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
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
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.