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Between The Lines
February 28, 2007 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Late-Winter Reflections

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Ray Bowers

Amid persisting snow and ice, pro tennis fanatics hereabouts savor distant Davis Cup play and look ahead to the coming outdoor tournaments in California and Florida.

DAVIS CUP 07

In the six years of our century, Davis Cup has been captured by five different nations, including Russia twice. The nation with the most triumphs throughout Cup history, U.S.A., has not won since 1995.

Excellent competitive balance was also seen in early-2007 action among the current World Group nations, 9-11 February. None of the eight first-round engagements produced 3-0 sweeps, so that in all cases the winning nation remained unknown until the third day. This had never happened since the introduction of World Group play in 1981.

Host nations won only three of the eight meetings. Seven were held indoors amid Northern Hemisphere winter--five on hard courts, two on clay. The eighth meet provided the weekend's choice match-up, where defending champion Russia faced host-nation Chile on outdoor clay at La Serena, a pleasant seaside city known to the world's astronomers as gateway to the great telescopes in the interior mountains.

FIRST DAY, FEBRUARY 9

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The first-day action at La Serena produced a large surprise. Just two weeks earlier, Chilean star Fernando Gonzalez had reached the final round at Australian Open, having found superior consistency to accompany his always dazzling game of unrelenting power. But now, Fernando lost in four sets to Russian player Andreev, whose victories had been few over the last year or so. Marat Safin then gave Russia a two-match lead, defeating Massu in straight sets.

Meanwhile seen here in America via The Tennis Channel were the Czech-U.S. and Croatia-Germany engagements. Both produced a split of the Friday singles.

Playing on indoor clay in Ostrava, Andy Roddick divided the first two sets with Ivo Minar. The 22-year-old Czech player in his first-ever Cup match showed an excellent clay-court game behind strong ground-strokes, good court mobility, and tactical sense. Roddick, however, pulled comfortably ahead in winning the third and fourth sets. Andy's foremost asset was his strong serving, especially his kicking second serve, but he also showed surprising success in using drop shots.

In the day's second match, Tomas Berdych played with perfection in one-sidedly winning the first set against his American opponent, James Blake. Berdych at age 21 is now 6-5 in height, and against Blake he used his physical assets well in comfortably producing excellent power and court coverage. Blake equalized the score, however, breaking serve twice and then narrowly closing out the second set. The final two sets were closely fought amid many breathtaking exchanges, where Blake's athleticism and stroking largely balanced Berdych's heavy hitting. Berdych made more errors than seemed justifiable, but the tall Czech star managed to win both sets by score 75. Blake contributed two late double-faults in yielding set three.

Meanwhile in Krefeld, Germany, on Rebound Ace, Mario Ancic, stroking with excellent accuracy, won the first set from German veteran Tommy Haas. But the 21-year-old Croatian then began to show effects from recent illness. Summoning excellent concentration in employing his strong game, Haas claimed his victory by winning the next three sets. An hour or so later, Ljubicic safely defeated Ben Becker, whose fine all-around game could not match Ivan's stronger firepower in serving and stroking.

The indoor clay in Liege yielded another unexpected result, when Australian Lleyton Hewitt lost in five sets to Kristof Vliegen, who is 6-4 at age 24. The Australian team's chances seemed doomed when O. Rochus then gave the Belgians a two-match lead.

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In other action, Swiss player Chiudinelli defeated Verdasco to give Switzerland a first-day split with Spain. Nadal was absent because of injury, while Federer had chosen to skip the event to strengthen his chances in coming tournaments. Also absent was the Swiss #2 player, Wawrinka. Meanwhile France, Sweden, and Argentina all took two-match leads over their opponents.

SECOND-DAY DOUBLES

As Saturday began, five nations were ahead of their opponents by two matches to none. Amazingly, all five of these nations became losers in the second-day doubles.

The most stunning reversal was the victory by Romanians Margea-Tacau over the French world-class pair Clement-Llodra, in five sets. Likewise, underdog Austrians Knowle and Melzer defeated Argentina's Acasuso-Prieto, while Mirnyi-Voltchkov kept Belarus alive against Sweden. Hanley-Hewitt did the same for Australia against Belgium, as did Gonzalez-Massu against Russia.

In the other three engagements, the doubles outcomes broke 1-1 first-day ties. The Bryan twins collected their expected win against the Czech pair Dlouhy-Vizner, who at last year's Wimbledon had taken the brothers to tiebreakers in the first two sets. Now, the Czech pair showed a knack for anticipating aggressive net moves by the brothers, often directing shots behind the poachers. But the Americans nevertheless prevailed, breaking Dlouhy's serve in the tenth game of each set, 64 64 64. The Czech pair gained more service-break opportunities than did the Americans, but Bob Bryan's strong serving repeatedly saved the brothers when in jeopardy.

Meanwhile Lopez-Verdasco of Spain fashioned a five-set victory over their young Swiss opponents. In a critical match-up at Krefeld, Kohlmann-Waske moved the host German squad ahead of Croatia, defeating Ancic-Ljubicic in three.

THIRD-DAY SINGLES

Hail to the third-day singles winners who lifted their nations into the second round. High honors go to Tommy Haas, who against higher-ranked Ljubicic played firmly and with few errors, staying strong mentally enroute to a straight-set win. American Andy Roddick performed just as solidly, defeating Tomas Berdych in four sets to complete the U.S. team win. The young Czech star again played extremely well at first, then faded midway amid too many errors, then competed well thereafter, yielding closely the match-ending tiebreak game. Roddick again showed good adaptation to clay, using his serve well to score aces or set up points, driving off the ground firmly throughout, mixing in occasional net attacks or drop shots. The droppers seemed awkwardly delivered but most of them were effective.

Meanwhile Gonzalez defeated Safin to equalize matters between Chile and Russia, 2-2. But Igor Andreev then added to his first-day laurels by defeating Nicolas Massu to give the nod to the visiting Russians, 3-2. Other stars who followed up first-day wins by winning on Sunday to complete their nation's victories were Robin Soderling of Sweden, Kristof Vliegen of Belgium, and Richard Gasquet of France.

Also advancing to the second round were Spain and Argentina, both winning as visiting nations on indoor carpet.

NEW CUP PROGNOSIS

In evaluating the chances of the eight nations still in the Cup chase, we give heed to player results of recent months, to likely changes in squad lists, and, especially, to host-nation advantages including choice of surface. The second round will be played 6-8 April, the third round September 21-23, and the championship round starting November 30. The strongest teams on nonclay surfaces appear to be Russia and U.S.A., where Spain (with Nadal) is next and the others slightly behind. On clay, Spain and then Argentina seem clearly the best, with U.S.A and Russia at the next level, France and Belgium another level behind.

The nation that was the visitor when two opponents last met is always the host nation for their next meeting, where the host is favored by the right to choose court surface--a critical factor in deciding many outcomes. Knowing the court surface for every conceivable match-up ahead, we can deem numerical probabilities for all possible outcomes. Then, knowing the draw, we can calculate each nation's overall chances for winning the Cup. Shown here are the resulting current odds to win Davis Cup 07:

Russia, odds 2-1
U.S.A., 3-1
Argentina, 5-1
Spain, 14-1
Germany, 19-1
France, 33-1
Sweden, 24-1
Belgium, 75-1

The nation most likely to reach the final round is Russia, at a likelihood of 66%, reflecting its host-nation advantage against its second-round opponent, Germany, and its most likely semi-final foe, France. The U.S.A. is less likely than Russia to reach the final, at probability 40%, as it may have to face Argentina on clay in the semis, where the Argentines would be clear favorites. (The Argentines must first defeat Sweden, however, which as host nation is a slight favorites.) But if the U.S. team indeed reaches the championship round against Russia, host-nation advantage would make the Americans the slight favorite.. But since Russia is much more likely than the U.S. to reach the final, noted above, the calculations make Russia the current favorite to claim the Cup.

Note that Spain (with Nadal) is a stronger team than Argentina but is weak in our calculations because (1) in the second round it must visit the U.S. on nonclay and (2) must also visit Russia if these two nations reach the final. Argentina's overall chances are better than Spain's, largely because if Argentina reaches the final against Russia it will be host nation, favored to win that tie by probability 65%.

Meanwhile those nations not in the 2007 World Group are competing in groups within each geographic zone. Group winners advance to the next-higher group in each zone; while some group losers will be relegated downward. Four Group 1 survivors will emerge April 6-8 from the Europe/Africa zone, two from Asia/Pacific, two from the Americas. These eight nations in September will join the eight first-round World Group losers in head-to-head showdowns for places in World Group 2008. Among those winning early-round Group 1 matches in their zones on 9-11 February were Israel, Canada, Peru, Japan, and Thailand.

The spectacle of many Cup match-ups, World Group and zonal, played simultaneously at many locations worldwide in a single weekend, is one of the glories of tennis. This year the phenomenon occurs on the weekends aforementioned in February, April, and September.

INDIAN WELLS AND MIAMI

The month of March will bring the year's first Masters Series tournaments--at Indian Wells in the California desert and at sub-tropical Miami. Both will be played on outdoor hard courts, both will feature 96-player singles draws, and both will occupy two weeks on the pro tennis calendar, concluding in final-round play on March 18 and April 1, respectively. Several years of data show that playing conditions should be somewhat slow at Indian Wells, comparable to those at Australian Open, while conditions at Miami will be fast, like those at U.S. Open.

Roger Federer will be the strong favorite at both Indian Wells and Miami, having won both tournaments in 2005 and 2006 and having dominated the sport since. Offered here are approximate odds for triumphing at Indian Wells.

Federer, 1-2 (odds on)
Roddick, Murray, Blake, Haas, Gonzalez, each 20-1
Nadal, Youzhny, Davydenko, Berdych, Ljubicic, each 50-1
Baghdatis, Soderling, Safin, Gasquet, Djokovic, Simon, Karlovic, each 120-1

The players at the second level closest to the King were the 2006/2007 runner-ups to Roger at Indian Wells (Blake), U.S. Open (Roddick), Masters Cup (Blake), and Australian Open (Gonzalez), along with the winners of recent indoor tournaments at San Jose (Murray) and Memphis (Haas).

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Women's Tier One tournaments will be held concurrently with the men's at both Indian Wells and Miami, likewise with 96-player main draws. In here evaluating possible outcomes we look most closely at results of 2007 to date.

Serena Williams's stunning demolition of Sharapova in the final round of Australian Open 07 vaulted the American once again to superstardom. But Serena has not played since Melbourne Park and indeed withdrew from her expected appearance at Dubai in late February. Almost surely, she and sister Venus will miss Indian Wells, where neither has played since 2001. (In that year Venus, with knee problems, probably unwisely withdrew from an Indian Wells semi-final against Serena but then captured Miami 01 starting a few days later.) Injuries kept both sisters from competing at Miami 06.

An interesting theme of the new year has been the showdown between (1) the dominant players of 2006 and (2) the strong population of rising stars aged 21 and below. The first group consists of last year's royal family of women's tennis (Henin, Sharapova, and Mauresmo) along with members of the close nobility (Clijsters, Petrova, Hingis, and Kuznetsova). We add Serena to the group. Members of the second group, the ladies-in-waiting, are Chakvetadze, Ivanovic, Peer, Safina, Safarova, Golovin, and Vaidisova. The second group placed four members into the Final Eight at Melbourne Park 07, though none of them reached the final.

In head-to-head play across the two groups, the royalty is showing that the gap persists, though it is probably narrowing. By my count, during January and February the royals won 15 of the 23 matches played across the groups. Of the eight wins by the ladies-in-waiting, three were won by Czech player Lucie Safarova, who at age 19 defeated Kuznetsova and Henin in the Paris indoors and Mauresmo at Melbourne Park. Ivanovic shows two wins, having beaten Petrova at Sydney and Sharapova at Tokyo.

The present royalty thus remains prominent atop our odds chart for winning Indian Wells, here shown.

Henin, odds 3-1
Mauresmo, 5-1
Clijsters, Sharapova, each 8-1
Hingis, Petrova, each 12-1
Safarova, Ivanovic, Vaidisova, Jankovic, Chakvetadze, Kuznetsova, Peer, each 33-1

Henin's place at the top rests on her success in February despite having missed the Australian season for personal reasons. Against Kuznetsova in the semis at Dubai, Justine played poorly at first. But her stamina was impressive at the end, when she found her shot-making in convincingly defeating a tiring opponent. In then winning a straight-set final against Mauresmo 64 75, Justine started out at her best, fought through the evenly played middle stages, and then showed her steel nerves at the end. It was an extremely attractive match, both players producing their usual power and speed, both playing with good variety, both coming to net often and well. The difference was probably Justine's frequent brilliance at net and in passing Amelie.

Mauresmo's good showing at Dubai along with her victory over Clijsters in the final at Antwerp the week before, justify her second-place ranking here. Sharapova defeated Clijsters enroute to the final at Australian Open but then retired at Tokyo with hamster injury and has not competed since. Bothered with hip trouble in February, Clijsters reached the final at Antwerp. Hingis won the tournament indoors in Tokyo, Petrova indoors in Paris.

A future odds chart for Miami must also include the Williams sisters. Serena will probably belong at about the level of Henin and Mauresmo, while Venus should be close to the other royals listed above, having defeated Peer in the Memphis final by comfortable scores.

Let springtime soon be upon us.

--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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