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Between The Lines
June 19, 1997 Article

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1997 Wimbledon Preview and Predictions

Now that the French Open has made a mockery of the 1997 prediction game, it's time to shoot off a few more rounds of ammo and have a go at tennis' most regal and random tournament, Wimbledon.

It's odd that the sport's most prestigious tournament is played on a surface that's not a factor any other time of the year. Could you imagine the Super Bowl suddenly being played on a Canadian Football League field? Or the NBA moving to outdoor dirt for the playoffs? But that's tennis, and somehow Wimbledon pulls it off.

The Men: Leading Contenders

It doesn't matter how many matches Pete Sampras lost this spring. It doesn't matter that he lost last week in Queen's to Jonas Bjorkman. All that matters is that he's the odds-on pick to win Wimbledon. He's got the serve, he's got the forehand and in his case, underplaying can be advantageous. He's relaxed and eager. Only if he runs across some exceptionally inspired play (ala Richard Krajicek in '96) will Sampras fail to win Wimbledon.

The rest of the draw is the Wild, Wild West. Goran Ivanisevic, twice a finalist here, is naturally hungry to earn his first Grand Slam. But for all the waves of excitement he rides, it seems impossible for him to play seven cogent matches. Invariably there'll be a missed volley or service return that will plague him into oblivion. Krajicek is in the rare position of being a defending champ and a dark horse. Also lurking in contention are Aussies Mark Philippoussis and Patrick Rafter. Philippoussis just won in Queen's, beating Ivanisevic in the finals. And Rafter is no doubt buoyed by his semifinal showing in Paris. Surely he must be thinking that if his netrushing game can take him so far on clay, then the sky must be the limit in London.

Other possibilities include, for the first time in decades, two British players, Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. Rusedski's got a bomb of a serve and an improving ground game. Four months ago in San Jose at the Sybase Open I watched him beat Chang, Agassi and take the first set off Sampras before succumbing to a wrist injury. Henman's an even more gifted player, but after cracking the top 20 has failed to step up and be a consistent factor.

And the ultimate wild card has to be Boris Becker. Wimbledon is to Becker what the U.S. Open was for Jimmy Connors: A personal venue for resurrection and redemption. No matter how poor Becker's year, Wimbledon has been the place where he salvages himself. Knocked out at Wimbledon '96 by a wrist injury, Becker resurfaced late last year, beating Sampras twice and playing wonderfully inspired tennis. But throughout '97, he has once again retreated. Still, the Wimbledon seeding committee has rewarded Becker for past achievements. Though ranked only 18 in the world, Becker is seeded eighth at this year's tournament.

Other pesky spoilers who could dislodge a few favorites include talented Dominik Hrbaty, methodical Mark Woodforde, streaky Andrei Medvedev and lameduck pro Michael Stich. None of these guys will win the tournament, but at least they can shake things up.

What all of this speaks is to the ever-widening gap between grass play and other surfaces. On the one hand, it's easy to criticize players for not knowing the nuances of the surface. On the other hand, why should they, given that 98 percent of their matches are played elsewhere?

The Men: Draw At A Glance

Here's how the men's draw would shake out if each seed reached his appointed round (this is about as likely to happen as Agassi serving and volleying):

    1. Pete Sampras
    16. Petr Korda
    9. Marcelo Rios
    8. Boris Becker
    3. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
    13. Andrei Medvedev
    12. Patrick Rafter
    5. Michael Chang
    6. Thomas Muster
    11. Gustavo Kuerten
    14. Tim Henman
    4. Richard Krajicek
    7. Mark Philippoussis
    10. Carlos Moya
    15. Wayne Ferreira
    2. Goran Ivanisevic

Diving into the draw, there are many wide open sections and several fascinating first-round matchups, most notably in the lower half.

Sampras should have a smooth ride to the quarters. Perhaps he'll have a tough go in the round of 16 versus the Laveresque Korda or the bombastic Marc Rosset. Then, in the quarters, he's supposed to meet up with Becker.

If Becker can get to Sampras -- and his draw is quite favorable, featuring no real experienced netrushers (but you never know who can stretch Boris to the limits) -- you can count on Becker to at least make an effort of it.

Diving, grunting, going after big serves; bet on Becker to strut elegantly and mightily. It won't be enough, though, as his lack of match play, fitness and movement will enable Sampras to beat him in three dominant sets. Only if Becker can make some incredible service returns will he have a chance to take a set.

The next section is an odd one. Kafelnikov has the tools to be a fine grasscourt player, but hasn't yet made a mark on Wimbledon. Perhaps his hardcore effort in Paris taxes him too much. Though he's on a course for a round of 16 match with one-time USSR mate Medvedev, Yevgeny could have a tough time of it with journeyman Aussie Jason Stoltenberg. Last year Stoltenberg ousted Ivanisevic on his way to the semis; since then he's hardly done a thing. Medvedev has begun resurging this year, but in the third round he'll face a potential landmine in the form of languid shotmaker and off-beat lefty Alexander Volkov.

In theory, the winner of this chaotic section is supposed to meet Michael Chang in the quarters. But Chang's supposed to hook up with Rafter in the round of 16. Let's hope this match comes off, as it would be one of those dazzling mid-tournament delights -- contrasting styles, an ascending Aussie, the gritty American, serves, volleys, returns, you name it. But Rafter can't afford to look beyond slashing Swede Magnus Gustafsson in the second round, and Chang's got to work his way through such talents as Todd Woodbridge (a gifted volleyer but short on stamina), dynamic Dutchman Sjeng Schalken and streaky German Barnd Karnbacher. Since I've got a soft spot for Aussies, I'll pick Rafter to make his way through. He's in supreme shape after his effort in Paris, and hopefully can ride that to a win over Kafelnikov.

Things get sillier in the bottom half of the draw. Thomas Muster's pullout makes it even easier for Mark Woodforde to advance a few rounds. In that same section, Michael Stich takes on Jim Courier. How the mighty have fallen. Six years ago, Courier won the French, beating Stich in the semis; Stich won Wimbledon, ousting Courier in the quarters. Now these two are both on the back nine of their careers. Stich, a player with smooth strokes to burn and a brain the size of a pea, has already announced his retirement at the end of '97. Don't expect him to garner the same kind of sentiment that accompanied Edberg's victory lap in '96. As for Courier, who the heck knows what's up with him these days? Because it's a grasscourt, and since Stich has that existential freedom that goes with quitting a job, I'll pick the German. Stich will then knock off French Open champ Kuerten in the second round. From there, who knows? If you're one of the other craftsmen in this section -- Woodforde, Sandon Stolle, Chris Woodruff or even mercurial Leander Paes -- there's a great opening to reach the quarters.

To use a British term, it would be "smashing" if Henman made his appointed round of 16 match with defending champ Krajicek. Certainly I'll pick Krajicek to get that far. Though he's only won one tournament since winning Wimbledon, Krajicek is too big a server and talented a strokemaker to lose early at this event. Even an irksome third round match with Daniel Vacek won't knock him off course.

Henman has a very tough assignment in the first round -- big-serving lefty Daniel Nestor, the kind of slam-bam player who can do major damage during Wimbledon's first few days. But I figure Henman will be inspired enough to play well. He'll beat Nestor, but suffer a serving crisis verus Krajicek and lose in the round of 16.

An equally nasty first-round match awaits Mark Philippoussis in the form of Greg Rusedski. This is bad luck for both players to have this be a first-rounder -- in some instances, it could be a Wimbledon quarterfinal. If Philippoussis can start off returning well on his backhand, he'll eventually figure it out. But if Rusedski gets hot, this might be an upset. I'll take the Aussie.

Even worse luck awaits Andre Agassi, who's had his worst-ever pro season in '97, failing to win a single tournament and pulling out of both Australia and Roland Garros. A hot rumor has it that he'll pull out of Wimbledon. After seeing his draw -- Carlos Moya -- Agassi may yet decide to cancel his flight to London. I believe he'll lose to Moya. Yet even if he beats the Spaniard, he'll then have to deal with talented southpaw Hicham Arazi and, in the round of 16, Philippoussis. This will not be a good Wimbledon for Agassi.

Another engaging first-rounder pits flakey Wayne Ferreira versus overachieving Scott Draper. I'd love to see Draper knock off Ferreira, a guy who like Stich has squandered his talent and displays some of the worst body language in tennis. Ivanisevic will emerge from this section to have an incredible serving bash with Philippoussis -- 70 aces between them. But I believe this is the breakthrough Grand Slam for Philippoussis. He'll beat Goran (as he did in Queen's) and then take his chances in another serving derby versus the holder.

The semis will go this way:

  • Sampras vs. Rafter
  • Philippoussis vs. Krajicek

For the first time since '71, two Aussies will make it to the semis. Though Sampras has been beaten by Rafter and was strongly tested by him earlier this year in Philadelphia, he'll enjoy playing the Aussie and should have little problem beating him. Rafter's a straight-ahead, flat-hitting player. But he lacks a forceful service return, and against Sampras this is the kiss of death. Holding serve easily will give Sampras confidence to go for more returns. As the match wears on, Rafter will feel too pressured.

The other semi will be a question of returns and movement. Picking the winner will have a lot to do with who's been playing well during the tournament -- in other words, I don't have a clue now who would win this match. But let's go out on a limb and pick Philippoussis to get inspired and slug his way past Krajicek, who'll become quite nervous at the possibility of defending his crown.

In the finals, Sampras will exert a hammer-hold on Philippoussis.

Unfortunately, this will be another Wimbledon final lacking long rallies.

Early on, Philippoussis will simultaneously throw everything he's got at Sampras and be nervous. Sampras, playing his 12th Grand Slam final, will know what it takes to weather Philippoussis' wild storm, and emerge in less than two-and-a-half hours with his fourth Wimbledon title -- and tenth Grand Slam title.

The Women: Leading Contenders

As hard as it is to think Martina Hingis is ready to take over tennis at age 16, she's got to be the favorite to win Wimbledon. Monica Seles shows signs of a comeback, but still lacks conditioning and will be troubled by Wimbledon's low bounces. Jana Novotna has the game but lacks the head.

Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario have both won Grand Slams, but each seem unmotivated. Lindsay Davenport has the strokes but still has yet to prove she has the mental or physical legs for big Grand Slams. French Open winner Iva Majoli is so surprised by her win in Paris that she may not be fully concentrating at Wimbledon.

So my pick is Hingis. The time off this spring due to injury kept her from overplaying. The loss in Paris made her cranky. Grass is a fine surface for her counterpunching game, as she'll be able to constantly feed off the pace and play delicious angles and off-pace shots.

Should all the seeds reach their appointed rounds (a far more likely possibility for the women, although not quite as predictable as in previous years), here's who'll be in the round of 16:

    1. Martina Hingis
    14. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy
    15. Ruxandra Dragomir
    5. Lindsay Davenport
    4. Iva Majoli
    12. Irina Spirlea
    10. Conchita Martinez
    7. Anke Huber
    6. Amanda Coetzer
    16. Barbara Paulus
    11. Mary Joe Fernandez
    3. Jana Novotna
    8. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
    9. Mary Pierce
    13. Kimberly Po
    2. Monica Seles

With the exception of a couple of notable encounters, the early rounds of this event will not be extremely compelling. There will an interesting first-round match between Chanda Rubin and Anna Kournikova. After cracking the top ten in early '96, Rubin's been on a downward slide brought on by wrist problems and a shortage of match play. Just this week she lost to Venus Williams, and I'm thinking she could be ripe for the plucking against the talented Kournikova. Rubin and Kournikova are located in the underachievers' section -- one featuring Martinez and Huber. Martinez has a tough first rounder with talented Karina Habsudova, but my thinking is that the Spaniard with the big topspin and desultory persona will bore her opponent into submission. Stilll, there's a good chance of anarchy here, which could lead to an inspired Kournikova reaching the quarters against Majoli or even more likely, smooth-stroking Irina Spirlea.

Another possible early-round match would find Venus Williams up against Amanda Coetzer. Williams plays Poland's Magdalena Gryzbowska in the first round, and should win that match. Venus has often claimed that she's built her big-serving, slashing game for venues like Wimbledon. I'll be fascinated to see how she handles the gnat-like tenacity of Coetzer, a player who despite her slight size and baseline orientation is actually a fine volleyer.

Coetzer will beat Venus, but it will be interesting to see how this tall, athletic American fares in her Wimbledon debut. I'm sure Venus will impress the crowd with her intelligence and ability to be both cynical and sweet.

Looking at the top of the draw, Hingis is on course for a tough round of 16 match with Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, the Mark Philippoussis of the Corel WTA Tour. Brenda has a good game for grass, but has never quite reached critical mass. She won't do it against Hingis, who will then go on to play a spirited quarterfinal versus Lindsay Davenport. If Davenport's moving well and coming in to net, this could be quite an engaging match. But those are big ifs.

On the other half of the draw, underachievers Mary Joe Fernandez and Jana Novota will have a terrific round of 16 match. I'll pick Novotna, as she really does have the athleticism and all-court panache to win this kind of match. Novotna will then whip Coetzer in the quarters.

An equally jarring round of 16 encounter should pit Sanchez Vicario and Mary Pierce. But who can ever tell what's going on in Pierce's brain? Her strokes are powerful, but her head is flighty. Her body language inspires a nurturing kind of compassion, as if the sport should adopt her for all the abuse she's handled from her father. But Mary too has failed to be a consistent force, and that lack of staying power can prove fatal at Grand Slams. Sanchez Vicario, though whipped by Hingis at Roland Garros and out of the winner's circle for more than a year, knows exactly what Pierce doesn't: How to grub it out. Arantxa is not the player she was even two years ago, but she will scrape her way into a quarterfinal versus Monica.

Unfortunately, she'll run into a buzzsaw. I think the short points of grass will favor Seles. I also think she's been doing a good job this spring regaining her hunger. Granted, she hasn't won a tournament all year. But in Paris, she continued showing signs of the old Monica, ripping balls and most of all, concentrating with unparalleled intensity. She'll route Sanchez Vicario.

The semis will go like this:

  • Hingis-Spirlea
  • Novotna-Seles

Spirlea has many tools, including a sharp first serve and forcing groundies off both wings. She's a good athlete, but lacks that extra bit of fortitude and imagination to pull off the big wins. At Lipton she was up a set on Seles and eventually capitulated. Her crisp strokes will feed in nicely for Hingis, who will continue her rapid ascent up the tennis ladder with an emphatic victory. Only nerves will keep Martina from reaching her first Wimbledon singles final.

Seles-Novotna is the matchup of the tournament. Novotna has the perfect game for winning Wimbledon and beating Seles on grass -- good volleys, a low-bouncing ground game, solid athleticism. But there's always been a mental gap that's kept her from seizing the initiative. With Graf gone, this is her best shot to win Wimbledon. And she's beaten Seles twice in the last year, at the French Open and in the finals of Madrid. And yet Monica, for all her struggles and erratic play, is still the grittiest women in tennis.

If you merged Novotna's body with Seles' heart you'd have the greatest player ever. But my feeling is that if Seles gets out of the early rounds with minimal difficulty, she'll be pleasantly relaxed for their semi. By late in the tournament the court will be harder (assuming it doesn't rain much) and Seles will enjoy bashing balls past Novotna. Jana will hit a wall, and find herself losing this tight match.

Seles-Hingis is now the sport's best rivarly. But Hingis is by far the smarter, more imaginative player. This will help her significantly on grass as she'll slither shots into off-beat nooks and crannies, befuddle Monica with adroit sorties to the net and also expose Seles' weaker forehand and decreased mobility. Monica Seles has worked her way through many problems both on and off the court, but she won't have enough artillery to overtake Hingis. Please, Monica, learn to volley and spin your serve, and you too might eventually hold that Wimbledon plate over your head like Hingis will on July 6.

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1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2002 | 2003 - 2007


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This column is copyrighted by Joel Drucker, all rights reserved.

Joel's background includes 25 years as a player, instructor, tournament director and writer. His stories have appeared in all of the leading tennis magazines (Tennis, World Tennis, Tennis Week, Tennis Match, and Racquet). He has also written about tennis for many general interest publications, including Cigar Aficionado, Diversion, Men's Journal, San Francisco Focus and the San Diego Reader.


 

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