The European clay-court game seems more attractive than ever. The recent displays in Germany and Italy assure that wonderful tennis lies just ahead in Paris.
Players from Spain and South America have captured the last seven men's singles championship at Garros. The trend stirred even earlier, when male stars from these regions won the Garros crown five times during the ten-year period 1990-1999, In contrast, Spain and South America produced the male champion in only two of the first 22 years of the Open Era--a period when the likes of Borg, Lendl, and Wilander dominated at Garros.
We find a similar picture if we count match-wins by nation. In four of the last five years at Garros, the men's contingent from Spain won more singles and doubles matches than males from any other nation. Argentina led in 2004. Meanwhile the remarkable array of female stars from Russia have led the Russkayas to match-win honors at Garros for the last several years (as well as at the other major tournaments). It seems likely that these trends will persist at Garros 07.
Four weeks ago, just after Rafael Nadal's triumphs at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, it was hard to imagine anyone defeating the Mallorca-born fighter on his favorite surface. Rafael's wonderful defensive skills, his relentless heavy-overspin hitting, and his athletic and mental strengths made him seem nearly invincible. Well behind Rafael in their clay-court prospects were the losing finalists at Monte Carlo and Barcelona--Roger Federer and Guillermo Canas, respectively. Further behind were about a dozen or so other contenders, including an interesting group of players aged 21 and under led by Djokovic, Gasquet, and Berdych. At Estoril the following week, Djokovic and Gasquet reached the final, Djokovic prevailing, while Canas retired at Munich with an abdominal strain. The subsequent events at Rome and Hamburg would change the above picture in interesting ways.
ROME -- MAY 7-13
I watched much of the fine tennis from Rome via Tennis Channel. Especially thrilling was the second-rounder between Richard Gasquet and Italian 25-year-old clay artist Filippo Volandri, whose dazzling groundstrokes carried even greater power and accuracy than Gasquet's. The French youth had the stronger serve and forecourt game but seemed slightly unwell and eventually yielded in split sets.
Volandri, who required three sets to defeat Gasquet, then beat Roger Federer in two. The scores correctly reflected Filippo's full domination of the World #1 from the baseline. Federer managed only occasional attacks, and his ground stroking lacked the pace, accuracy, and avoidance of error of the Italian star, whose performance delighted the gallery. Meanwhile another home-grown delight--Potito Starace, who had battered Ferrero--severely pressed Davydenko but lost in a close third set.
Nadal had an eventful journey to his Sunday coronation. Youzhny provided a serious test, showing his fine backhand along with good all-court play. Djokovic was even more troublesome, regularly claiming the initiative with powerful rockets to the corners, but Rafael's ability to answer the heaviest pressure and turn matters to his own favor eventually prevailed. Although the scores seemed one-sided, both Youzhny and Djokovic had forced the Mallorcan wonder to summon his best.
Then in the semi-finals Nicolay Davydenko offered an even-stronger challenge, outhitting Nadal much of the way and seemingly sapping the energy reserves of the favorite. Rafael won the first set in a tiebreaker and took the lead in set two, five games to three. But during that second set, Rafael's supercharged hitting faded away amid many softish offerings. Nicolay relished the feast, capturing the second set. Nadal's stroking improved in the third set, but between points he seemed tired. As the contest neared the four-hour mark, the slender Russian looked as fresh as ever. But though he seemed in trouble at four games all, somehow Rafa found the strength, the will, and the big shots to survive. Matters ended when Nicolay failed to return Rafael's last two serves.
Meanwhile Fernando Gonzalez was showing the thunderous ground strokes and good mobility that had carried him to the final round of Australian Open 07. The Chilean's crushing game seemed to thrive on the red clay as Fernando in turn defeated Massu, Chela, and Volandri, all of whom had played very well earlier in the week. But in the Sunday final Nadal was again at top form. With Rafael's defenses too difficult to break down, and with Gonzalez persisting in his high-risk shot-making, unwilling to surrender the initiative, Fernando soon became victim of his own errors.
HAMBURG -- MAY 14-20
An early surprise at Hamburg was Carlos Moya, 30, who prevailed over Tomas Berdych and James Blake, in each case after losing the first set. Against Blake, Carlos showed good power along with greater topspin than his opponent and generally greater margin for error. Also successful in the early going was Lleyton Hewitt, now 26, who defeated Davydenko in a close three-setter. A run of unforced errors by the Russian star produced a late break of serve by Hewitt, and the Australian closed out matters with some excellent serving and airtight consistency in stroking.
The two veterans--Moya and Hewitt--joined favorites Nadal and Federer in the tournament's Final Four. In his Saturday semi-final against Federer, Moya was well in control of his firm clay-court game, forcing the World #1 to three sets. Roger showed more emotional intensity than in recent months, and there were moments when the recently slumping champion produced flashes of the scintillating rocketry once seen regularly at critical times. In the other semi, Hewitt played with the energy of years past, mixing rock-solid defense with sudden flashes of aggressiveness. Breaks of serve became frequent toward the end, where tension marked every point. The score reached five games all in the third set before the weight of Nadal's game prevailed.
Thus the two megastars would meet again--for the eleventh time in official competition. Nadal led in the W-L count, seven wins to three, having won all five meetings on clay. Rafa won the first set, fairly comfortably, where Federer was unable to generate the strong attacking game that everyone now knew he must produce if he was to defeat his nemesis. But after almost losing his serving game early in set two, Roger rather abruptly seemed to find his old thunder, even as Rafa's weight of fire seemed to fade. Roger's first serve, woefully inconsistent earlier, began cleaning the lines regularly, and the magnificent forehand rifle to the sides and angles regularly reappeared. Often, Roger set up a winning sequence with a rocket weighty enough and well-enough placed to yield a softish Rafa reply. Then forcing his way to net behind strong approaches, and on arrival producing brilliant volleys as of old, Roger broke Rafa's serve twice in set two, three times in set three. The demolition was astonishing, final score 26 62 60.
For Nadal the magnificent run of 81 consecutive wins on clay had ended. It seemed obvious that Rafael now badly needed the forthcoming week of rest prior to the start at Garros. He had been playing matches almost daily for four of the past five weeks, he had flagged somewhat in Rome and now again at Hamburg. On the other side, in finding his best game at Hamburg, Federer had shown his readiness to meet what may be his greatest career challenge, the winning of Roland Garros.
Offered here are odds for winning Garros 07. They are primarily derived from weighted results in major tournaments of the past 15 months. (See footnote on the calculations.)
Nadal, even odds
Gonzalez, Robredo, each 30-1
Djokovic, Davydenko, each 40-1
Ferrer, Ferrero, each 115-1
all others, 200-1 or longer
There are quite a few stars capable of contending very well against the two leaders, including those who did so at Rome and Hamburg, described above. But both megastars focused their weeks of preparation toward Garros itself, and both start the event with a week's rest. That the competition is best-of-five sets further diminishes the likelihood that the megastars will stumble before the final.
Shown here are the four quarters of the men's draw. The leading contenders are shown in order of their raw scores from our computations. My predictions follow the raw scores. Also indicated are sleepers--player whose chances seem most undervalued by the raw scores.
THE FEDERER QUARTER
Federer 5.04, Robredo 2.69, Ljubicic 1.93, Ferrero 1.85, Youzhny 1.13, Safin 1.09, Volandri 1.01, Starace 0.58, Clement 0.58. Starace is a dangerous probable early opponent for Roger. A fourth-round match-up against Ferrero or Youzhny holds even greater perils for the tournament's top seed. Volandri, who beat Federer in Rome, looms in the other half of the quarter. (Pick Federer; Sleeper Volandri)
Gonzalez 2.76, Davydenko 2.55, Nalbandian 1.85, Gasquet 1.68, Chela 1.39, Acasuso 1.33, Almagro 1.11, Monfils 0.86, Canas 0.77, Monaco 0.66. This quarter is loaded with superior clay-court players. Davydenko is seeded higher than Gonzalez, but Gonzo is the clear choice off late performance. Gonzalez must also overcome dangerous Gasquet earlier, in the fourth round. (Pick Gonzalez, Sleeper Canas)
Djokovic 2.61, Ferrer 2.14, Roddick 1.93, Mathieu 1.21, Simon 0.97, Baghdatis 0.89. This is by far the weakest quarter, giving Djokovic a good chance to advance, though he must face Ferrer in the fourth round. If Roddick reaches the quarter-final round, he could win against Ferrer there but not against Djokovic. (Pick Djokovic; Sleeper Simon)
THE NADAL QUARTER
Nadal 5.78, Berdych 2.34, Blake 1.56, Soderling 1.41, Moya 1.15, Nieminen 1.11, Kohlschreiber 0.85. Rafa must perform at close to his best in the first round against young Del Potro. Soderling and Hewitt loom as likely foes for the favorite enroute to the quarter-finals. With a favorable draw, Blake should reach the fourth round against either Moya, who beat him in Hamburg, or Berdych. (Pick Nadal; Sleeper Del Potro)
In overcoming their difficult tests to reach the semis, I believe that Nadal will have recovered his full energy and stamina and that Federer will have again been able to summon his big game when needed. Both should be at their peak in the semis and both should prevail there, Federer over Gonzalez, Nadal over Djokovic. Thus another classic final-round confrontation looms. My choice to win on final-round Sunday is Nadal, who in doing so will capture his third-straight Garros crown. He will have just turned age 21.
Physical problems afflicting many of the top candidates cloud the outlook for the women's singles at Garros 07. But there is no question that among the prime candidates are two past champions, both at prime tennis age. Justine Henin, who is now 24, won the singles at Garros in 2003, 2005, and 2006, and Serena Williams, now 25, was champion in 2002.
Both Justine and Serena are known for their wonderful powers of determination and concentration; both are superior in their court mobility. Serena beat Justine in the final at Miami this year after losing the first set at love. The two have not met since then, but Serena's supremacy there should be at least partly neutralized on clay. The effect of Serena's superior power in serving and stroking is diminished slightly on that surface, while Justine's wonderfully balanced game has proven at its most effective thereon. Both megastars have been sidelined for long stretches in recent years, Justine with illness and Serena with knee problems that contributed in Serena's missing Garros in 2005 and 2006. Henin played at Berlin earlier this month in Berlin, Serena in Rome, but neither reached the final round. Justine narrowly defeated Jankovic and then lost to Kuznetsova, both in three sets. Serena in Rome looked rusty in losing to Patty Schnyder in a tight third-set tiebreaker. Justine has played six tournaments in 2007, winning three (Dubai, Doha, Warsaw). Serena has played in five, winning two (Australia, Miami).
Two other stars, by their recent performances at Berlin and Rome, also belong in our top tier. Svetlana Kuznetsova looked athletic and strong in reaching the final round at both events. Svetlana is still only age 21, though she has long experience at the top levels. She was the losing finalist last year at Garros, bowing in straight sets to Henin, but she defeated Justine in their recent meeting in Berlin. Completing our prime four is Belgrade-born Jelena Jankovic, 22, who claimed attention last summer in reaching the final four at U.S. Open, where she lost to Henin. (She still has never defeated Justine, in five tries.) She won the tournament on clay at Charleston this spring, and her firm ground strokes carried her to the championship at Rome, where she defeated Kuznetsova in the final round and won the tournament without loss of a set.
Our second tier begins with Ana Ivanovic, age 19 at 6-0, who won the tournament at Berlin, beating Kuznetsova in a third-set tiebreaker. This triumph represents an impressive credential that suggests that Ana belongs in our first tier. But her 12-month record is spotty, where fine performances at tournaments are more than balanced by obvious disappointments. After winning Berlin, she missed Rome with an injured ankle. Also in our second group is Amelie Mauresmo, who returned in May from appendicitis but achieved only a 1-2 record at Berlin and Rome. Amelie plainly has the weapons to win her home-nation Slam but she has yet to reach the semis. Daniela Hantuchova, who was a first-tenner five years agoŘ has rekindled her career at 24. Her high-velocity flattish groundstrokes can threaten any opponent, as when she captured Indian Wells 07 over Kuznetsova. and when she reached the final four at Rome this month. The final member of our group is Patty Schnyder, who is worth watching after her win over Serena at Rome. Against Williams, Schnyder's heavily overspun ground shots, her good use of drop shots, and her good court mobility seemed ideally tailored to the Italian clay. But she next lost to Jankovic by one-sided scores.
Other familiar stars seem clearly outside our top eight. Kim Clijsters has announced her retirement. Sharapova has been struggling with shoulder trouble though she returned to action this week in Istanbul. Hingis is out with a bad hip, Golovin with an injured ankle. Shahar Peer had fine results early this year but her results have dropped off with injuries. Venus has been unable to find the court with consistency. Vaidisova missed Berlin and Rome with tendonitis but is now returning. Dementieva, Safina, and Chakvetadze show occasional nice wins but no tournament championships since January. Nadia Petrova was close to entering our top group a year ago, but her career has seemingly reached a plateau, and she retired at Rome with lower back difficulties.
Here are my estimated odds for winning the crown at Garros 07.
Serena W., 4-1
Ivanovic, Mauresmo, each 25-1
Hantuchova, Schnyder, each 50-1
Sharapova, Petrova, Venus W, Peer, each 75-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
The four highest-seeded players in each quarter of the draw are shown below in order of official seed. My predicted winners track the odds listed above.
Henin, S. Williams, Safina, N. Li. By luck of the draw, two of our four prime candidates are in this quarter. Justine and Serena should meet in the quarter-finals. Probably Justine's chances are better than if their meeting were later in the week. (Pick, Henin)
Jankovic, Vaidisova, Petrova, Dementieva. This is a favorable draw for Jankovic, who should comfortably reach the quarter-finals. Both Vaidisova or Petrova have the firepower to cause trouble there, but Jelena's recent performances far surpass those of both prospective foes. (Pick, Jankovic)
Kuznetsova, Ivanovic, Hantuchova, Peer. Ivanovic should survive against Hantuchova in the fourth round and can certainly make trouble for Kuznetsova next. Ivanovic beat Kuznetsova in a third-set tiebreaker in the final round at Berlin. The margin is very narrow, but Svetlana's consistency in the middle rounds is persuasive. (Pick, Kuznetsova)
Sharapova, Mauresmo, Chkakvetadze, Schnyder. Maria's second serve has been too unruly in recent months to hold up on the clay, especially against an attacking Mauresmo in their prospective quarter-final meeting. (Pick, Mauresmo).
Jankovic almost defeated Henin in Berlin and seems capable of doing so now. But she has never beaten Justine, who assuredly knows how to win big matches at Garros. It seems to me that Jelena's time has not yet arrived. In the other semi-final, I choose Kuznetsova over Mauresmo, judging partly by last year's results at Garros. Finally, in a repeat of last year's final, Henin should defeat Kuznetsova, reversing their recent three-set outcome in Berlin.
Best wishes to all for two weeks of magnificent tennis.
The odds given above are obtained by first deeming that Nadal's probability of winning the tournament is 0.5. The other values are calculated from weighted results of the past 15 months, where the raw scores of players are adjusted logarithmically to achieve an overall probability of 1.0. Here are the weights used for predicting Garros 07, derived from historical correlations over the past seven years.
Monte Carlo, Italy, Germany 07, each 10.5%
Garros 06, 9.0%
Monte Carlo, Italy, Germany 06, each 6.1%
total clay, 58.8%
Indian Wells and Miami, 07, each 5.4%
Australian Open 07, 4.3%
Masters Cup 06, 6.0%
Paris and Madrid indoors, each 4.4%
U.S. Open 06, 3.5%
Canada and Cincinnati 06, each 3.3%
Wimbledon 06, 1.3%
total nonclay, 41.2%