Being the first-seeded male player at U.S. Open hasn't meant much of late.
Prior to Roger Federer's triumph last year, only once in the preceding 16 Opens,
1988-2003, had the highest seeded male been the player who eventually raised
the championship trophy. (That happened in 1996, when top-seeded Pete Sampras
won the fourth of his five U.S. championships.) Meanwhile, previous-year
champions fared only a little better.
Federer is both the highest seeded player and the defending champion for U.S.
Open 05. But despite the discouraging tendencies noted above, it is difficult
to picture Roger not claiming his sixth Slam title. Assuredly, he must
produce something close to his best tennis throughout the two weeks, and he will
need to summon his absolute best on the several occasions when most needed. But
he has repeatedly done these things in the past, and he seems unusually gifted
in raising his game in the late rounds.
Roger is also favored in our computerized analysis, which is based on
weighted results in various predictor events. Under our scheme, for example, the
highest weighted predictor for U.S. Open 05 is U.S. Open 04. The
second-heaviest-weighted is Australian Open 05. The calculations are described in the footnote
at the end of this column.
Here are the Elite Five as ranked by the calculations, including Roger and
the four superstars having the best chances of unseating him.
- Roger Federer
- Rafael Nadal
- Lleyton Hewitt
- Andre Agassi
- Andy Roddick
Shown below with each candidate is his raw score from the calculations along
with his numerical odds for winning U.S. Open 05. The odds are derived from
the raw scores, calibrated to achieve an overall probability of 1.0.
#1. ROGER FEDERER, score 7.15, odds 3-2.
There is hardly a dimension of the game in which Roger is not superior. His
excellent mobility and superb shot-making weaponry allow him infinite variety
in playing style. In my opinion his signature asset is his power forehand
drive, where he produces a disguised, extreme topspin that is key to his attacking
angles as well as his counterpunching. The topspin comes not primarily from
the upward path of his stroke and follow-through but rather from a powerful
albeit hardly detectible upward snap of the forearm, wrist, and hand at around the
moment of impact. Notice how Roger's racket arm is highly developed,
reminiscent of Rod Laver's, who also generated scintillating topspin.
Roger's history since winning U.S. Open 04 offers little encouragement for
his forthcoming opponents. He ended last year by capturing Masters Cup in
Houston, where he won five matches, all against Top Eight opponents, with loss of
only one set. So far in 2005, Roger has lost only three matches, two of them on
clay. Against the other members of our Elite Five, his W-L record this year is
7-1, having defeated Agassi twice, Hewitt twice, Roddick twice, and Nadal
once. The lone loss was to Nadal in a four-setter on Garros clay. Roger at 24 is
at prime age for a champion.
#2. RAFAEL NADAL, 4.40, odds 6-1.
Rafael Nadal's playing style is today's basic clay-court game, lifted to the
ultimate degree. His strengths are (1) his superior court mobility, (2)
powerful, sweepingly topspun ground strokes, often well angled and delivered with
few errors, and (3) excellent tactical skills both in defense and offense. His
serve is excellent--firm enough to deny opponent taking the offensive on the
return and capable of producing short-point wins (aces, serve-return errors,
and serve-return sitters). He likes to play in deep court, employing his superb
defensive talents, but he is quick to attack at the right moment.
All the above are hallmarks of a clay-court artist, and indeed most of
Rafael's triumphs have come on that surface, including critical Davis Cup
contributions in Spain's successful quest for the Cup last year. Without question he is
the world's clay-court champion for 2005, havng won Garros 05 along with eight
other clay events including Barcelona, Monte Carlo, and Rome.
But if Rafael's game is tailored for success on clay, it is so strong that it
is also very effective on hard courts. At Australian Open 05, the unseeded
18-year-old won three matches and led Lleyton Hewitt by two sets to one before
losing a fourth-set tiebreak and then the match. In the Masters tournament in
Miami in early spring, he won the first two sets against Federer before losing
a third-set tiebreak and then the match in five sets.
In August, he captured his first non-clay pro championship--the Canada Open
Masters in Montreal, where he won a superb split-set final against Agassi, who
was playing at close to his best. A few days later Rafael lost his
first-rounder at Cincinnati to hard-hitting Berdych (both of them are now 19), in another
seeming example of the "next-week syndrome." The early loss will probably have
the effect of improving Nadal's freshness at the Open.
#3. LLEYTON HEWITT, 3.69, odds 10-1.
Lleyton's mobility and hitting strengths will probably carry him through four
or five rounds. But his chances against the prime favorite, assuming Roger is
close to his best, seem faint. Since January 2004, Lleyton and Roger have
played each other eight times, all in Masters events or Slams. Roger has won all
eight, leading in sets won 21-2. Lleyton lost a hard-hitting two-setter to
Andy Roddick in Cincinnati.
#4. ANDRE AGASSI, 3.55, odds 12-1.
Since forcing Federer to five sets at last year's U.S. Open, Andre's career
has been troubled by hip and back problems. Cortisone injections have allowed
him to compete at close to his best, but the agony has invariably recurred.
Thus after winning at Los Angeles this summer and then reaching the final at
Montreal, he once again returned to Las Vegas for recovery, upon which his
readiness for the Open must depend.
The Agassi-Nadal showdown in Montreal showcased the strengths of both men.
Rafael's heavily overspun ground-strokes gave Andre trouble off the bounce and
especially when Andre was forced to move quickly to a side. Andre therefore
took the initiative, closing on net more often than he usually does. Andre's
advantage was in serving and in obtaining quick points. Though he lost the match,
Andre seemed fresher than Rafael at the end, probably because of Nadal's
willingness to play defensively in deep court and allow Agassi to keep him on the
Assuming that Andre's physical recovery permits, we can expect to see him
advance through the early rounds and severely test any other member of our elite
group, including especially Nadal, whose quarter of the draw he shares.
#5. ANDY RODDICK, 3.52, odds 12-1.
Andy's recent record against Federer provides only a little more hope than
Lleyton's. In eleven career head-to-head meetings, Federer has won ten. Roger
also leads in sets won, 24-4. Four of their meetings have been in hard-court
Masters matches outdoors, Andy winning at Canada 03, Roger winning at Canada 04,
Masters Cup 04, and Cincinnati 05.
To defeat Roger, Andy must play with good power at something close to
perfection, and he must sustain this level of play not just momentarily but
throughout three winning sets. He can win some quick points in serving, and he must
serve-and-volley at least occasionally to deny Roger's past tactic of simply
floating back his serve returns from deep. To win points otherwise, Andy must
deliver his patented rockets to the corners, two or more in succession, coming to
net to finish only after such a barrage. Meanwhile Andy must hold down his own
errors while protecting his own side of the court to Roger's ripping
ripostes. Key to breaking Roger's serve will be Andy's obtaining the baseline
equilibrium preparatory to his barrage--i.e., neutralizing Roger's initial serving
advantage--or, if Roger forces to net, Andy's reacting quickly to run down
every possible volley or half-volley by Roger.
Roddick reached the final in Cincinnati by defeating Hewitt in their semi
behind 23 aces. Andy also showed a varied attacking game, well executed,
following serve to net more often than he usually does. Against Roger in the final,
Andy served less well, showing a relatively low first-serve in-court percentage,
volleyed less well, and misfired too frequently in his all-court game.
BEST OF THE REST
#6. Dominik Hrbaty, 2.59, odds 38-1. The Slovak hard-hitter, 27, has risen
nicely of late, having finished #14 in 2004 and done well in events heavily
weighted here. (He reached the quarter-finals at U.S. 04, Australia 05, Miami 05,
and Canada 05.) But he lost to Safin in an interesting show-down at
Cincinnati, so that getting beyond the quarters at the Open seems unlikely.
#7. Marat Safin, 2.57, odds 39-1. Marat's magnificent performance in
defeating Federer in Australia 05 brands him one of the few stars whose game can be
strong enough to defeat Roger. But since Melbourne, Marat's successes have been
few. He and Roger played on grass at Halle, where Roger won in split sets.
Safin looked strong at Cincinnati until meeting a steady and artful Ginepri.
#8. Nicolay Davydenko, 2.35, odds 57-1. At age 24 and 5-11, this slender
Russian player has quietly claimed a high place in the current ATP standings. Clay
was his best surface in 2004 and Garros his best Slam so far in 2005.
Relatively heavily weighted here are Nicolay's quarter-final finishes at Australia 05
and Cincinnati 05. Hewitt defeated him at Cincinnati by comfortable scores.
#9. Tim Henman, 2.31, odds 61-1. Tim's summer has been disappointing, and his
attractive attacking style is probably doomed to early dismissal at the Open.
He is vulnerable to net-rushers--I watched him lose to Moodie here in
Washington in an attractive match--and also to rocketeers. (Hrbaty beat him in split
sets at Montreal, 61 in the third.)
THE DRAW AND THE PREDICTIONS
Within each section, players are listed in order of official seed. Raw scores
from the prediction computation are given and in all cases are used here to
predict the winner, highlighted.
--Federer 7.15, Stepanek 1.15, Ferrero 2.10, O. Rochus 2.06, Kiefer 2.08
--Davydenko 2.35, Nalbandian 2.23, Gonzalez 1.82, Moya 1.53
--Hewitt 3.69, Hrbaty 2.59, Ferrer 1.85, Dent 1.77
--Safin 2.57, Henman 2.31, Ancic 2.04, Mirnyi , K. Beck 1.47, Mathieu 1.86, Monfils 1.20
--Coria 2.26, Puerta 1.72, Novak 1.47, F. Lopez 1.46, Chela 1.34
--Roddick 3.52, Gasquet 1.48, Ljubicic 1.12, Haas 1.17
--Agassi 3.55, Gaudio 1.94, Youzhny 1.49, Berdych 1.46
--Nadal 4.40, T. Johansson 1.95, Rusedski 1.36, Robredo 1.98, Grosjean 1.73
Still using the raw scores for each prediction, the four quarter-finalist
winners will be Federer, Hewitt, Roddick, and Nadal. Federer will then defeat
Hewitt, and Nadal will defeat Roddick. Federer will then win what should be a
ELITES OF WOMEN'S TENNIS
U.S. Open 04 -- Kuznetsova
The ranks of the female superstar elites include the four current Slam
champions, listed above, along with the four other players closest to atop the WTA
standings. A good indicator for comparing the eight is the W-L record from
their 32 matches of head-to-head play in 2005. The clear leader is Henin-Hardenne,
at 6-2, with plurality in wins over losses of plus four. Serena Williams and
Clijsters follow, each at plus two.
Australia 05 -- Serena Williams
Garros 05 -- Henin-Hardenne
Wimbledon 05 -- Venus Williams
The eight elites have played a total of 245 other matches against players
outside the group, compiling an 88.1% winning record in these affairs. We reach a
helpful order of merit by comparing wins over the other elites against total
losses against all comers. Here is the ranking, by plurality of elite wins
minus total losses.
1. Henin-Hardenne, 6 - 3 = plus 3
2. Clijsters, 6 - 6 = zero
3. Davenport, 7 - 8 = minus 1
4. Sharapova, 4 - 8 = minus 4
4. Serena Williams, 3 - 7 = minus 4
6. Venus Williams, 4 - 9 = minus 5
7. Mauresmo, 1 - 10 = minus 9
8. Kuznetsova, 1 - 14 = minus 13
The high standing of the two Belgians, Henin and Clijsters, became firm when
both of them reached the final of Rogers Cup, held recently in Toronto--the
foremost preliminary to U.S. Open. Physical problems caused three of our elites
to miss that event, and Serena Williams withdrew after one match. Kuznetsova
departed early, losing her second match to unseeded Dulko. But our other three
elite-group members--Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne, and Mauresmo--all reached the
semi-finals, the first two without loss of a set. Henin then defeated Mauresmo
in three sets, and on Sunday, August 21, Clijsters comfortably defeated Henin.
Justine failed to provide her best tennis on that occasion, perhaps from
tiredness after the difficult Saturday match against Mauresmo.
With some confidence, we rank the recent Toronto stalwarts on current form.
The Toronto results accord well with our overall data. It seems safe to
conclude that the two Belgians and Davenport make up the top echelon going into the
Open. Clijsters's recent performance in defeating Henin at Toronto turns the
odds in her favor, in my opinion, making her my prime choice. Sharapova and
the Williams sisters appear somewhat behind the three leaders.
As always, a review of physical problems is needed. Of those principals who
missed Toronto, Venus Williams and Davenport seem most likely to be closest to
full strength. Venus has been sidelined recovering from flu-like symptoms
since competing at Stanford in late July. Lindsay missed most of the summer with
lower back strain but returned for the final tune-up at New Haven, succesfully
winning her first match there. Sharapova went to the sidelines at Los Angeles
in July with pectoral muscle strain and has not competed since, so her
readiness is unproven. Finally, Serena's continuing knee and ankle troubles, which
forced her withdrawal from Toronto, cast serious doubt as to her readiness to
produce her best tennis. There is, too, uncertauty in the case of Henin, whose
fade at Toronto recalled her slow recovery from last year's illness.
What of the candidates just below the elites? Patty Schnyder has three wins
over elite group members, and several other players including Molik and
Daniilidou show two. Many others are of nearly equal ability, so that almost surely a
few members of our elite group will be defeated by outsiders. But the odds
are strong that certainly one and probably two of our elites will become the
finalists for 2005.
THE DRAW AND PREDICTIONS
In each section of the draw here, players are listed in order of official
seed. My choices are named.
--Sharapova, Molik, Safina, Pennetta, Daniilidou. Maria seldom loses to
non-elite players but has a difficult first-rounder against Daniilidou, who has
lost twice to Maria but took a set in their last meeting. Eleni has been out
since spraining ankle in late July. Sharapova.
--Kuznetsova, Petrova, Farina Elia, Vaidisova. Kuznetsova is 2-0 against
Petrova, 4-1 in sets. But Kuznetsova has been slipping, Petrova rising. Nadia
withdrew in Toronto, returned at New Haven. Petrova.
--Clijsters, Bovina, Ivanovic, Sugiyama. No problem here for Kim. Clijsters.
--S. Williams, V. Williams, Hantucova, Schiavone. Wimbledon champion Venus
is probably readier than Serena to play at her best. Venus.
--Henin-Hardenne, Pierce, Jankovic, Dulko, Srebotnik. Is Justine at full
strength? If nearly so, she should win here. In head-to-heads against Pierce, she
has won every time in straights. Pierce exited Toronto with thigh problem.
--Mauresmo, Myskina, Likhovsteva, Groenefeld, Shaughnessy. Groenefeld at 20
is rising, but is not yet in Amelie's class. Mauresmo.
--Dementieva, Schnyder, Asagoe, Chakvetadze, C. Martinez. Schnyder and
Dementieva have played three split-setters in 2005, Dementieva winning twice. But
Schnyder's recent form places her ahead. Schnyder.
--Davenport, Dechy, Golovin, Medina Garrigues, Sprem. Closest to a sure thing
In the quarters,
Sharapova over Petrova, could be close.
Clijsters over Venus--Kim won last month in California.
Henin over Mauresmo.
Davenport over Schnyder.
In the semis,
Clijsters over Sharapova off this summer's performance.
Davenport over Henin in almost a toss-up.
A wonderful match-up of the currently strongest warriors on tour. Kim
defeated Lindsay six straight times before Lindsay won at both Garros and Wimbledon
05 by close scores. Kim's return from long wrist troubles should finally mature
into her first Slam victory here. Clijsters.
THE TENNIS NATIONS
Tallies of match wins by nation have unfolded in interesting ways of late.
Among the males, Spain narrowly edged out Argentina at Garros 05, where the
verdict depended on final-day play. At Wimbledon the U.S. contingent prevailed
but, surprisingly, second-best was Czech Republic, showing good strength in
doubles. At Montreal, Spain with tournament winner Nadal outscored second-place
France. The U.S. stood uncharacteristically low, Roddick going out early and the
Bryans losing in the semis. The Americans then prevailed at Cincinnati when
Ginepri picked up for the absence of Agassi. Russia, with three stars reaching
the singles quarters (Safin, Davydenko, and Youzhny), was second. Nadal's
first-round loss spoiled Spain's chances.
Last year at U.S. Open, Spain's males finished second to the Americans. The
addition of Nadal should substantially boost the Spanish total over last
year's, but American depth should still prevail. For that to happen, two of the
following three eventualities are needed-- (1) Agassi must be healthy, (2) the
Bryans must resume winning, (3) Ginepri or another lower-ranked player must score
Among the women, the Russians with Sharapova have captured the match-win
tallies at most events of the last twelve months. The Russkayas prevailed at U.S.
Open last year and at all three Slams since. The Americans were second in
these Slams except at Garros 05, where the French were second. Russia also led at
the recent Tier One in Toronto, narrowly ahead of second-place France.
Neither the Russian nor the U.S. women seem to have gained significant new
strength since last year, so that a repeat at the Open for the generally younger
Russians seems likely. In order to outscore France for second, the Americans
will need help from players who missed Toronto.
It seems to me that tournament promoters and their staffs are missing out by
not keeping the match-win count by nation as their event unfolds. In the
scheme used here, every match counts the same, whether singles, doubles, or mixed.
(In doubles and mixed each winning partner earns one-half point for his/her
tennis nation.) Each player's tennis nationality is taken from ATP and WTA
materials, presumably reflecting the player's preference.
In my opinion, the tally ought to stir fan as well as general public
interest. People like to follow and speculate about Davis and Fed Cup possibilities,
and a nation's prospects for the match-win count could tap the same intrigue.
Something could be made of presenting a trophy to a diplomat from the winning
nation at tournament's end. The outcome heavily depends on results during a
tournament's first few days, so that the scheme's acceptance should bolster
interest and attendance when they are most needed.
Best wishes to readers for a wonderful Open.
FOOTNOTE ON THE CALCULATIONS:
The weighting percentages are from past calculations measuring how well
various tournaments predicted the actual outcomes at the last five U.S. Opens. They
are used here in predicting the men's outcomes at U.S. Open 2005.
Preceding four Slams:
U.S. Open 04, 13.45%
Australian Open 05, 12.85%
Garros 05, 4.38%
Wimbledon 05, 10.41%
Preceding seven Masters Series:
Indian Wells 05, Miami 05, each 11.43%
Monte Carlo 05, Italian 05, German 05, each 4.28%
Canada 05, Cincinnati 05, each 11.60%