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Between The Lines
April 30, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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How Good Are The Russkayas?

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

When the U.S. Open ended in September 2003, seven superstars stood at the top of women's tennis. Three of the elites were Western Europeans--Amelie Mauresmo and the two Belgians Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters. The other four were Americans--Davenport, Capriati, and the sisters Williams. The group occupied the top seven places in the women's point standings. The Seven had captured the last 14 Slams.

But fifteen months later--at the end of the 2004 race--the women's Top Seven looked very different. Four of the former elites were no longer part of that group, and the four newcomers were all products of a single country, Russia. Three of the newcomers--Myskina, Sharapova, and Kuznetsova--had each captured a Slam in 2004, and the fourth, Dementieva, had been runner-up at two of them. As a group the Russian foursome was much younger than our Old Guard Seven, though there was some overlapping. There were other rising Russian players, too, already in view.

It was obvious that a major reason for what happened in 2004 was the unusual number of injuries that afflicted every member of our Old Guard for a significant part of the turnover period. Thus it was hard to evaluate the stunning rise of the Russian women. But as 2005 started, most Old Guard members were on the mend, and it seemed likely that we would soon see showdowns across our two groups. Might we perhaps learn just how good really are the Russkayas?

At Australian Open in January 2005 it was the veterans who prevailed. Serena Williams won the championship, defeating Lindsay Davenport in the final. Enroute to the final Serena beat Sharapova in split sets. Still, a remarkable total of seven Russian women reached the round of 16, and the Russians comfortably won in the final tally of match victories by nation. Also, Kuznetsova and her partner, Aussie heavy-hitter Molik, won the doubles championship.

Matters swung in favor of the Russians in February. Sharapova won the Pan-Pacific, a Tier One event indoors in Tokyo, defeating Davenport, and Maria also won the Qatar Open in Doha. Meanwhile Russian teen-ager Safina, sister of Marat, won the Paris indoors, defeating Mauresmo, and Zvonareva won in Memphis. Partly balancing the Russian surge, Mauresmo and Davenport won at Antwerp and Dubai, respectively, against strong fields.

There had been some fine matches to date, but it was still hard to judge the two groups. Strong evidence would come from the March Tier Ones--at Indian Wells and Miami, both featuring nearly complete casts from both groups. Convincingly, it was the Old Guard that prevailed. Healthy again, her wonderful court mobility and her clean hitting fully returned, Kim Clijsters captured both tournaments. Kim's two-tournament run included wins over Davenport, Venus Williams, and Sharapova. But the Russkayas again were not blanked, as the Russian women won more matches than any other nation at both events. The tally was closest at Indian Wells, where the margin over the second-place U.S. contingent was 27 matches to 25.

Early April brought day-court events in Florida, won by Davenport, and in Charleston, won by Henin-Hardenne. Unexpectedly, the nation whose players won the most matches in Charleston, a Tier One event, turned out to be Czech Republic, led by the doubles finalist pair Benesova-Peschke. Also the Czechs showed excellent depth in the early rounds of singles. Are we seeing the early stirrings of another nation's revolution in women's tennis? Or, more likely, are we seeing a rise involving all eastern European nations, including Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Slovakia?

The WTA 2005-to-date point standings (as of April 24) integrated the above outcomes. Except that Sharapova ranked #2, it was plain that our "Old Guard" had returned.

Davenport, 1996
Sharapova, 1699
S. Williams 1597
Clijsters, 1237
Mauresmo, 1089

FED CUP 2005

Fed Cup opening weekend came in late April amid disappointing turn-outs by the European superstars. Absent from the Russian team, which faced Italy, were all three Slam champions of 2004. Missing for Belgium against U.S.A. were both Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, who between them had won the last three Tier Ones. Farina Elia did not play for Italy, nor Martinez for Spain. This latest snub of world fandom seemed inexcusable, especially considering the reduction of World Group action this year to three rounds.

The U.S. women won easily against Belgium. Also advancing were Russia, France, and Spain. Among the winning nations in World Group 2 play was Czech Republic, who defeated Japan in Prague 3-2 when Benesova-Peschke won the concluding doubles.

THE MEN

Four male players recorded superior achievements during the year's First Third. Their successes provided the high points of 2005 to date.

(1) Marat Safin

Safin's unexpected triumph at Australian Open 2005 at last confirmed that player's seemingly unlimited promise seen in past years. In defeating Roger Federer in a dazzling five-set semi, Marat matched or bettered the acknowledged world's champion in essentially all aspects of the game. The tall Russian then pushed aside Lleyton Hewitt in the tournament final, thereby scoring his second career Slam. It appeared that Safin, who turned 25 during the tournament, was finally ready to assert himself at the game's highest level.

(2) Roger Federer

Federer's response to his loss in Australia was to win every tournament he entered in February and March, including the Masters Series tests at Indian Wells and Miami. In the final in Miami Roger faced the energetic Spanish youth Nadal, who showed a magnificent game of heavy topspin, superb court mobility, and relentless physical and mental pressure. Nadal won the first two sets over Roger but gradually faded, probably from physical tiredness and perhaps also from mental relaxation. At the end the energy was gone from Rafael's early fiery presence. The scores revealed the progressive reversal-- Federer over Nadal, 26 67 76 63 61.

(3) Ivan Ljubicic

The Americans had ample reason to respect Ivan Ljubicic prior to the Davis Cup first-round showdown in early March. Memories were strong of the Croatian star's two singles and one doubles victories against the American Cup squad two years before. Moreover, Ivan had started 2005 strongly, reaching the final round and carrying Federer to split sets at both Rotterdam and Dubai. But this time Ljubicic would face the U.S. top players--Agassi, Roddick, and, in doubles, the Bryan twins. Repeating his 2003 success thus seemed unlikely. But now, on American soil, Ljubicic did exactly that. On the first day, playing with excellent power and all-round brilliance, Ivan defeated Agassi in straight sets. On day two he joined partner Mario Ancic to surprise the Bryan twins, last year's world #2 pair, in four sets. And on the final day he completed the Croatian team triumph by defeating Andy Roddick in five sets. Could a first-time Davis Cup championship lie ahead for Croatia?

(4) Rafael Nadal

With only a week for rest and travel after his impressive showing in Miami, Nadal next attained even greater heights. The Mallorca-born package of energy swept through the field at the Masters in Monte Carlo, the year's biggest clay tournament to date. His victims included 2004 French Open champion Gaudio, Gasquet (who had beaten Federer in the quarter-finals), and the defending champion Coria. For a player that will not reach 19 until June, it was a stunning triumph. His run continued the following week at Barcelona, where Nadal met former French champion Ferrero in the final, winning in three straight sets. Nadal also played in the doubles at Barcelona, reaching the final as partner for countryman Lopez. The amazing teen-ager then had just one week to rest and prepare for the Italian. But if he is strong enough to remain fresh after his strenuous season to date, his chances in Rome seem excellent.

Our four high achievers appear almost co-equal as candidates to become our male nominee for Player of the Year 2005.

EARLY CALCULATIONS FOR GARROS AND WIMBLEDON

In two weeks we will know the outcomes at Rome and Hamburg, and it will be time to predict Garros 2005. Four weeks later, knowing results of the grass-court tune-ups at Queens and in the Netherlands, we will be predicting Wimbledon. In both cases, we will rely heavily on calculations weighting results at various predictor tournaments.

But even though some of the most important inputs are yet unknown, we can nevertheless peek at the calculations as they now stand. We find that three players appear in our top-eight lists for both Garros and Wimbledon. High favorites for both tournaments, on both lists, are Federer, Hewitt, and Nadal. Nadal's place in the calculations is especially notable, as he missed most of last summer's play because of injury.

The five players who appear on our current Garros but not our Wimbledon list are generally from clay-court nations. Three are from Argentina--Coria, Gaudio, and Nalbandian. The others are Moya and Safin. Other players from the clay nations who are within range of our top-eight group are Robredo, Gonzalez, Ferrer, and Ferrero. Ferrero is a former Garros champion whose performance of late has again been rising.

Of those on our Wimbledon list only, three are from English-speaking countries--Henman, Roddick, and Agassi. The others are Ancic and Grosjean. Well positioned to move into our calculated top group are such fast-court performers as Safin, Dent, J. Johansson, Ljubicic, and Hrbaty.

Looking still further ahead to the summer hard-court schedule in America, there seems good reason for local excitement here. For the first time in my memory, the Legg Mason tournament here in Washington will not coincide with the likes of Indianapolis, Los Angeles, or the Olympics. A superior entry field of international stature is therefore to be expected. The event here starts August 1, a week ahead of Canada and then Cincinnati.

I can hardly wait.

--Ray Bowers

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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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