The four Slams are now history, along with seven of the Super Nines and seven Tier Ones among the women. Spain has won Fed Cup, and the Davis Cup awaits only the final rubber. But although this splendid year in pro tennis is almost over, the races to determine the year's champions in men's and women's singles, especially the men's, are still wide open.
THE MEN'S SINGLES RACE
As 1997 ended, people had good reason for saying that Pete Sampras might be the greatest player in tennis history. Sampras had finished atop the official ATP tour rankings for a fifth straight year, having captured the 1997 Australian Open and Wimbledon and closed out the year strongly. Though Sampras was felled by a calf injury during the Davis Cup final at year's end, it was almost unthinkable that his reign might be ending.
But year 1998 would not follow the expected script. Four different players would win the four 1998 Slams and, even more remarkably, four other players would be the Slam runner-ups. It was only the second time this had happened since the start of the Open era in 1968. (It happened in 1982-1983, when the Australian Open was played in December 1982.) Meanwhile, the Super Nines were a bit more orderly--Rios took three, Rafter two, Moya and Corretja one each.
Thus the leaders in 1998 official points looked like this after the U.S. Open. (Note that points earned in late 1997 are not included here, though they count in the published twelve-month ATP tour rankings, where Sampras leads.)
Rafter, 3,260 points
Along with a dozen or so lesser tournaments, three principal events remain, all in Europe indoors. Two of them are Super Nines--the Eurocard in Stuttgart in late October and the Paris Open soon afterwards. They will be followed by the ATP Tour World Championship, in Hannover, Germany, 23-29 November. The points to be won in these events depend somewhat on the rankings of each player's victims, but usually a Super Nine produces roughly the following:
winner, 500 points
losing semi-finalist, 200
losing quarter-finalist, 120
The ATP World should yield slightly higher rewards, the winner last year having earned 630 points. (Lesser events usually yield about half the points of Super Nines, Slams about double.)
It thus appears that three and perhaps four players are close enough to claim the lead from Rafter by winning two or three of the principal remaining events.
Indoor play raises several considerations. Big servers typically do well indoors, unhindered in their delivery by wind or sun. Indoor-carpet surfaces, used at Stuttgart and Paris, are usually moderately slow but not slow enough to swing the advantage to the baseliner. Inveterate net rushers like Rafter like the freedom from wind and sun indoors and also the excellent foot traction offered by carpet. Sampras says he likes a moderately paced surface (such as certain indoor carpet), which helps him hammer shots accurately from the baseline. His own serves and volleys are powerful enough not to require help from a very fast court. Rafter's serve, less powerful than Sampras', should gain a higher bounce than at Flushing Meadows, to Rafter's advantage.
Who will prevail? Until late September, it seemed likely that significant clues would come from the Grand Slam Cup, held in Munich starting the last week of September, where ATP points are not awarded. But three of the top four--Sampras, Rafter, and Moya--did not compete at Munich. Rios won at Munich, defeating Agassi in five.
We can also seek clues from last year's fall indoor circuit. Here, the message comes through strongly--Pete Sampras clearly will be the man to beat. Sampras in 1997 won Grand Slam Cup, Paris, and Hannover. Rafter, on the other hand, struggled after his 1997 U.S. Open win, losing to Korda at Stuttgart, to Krajicek early in Paris, and to Sampras at Grand Slam Cup and in the early round-robin at Hannover. Further doubts as to Rafter's chances this year stem from a swollen knee, which hampered him in September Davis Cup play and kept him out of this year's Grand Slam Cup. Meanwhile the other leaders, Rios and Moya, also posted weak results in last year's fall indoor events, and Andre Agassi did not play. On the other hand, Petr Korda won Stuttgart, and Jonas Bjorkman was a semi-finalist or better at Paris, Stuttgart, and Hannover.
Apparently because of differences between the ATP Tour and the ITF (International Tennis Federation), individual Grand Slam Cup and Davis Cup achievements do not count in the official ATP point standings. To me, there can be no defensible logic in excluding Grand Slam Cup results. And, since many of the greatest matches in tennis history took place in Davis Cup competition, in my opinion Davis Cup play too should count in deciding the year's champion. Another weakness widely sensed in the ATP tour rankings is that Slam championships are not given enough weight. Winning a Slam is worth substantially less in the computer's rankings than being runner-up in two Slams, for example, and barely equals winning two Super Nines. I agree that the official ATP tour standings are excellent in providing a running ranking of the hundreds of touring pros, for use governing tournament entries and seedings. But in my opinion they may not necessarily produce the year's true champion.
The individual fan is thus left to pick the year's champion as he or she sees fit.
I have a hunch that if Sampras can overcome the muscle strain that occurred at Flushing Meadows and remain injury-free, he will again prevail in the late-year events sufficient to win both the official ATP tour championship for 1998 as well as first place in my own rankings. What seems even more certain is that we are in for some titanic battles this fall involving Rafter, Sampras, Rios, and perhaps Agassi.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
As 1998 began, Martina Hingis seemed alone at the top, having at age 16 won three of the four 1997 Slams, losing only at the French when returning from an injury. Although several other teen-agers seemed also ready to pass the older stars, Hingis's astonishing success seemed to indicate years of dominance ahead.
But again, 1998 would not cooperate. Hingis indeed won in Australia, but the Older Guard fought back when Sanchez Vicario won at Roland Garros, Novotna at Wimbledon, and Davenport, 22, at Flushing Meadows. It was the first time since 1990 that the four Slams went to four different women. Things were not totally chaotic, however, as the top rank was quite tightly defined, consisting of just six players--the four Slam winners plus Venus Williams and Monica Seles. All six reached at least the quarters of all four Slams (except that Novotna and Seles did not play in Australia).
These six led in the official rankings in mid-September, with Hingis and Davenport almost together at the top. Novotna was third, Sanchez Vicario fourth.
Three tournaments stand out in the forthcoming indoor season. Two Tier Ones are scheduled in October--the European championships in Zurich and the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Mid-November will bring the Chase Championships in New York, which will assemble the sixteen top point-gatherers in the women's equivalent of the ATP World.
Hingis and Davenport are the clear favorites to finish the year on top. Both, along with Jana Novotna, bring excellent indoor credentials. Novotna won Moscow last year, as well as the 1997 Chase. Davenport won at Zurich in 1997 and defeated Hingis to win the Pan Pacific indoors at Tokyo in early 1998. Hingis won the Paris indoors in 1997 and defeated Davenport in a third-set tiebreak to win Philadelphia, just a week before the 1997 Chase. Two years ago Hingis, then barely 16, reached the Chase final, where she lost to Steffi Graf in five after leading 2-1 in sets.
The other three leaders--Venus Williams, Sanchez Vicario, and Seles--cannot be disregarded in any of these events, although even a sweep by one of them would probably be too little to pass both Hingis and Davenport. Especially to be watched is Williams, whose power and mobility should overcome her limited experience indoors. Her victory in this year's Grand Slam Cup, where women competed for the first time, reinforce her credentials. A strong outsider will be Mary Pierce, runner-up in last year's Chase and winner of the Paris indoors this spring over Novotna.
I believe Lindsay Davenport will claim the year's official championship by winning at least one and probably two of the principal events. But even if this happens, there is a good chance that Hingis's Fed Cup exploits will lift her ahead of Davenport in my own rankings.