defeated Clement in straight sets to give the Armada the needed third win. There was much theater throughout the three days, including a controversy on the third day when in replacing both singles starters Spain was denied their wish that Robredo be paired against Clement.

Meanwhile host U.S.A. comfortably defeated Belarus. Well contested was the first-day's singles match between Mardy Fish and Max Mirnyi. Fish prevailed, winning an intense fourth set. The Americans must now assemble a clay-court challenge to host-nation Spain. The performances of American players in the major clay events of 2004 offers little support for optimism, but any squad having Roddick and the Bryan brothers, if all are playing at their best, must be respected.

Also in September were played the eight promotion/relegation meetings, where the eight winning nations earned places in the 16-nation World Group for next year. Two of these engagements reached score two-matches-all. These were decided when Slovak Republic replacement singles player Karol Kucera defeated Germany's Florian Mayer, who is 6-5 and age 20, and Stefan Koubek of Austria defeated Britain's Greg Rusedski. Slovakia's victory came on indoor hard surface, Austria's on outdoor clay. Of the eight winning nations thus qualifying for World Group, most are holdovers from this year. Two nations--Chile and Slovak Republic--are advancing from lower groups. Morocco and Canada will lose World Group status.

Fed Cup contines to seek a permanent format. Four surviving nations will compete in Moscow for the 2004 championship. Seeded Russia and France are expected to defeat their semi-final opponents, Austria and Spain, respectively The Davis Cup scheme is to be used (four singles and one doubles), except that the doubles is played last. Earlier this year it was a flat moment when Martina Navratilova relinquished her amazing undefeated record in Fed Cup. (She and Craybas lost a meaningless doubles against Austria, which had already won three singles matches.) Assuming that Russia and France reach the final round, their showdown should be interesting, where Mauresmo and Pierce will face the array of talented Russians. A two-two split in singles is conceivable, whereupon Russia's strength in doubles seems likely to provide the final edge.

MEN'S RACE FOR 2004

By winning three of the year's four Slams plus three Masters Series events to date, Federer has assured himself first place in the year-end points tally. Behind Roger, the second echelon in the rankings consists of Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt. (Andy was runner-up at Wimbledon and won the Masters event at Miami. Lleyton was runner-up at U.S. Open, and scored much better than Andy in the clay-court events.) The late-season competition for second place should be interesting, as success will bring added bonus money and the likelihood of seeding opposite Federer's half at Melbourne Park.

The fall events will also be of interest as predictors of the Australian season. Past correlations show that for predicting the men's singles at Australian Open, significant weight should be given to the fall indoor events in Paris and Madrid (formerly in Stuttgart). Each should be weighted about half as much as Wimbledon or the preceding Australian Open, or about a third as much as U.S. Open.

The eight-man field for Masters Cup at Houston is nearly set, including the aforementioned three leaders and also Gaston Gaudio, who is guaranteed a place because of his Garros triumph. Probably safe to reach Houston are Carlos Moya and Tim Henman. Coria stands between these two in the present standings but has been inactive since midsummer after shoulder surgery and is unlikely to compete. In line for the final two places are Marat Safin, who won in Beijing in September, and Andre Agassi. Last year Andre did not play after U.S. Open but reached Houston anyway. But this year, Andre will almost surely have to increase his point total. Among those close enough to pass an inactive Agassi are Joachim Johansson and Olympics champion Massu.

Who is the most likely threat to defeat Federer at Houston? Andre was runner-up to Roger there last year and was the player who gave Federer the most trouble at the recent U.S. Open. Meanwhile Roddick's game is too big to dismiss against Roger's. All others seem well below Federer if Roger is at anything close to his best. Indicators may emerge shortly, as Federer, Roddick, and Safin seem headed for a weekend showdown in the current tournament at Bangkok.

WOMEN'S RACE

The women's race this year has again been complicated by injuries intermittently sidelining the main contenders. The current leader in 2004 points is Lindsay Davenport, well ahead of Amelie Mauresmo and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who are essentially tied for second. (Mauresmo is tops in the running 12-month standings.) Three players are closely bunched next--Myskina (slumping of late), Henin-Hardenne (still seemingly weak from viral illness), and Dementieva (runner-up to Kuznetsova at U.S. Open).

Indications of current form emerged from the China Open, held in Beijing, September 20-26. With Davenport and Mauresmo absent, Serena Williams won the tournament by winning four matches against Russian opponents. In the final, Serena and Kuznetsova produced a three-setter, Serena winning at the end by 6-4. Serena thereby moved into seventh place in the 2004 standings, passing Capriati, who missed Beijing.

The aforementioned top seven seem certain to claim places in LA, leaving a close struggle ahead for the final place involving Capriati, Sharapova, Venus, and Zvonareva (currently ranking in that order). Kim Clijsters, who won LA last year, is now returning to the circuit after long absence with wrist trouble, but she is too far back for realistic chance of penetrating this year's top eight.

Thus Lindsay seems currently in the best position to finish the year on top, assuming her recovery from the upper leg injury that bothered her in losing to Kuznetsova at the Open. What is clear is that we should see some wonderful women's tennis just ahead, including at the mid-October Tier Ones in Zurich and Moscow. For the first time in many seasons nearly all the top stars seem reasonably healthy.

THE TENNIS NATIONS 2004

At three of this year's four Slams, the nation whose male players scored the most match wins was the U.S. The Americans, led by Roddick, Agassi, and the Bryans, also led in wins at three of the four hard-court Masters events played to date. (The Swedish contingent won the most matches at Toronto.) The Americans, however, showed almost no success in the clay-court events, where Spain and Argentina alternated in taking honors. (The Argentines scored best at Garros.) Chile won the most matches at the Olympics, where on hard courts Massu won the singles and Gonzalez-Massu the doubles. With the U.S. and Spain having advanced to the Davis Cup finals, these two seem clearly the leaders among the nations for 2004, with the U.S. somewhat ahead momentarily.

In women's tennis, the dominance of the Russians is entirely clear. The Russian contingent captured the largest number of matches at three Slams and at all but two Tier Ones. The U.S. won the most matches at Wimbledon and at the Tier One at Charleston, and the two nations exactly tied at Key Biscayne. France won the most at the Olympics. Russian women won three of four individual singles championships at the Slams. A Russian triumph in Fed Cup would be a crowning achievement.

HOW THE SPORT HAS CHANGED

My own outlook toward today's game is rooted in many hours studying pro tennis as it was in the 1930's. There was no women's pro tour back in 1936, for example, after a failed attempt in that year to add women to the existing men's pro tour. There was no acknowledged male world's champion but instead separate amateur and pro Number Ones, who never played each other. The premier events in international tennis--Davis Cup and the four Slams--were open only to the amateurs, who were essentially unpaid performers benefiting the game--i.e., the amateur establishment and local tournaments.

Now, there is a worldwide scheme linking the many events and a regularly updated ranking of the players. The top players are well paid, and the sport is readily open to talented newcomers. Women's pro tennis is a vibrant reality essentially co-equal with men's. The game has vastly grown almost everywhere and today seems ready to soar on the Asian continent. Meanwhile amid the vast changes, Davis Cup and the Slams have been preserved at the apex of the sport. Critical to the success of the pro game has been the large financial contribution of corporate sponsors. Meanwhile the number of amateurs who enjoy playing the game has expanded many times. Participation is only moderately a reflection of social/economic class. International television brings the big matches to watchers all over the world.

The biggest milestone in the long story was probably the opening of the Slams to pro entrants and the awarding of prize money, starting with Wimbledon 1968. Why this came so late is hard to understand, as Open Golf had been a vigorous entity well before World War II. (By their selfishness, the early pro tennis warriors themselves bear part of the blame.) In 1937 tennis held a first "U.S. Open," in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Nearly all the amateurs withdrew before the start of competition under pressure from U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. The winner of the event was veteran European pro Karel Kozuleh. Permanent realization of the Open Tennis idea--though it was endlessly talked about--awaited another three decades. The sport can never regain the heritage partly lost in those years.

--Ray Bowers

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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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