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Between The Lines
January 12, 2007 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australia Preview 2007

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Ray Bowers

Turning to the new year in pro tennis, we find (1) four elite superstars who are likely to dominate among the women and (2) a single, unquestioned favorite among the men. In here contemplating the prospects for Melbourne Park 07, we give close heed to the January hard-court tournaments and also to the 2006 year-ending events at Madrid and Shanghai.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

The four semi-finalists at the Sony-Ericsson in Madrid were the identical four women who had been the semi-finalists at both Australia and Wimbledon 06. Together, the four superstars compose the elite group currently at the top of women's tennis. Only three of them will compete at Melbourne, however, as Henin-Hardenne has withdrawn for personal family reasons. Justine would have been the narrow favorite, having been runner-up at Melbourne last year and having defeated two of the others in winning at Madrid recently. The other three will compete at Melbourne. All three--Sharapova, Mauresmo, and Clijsters--seem closely matched in their chances.

Maria Sharapova may have lost to Henin at Madrid, but she had earlier beaten Justine in the final at U.S. Open 06. Sharapova, now 19, appears to have grown in stature and power over the last year or so, and is now more daunting than ever in her serving and stroking. Her bold, attacking rockets to the sides can dominate any opponent. She was extremely strong indoors last fall, winning the Tier I at Zurich, the Tier II at Linz, and all three of her matches in the round-robin phase at Madrid. She lost to Clijsters, however, at the Watson's Water "exhibition" tournament last week in Hong Kong, though she had beaten Kim at Madrid. This will be Maria's fifth appearance at Australian Open, where she has improved in her finish in every year.

Seemingly now at her best is Kim Clijsters, 23, who missed most of the second half of 2006 with recurrent wrist trouble. She returned in November, winning two of her three round-robin matches at Madrid before losing to Mauresmo in split sets. She began the new year impressively, capturing the Watson's Water over Sharapova in the final and then winning the tournament at Sydney.

Last year's Australian Open winner, Amelie Mauresmo, now 27, also won Wimbledon 06 and was runner-up to Justine at Madrid. She began 2007 inauspiciously--carried to three sets in her first match at Sydney this week and then losing her second match. Amelie possesses superior court mobility, excellent power and consistency in serving and stroking, along with excellent variety in her game including skills in coming to net behind first serve. She has sometimes faltered at critical times, but her victories in 2006 suggest that her nerves are no longer vulnerable.

BEST OF THE REST

There are a dozen or so other stars capable of defeating any of the elites not at their best. Henin's absence means that at least one and very possibly two members of this second group will reach the semis at Melbourne.

Close to the leaders are three Russians stars, all of whom qualified for the championships in Madrid but faltered in the round-robin play. Svetlana Kuznetsova is still just 21 and finished 2006 ranked #4, showing three wins over Mauresmo during the year. Displaying good improvement during the fall was Nadia Petrova, 24, tall and strong, who beat Kuznetsova in winning the tournament in Stuttgart in October and Mauresmo at Madrid. Both Kuznetsova and Petrova withdrew during matches at the Sydney tournament this week with maladies, but both appear in the draw for Melbourne, made today. The third member of the group, Elena Dementieva has excellent mobility, striking power, and temperament, and is wonderful to watch amid her unceasing struggle to overcome her own sub-par serving.

Martina Hingis was our Player of Year runner-up for 2006, behind Federer, where we honored her marvelous comeback at age 25 after three years on the sidelines. Martina finished the year at #7, having shown her old talents for clean hitting to the sides amid countless fascinating matches often against larger and stronger opponents. Martina as a teenager was twice Australian champion, and she reached the quarters last year early in her comeback. All her matches this year should be highly watchable, though it seems unlikely that she can much improve over her year-end 2006 ranking.

Jelena Jankovic, 21, made a strong run at U.S. Open 06, defeating Kuznetsova and Dementieva, and finished the year at #12 after a dismal first half. Jelena won the tune-up tournament at Auckland last week, where her victims included Hingis and Mauresmo. This week at Sydney, Jelena lost to Clujsters in the final, but she won the first set and carried the second set to a tiebreaker. Another recent teenager seemingly ready to rise is Dinara Safina, age 20, sister of Marat. Safina finished 2006 at #10, and she began 2007 with a fine win over Hingis in the final at the Gold Coast tune-up.

The contingent of 19-year-olds is deep even apart from Sharapova. Ana Ivanovic is a six-footer from Belgrade, who amid a fine summer season defeated Hingis in the final at Canada 06. The record of Jerusalem-born Shamar Peer was slightly less lustrous, but in the recent Australian tune-ups at Gold Coast Peer defeated Ivanovic in split sets. Peer in her next match came close to defeating Safina. But ahead of both Peer and Ivanovic in the 2006 rankings was Anna Chakvetadze, also 19, who showed a fine Hingis-like game in defeating Petrova in the final at Kremlin Cup, Moscow, in October, seen on Tennis Channel.

Best of the 18-year-olds is probably Tatiana Golovin, who was born in Moscow, spent her early years in France, and trained in Florida. Golovin's court movement is wonderful to watch, and her stroking and serving carry good pace. Tatiana has been competing at high level since age 15, and during 2006 she scored several wins over first-eight players along with good scores against Sharapova. Amid several wins, she lost to Petrova and Mauresmo in the recent Australian tune-ups.

Almost surely the best for her age is Nicole Vaidisova, 17, a six-footer from Prague, who finished the 2006 race at an impressive #11. A very strong server and hitter who seems in excellent control of her frame despite her youthfulness, Nicole reached the semis at Garros 06 and won three matches at Wimbledon. Though her performance leveled after that, she began the new year with three wins at Sydney, defeating Ivanovic before losing to Jankovic. Also aged 17 during 2006 but well below Vaidisova was Michaella Krajicek, sister of Richard, whose best achievement was in winning the grass tune-up at Ôs-Hertogenbosch 06 before losing in the first round at Wimbledon.

Of the current veterans, Serena Williams at 25 will certainly require watching. Serena undeniably possesses the serving/stroking power and athleticism needed to compete in the elite group. But given her extended time on the sidelines with injuries, it seems unlikely that she can outslug the top players while avoiding excessive errors. She lost in the third round this week in Tasmania. Absent from Melbourne will be Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport.

Here are my odds for winning the tournament:

Sharapova and Clijsters, each 4-1
Mauresmo, 5-1
Kuznetsova, Jankovic, each 15-1
Petrova, 20-1
Hingis, 25-1
Vaidisova, 30-1
Dementieva, Golovin, Safina, Ivanovic, Serena W., each 40-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

THE QUARTERS AND CRYSTAL BALL

Sharapova, seeded atop the first quarter, should prevail in a fourth-round meeting probably with Ivanovic. Patty Schnyder is the highest-seeded player in the other half of the quarter, but Patty appears vulnerable against Chakvetadze, whose fine striking ability should carry her into the quarters. Sharapova's blistering firepower, however, should be too much for the fellow 19-year-old Russian.

In the second quarter, Hingis and Safina should advance to an interesting fourth-round match-up, where the latter should repeat her final-round victory over Martina at Gold Coast last week. Kim Clijsters, however, has shown top form in her January victories and should have no trouble reaching the quarters. Kim then should survive a difficult struggle with Dinara to claim a place in the tournament semis.

Kuznetsova and Petrova are the high-seeded players in the third quarter. Also present are Golovin, Peer, and Jankovic. My confidence lies with the fast-rising player from Serbia, who seems almost certain to defeat Petrova and probably Kuznetsova as well. The choice here is Jankovic.

Defending champion Mauresmo heads what seems a relatively weak bottom quarter, also containing Dementieva and young Vaidisova. Dementieva beat Vaidisova at the Watson's Water before stretching Sharapova. Elena's chances seem faint against Amelie, however, assuming that the champion will regain better playing form as the tournament proceeds. Make it Mauresmo.

The postulated semi-final between Sharapova and Clijsters would seem a natural classic. Kim's January run has been enormously impressive, especially including her win over Maria in the Watson's final. But Kim has hurt me in past predictions and Maria rarely seems to do so. Their styles are contrasting--Maria the supreme striker, Kim the wonderful mover--but making the difference will be their mental strengths. Crystal Ball picks Sharapova.

The other prospective semi seems just as fascinating--the rising 21-year-old against the reigning champion. The younger player's wonderful current run and Mauresmo's recent struggles are convincing. Jankovic is the choice.

But in the final, Maria's experience, strength of will, and superior power should prevail. In my opinion, Sharapova in Australia 06 will claim her third career Slam.

MEN'S SINGLES -- ROGER AND THE REST

Since he began dominating pro tennis at the start of 2004, Roger Federer has been almost unbeatable at the major non-clay events. Then in 2006 he reached the final round at Garros, Monte Carlo, and Rome, thereby proving himself also the world's second-best player on clay. In all three cases he lost to Nadal in split sets. By winning Australia, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open 06, Roger narrowly missed achieving the classic Grand Slam--the first by a male player since Laver in 1969.

The odds against Roger's winning all four Slams in 2007 are of course long. The array of talented players every year becomes richer as newcomers rise from an expanding field of highly trained athletes. Federer is now 25--slightly past the median age for peak results in today's pro tennis. Roger must avoid injury and maintain his singular level of motivation and skill, and he must unfailingly perform at his highest level against opponents just as dedicated and nearly as talented as himself. Even if these things happen, his chances for the Grand Slam are probably no better than one in ten. (Roughly speaking, he should be a moderately odds-on favorite to repeat at Wimbledon and U.S. Open, slightly less so at Australia, and have about a one-in-three chance of winning at Garros.)

The journey begins at Melbourne Park this month, where the bounce is usually somewhat slow for a non-clay surface. Thus Roger's serve and power forehand--his ultimate weapons in times of danger--will be slightly less penetrating than at the other non-clay Slams. Roger's going last year at Melbourne was not comfortable, despite the absence of Rafael Nadal (then and now the world's #2 player) and Marat Safin, the defending champion. On his run to the championship, Roger had to play only one first-tenner (Davydenko at #5). Roger nevertheless lost five sets enroute--two to Tommy Haas, and one each to Davydenko, Kiefer, anld Baghdatis. In contrast, Roger lost only one set in capturing Wimbledon 06 and two in capturing U.S. Open 06.

DANGERS AHEAD

Roger will be the strong favorite against each of his seven opponents at Melbourne. But there are several players whose chances against Roger seem worthy of note.

Heavy-serving and heavy-hitting Marat Safin returned in early 2006 from long absence with knee injury. After strong late-year showings in the European indoor tournaments, the tall Russian finished the year by capturing the deciding match in Russia's 3-2 Davis Cup triumph over Argentina. He began 2007 at Kooyong Classic by defeating Nalbandian and then losing to Federer by close score, 63 76. His current ranking outside the top twenty scarcely indicates his chances against any opponent on the Rebound Ace surface.

Safin's past W-L record shows that Australia is Marat's best Slam. He won the tournament in 2005, defeating Federer in a thrilling five-set semi. The year before, in 2004, Marat reached the final round but, having reached the Open-era record for most sets played in a given Slam, he became a tired runner-up to Roger. In the 2003 event Marat withdrew midway with wrist injury, but he was tournament runner-up in 2002.

Rafael Nadal is the tournament's second-seeded player. Rafael continues to lead Roger in their career W-L tally, though Roger won their fine Wimbledon 06 final and again beat Rafael at Masters Cup 06. Rafael's readiness for Melbourne is unclear, as a groin problem caused him to withdraw from his first 2007 appearance, at Sydney. The injury question, along with a less-than-superior record since last summer, make his road to the final round seem far from easy, laden with difficult potential foes. If he reaches a final-round match-ujp against Roger, however, he will be extremely dangerous. Roger will need to summon his very best game, including consistent instincts for attacking.

The most exciting riser of 2006 was Andy Murray, 19, who showed wonderful timing in his strokes and a strong all-around game. Murray defeated Federer in the second round at Cincinnati 06, where Roger was probably unready after a difficult triumph a few days before in Canada. With Brad Gilbert guiding his preparations, Murray is almost surely now at the level of the world's first eight. At the Kooyong Classic this week, he defeated Ljubicic and lost to Roddick.

Fiery German star Tommy Haas requires notice. The often-injured 26-year-old took two sets from Federer at Australian Open 06, noted above. Two weeks before that, Tommy beat Roger in a split-setter at Kooyong Classic. At its best, Tommy's brilliant all-court game can be extremely strong. At the most recent Slam, U.S. Open 06, Haas beat Safin in five sets before losing to Davydenko in five. His draw in Australia is good, as the two higher-ranked players in his quarter--Davydenko and Nalbandian--left questions in withdrawing from events this week.

Andy Roddick's poor career record against Federer may be mostly irrelevant. Andy kept matters close through the first three sets of their final-round meeting at U.S. Open 06, and the two split the first two sets at Masters Cup. In his first two matches at Kooyong Classic this week, Andy scored wins over Murray and Haas, thereby creating a final-round meeting this weekend with Federer. (Last year, Andy won the event at Kooyong but became a victim of tournament sensation Baghdatis at the Open.)

THE QUARTERS AND CRYSTAL BALL

In the top quarter, Roger will encounter dangerous opponents starting in the third and fourth rounds, probably Youznhy and Djokovic. Youzhny is remembered for his strong run at U.S. Open 06, where he upset Nadal in the quarters and seriously tested Roddick. His success continued into Davis Cup play in late September, when he defeated James Blake in first-day action in Russia's triumph over the Americans. Djokovic at 6-2 and age 19 is a rising star from Serbia, world #16 in 2006, winner of the tune-up at Adelaide last week. He is very nearly co-equal with Andy Murray in his promise. If Federer survives these tests, there is further potential trouble ahead in his quarter-final, where will lurk the survivor of Robredo, Acasuso, Baghdatis, and Gasquet. Roger at his best should certainly advance, but the way will not have been easy even if he makes it seem so.

The second quarter will probably be decided by first-serve percentages. If there is an all-time record for number of aces in a quarter, the array of big servers here will probably create a new one. Placed here are Roddick, Safin, J. Johansson, Ljubicic, and Ancic, any of whom could become the survivor. Recent play suggests that the third-round meeting of Roddick and Safin should identify the winner. My preference is Safin, though Roddick deserves his higher seeding and should be favored. An interesting contender is Rado Stepanek, who at Kooyong this week extended Federer to three tiebreak sets, winning one of them, and then went on to defeat Gonzalez and Ljubicic. Safin remains the choice here.

The third quarter is led by Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom withdrew amid this week's competition. Haas could be the beneficiary, noted above, or perhaps Tomas Berdych, the strong 21-year-old from Czech Republic. Another contender is veteran Xavier Malisse, who defeated Nadal at Chennai in strong play early this month. My guess is that Davydenko, who has played brilliantly at times in recent months, will hold together well enough to advance, though the tricky traction at Melbourne Park could spell further problems for the Davydenko foot.

The bottom quarter could belong to Nadal, the recent wunderkind, who must surmount Andy Murray and then the survivor of James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez along with his own recent injury, noted above. The auspices do not seem favorable for Rafael, whose improvement on hard courts reached a plateau in the second half of 2006 and whose muscular style could be challenged by high temperatures and the sometimes treacherous Rebound Ace. I see the Nadal-Murray winner narrowly defeating Blake to win the quarter. Make it Murray.

Thus Federer and Safin should meet in the tournament semis. Marat could prevail, but Roger has come through so regularly against the most difficult challenges that not choosing him here is nearly unthinkable. Meanwhile Andy Murray, whose success in the tournament to date will be hard to sustain, will probably falter against Davydenko's wonderful all-court game. Finally in the final round, Federer--now at his peak--should have little trouble against a well-worn Nicolay. I make Roger's chances to sweep the tournament at odds-on, roughly 3-4.

TENNIS NATIONS

The Russian women have scored more match victories than the women of any other nation at all major tournaments of the last year. There is almost nothing more certain than that this trend will continue at Australia 06.

Last year, seven nations were fairly well bunched toward the top of the tally of men's matches won at Australian Open. U.S.A. led the list by a narrow margin, buoyed by the success of the Bryan twins in doubles. Strangely, Russia was not one of the seven leading nations. This should change in 2007 with Safin, Davydenko, Tursumov, and Youznhy all likely to compete well. Crystal, however, deems that Roddick, Blake, and the Bryans will score well for the U.S., and that the supporting cast will add sufficient wins in singles and doubles to swing the honor again to U.S.A.

Best wishes to all for a great Open 07 from Crystal and me.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, USA

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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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