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June 20, 2008 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Predicting Wimbledon 08
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Only rarely has a male player captured both Roland Garros and then Wimbledon, back-to-back. Although the two events are played only a few weeks apart, they employ very different kinds of playing surface and therefore favor different kinds of skills. The clay courts at Garros absorb energy from the ball, slowing it and making for a high bounce. But on the grass at Wimbledon the ball tends to skid, retaining most of its forward velocity and staying low. Over the years very different playing styles became traditional--patient, baseline tactics at Garros, relentless net attacking at Wimbledon. The brief interval between the two events allowed little time for practicing the needed adjustments.

The amazing Bjorn Borg, who won Garros six times and Wimbledon five, accomplished the back-to-back feat three times, 1978-1980. Borg's usual manner of play seemed tailored for clay, while at Wimbledon he adapted his strengths to an attacking game. Only one other male player has achieved the Garros-Wimbledon double since the start of the Open Era in 1968. That was Rod Laver, in 1969, his second Grand Slam year. An extreme oddity happened in 2006, when for the first time in the Open Era the same two males reached the final rounds of both events. Nadal beat Federer at Garros, Federer beat Nadal at Wimbledon. The identical scenario happened again in 2007.

Match outcomes at the two events in recent years have correlated more closely than previously, perhaps reflecting that playing styles at Garros and Wimbledon have become more similar. Net approaches, for example, have become only slightly more frequent at Wimbledon than at Garros. One reason is that the Garros clay has become slightly faster and the Wimbledon grass slightly slower. Also, improved rackets have made net attacking less effective in the face of improved ground-stroking power. Finally, very few other tournaments are played on grass nowadays, so that the top pros are less practiced and less comfortable in using the all-out attacking style. But significant differences in the play still remain. A major one is that the serve is more dominant at Wimbledon, where aces are nearly twice as numerous as at Garros. Breaks of serve are 50% more frequent at Garros. (See Footnote 1.)

Everyone agrees that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are the three elite candidates to win the men's singles at Wimbledon 08. Nadal is the current leader in the 2008 year-to-date race, with Djokovic second. The official Wimbledon seedings, which are based on the running 12-month rankings but give extra weight to past results on grass, place Federer first, Nadal second. Roger is also favored in the player scores Sc and rank order shown in the subsequent paragraphs, taken from my own calculations. (See Footnote 2.) Note that my personal predictions occasionally deviate from these calculations, as will be seen.

FEDERER'S QUARTER

Federer Sc 5.89, Berdych 2.71, Hewitt 2.15, Ferrer 2.15, Gonzalez 1.67, Soderling 1.27, Verdasco 1.16, Monfils 1.01.

LIke the other elites, Roger Federer is a strong favorite to capture his quarter of the draw. One week after losing the final at Garros 08, Roger extended his grass-court winning streak to 59 by winning the tournament at Halle without loss of a set. Roger heads the draw at Wimbledon, having won the tournament in each of the last five years.

Roger's early path seems slightly tricky, where Soderling, Monfils, and either Gonzalez or Hewitt bar his route to the quarter-finals. All are capable of winning a set or perhaps two from Roger. Gael Monfils, age 21 and 6-4 in height, gave a dazzling performance in reaching the semis at Garros 08, showing a potent serve, blinding speed, athleticism at net. He won his first three matches to date in the grass-court tune-up at Nottingham this week.

The hard-working David Ferrer is the likely opponent for Roger in the final of this quarter. The evidence from Roger's crushing win over David in the final of Masters Cup 07 leaves few questions. The choice: Federer.

DJOKOVIC'S QUARTER

Djokovic 5.06, Baghdatis 2.07, Kohlschreiber 1.83, Ferrero 1.81, Karlovic 1.76, Wawrinka 1.66, Nalbandian 1.63, Ancic 1.48.

At the Queen's Club in mid-June, Novak Djokovic demonstrated his marvelous power game along with his readiness to play his best on grass. Enroute to the final round, Novak defeated Lleyton Hewitt, a former Wimbledon champion and four-time winner at Queen's, and he destroyed a slow and erratic David Nalbandian, a potential foe in this quarter. Probably more dangerous for Novak will be Ivo Karlovic, the gentle giant from Croatia, who is the game's best server today. Karlovic split three sets in losing to Nadal at Queen's, all of them tiebreakers. The choice: Djokovic.

THIRD QUARTER

Roddick 3.04, Davydenko 2.79, Blake 2.61, Ljubicic 1.90, Tipsarevic 1.81, Mathieu 1.78, Tursunov 1.74, Nieminen 1.65, Mahut 1.41.

Nicolay Davydenko is the higher-seeded player here, but Roddick comes out better in our model. Having missed Garros 08 with a shoulder/back injury, Andy returned to action at Queen's, where his injured parts stood up well in losing two close sets to Nadal. The deciding breaks of serve came from runs of strong forehands by Nadal out of reach for Andy's forehand. Here, Andy must face James Blake early, who won three matches at the Halle tune-up, but then lost to Kohlschreiber. James's athletic and aggressive play can reach heights, but his career W-L record at Wimbledon is only 6-5, and he has never passed the third round.

If Andy is at or near his best form, he will advance to the expected quarter-final meeting with Davydenko. Nicolay skipped the recent grass-court tune-ups in favor of competing (and winning) on clay at Warsaw against several Spanish and South American players. The choice: Roddick.

NADAL'S QUARTER

Nadal 5.43, Youzhny 2.10, Gasquet 2.05, Murray 1.59, Fish 1.58, Haas 1.58, Stepanek 1.54, Robredo 1.24.

One week after his superb triumph at Garros 08, Rafael Nadal won the tournament at Queen's thereby making clear that he is decidedly ready to compete on grass.

Rafa's final-round meeting at Queen's with Djokovic produced some of the year's most dazzling tennis. The match was played mainly from back court, where neither man temporized in his attacking power and placement. To offer a nonforcing shot usually led to an immediate point-ending strike by opponent. Both showed superb court mobility -- reacting rapidly to obtain best hitting position against opponent's offerings or in traversing court or wide to the sides to answer opponent's angled blows with equal ferocity. In summarizing the match, it would be tempting to single out Djokovic's relentless power, Nadal's court mobility. But it was hard to see that Rafa's attacking hitting was any less fierce than Novak's, nor that Novak's footwork and mobility were significantly inferior to Rafa's.

At Wimbledon 08, there is no player in Nadal's quarter having serious chance of winning three sets from Rafa on any given day, on grass or any other surface. The choice: Nadal.

SEMIS AND FINAL

Novak Djokovic has shown that he has gained on Federer this year, although his straight-set victory over Roger at Australian Open 08 was surely attributable in part to Roger's recent illness. They later met on clay at Monte Carlo, where Roger led comfortably when Djokovic retired with light-headedness. Both men were demolished in equally conclusive manner by Nadal at Garros. Clearly the current margin is now very close. Surely their coming semi-final meeting will be memorable, both for the quality of its tennis as well as its implications for Roger's long domination at Wimbledon, indeed of the entire men's game. But in my opinion, though matters will surely go four and perhaps five sets, it will be Roger's greater grass-court experience and know-how that will give the current champion a narrow edge. The choice: Federer over Djokovic, an outcome perhaps happening for the last time at Wimbledon.

Matters are much clearer in the other semi-final, where Nadal and Roddick will meet for a place in the final. Back in March, Andy beat Nadal in two sets on a hard court in Dubai. But grass is now no mystery for Rafa, seen in his comfortable win over Andy at Queen's. There is no doubt that Rafa's mixture of big spin and big velocity will prevent Andy from dominating in the ground-stroke exchanges that will generally prevail once Rafa solves Andy's serving. The choice: Nadal over Roddick, by comfortable scores although amid many brutal points.

So it will be yet another Federer-Nadal final. It is reasonable to guess that Rafa, at age 22, has been gaining on Roger, who will soon be 27. Given that Rafa came close to defeating Roger in the final at Wimbledon 07, the suspicion is now strong that he is now ready to dethrone Roger on grass.

Nothing is certain in sports, certainly not in predicting big-time tennis outcomes. Here are what seem the probabilities for winning Wimbledon 08:

Nadal, odds 3-2 (i.e., 1.5-1)
Federer, 3-1
Djokovic, 6-1
Roddick, 25-1
Davydenko, 50-1
Blake, 75-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

WOMEN'S SINGLES

The customary excitement at the high end of women's pro tennis was diminished when Justine Henin retired from competition this spring. The prime echelon had already been weakened by other developments in the last year--the departure of Kim Clijsters, the fall from contention of Amelie Mauresmo after sickness and surgery, and the assorted maladies that continued interrupting the careers of the Williams sisters. The promising return of Martina Hingis had been derailed, while the rising of several prominent young stars--i.e., Chakvetadze, Peer, Vaidisova, Kirilenko--slowed down, at least temporarily.

Taking advantage of these trends have been three young women who now seem ready to dominate the sport's immediate future. Two of them are from the small country of Serbia, and the third is the game's most recognizable superstar, her career now in resurgence. The three emerge atop my own calculations predicting women's outcomes at Wimbledon 08--Maria Sharapova first, Ana Ivanovic second, and Jelena Jankovic third. (See Footnote 3.) The calculated scores for the higher scorers are shown in the following paragraphs.

The Garros-Wimbledon double is less of a rarity among the women. Seven different females have accomplished the feat during the Open Era, a total of eleven times. (Steffi Graf did so four times, Navratilova twice, Serena Williams most recently, in 2002.) The chance of a double this year is one in four--i.e., Garros-champion Ivanovic's odds for winning at Wimbledon.

TOP QUARTER

Ivanovic, score .929, Chakvetadze .338, Schiavone .053, Vaidisova .053, Schnyder, Szavey.

Ana Ivanovic now holds the world's #1 ranking, both in the running 12-month and in the 2008 year-to-date race. Ana, now 20, has been on the horizon of greatness for several years, and her recent triumph at Garros confirmed her seemingly effortless power, excellent court mobility, and superior on-court composure. As a teenager prior to this year, her combined W-L record at her three Wimbledons was an impressive 10-3, where she lost to the eventual champion in both 2006 and 2007. Her talent is undoubtedly still on the rise. Her's is a favorable draw, as there is no serious challenger in this quarter to her route to the final four.

SECOND QUARTER

S. Williams .587, Kuznetsova .511, Bartoli .213, Cornet .129, Z Yan .044, Radwanska .036, N Li .036, Kirilenko.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, 22, is the high-seeded player in this quarter. Lana's young age often raises surprise given her long presence in world tennis. A strong and athletic performer, she can be counted on to reach the late rounds and make things difficult for any of the above stars.

Our calculations, however, place Serena Williams ahead in her chances of winning Wimbledon 08. Serena, now 27, won both Australian Open and Miami this year and seemed the favorite entering Garros 07, where she lost in an early round. A third Wimbledon crown is possible for Serena but she must shed the excessive errors seen at Garros amid her erstwhile attacking. When at her best she can outserve and outhit any other prospective opponent, but the rustiness seen at Garros, if it remains, can be exposed by other top players. The choice here: Serena Williams.

THIRD QUARTER

Sharapova 1.187, Safina .329, Dementieva .236, Azarenka .044, Petrova, Peer, Davenport.

Tall Maria Sharapova, 21, remains among the elites, having won the Wimbledon crown in 2004 and attaining the semis in 2006. Her potent serve and ground-strokes, the latter typically directed close to the sidelines, are especially effective on grass. Her emotional strengths and powers of concentration are already legendary. Although injuries and a long spell of serving trouble have slowed her progress, she seems to have succeeded in gaining control of her 6-2 physique while achieving incremental improvement in other areas. She won Australian Open 08 without loss of a set.

Dinara Safina, 22, provided the principal surprise at Garros 08, where she survived several near-defeats and played well in the final, losing to Ivanovic. Although she has shown little success in past Wimbledons, her recent improvement is unquestionably real. She is seeded behind Dementieva and the two must meet in the fourth round, where the likely winner is Safina. Dinara defeated Sharapova at Garros 08, but the likely winner of their quarter-final meeting on grass here is Maria. The choice: Sharapova.

BOTTOM QUARTER

Jankovic .733, V. Williams .542, Zvonareva .244, Hantuchova .111, Pennetta, Srebotnik, Wozniacki, Mirza.

Currently second in the year-to-date race is Jelena Jankovic, 23, who lost to Ivanovic in the Garros semis in three close sets, though she seemed equal or better in quickness, mobility, and variety. At 8-4, her career W-L record at Wimbledon is slightly less impressive than Ana's and, as suggested in the calculations, she could have trouble here against last-year's champion Venus Williams.

Venus Williams has won Wimbledon four times and finished second twice. Last year at age 27, after losing her first set she then marched through the rest of the two weeks, winning 14 straight sets, capturing the tournament while playing with the power and athleticism of old. But her play in recent months has been inconsistent, including several losses to less-well-known opponents. Still, it must be noted that one year ago, prior to her Wimbledon 07 triumph, a return to her former greatness seemed even less likely. The choice: Jankovic.

SEMIS AND FINAL

Thus our crystal ball has placed Serena Williams in the final four along with the three young superstars identified at the start. Serena and Ivanovic have only played once, Serena winning nearly two years ago at U.S. Open. The ensuing two years acount for huge shifts, however, such that the choice must now be Ana. Meanwhile in the other semi, Sharapova's win over Jankovic at Australian Open 08, score 63 61, is strongly indicative. The choices: Ivanovic over S. Williams, Sharapova over Jankovic.

Sharapova also holds the career edge over Ivanovic, including wins by Maria at Australia 08 and at the year-end championships 07. Still, these were played six months ago, and in the interval Ana has far outscored Maria, claiming the lead in the 2008 year-to-date points race. In winning at Garros, Ana showed a maturity and balanced strength of game at least equal to Maria's. To choose Ivanovic is tempting, as it would mean a Garros-Wimbledon double on both women's and men's side. It would surely make this a magnificent, indeed a historic, Wimbledon year.

But Maria's vastly greater experience and lofty past success in grass-court play, in my opinion, outweigh the other considerations. Staying with the very feeble evidence of the calculations, my choice is: Sharapova.

Here are what seem the odds for winning the tournament.

Sharapova, odds 5-2
Ivanovic, 3-1
Jankovic, 6-1
S. Williams, 10-1
Safina, 25-1
V. Williams, 25-1
Kuznetsova, 40-1
Chakvetadze, 100-1

DOUBLES

Nearly all mens's pro doubles matches are best-of-three-set affairs, where third sets are replaced by extended tiebreak games at non-Slams. A large exception has been at Wimbledon, where the rule has been best-of-five-set matches. Indeed, at Wimby fifth sets are played out in the traditional way, without tiebreakers. Winning the All England would thus seem an ultimate achievement in men's doubles in a given year, though there seems no general recognition of this claim.

Meeting in last-year's final were the Americans Bryan and Clement-Llodra. The French pair lost the first set in a tiebreaker but then won the next three. The scores almost exactly previewed those when the same pairs met in 2008 Davis Cup action, where best-of-five-set rules also apply. Both the Bryans and Clement-Llodra will be present at Wimbledon 08, along with nearly all other high-ranked combinations. Both were both beaten at Garros 08 by an unseeded pair from South America, Cuevas-Horna, who went on to win the crown. The new champions showed excellent quickness at net along with an effective blend of attacking both at net and from inside baseline. The Bryans, who won Wimbledon in 2006 and were second in 2005, are top-seeded and must be chosen the favorites, narrowly ahead of several other pairs.

The Wimbledon and also the year-end women's doubles champions of 2007 were Cara Black of Zimbabwe and Liezel Huber, now of U.S.A. Currently far ahead in the 2008 race to date, they will be clear favorites to defeat any opponents. Seeded eleventh are the Williams sisters, hard-hitters both.

THE NATIONS

The Russian women have won more matches than the women of any other nation at the last three Wimbledons. Their domination should continue. Meanwhile a nicely balanced contingent of French males, led by Gasquet, Tsonga, and Mathieu in singles and Clement-Llodra and Santoro in doubles, last year convincingly ended several years of American leadership. Gasquet's five-set win eliminating Andy Roddick was a pivotal step. This year, Tsonga will be absent, Gasquet has been disappointing, and Monfils will have to beat Federer in order to improve on his two wins in 2007. The margin should be close, but an American edge led by Roddick, Blake, and the Bryans can be predicted.

The two-week run-up to Wimbledon has brought excellent weather so far, causing few interruptions in the qualifying play and at Eastbourne, Nottingham, and Queen's. Whether these auspices prove favorable remains to be seen. Watchers worldwide look forward to convertible-court play in years ahead.

In my opinion, as always, the newest Wimbledon champions will be the best ever.

FOOTNOTE 1

The data cited here on net-approaching and serving-dominance at Garros and Wimbledon are extracted from the official statistics for all matches of the last four rounds in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

FOOTNOTE 2

The calculations used here for the men's singles give different weights to predictor events according to actual correlations across tournaments over the last nine years. Of the thirteen predictor events used here in predicting Wimbledon 08, the heaviest weighted are: Wimbledon 07, Australian Open 08, U.S. Open 07, in that order.

FOOTNOTE 3

The calculations used here for the women's singles give different weights to predictor events according to actual correlations across tournaments over the last nine years (data from final three rounds of each event only). Note that the method is less sophisticated than that used for the men's singles here and has little value for players outside the top group. Of the fifteen predictor events used here for predicting Wimbledon 08, the heaviest weighted are: U.S. Open 07, Australian Open 08 and Miami 08 (tie), Wimbledon 07, in that order. The score of Justine Henin, recently retired, is higher than any other shown here.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

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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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