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February 27, 2011
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Countdown To Indian Wells And Miami
by Ray Bowers
Australian Open 2011 produced two strong champions -- singles winners Novak Djokovic and Kim Clijsters. A third player at Melbourne, Chinese star Li Na, drew worldwide admiration for her remarkable play and compelling manner. Also emerging was a cluster of young and relatively unfamiliar players, both male and female, whose performance promised early membership in the sport's top tiers. Indeed it would be this group, the new arrivals, that would stir early attention in the weeks that followed.
FEBRUARY SURPRISES -- THE WOMEN
That was assuredly the case in women's tennis in February's first weekend. Amid wide-ranging Fed Cup drama, several of our risers -- Kvitova, Petkovic, Jovanovski, Pavlyuchenkova, and Wickmayer -- joined Clijsters in lifting their nations to opening-round triumphs. The action included match-ups of the eight nations of World Group I, where the winners --Italy, Russia, Czech Republic, and Belgium -- became the Final Four still remaining in the year's Cup chase.
Next, in successive weeks came three WTA Premium tournaments. In Paris, Kim Clijsters scored workmanlike wins over several opponents, including hard-hitting Kaia Kanepi in a straight-set semi. Kaia's bigger shots too often landed outside the lines. But Kim's final-round opponent, February 13, was Petra Kvitova, 20, whose left-handed sliced serves and severe forehand rocketry made big trouble for Kim on the wood-base, indoor surface. Kim failed to generate sustained runs of her best tennis against this young and powerful opponent, who in defeating Kim showed excellent mental strength when it most counted.
Nearly all the top stars other than Clijsters then convened outdoors in Dubai (14-20 February). The upsets came quickly. Petra Kvitova, having just won in Paris, now lost her first match at Dubai, beaten by another 20-year-old, Ayumi Morita, in two tiebreak sets. Meanwhile Li Na failed to seize several match points and then lost to Yanina Wickmayer, 21, in split sets. Na struck nine aces against her opponent's one but also contributed seven double-faults. Then Alisa Kleybanova, 21, continued the march of the young, beating second-seeded Zvonareva in straight sets. All three of these victorious 21-or-under players, however, would lose to more-experienced opponents in their next matches. It would be the high-water mark in the current swing for the youth brigade, aside from its leader, Caroline Wozniacki.
In the first show-down among the final four in Dubai, Wozniacki showed her usual tenacity, coming from behind against Jelena Jankovic after overcoming four adverse set points. Then in the second semi-final, Svetlana Kuznetsova's heavier forehand prevailed over Flavia Pennetta's balanced strengths, in two close sets.
But in the Sunday evening final, Kuznetsova's attacking efforts had little success against Wozniacki's formula -- i.e., consistency and defense, plus her improving ability to take the offensive when her confidence was high. In winning at Dubai, Caroline reclaimed the #1 place atop the official WTA (rolling-12-month) rankings that she had recently lost to Clijsters.
The cast next moved to nearby Doha for fresh action. Again, Li Na lost her first match, as did Azarenka. Favorites Wozniacki and Zvonareva made it to the final, the former by one-sided scores, the latter surviving difficult three-setters against Hantuchova and Jankovic. But if the auspices were scarcely encouraging for Zvonareva, the reality was a different matter. Showing power that was more fluid and penetrating than Wozniacki's, along with, surprisingly, better court movement, Vera took the lead early and held off Wozniacki's strong bids thereafter. Caroline, aware that a soft game would be suicidal, very nearly matched Vera in attacking, but Vera's fine countering ability frequently denied Caroline's boldness. Meanwhile, too often Caroline's second serve proved vulnerable.
FEBRUARY SURPRISES -- THE MEN
Among the men, early February brought the first of the year's 500-series tournaments -- the annual gathering on fast indoor courts in Rotterdam. There the game's Top Eight were represented by Murray, Ferrer, Berdych, and Soderling. The first two went out early, and Berdych withdrew with virus troubles after winning two matches. In the final round, Robin Soderling out-muscled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a close-fought three-setter, where the outcome was decided in a few short moments toward the finish. Robin again prevailed the next week, at Marseille, winning the final over Marin Cilic, a taller and younger version of himself. The first set was a closely contested slugfest, won by Cilic. But after that the Swede became superior in every department, but especially in his devastating forehand, executed with strong arm and downward-tilted racket face, producing severe both topspin and velocity.
Meanwhile 20-year-old Milos Raonic, height 6-5, captured the indoor tournament in San Jose, California, defeating first-seeded Verdasco in two tiebreak sets in the final match. The serving prowess of the new Canadian star, amply shown in Melbourne, was again dazzling in its velocities, placement, and second-serve spin. Milos's forehand was just as devastating, though his backhand seemed sometimes a liability. But it was a two-handed backhand sizzler that surprised Verdasco and created the critical minibreak turning the first set to the youth.
Milos's amazing run continued in Memphis (14-20 February), where the powerful youth began by again defeating Verdasco, this time in a third-set tiebreaker. Three more wins followed, all three-setters. Against Mardy Fish in the semis, Milos became erratic in the second set, but his big serve and a tightened ground game carried him to third-set success. His final-round opponent would be Andy Roddick, who, playing well, had just beaten a del Potro recently returned from wrist surgery and now troubled by a thigh problem.
Against Roddick, Milos again showed magnificent serving and composure unusual for so young a player. As expected, neither player could do much with the other's serve initially. Milos lost the first-set tiebreaker, overhitting badly, but won the second, tempering his rocketry. Both players gradually improved in returning and both, especially Raonic, began playing cautiously, so that toward the finish more than a few points became extended. Andy finally prevailed although, as Andy told the crowd as he accepted his trophy, Milos had outplayed him for much of the going. Milos struck 32 aces during the evening, including one measured at 150 mph.
Almost as spectacular as the arrival of Raonic was that of Alex Dolgopolov, 22, whose remarkably diverse game features drop shots, net excursions, severely sliced backhands (and forehands), all along with sizzling and deceptive serving and ground strokes. Alex, who lists Kiev, Ukraine, as residence and birthplace, has a pleasant albeit serious court manner and a propensity for trying high-risk shots, which his natural talent rewards more often than seems likely. Alex, who finished 2010 as world #48, attained the final eight at Australian Open 2011 (losing to Murray in four). Then on clay in February the new star reached the final in Brazil and the semis in Acapulco, Mexico, losing to Almagro and Ferrer, respectively, the ultimate champions of the two events. In knocking out Wawrinka in Acapulco earlier, Alex ripped bold approach shots that missed more often than they scored, but his fine serve gave him sufficient margin for victory.
As February ended, Djokovic in Dubai repeated his Australian victory over Federer. More on the latter happening, below.
INDIAN WELLS AND MIAMI
Larger matters are to be decided in March. The pros will convene first at Indian Wells, California, for the BNP Paribas Open (March 9-20) and then at Miami, Florida, for the Sony-Ericsson. (March 22-April 3). Both Indian Wells and Miami are mandatory tournaments for both men and women, which must be included in calculating each player's ranking. Each event rewards its champion with half the number of ranking points given for winning a Slam, so that the two together, happening consecutively, count as much as a Slam. Both have 96-player men's and women's draws.
Both are outdoor events, played on hard courts. The surface at Indian Wells is generally thought to give a slower, higher bounce than Miami's. The dryer and thinner desert air in California should produce faster ball-through-the-air velocities, however. Windy conditions are common at both events.
It is unusual for one player to capture both Indian Wells and Miami in a given year, In the last decade only Clijsters has done so among the women, in 2005, and only Agassi once and Federer twice among the men. Outcomes at both are plainly related to those at Melbourne, especially among the men, as in the last decade the male winner at Australian Open then won the following Indian Wells five times, the following Miami three times.
WOMEN'S SINGLES AND THE BIG THREE
A large consideration in analyzing women's tennis events must be the presence or absence of the sisters Williams. In accord with their pattern of recent years, neither Serena nor Venus will be on hand at Indian Wells 2011. They have regularly played at Miami, however, where over her career Serena has won five times, Venus thrice. But Serena will remain sidelined from her foot injury after last year's Wimbledon. Venus has not ruled herself out from Miami, though she has not competed since withdrawing in the third round at Melbourne. Also absent from both Indian Wells and Miami will be Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva, both of whom have recently retired.
Here we rank the favorites at Indian Wells. Our yardstick is "hcp" -- i.e., ranking points earned on hard courts over the last 12 months. Results on clay and grass are excluded from the tally. Also offered below are odds for winning Indian Wells, calculated from the hcp values. (The odds for Miami are currently the same, but they should change substantially after results from Indian Wells are known and also if Venus returns.)
- #1. Caroline Wozniacki, 20, 5-10, 8506 hard-court points hcp, odds 2-1. Caroline's pattern of fast improvement, seen in her rapid rise to reach the top place in the WTA rankings in late 2010, seems likely to continue. She has been increasing her aggressiveness and use of power in her court tactics, thereby complementing her absolutely superior consistency and mental strengths. Thus her chances against topmost opponents are probably improving, and, at six years younger than the other members of the current Big Three, her future looks bright indeed.
- #2. Kim Clijsters, age 27, height 5-8, 8185 hcp, odds 2-1. In Paris, Clijsters reclaimed first place in the WTA official (rolling-12-month) rankings after five-year lapse. Before that she had won all three paramount events of recent months -- U.S. Open, the Doha 2010 year-ender, and Australian Open 2011. Kim's sustained power, her resolve to temper her attacking to hold down errors, and her marvelous court athleticism, all suggest that her stay at or near the top will continue, though in losing to an impressive Kvitova in the Paris final, Kim seemed physically and mentally below par from her preceding weeks of intense competition. Her decision to take time off between Paris and Indian Wells therefore seems wise.
- #3. Vera Zvonareva, 26, 5-8, 5726 hcp, odds 7-1. Vera finished second in the 2010 rankings -- behind Wozniacki and slightly ahead of Clijsters, and she then reached the semis in Australia, losing to Clijsters, whose backhand was the better that date. Although sucessses had otherwise been few in 2011 to date, her impressive win over Wozniacki in Doha reaffirmed her place near the top.
THE SECOND TIER
Our second tier, shown next, shows several familiar contenders of recent years along with a mix of younger players eager to move upward.
- #4. Victoria Azarenka, 21, 5-10, 2951 hcp, odds 35-1. Since returning from 2008 knee surgery, Victoria's heavy game has produced good success on hard courts, amid frequent withdrawals or retirements from events for various physical problems. She won Miami in 2009.
- #5. Li Na, 29, 5-8, 2792 hcp, odds 40-1. Na's magnificent drumfire at Melbourne fed expectations that then went unrealized at Dubai and Doha.
- #6. Samantha Stosur, 26, 5-8, 2721 hcp, odds 40-1. Disappointing results in 2011 to date.
- #7. Jelena Jankovic, 26, 5-9, 2568 hcp, odds 45-1. Jelena was champion of Indian Wells 2010, beating Wozniacki in a straight-set final. She lost closely to Wozniacki at Dubai and to Zvonareva at Doha 2011.
- #8. Francesca Schiavone, 30, 5-5, 2558 hcp, odds 50-1. Francesca's strong runs at U.S. Open 2010 and Australian Open 2011 have been followed by disappointments.
- #9. Agnieszka Radwanska, 22, 5-8, 2525 hcp, odds 50-1. Agnieszka reached the Final Four last year at Indian Wells, losing to Wozniacki, who has since increased her margin of superiority over A Rad.
- #10. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 25, 5-8, 2416 hcp, odds 55-1. Now a veteran at 25, Svetlana has shown her past greatness only sporadically of late.
THE PROBLEM OF THE RISING PLAYER
It is difficult for a young and rising player to break into the top tiers, for in tournaments she must overcome the seeded order more than just occasionally. For example, a player outside the top-seeded sixteen will have to defeat a player inside that group just to earn the same reward in points as is earned by a player already inside the group who faces only players outside. In short, in order to rise in the rankings the improving player must repeatedly outperform players who are already established and have easier roads.
Who are the current under-22 risers facing this situation?
- #15. Alisa Kleybanova, 21, 5-11, 1879 hcp. Beat Zvonareva at Dubai 2011.
- #17. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19, 5-10,1803 hcp. Won two critical matches (a singles and the doubles) without loss in Russia's 3-2 Fed Cup win over France, 2011.
- #20. Yanina Wickmayer, 21, 6-0, 1714 hcp. Beat Li at Dubai, lost in third-set tiebreak to Kvitova at Paris.
- #21. Petra Kvitova, 21, 6-0, 1688 hcp. Clearly upward bound following her triumph in Paris, beating Clijsters.
- #24. Dominika Cibulkova, 21, 5-3, 1381 hcp. Short in stature but heavy hitter.
- #35+. Bojana Jovanovski, 19, 5-9, 650 hcp. Won two singles and the doubles in Serbia's 3-2 Fed Cup win over Canada, 2011.
- #35+. Ayumi Morita, 20, 5-5, 586 hcp. Defeated Kvitova at Dubai.
WOZNIACKI AND CLIJSTERS
Wozniacki and Clijsters will be seeded atop opposite halves of the draw at Indian Wells and, almost surely, at Miami as well. It would be surprising if they do not meet in at least one of the forthcoming finals, though either will have serious trouble getting past Zvonareva if Vera summons her best, as she did at Doha.
Clijsters and Wozniacki have played each other twice before, both times in important finals: Kim won at U.S. Open 2009 in straight sets, and won again at the year-end event in Doha 2010, in split sets. Kim is seven years the older, Caroline is an inch or so the taller. Kim is a four-time Slam winner, while Caroline has a collection of tournament crowns below the Slam level. Their superb skills, their contrasting styles of play, and the intrisic importance of the outcome could make their next meeting a classic.
I have great esteem for both. If Kim plays at her very best, in my opinion she should prevail. But Caroline has a way of denying opponents their very best tennis. Reflecting that her head-to-head record over other top players is the best in women's tennis, Clijsters is my selection to win at Indian Wells.
The last player to win both Indian Wells and Miami in the same year was Roger Federer, who did so in both 2005 and 2006. The latter occurrence capped perhaps Roger's finest run, which included winning the three preceding Slams. But in the four years since then, Roger has neither won nor been runner-up at either Indian Wells or Miami. Capturing these events from 2007 through 2010 have been younger men -- mainly the three stars just behind Roger among our Big Five favorites for Indian Wells 2011. These are listed here in order of ATP ranking points won on hard courts in the last 12 months -- "hcp.".
- #1. Roger Federer, age 29, height 6-2, 6935 hcp, odds 3-1. Roger is three-time past champion at Indian Wells, two times at Miami. He shows strong hcp for 2011 alone, having won Doha in early January, reached semis at Australian Open, and reached final at Dubai.
- #2. Novak Djokovic, 23, 6-2, hcp 6115, odds 4-1. Novak's blistering ground game and his superb footwork in court movement, along with an improved first serve, won him the crown at Australian Open 2011 and, impressively, at Dubai 2011. Over the years he has performed well in the March events, having won Indian Wells once, Miami once, and been runner-up once at both events.
- #3. Rafael Nadal, 24, 6-1, hcp 5390, odds 6-1. Rafa may well be the very best clay-court player in tennis history. He is also among today's very best on nonclay surfaces, having stepped up his serving forcefulness, developed a sliced backhand, and learned to routinely play close to rather than well behind baseline. He won hard-court Slams in Australia 2009 and U.S. 2010, defeating Federer and Djokovic in the two finals, respectively. He won Indian Wells in 2007 and 2009 but missed both Indian Wells and Miami in 2010 with upper leg injury. He has not competed since experiencing hamstring trouble in a losing effort at Australian Open 2011.
Rafa's extreme overspin is most effective on clay but becomes somewhat less so on hard courts in comparison with the habitually flatter, more-penetrating artillery of his top opponents.
- #4. Andy Murray, 23, 6-3, hcp 4525, odds 9-1. Andy lost one-sidedly to Djokovic in the final at Melbourne Park 2011. He then lost in the first round at Rotterdam.
- #5. Robin Soderling, 226, 6-4, hcp 4015, odds 12-1. Robin's severe serving and stroking are most effective on indoor courts. Robin has already won three tournaments in 2011, two of them indoors. His only loss this year came at Australian Open, to Dogopolov. He was semi-finalist last year at both Indian Wells and Miami.
Our formulas yield a 81% probability that a member of the Big Five will win at Indian Wells, and the same probability should apply in Miami. Note, however, that last year, the winner and runner-up at both events came from outside the then top-five group. Here is our second tier of candidates for the forthcoming events.
- #6. Andy Roddick, 28, 62, 3375 hcp, odds 18-1. Andy was runner-up at Indian Wells last year and won Miami.
- #7. Thomas Berdych, 25, 6-5, 2295 hcp, odds 45-1. Was runner-up at Miami last year. Withdrew at Dubai 2011 with left-leg injury.
- #8. David Ferrer, 28, 5-9, 2290 hcp, odds 45-1. Won recent clay event in Acapulco.
- #9. Gael Monfils, 24, 6-4, 2145 hcp, odds 50-1. Sidelined since withdrawing at San Jose 2011.
- #10. Ivan Ljubicic, 31, 6-4, 1820 hcp, odds 75-1. Won Indian Wells 2010.
- #11. Mikhail Youzhny, 28, 6-0, 1700 hcp, odds 90-1.
- #12. Mardy Fish, 29, 6-2, 1570 hcp, odds 105-1. Contended well after bad start in losing to del Potro at Delray Beach.
Our special-watch group consists of three others, all third-tier members in hcp.
- #22. Milos Raonic, 20, 6-5, 950 hcp
- #35+. Juan Martin del Potro, 22, 6-6, 585 hcp. The U.S. Open 2009 champ has been out for a year for wrist surgery. But he sizzled in winning semi-final at Delray Beach 2011, then won the title despite seeming illness or fatigue.
- #35+. Alex Dogopolov, 22, 5-11, 425 hcp
FEDERER AND DJOKOVIC
A match-up at Indian Wells or Miami between our two leaders in hcp, Federer and Djokovic, would -- like our postulated Wozniacki-Clijsters match-up -- pit superstars of successive tennis generations.
Federer of course remains a near-supreme talent, though he no longer has the unquestioned edge over younger claimants like Djokovic. The two met seven times in the last 12 months, all on hard courts. Roger won four times, all in best-of-three-set competition, Djokovic won three times, twice in best-of-five-set play. Novak won their two meetings in 2011.
In statistical data covering their five meetings in 2010, Roger led rather strongly in first-serve point-winning percentage, and less strongly in total aces. In all but one case, however, Novak had edge in first-serve in-court percentage. Novak led very strongly in second-serve point-winning percentage in winning their great semi-final meeting at U.S. Open. He also led in this measurement in the two cases where, although losing, he carried Roger to three sets.
One measurement stands out in helping understand Novak's straight-set win over Roger at Australian Open this year. Once again Novak led in first-serve in-court percentage, but at Melbourne he now also led in first-serve point-winning percentage, breaking Roger's dominance in that category. He also led, also narrowly, in total aces. These data aligned with evidence visible to watchers -- that Novak had greatly improved his first serve.
Novak's straight-set victory over Roger in Dubai was even more impressive. It quickly became apparent that Roger was far from his best -- seen in his profusion of mis-hits. Meanwhile Djokovic's play was approaching near-perfection. The younger man's relentless heavy-paced ground-strokes gave Roger few chances to dominate except at very high risk, keeping Roger always under heavy pressure and contributing to many Federer errors. Novak's strong defensive abilities defused most Federer attacks. Meanwhile the now-potent Djokovic first serve enabled Novak to dominate comfortably in his serving games. Roger's only break of Novak's serve came in a game where Djokovic's first serve abruptly disappeared.
In comparing the familiar strengths of the two men, the margins are narrow. Probably all watchers would give the edge to Federer's forehand and to Djokovic's backhand. Roger remains the better server despite the turn to Novak at Melbourne and Dubai, and Roger is the better net and forecourt player as well. In three other categories, Novak seems definitely ahead -- in the serve-return, in his mobility/footwork, and in physical assets (in his tallness, and in his advantage in youth). Novak is certainly experienced, but Roger is more so.
Each of our other Big Five members -- Nadal, Soderling, and Murray -- are capable of preventing a Federer-Djokovic final, or indeed of winning either tournament. Nadal will be top seeded at both events, and probably Federer will be second. Djokovic and Soderling should be third and fourth, where the draw will decide which one goes to Nadal's half, which one to Federer's. Thus the Big Five member who will share a quarter with one of the others will be Murray, his place to be decided on the day of the draw.
In picking the probable winner from among the Big Two, the evidence from Melbourne Park and Dubai is compelling in favor of Djokovic. My choice, therefore, is to go against the hcp numbers and mark Djokovic the forthcoming champion at Indian Wells.
Finally, here's wishing good luck for the teams and fans of the sixteen World Group nations scheduled for first-round Davis Cup play this coming weekend, March 4-6.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
FOOTNOTE ON THE CALCULATIONS
The values of hcp -- ranking points earned on hard courts in the preceding 12 months, starting with Indian Wells 2010 -- are unofficially compiled here from ATP/WTA data. In calculating odds from hcp, the hcp values are raised by exponent 2.28, thereby reaching an appropriate spread of values that equate to each player's comparative chances of winning at Indian Wells 2011. These values are then reduced by a common divisor to yield individual probabilities of winning that total overall probability of 1.0. Odds follow directly from each player's probability of winning. (Odds longer than 25-1 are shown rounded to nearest five.)
Our reliance on 12-month hcp is supported by how well that indicator served in predicting women's singles outcomes at Australian Open 2011. Of the six indicators used in the pre-tournament column here, hcp proved the best in predicting actual outcomes at the Open, by narrow margin over the second-best predictor, Elite Wins minus Total Losses. The latter indicator, however, was alone in correctly making Clijsters its top favorite, and if applied here would certainly point to Kim again.
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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.