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March 1, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Mid-Winter Review, Late-Winter Preview

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Ray Bowers

Northern-hemisphere mid-winter is a quiet time for aficionados of pro tennis. The climactic rounds in Australia are to be digested, first round of Davis Cup stirs hopes in many places, and far-flung tournaments call for notice. A few superstars may use February for physical and mental replenishment, but for most other aspirants, male and female, there are credentials to be established for the greater battles looming ahead. Late winter and early spring then arrive with gusto, bringing two important outdoor tournaments in the southern United States.

The Pacific Life Open, at Indian Wells in the California desert, and the NASDAQ-100 Open, at Key Biscayne just offshore from Miami, will both feature 96-player draws for both men and women--largest draws of any pro tournament other than the Slams. As hard-court events, both tend to correlate well in their results with Australian Open and U.S. Open. Data over recent years indirectly show that the bounce speeds are fast at both sites (favoring the server over the receiver and the attacker over the defender), much as at U.S. Open and more so than at Australian Open. Miami's courts have been somewhat faster than those at Indian Wells. The changing season usually brings some windy weather at both locations amid very different typical conditions of humidity.

Here, we try to pin down the prime candidates to win at Indian Wells and Miami 2006, primarily seeking clues from the recent events of mid-winter.

THE FEMALE ELITES

Australian Open clarified the existing order of merit among the elites of women's tennis. By winning the tournament, her first Slam triumph, Amelie Mauresmo took the early lead in the 2006 points race. Still, Amelie's semi-final victory over Clijsters had been clouded by Kim's ankle injury, which forced her retirement in the third set. Amelie's final-round win also ended upon retirement of her opponent, Henin-Hardenne. Both Clijsters and Henin are former champions at Indian Wells, and Clijsters is defending champion at both Indian Wells and Miami. Thus in looking to the near future after Australia, we deemed that Mauresmo and the two Belgian stars made up a first tier in women's tennis. Meanwhile, just behind the three leaders were Davenport, Sharapova, and Hingis--a second tier. All three had lost at Melbourne to one of the Belgians in split sets. Not far behind was the third tier--Dementieva, Mary Pierce, and Patty Schnyder, all of whom had performed at close to their career best in recent stretches. Our population of elites, above, thus consisted of nine star performers, grouped into three distinct tiers.

Each week of February brought a fresh tournament--Tokyo, Paris, Antwerp, and Dubai, each featuring several of the above elites, who played against one another in the semis and finals of each event. The month-long sequence thus offered good insight into the current form and health of the top performers. The overall picture that emerged was not greatly different from before.

Our Top Nine defended their high status very well during the four February tournaments, together showing a W-L record of 34-1 against outsiders. They also played a total of 11 matches against one another, giving us our primary evidence.

The top three-player tier comfortably preserved its identity. The leading performer during the month was Mauresmo, who triumphed at both Paris and Antwerp. Counting her seven match wins at Melbourne Park, her run of victories thus came to 15. She added another win at Dubai before losing in her second match, to Russian player Kuznetsova. This would be the only loss by a Top Nine player to an outsider during our period of discussion.

Both Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne returned to action in the second half of the month, and both showed their readiness for big-time action. Kim came back surprisingly early from her hip/back and ankle troubles, but she reached the final at Antwerp before losing in three sets to Mauresmo. Justine returned the next week at Dubai, where she captured the tournament without loss of a set. In winning three matches over the last two days after bad weather backed up the schedule, Henin answered doubts as to her physical stamina.

Our second and third threesomes also upheld their places. In an especially interesting pairing Sharapova twice faced Hingis. Hingis won in Tokyo in straight sets, Sharapova in Dubai likewise. Hingis then lost her next match in Tokyo to Dementieva by one-sided scores. Sharapova next defeated Davenport in the Dubai semis before losing to Henin in the final. (Davenport's only appearance during the period was at Dubai.) Of our third tier, Dementieva won the tournament in Tokyo and ended the month with a W-L record of 9-2. Meanwhile Pierce and Schnyder had combined record of 7-3 during the month, where both lost once to Mauresmo and Pierce beat Schnyder in Paris.

Among today's teen-agers other than Sharapova, the best performer in February was Tatiana Golovin, now 18. Tatiana won three times in Paris before losing to Mauresmo in three sets, then closely lost to Clijsters in Antwerp. (Golovin was born in Moscow, lists Florida as residence, makes France her tennis nationality.) Meanwhile Maria Kirilenko, 19, won twice in Dubai and then took a set in losing to Davenport. Safina, 19, sister of Marat, showed record 4-2 during the period, losing to Mauresmo and Clijsters. Vaidisova, 17, who is probably the most advanced for her age, won twice in Tokyo before losing to Dementieva in three sets. All these rising stars seem capable of upsetting a higher-ranked player but all seem unlikely to do so repeatedly in order to capture a big tournament.

What about Venus and Serena Williams, who between them have won eight championships at Indian Wells and Miami? After disappointing performances at Melbourne this year, neither sister competed during February. They will surely not appear at Indian Wells, but both will probably compete in Miami. Given their superior abilities when at their best, neither can be dismissed absolutely. But their inactivity and physical problems of recent months place them at best co-equal with our third tier in their chances.

The aforementioned February sequence was followed by a fifth tournament, which began February 27 and is now in progress at Doha, Qatar. Mauresmo was top-seeded, and entrants included Hingis, Kirilenko, and the leading Russian players just outside our elites. All survived round one.

Based largely on 2006 results to date, we make the current odds for winning Indian Wells as follows:

Mauresmo, 4-1
Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne, each 5-1
Davenport, Sharapova, each 9-1
Hingis, Dementieva, each 25-1
Pierce, Schnyder, Golovin, Kirilenko, each 50-1

THE MALE ELITES

If the top females performed gloriously in February, the same cannot be said of their male elite counterparts. Top-ranked Roger Federer did not compete until month's end, and his most prominent rivals were plagued by injuries and disappointing results.

Here's how our computer predicts the male contenders for Indian Wells and Miami, based on weighted performances in predictor events of the twelve months through Australia 06. Our top-six list provides no surprises. Indeed, it includes all champions at Indian Wells and Miami of the past five years, including last year's winner of both events, Federer.

1. Federer, computer score 6.99
2. Nadal, 3.95
3. Nalbandian, 2.71
4. Roddick, 2.56
5. Hewitt, 2.55
6. Agassi, 2.50

But despite the recommendations of the computer, evidence since Melbourne Park argues that we are likely to see considerable penetration of the aforementioned top group. Since January, only Roddick of our Six played in more than one event. Moreover, Andy's performance was disappointing both in Davis Cup against Romania and then in the tournaments at San Jose and Memphis, where he lost to unseeded opponents.

Rafael Nadal, who missed Australia 2006 with continuing foot trouble, also missed all of February except for Marseille, where he won three matches before losing, bothered by a bee sting. He won his first match at the tournament now in progress at Dubai. Meanwhile David Nalbandian played singles and doubles in Argentina's Davis Cup sweep of Sweden, but in so doing he aggravated a stomach muscle problem, forcing him to the sidelines. Lleyton Hewitt returned from extended absence to reach the final at San Jose against non-threatening opponents, while Andre Agassi withdrew prior to the start at San Jose with recurrent back pain reportedly extending to the legs. In tournaments now in progress, both Hewitt and Agassi advanced by winning their first match.

THE EUROPEANS

Looking beyond our computer's favorites, we find several other, seemingly just-as-dangerous contenders for Indian Wells and Miami. Our gaze turns primarily to Europe, where perhaps a dozen stars seem capable of entering the top group. Indeed of the six ATP hard-court tournaments completed during February, all were won by European players, none of them in our top six.

The only February double winner was Tommy Haas, who triumphed at Del Ray Beach early in the month and then at Memphis. Just before that, he had carried Federer to five sets in the fourth round at Melbourne Park. But amid this glory there was a bad loss, in early February when Tommy lost a stunning five-setter to French teen-ager Gasquet in critical Davis Cup play. (Haas had beaten Gasquet in straight sets at Melbourne.) Tommy withdrew from the tournament at Dubai, now in progress, to obtain needed treatment prior to Indian Wells.

Roughly equal with Haas as a current threat is Ivan Ljubicic, who has been among the world's top hard-court players for many months. At Melbourne Park 06, he won four matches, all in straight sets, before falling to tournament surprise Marcos Baghdatis in five sets. After Melbourne Ivan won the indoor tournament at Zagreb and then led Croatia to a first-round Davis Cup win over Austria. The computer places him in our second six as to his chances at Indian Wells and Miami, but given his high seed and his expanded experience from fourth-round finishes last year at both events, he plainly belongs higher.

Several other veteran players have also shown good results recently. Kiefer was semi-finalist at Melbourne Park; Clement won Marseille; Stepanek won Rotterdam. Russian player Davydenko at 24 should be just reaching his peak, and is already solidly inside the world top ten as well as our computer's second six. Meanwhile Marat Safin, who has been inactive since last summer with left-knee trouble, returned to action at Dubai this week. There, Marat stunned tennisdom by winning his first-round match against Davydenko.

But our gaze is especially focused on the host of young Europeans who join Nadal as members of the 21-and-under generation seemingly poised to move upward. One is the Cypriot Baghdatis, 20, who achieved stardom overnight by reaching the final at Melbourne Park and then winning the first set over Federer. Marcos's time at the pinnacle was brief, however, as he lost in the first round at Marseille to Mario Ancic, age 21 at height 6-5. Mario then swept all the way to the final, defeating Ljubicic and Grosjean in three-setters along the way. An even bigger story was the triumph of Scotland's Andy Murray, 18, who defeated Roddick and Hewitt in turn to win the tournament at San Jose. Meanwhile Swedish player Robin Soderling, at 6-3 and age 21, won twice at San Jose before losing to Murray, then defeated Murray at Memphis the next week enroute to the final. Richard Gasquet, 19, who surprised Haas in Cup play, also belongs in the rising group. A final member, Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic, age 21 at 6-5, won the Paris Indoors last fall but has been unsuccessful in 2006 to date.

THE PROBABILITIES

It makes for a scrambled picture. We can safely conclude the following: (1) Federer, who returned to action at Dubai this week, is unquestionably the strong favorite at both Indian Wells and Miami, (2) Nadal's narrow loss last year in Miami stamps him the foremost challenger, (3) the other former champions in our top group seem in gradual eclipse, (4) a number of other established players, generally from Europe, seem currently at their best, and (5) big things are possible from several rising players now in the teen-aged cohort.

Here's how the odds for Indian Wells (and indeed for Miami) seem at this point, several days prior to the draw at Indian Wells.

Federer, 2-1
Nadal, 12-1
Haas, Ljubicic, each 15-1
Nalbandian, Roddick, Hewitt, each 20-1
Baghdatis, Agassi, Davydenko, Safin, each 35-1
Soderling, Murray, Stepanek, Kiefer, Gasquet, each 75-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

CALENDAR

At Indian Wells, women's main-draw play starts Wednesday March 8, while the men's main draw begins two days later. Telecasts by ESPN-2 commence Sunday March 12, with afternoon and evening coverage daily thereafter. Women's and men's finals will be shown live on March 18 and 19. At Miami, men's and women's main-draw play starts Wednesday March 22. Daily telecasts will be by ESPN-2 and ESPN, and the finals on April 1 and 2 will be carried by CBS.

One prediction is sure--that superior tennis action and drama lie just ahead.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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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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