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March 5, 2008 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Mid-Winter Bedlam
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Australian Open 08 produced magnificent drama, transfixing the tennis world for two weeks in January. Three-time champion Roger Federer was dethroned in the semis by Belgrade-born Novak Djokovic, who then defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the unseeded French 22-year-old. Djokovic's triumph certified that the young Serb had reached superstardom, while Tsonga's dazzling run to the final announced that Jo-Wilfried too might be only a few months away.

What followed in February was fascinating in a different way, stunning in its madcap outcomes. From the several pro tournaments in Europe and America emerged a proliferation of topsy-turvy scores--results that devastated the favorites and baffled predictions for the coming spring events. No one player emerged dominant from the carnage.


Heading the upper half of the draw at Marseille, 11-17 February, was Novak Djokovic, nicknamed Nole, just arrived from Davis Cup play in Moscow (discussed later). But Nole lost early to French player Gilles Simon, and it was Andy Murray who instead became the top half's representative in the final round. Meanwhile the lower half included several currently strong players--Tsonga, Gasquet, Youzhny, and Baghdatis--but the surprise winner in that half was tall Croatian Mario Ancic, 23. Ancic had finished 2006 in the Top Ten but missed much of last year with injuries. Now, enroute to the final at Marseille he scored wins over Tsonga and Baghdatis, losing only one set--to the stormy Swede Robin Soderling, 23, who had earlier beaten Gasquet. (It was Soderling's first appearance since withdrawing in Canada last August.) In the final round, Murray d. Ancic, 63 64.

Things became even stranger the next week in Rotterdam. Serbian player Jarko Tipsarevic, 23, who had nearly beaten Federer at Melbourne Park, now stunned top-tenner Youzhny, but in his next match Jarko lost to Simon, in two tiebreak sets. Meanwhile Soderling resumed his upward thrust, defeating Baghdatis. Indeed, upon completion of the first two rounds, all eight seeded players had been eliminated, among them Nadal, Davydenko, and Ferrer. The unseeded survivors played on, and on February 24, it was Soderling against French player Michael Llodra in the final. Llodra d. Soderling, 67 63 76.

Matters resumed in Zagreb, Croatia, on February 25, with a field dominated by players from eastern Europe. Ancic continued his strong play but lost in the semis to Ljubicic in two close sets. The tournament's prime overachiever, however, was little-known Sergiy Stakhovsky, who defeated Karlovic, Tipsarevic, and two other higher-ranked opponents to reach the final against Ljubicic. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, 22 years ago, the slender (6-4) Stakhovsky has played only occasionally above the Challenger level, having lost in the qualifiers of the last four Slams. But despite his unimpressive record, in yet another incredible result, Stakhovsky d, Ljubicic, 75 64.

Meanwhile the winter season in North America began outdoors at Delray Beach, Florida, the same week with Marseille. In an outcome just as implausible as Stakhovsky's, the tournament winner was Kei Nishikori, 18, who delivered a convincing final-round victory over James Blake, seen on Tennis Channel. The Japanese youth, who performed well last year in Challenger and Qualifier events, showed superlative footwork and movement, repeatedly denying Blake's potent forcing shots, answering with equal or better potency. Nishikori's fast preparation for shots and his short backswing made for high-energy forehand and backhand missiles that again and again found the lines, amid excellent avoidance of error. Toward the end behind a consistently forcing serve, Kei outdid Blake in athleticism and aggressive stroking--the American's strengths.

Nishikori is slightly shorter and less physically developed than Blake, but he is by no means frail. There is an oriental flavor in his energetic stroking and movement remindful of H.T. Lee's but at higher velocity. As Blake said in his post-match remarks, Kei's future is bright. Nishikori d. Blake, 36 61 64.

Nishikori won his first match at San Jose the next week, indoors, to set up an intriguing meeting with top-seeded Andy Roddick. Andy won the showdown 62 64. But elsewhere in the tournament, unexpected outcomes remained the rule. Only two seeded players succeeded in reaching the final eight. But in the final on February 24, it was Roddick d. Stepanek, 64 75.

In Memphis, February 25-March 2, the cast was reinforced by an increment of players from Europe. Five Europeans reached the tournament's final eight. Robin Soderling, direct from Rotterdam, upset Roddick in the quarters, then beat Stepanek in the semis. But having reached the final and in an unaccustomed role as favorite, Soderling lost to Belgium's Steve Darcis, 23. Darcis d. Soderling, 63 76.

The top performers in the European indoor series had been Murray, Llodra, Soderling, and Ancic. Soderling's credentials were then enhanced by his reaching the final at Memphis. It was also evident that further watching was owed to Tipsarevic, Simon, Stakhovsky, and--from the American series--Nishikori and Darcis.

Tournaments are now in progress in Dubai and Las Vegas, immediately preceding the Masters Series events at Indian Wells, March 13-23, and at Miami, March 26-April 6.

In its implications for the coming Masters tournaments, what are we to make of the improbable tennis of February? Should the strange results be deemed aberrations, mainly to be disregarded? Or are they evidence of a leveling at the upper echelons, where any member of the first fifty or so can endanger the leaders? But before we interpret these doings, several other February happenings require comment.


Last year four different stars--all South Americans--captured the four prime tournaments of the Latin American clay circuit. By winning, Canas, Chela, Horna, and Monaco showed their readiness for the big clay events in Europe. Four other players were the losing finalists.

This year's series began at Vina del Mar, Chile, attended by the expected assortment of South American clay artists. Fernando Gonzalez won the February 3 final when Juan Monaco withdrew with an ankle injury. The prime overachiever was Pablo Cuevas, 5-11 at age 22, of Uruguay, who had seldom played above the Challenger level. Cuevas beat Coria, Verdasco, Acasuso, and held match points against Gonzalez before losing in the semis.

Two weeks later the cast reassembled in Costa do Sauipe, Brasil, augmented by several Spanish and other European players. The veteran Moya and the rising Nicolas Almagro, 22, both from Spain, met in the final, won by Almagro in a close finish. Joining the array the following week in Buenos Aires was David Nalbandian, top-seeded. In an all-Argentine final on February 24, David narrowly defeated Jose Acasuso.

Thus six different players were the finalists in the three tournaments to date, repeating the pattern of 2007. Gathering at Acapulco, Mexico, starting February 25 were five of the six earlier finalists plus by far the strongest additional cast of the series, including Canas, Massu, and Andreev. The final pitted Nalbandian, winner at Buenos Aires, against Almagro, winner in Brasil, the winner to be the circuit's only double champion and, ipso facto, the circuit's overall top performer. Almagro d. Nalbandian, 61 76.


More than 120 nations entered Davis Cup competition for 2008. The 16-nation World Group played their first round February 8-10. In most cases there was little doubt as to the outcome, and in only one if the eight meetings did matters reach a deciding fifth match.

The prime match-up was between 2007-runner-up Russia and dangerous Serbia, played on indoor hard court in Moscow. Serbia's squad included Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, along with Janko Tipsarevic, who had nearly beaten Federer in Melbourne. The first-day's action was spoiled when both Djokovic and Tipsarevic became sidelined with flu-like sicknesses. Although Davydenko and Youzhny were extended, both Russians defeated the Serbian substitutes. In the second-day doubles, Nole recovered enough to partner doubles-star Zimonjic to a straight-set win. Serbian hopes thus stayed alive, as both Djokovic and Tipsarevic seemed ready for singles action Sunday.

Djokovic began his third-day match against Davydenko showing no sign of weakness from his recent malady. Moving to the corners with excellent agility and ripping back Davydenko's most aggressive offerings, the Belgrade-born superstar showed the full measure of his power serving and stroking, as seen recently in Melbourne. Nole closed out the first set amid a run of errors by Davydenko and then won a hard-fought second, summoning a remarkable stretch of aggressiveness and power. Early in set three the points and games were getting longer and tougher as Davydenko raised his play, and although Nole won the first three games of the set, the 20-year-old Serb was no longer producing the penetrating power and depth seen before. In game eight, Djokovic led forty-love, serving to reach 5-3, his victory almost in hand. But it now appeared as if whatever adrenaline that had neutralized his physical weakness had become exhausted. Two double-faults immediately led to trouble and, with Davydenko now at his best, Nole's reserves were gone. Davydenko won the set and, now wholly spent, Djokovic soon afterwards withdrew. It was Russia 3, Serbia 1. A deciding fifth match, presumably between Tipsarevic and Youzhny, would not be needed. The same two would play ten days later in the first round at Rotterdam, noted above, Tipsarevic winning.

Meanwhile last year's Cup champion U.S.A. traveled to Vienna to meet the Austrians on indoor clay, a surface likely to diminish the American advantage in serving and stroking power. But on the first day the American singles artists Roddick and Blake adjusted well to the surface, which quickly became irregular and produced many bad bounces. Roddick's serving, which seemed to gain in effect as the match proceeded, gave Andy the deciding edge over Jurgen Melzer. Next, James Blake, amid many errors, lost the first set to Stefan Koubek and nearly lost the second. But the American persisted in his aggressive stroking and eventually found his consistency, thereafter dominating. Then on the second day, the Bryan twins, playing at their best, outclassed the all-lefty pair Melzer-Knowle. U.S.A. 3, Austria 0.

The only deciding fifth match in World Group play came in the meeting of Israel and Sweden (lacking Soderling). The fine Israeli pair Erlich-Ram won the doubles, giving Israel a 2-1 lead in matches won. But Johansson and Bjorkman both captured third-day singles, Bjorkman over veteran Harel Levy in a four-setter ending in a tiebreaker. Sweden 3, Israel 2.

The eight quarter-finalist nations thus became known. From analysis of the team strengths, the matrix of possible bracketings, and prospective host-nation advantage, it is clear that the nation most likely to capture the Cup this year is Spain. Here are the calculated current probabilities for winning Davis Cup 08.

Spain, 40%
France, 19%
Argentina, 17%
Russia, 13%
U.S.A., 5%
Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, each 3% or less

Note that the calculations are strongly influenced by the expected playing surfaces, which are chosen by the host nations. Defending-champion U.S.A. faces long odds, having to play dangerous France (Tsonga, Gasquet, Llodra) in the quarter-finals and then, if successful, having to face Spain (Nadal, Ferrer, Moya) on Spanish clay. The calculations predict that American chances to win as visiting team in Spain would be only 12%. The likeliest final would be between Spain and Argentina, hosted by the latter but with Spain the favorite to win such a match-up at 74%.


Rafael Nadal was champion last year at Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic in Miami. But the season's sensation was Guillermo Canas, who defeated Roger Federer in both events and reached the final in Miami. (Roger had won Indian Wells the previous three years and Miami the previous two.) Canas after Miami failed to maintain high level of success.

Temperatures are characteristically moderate this time of year at both sites. Contrast in humidity is to be expected--dry at Indian Wells in the California desert, moist in subtropical Miami. At both locations, winds can be high or gusty. The speed of the courts at Indian Wells is usually slightly slower and at Miami is slightly faster than at U.S. Open. At both tournaments the main singles draw is 96, with 16 pairs in doubles.

Listed here are the leading favorites to win one or both of these tournaments. The order of merit is heavily based on performance in 2008 to date as well as late 2007. Several upstarts of February are placed after the first six, displacing players who will receive high seeds at the tournament. The estimated odds are for Indian Wells and will surely change considerably for Miami prior to start.

1. Djokovic (odds 9-5, or 1.8-1). The Aus Open 08 crown merits top billing.
2. Federer (odds 2-1). Masters Cup 07 and his world #1 ranking rule here.
3. Tsonga (odds 15-1). The wonderful run in Melbourne Park still speaks loudly.
4. Nalbandian (20-1). Five late-07 wins over Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, plus recent clay success.
5. Roddick (25-1). The wonderful serve still lifts Andy over players better overall.
6. Ferrer (30-1). Runner-up Masters Cup 07.
7. Nadal (30-1). Final four Aus Open 08.
8. Soderling (50-1). Strong run since Aus Open.
9. Murray (50-1). Won Doha 08 and Marseille 08.
10. Llodra (100-1). Won Rotterdam 08.
11. Youzhny (100-1). Won Chennai 08.
12. Ancic (100-1). Runner-up Marseille 08.

All the players listed above are at least remotely plausible candidates to win either event. The close split among the top two suggests an appealing card--Djokovic to win Indian Wells and Federer to win Miami. These are hence my choices.


Form held up fairly well among the female pros in February. The first round of Fed Cup play, February 2-3, saw Maria Sharapova, in her first Cup outing, lead Russia past Israel, while the Americans defeated host Germany despite teen-ager Sabine Lisicki's impressive win over Lindsay Davenport. Harkleroad won two singles matches for U.S.A. Meanwhile France, lacking Bartoli, Golovin, and Mauresmo, lost to China, and Spain beat Italy. Looking ahead, Russia appears the likely Cup champion, unless the Americans can field the Williams sisters with both at their best.

The WTA February circuit included Tier II tournaments in Paris (won by Chakvetadze) and the next week in Antwerp (won by Henin). Next, the Tier I at Doha was won by Australian Open champion Sharapova, who showed her aggressive serving and stroking game at its best. The just-ended tournament at Dubai went to Dementieva, who in the final round showed superb footwork and mobility while mustering enough serving prowess to fend off Kuznetsova's aggressive returning. Henin had lost in the quarters to Schiavone. Meanwhile Lindsay Davenport won the tournament at Memphis, therein reversing her loss to Lisicki.

Offered here are the leading candidates in order of their estimated odds to capture Indian Wells. Recent form is heavily weighted. Note that the Williams sisters are unlikely to compete at Indian Wells but have regularly dominated in Miami. Their names are inserted, below, though odds are not shown.

1. Sharapova (odds even). Aus Open 08 and Doha 08 champion.
2. Henin (odds 3-1). Year-end champion 07. Won Sydney and Antwerp 08.
3. Ivanovic (odds 9-1). Runner-up Aus Open 08.
4. Dementieva (32-1). Won Dubai 08. Crushed by Sharapova at Aus Open.
5. Kuznetsova. (32-1). Runner-up Dubai 08.
__. V. Williams. Won Hong Kong exhibition, beating Sharapova.
6. Jankovic (50-1). Semis Aus Open and Dubai 08.
7. Li (75-1). Good run reaching semis at Doha 08.
8. Chakvetadze (75-1). Won Paris 08. Retired with thigh trouble, Dubai 08.
__. S. Williams. Has not competed in 08.
9. Davenport (<99-1). Won Memphis 08.
10. A. Radwanska (<99-1). Semis at Doha 08.
11. Schiavone (<99-1). Semis Dubai 08, beating Henin.
12. Zvonareva (<99-1). Runner-up Doha 08.

My personal choice is Sharapova, to win both events.


Performances by tennis superstars outside the established pro schedule, in my opinion, generally weaken the health and development of the game. Still, the continuing series between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer has been compelling, both in its clash of tennis styles and also in its implications for tennis history. Although there is little doubt that Roger will always beat Pete on clay, their current showdowns have been on indoor hard courts where, even though Pete is well past prime age for tennis champions, the margin has been narrow. Their fourth performance comes to Madison Square Garden, March 10.

Sampras contended surprisingly well in the first three matches, played in Asia in late 2007, and indeed Pete won the third meeting. Although Roger was unquestionably superior in baseline rallying, at Macau Pete was often successful in his forceful serving and aggressive net-attacking. Roger has rarely faced such bold approaching by so strong a volleyer.

Still, Federer, who is ten years younger than Pete, should be the strong favorite at the Garden. We can expect Sampras to come forward regularly behind his own serves and also rather frequently behind his own sliced backhands including behind his returns of second serve. If Pete's aggressiveness pays off, Roger will have to become more aggressive himself, coming to net early in points, in effect beating Pete to the net. We should be reminded of the times of fast-court tennis and the styles of the great Australian net artists, from Sedgman to Rafter.

If the drama reaches the level produced in their third meeting, the Federer-Sampras showdown in the Garden should be worth the price of a year's cable subscription. As I understand it, the only carrier will be Tennis Channel.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

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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.

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