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June 23, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Forecasting Wimbledon 2006

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Ray Bowers

The intricacies of grass-court tennis are many. Court movement--changing direction, starting and stopping without slipping--demands good body control and balance, especially when the surface becomes damp. The ball bounces low and fast on grass, making it hard to adjust for bad bounces. The latter are frequent, especially when the turf is worn.

But grass also offers precious rewards to those prepared to take advantage. Spin and variety can be used to good effect. Severe underspin especially can be effective, where the ball skids or bounces low. Drop shots become more deadly. Sliced serves, unlike on slow courts, retain their sidespin after bouncing, thereby curving through the air either into or away from the receiver after the bounce. Although foot traction in making quick reactions, critical at net, is difficult, forecourt offers the attacking player a chance to win points outright with well-placed or hard volleys. Net position also removes the need to contend with erratic or fast bounces. In short, grass favors the net-playing attacker.

But nowadays only a few tournaments are on grass. Top players have therefore developed skills and playing styles primarily tailored for back-court play, and most players are inclined to stay back. Modern rackets, moreover, have added to the power and velocity attainable from the baseline. Thus, although some players will come forward at Wimbledon directly behind first serves, few will do so behind second, so that many, perhaps most matches will be played primarily from back court. The all-out net game survives mainly in men's doubles, and even there less fully than in the past.

The American Taylor Dent is one of the few of today's stars tuned to all-out net rushing. Dent won three matches at Wimbledon last year before losing closely to Lleyton Hewitt. Regrettably, Dent will not be competing this year. Roger Federer, in his first Wimbledon triumph in 2003, showed net-attack inclinations and skills remindful of the great volleyers of the late 20th century--Sampras, Krajicek, Rafter. But since that wonderful moment, though he has won two more Wimbledons and sundry other honors, Roger has played more conservatively, forcing his way to net mainly when turning up the pressure at critical times.

But one aspect of grass-court tennis has not changed. Serves remain more difficult to return on grass than on other surfaces. The strong, forcing serve creates many short points--aces, serve-return errors, serve-return sitters. Those players having very strong serves are thus usually the ones to shine at Wimbledon. But weaker servers also can benefit, as their offerings become less vulnerable than on other surfaces, cutting down an opponent's ability to take dominance with the serve-return.

WOMEN'S SINGLES -- THE TEN PRIMES

Over the last few years at Wimbledon, the women's champions and runners-up have been from among the game's strongest servers. Last year's finalists Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams represented the archetypes, and 2005 finalists Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova showed a similar pattern. The Williams sisters met in the final the two previous years. Serving ability is accordingly a foremost criterion in any Wimbledon analysis, and since that quality loosely correlates with player height, here we list the principal contenders in order of their tallness. The odds shown are from my subjective judgment.

MARIA SHARAPOVA (odds 10-1)

Maria at her majestic 6-2 at age 19 is our tallest prime contender, Lindsay Davenport having withdrawn with continuing back trouble. Maria is now a world celebrity, her face recognized everywhere. Wimbledon is plainly her favorite tennis venue, where her lifetime W-L mark is 15-2. She reached the fourth round in 2003 at age 16, then in 2004 pulled off her astonishing championship run, and last year lost in the semis to eventual champion Venus Williams.

Maria's boldness in serving and stroking has become familiar to tennis-watchers everywhere. Her raw power is only slightly below that of the game's heaviest hitters, while her extraordinary mental powers of concentration seem unsurpassed.

Despite difficult shoulder/pectoral and ankle injuries in the past 12 months, Sharapova has maintained her place among the game's elites. Though she had not competed on clay this year amid fresh ankle trouble, she returned at Garros 06 to win three matches before a split-set loss to Safina. Then in the grass-court tune-up event at Birmingham, an event won by Maria the last two years, she won three matches, then lost to American teenager Jamea Jackson.

VENUS WILLIAMS (odds 5-1)

Venus is listed at 6-1 and 160 pounds, thirty pounds heavier than Sharapova. Her activity has again been limited this year because of injuries (back and right elbow), but she returned this spring to a nice run in the clay season, winning four matches at Garros before losing a split-setter to Vaidisova. She is now 26 and has been in the Wimbledon final five times, winning the championship three times including last year. She is second to none in her serving and stroking power from both sides, where her two-handed backhand is usually seen as her more reliable ground-stroke. She is excellent at net and overhead. Her court mobility, and especially her ability to deliver strong replies from well out of court, are unmatched in women's tennis aside from sister Serena. This will be her tenth Wimbledon (W-L record 42-6), so that her familiarity with grass-court play should equal or exceed that of any opponent.

NICOLE VAIDISOVA (odds 8-1)

Last year was Nicole's first in the women's singles at Wimbledon, where she won two matches before losing in split sets to Kuznetsova. It was a fine first performance for a player barely 16. Her serving and stroking show excellent penetration, comparable to Venus's, and her game seems equally well suited to grass. If she is able to produce her normal power, consistency, and mobility on grass, Nicole assuredly belongs among the top contenders.

Vaidisova is now listed at 6-0, 139 pounds. Certainly her performance at Garros marks her to be watched at Wimbledon. In defeating Mauresmo and Venus there, Nicole lost the first set in both cases but thereafter easily hit more winners at fewer errors than either opponent. She refused to be dominated in her split-set loss in the semis to Kuznetsova--an aggressive, power player--Nicole scoring 54 winners against Kuznetsova's 26 but committing many more unforced errors. Nicole's serve should be devastating on grass. If a Wimbledon crown in 2006 is less than likely given her inexperience, there should be one or more in her future.

In the same section of the draw with Nicole is her recent conqueror Kuznetsova. If they indeed meet in the fourth round, it should be a wonderful match-up, an excellent opportunity for Nicole to show her readiness to move upward.

DINARA SAFINA (odds 20-1)

Having just turned 20, Dinara at 5-11 1/2 and 155 pounds packs ample firepower. She won two matches last year at Wimbledon and reached the final eight at Garros recently. Dinara now stands #10 in the point standings for 2006 to date. This week she won three matches in the grass tune-up at s'Hertogenbosch, thereby reaching the weekend final.

ELENA DEMENTIEVA (odds 30-1)

Tallish at 5-11 and 141 pounds, Elena, now 24, has been unable to turn her ideal physique into strong serving. She has, however, learned how to minimize the vulnerability of her serve's softness, and the grass at Wimbledon could help importantly in so doing. Her mobility and ground-stroke firepower are excellent, and she has reached the fourth round at Wimbledon several times, including last year. She reached the semis on s'Hertogenbosch grass this week but then lost to Krajicek in split sets.

AMELIE MAURESMO (odds 12-1)

Amelie has been a Wimbledon semi-finalist in her last three tries, falling last year to Davenport in three close sets. She won Australian Open 06 in January and followed it with indoor triumphs at Paris and Antwerp. She is a fine all-court player with ample firepower at 5-9 and 152. She will turn 27 during the tournament.

Mauresmo's springtime performance has been disappointing, and that pattern continued this week at Eastbourne, where she lost in the first round to Dechy.

KIM CLIJSTERS (odds 11-1)

Kim is listed at over 5-8 and 150 pounds, an offspring of athletic parents. Though she won U.S. Open last year, she has never reached the final in six tries at Wimbledon. (Last year she lost a split-setter in the fourth round to Davenport.) She was disappointing in her semi-final loss to Henin-Hardenne at Garros last month, and this week at Eastbourne she again lost to Justine, this time in split sets. Kim has said she will probably retire after 2007, a surprising plan for an athlete who just turned 23. Her strengths are her mobility and excellent firepower.

SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA (odds 9-1)

At 5-8 and a mobile 161 pounds, Svetlana will reach age 21 as the tournament begins. She is a former U.S. Open champion (2004) and was finalist at Garros 06. She has twice reached the quarters at Wimbledon, including last year when she lost to Davenport. She unexpectedly lost in split sets to Myskina this week at Eastbourne.

MARTINA HINGIS (odds 15-1)

At 5-7 and age 25, the Swiss Miss won Wimbledon in her greatest year, 1997, at age 16. This is her comeback year after not competing at the All-England since 2001 because of foot injuries.

Her fine record this year certainly validates her place among the foremost candidates. (She stands #5 in the year-to-date points standings, certainly higher than I thought likely at the start of her comeback. Her problem is to counter the superior power of all the other top candidates, although the grass surface could assist her second-serve delivery in averting attack.

She is drawn into the same quarter at Wimbledon as Patty Schnyder, a player she should certainly defeat on grass. A meeting with Henin-Hardenne looms thereafter.

JUSTINE HENIN-HARDENNE (odds 7-1)

The shortest and slimmest of our elites at 5-6 and 126 pounds, Justine arrives as the new champion of French Open. In defeating Kuznetsova in the final round in Paris, the tiredness that Justine has sometimes shown since her viral illness two years ago again reappeared. But somehow the wiry Belgian star managed to capture the points that mattered most at the critical moments. Justine now stands #1 in the 2006 race.

She is a former Wimbledon runner-up (2001) and has reached the semis twice (2002 and 2003). After winning Garros last year, Justine lost in the first round at Wimbledon, having injured a hamstring in the Eastbourne. She is a finalist at Eastbourne, having defeating Clijsters on the very day of the Wimbledon draw.

THE DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

All ten candidates listed above are plausible winners of Wimbledon 06. In predicting the winner, I oscillated among Venus, Henin, and Vaidisova. The entire group of ten is so strong that there is almost no chance that an outsider will triumph.

Players in the eight sections of the draw are listed here in order of official seeding. My choices are shown in bold type.

--Mauresmo, Safina, Ivanovic, Golovin
--V. Williams, Myskina, Medina Garriguez, Jankovic
--Sharapova, Pennetta, Peer, Santangelo
--Dementieva, Schiavone, Dechy, Likhovsteva
--Schnyder, Hingis, Sugiyama, Dulko
--Henin-Hardenne, Hantuchova, Srebotnik, Chakvetadze
--Kuznetsova, Vaidisova, Bartoli, N. Li
--Clijsters, Gronefeld, Kirilenko, Arvidsson

The likely results in the quarter-finals seem fairly clear. Venus should defeat Mauresmo, Sharapova should defeat Dementieva, Henin is too strong for Hingis, and Vaidisova's firepower should prevail over that of Clijsters. In wonderful semi-final match-ups, Venus should overcome Maria and Henin should outlast Vaidisova. Then in a classic final, it will be Venus with the necessary firepower, mobility, and mental and physical stamina to prevail over Justine, who will be magnificent in defeat.

If Venus indeed captures her fourth Wimbledon crown, it will reinforce our early observations on the enhanced importance on grass of serving ability.

MEN'S SINGLES

In making the official seeding, Wimbledon deviates from the ATP 12-month rankings by giving extra weight to grass-court results. Offered here are the results of our different calculations, which rank the candidates by weighting player results according to how well preceding tournaments have correlated in their outcomes with Wimbledon. Past success on grass as well as on other fast surfaces is thereby elevated. The raw scores from our calculations are given below, along with odds for winning the tournament taken from my subjective judgment. (Where not shown, odds are 100-1 or longer. Some odds shown violate the rank order of the calculations.)

ROGER FEDERER (score 7.87, odds even)

The three-time defending champion is the current master of grass and may be the best ever on that classic surface. Roger can play the attacking game to perfection, exploiting a superior attacking power forehand and excellent ability at net. Increasingly, however, he seems to prefer rallying in back court patiently, waiting for an invitation to attack. When needed late in matches, however, he seems almost always able to find his attacking weaponry. The exceptions came in his matches against Rafael Nadal. Federer and Nadal have never played on grass, where the Spanish wonder should be far less formidable.

Wimbledon's greatest champions achieved patterns of repeated success, year after year. Sampras won seven times in eight years, Borg five years in succession. Roger seems on his way to the same kind of historic achievement.

Federer's path in the early rounds is tricky. In the first round he meets young Gasquet, who leads our second seven in our calculations. If Roger survives he will next face either Henman or Soderling, both very dangerous. Lurking for a fourth-round meeting is Tomas Berdych or Tommy Haas, both of whom are in the second seven in the calculations.

ANDY RODDICK (score 3.79, odds 20-1)

Andy has been Wimbledon runner-up the last two years, but in these final-round appearances he has won a total of just one set. Nor have his results against Federer been better elsewhere. Still, his wonderful serving abilities seem certain to carry him to the late rounds, where if Roger should falter Andy's chances for the crown would become excellent. Andy lost to James Blake on the grass at Queen's last week in a tournament won by Andy the last three years. Andy's early-round draw is favorable.

LLEYTON HEWITT (score 3.08, odds 15-1)

Lleyton captured Wimbledon in 2002, the last time someone other than Federer won the crown. He has won the grass tune-up at Queen's several times, including this year and also in the year of his Wimbledon triumph. Lleyton's strengths are in his superior court mobility, his serve-returning and counter-punching abilities, and in his fighting instincts. At height 5-11, his serve is quite effective, especially on fast surfaces, and his net game is more than adequate in his occasional approaches. If at his best, he can certainly make matters difficult for any opponent including Roger.

MARIO ANCIC (score 2.94, odds 25-1)

Mario stands #9 in the running 12-month pro rankings, up from #22 at the end of 2005, reflecting strong recent performances on clay. His past record has been good at Wimbledon, where he reached the semis in 2004 at age 20, and he won his first ATP title on grass at s'Hertogenbosch last year. (He has won his first four matches there this week to reach the final.) At height 6-5 he delivers a potent serve, having been third in total aces over the full year 2005, behind Roddick and Ljubicic. He trailed only Roddick in percentage of first-serve points won last year, and he was also among the leaders in percentage of serving games won.

DAVID NALBANDIAN (score 2.80, odds 20-1)

Born and raised in Argentina, David is strong on all surfaces. In three appearances at Wimbledon, he has posted a W-L record of 13-3 including a runner-up finish in 2002 at age 20. He currently ranks third in the running 12-month standings, behind Federer and Nadal. A relentless stroker and strong serve-returner, he won the first set against Federer in the recent semis at Garros but he then fell behind and retired with abdominal injury. David returned to Argentina to recover but expects to be fully healthy for Wimbledon.

SEBASTIEN GROSJEAN (score 2.71, odds 50-1)

At height 5-9 and age 28, Sebastien seems an unlikely winner on grass, but his career record at Wimbledon is his best among the Slams. In the last three years he has reached the semis twice and quarters once. At Queen's he was runner-up in 2004 and 2005 but lost in the second round this year to Philippoussis. His strengths, like Hewitt's are in mobility, counter-punching, and a surprisingly strong serve.

JAMES BLAKE (score 2.61, odds 25-1)

James rose in our calculations with a strong performance last week at Queen's, where he dethroned Roddick before losing in the final to Hewitt. Blake combines speed, power, and good mental strengths into an energetic, forceful game that has rapidly improved after his recovery from major sickness, injury, and family loss in 2004. A breakout tournament at Wimbledon seems possible, although in his three years of main-draw competition there, he has only won two matches.

SECOND SEVEN

Richard Gasquet (2.27, odds 75-1) -- Fourth round at Wimbledon 05 at age 19. Reached final this week at Nottingham grass tune-up. Opens against Federer.

Ivan Ljubicic (2.26, odds 25-1) -- Wonderful serve and backhand. Overdue for Wimbledon success but has dangerous first-round foe in Lopez.

Rafael Nadal (2.06, odds 25-1) -- Garros 06 champion. Retired from Queen's 06 with sore shoulder after two wins. Career winning record against Roger. Must surmount Agassi early.

Tommy Haas (2.06, odds 75-1) -- Carried Federer to three sets on grass at Halle 06.

Tomas Berdych (1.97, odds 75-1) -- Strong server and stroker at age 20. Defeated Roger at Olympics 04.

Max Mirnyi (1.84) -- Strong server and good volleyer. Grass-court threat.

Dimitry Tursunov (1.83) -- Fourth round at Wimbledon 05. A likely early opponent of Ljubicic.

OTHERS TO WATCH Olivier Rochus (1.82) -- Crowd-pleaser at a hustling 5-5.
Thomas Johansson (1.82) -- Semi-finalist last year at age 30.
Fernando Gonzalez (1.82) -- Quarter-finals last year.
Tim Henman (1.75) -- Quarter-finalist in eight Wimbledons but never in final. Age 31.
Marcos Baghdatis (1.62) -- Overnight star at Australia 06. Now age 21.
Nicolay Davydenko (1.58) -- World's #6. Dismal past record at Wimbledon.
Radek Stepanek (1.54) -- Strong server and willing net player.
Tommy Robredo (1.44) -- World's #8. Weak record at Wimbledon.
Feliciano Lopez (1.34) -- W-L 12-4 in four career Wimbledons.
Ivo Karlovic (1.29) -- Huge server at 6-10.
Marat Safin (1.25) -- The world awaits Marat's greatness of Australia 05.
Gael Monfils (1.22, odds 75-1) -- Third round last year at age 18. Excellent physique at 6-3.
Andy Murray (0.97, odds 75-1) -- Third round last year at age 18.
Andre Agassi (0.92, odds 75-1) -- Returning from back injury at 36. Lost first round at Queen's 06
Ivan Djokovic (0.75) -- Third round last year at age 18.

DRAW AND PREDICTIONS

The four seeded players in each section are listed first. The predictions, shown in bold type, follow the odds shown above.

--Federer, Berdych, Haas, Vliegen, Gasquet, Henman, Soderling, Arthurs
--Ancic, Robredo, Monfils, Srichaphan, Djokovic, Karlovic
--Nalbandian, Stepanek, Ferrero, Verdasco, Malisse, Vicente
--Blake, T. Johansson, Hrbaty, Mathieu, Mirnyi, Philippoussis
--Hewitt, Gonzalez, Ferrer, O. Rochus, Safin, Rusedski
--Roddick, Grosjean, Baghdatis, Massu, Murray
--Ljubicic, Davydenko, Nieminen, Tursunov, F. Lopez
--Nadal, Gaudio, Ginepri, Agassi, Fish

In the quarters, Federer cannot relax against Ancic but should win. Nalbandian is the narrow choice over Blake. I pick Hewitt over Roddick and Nadal over Ljubicic. In the semis, Federer must play well against difficult Nalbandian--no easy task after having faced many difficult hurdles to date--but should do so. Hewitt should stop Nadal. Finally, Roger must summon his best once again in overcoming Lleyton.

Roger will be the favorite in all seven of his matches. But his ride to a third straight crown will not be easy--almost certainly his road will include several four-setters and at least one five-setters. But no other player brings a grass-court game as varied and strong. With his nemesis in head-to-head play, Nadal, unproven on grass and victim of recent shoulder trouble, Federer in my opinion will remain monarch of Wimbledon.

TENNIS NATIONS

To finish ahead in our unofficial tally of match-wins by nation, a country's male contingent usually needs to have good early-round breadth plus about three high scorers in the middle or late rounds. At last year's Wimbledon, Roddick, Dent, and the Bryans contributed 14 of the U.S. total of 20.5 match-wins, highest total among the nations. Czech Republic was second with 17 wins behind good doubles depth and Berdych, Novak, and Stepanek in singles. The Czechs should score about the same this year. America adds Blake and Agassi, both of whom missed last year, to compensate for Dent's absence. Other large nations usually showing depth at Slams are Spain, France, Argentina, Russia, and Australia. Of the smaller nations Croatia and Switzerland should score well. The U.S. should again score best.

Last year the U.S. women provided both singles finalists at Wimbledon, one member of the champion doubles pair, and the female member of one semi-finalist pair in the mixed. Even so, the Russkayas outscored the American women overall, 40.5 match-wins against 37.5. The chance that the Americans this year can equal their 2005 score seems faint, while another increment of young Russian stars seems ready to join the top level. Belgium and Czech Republic should score well, and China and several eastern European nations should show improvement. But barring surprise runs by one or two rising U.S. women, no nation can hope to overcome the magnificent Russian depth.

Let the jewel that is Wimbledon again strengthen discourse and understanding among the world's peoples.

--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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