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January 13, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australia Preview 2006

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Ray Bowers

Here again is the start of another best-ever tennis year. The pros are coming off a month or so of rest, practice, and exhibition play followed by a week or two of tune-up competition. Most should be close to their peak. As usual, however, some of the top stars remain troubled by injury.

Although the slowish hard courts at Melbourne Park were once thought to provide a neutral test for both hard-court and clay-court experts, men's singles outcomes in the last decade have shown that the surface clearly favors the hard-courters. Partly contributing to this phenomenon have been slight changes in the composition of the top layers, smoothing the surface to reduce lower body, leg, and ankle injuries but meanwhile speeding up the bounce. Not since Guillermo Vilas in 1979 has a male player from a primarily clay-court nation won Australian Open.

The withdrawals of Rafael Nadal, Marat Safin, and Andre Agassi, all with lingering injuries, has removed much of the excitement from the men's division. The greater intrigue thus lies on the female side, where there are five or six players having good possibility of carrying away the crown and a similar number having plausible chance.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Will the familiar big-hitting superstars as usual predominate in the late rounds? That the Old Guard is still supreme was strongly indicated at the Hong Kong exhibition tournament in the first week of January, two weeks ago, when Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters both won their first two matches over strong opponents. Kim then prevailed in their straight-set final. The two had finished only a few points apart atop the 2005 points race; Davenport slightly ahead. But it was Clijsters, not Lindsay, who won the year's last Slam, at U.S. Open. But both leaders stumbled in November at the year-ending WTA championships at Los Angeles. Then a hip-muscle strain sidelining Clijsters in the final tune-up at Sydney this week, left Lindsay the clear favorite for Melbourne Park. Kim has not yet withdrawn, but her injury seems serious.

The recent winner at Los Angeles was Amelie Mauresmo, who narrowly defeated Mary Pierce in the championship match after losing to her in the earlier round-robin phase. Amelie then began 2006 with a disappointing early loss at the Sydney International. Mary Pierce thus seems the stronger candidate for Melbourne Park. Mary's heavy-hitting game knows little temporizing, and it brought her the championship at Melbourne in 1995. She had a fine second half in 2005 at age 30 except for a dismal final-round appearance at U.S. Open. Pierce says she is physically ready. A good run seems likely, and another Australian Open championship--seemingly a miraculous possibility not long ago--is not out of the question.

One other superstar belongs in the top ranks. Justine Henin-Hardenne struggled with a right hamstring strain during the second half of 2005. She returned to action at Sydney this week, derailing Martina Hingis's comeback and then winning the tournament in a split-set final over Schiavone. These were her first match wins since U.S. Open. Henin missed Australia last year after winning the championship in 2004.

Besides Clijsters, three other prime entrants bring major questions related to injuries and inactivity. Serena and Venus Williams stayed on the sidelines during the last three months of 2005, contending with knee troubles. Both returned to action in January at Hong Kong, where Serena lost to Dementieva in her first match and then withdrew with knee swelling. Venus won her first match but then, complaining of back/pelvis pain, lost by one-sided scores to Davenport. Both sisters are so talented that they cannot be dismissed despite their long inactivity, provided that their maladies become manageable. But the evidence clearly indicates that Serena is unready for Melbourne Park, and argues that the obstacles facing Venus are very imposing. Similarly, Maria Sharapova competed little in late 2005 and withdrew from her planned January tune-up--troubled by shoulder/upper torso pain. A semi-finalist at Melbourne last year, she is still just 18 and is now listed at height 6-2. The injury, however, probably makes a championship beyond reach for Maria.

There is a nice wave of prospective future champions, teen-agers, now emerging from Europe. With world ranking of #16 for 2005, Ana Ivanovic of Belgrade showed wins over Kunetsova, Zvonarova, and Mauresmo in the first half of last year before injuries intervened. She began 2006 with a straight-set win over Mauresmo at Sydney. Now age 18, Ana's listed height is 6-1. Meanwhile Michaella Krajicek, sister of Richard, claimed notice in winning the Hobart tune-up this week, having just turned 17. Another famous sibling, Dinara Safina, at age 19 and nearly 6-0, is at slightly higher level.

But strong-serving Nicole Vaidisova of Czech Republic at age 16 has shown promise ahead of the others just noted. Nicole finished 2005 at world #15 after strong performances in reaching the fourth round at U.S. Open and then winning three consecutive tournaments in Asia. She began 2006 by losing to Davenport but then winning the consolation bracket at Hong Kong. She then won three matches at Sydney before losing. At last year's Australian Open Nicole at age 15 won two matches. Clearly she is fast closing on the world's best.

Then there is Martina Hingis, who at 25 is returning from a three-year absence necessitated by foot trouble. Her mixed success in the early January events in Australia revealed that her comeback trail will not be easy. The power hitters who shortened Martina's reign atop the game are now more numerous than ever. But if she persists and stays healthy, a return to the First Twenty would seem possible, indeed likely. Reaching the First Five would be extraordinary achievement. She faces a tough first-round opponent, Zvonareva, where the outcome seems a 50-50 proposition based on Hingis's comeback results to date.

Here are my estimated odds for winning the tournament:

Davenport, 3-1
Henin-Hardenne, 6-1
Clijsters, Pierce, Mauresmo, each 10-1
Venus Williams, 15-1
Sharapova, 25-1
Ivanovic, Vaidisova, Serena, Dementieva, Petrova, each 50-1
all others including Hingis, 100-1 or longer

DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

Players are listed in seeded order in each section of the draw here.

--Davenport, Kuznetsova, Golovin, Kirilenko, Panova. Just the right level of opposition for tuning up Lindsay. Davenport.
--Henin-H, V. Williams, Likhovsteva, Sugiyama, Dokic. With Venus not in form, Henin should prevail here. Henin-Hardenne.
--Sharapova, S. Williams, Hantuchova, Medina G., Li, Peng. Serena will not be a factor. Sharapova.
--Petrova, Dementieva, Jankovic, Koukalova. Elena's superb all-court game should lift her over countrywoman Nadia. Dementieva.
--Schnyder, Myskina, Safina, Dulko. Marat's sister is ready to move upward. Safina.
--Mauresmo, Vaidisova, Pennetta, Mirza, Krajicek. Nicole has been closing on Mauresmo. Vaidisova.
--Pierce, Dechy, Zvonareva, Ivanovic, Hingis. Mary's big game too much for the others. Pierce
--Clijsters, Schiavone, Gronefeld, Bartoli, Frazier. If Kim is only moderately hampered by her recent injury, then she should survive here, though a recently surging Schiavone will be dangerous. Clijsters.

Then, while conceding that Davenport should be the favorite, it appears to me that things are falling into place for Justine. I choose Henin-Hardenne over Davenport. A healthy Dementieva should more than hold her own against a handicapped Maria. Dementieva over Sharapova. Then, Vaidisova over Safina and Pierce over Clijsters.

Thus Justine's road to the championship will be open. Henin-H. over Dementieva, Pierce over Vaidisova, and finally Henin-H. over Pierce.

MEN'S SINGLES

To rank the male stars according to their chances at Australia 2006, we employ calculations using each player's principal results of the last twelve months. The heaviest-weighted predictors were U.S. Open 05 and Australian Open 05. (See the footnote at the end of this column.) The predicted raw scores and the associated odds for winning the tournament are shown below.

#1. ROGER FEDERER, raw score 5.04 (odds even)

Our favorite won Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2005 and was champion in the year's points race. A foot-ankle sprain forced Roger to withdraw from several late-season events and probably contributed to his failure to win the year-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai. But he returned to action in the first week of January, winning the Qatar Open in Doha without loss of a set. Then at the tune-up exhibition event at Kooyong club, Melbourne, he lost a split-setter to Tommy Haas and then defeated two opponents. Roger was Australian Open champion in 2004 and failed to repeat last year only in the face of a career-best performance by Marat Safin.

Roger's game is of course strong on all surfaces, built about superb court movement, power and control in his picture ground strokes, excellent net skills, and a knack for producing his best tennis at the end of tournaments. In my opinion his greatest asset is a hard power forehand with disguised albeit severe topspin. The shot dives downward after crossing the net, making it effective as a passing shot, as a forcing attack weapon, or for finding severe angles. In his loss to Nalbandian at Shanghai in five sets, Roger seemed disinclined to employ the delivery.

The top-seeded male has not won the singles championship at Melbourne Park for five years. But with his most dangerous rival (Nadal), his conqueror last year (Safin), and a three-time tournament champion (Agassi) all out with injuries, Roger's chances look extremely good. In my opinion, none of the remaining players has much chance of winning three sets from Roger if he plays at his usual level. None has a remote chance if he plays at his best.

#2. DAVID NALBANDIAN, 2.89 (odds 10-1)

Far behind Roger at #2 in our calculations is David Nalbandian. The Argentine star has been in the year-end top ten for the last three years. He has had excellent success on all surfaces including both clay and grass. Probably his finest win ever came at Masters Cup in November, when he outlasted Federer in the championship match, winning a fifth set tiebreak. (Earlier, in the round-robin phase, David lost to Roger by two sets to one.) Suffering with flu symptoms, he retired from his first match this week at Kooyong. Nalbandian and Federer are both 24, with Roger six months the older. David is slightly shorter and stockier, but Roger's serving and stroking technique can produce slightly greater velocities.

Nalbandian's is primarily a baseline game featuring consistency in applying his power ground-strokes, delivered with variety in depth, direction, spin, and velocity. His court temperament, like Federer's, is excellent.

#3. IVAN LJUBICIC, 2.83 (odds 11-1)

Ivan at nearly 27 is the oldest of our elites. His greatest career achievement came in Davis Cup 2005, where he almost single-handedly produced Croatia's superb Cup triumph. In Croatia's first-round win over United States, for example, Ljubicic contributed singles wins over Roddick and Agassi and, with Ancic, a doubles win over the Bryan brothers.

Ivan has never gone beyond the third round in a Slam, but he managed to finish #9 in the 2005 points race (his Davis Cup victories carried no points), behind strong performances in the fall indoor season. In the round-robin phase at Masters Cup, he lost to Federer, two sets to one, losing the final set in a tiebreaker. He later also lost to Nalbandian, in straight sets. He began 2006 by winning the tournament in Chennai, India, delivering 42 aces in a final-round win over Carlos Moya after finishing a long semi-final earlier in the day. He then lost at Kooyong to Coria, inexplicably.

Ivan's prime weapon is his serve, backed by a strong all-around game built about hard hitting. His lack of success in Slams seems an anomaly, and his ability to change this phenomenon is obvious.

#4. ANDY RODDICK, 2.60 (odds 16-1)

Andy, now 23, missed Masters Cup 05 with back spasms, apparently stemming from his loss to Ljubicic at Paris Indoors in early November. He is playing this week at Kooyong in his first appearance of 2006, and has won his first two matches to reach the final against Tommy Haas.

Australian Open is a good tournament for Andy, well suited to his heavy-serving, heavy-hitting baseline style. He reached the semis in 2003, the quarters in 2004, and the semis again last year, winning the first set but then losing the next three to Lleyton Hewitt.

#5. LLEYTON HEWITT, 2.41 (odds 22-1)

The illustrious career of Lleyton Hewitt, now nearly 25, includes Slam triumphs at U.S. Open (2001) and Wimbledon (2002) and the leading role in Australia's Davis Cup championship in 2003. He was a finalist at Melbourne Park last year, where he lost to Safin in four sets. He finished at #4 in the 2005 points race after missing Masters Cup in order to be present at the birth of his child. He returned to action in January 2006, in total winning two matches and losing two at Adelaide and Sydney.

His is an firm-hitting all-court game built about counter-punching ability, extreme court speed, a forcing serve capable of aces, and an on-court manner of extreme determination.

OUR SECOND FIVE

Instinct agrees that the above superstars are comfortably ahead of the rest of the field in their chances to capture Melbourne. Here are our Second Five.

#6. Thomas Johansson, 2.30. Captured three singles matches without defeat at Hopman Cup 06 last week. He is a former champion at Melbourne Park (2002).

#7. Nicolay Davydenko, 2.25. Improved last year from #28 to #5 in the year-end rankings at age 24, but he was beaten by James Blake at Sydney this week. He reached the quarters last year in Melbourne. Blake conceivably belongs at this level, as his computed score here is retarded by his serious sickness and injury though mid-2005.

#8. Dominik Hrbaty, 2.22. Always dangerous on hard courts, having broken Ljubicic's Davis Cup run in December in a five-setter. His big game is suggestive of former champion Johansson's.

#9. Fernando Gonzalez, 2.06. Has risen in the rankings every year, just missing the top ten last year. He likes to hit everything hard, and can be very dangerous when everything works.

#10. Radek Stepanek, 1.96. A solid performer who in certain matches will regularly attack net.

NEWCOMERS

New generations of superstars seem to arrive every few years. Seemingly the next wave is already in view, primarily Europeans, led of course by Nadal at age 19. Many of them finished 2005 impressively. All seem clearly behind our Second Five but capable of displacing any of them on occasion, and one or two of them should go far at Melbourne.

Excellent credentials are those of Tomas Berdych, who turned 20 last September, from Czech Republic. At 6-4 and 196 pounds, Tomas is a very strong server and stroker, both from the baseline and inside--reminiscent of Andy Roddick. Like Roddick at 20, he is not particularly interested in defensive play or in variety or in coming to net, but rather in out-hitting his opponent. (He is the player who defeated Federer in the 2004 Olympics.) He finished 2005 at #24, having defeated Ljubicic in five sets to win Paris Indoors in early November.

Richard Gasquet, 19, finished 2005 slightly ahead of Berdych. Much of his success came in clay events, including final-round finishes at both Monte Carlo and Hamburg after emerging from the qualifiers. But he defeated Ljubicic in a five-setter at U.S. Open. Another French player, Gael Monfils, also 19, showed himself ahead of Gasquet on hard courts in 2005. Gael, who is 6-3 and 165 pounds, began 2006 by reaching the final at Doha, where he lost to Federer in two close sets, but he then lost all three of his matches at Kooyong.

For Scotland's Andy Murray, 18, this will be the first try at Australian Open. Andy showed wins over Nalbandian, Henman, and Berdych in the second half of 2005, and he reached the final at Bangkok, losing to Federer. To start 2006 he lost to Berdych in a three-setter at Adelaide and then to Mario Ancic at Auckland. Ancic, at 21 and 6-5, went on to reach the final and finds himself now in a relatively easy section of the draw.

THE DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

Shown here are the eight sections of the singles draw with players listed in seeded order. Each player's raw score from the calculations is shown. My predictions, shown in bold typeface, adhere to the calculations in all cases.

--Federer (5.04), Gasquet (1.05), Mirnyi (0.94), O. Rochus (1.62), Haas (1.13),
-- Davydenko (2.25), Hrbaty (2.22), Andreev (0.80), Volandri (0.50), Karlovic (0.83)
-- Hewitt (2.41), Ferrero (1.55), Kiefer (1.12), Verdasco (1.22), Murray (0.89), Chela (0.99)
--Coria (1.88), Gonzalez (2.06), Monfils (1.32), Grosjean (1.53), Philippoussis (0.41)
--Gaudio (1.54), Ferrer (1.73), Ancic (1.86), Moya (1.09), Schuettler (0.42), Pavel (0.51)
-- Nalbandian (2.89), Robredo (1.58), Blake (0.80), Nieminen (0.92), Henman (1.33)
-- Ljubicic (2.83), T Johansson (2.30), Berdych (1.58), F Lopez (1.29), Malisse (0.99), Youzhny (1.22)
-- Roddick (2.60), Ginepri (1.56), Stepanek (1.96), Dent (1.67), Melzer (1.05)

The numbers predict as follows. In the quarter-finals, Federer over Davydenko, Hewitt over Gonzalez, Nalbandian over Ancic, and Ljubicic over Roddick. In the semis, Federer over Hewitt, Nalbandian over Ljubicic. In the final, Federer over Nalbandian.

THE TENNIS NATIONS

Last year at Melbourne Park the U.S. males comfortably led their counterparts of other nations in total singles and doubles matches won. Argentina and Spain were second and third, respectively. With Agassi not competing this year the U.S. total could shrink. But the Bryans should produce many doubles wins for the Americans, and Roddick, Blake, Ginepri, Spadea, and Dent provide good depth in singles. Thus the U.S. male contingent should again claim the honors. Meanwhile the new musketeers of France should lift that nation closer to contention, and the Croatians Ljubicic, Ancic, and Karlovic could produce a nice combined score.

The Russkayas scored highest on the female side last year, and if Sharapova contributes somewhat the excellent Russian depth should again prevail.

(I notice for the first time that the tournament's official web site will track men's and women's singles wins by nation.)

Best wishes to readers worldwide for a great two weeks of tennis from Australia.

Ray Bowers
January 15, 2006

FOOTNOTE ON THE MEN'S CALCULATIONS

The fifteen predictor tournaments are weighted according to how well their past results correlated with actual outcomes at the last six Australian Opens. Here are the weights, derived from these correlations, used here for predicting the singles at Australian Open 2006:

Aus Open 05, 13.51%
Indian Wells 05, 2.14%
Miami 05, 5.78%
Monte Carlo 05, 2.22%
Italian Open 05, 1.58%
German Open 05, 2.69%
Garros 05, 1.94%
Wimbledon 05, 10.34%
Canada 05, 5.87%
Cincinnati 05, 5.80%
U.S. Open 05, 16.81%
Madrid Indoors 05, 11.08%
Paris Indoors 05, 7.24%
Masters Cup 05, 9.92%
Australia tune-ups 06, 3.09%

(The Australia tune-ups are Hopman Cup, Adelaide, Chennai, and Doha, all played in the first week of January. They are treated together, as a single tournament.)

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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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