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March 2, 2010 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Midwinter Volleys
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The small group of pros at the top of the rankings stayed away from competition in the weeks immediately after Australian Open. But there was plenty of action among those just behind the topmost few, all seeking upward rise perhaps to penetrate the elite group. Keeping tennis junkies happy during February were various male and female tournaments -- most of them indoors in the Northern Hemisphere or outdoors in the Southern. The month began with a big week in Fed Cup.
FED CUP 2010
Prime Cup action took place on an indoor hard court at Belgrade, 6-7 February, pitting the two strongest nations. Host nation Serbia deployed their best twosome, Ivanovic and Jankovic, for singles and doubles action. Until just before the draw the visiting team, Russia, seemed outclassed, led by 20-year-old Alisa Kleybanova, whose ranking was well behind those of the Serbian stars. (Tv watchers had recently seen Alisa in a tough, losing three-set effort against Justine Henin in Melbourne.) But at the last minute Svetlana Kuznetsova arrived in Belgrade to upgrade the Russian lineup. The addition of Svetlana, 24, an athletic, veteran first-tenner and champion of Garros 09, seemed to equalize the strengths of the two teams.
As expected, Kuznetsova comfortably defeated Ivanovic in the first match. When young Kleybanova then won the first set against Jelena Jankovic, a two-match Russian lead appeared imminent. But Jelena turned matters around, thereby equalizing the team score at one-match-all. The two teams then divided the Sunday singles, Jankovic beating Kuznetsova in three sets and Kleybanova beating Ivanovic in straights. The late-afternoon doubles thus decided matters, where Kleybanova-Kuznetsova prevailed in straight sets over the Serbian stars.
Russia's second-round opponent will be U.S.A., whose young team defeated the French women on indoor French clay in other action on the same weekend. America's Melanie Oudin, 18, won her two singles matches and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 24, added a third to give the U.S. its 3-0 victory. Meanwhile Italy's Pennetta and Schiavone both lost their first-day's singles matches to Ukraine's Bondarenko sisters, but the two Italian stars reversed the outcomes in second-day action. Italy's Errani-Vinci then won the doubles. Finally, Czech Republic defeated Germany in yet another meeting decided in the fifth-match doubles.
Russian depth is likely to be decisive when the Americans host the Russkayas in late April. (The outlook would of course change if a Williams sister participates.) Meanwhile defending-champion Italy will host the Czechs to decide the other final-round nation in November .
The absence of superstars Williams and others from the above World Group I and several concurrent World Group II meetings was disappointing, weakening the Fed Cup idea and its influence in enhancing women's sport worldwide.
The WTA then staged seven tournaments during middle and late February, including Premier events in Paris and Dubai. Not part of the action were the game's generally acknowledged Big Three -- Serena Williams, Clijsters, and Henin. Elena Dementieva won the indoor tournament in Paris, winning a three-setter over Oudin in the semis and beating Safarova in the final. Present in Dubai were top-tenners Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Wozniacki, and Azarenka. Israeli player Shahar Peer made a strong run there, beating Wickmayer and Wozniacki, but eventually lost to the superior power and athleticism of Venus. The Arab nation's decision to deny Peer an entry visa in 2009 was reversed this year after remonstrations from WTA and many of its stars. Meeting in the tournament's heavy-hitting final match were Azarenka and Venus where Williams won, convincingly.
An unexpected result marked the final weekend of the month, when Alisa Kleybanova defeated veteran star Dementieva in the final round at Kuala Lumpur.
Well ahead in the women's rolling-12-month standings at end of February was Serena Williams, who during the ranking period captured both Wimbledon 09 and Australia 10. Leg trouble caused her to miss Dubai, where last year she lost in the semis to her sister. Russian stars Safina and Kuznetsova ranked second and third behind Serena.
Serena also leads in the 2010 year-to-date points race, as follows (from the official WTA count):

1. Serena Williams, 2,320
2. Venus Williams, 1,680
3. Justine Henin, 1,600
Venus's strong score reflects her February triumphs in Dubai and Acapulco. The latter came on red clay at month's end in a field where Venus was the only top-tenner. She and Kleybanova emerge from the post-Australia events showing brightest auspices for the immediate future.
The action was somewhat livelier among the male pros, featuring performances by the group of stars just behind the current Big Six. Robin Soderling, Fernando Verdasco, and Marin Cilic -- all ranked just outside the Six -- collected worthwhile crowns, including at the 500-Series event in Rotterdam, won by Soderling. The 500 at Memphis went to Sam Querrey, who nudged out fellow American John Isner in a close final. John's serving was the stronger most of the way, but it faltered two points from match when two strong bids for aces landed just beyond the lines.
Meanwhile the traditional clay-court circuit in Latin America unfolded, where Juan Carlos Ferrero, now 30, won mid-February events in Argentina and Brazil. The concluding tournament in Acapulco, a 500 event, drew an excellent field, including prominent clay artists Almagro, Monaco, Gonzalez, and Ferrer, along with Ferrero and Verdasco. All of these reached the quarter-finals. Fernando Gonzalez made a good run to the semis but faltered there against David Ferrer when the equalizer -- Gonzo's giant forehand -- veered off for a spell in the third set. Two Spanish players, Ferrer and Ferrero, met in the final, offering a rare repeat of a preceding week's final-round lineup. Ferrer's gritty style -- keeping moderate pressure on opponent while yielding few easy points -- eventually wore down Ferrero, who seemed vulnerable after having won his previous fourteen matches, all within three weeks.
Here are the ranking points awarded in the four Latin American tournaments. Since these have been the only clay events so far in 2010, the numbers represent the year-to-date clay-court standings:
1. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 800
2. David Ferrer, 650
3. Fernando Gonzalez, 420
Meanwhile the game's two megastars, Federer and Nadal, remained inactive throughout February. Roger was troubled by lung infection, Rafa by the knee/leg trouble that had flared in Melbourne. Also sidelined was del Potro. But the three other members of the Big Six -- Murray, Davydenko, and Djokovic -- all returned to harness in the last week of the month at the 500 tournament at Dubai. There, Andy Murray lost early, beaten in three sets by Tipsarevic, and Davydenko withdrew with a left-wrist injury amid his second match. But Novak Djokovic moved through the field successfully, winning three-setters from Troicki and Ljubicic. Novak then lost yet another first set against Marcos Baghdatis, and indeed won fewer points than Marcos over the full match. But at the finish it was Djokovic and his slightly greater power that claimed the victory. Novak's final-round battle against Youzhny, 27, was another fierce and brilliant affair, the Russian player finding the level that had raised him into the top ten briefly two years ago. Novak took the first set and after a rain break completed his three-set victory.
The previous Big Six therefore continue to hold the six places atop the official ATP rolling-12-month rankings. Roger Federer holds the #1 place; Djokovic and Nadal are second and third, respectively.
Roughly a fifth of this year's men's calendar is now in the books, a total of 18 tournaments. Here is the 2010 year-to-date rank order, as unofficially compiled here:
1. Roger Federer, 2,090
2. Marin Cilic, 1,310
3. Andy Murray, 1,245
The three leaders are largely defined by their results at Australian Open, where Federer was champion and Murray finalist. Croatia's Marin Cilic, 21, reached the final four at Melbourne, and also won 250-Series tournaments at Chennai and Zagreb. He emerges the prime riser of the recent period, along with Latvia's Ernests Gulbis, 21, who tamed beautifully the Karlovic serve to capture the 250 crown at Del Ray Beach.
The rules require that each top pro (i.e., those who finished in the top thirty for 2009) must count the four Slams and the eight mandatory Masters-1,000 tournaments in his 18- or 19-event ranking scorecard. Then there are eleven 500-Series events on the year's schedule, where the four just completed in February are a disproportionate share. As I understand it, a top player must count his best four 500's and best two 250's, though a player's performance in Davis Cup and/or in the Monte Carlo non-mandatory 1,000 and/or in a third 250 tournament can be substituted in the 500 requirement under various conditions. The year-end championships in London makes a 19th event for those who compete there.
Starting on 11 and 25 March, respectively, are the Masters-1,000 tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, the first 1,000's of the year. They will complete the sport's Miami Swing -- the second of the year's six prime sequences, as conceived by analyst Charles Friesen of Vancouver. Friesen's studies showed in early February that although Federer was secure as #1, the five players directly behind Roger all had good chance of commanding second place in the official 12-month rankings by the end of Miami Swing.
By winning Australian Open in January, Roger Federer kept open his chances for a classic Grand Slam this year. Roger won both Garros and Wimbledon last year, and he was close runner-up at U.S. Open, so his winning all four Slams in 2010 is no idle possibility. But there are many dangerous likely opponents, most of them considerably younger than Roger, who can press him to the limits of his ability. These include not only the other Big Sixers but also the likes of Cilic, Soderling, the clay artists at Garros, indeed the tall Americans. Roger proved at Melbourne that his best is still enough to beat anyone. But the margins have become narrow, and producing his best repeatedly through three more consecutive Slams surely represents a huge requirement.
Still, Sir Roger is currently the apparent favorite at each of the three remaining Slams. I make him the early choice over a gimpy Nadal at Garros at odds for winning the tournament at 3-2 (probability 40%). Rafa will be a less dangerous threat to Roger at Wimbledon but the big servers will be more so, leaving Federer again at 3-2 odds to prevail. At U.S. Open, against an array of hard-hitting, younger opponents strong on fast, hard courts, Roger's odds are longer, at 3-1. Multiplying the above three probabilities, Roger's chances for completing a classic Grand Slam in 2010 come to 4%, or odds 25-1. It would probably be the year's greatest story in all of sport, surely the decade's greatest in tennis.
Offered as Footnote to this column are observations and predictions on the forthcoming Davis Cup meetings, several of which offer interesting team alignments and combinations of match-ups.
--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia
The weekend just ahead, 5-7 March, will bring first-round action for the sixteen nations of World Group. What seemed the most exciting match-up -- defending champion Spain against Federer-led Switzerland -- has been spoiled by Federer's withdrawal. Roddick also will be missing from the weekend's play, but otherwise the top players are well represented in the announced team lists. Here are the eight meetings:
--U.S. vs. Serbia, on indoor red clay in Belgrade. Strong-serving Isner and Querrey will carry the singles burden for America against Djokovic and either Troicki or Tipsarevic. The slow surface should swing the outcome to the hosts. (Both Isner and Querrey played the clay 500 in Acapulco, but both lost in the first round, though Querrey showed close scores against Gonzalez.) The best match at Belgrade could be the doubles -- the Bryans against Zimonjic and probably Djokovic.
--India vs. Russia, on indoor hard court in Moscow. Although Bhupathi-Paes will remind watchers of their great years in doubles, the Russian singles players are clearly superior. Youzhny has been playing at close to his best. Davydenko's wrist trouble raises an uncertainty, but either likely substitute should still win at least once in singles.
--Germany vs. France, on indoor hard court in Toulon. Kohlschreiber could make things close in his singles matches, but otherwise this should be a sweep for the French team, led by Tsonga and Monfils.
--Ecuador vs. Croatia, on indoor hard court in Varazdin. The presence of Cilic and Karlovic assures a Croatian victory.
--Czech Republic vs. Belgium, on indoor clay at Bree. Visitors Berdych and Stepanek will be disadvantaged by the surface, though not hopelessly so. The Czechs were swept on Spanish indoor clay in the Cup final last December, though Stepanek carried Ferrer to five sets in their first-day singles. Guessing, the Czechs should come through here.
Switzerland vs. Spain, on indoor red clay in Logrono, Spain. Switzerland's Wawrinka has only slight hope of defeating both Ferrero and Ferrer, both of whom have been very strong lately. A third point is even less likely for the visitors.
Israel vs. Chile, on outdoor red clay in Coquimbo. The site seems well north of the center of the September 27 earthquake, though I have seen no confirmation that the matches will proceed. Two singles wins by Gonzalez seem certain for Chile, and a reunited Erlich-Ram pair should win the doubles for Israel. Chile should advance.
--Argentina vs. Sweden, on indoor hard court in Stockholm. Monaco and L. Mayer give the visitors an interesting singles pair, but Soderling should be too strong for either, and Sweden's host-nation edge extends as well into the doubles.
Thus the host nations should prevail in all but one of the meetings. There should be some superb confrontations ahead when the winners meet in the second round in July.

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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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