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May 26, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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French Open Preview 2006

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Ray Bowers

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.)

SUPREMES

#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 at net.

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.

NEXT TIER

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.

NEWCOMERS

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 Australia 06.

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 0.61
--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, Tursunov 0.66
--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?

WOMEN'S SINGLES

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.

  1. Henin-Hardenne, 11 - 5 (plus 6)
  2. Mauresmo, 10 - 6 (plus 4)
  3. Sharapova, 4 - 4 (zero)
  4. Clijsters, 5 - 6 (minus 1)
  5. V. Williams, 2 - 3 (minus 1)
  6. Kuznetsova, 7 - 9 (minus 2)
  7. Petrova, 4 - 7 (minus 3)
  8. 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 subjectively.)

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 stomach distress.

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 development.

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 than elsewhere.

OTHERS

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 of injuries.

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 sections.

--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 sporting interest.

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.

TENNIS NATIONS

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.


POSTSCRIPT

Here are the weightings used in predicting men's singles results at Garros 06:

Clay events:
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%

Non-clay events:
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%

--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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