Between The Lines
July 25, 2010
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by Ray Bowers
The weeks after Wimbledon gave pro-tennis watchers a pause from the thrills of Garros and the grass-court events -- a chance to take stock of tennis year 2010 to date. Many of the top superstars too stepped away from intense competition, a few playing in the lighter-veined albeit entertaining World Team events in America, others simply skipping the European summertime clay season. But if the men's and women's point standings stayed largely static at the top levels in July, there were opportunities for players just outside the superstar ranks, along with serious action in Davis Cup.
DAVIS CUP QUARTERS
The Davis Cup quarter-finals began six days after Wimbledon, when the eight surviving World Group nations paired off to decide the Final Four for 2010.
The defending-champion nation, Spain, faced off against France on an indoor hard court in Clermont-Ferrand. Neither team's top star -- Nadal of Spain nor Tsonga of France -- participated, both drained in the late rounds at Wimbledon. Spain brought two top-20 performers (Verdasco and Ferrer), France only one (Monfils). But more than equalizing matters was France's host-nation advantage, which included choice of court surface. In the first match Gael Monfils, working patiently from back-court, defeated David Ferrer in five sets. Llodra then beat Verdasco, and Llodra-Benneteau beat Lopez-Verdasco, both matches in four sets, to complete a surprising Gallic 3-0 sweep.
The headliners of both teams were present in Croatia, where Serbia's Novak Djokovic contributed straight-set singles wins over veteran Ljubicic and rising-star Cilic, while Tipsarevic-Zimonjic won the doubles. It added up to a 3-1 win for Serbia. Meanwhile Czech Republic, lacking Wimbledon-finalist Berdych, swept host-nation Chile, lacking Gonzalez, on outdoor clay, 3-0. But the most suspenseful meeting of the weekend came on an indoor hard court in Moscow.
David Nalbandian had been Argentina's surprise weapon in defeating Sweden indoors in Stockholm back in March. David, who had just returned from extended absence, joined Zeballos in winning the doubles over Lindstedt-Soderling, and then as a late substitute won the deciding fifth match, beating Vinciguerra. Now in Moscow, David -- still invisible in the men's rankings -- beat Russia's Davydenko in the opening-day's singles and beat Youzhny in the fifth and deciding match. Both wins were in straight sets. It was Argentina 3, Russia 2. Nalbandian's heroics in Argentina's victories suggested the kind of Cup contributions that have sometimes earned our Player of Year award.
World Group action will resume September 17-19, when France will host Argentina, and Serbia will host the Czechs. Critical for the Argentine team will be the availability of del Potro, who has been sidelined for wrist surgery. Just as critical for the Czechs will be the return of Berdych. If France and Serbia both advance, as seems the most probable outcome, then Serbia should be favored behind Djokovic and doubles-master Zimonjic in its final-round meeting at home against France.
On the same weekend in September, in promotion/relegation play sixteen nations will vie for the eight not-yet-decided places in 2011 World Group. Especially intriguing will be the U.S.-Colombia meeting, where the North Americans will face dangerous Falla and Giraldo on Colombian clay before what should be a highly engaged gallery.
FED CUP AND INPUT FROM MATTEK-SANDS
Already known are the two finalist nations of Fed Cup 2010. Back in April, the Americans behind Mattek-Sands, Oudin, and Huber defeated an understrength Russian squad. Meanwhile Italy led by Pennetta and Schiavone beat the Czechs on red clay in Rome. Thus U.S.A. will host defending-champion Italy late in the year, indoors in San Diego, the winner to capture the Cup.
Unless both Serena and Venus Williams participate, a likely singles nominee for the Americans will be Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who replied to my recent questions by e-mail. Bethanie has contributed mightily to past U.S. Cup fortunes in both singles and doubles, and she clearly relishes Fed Cup as an important part of her career. She is currently preparing for U.S. Open Series and U.S. Open just ahead, and writes that her game has been progressing each week and that she has "trained her butt off."
Hard courts are her favorite surface, and in looking ahead to the Cup tie indoors against Italy, she notes that her serve-and-volley abilities will be in her favor against Schiavone and Pennetta. Bethanie greatly admires the contribution to recent American success by team captain Mary Jo Fernandez, especially in MJ's comments and "trading of quick thoughts" courtside during changeovers. Finally, Bethanie volunteered that the days just before Fed Cup coincide with hunting season, so that her husband might be hard to find.
It seemed to me that Bethanie's replies were exactly to the point of my several questions, revealing the same focus that she shows on court.
Back in 2003 I watched the Americans Fed Cuppers comfortably defeat an Italian team on a hard court here in Washington. An athletic Francesca Schiavone, then 23, lost both her singles matches. Since then Francesca has pursued her career with determination, and seven years later, in 2010, she became Garros singles champion. It should be a fascinating Cup final, with or without the sisters.
THE SURFACES, 2010 TO DATE
Pro tennis will be almost entirely on hard courts for the rest of 2010. Offered next are the year's current leaders on the three surfaces -- grass, clay, and hard. (Unofficially compiled here, through July 25.)
The year's grass-court play ended with Mardy Fish's victory at Newport in early July. The grass rankings largely rest on results at Wimbledon:
After Wimbledon and Newport, the pros returned to a sequence of clay-court events in Europe. Rafael Nadal's place as the year's clay-court champion was already assured, but the recent action showcased several of the other clay-court superstars. The most important event was the 500-Series German Open in Hamburg, won by Russian player Andrey Golubev, 23, where the new champion scored victories over Melzer and Davydenko. The week before, at Bastaad, Sweden, Almagro became the champion by beating Soderling who had beaten Ferrer.
- Nadal, 2,045 ranking points.
- Berdych, 1,200
- Murray and Djokovic, each 740
With only three more clay tournaments ahead for 2010, all of them 250-Series, here were the top clay-courters for the year to date. The top three were all from Spain, along with five of the top six:
The hard-court North American circuit shows one important change this summer. The venerable tournament at Indianapolis was shifted to Atlanta, to be owned and operated by U.S. Tennis Association, Southern District. The winner in the final match, July 25, was Mardy Fish, who beat John Isner and, the day before, Andy Roddick. Atlanta began the U.S. Open Series, which links the North American men's and women's tournaments over six weeks, where overall success leads to extra prize money at U.S. Open. Here were the year-to-date hard-court standings, reflecting Federer's winning at Australian Open and Roddick's winning at Miami and second place at Indian Wells:
- Nadal, 5,000
- Ferrer, 2,645
- Verdasco, 2,015
- Soderling, 1,740
PREDICTING THE OPEN
- Roddick, 2,540
- Federer, 2,225
- Cilic, 1,515
- Murray, 1,435
Our full prediction scheme, first used in previewing Australian Open 2010, correctly picked the men's singles champion in all three Slams of this year to date. The scheme starts with Calculation 1, where each player's chances are calculated by weighting past performances according to how well tournaments have predicted outcomes at the targeted Slam over the last nine years.
The present Calculation 1 for U.S. Open 2010 is incomplete, requiring introduction of the August results at Washington, Canada, and Cincinnati. (These three events will compose about 16% of the full weight of the final prediction.) Here is the rank order from the currently incomplete Calculation 1.
As would be expected, over the years the hard-court events have proven the best predictors of U.S. Open. Cincinnati has been moderately stronger as predictor than Canada, being slightly closer in time to the Open and probably more similar in surface and playing conditions. Surprisingly, however, Indian Wells has been a slightly better predictor than either, even though it takes place several months earlier. Of all, the best predictor of the Open has been the preceding year's U.S. Open. Meanwhile the grass tournaments -- Queen's/Halle taken as a single event and Wimbledon -- have been only slightly weaker as predictors of the Open than the main hard-court tournaments. The clay-court and indoor tournaments have been significantly weaker.
- Nadal, 16.10 (won Garros 10, won Wimbledon 10)
- Federer, 14.47 (won Australia 10, won Wimbledon 09, 2nd at U.S. Open 09)
- Djokovic, 13.90 (2nd at Cincinnati 09)
- Murray, 12.93 (won Canada 09)
- Roddick, 11.44 (won Miami 10, 2nd at Indian Wells 10, 2nd at Wimbledon 09)
- Soderling, 10.73 (2nd at Garros 10)
- Berdych, 8.72 (2nd at Wimbledon 10, 2nd at Miami 10)
The full prediction scheme integrates Calculations 1 and 2, where the latter derives from recent head-to-head results. Calculation 1 has included an empirically-derived correction for player age, reflecting that the younger player's ability on average improves more (or declines less) than the older's during the interval between the predictor and target events. A comparable correction is being introduced in Calculation 2 starting with U.S. Open 2010.
Although the above Calculation 1 is designed to predict U.S. Open 10, it is likely that similar exercises designed to predict outcomes at Canada and Cincinnati 10 would yield the same or almost the same rank order of candidates.
WOMEN'S PRO TENNIS
Serena Williams captured Wimbledon this spring at age 28 without loss of a set. Her domination over all others seemed as strong as it had ever been. Next she expected to alternate with sister Venus as the star attraction for Washington Kastles in World Team Tennis, but an accident caused a foot injury that kept Serena sidelined through the rest of July and perhaps the Open itself.
No top-tenners took part in the several clay events that occupied most of July in Europe. Aravane Rezai, whose strong run during the spring preceded a disappointing early loss at Wimbledon, resumed her earlier trajectory by winning the Swedish Open in early July. Agnes Szavey triumphed at Budapest and again at Prague. Wimbledon quarter-finalist Kanepi captured Palermo. Chakvetadze won at Potoroz, Slovenia. The net effect among the leaders in the year-to-date race was nil.
The end of July brought the start of the North American hard-court circuit, where the usual infusion of players arriving from overseas could be expected as the summer advanced. Serena's troubles surely improved everyone else's chances of immediate success, including the likes of Stosur, Dementieva, and Sharapova, all of whom began play in the opening event at Stanford. The tournaments at San Diego, Cincinnati, Montreal, and New Haven would follow.
DOUBLES IN 2010
Familiar names have dominated in the men's, women's, and mixed doubles races for 2010.
The same two pairs -- both lefty-righty combinations -- have been closely locked atop men's doubles, continuing their tight rivalry of the last several years. Currently in first place is the potent combination Dan Nestor of Canada and Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia (both were born in Belgrade). During the current year Nestor-Zimonjic captured the crown at Garros and second place at Australian Open. Meanwhile the American brothers Bryan, winners at Melbourne Park and also at the clay Masters events at Rome and Madrid, stand second. Another veteran combination is the current third-place pair -- Lukas Dlouhy and the mercurial Leander Paes, who won Miami and took second place at Garros. A newcomer combination is fourth -- Melzer of Austria and Petzschner of Germany, winners at Wimbledon -- the only Slam where men's doubles matches are best-of-five sets and therefore the supreme test in doubles.
The narrow margin between the Bryans and Nestor-Zimonjic has great appeal. The hard-hitting and aggressive, indeed ruthless styles of both pairs, their on-court manner of concentration and energy, and especially their remarkable teamwork has lifted the doubles game to levels probably unprecedented. The brothers at age 33 are ahead in Slam crowns, having won eight including the career Grand Slam. Nestor-Zimonjic have a total of three Slams, one in each of the last three years. (Nestor adds three more with Knowles.) The Bryans, as unfailing participants in Davis Cup action, have breathed new life into American Cup bids, while Zimonjic is a critical cog in the Serbian Cup machine.
Nestor-Zimonjic probably bring physical strengths and natural talent greater than the brothers. Zimonjic is the youngest and physically strongest of the four, while Nestor's serving and serve-returning abilities are probably the highest. The greater drama of this rivalry at the top may lie yet ahead.
Behind their powerful serving, serve-returning, and stroking, Serena and Venus Williams have collected a total of twelve women's doubles Slams -- far more than any other active pair. Until lately the sisters concentrated primarily on their singles careers, but starting in 2009 they have played in the last seven Slams, winning five of them. Having triumphed at this year's Australian Open and Garros, Serena and Venus thus lead in the 2010 doubles race despite having played in only four tournaments. Second is the Argentina-Spain combination Dulko-Pennetta, showing consistently strong performances and with titles in Miami and Rome. Another half-dozen pairs are reasonably close behind, among them third-place Peschke-Srebotnik and familiar pairings Black-Huber, Raymond-Stubbs, and Petrova-Stosur.
Mixed doubles is played only at the Slams. Black-Paes appear the leading pair for 2010, Cara and Leander having won top honors at the Australian and at Wimbledon. Srebotnik-Zimonjic won at Garros,
I hope everyone is well rested as pro tennis begins its late-summer crescendo.
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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.