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
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
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
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
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
The semis will go like this:
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