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August 23, 1997 Article

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Between The Lines By Joel Drucker
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1997 US Open Preview and Predictions

Consolidation and revolution are the watchwords for this year's U.S. Open.

At the highest level, Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis have already clinched the pennant by virtue of winning two Grand Slam titles apiece. Only the unlikely New York triumphs of French champs Gustavo Kuerten and Iva Majoli can pose a threat to Sampras and Hingis. On the heels of their Wimbledon victories, both Sampras and Hingis will come into New York supremely relaxed, a mental state which will permit these two highly creative champs to spread their shot-making wings even further.

But beneath the number one spot, anarchy is the watchword. There is a sea change taking place on both the ATP and WTA tours that is shaking up the pro game at every level. Boris Becker and Michael Stich are gone after this year. Steffi Graf may never come back, and if she does, it won't be for long. At 23, Monica Seles is an old, sentimental favorite -- and so are underachievers Mary Pierce and Mary Joe Fernandez. You've got to believe that Andre Agassi and Jim Courier have their best tennis behind them.

Lindsay Davenport and Chanda Rubin will each make lots of money in the next five years, but I'd very surprised to see them consistently reaching big finals. Sweden is now just another tennis nation, but Spain is sizzling hot -- though not so much on the women's game, where Sanchez and Martinez are fading. Once Sampras and Chang go, American tennis faces a potential dirth (or maybe there's someone hitting right now who we don't even know about).

Players from all over the world are asserting themselves and continuing to prove that no other sport transcends borders more than tennis. Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Rios, Majoli, Kournikova and Hingis all rank as the greatest players in the history of their nation -- and each has miles of great tennis ahead.

We'll probably next hear about a player from Iceland or the Seychelles.

So what does this mean for the U.S. Open? Expect to see many new faces in the later stages. Three years from now, you'll look at someone in the top five and say, "Remember when she made that big move at the Open."

What's tough is that picking out those people is more difficult than ever.

Both genders are extremely volatile -- though for different reasons. The men are cursed by the inane "Best 14" ranking system which lets pros play an infinite number of tournaments and only count their best 14 results. Just think how many of us would be Rhodes Scholars if that system was used in college. The upshot of this is a lack of consistency. Big names know it's no big deal if they lose, since only the best 14 count. Lesser-ranked players swing for the fences and let the chips fall where they may. In all fairness, though, what's also true is that never before have their been so many competent male players -- arguably five times as many as there were just 15 years ago. International growth has fueled the talent pool and diversified playing styles.

The women are plagued by emotional and intellectual immaturity. What we've seen ever since the Age of Evert is a scenario where a young women's body matures ahead of her brain. Able to muster up the concentration necessary for striking balls, she blissfully whacks her way into the pros at a time when her peers are taking driver's ed. But then, when faced with challenges, she lacks the mental resources necessary to adapt to everything from travel to different surfaces, junkballing Europeans or the glare of media coverage.

And the rub for both genders is that there's enough money in the sport to continue nurturing this kind of erratic play. "At least when I started playing," Jimmy Connors lamented a few years ago, "you had to win to make big money."

It's become very hard to predict which men and women will reach the later stages of any tournament. If you're unseeded, you're far less intimidated than ever. If you're seeded, don't take any match for granted.

This volatile climate will make for some spectacular early-round matches in New York. Here's a look at how it will pan out for each gender:

The Women

Were all the seeded women to reach their appointed rounds the draw would look like this:

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

The most intriguing first-round match pits Jennifer Capriati and Conchita Martinez. Capriati's comeback thus far has been a muted effort. Were she to start consistently playing good tennis, she would surely become a great crowd favorite. For all the crap she's gone through, people want to see Jennifer succeed. But it's bad luck to play someone as simultaneously competent and enervating as Martinez. Capriati will strike a few good shots, but Martinez figures to take this one in her characteristically dreary manner.

Another fascinating first-rounder pits Anna Kournikova and Sabine Appelmans.

Here we'll see more of just how real Kournikova is. Appelmans is a crafty, annoying lefty, a difficult opponent but one Kournikova would love to rip apart. I think she'll win, but the methods she uses to get it done should be fascinating.

Venus Williams also has a tricky opening match. She goes up against Larissa Neiland, a talented player with a win over Navratilova -- but someone who never got her singles career going. Betting on this is a 50-50 proposition.

If Neiland is relaxed, I'll favor her. But if nerves enter, she'll go down quite ugly.

A second round encounter between Brie Rippner of the U.S. and Croatia's Mirjana Lucic could be a showcase for two future top 20 players. Lucic has already won a pro tournament and knocked off such top names as Amanda Coetzer. Rippner reached the Wimbledon Junior final and is currently America's great teen hope. Steffi Graf believes Lucic is better than Kournikova. Lucic will win this match, and then go up against Jana Novotna.

The Croatian has the tools to make this a tough battle, but my thinking is that Novotna, despite her lack of a Grand Slam singles title, is becoming an increasingly tougher competitor.

Moving through the draw, there are several wonderful round of 16 matches.

Right at the top of draw, the match between Hingis and big-seving Brenda Schultz-McCarthy figures to be very entertaining. Brenda took Hingis to three sets in Hilton Head this spring, and hopefully she'll start off strong. But in time, Hingis will peck away at the Dutch player's weak forehand.

Still, the contrast will be compelling.

Hingis' quarterfinal opponent will be the winner of the Sanchez Vicario-Martinez intraSpanish Challenge Match. Over the last 18 months, both of these two seem to have lost their way. The rumor has it that Arantxa isn't practicing quite as hard as she used to. And Conchita -- a player with far more weapons than her counterpunching compatriot -- just doesn't seem to want it. The emotional tussle will make this a good match. I'll pick Arantxa because she's a better fighter.

Novotna and Fernandez figure to stage a rematch of their round of 16 epic at Wimbledon, a match won by Novotna 7-5 in the third. Mary Joe is yet another player who just doesn't seem to want to dig in. She's got great flat strokes but not much of a killer instinct. I'll take Novotna, who will then play a quarterfinal versus the winner of Kimberly Po's match with Lindsay Davenport. In theory, that match should be all Davenport. But Po knocked off Lindsay in Australia this year, catching her off-guard with great court speed and an airtight baseline game. This time Lindsay will be alert and take charge impressively.

The next two sections of the draw are far more fluid. Dangerous unseeded floaters such as Rubin, Katarina Studenikova, Sandrine Testud and even Venus Williams could threaten the plans of Anke Huber and Iva Majoli. But if Majoli can play her way into the tournament, she should emerge through to the semis.

I don't believe spunky Amanda Coetzer will justify her seeding (5). The hardworking South African player five straight weeks this summer. While her first three rounds are fairly benign, in the round of 16 she's slated to play sharp-striking Irina Spirlea. I'll go with Spirlea.

In the final section, Mary Pierce must wage an interesting war to reach a round of 16 date with Monica Seles. Pierce's first rounder versus Gigi Fernandez should be a walk, but Gigi's relaxed attitude will probably increase Mary's tension. In the second round, Pierce could end up playing basher Linda Wild, a talented player who took out Davenport last year. And then, in the third round, Pierce figures to go up against Gigi's spacey, eclectic doubles partner, Natasha Zvereva. Pierce versus Zvereva is a great style contrast -- Mary's flat ripping baseline game versus Zvereva's wacky mix of spins, drives, net rushes and scattered concentration. Two years ago, I'd give the edge to Zvereva. And it could be tight. But these days, Natasha's commitment to singles is minimal.

The upshot of this is that Pierce will be so mentally annoyed by the time she reaches Seles that she'll have little left. And Monica, feeding off winning two straight tournaments this summer, is at last starting to regain some of her legendary confidence.

So believe it or not, after all that talk about depth and diversity, I'm betting on the top four seeds to reach the semis:

  • Hingis (1) vs. Novotna (3)
  • Seles (2) vs. Majoli (4)

These four Central Europeans will stage two delightful matches.

Hingis-Novotna is always good theatre because of the stylistic contrast.

Novotna's netrushing style is a wonderful rarity in today's pro game. But if Jana couldn't get it done on a grass court, she'll be even more up the creek at the Open. Novotna must get off to a good start. She needs to do exactly what she did at Wimbledon: take it to Hingis, approaching down the middle, to Martina's forehand. Novotna needs to get in tons of first serves and hit sharp volleys. But my thinking is that Hingis is even more confident after grubbing out that Wimbledon final. She might well surprise Novotna by taking the net herself, or by taking returns even earlier (Novotna's serve is not exceptionally powerful). Hingis will win this in straight sets.

Seles-Majoli will conjure up memories of that great '91 Seles-Capriati semi -- a match filled with wonderful rallies and tremendous power. Like Novotna, Majoli needs to overcome nerves and show that she has a consistent appetite for big-time semis. My thinking is that she does, that Majoli's bigger problem is getting motivated early on in a tournament. She and Seles will go at it tooth and nail. If Majoli can attack with imagination -- coming in occasionally, mixing it up once in a while with a drop shot -- she has a shot at reaching her second Grand Slam final. But my feeling is that Majoli thinks Seles is weakened enough to be overpowered -- and that will doom Iva.

Seles right now is at least starting to dig in and fight as she hasn't in years. Whether it's the pain of her father's imminent death, the renaissance of her love of tennis, or her battered pride at watching Hingis take over the game, the Seles we're seeing now is ready to fight. She'll win in three.

But once again, Hingis will have the better of Seles in the finals. Try as Monica does, she still lacks the ability to close off the point at net.

Hingis' masterful control of the court, her willingness to volley and, most of all, her uncanny movement (less a matter of speed and more the result of a great ability to read the ball), will earn Martina her first U.S. Open crown. Our only regret is that she'll never quite have the opportunity to officially unthrone Graf.

The Men

As usual, the men's draw will be filled with far more upsets than the women's. Still, here's how it would look if the seeds went all the way:

    1. Pete Sampras
    15. Petr Korda
    9. Gustavo Kuerten
    8. Carlos Moya
    4. Goran Ivanisevic
    14. Mark Philipppoussis
    12. Felix Mantilla
    6. Alex Corretja
    5. Thomas Muster
    11. Thoms Enqvist
    13. Patrick Rafter
    3. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
    7. Sergei Bruguera
    16. Albert Costa
    2. Michael Chang

There are lots of great first-round matchups. The best -- and one that's good and bad luck for tennis fans -- pits Thomas Muster and Tim Henman.

Henman just missed being seeded, and what's unfortunate here is that the British player is the kind of guy who starts a little slow before working his way into the tournament. Henman's talented, but rather methodical, and this will hurt him in the hot sun when he goes up against Muster, a guy who as we all know is grinding his butt off from the opening bell. Alas, Muster will advance, and we in the States will have to wait another year for Henman to make a bigger New York splash.

But there's also Korda-Spadea, Clavet-Bjorkman, Courier-Martin, Rusedski-Wheaton, Rosset-Corretja, Berasategui-Ferreira, Rafter-Medvedev, Albert Costa-Boetsch, Carlos Costa-Paes and the ever-questionable Andre Agassi going up against diligent Steve Campbell. All of these matches will be marked by vivid style contrasts and spectacular shotmaking. I'll take Korda, Bjorkman, Rusedski, Corretja, Ferreira, Rafter, both Costas and, yes, Agassi (but not easily).

From the top of the draw, two-time holder Sampras takes on two qualifiers in the opening rounds. His first test will come against Korda in the round of 16. Korda took the only sets off Sampras at Wimbledon this year, eeking out two tiebreakers. I'd love to see Korda test Sampras even more. If Korda can return well early on, this could be compelling stuff. But if the Czech starts out overplaying, it'll be a route.

A second-round match between Kuerten and Sjeng Schalken will be very entertaining. Both of these two can really whip the ball, particularly off the backhand. Kuerten is a treat, an exuberant, shotmaking guy who probably still doesn't know how much he's really accomplished by winning a tournament that's eluded so many great players. Kuerten will beat Schalken, and then meet Jim Courier in a match that represents a crossroads for each player (assuming Courier gets by the dangerous Bjorkman, which in fact is no easy assignment). It was versus Courier, way back in Davis Cup in January, where Kuerten first saw he could play with the big boys. Courier won that match, but since then it's been Kuerten who's risen to the top. By now, Courier has spent so many years looking to recapture his old glory that his champion aura has completely vanished. He's doing it right now on sheer guts. That won't be enough for Kuerten, who by now is soaring with confidence after his French Open win and will overwhelm Courier with speed and imagination.

In theory, Kuerten should hook up in the round of 16 with Carlos Moya, a player who, like Kuerten, surprised everyone (including himself) by advancing extremely far in a Grand Slam event. But since reaching that Australian final, Moya's play has been sporadic. He's got a great package -- fine serve, sharp strokes, stealth-like movement -- but seems a bit distracted by all the attention he's been getting. He could have a tough time in the first round versus emotional Guillaume Raoux (a player who once had match points on Todd Martin at the Open) or prickly Jeff Tarango.

Now what can be said about Goran Ivanisevic? Year after year, he comes to Grand Slams armed with talent and possibility. At 26, he's not old, but he's no longer young, and it's hard to believe he'll ever win a Slam. His third-rounder at the Open versus Rusedski will see each southpaw strike at least 25 aces. But this is one Goran will win -- Rusedski doesn't return well enough.

Then, in the 16s, Goran will have an even wackier serving fest when he and Mark Philippoussis let the bombs fly. Now is finally the time for the young Aussie to start strutting his stuff in big venues. Goran's scalp is there for the taking, and if Philippoussis moves his feet well, he'll reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

At that stage, Philippoussis will meet up with unseeded Richard Krajicek, who will have knocked off Alex Corretja (another Spaniard who, like Moya, hasn't quite been able to deliver more at crunch time) and either Jason Stoltenberg or Felix Mantilla (the highest ranked player you'd never recognize).

On the bottom half, Muster's second round match versus Ferreira could be a tough one on paper. Ferreira's got a great forehand, fine serve and can volley skillfully. But his mental toughness has never surfaced, and in short order the Moo-Man will grind him into the cement.

But this year Muster has had an odd go of it. Though winning several big hardcourt events (Dubai, Lipton), he had a bad clay court season. I think he'll put together a plausible run at the Open -- but only a nice one as he'll come up against the player I believe is Sampras' biggest threat: Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Like Sampras, Kafelnikov is a remarkably talented shotmaker whose intensity has often been questioned. But I believe over the next year Kafelnikov will at last start focusing even more, let up on his whining and make a bigger run to the top. He's simply too good not to. In the third round, he'll give Agassi a severe whipping. Nothing personal, Andre, it's just that you haven't racked up enough quality plate appearances to be the player you were even a year ago. Even Agassi's second round match against baseliners Renzo Furlan or Adrian Voinea could results in a loss.

Kafelnikov will also show enough smarts in his round of 16 match versus Aussie Patrick Rafter. As I've mentioned before in this space, I have a soft spot for Rafter's netrushing game. His draw is tough -- Medvedev in round one, and then possibly Magnus Norman and Paul Haarhuis -- and as he's pointed out, given the quality of today's service returns, his attacking style takes a lot of energy. He won't have enough left versus Kafelnikov, who'll pick apart Rafter's forehand with the skill of a coroner performing an autopsy.

The Kafelnikov-Muster quarter will also be compelling, but again, the Russian just has too many tools to lose this match.

Though Sergei Bruguera is seeded quite high (7), he's never done particularly well at the Open. Nor has tenth seed Marcelo Rios. The Chilean southpaw seems easily vexed by the New York crowds. I look for Todd Woodbridge or Dominik Hrbaty to knock off Bruguera in the third. Rios will have his own third-round troubles with another off-beat lefty Alexander Volkov.

Michael Chang figures to have an easy time of it until the round of 16, when he'll have a tough match against one of the Costas or even Cedric Pioline.

If Pioline gets there, Michael will take the match easily. But my thinking is that it will be Alberto Costa, and that this will be a long, arduous effort for Chang -- one that he'll win but one that will leave him mentally depleted for his semi with Kafelnikov.

The semis will go like this:

  • Sampras (1) vs. Krajicek
  • Kafelnikov (3) vs. Chang (2)

Sampras is seeking revenge against Krajicek, who ended Pete's 25-match Wimbledon win streak last year. Though Sampras will say that vengeance is hardly his style, that's not true: This guy knows how to set the score straight. He'll be keenly focused for the Dutchman. I'd love to see Krajicek show the same intensity and brilliance he pulled off at Wimbledon, but I also know that the hardcourt surface is more of a grind than grass.

The pounding will get to Krajicek, and as Sampras has done so often, the intensity of this match will be sucked out early by the American's comprehensive, numbing genius. Krajicek's only hope is to win the first set and make Pete sweat. Again, I'd love to watch such a drama, but it won't happen here.

Poor Michael Chang is in between a rock and a hard place. He can't just grind away and hit big topspin ala Muster, nor does he have all the artillery necessary to wage a full-fledged attack. The price of being so resourceful is that in the late stages of Slams, Chang's often depleted and out of weapons. Last year he played a wonderful semi against Agassi, overtaking the '94 champ with imagination and power. But Kafelnikov's a different customer, a heavyweight who can do so much and occasionally get it done without expending too much effort. The crowd will root for Chang, and it will be tight early on, but I see the Russian pulling away.

The Sampras-Kafelnikov final figures to be a great match. After all, it was way back in '94 when Kafelnikov burst on the scene by taking Sampras to 9-7 in the fifth at the Australian Open. Of Sampras' 12 Grand Slam finals (he's won 10, lost two), none have gone to a fifth set. In theory, this one has the potential to reach that final stanza.

But it won't. Like a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, Sampras has an unprecedented ability to bear down early on and utterly dominate a match. In all ten of his Slam wins, he has opened by playing two scintillating sets -- cracking first serves, whipping forehands and, most surprising of all, supplementing his offensive game by playing airtight defense. Early on in a tournament, it's common to see Sampras whack balls into the net or mistime backhands. But by this stage, he's so locked in you can almost see the opponent suffocate. Kafelnikov figures to have many great days in the sun, but the '97 Open final won't be one of them. Sampras will earn his 11th Slam and continue his trot to heights no male player has ever reached.

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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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