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Between The Lines
June 16, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Wimbledon 2005 Forecast

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Ray Bowers

The fast, low, and unpredictable bounce of the ball on a grass court will influence tactics and outcomes at Wimbledon in two principal ways.

First, a very fast serve is especially difficult to return effectively on grass. We will see more aces at Wimbledon than at the other Slams, and players will win their serving games more often than usual. Players having extreme-velocity serves--Roddick, Karlovic, the Johanssons, Ancic, Rusedski are examples--will generally do better than on other surfaces.

Second, the net attacker is able to deliver more effective volleys on grass than on other surfaces. Firm volleys scoot out of defender's reach, while sliced, touch volleys stay low in bouncing. Moreover, the grass makes an attacker's approach shot difficult for a defender to return effectively. Thus all players will be more inclined to attack net than usual.

Years ago when three of the four Slams were played on grass, most top players routinely came to net behind serve. Jack Kramer, Frank Sedgman, and the succession of American and Australian champions after 1950 learned the net game early and built careers about it. Two things have changed: (1) only a few tournaments today are on grass and (2) improved racket technology has helped the serve-returner and the player in back court.

Thus only a few pros are relentless practitioners of "serve-and-volley" tennis. Gone are recent champions Pete Sampras and Pat Rafter. Sampras won Wimbledon seven times with a superior serve and strong net game. Rafter twice captured U.S. Open and was twice runner-up at Wimbledon behind superbly athletic and instinctive net skills and the daring to use them.

Today, nearly all players have styles featuring powerful ground strokes and high court mobility, the latter needed in order to answer opponent's artillery. A player at net is understood to be extremely vulnerable if opponent in back court has preparation time for his shot. Thus the net is generally not the place to be, except when a point is already almost won.

On Wimbledon grass, all the pros will make some adjustment in style and tactics, recognizing that the attacker is somewhat favored in the classic ways. But since so few players regularly attack net elsewhere, I believe they will be less aggressive than they should be. Even the two-time defending champion, Roger Federer, whose net-attacking skills are superb, will probably be content in back court much of the time, especially against those opponents against whom he is very confident. This will change only when he meets an opponent he feels he cannot defeat primarily from back-court--i.e., Rafael Nadal. At Garros, Roger was at net much more often against Nadal than against any of his previous opponents. He won 61% of his points at net against Rafael. This tendency will probably become even more pronounced at Wimbledon.

The few inveterate net attackers--Taylor Dent and Max Mirnyi are examples--should be in their glory. Some top players--e.g. Tim Henman--will come forward directly behind nearly all first serves, and the others will surely increase their net attacking. In my opinion they would be wise to do so in the early rounds against weaker opponents, even at some risk, getting tuned for the critical tests later. The foremost candidate for this medicine, as I see it, is Venus Williams, to be discussed later.

In previewing the prime male candidates this year, Roger Federer remains in a class by himself. No other current star can match Federer's power, variety, steadiness, and past grass-court success. Three other superstars compose a second rung, whose chances of overturning Roger seem clearly better than all others. The odds shown here for winning the tournament are subjective estimates, scaled to achieve an overall probability of 1.0.

ROGER FEDERER, odds even

Federer's brilliance in the grass-court game is at a level seldom seen in tennis history, and his recent winning of the grass tune-up event at Halle confirms that his weapons are ready.

Roger's wonderful serving ability will be a bigger asset at Wimbledon than recently at Garros. Aces were difficult on the Paris clay, though the serve remained at the focus of Roger's strategy against his conqueror, Nadal. Roger favored a three-stroke sequence--the forcing first serve, then an attacking forehand from inside the baseline to the opposite corner, and finally the coup at net. The slowish clay of course diminished the penetration of all three strokes, so all three had to be delivered with authority. The pattern generally served Roger well as a way of winning points while keeping rallies short.

The Wimbledon grass should convey to Roger's attacking the penetration that was hard to obtain at Garros. He will probably follow serve directly to net more often than is usual for him. In my opinion, the faster surface at Wimbledon should favor Roger enough to reverse his loss to Nadal at Garros.

RAFAEL NADAL, odds 10-1

Rafael Nadal, 19, in defeating Federer in four sets at Garros used his relentless heavy-topspin ground-strokes and magnificent court mobility--assets ideal in clay-court tennis. Earlier at Miami, Rafael with his sizzling, high-energy brand of tennis showed himself nearly the equal of Roger on paved courts. But if Rafael has the edge on clay and the two are about even on hard courts, grass is the unquestioned domain of Roger. For Rafael, cultivating a grass-court game capable of matching Roger in the brief two weeks between Garros and Wimbledon seems a nearly impossible task.

ANDY RODDICK, odds 10-1

Andy's serve is the best in tennis, and the Wimbledon grass will permit its fullest effect. In defeating Andy in their 2003 semi and, to a lesser extent, in their 2004 final, Roger blunted Andy's prime weapon by simply floating the serve returns back into play. Andy, in my opinion, needed to come directly to net behind serve often, thereby denying Roger the soft-return tactic and forcing him to return from closer in.

Roddick has improved his net game in the last year or so. He won the tune-up at Queens two weeks ago, delivering many aces. It was his third Queen's title in three years, matching Roger's three grass-court victories at Halle. But in their big matches against one another at Wimbledon in 2003 and 2004, Andy won only one set while losing six to Roger. Andy's win came in the opening set last year, when Andy played his very best while Roger, as he often does, started slowly. The indication for this year's Wimbledon thus seems strongly in favor of the champion.

Andy's early draw is not favorable, as Croatians Karlovic and Ljubicic both stand in his path to the quarters.

MARAT SAFIN, odds 20-1

Safin defeated Roger enroute to winning Australian Open in January, but since then his record has been undistinguished. Marat in the past has expressed disgust for the grass-court game, and he has gotten as far as the quarters only once in five tries at Wimbledon. But he assuredly has the big serve so valuable on grass, heavy ground strokes, and, when he comes forward, very good volleying ability. He won four matches and was runner-up to Roger in the recent grass event at Halle, winning their second set in a tiebreaker. Probably both men on that occasion learned a lot about how to play the other on grass. Marat has the weaponry to match Roger on most surfaces, as seen in Melbourne. If Marat is ready and able to adapt to the grass game, as seems possible in view of his good results at Halle, Roger will have to be at his very best. The draw places him against a difficult opponent, Lleyton Hewitt, in the quarters.

THE DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

Here are the eight sections of the draw. Shown with each player is his calculated score from weighted past performances. (See footnote.) Our calculations and the official seeded list both give extra weight to past results on grass. (The calculations prefer the Johanssons over higher-seeded Davydenko and Canas, respectively.) My predictions echo the calculations in all cases.

Federer, 7.541. No problems here for Roger
Robredo, 1.922. Early loss at grass tune-up
Ferrero,1.825. Consistently reaches middle rounds at Wimbledon
Kiefer, 1.374. First-round loss at Halle tune-up

J. Johansson, 1.630. At height 6-6, outslugged Roddick at US 04
Gonzalez, 1.368. All-out hitter
Davydenko, 1.347. Highest seed in this section
Youzhny, 0.994. First-round loser last year

Hewitt, 3.413. Back from 3-month absence. Won Wimbledon 02
Dent, 1.841. Determined serve-and-volleyer
Puerta, 0.905. Finalist at Garros 05. Wonderful on clay
Massu, 0.733. Olympic champion 04 on hard courts

Safin, 2.452. Should prevail in a talent-deep section
Ancic, 2.423. Improving at 6-5 and age 21. Semi-finalist in 04
Hrbaty, 2.143. Heavy hitter. Career W-L at Wimbledon only 3-8
O. Rochus, 1.779. Smallish at 5-5, but career at Wimbledon 8-5
Srichaphan, 1.755. Career in reverse of late
Lopez, 1.547. A rare net attacker from Spain
Philippoussis, 1.287. Huge hitter. Career 25-8 at Wimbledon, finalist 03

T. Johansson, 2.125. Heavy hitter. Semis at Queen's 05
Canas, 2.109. Passed round two only once in six tries
Haas, 1.563. Pressed Roger at Halle
Schuettler, 1.389. Career 11-7 at Wimbledon
Novak, 1.317. First-round loser Wimbledon 04 and Halle 05
Mirnyi, 0.771. Daunting at net at 6-5 with tall shoulders

Nadal, 3.591. Faces serious tests in section
Stepanek, 1.914. Comes to net regularly and well
Nalbandian, 1.803. Injury troubles for two years. Finalist in 02
Gasquet, 1.152. Beat Roger on clay in April at age 18

Henman, 2.798. Home favorite and grass artist, age 30
Grosjean, 2.538 Career 17-6 at Wimbledon
Ferrer, 1.795. Mainly plays on clay
Llodra, 1.387. At 6-3, good at net
Popp, 0.976. Career 11-3 at Wimbledon at height 6-7
Volandri, 0.528. Mainly plays on clay
Arthurs, 0.234. Tough lefty server on grass

Roddick, 4.768. Horrible early draw
Coria, 2.263. Tops on clay. Won only one match in six Wimbledons
Karlovic, 1.553. Superior server at 6-8, finalist at Queen's 05
Ljubicic, 1.283. Career Wimbledon 2-5 but does well against Andy
Soderling, 0.909. Consistent on all surfaces at 6-3

Continuing to follow the calculations, in the quarters Federer over J. Johansson, Hewitt over Safin, Nadal over T. Johansson, Roddick over Henman. In the semis, Federer over Hewitt, Roddick over Nadal. Finally, Federer over Roddick.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Seven years ago--in 1998--the Wimbledon champion was Jana Novotna, a net-rushing attacker who played on grass with agility and grace. In every year since then, it has been the heavy hitters in women's tennis who triumphed. During 1999-2003, the winners were good-sized, power-minded Americans--Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters. Then in 2004 the trophy went to the tall Russian teen-ager Sharapova, whose instincts for power and aggressive placement were at least as strong as those of her immediate predecessors. Along with stroking power, all the recent champions possessed extremely strong serving ability. Meanwhile neither of the two Belgian superstars, both noted as much for mobility and variety as for power, has yet captured the trophy.

Because some of the best players missed parts of the last 12 months because of injuries, the seedings and consequently the draw contain some unfortunate placings. The Williams sisters are drawn in the same section and should meet in the fourth round. Davenport and Clijsters are together in another section, as happened at Garros recently. The same is true for Henin-Hardenne and Pierce, the recent Garros finalists.

Still, it should be a monumental women's Wimbledon, as for once all the current superstars seem to be physically ready to compete. It seems to me that there are eight candidates having plausible chances of prevailing this year. I estimate their chances as follows:

1. MARIA SHARAPOVA, estimated odds 3-1

Since her Wimbledon triumph at age 17 a year ago, Maria has verified her place close to the top of the women's game. Her prime strengths are her ball-striking ability in serving and stroking along with her superb on-court temperament. Wimbledon's grass should be her best Slam surface, enhancing the effect of her relatively flat serves and ground strokes. Last year she won the grass-court tune-up at Birmingham, and she repeated this achievement again this spring, though none of the other front-runners listed here were present. At height 6-1, she appears to be at least an inch taller than last year. At Garros, she lost to eventual champion Henin-Hardenne in a well-played match, where Justine's superior clay-court mobility and the effect of the clay in slowing Maria's stronger serves made the difference.

2. SERENA WILLIAMS, odds 4-1

Serena won Wimbledon in 2002 and 2003 and was runner-up to Sharapova last year. After an eight-month absence for knee surgery and rehab and encouaraging success in late 2004, she began 2005 by capturing Australia for her seventh career Slam. An ankle injury then intruded, so her readiness for top competition is unproven. But Serena has been able overcome rustiness quickly in the past, and she must be placed among the front-runners. If she is healthy and playing her best, she can certainly add to her tally of Slams.

The grass at Wimbledon allows Serena's serve to achieve maximum effectiveness. During her "Serena Slam" of 2002-2003 when she won four consecutive Slams, it seemed to me that her serving toss was slightly to her right side. The natural delivery that resulted produced maximum power albeit with a mix of sidespin and overspin, yielding many aces and allowing her to dominate against the best opponents. During 2004, however, she seemed to be seeking pure overspin by placing her toss exactly in front or slightly left. Whatever the cause, the effectiveness of her serving clearly has fallen.

3. JUSTINE HENIN-HARDENNE, odds 4-1

Winning both Garros and Wimbledon in the same year is an improbable achievement. No woman has accomplished this double since Steffi Graf did so in 1996 (for the fourth time). As recent Garros champion, Justine now has that opportunity. Infirmities kept her out of last year's Wimbledon, but she finished in the tournament's final four in the three previous years. At age 23, she remains close to prime age for a champion. Although she is slight of stature and physique compared to her top rivals, she is highly athletic and muscular, able to move very well on all surfaces. The fast grass surface will improve the effectiveness of her better-than-average but seldom overpowering pace of her serve and ground-strokes.

4. LINDSAY DAVENPORT, odds 15-1

Lindsay's power serving and stroking brought her the championship in 1999. But further Wimbledon triumphs thereafter have been curtailed in the presence of the Williams sisters. She played well last month in defeating Clijsters at Garros but then, unable to produce her best tennis, lost to a sizzling Mary Pierce. At 29, she remains #1 in the running 12-month women's rankings. She lost to Sharapova in the semis last year after winning the first set.

5. KIM CLIJSTERS, odds 15-1

Kim returned to the court wars from long wrist troubles in early 2005, surprisingly capturing the Tier One tournaments at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. A two-time runner-up at Garros, where her wonderful court mobility is most effective, she became a prime favorite to win that event. Against Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round, Kim won the first set easily. But she became almost helpless thereafter when Lindsay found the range for her big artillery.

Perhaps the Wimbledon grass will help Kim produce the extra penetration in her serving and stroking that was lacking against Davenport in Paris. Failing that, good defensive play alone will not win Wimbledon.

6. VENUS WILLIAMS, odds 15-1

Except for defeating Serena in the semis at Miami, Venus shows few victories in recent months to suggest success at Wimbledon 05. Still, over the last five years she has collected two Wimbledon championships and two runner-up finishes. Her first serve remains probably the game's fastest, and the Wimbledon grass should help remove pressure on her second. At a rangy 6-1, Venus is a strong and athletic player--indeed devastating when at net. In my opinion, if she decides to relentlessly come forward she is capable of winning the tournament. But if not--if she routinely stays in back court--her chances seem almost nil, as her ground game has been error-prone of late. Novotna was 29 when she won in 1998, suggesting that another Wimbledon triumph could be within reach for a net-attacking Venus, now 25. The adverse draw is a serious handicap.

7. AMELIE MAURESMO, odds 15-1

It is tempting to omit Mauresmo, now 25, from her usual place among our superstar Slam candidates. But Amelie's best Slam last year was at Wimbledon, where she reached the semis, carrying Serena Williams to a close three-setter. Since then, Amelie has played well enough to rank #3 in the running 12-month standings. Her heavy hitting in serving and stroking and her excellent athleticism should certainly carry her to a late round. When oh when will Amelie outperform expectations at a Slam?

8. SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA, odds 25-1

Svetlana will turn 20 during the tournament. Strong at a listed 161 pounds, she moves very well, pounds the ball hard, and shows fine court temperament. She won U.S. Open last fall, and was ahead of Henin in their recent match at Garros. Kuznetsova probably should have won, but with the end nearing both players began to play cautiously, allowing Justine's greater consistency to prevail. Svetlana reached several set points but lost them all.

How will she recover from the anguish of this loss? There was a similar disappointment last year when she lost at Garros 04 after holding match point against Myskina, the forthcoming champion. She did not recover well at Wimbledon, where she lost in round one after winning the grass-court tune-up at Eastbourne. She has an extremely favorable draw.

DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

Sharapova deserves to be the favorite, in accord with the odds shown above. She is very much favored by the draw, with a relatively clear path to the semis. Thereafter she will face opponents who could be physically and mentally drained from earlier struggles. Until the draw appeared, I liked the chances of Venus Williams and in making my prediction intended to abandon conservatism in lust for greater glory. But cooler judgement now prevails, and Maria is my choice. The sections of the draw, and my predictions, follow. Players are listed in order of seeding (from running 12-month results).

--Davenport, Clijsters, Safina, Sugiyama
--Kuznetsova, Schnyder, Asagoe, Vaidisova
--Mauresmo, Likhovsteva, Farina Elia, Sprem
--Myskina, Dementieva, Jankovic, Frazier
--Henin-Hardenne, Pierce, Pennetta, Ivanovic.Douchevina
--S. Williams, V. Williams, Hantuchova, Bartoli
--Petrova, Zvonareva, Schiavone, Razzano
--Sharapova, Dechy, Golovin, Medina Garriguies, Srebotnik

In the quarters, I choose Clijsters over Kuznetsova, Mauresmo over Jankovic, Henin over V. Williams, and Sharapova over Petrova. Then I like Clijsters over Mauresmo and Sharapova over Henin in a struggle of mighty wills. I pick Sharapova to win the tournament final.

THE TENNIS NATIONS

At last year's Wimbledon the American males and females tallied more match victories than the male and female contingents, respectively, from any other nation. The U.S. men should repeat, although Agassi will miss Wimbledon again this year, as Roddick and the Bryans should score well and the secondary American cast should add important points.

Meanwhile on the women's side, the Russians and the Americans will outdistance all others in the victory tally. There are eight Russian women in the seeded 32, and only four American, although Venus, Serena, and Davenport give the Americans the greater strength toward the top. But with Venus and Serena required to play each other mid-way, the U.S. chances are seriously dimished. Although the Russians scored poorly at Wimbledon 04, many of them have improved after twelve months of experience and physical growth. Thus the Russian women this year should break the usual U.S. dominance at Wimbledon.

It seems that every year invariably brings "the best Wimbledon yet." Wimbledon 2005 should be no exception.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia


FOOTNOTE

Here are the weights used in predicting each male player's performance at Wimbledon 05.

Grass events
Wimbledon 03, 9.10%
Queen's/Halle 04, 8.64%
Nottingham/'s-Hertogenbosch 04, 8.64%
Wimbledon 04, 12.02%
Newport 04, zero
Queen's/Halle 05, 9.97%

Non-grass events
US Open 04, 12.02%
Aus Open 05, 13.22%
Indian Wells 05 and Miami 05, each 11.22%
Monte Carlo, Italian, German Opens, each 1.08%
Garros 05, 3.56%

The weightings are computed from how well predictor events have correlated with results at Wimbledon over the last five years. Queen's and Halle are separate tournaments held the same week, and they are treated here as a single tournament. Nottingham and 's-Hertogenbosch are treated the same way. (Newport's correlation over the five-year period has been negative.) In calculating the weights, predictor events held on similar surfaces at nearly the same time are grouped.

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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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