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May 21, 2010 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Garros Outlook 2010
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

There are about a dozen plausible candidates for the women's singles crown at Garros 2010. Recent injuries, absences, and fading results among the top stars have created an unusual degree of uncertainty, along with opportunities for players not generally counted among the superstars.
Here are several current ranking lists, each to some degree a predictor of likely success at Garros. The data are as of 17 May -- a few days prior to the main draw at Garros.
WTA official rolling-12-month rankings (used for Garros seedings):

  1. S. Williams, 8,475
  2. V. Willliams, 6,386
  3. Wozniacki, 5,630
  4. Jankovic, 5,160

2010 points race (year-to-date):
  1. V. Williams, 3,305
  2. S. Williams, 2,855
  3. Henin, 2,575
  4. Jankovic, 2,537

Clay- court points, 2010 to date:
  1. V. Williams, 1,205
  2. Jankovic, 1,110
  3. Rezai, 1,101
  4. Martinez Sanchez, 1,065

Most of the names on the above lists are familiar ones -- past Slam champions and highly ranked stars of recent years. But in the first two weeks of May, two less-well-known players abruptly closed on the leaders by capturing the tournaments at Rome and Madrid -- the top clay tournaments of the year to date. Both new champions -- Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Aravane Rezai -- had been unseeded. Both showed highly attractive albeit quite different styles of clay-court play.
At Rome, lefty Martinez Sanchez, 27 and tallish at 5-10, scored several early wins, including a straight-setter over Wozniacki, enroute to her final-round meeting with Jelena Jankovic. Jelena, a two-time former singles champion at Rome, was the consistently more forceful hitter from the baseline, but Martinez Sanchez mixed in some magnificent drop shots (and fake drop shots) plus frequent net attacks and occasional angular strikes to claim the victory in two close sets. Jelena had beaten Venus Williams one-sidedly in the quarters and Serena in a third-set tiebreaker in the semis.
The carnage among the superstars was even swifter at Madrid. Ousted in the first two rounds were Serena Williams, Henin, Wozniacki, and Russians Dementieva, Kuznetsova, and Safina. A surprise finalist was Aravane Rezai, 23, whose severe stroking produced victories over Henin, Jankovic, and Safarova enroute. Born in France to parents emigrated from Iran, Aravane at 5-5 is quick afoot and delivers relentless power with well-controlled stroking mechanics. Her triumph lifted her to 16th place in the ATP rolling-12-month rankings and a seeded place at Garros to match. Against Venus Williams in the final round, Rezai's ground strokes were well-disguised and accurate, often catching her opponent unready to defend the corners. In set two Venus failed to convert six set points, and Rezai completed her victory by winning that match-ending tiebreaker.
Certainly Rezai and perhaps also Martinez Sanchez seem ready to penetrate the world's first ten. A crown at Garros is another matter, especially for Maria Jose, whose softer game could produce one or two surprises but hardly a two-week-long run against the world's best. But Rezai's relentless, forceful style gives her the necessary weapons to not only challenge but repeatedly win matches at Garros. Can Aravane continue to avoid the error-making that is probably not far away amid her risk-taking style and that could quickly bring down her success? The odds are not strong, but they are finite.
If we compiled a composite ranking from the three lists given at the start, Serena and Venus Williams would occupy the top two places. They indeed are the top two seeds at Garros, situated at opposite ends of draw, perhaps to meet on final-round Sunday. But both sisters are most vulnerable on clay surfaces, where the power in their serving and stroking is least effective. And both have been less successful at Garros than at the other Slams.
Serena has been a Slam singles champion twelve times including once at Garros. After winning Australian Open 2010 in January, she avoided competition until May, citing knee troubles. In losing to Jankovic closely at Rome, she showed her customary power but faltered of tiredness and her own error-making at the finish. At Madrid she nearly lost her first match, saving a match point against Dushevina, and then lost in three sets to Petrova.
But Serena has a history of finding her top level in Slams following extended periods of inactivity or mediocre results. She showed no visible sign of injury at Rome and Madrid. When she is at her best, her power, athletic ability, and will-power can lift her over any female opponent. At age 28, she must be considered the leading, if narrow, favorite at Garros 2010.
Meanwhile Venus at 29 is a seven-time Slam winner, five times at Wimbledon. She reached the final at Garros in 2002, losing in the final to Serena. She leads all other women in 2010 points as well as in 2010 clay-court points, playing her usual physical game though sometimes with more errors than when at her best. In the final at Madrid she seemed at first frozen by Rezai's power and deception, but she largely equalized play in set two and probably should have won it and perhaps, with confidence and momentum, a third set as well.
Clearly the third elite with the Williamses is Justine Henin, slender at 5-6 and age 28, returning to Garros after two years on the sidelines. Her past record shows seven Slam crowns, including four at Garros, three of them in succession, 2005-2007. A superb mover and stroker, she generates plenty of power, good variety and deception, excellent mental strengths. She reached the final at Australia 2010, losing to Serena in three. In the current clay swing, she won the tournament at Stuttgart but lost in the first round at Madrid to Rezai.
All three elites -- the sisters and Justine -- should be favored against any outside opponent, but there are many possible opponents who can readily defeat any of the three not at her best.
The field also includes the Garros champions of the last two years, the period of Henin's retirement. Last year's winner, the athletic Kuznetsova, shows dismal results for 2010 to date. The 2008 champion, Ana Ivanovic, slid backwards amid various injuries thereafter but reached the semis at Rome this month and forced Jankovic to three sets in Madrid. Another strong Garros performer has been Dinara Safina, runner-up in 2008 and 2009 but long sidelined with back trouble, only lately returning to action. Also showing disappointing recent results has been veteran Elena Dementieva. Note also that Kim Clijsters will be absent, injured since April.
Attention is owed to three others, all risers in recent months. Jelena Jankovic, whose weapons are well suited to clay, appears among the top four in all three of the lists shown at the outset here. Jelena was victim of Martinez Sanchez in the Rome final and victim of Rezai at Madrid. Meanwhile Samantha Stosur narrowly missed inclusion in all three of our lists, ranking fifth in the 2010 clay standings, sixth in the 2020 overall race to date, and seventh in the rolling-12-month rankings. Stosur, 26, never a top-tenner until now, showed her best-ever Slam performance at Garros last year when she reached the semis and carried the eventual champion, Kuznetsova, to three sets. She won the green-clay tournament at Charleston this spring. Finally, Caroline Wozniacki, now 19, briefly attained second place in the 12-month standings, having won the green-clay event in Florida in April, but has since slipped backward after an ankle sprain in Charleston. The Wozniacki ankle remains problematic.
Our select group of risers, just noted, also includes Martinez Sanchez and, of course, Rezai.
The predictions next offered were reached subjectively, with special heed to past head-to-head results.
The top quarter features two of our Big Three, where the survivor will be the strong favorite to win the tournament. Serena Williams should surely reach her likely meeting with Justine Henin in the quarter-finals, presumably tightening her game in her four wins enroute. Meanwhile Justine's road to the quarters will be slowed but not stopped by Sharapova in her comeback and by Stosur, who will be the more dangerous opponent. Henin's three-straight Garros triumphs prior to her retirement in 2008 assert that if she is now at her best, she should defeat Serena.
Advancing to the semis with Justine should be Jankovic, whose quarter seems easier than the others. The third quarter should be Wozniacki's, who must surmount recent ankle troubles, or last-year's-champion Kuznetsova. I believe the younger player, Wozniacki, has the game to advance. The fourth place in the semis should belong to Venus, but her obstacles include Rezai, Venus's conqueror at Madrid. Aravane has an early hurdle in Nadia Petrova, to whom she lost twice in 2008 and has never beaten. She has surpassed Nadia in the official rankings, however, and has clearly reached a higher level than before. Aravane also showed at Madrid that at her best she is a stronger player than Venus, with whom she split two matches back in 2007, both on clay. I pick Rezai to defeat Venus again, and then to defeat Dementieva or Azarenka in the quarters.
Henin has beaten Jankovic ten times in ten meetings and should be too strong for her in the semis. Meanwhile Rezai, presumably still at her top form, should manage over Wozniacki. Justine and Aravane should then provide a historic final, featuring modern women's tennis at its absolute highest level. Aravane won their three-setter in Madrid. But it is impossible for me to pick against Justine here.
Offered here are the leaders in several current (17 May) men's ranking lists. Each list to some extent predicts likely success at Garros 2010, though only the last one is specifically designed for that purpose.
ATP official rolling-12-month rankings (used for Garros seedings):
  1. Federer, 10,030
  2. Nadal, 6,880
  3. Djokovic, 6,405
  4. Murray, 5,565

2010 points race (year-to-date):
  1. Nadal, 4,230
  2. Federer, 2,915
  3. Roddick, 2,450
  4. Ferrer, 2,365

Clay-court points, 2010 to date:
  1. Nadal, 3,000
  2. Ferrer, 2,130
  3. Verdasco, 1,640
  4. Ferrero, 1,025

Tennis Server computerized Garros 2010 Prediction (weighted results of last 15 months):
  1. Nadal, 1.538
  2. Federer, 0.8043
  3. Djokovic, 0.6846
  4. Verdasco, 0.5429

The recent Masters-Series tournaments at Rome (26 April-2 May) and Madrid (7-16 May) join Monte Carlo and last year's Garros as our heaviest-weighted predictors of Garros 2010 (see Footnote). At both events, the message of Nadal's superiority was clear.
The early play at Rome produced one large surprise. In his first appearance of 2010 on clay, Roger Federer was defeated by the tall and youthful Latvian Ernests Gulbis, 21. The late-afternoon and evening conditions were cool and wet, which surely sapped the penetration of Roger's forcing bids while Ernests produced a heavier sustained weight of shot, along with good variety and mobility. Gulbis led in aces, 9-2, with a much higher percentage of first serves in-court.
High success had been predicted for Ernests since his arrival on the pro scene several years ago, but this victory was by far his highest achievement to date. He looked determined, indeed angry most of the way, while Roger this day was seldom amused, especially upon his poor play at the very end of this close three-setter.
Form also suffered in Stan Wawrinka's straight-set win over Soderling and David Ferrer's wins over Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Ferrer's play was remindful of his fine effort at Monte Carlo two weeks before, as he again showed superior movement to the ball and willingness to strike aggressively. Meanwhile in a three-set quarter-final, Fernando Verdasco took away Djokovic's place in the semis. The latter showed the greater sustained weight of stroking, but Fernando continued the measured aggressiveness shown in his triumph the previous week at Barcelona. The warm day seemed to tire Djokovic, as if his past lung/breathing problems were again lurking. But then in the Saturday semi-final against Ferrer, it was Verdasco who seemed tired, perhaps both physically and emotionally, reflecting his several weeks of almost-daily hard matches. David thus reversed his loss to Fernando at Barcelona.
But the main story in Rome was that of Rafael Nadal, who continued his clay-court run of success with a series of straight-set wins, including a defusing of Wawrinka's, Gulbis's, and Ferrer's runs. In the three-set semi-final, Gulbis again showed his sizzling shot-making and first-serving, along with some accurate and surprisingly frequent drop-shots. As the third set unfolded the Latvian youth seemed the dominating player, but his drop-shots suddenly lost their effect, and Rafa turned on his ruthless error-avoiding mode, using just enough mustard to make risk-taking unprofitable for Ernests. Then in the final round, cold and wet conditions sapped the weight of Ferrer's firepower more than it did Rafa's, so that David's fine effort dissolved as the finish neared.
At La Caja Magica -- the Magic Box -- in Madrid two weeks later (May 7-16) an unusually large number of the superstars dropped out because of injuries. The top matches were held in the three major arenas, featuring convertible roofs and high walls, thereby giving a sense of indoor play. The moderate elevation increased ball speed through the air but the chilly temperatures (seen throughout the European season to date) slowed matters somewhat. There was a good proportion of drop-shot and cat-and-mouse play using the full court.
Nadal was as brilliant as ever in applying his weaponry against all opponents, although Nicolas Almagro, continuing his own fine hitting seen throughout the week, won the first set in their semi-final. Roger Federer meanwhile advanced through the upper half, losing a set to Gulbis but recovering to reverse the tall Latvian's triumph over Roger in Rome, then losing a set to Ferrer in the semis. Roger sometimes seemed over-cautious, probably with reason, as many of his forcing shots landed awry.
Thus in the Sunday final, it was once again Federer against Nadal -- their first meeting since Madrid 2009, when Roger beat a gimpy Rafa on the identical stage. Now the strong favorite was Rafa, with healthy legs on his favorite surface. Both sets were close, Rafa generally staying deep, applying his usual relentless force. Federer led in aces, 9-0, and displayed some wonderful, winning drop shots, especially in the late going. But it was Federer who faded in the second-set, match-ending tiebreaker after gaining an early edge. Thus Rafael Nadal became the first-ever to capture the Masters Series clay triple (Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid) in a single calendar season.
By any interpretation, Rafael Nadal is the strong favorite to win Garros 2010. He has won the event four times, losing only once -- beaten by Robin Soderling in 2009 when Rafa was troubled by knee injury. His perfect run on clay this year reconfirmed the superb clay-court ability not only of Rafa but also of the larger Spanish contingent, whose members joined Rafa in predominating in the late rounds. But Rafa remains the unquestioned leader of today's Armada, as his ability to defeat Verdasco, Ferrer, and the others seems entirely clear from his straight-set wins over them already this spring.
Not quite so evident is Rafa's margin over some of the top players from other countries, especially Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling, along with a newcomer who made big trouble for Rafa in Rome, Ernests Gulbis. Several others have also shown the power and attacking ability that seem needed to press Rafa on clay. But pressing a healthy Nadal and actually defeating him in best-of-five-set tennis are very different matters.
Our analysis here focuses on the likely match-ups among the superstars, as depicted in the official draw. To predict the outcome of each match-up, we use two Calculations. The first, Calculation 1, draws on our computerized Garros Prediction noted among the lists list above. The second, Calculation 2, weights head-to-head outcomes of recent years. Where Calculations 1 and 2 disagree in their results, the verdict depends on a calibrated comparison of the scores.
This is the quarter of Federer, the defending champion, and Soderling, the man who stopped Nadal one year ago and then reached the final against Fed. Also present are Cilic and Gulbis, the leading newcomers at the sport's top level. Our scheme reaches two very close verdicts here, Gulbis being outpointed early, and Wawrinka losing to Monfils where our Calculations 1 and 2 diverge. But Roger is the clear winner of the quarter.
--Cilic over Gulbis. Marin's small edge in our Calculation 1 is reinforced, albeit thinly, by his straight-set win in their long-ago (2007) meeting.
--Soderling over Cilic. Robin's strong season of 2009 gives him a clear margin in Calculation 1. There have been no head-to-head meetings.
--Monfils over Wawrinka. Our two calculations disagree here, Wawrinka holding the slight differential in Calculation 1, Gael having won their 2009 three-setter in Tokyo. The latter calibrated score is the greater.
--Federer over Monfils. Roger is far ahead in Calculation 1, and won all five of their past meetings, of which the two since 2007 are counted in our Calculation 2.
--Federer over Soderling. Roger at 0.8043 is second in our computer prediction (Calculation 1), while Robin at 0.4007 is seventh. Roger's resulting differential edge is supported by his success in head-to-head play (Calculation 2), he having won six of six.
This is clearly the weakest of the quarters, headed by fourth-seeded Andy Murray and eighth-seeded Tsonga, where the edge here goes to Murray.
--Murray over Baghdatis. Marcos showed little success in the main events used in our Calculation 1, so that his small and rather outdated head-to-head edge wholly fails to balance matters.
--Berdych over Isner. Berdych has the edge in 15-month weighted performance, but Isner's three-set win at Washington in 2009 almost, but not quite, balances matters.
--Murray over Berdych. Andy clearly leads in Calculation 1, while Berdych's head-to-head edge is too obsolete to carry significant weight.
--Robredo over Youzhny. Similarly, Tommy leads the first calculation, while Tomas won their last meeting, too long ago for significant weight.
--Tsonga over Robredo. Tommy's 2008 straight-set win over Jo-Wilfried at U.S. Open 08 is not enough to overcome Tsonga's differential in Calculation 1.
--Murray over Tsonga. Andy has the edge in both Calculations, including his 2009 win over Jo-Wilfried in Canada.
Djokovic and Roddick are the headliners here but neither has shined since January. David Ferrer offers an interesting alternative. Djokovic's breathing difficulties suggest concern, but the numbers give him the edge.
--Roddick over Monaco. Roddick is the clear leader in Calculation 1, and there is no head-to-head history.
--Ferrer over Roddick. Ferrer holds the edge our in Calculation 1, where recent clay-court results count very heavily. David also leads in the head-to-head score, where his Davis Cup win on clay in 2008 counts slightly more than Andy's split-set win at Indian Wells 09.
--Ferrero over Querrey. Ferrero leads in both 15-month and head-to-head calculations.
--Djokovic over Ferrero. The margin is strong in Calculation 1, largely obsolete and small in the head-to-head.
--Djokovic over Ferrer. The verdict is close. In Calculation 1, Djokovic at 0.6846 leads Ferrer at 0.3856 for differential of 0.2990. In head-to-head play, Ferrer won their clay-court Davis Cup match for calibrated plus of 0.2784, but Djokovic won at Dubai 09 for calibrated score of 0.0696. The net is Novak's, by 0.0902.
Nadal's only serious problem will come in facing winner of Verdasco vs. Almagro earlier.
--Verdasco over Almagro. Fernando won their meeting at Garros 09 in straight sets. He also holds the strong edge in our Calculation 1.
--Nadal over Verdasco. Rafa has won all ten meetings with Fernando, five of them since 2007. He is also comfortably ahead in Calculation 1.
SEMIS AND FINAL --Federer over Murray. The head-to-head record is close, Andy having beaten Roger on three consecutive occasions in 2008-2009. But Roger won their later three meetings, including in the Australian final 2010. Meanwhile Roger leads comfortably in our Calculation 1.
--Nadal over Djokovic. Djokovic has won their last three meetings, all on hard courts. But Rafa won seven of the previous eight, all since 2007, most of them on clay. Nadal's edge in our Calculation 1 is thus reinforced by our head-to-head Calculation 2.
--Nadal over Federer. Roger leads in the official rolling 12-month rankings, but Rafa has the higher score in our Calculation 1, which weights clay results more than nonclay. Rafa is also the leader in head-to-head play, having won four of the five played since 2007 including their most recent meeting, at Madrid 2010.
There is little surprise in Rafa's emerging from our exercise as the probable Garros 2010 champion. That Federer should emerge as Rafa's opponent in the final round is less certain but also seems likely. That Ferrer should defeat Roddick on clay after Andy's long inactivity is reasonable, and the closeness of Ferrer's chances against Djokovic is also plausible.
Look for two weeks of the finest tennis in the sport's history.
--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia
In our scheme, predictor events are weighted according to how much better than randomly they have predicted results at Garros over the past nine years. The thus-calculated weights used here in our Calculation 1 for ascertaining each male player's chances at Garros 2010 follow:
Clay-court predictors:
Barcelona 09, 0.7%
Monte Carlo 09, 6.9%
Italy 09, 4.5%
Madrid 09, 6.6%
Garros 09, 11.2%
Hamburg 09, 1.3%
Barcelona 10, 4.6%
Monte Carlo 10, 15.0%
Italy 10, 9.0%
Madrid 10, 11.0%
total clay, 70.8%
Nonclay predictors:
Wimbledon 09, 1.5%
Canada 09, 0.6%
Cincinnati 09, 0.6%
U.S. Open 09, 5.2%
Paris indoor 09, 1.6%
Shanghai 09, 3.0%
Masters Cup 09, 1.2%
Australia 10, 5.2%
Indian Wells 10, 4.2%
Miami 10, 6.1%
total nonclay, 29.2%
The numerical results of Calculation 1 (just above) and Calculation 2 (the head-to-head comparison) are calibrated such that when the two calculations disagree in predicting the winner of a match-up, each calculation should contribute the higher score in 50% of the cases.

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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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