Can anyone beat Roger Federer at his best? Probably not, especially on a
non-clay court, but there are several contenders who, at their best, could prevail
in Melbourne if Roger is slightly below form.
To sort out the candidates for Australian Open 2005 in a purely objective
way, we calculate probable results at the Open by weighting results in predictor
tournaments of the preceding 12 months. The weights are determined by
correlating actual results at the past five AusOpens with results at the preceding
predictors. Thus the heaviest-weighted event for predicting AusOpen 05 here is
U.S. Open 04. The second-heaviest is AusOpen 04. (See the footnote at the end of
this column for the weights and further discussion.)
Here are our top eight candidates and their weighted scores from the
calculations. Players not entering or who have already withdrawn are excluded. Odds
for winning the tournament are derived from the scores and are also shown here.
#1. FEDERER, score 6.76 (odds 3-5)
Last year Roger captured the three non-clay Slams. As 2004's undisputed male
superior offensive and defensive skills sometimes seemed to approach
perfection. The previous year's champions have won only four times in the last 20
years of Australian Open. But Roger is no ordinary defender and he stands as our
clear odds-on favorite to win AusOpen 05.
Roger won the tournament last week at Doha, Qatar, and reached the final at
Kooyong Classic this week.
#2. RODDICK, 4.48 (odds 5-1)
Year 2004 showed that Andy's big serve is not enough to overcome Roger. Andy
was spectacular in winning the first set of their Wimbledon final but could
not sustain the necessary level of play. Roddick can defeat Federer, but he must
play with resolute aggressiveness at a level close to his very best. Like
Roger, he also reached the final at Kooyong this week.
#3. HEWITT, 3.88 (odds 9-1)
Lleyton's superior foot speed, good countering ability, and an improving
serve at U.S. Open 2004 destroyed Joaquin Johansson--conqueror of Roddick. But
these weapons scarcely bothered Federer in the final. Hewitt's W-L record at
Adelaide and Sydney this month is 6-1 to date.
#4. AGASSI, 3.13 (odds 26-1)
Andre has won Australian Open four times in his career--three times in the
last five years--and he reached the semis last year, losing to Safin in five sets.
At age 34, he seems unlikely to win the tournament, but in a head-to-head
match-up against an on-form Roger, he may be the only player having the knowledge
and weaponry that could enable him to prevail. He carried Federer to five
sets at U.S. Open in one of last year's premier matches. But he left the court at
Kooyong this week with recurrent hip trouble.
#5. J. JOHANSSON, 2.66 (odds 63-1)
Our calculations lift Joachim seven places above his 2003 final ranking. He
beat defending champion Roddick at U.S. Open 04 in a splendid five-set
quarter-final. A strong server and net player, now age 22 at 6-6 in height, this
Swedish star can be trouble for anyone. He won the tune-up event last week in
Adelaide but withdrew this week at Sydney with hamstring injury.
#6. HENMAN, 2.63 (odds 68-1)
Can it be that Tim Henman is now 30? Surprisingly, the British star has never
passed the fourth round at AusOpen. He defeated Nalbandian this week at
Kooyong but lost to Federer.
#7. SAFIN, 2.60 (odds 71-1)
Safin's strong finish in 2003 makes the above odds seem too long. Marat won
last fall's Masters Series indoor tournaments in Madrid and Paris, and he
reached the semis at Masters Cup in Houston, where he lost to Roger 6-3, 7-6. He
was runner-up at AusOpen 04, losing to Roger 7-6, 6-4, 6-2. Undoubtedly Safin has
the power weaponry and mobility to duel it out with Federer on even terms if
all goes right.
But he lost to all three of his singles opponents at the Hopman Cup tune-up
#8. MOYA, 2.39 (odds 118-1)
Moya's best results last year were on clay, and clay-court events are lightly
weighted in our calculation. But Carlos also achieved consistent early-round
success on the summertime fast courts, lifting him into our prime group here.
Carlos is now 28, and eight years have passed since his runner-up finish at
THE SECOND EIGHT
Roger will probably have to defeat two or three members of our Top Eight. He
will probably also face one or two members of the Second Eight, where each
player's odds for winning the tournament are longer than 100-1 but where all can
be expected to play hard and competitively. Prominent is David Nalbandian, age
22, who was held back by injuries after carrying Roger to four sets in the
quarters at Melbourne Park last year. Despite wrist, knee, and ankle troubles,
David achieved #12 position in our calculations. Another quarter-finalist last
year was Grosjean, ninth in our calculations and a semi-finalist four years
ago. Heavy-hitting Hrbaty won four singles matches without loss at Hopman Cup
last week but then lost early at Auckland. The careers of German stars Kiefer
and Haas, age 27 and 26, respectively, have been plagued by injuries, but both
have shown flashes of superstardom. They complete our Second Eight, along with
Pavel, Srichaphan, and Robredo.
THE REBOUND ACE SURFACE
In a past column we identified two separate populations of players--one
dominant in non-clay events where the bounce of the ball is "fast," the other on
clay, the "slow" surface. Years ago it was believed that a fair meeting place
would be Australian Open, where the hard surface was designed to give a slow
bounce, thus allowing the two populations to compete on even terms. But the
reality is--seen in our correlations calculations--that AusOpen has been far more
similar in its results to other non-clay events than to events on clay. Thus clay
artists Coria, Gaudio, and Canas, all of whom finished well inside the first
sixteen in the world rankings for 2004, by our calculations are not among the
Top Sixteen candidates for AusOpen 05.
I understand that Australia's Rebound Ace surface has been adjusted somewhat
over the years in order to reduce the surface traction and the prevalence of
ankle, leg, and lower-body injuries. Thus the bounce is probably faster than
previously, perhaps explaining the strong evidence from our calculations.
A Melbourne paper, The Age, this week quoted an official of the court
manufacturer, who said that "extra fibre" had been added to the surface coating this
year in order to speed up the bounce. We will see the fastest surface ever at
the Open, the source continued, except for year 2000. (Agassi became champion
in that relatively fast court year.) The guidance in taking this action was
from Tennis Australia, the national tennis association, according to the source.
Meanwhile Lleyton Hewitt publicly argued that the courts should be made fast
in order to benefit Australian players. Several other pros voiced disagreement
Here are the eight sections of the men's draw, as ranked by our calculations
(calculated scores shown). My predictions follow the numbers in all cases.
--Federer 6.76, Srichaphan 1.76, Robredo 1.75, Santoro 1.33, Ljubicic 1.18,
Gambill 0.79, Horna 0.72
--Agassi 3.13, J.Johansson 2.66, F. Lopez 1.49, Dent 1.46, Schalken 1.21,
Enqvist 1.01, Schuettler 0.57
--Safin 2.60, Kiefer 1.68, Haas 1.65, Ancic 1.30, O.Rochus 1.10, Karlovic
0.98, Malisse 0.94, Costa 0.84
--Moya 2.39, Hrbaty 2.04, T.Johansson 1.26, Soderling 1.16, Fish 0.85, Gaudio
0.82, Calleri 0.72, HT.Lee 0.72
--Nalbandian 1.91, Ferrero 1.53, Coria 1.18, Gonzalez 1.17, Berdych 0.98,
Ferrer 0.66, A.Martin 0.48, Zabaleta 0.43
--Hewitt 3.88, Pavel 1.97, Mayer 1.25, Chela 1.15, Nadal 1.15, Blake 0.87,
--Henman 2.63, Spadea 1.59, Canas 1.59, Davydenko 1.09, Saulnier 1.01,
--Roddick 4.48, Grosjean 2.08, Melzer 1.46, Llodra 0.94, Massu 0.78, Bjorkman
0.78, Rusedski 0.44
The numerical scores predict the late-round outcomes for us. Federer over
Agassi, Safin over Moya, Hewitt over Nalbandian, and Roddick over Henman. In the
semis, Federer over Safin, and Roddick over Hewitt. Federer will then win the
tournament, thus capturing his fifth career Slam on an apparent path to many
In the wild year of women's tennis just passed, four newcomers--all
Russians--finished the year in the officially ranked Top Six. With New Year's 2005 came
the question whether the four displaced members of the Six, all still at or
close to prime tennis age, could overcome their recent injury problems and
challenge for their former high places. If they succeed, the women's game should
see an unprecedented level of talent, depth, and balance at the top. In what
could be the most interesting year ever in women's tennis, Australian Open 2005
provides the first major battleground.
Or so it seemed just a week or so before the tournament. But then the injury
reports among members of the Old Guard began to roll in. Henin-Hardenne and
Capriati withdrew with knee and shoulder trouble, respectively, and Clijsters
determined that her long-standing wrist injury would not permit her to enter.
Questions remained as to the readiness of Davenport, Mauresmo, and the
In my opinion there are four prime favorites to win this year's Open. (The
odds shown are my estimates.)
SERENA WILLIAMS (odds 4-1)
Just two years ago in Australia, Serena completed her "Serena-Slam," having
achieved four consecutive Slam triumphs. Her position atop women's tennis was
remindful of the dominance of the greatest champions of the past. A strong
performance at Garros 03 would continue her run, along with yet another Slam
triumph at Wimbledon 2003. But a quadriceps strain and persisting pain would
require knee surgery in August and a prolonged recovery. She returned to win Key
Biscayne in March 2004, but amid lingering leg troubles she played in a total of
only 12 tournaments in 2004. Only briefly during the year did she produce and
sustain the kind of overpowering dominance seen throughout her earlier great
run. Sharapova beat her in two important finals, including Wimbledon 04. She
did not competed in the tune-ups for Melbourne.
SHARAPOVA (odds 6-1)
At Australian Open last year Maria Sharapova, then 16 but already six feet
tall, won two matches before losing a split-setter to Myskina. She had good
results thereafter, maturing her power game about her excellent court mobility and
superb mental strengths. Her surpassing achievement, capturing Wimbledon, was
perhaps the most historic moment of tennis year 2004. She also won the
year-ending event in Los Angeles over a field composed of the year's top performers.
Maria already belongs among the game's elite even as her further improvement
seems likely. The Australian summer, the slowish courts, and an array of
experienced, strong opponents stand in her way at Melbourne Park. But the weapons
making another conquest possible are assuredly there.
MYSKINA (odds 7-1)
Anastasia, now 23, defeated Sharapova three times in 2004 prior to a
split-set loss at Los Angeles. Her crowning success was in winning Garros, but she did
well at many of the hard-court events, reaching the semis at the Olympics and
triumphing indoors in Moscow. Her lifetime record at the Australian is 9-3,
her best among the Slams. Her game is beautifully balanced, her movement
ballerina-like, and her competitive intensity strong. She began 2005 by winning
three matches without loss at Hopman Cup but then lost to Chinese player Peng at
KUZNETSOVA (odds 7-1)
Svetlana, now just 19, lists at the same height as Myskina but at 30 pounds
heavier. The extra poundage is solid bone and muscle, suggesting readiness to
sustain two weeks of heavy duty in the Aussie sun. Kuznetsova won U.S. Open
last September with loss of just one set (to Lindsay Davenport in the semis). But
her year ended disappointingly with two losses at Los Angeles and two more in
the final round of Fed Cup, all indoors.
The above four are the glamour candidates--Serena and three Slam winners of
2004. But there are several other elite women stars, all capable of defeating
any of the above players or several of them in sequence. Several have injuries
that could reduce their effectiveness.
MAURESMO (odds 10-1)
Amelie played in her first Slam nearly ten years ago but she is still just
age 25. She played consistently well after returning from back trouble in spring
2004, winning the German, Italian, and Canadian Opens and finishing the year
#2 in the WTA point standings. Mauresmo finished the year strongly, winning in
Philadelphia and losing a close semi-final to Serena in Los Angeles. She is
battling a mid-section injury.
DAVENPORT (odds 10-1)
At age 28, Davenport is starting to think about retirement. Her yen to win
remains strong, however, as she returned from foot surgery and a hamstring
strain to attain first place in the WTA points standings for 2004. Her best assets
are her power serve and groundstrokes, which work well in Melbourne, where she
is better able to set up for her artillery than on faster surfaces. (She won
AusOpen in 2000, and she won four matches there last year before losing to
eventual champion Henin-Hardenne.) Recent knee trouble is a concern, and she
withdrew at Sydney with bronchitis.
MOLIK (odds 20-1)
Alicia Molik, now 23, has been a rising Australian star for several years.
Always favored with a splendid serve, she raised her results sharply in the
second half of 2004. She defeated Myskina for third place in the Olympics, and she
won the Tier One at Zurich with a final-round victory over Sharapova. She
plays aggressively and at nearly six feet tall can be an effective presence at
net. Like Myskina, Alicia won three matches without loss in Hopman Cup team play
to start the New Year, and this week she reached the final at Sydney.
DEMENTIEVA (odds 25-1)
Elena, 23, is another near-six-footer whose court movement and power
groundstrokes are in the class of the other Russians mentioned here. She is
handicapped in her serve, which is erratic and seldom forcing, but she finished 2004
ranked #6, showing runner-up finishes in two Slams. It is hard to imagine that
her serve will not improve in 2005. She withdrew this week at Sydney, citing the
VENUS WILLIAMS (odds 50-1)
At 24, Venus's magnificent mobility and striking power remain, but the
unorthodoxies in her techniques seem to have limited her improvement. She has not
won a Slam since 2001. For Venus 2004 was not a good year, marked by an
assortment of injuries and disappointing performances. She has not competed in over
It is difficult to choose against any of the highest-seeded players in each
section, except that by recent form Molik has at least an even chance of
unseating Venus in the second section. By custom we pick upsets in four
sections--Sprem over Davenport, Molik over Venus, Zvonareva over Kuznetsova, and Petrova
--Davenport, Sprem, Likhovsteva, Kostanic
--V. Williams, Molik, Smashnova, Jankovic
--Myskina, Schiavone, Dechy, Raymond
--Dementieva, Schnyder, Golovin, Hantuchova
--Kuznetsova, Zvonareva, Zuluaga, Dulko
--Sharapova, Farina Elia, Pierce, Asagoe
--S. Williams, Petrova, Maleeva, Pennetta
--Mauresmo, Sugiyama, Frazier, Benesova
The late rounds should go this way. Molik over Sprem, Dementieva over
Myskina, Sharapova over Zvonareva, and Mauresmo over Petrova. Winners in the semis
should be Dementieva and Sharapova. Sharapova should win the all-Russian final.
Our count of matches won by nation will include the singles, doubles and the
mixed. Without question Russia will win the most matches among the women. On
the men's side, the Americans with Roddick, Agassi, and strength in doubles
should prevail. It will be interesting to watch the success of the Chinese women,
whose readiness to compete at high level is becoming evident.
One expects that the tennis people of the world, in watching and sharing what
should be a magnificent sporting event, will exemplify a standard for
international relations in the larger realms.
Arlington, Virginia, USA
FOOTNOTE: Here are the weights used for predicting AusOpen 2005, from five
years of correlations data.
--AusOpen 04, 14.09%
--Indian Wells 04, 0.53%
--Miami 04, 7.70%
--Monte Carlo 04, 0.60%
--Italian 04, 2.51%
--German 04, 0.66%
--Garros 04, 1.76%
--Wimb 04, 13.44%
--Canada 04, 7.03%
--Cincy 04, 5.12%
--Olympics 04, 0.12%
--U.S.Open 04, 21.54%
--Madrid ind 04, 7.35%
--Paris ind 04, 5.72%
--Mast Cup 04, 9.06%
--Aus tun-up 05, 2.76%
The weighted scores are dimensionless but are loosely related to the probable
number of matches each player is likely to win at AusOpen 05. Conversion of
the scores to probability and numerical odds for winning the tournament
requires an indexing--in this case to Federer's 3-5 odds for triumphing--along with
adjustment to reach overall sum of probabilities 1.0. Federer's probability for
triumphing is from his overall and his weighted W-L percentages in the
predictor events raised to the seventh power.