The draw is out for the clay season's defining event, held May 28-June 11 at
the historic grounds of Roland Garros in Paris. For tennis-watchers everywhere,
two weeks of exciting tennis are just ahead, carried by ESPN and other
broadcasters worldwide. Will Roger Federer complete a run of four consecutive Slam
triumphs? Or will Rafael Nadal, 19, retain the title he won last year as a
first-time Garros performer, perhaps in a final-round showdown against Roger, who
has never beaten Rafael on clay. Or can some other aspirant--one of the fine
veteran clay-courters perhaps, or maybe a newcomer from Nadal's own generation,
rise from the field to displace the imposing twosome?
Our survey here rests heavily on computations predicting each player's
chances of capturing the tournament. (The calculations weight each player's results
at leading tournaments of the last 14 months according to how well each
tournament has predicted past Garros outcomes.)
Here then are the favorites in their chances to capture Garros 06, as ranked
by our calculations. Each player's raw score from the calculations is shown
along with his odds for winning the tournament. (The footnote at the end of this
column gives the weighting percentages. The odds are derived from the raw scores
including an adjustment to obtain overall probability of 1.0.)
#1. ROGER FEDERER, score 5.20, odds 2-1 (unrounded 2.43-1)
#2. RAFAEL NADAL, score 5.16, odds 2-1 (unrounded 2.47-1)
The calculations place the two leaders nearly equal, where Roger's triumphs
in winning the last three Slams are balanced by Rafael's consistent success in
their head-to-head matches. Rafael won their latest encounter, in Rome on May
14, which ended in a fifth-set tiebreaker after five hours.
Stats from Rome confirm that a surprising grand strategy is taking shape
between the two, a pattern of play hardly typical of clay-court tennis. Roger
appears to recognize--correctly, in my opinion--that to defeat Rafael he must find
ways to employ his superb attacking abilities. When serving, he must deliver a
forceful first serve, then unleash his forehand attack if possible on the
first strike, and finally come forward early to net position. The sequence must
be executed with Roger's full stroking energy and best control--necessary to
overcome Rafael's superb mobility and stroking talents. One count showed that
against Rafael in Rome, Roger won a remarkable 64 of 84 points at net.
(Otherwise--i.e., when not at net--Roger lost 39 more points than he won.) Meanwhile, to
counter Roger's threat of attacking second serve, Rafael responded by getting
into play a rare 85% of his first serves. Rafael himself won 18 of 30 points
In the post-match interviews, Rafael described his feeling of helplessness
once Roger forced his way to net. Roger in turn seemed to admit that
aggressiveness was probably his own best tactic against Rafael. If Roger can slightly
increase his frequency in attacking while maintaining a high winning percentage
in so doing, then Rafael will be forced to counter--either (1) by improving his
own game when Roger reaches net, perhaps cutting down his own errors in this
situation, or (2) by himself moving forward earlier in points, in effect
competing with Roger for the net position. The result should be a fascinating kind
of clay-court tennis, played at unprecedented high level.
All three members of our second group are aged 24 and all are listed at 5-11
in height. All are strong clay-courters though all have been nearly as
successful on hard courts. But it is difficult to envision, barring injuries or
lapses of form by the front-runners, how any of them could defeat both Federer and
Nadal in best-of-five-set competition on clay. None has yet captured a Slam.
#3. TOMMY ROBREDO, 2.70 (odds, 17-1)
Both Federer and Nadal cited fatigue in withdrawing from the German Open
immediately after their marathon in Rome. The champion at Hamburg was Tommy
Robredo, who thereby vaulted upward in our ranking. He and David Nalbandian have
competed closely this year, Tommy winning on clay at Monte Carlo but losing
earlier at Australian Open. Robredo, now 24, reached the quarters at Garros last
year in his best-ever Slam finish.
#4. DAVID NALBANDIAN, 2.68 (odds 17-1)
David Nalbandian has shown good past success against Federer, including a
five-set victory in the final at Master's Cup 05. In losing to Roger in the semis
at Rome recently, David carried the world's champion to a deciding-set
tiebreaker. The week before, David won the tournament at Estoril without loss of a
set, defeating Davydenko in the final. He has never played Nadal. The sturdy
Argentinian is a firm hitter equipped with two-handed backhand.
#5. NICOLAY DAVYDENKO, 2.57 (odds 20-1)
Nicolay reached the semis at Garros last year and finished the year ranked #5
in the ATP standings, up from #28 in 2004. He is an attractive all-court
performer and is extremely quick. He withdrew amid his third match in Rome but
returned the next week to win three times in Hamburg.
BEST OF THE REST
#6. David Ferrer, 2.44 (odds 24-1). Steady riser in the rankings.
Quarter-finalist last year.
#7. Radek Stepanek, 2.18 (odds 37-1). Finalist Hamburg 06.
#8. Fernando Gonzalez, 2.13 (odds 40-1). Ball-basher par excellence.
Not far behind are the likes of Gaston Gaudio, who won Garros in 2004 but has
faded in 2006, Croatian stars Ancic and Ljubicic, who have been steadily
improving, and Andy Roddick, who won three matches in Rome this year.
In our calculations young players are slightly boosted to allow for the
typical improvement in the months elapsing between the predictor and the target
event. (Similarly, older players are penalized by subtracting for typical
decline. The formula for the adjustment was obtained empirically from earlier years'
data.) But the possibilities remain strong for extraordinary improvement among
the very young--a weakness in the calculations which calls for a special look
at the youngest group.
Recent performances by three players under age 21 mark them for close
watching at Garros. Hard-hitting, Paris-born Gael Monfils, 6-3 at age 19, this month
reached the semis in Rome. Meanwhile Spain's Nicolas Almagro, 20, won three
matches at Rome and then took Federer to three sets. Earlier, on clay at
Barcelona, Almagro defeated Pavel, Monfils, Coria, and Ferrero before losing to Nadal
in two close sets. Meanwhile Tomas Berdych, 20, of Czech Republic, who has
already made a large mark on hard courts, showed his ability on clay just this
week, when in World Team Cup at Dusseldorf he won all three of his singles
matches, one of them against Nalbandian.
Other obvious risers, all of them age 19, are Richard Gasquet, who won two
matches at Garros last year, Britain's Andy Murray, who beat Monfils at Hamburg
06, and Marcos Baghdatis of the potent forehand, the exciting finalist at
THE DRAW AND PREDICTIONS
The 32 seeded players are chosen according to the official ATP running
12-month rankings. Only three players will be absent who would have been seeded
(Coria, Agassi, and Andreev). Of the eight highest-seeded players, two are not
favored by our computer in their sections of the draw (Roddick and Ljubicic).
Listed below are the eight sections of the draw, where the players are listed
according to our calculated raw scores. My predictions (bold type) follow
exactly the calculations.
--Federer 5.20, Kiefer 1.62, Berdych 1.54, Volandri 1.13, Malisse 0.83, Massu
--Robredo 2.70, Ancic 2.04, Acasuso 1.58, Ginepri 0.98, Vliegen 0.93
--Nalbandian 2.68, Grosjean 1.67, Gasquet 1.50 Nieminen 1.18, Henman 0.96,
--Davydenko 2.57, Gaudio 2.07, Ferrero 1.61, Moya 0.78, Youzhny 0.67
--Stepanek 2.18, Roddick 1.70, O. Rochus 1.10, Baghdatis 0.92
--Ferrer 2.44, Ljubicic 1.99, Verdasco 1.30, Chela 1.04, T. Johansson 0.73
--Gonzalez 2.13, Blake 1.37, Safin 1.11, Haas 0.94, Monfils 0.93, Almagro 0.91
--Nadal 5.16, Hrbaty 1.37, Mathieu 1.41, Soderling 1.08, Hewitt 0.80
Federer has beaten Tommy Robredo in their last six meetings and should
certainly do so again in the quarters here. Nalbandian's narrow computed edge over
Davydenko should prevail. (Nalbandian has the clear head-to-head edge--whether
counted lifetime, on clay only, or in their most recent encounters.) Meanwhile
David Ferrer's recent rise and his greater clay-court abilities should lift
him over Stepanek, while Nadal should repeat his recent straight-set triumph in
Rome over Gonzalez. Rafael should next find Ferrer even easier in the semis.
Roger should also advance over Nalbandian on the grand stage at Garros, though
he had major trouble with David in Rome.
The computer is scarcely convincing in giving the narrow edge to Federer over
Nadal. But my guess is that the message of the calculations is correct--that
Roger with his strategy of tempered aggressiveness has learned how he can
defeat Rafael. Could it become their greatest meeting yet?
In 18 consecutive French Opens 1979-1996, only six different women captured
the singles crown. (Evert won five times, Graf five, Seles three.) But in the
nine years since that era, only one player has won more than once. That was
Justine Henin-Hardenne, who prevailed in 2003 and 2005. There is an excellent
array of prime candidates to win the crown this year, but in my opinion Justine
is the leader.
For our preliminary ranking of the contenders, we use a formula that has
proven useful in the past. We tally each player's match-wins against the top ten
players in the current WTA year-to-date standings and then subtract that
player's losses against all opponents. Here are our leaders, shown in rank
order--i.e., elite wins minus total losses, for year 2006 to date.
- Henin-Hardenne, 11 - 5 (plus 6)
- Mauresmo, 10 - 6 (plus 4)
- Sharapova, 4 - 4 (zero)
- Clijsters, 5 - 6 (minus 1)
- V. Williams, 2 - 3 (minus 1)
- Kuznetsova, 7 - 9 (minus 2)
- Petrova, 4 - 7 (minus 3)
- Hingis, 5 - 10 (minus 5)
The members of the above group are our Prime Eight, where the first two stand
markedly ahead of the others. (The odds offered below are derived
JUSTINE HENIN-HARDENNE, odds 3-1.
The tale of our tabulation is arresting. Although Justine Henin-Hardenne is
only third in the WTA official race for 2006 to date, her record of success
against highest-quality opponents is plainly superior. In individual head-to-head
play no other player has a winning record against her this year. She and her
closest rival, Mauresmo, have split two matches in 2006, Justine winning their
more recent meeting, played in Berlin on clay. Strengthening her status as
tournament favorite is Justine's remarkable 20-3 W-L match record at Garros
during the last five years. While most members of our Prime Eight should advance
successfully through the early rounds, it is Justine whose chances against the
other top players in the late rounds are the best. At age 23, she should be
close to her career peak.
Tennis-watchers have learned to admire Justine's picture one-handed backhand,
which anchors an extremely attractive game, also featuring high mobility,
surprising power given her slender physique, and enormous strength of
concentration and will. Concern lingers over her health and stamina, however, as
sometimes she has become weakened during events, perhaps showing residual effects from
prolonged recovery from illness in 2004. Also in 2005 there were persisting
knee and hamstring injuries.
AMELIE MAURESMO, odds 5-1.
Mauresmo, 26, has long been among the sport's elites, but her first Slam
triumph came only with Australian Open 06. Clay is sometimes said to be her best
surface, however, and she has claimed the championship at Rome or Berlin a
total of four times. Thus it is surprising that in eleven tries, she has not yet
reached the semis at Garros. Henin-Hardenne has won five of their nine
meetings over their pro careers, four of six starting in 2004. Amelie was well ahead
of Henin in their final at Australian Open 06 when Justine withdrew citing
Amelie has excellent court mobility and tactical variety. She can exchange
rocketry with the best.
MARIA SHARAPOVA, odds 25-1.
Now aged 19, Maria reached the quarter-finals in the last two years at
Garros. Her strengths are plainly in her serve and her firm ground-strokes, which
she often consistently directs close to the lines. Clay does not reward
aggressive play, however, and against top opponents errors can begin to exceed
winners. Troubled by an ankle injury, Maria has not yet competed in the clay season
amid various public appearances. Her chances to win thus seem remote.
KIM CLIJSTERS, odds 12-1.
Kim's first Slam triumph seemed long in coming, but it finally arrived at
U.S. Open 05. Kim is a strong clay player--twice a finalist at Garros--possessing
superior retrieving ability along with sturdy capacity for sustained hard
hitting. Injuries have been troubling on-and-off for several years, a pattern
continuing in 2006. She retired with ankle sprain against Mauresmo in the third
set of their semi-final at Australia 06.
Kim is still only 22 and will turn 23 as Garros 06 closes. Her clay record
this year has been mixed, primarily in encounters with Russian players. She
split two singles against the Russians in Fed Cup play, then won the tournament at
Warsaw, defeating Kuznetsova, then lost early at Rome to Safina.
VENUS WILLIAMS, odds 20-1.
Venus was out with elbow trouble until returning for the clay season in
Europe. At Warsaw she defeated Hingis but lost to Kuznetsova. Though unseeded at
Rome, she won four matches before losing a split-setter to Hingis. Her game has
always been better suited to fast courts than clay. (Her five Slam triumphs
came at Wimbledon or U.S. Open.) But she is a former Garros finalist, having
lost to Serena in 2002, and has excellent mobility, power, and competitive will.
The odds seem long but they are not impossible.
SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA, odds 8-1.
Svetlana, who won U.S. Open in 2004, will not reach age 21 until mid-way at
Garros. Her forcing game is producing a fine 2006 record, which includes
winning the championship at Miami, where she defeated Mauresmo and Sharapova. A
right abductor strain limited her success in the American clay events, but she
then produced solid performances in Europe where she reached the late rounds at
Warsaw, Berlin, and Rome. She has the tools for success at Garros, where in
three tries she has twice reached the fourth round.
NADIA PETROVA, odds 8-1.
Moscow-born Petrova reached year-end world ranking of #12 in 2003 at age 21.
She held that level in 2004 and rose to #9 in 2005, but she remained
relatively unnoticed among the surges of the other Russkayas .
Nadia, now nearly 24, has bloomed nicely this year on clay. She won the
clay-court events at Amelia Island and Charleston, then captured the German Open in
Berlin, defeating Henin in split sets. It made for 15 straight match wins on
clay save for a split-set loss to Henin in Fed Cup play. An aggressive hard
hitter, Nadia has said that she prefers fast courts, but her past record at
Garros is better than at the other Slams.
In both years when Henin won the crown at Garros, Justine also won at both
Charleston and Berlin. Nadia has captured both of these predictors this year. At
5-10 and 143 pounds Nadia has a nice blend of height and physical
MARTINA HINGIS, odds 20-1.
Sidelined for three years with foot trouble, Martina in her comeback has
raised interest in tennis everywhere. Her recent triumph at Rome (including wins
over Venus and Safina) lifted her into our Prime Eight. But she has not taken a
set from either Henin-Hardenne or Mauresmo in three tries this year.
She last played Garros in 2001, finishing a run of five years as
semi-finalist or better but never champion. Her wonderful all-court game and stroking
ability makes her an attractive star on all surfaces, but her lesser serving power
in comparison with the bigger-gun stars makes her more vulnerable on clay
Two players just below the above group both show three elite wins under our
formula. Both are tall and strong, able to blister strokes endlessly. Dinara
Safina, 5-11 and just 20, was impressive in losing to Petrova in Berlin and then
in defeating Kuznetsova and Clijsters to reach the final in Rome. Elena
Dementieva at 5-11 unleashes bolts from anywhere and moves over the court
wonderfully but bears 9 losses to go with her 3 elite wins.
Also to be watched are veterans Patty Schnyder and Francesca Schiavone, both
with two elite wins. Patty surprised Henin at Charleston; Francesca beat
Mauresmo in Fed Cup play. Young players sometimes able to press one of the leaders
are Gronefeld, 20, and Kirilenko, 19. Strong-serving Nicole Vaidisova of Czech
Republic, who just turned 17 at height 6-0, finished strongly in 2005 but
shows no elite wins this year.
Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and Mary Pierce are not competing because
THE DRAW AND THE PREDICTIONS
Here are the eight sections of the draw, where players are listed in order of
official seeding. Our Prime Eight, defined above, are all in different
sections and therefore are my choices--shown in bold type--to capture the eight
--Mauresmo, Vaidisova, Bartoli, Sugiyama
--Schnyder, V. Williams, Likhovtseva, Arvidsson
--Sharapova, Safina, Srebotnik, Safarova
--Kuznetsova, Schiavone, Pennetta, Chakvetadze
--Henin-Hardenne, Myskina, Ivanovic, Koukalova
--Petrova, Gronefeld, Kirilenko, Dulko
--Dementieva, Hingis, Golovin, Peer
--Clijsters, Hantuchova, Dechy, Medina Garriguez
In one case, we depart from exact adherence to our initial formula--in the
quarters, I pick Kuznetsova over Sharapova, reflecting Maria's inactivity and her
lesser strengths on clay. Otherwise, Mauresmo over Venus, Henin-Hardenne over
Petrova, and Clijsters over Hingis. All these match-ups are of highest
Our two supremes, Henin-Hardenne and Mauresmo, should both prevail in the semis.
Finally--from our original formula and from the various indicators sketched in the
discussion--I believe that the winner will be Henin-Hardenne, Garros champion in
2006 for the third time.
Almost surely the Russian women and the Spanish males behind Nadal will
capture the most matches among the nations.
Best wishes to all for a memorable Garros 06.
Here are the weightings used in predicting men's singles results at Garros 06:
Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens 05, each 5.7%
Garros 05, 9.2%
Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens 06, each 12.2%
total clay = 62.9%
Wimbledon 05, 1.4%
Canada and Cincinnati 05, each 2.8%
U.S. Open 05, 3.2%
Paris and Madrid Indoors 05, each 3.2%
Master's Cup 05, 5.5%
Australian Open 06, 4.2%
Indian Wells and Miami 06, each 5.4%
total non-clay = 37.1%
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.