THOUGHTS ON DAVIS CUP
Immediate attention goes to first-round Davis Cup action, March 4-6. In a
match-up of exceptional quality, U.S.A. will seek revenge against Croatia in an
outdoor hard-court arena in California. The visitors will be dangerous, having
defeated the American team in Zagreb in 2003. Once again playing for Croatia
will be an improved Mario Ancic, now 20, and tough Ivan Ljubicic, who won two
singles and, with Ivanisevic, the doubles in the 2003 meeting. Andre Agassi is
returning to Cup competition and, together with Roddick and the Bryans,
should give the Americans their strongest lineup in many years. None of these
Americans played in the Zagreb loss.
There are few prominent absences among the superstars at the other match-ups.
Federer is not on the four-player nomination list for Switzerland against
Netherlands, and Joachim Johansson is not listed for Sweden against France on
indoor clay, a surface unlikely to benefit Joachim. The latter engagement will be
interesting, where home-nation advantage should enable the French to prevail,
with Grosjean, Clement, and Santoro. Meanwhile the defending-champion nation,
Spain, will visit Slovak Republic--a challenging assignment, though Nadal and
Lopez give Spain better-than-usual strength on hard courts.
The year's Cup play should be intriguing from start to finish. Events could
produce a wonderful semi-final match-up of Spain and Argentina on clay, and a
similarly interesting hard-court meeting of Russia and the United States. If
Spain and U.S. then reach the final, as both did in 2004, the host nation with
choice of court surface will be U.S. It could be a final round of historic
dimension if played on hard courts, but if the choice is grass--a surface
relatively unfamiliar to all players--the occasion would be diminished. The U.S. needs a
Cup triumph, lacking since 1995, but a victory over Spain on grass would be
unsatisfying and a loss would be humiliating. The rules on choosing court surface
should be reviewed and, in my opinion, changed.
INDIAN WELLS AND MIAMI
Although they lack the long traditions of the great national championships,
two younger tournaments, held consecutively in North America, now rank just
behind the four Slams among the world's premier tennis events. Indian Wells and
Key Biscayne--one in the desert country of California and the other across the
bay from downtown Miami--each offer more than $5 million in prize money. The
main stadium at Indian Wells seats 16,000, the one at Miami 14,000. Both events
will feature 96-player main singles draws for both men and women in play
extending over two weeks. Both events will be televised worldwide.
The Pacific Life Open at starts in the week of March 7 (ESPN-2 coverage
starts March 13), the Nasdaq-100 in Miami starts March 21. With nearly all the top
pros on hand, high drama continuing the thrills of Melbourne Park can be
expected. Winning both events would give a male champion a total of 200 points in
the year's ATP race, the same reward for winning a Slam. The hard courts at Key
Biscayne are usually tailored to match the fast bounce at U.S. Open. Indian
Wells traditionally offers a slower hard-court bounce, while the ball in its
flight should be less retarded amid dry desert air than in Florida's humidity.
The last male player to score the March Double--winning both Indian Wells and
Miami in the same year--was Andre Agassi, in 2001, when he also won Australia.
Three years before that, in 1999, Marcelo Rios won Indian Wells and Miami
after finishing runner-up in Australia. Last year, Federer won Australia and
Indian Wells but lost in the third round at Miami.
PREDICTING THE DOUBLE
Recently I calculated how well outcomes at Indian Wells and Miami have been
predicted by results at the Slam and Masters Series tournaments of the
preceding 12 months. The five years of data clearly show that the best predictors for
the March events have been the U.S. and Australian Opens. Another strong
predictor for both Indian Wells and Miami has been Wimbledon, and strong predictors
for Miami have been the just-completed Indian Wells and the previous year's
Miami events. The poorest predictors have been the clay-court
tournaments--Garros and the three Masters Series events on European clay.
It is also clear that Miami has been generally more predictable than Indian
Wells. Perhaps Miami follows form more closely because the players there have
just completed a tournament on a similar surface (i.e., Indian Wells).
THE FIVE ELITES
By weighting tournament results of the last 12 months according to the
measured correlations of the past, we now predict probable outcomes at Indian Wells
and at Miami 2005. The emerging top five candidates and their rank order are
identical for both target events. (Raw scores predicting Indian Wells are
shown; values are generally similar for predicting Miami.)
1. Federer, 5.31
2. Roddick, 4.53
3. Hewitt, 3.78
4. Safin, 3.29
5. Agassi, 3.15
Marat Safin's victory over Federer in their brilliant semi-final at Melbourne
Park 05 came as a surprise to everyone. The powerful Russian, who had been
runner-up in two previous Australian Opens, appeared Roger's co-equal in all
aspects. Otherwise, form generally held up well at Melbourne: None of the above
listed superstars lost to an outsider. Note that our first four all reached the
semis at Melbourne. Our rank order, however, inverts the results of the last
three matches at Melbourne, where Hewitt defeated Roddick and Safin defeated
both Federer and Hewitt.
The paths of our heroes have diverged since Melbourne, though results
generally support our rank order. Roger Federer, our #1, in February won the indoor
tournament in Rotterdam and also won outdoors in Dubai. Andy Roddick won the
tournament indoors in San Jose and won three matches in Memphis before
withdrawing with ankle trouble. Lleyton Hewitt did not compete during February, and
almost the same can be said for Safin, who lost in the first round at Dubai.
Agassi lost early at San Jose but then won three times in Dubai before losing to
Over the years, our top group has done well at both Indian Wells and Miami.
Members of the group have won the last four championships at both events. The
only group member not contributing in this result has been Safin, who has
reached the quarters only once in twelve tries at these events. It seems that this
is a favorite time of year for our leaders, a favorite sequence of tournaments.
THE SECOND ECHELON
Our two lists--one for Indian Wells and one for Miami--now begin to differ.
Rank order varies somewhat in reflection of weighting differences and the
smaller numerical margins that now separate the candidates. Prominent in positions
#5 through #12 are players from Spanish-speaking countries. Moya, Coria, and
Robredo appear on both lists, Gonzalez is listed for Indian Wells, Nalbandian
for Miami. All five are from Spain or South America--regions whose players are
often labeled clay-court artists.
Indeed, as a group the five performed better on clay courts than on hard
during the past 12 months. But most of them also showed strong performances on
outdoor hard courts, which carried by far the most weight in our calculations.
Shown here are their W-L records during the 12 months on outdoor hard and clay
courts, respectively (includes only Slam and Masters Series tournaments, plus
Coria, 11-4 hard, 17-2 clay
Moya, 13-7 hard, 17-3 clay
Robredo, 14-7 hard, 6-4 clay
Gonzalez, 14-7 hard, 3-4 clay
Nalbandian, 5-8 hard, 13-4 clay
Note that Robredo and Gonzalez did better on hard courts than on clay, and
that Coria and Moya achieved very fine hard-court records to go with superior
performances on clay. Nalbandian's overall record on hard courts was not strong
during the period, but he did well at Madrid indoors 04 and Australian Open
05, both of which carried above-average weights for predicting Miami. Tallness
and physical strength are usually deemed important assets on hard courts, and
in this group all but Coria are at least 5-11 in height.But if Guillermo at 5-9
and 150 pounds cannot deliver the sustained power of the bigger and stronger
superstars, his court speed matches that of the game's fastest.
There are three other players in our top 12 for both tournaments. Tim Henman
has been close to superstar level for many years, but has seemed eternally
destined to remain just outside that elite realm. Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia is a
relentless firm hitter who thrives on hard courts. Finally, Joachim Johansson
at 6-6, age 22, and nearly 200 pounds has perhaps the game's strongest serve
backed by incredible forehand power to the corners. Joachim had the bad luck
to draw Agassi at Melbourne Park, and he lost to Andre in four sets, three of
We depart from the calculations to add one other prime candidate, a teen-aged
player who was injured for part of last year. Rafael Nadal of Spain, 18, is
already perhaps the best hard-court player of the current Armada. It was Rafael
who shortly before his injury defeated Federer at Miami last year, stopping
Roger's bid for the March Double. He carried Hewitt to five grueling sets at
Melbourne 05. Nadal is a lefty who resembles Lleyton in his superb court
movement, his firm and accurate hitting, and his on-court confidence, but he is even
stronger physically than Lleyton--an asset which he generally uses to generate
extreme topspin both forehand and backhand. He continued to compete well
during February on clay, losing a split-setter to Gaudio in Buenos Aires and
winning the tournaments in Brasil and Acapulco.
One other candidate not highlighted by our calculations requires admission to
our elite list. Ivan Ljubicic during February reached the semis at Milan and
Marseilles, and the finals at Rotterdam and Dubai, showing an overall 15-4 W-L
record in these events against much of Europe's best talent. He forced
Federer to three sets in the finals at both Rotterdam and Dubai, reaching third-set
tiebreak on the first occasion. In what might be ideal preparation, he will
face both Roddick and Agassi on a California hard court in Cup play just before
Which of our prime candidates, above, will prevail? Last year I guessed that
Federer would win at Indian Wells, correctly, and I wrongly picked Nalbandian
I value the evidence from our computations, and I look forward to learning
how well their message works out in detail. But my impressions from the
Safin-Federer semi-final at Melbourne Park remain too strong to resist. Contradicting
our numbers and also contrary to Safin's first-round loss at Dubai in
February, it seems to me that both Federer and Safin--until shown otherwise--are now in
a class of their own. Plausibly, either could achieve the March Double. I'll
pick Federer to win in California and Safin--the Safin of Melbourne Park--to
win in Florida.
Which nation's contingent will win the most matches? Last year, players from
the United States won the most often at both Indian Wells and Miami. Argentina
was a close second at Miami. Now, with Agassi, Roddick, and the Bryan twins
all apparently at their best, it is difficult to see a serious challenger to
repeated U.S. success at both events.
No female player in recent years has won the March Double. The recent record
however shows a strong relation linking outcomes at the two events with those
at Australian Open. Last year, for example, Henin-Hardenne won Australia and
Indian Wells but did not play Miami. The year before, in 2003, Serena won
Australia and Miami but did not play at Indian Wells. Back in 2000, Davenport and
Hingis were the finalists in all three events, Lindsay winning the first two.
Thus the current champion of the Australian, Serena Williams, would seem a
likely favorite for the March events. This is assuredly the case for Miami,
where Serena has captured the championship in each of the last three years. But
she will probably not play at Indian Wells, which she has missed every year
since sister Venus was harshly criticized for withdrawing from their semi in 2001.
Besides Serena, the standouts in this year's Australian Open were Davenport
and Sharapova. These two subsequently played each other in the final round of
the Pan Pacific in Tokyo. Maria won in a third-set tiebreaker amid hamstring
trouble for Davenport. Lindsay has not competed since the injury, and questions
also linger about her earlier funk half-way through the Melbourne final.
Meanwhile Sharapova performed well in winning the tournament at Doha, Qatar, in
late February. Maria's continuing improvement, thus, make her my choice to win at
Indian Wells and my second choice, behind Serena, for Miami.
Both megastars depend on dominating opponents by means of firm and courageous
hitting meanwhile holding down errors. If either succumbs to error-making or
otherwise loses confidence in her power game, there are many others ready to
move to the top of the women's game.
One improved player, from Australia, gave an unexpectedly strong performance
at Melbourne. Victim of several wrong calls at important times, Alicia Molik
played well but lost an extended split-setter to Davenport. Since then Molik
advanced to the semis at Antwerp, where she lost to Mauresmo, and then revenged
that loss the next week at Doha. In the final there, she won the first set
over Sharapova before succumbing. Alicia, now 24, is a relative newcomer to the
top realm, but there is unquestionable quality and power in her game along with
an impressive court presence.
Still on the scene is powerful Amelie Mauresmo, now 25, who lost in Australia
to Serena but showed good results in February including a split-set win over
Venus Williams. Amid a career troubled by spells of injury, Amelie has never
won a Slam championship, but she has reached at least the quarters in the last
nine Slams she has entered. Also requiring attention is a three-time former
champion at Miami--Venus Williams--whose physical tools remain superb but who
lost to Molik in Australia and, as noted, to Mauresmo recently. Meanwhile
perennial contender Jennifer Capriati apparently remains sidelined after
right-shoulder surgery, and the Belgian superstars, who outranked everyone else just a
year ago, continue to struggle in coming back from injuries.
Probably the most dangerous challengers to the top two or three will be from
the array of other Russian stars, most of whom are still below prime age as
tennis warriors. All, it seems, are firm hitters with excellent court mobility.
Kuznetsova, 19, won U.S. Open last fall, Myskina, now 23, won Garros 04 but
failed to defend her seed at Melbourne Park, and Petrova, 22, carried Serena to
three sets at Melbourne Park. Teen-agers Safina and Kirilenko are close to
penetrating the above group. Dementieva, 23, matches the others in her court game
and must surely rise as her serve improves.
One year ago none of the Russian women had yet won a Slam, but the rise of
that nation in world tennis was already detectible. In the count of matches won
by nation, at Indian Wells the U.S. women narrowly outscored the Russians,
24-23. Then at Miami the result was an exact tie, 26.5 matches won by each
nation. (Symbolic of the equal outcome, the doubles champions at Miami were American
Shaughnessy and Russian Petrova, whose five match victories were split evenly
between the two nations, while in the singles final American Serena defeated
Russian Dementieva.) Since last year, the Russians have improved individually
more than the Americans. It therefore seems likely that the Russian total will
surpass America's at both tournaments.
Count on weeks of wonderful tv tennis ahead.