The good news is that tennis season is cranking up. The bad news is that I'm
tired of seeing the Australian Open function as the Rodney Dangerfield of
tennis. This is one Grand Slam desperately in need of reform. It's sickening
to hear annual tales of 150 degree temperatures, dangerous rubberized courts
and woefully injured players. These are just some of the reasons why Jim
Courier, Richard Krajicek, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Jana
Novotna and Mary Joe Fernandez have pulled out.
Worst of all is timing: The first Grand Slam happens in January, and then
there's not another Slam until June. That's horrible.
So here's my idea. Just jettison all the logistical concerns and ponder
this: Start the year off at the Lipton, then work the circuit geographically
until the March Indian Wells tournament. Haul the players down to Australia
to play the Aussie Open -- in late March or early April.
But enough dreaming. The reality is that the '98 Aussie Open will be filled
with drama and the consistent surprise that makes both circuits so compelling
these days. Of the eight semifinalists in the two fields, at least three will
be in their first Slam semi. Seeds will topple. Great matches will be held
at obscure hours. Weather -- heat, wind, pestilence, locusts -- will be a
major factor. And yet for all this, I still believe the holders, Pete Sampras
and Martina Hingis, will emerge the victors. And then the result will be long
forgotten by early March. It's too bad. Australia, the beautiful Melbourne
Park facility and, most of all, the fans who love the sport, deserve a much
better role for the year's first Grand Slam.
Here's a look at the fields:
Though I make Sampras at least an even money favorite, there figures to be
excessive anarchy in this draw. Here's a look at how it would pan out should
all 16 seeds reach their appointed rounds:
1. Pete Sampras
15. Mark Philippousis
10. Sergei Bruguera
7. Carlos Moya
4. Jonas Bjorkman
14. Felix Mantilla
11. Alex Corretja
6. Petr Korda
5. Greg Rusedski
12. Gustavo Kuerten
13. Goran Ivanisevic
3. Micheal Chang
8. Thomas Muster
9. Marcelo Rios
16. Albert Costa
2. Patrick Rafter
- You've got to believe Sampras is hungry and eager to take his 11th Slam
title. One can only wonder about his condition in the week of the injury that
felled him less than two months ago in Davis Cup. But it's too hard to bet
against him at this point -- particularly since a number of challenging
players (Rusedski, Rafter, Muster and Chang) are all in the other half of the
draw. Only the possibility of a semi versus the volatile Petr Korda, the man
who took out Sampras at the US Open, should raise the holder's blood pressure.
- Patrick Rafter wants to prove with a vengeance that his US Open win was no
fluke. What better place to do this than his native land? But I believe
Rafter isn't quite ready to be a relentless threat at the Slams, and that that
heavy pressures and oncourt challenges will take their toll.
- Michael Chang has had a rough time of it lately. An injury incurred last
week didn't help. Though ripe for an upset, he'll tenaciously grub his way
through his first three matches. By the round of 16 or quarters, he'll be
- Andre Agassi has lost 25 pounds and is once again rededicating himself to
tennis. He's slated to go up against consistent Albert Costa in the second
round. That will be a solid test, but assuming he gets past Costa, Agassi's
round of 16 encounter with Rafter could be the match of the tournament.
Early Round Intrigue
- Slovakian Karol Kucera is one of the hottest players on the tour. Off the
heels of his win in Sydney, Kucera figures to knock off Bruguera in the first
round. Only in Paris has Sergei shown himself an exceptionally willful Grand
- The winner of that match goes up against the winner of Daniel Vacek-Leyton
Hewitt. The 16-year-old Hewitt, son of doubles legend Bob Hewitt, has burst
on the scene by taking the title at Adelaide and earning wins over the likes
of Andre Agassi and Jonas Bjorkman. It will be fascinating to see if this
power-hitting baseliner can build off the momentum he's quickly generated.
- Bjorkman has the possiblity of a second round match versus one-time top
tenner Wayne Ferreira. There was a period when Ferreira seemed to have top
five potential and Bjorkman was a mere doubles specialist. Now, the tables
have turned. Ferreira might threaten the Swede, but Bjorkman's conditioning
and love of competition will carry him through.
- Gnat-like Aussie Scott Draper takes on talented Dominik Hrbaty in the first
round. Last year, Hrbaty held a 4-2 fifth set lead over Sampras -- and then
hardly did much in '97. I'll pick Draper to win this, and then go on to give
a tough challenge to Korda.
- Likely second round: Rusedski versus Jonathan Stark, a big-serving clash.
They had an epic five-setter at Wimbledon last year, with Rusedski overcoming
a two sets to love deficit. Rusedski will have a much easier go this time,
but in the third round he'll have to deal with the nimble service returns of
Aussie Todd Woodbridge. Greg will get out of that one too, and then, in the
round of 16, have a wonderful match versus Gustavo Kuerten.
- Sad to say, but Goran Ivanisevic's best tennis is now behind him. Promise
unfulfilled. He'll lose to Tim Henman in the second round.
- Rios-Enqvist second round. Two of the finest talents in tennis. Rios,
confident from a win Auckland, will take this one.
- Sampras will sail through his early matches. He's supposed to meet
Philippoussis in the round of 16, but that's no lock, as the big-serving
Aussie seemed to lose focus in the last half of '97. It's not guaranteed that
Philippoussis will win his second rounder against fluid lefty Hicham Arazi or
gritty Hendrik Dreekman. And there's also the chance of Mark going out to Mal
Washington in the third round. Even if he wins all of these matches, he'll
find himselt outgunned by Sampras.
- The Bjorkman-Korda quarterfinal, a rematch of their U.S. Open quarter which
Korda defaulted, will tell a different story. If Korda can serve well and
keep the Swede pinned, he'll take control of this match.
- But in the semis, Sampras will seek revenge, and this time give no mercy to
the southpaw. He'll figure out the riddle of Korda's big backhand service
return. He'll slap many big winners of his own, jolting Korda into
overplaying. Most of all, Sampras now respects the resurgent Korda enough to
stay mentally in control for the entire match.
- The other half of the draw will teem with anarchy. Kuerten will beat
Rusedski to reach the quarters versus Henman, who will have beaten Ivanisevic,
Nicolas Kiefer and Chang. But by then Tim will be too tired, and Kuerten will
get to the semis. I'd love to see him play Rafter, but I think he'll come up
against a surprise semifinalist -- Thomas Muster, Enqvist or even an inspired
native, Jason Stoltenberg.
- Rafter-Agassi is the kind of "crossover" event the sport needs: A tennis
match that transcends the sport. It will be great to see an inspired Agassi,
but I still believe he's not ready to return to the top ten. Rafter will win
this in four sets, but then find himself taken out in the quarters by one of
the surprise players just mentioned.
-- And by finals time, Sampras will be clicking thoroughly on all cylinders.
As he has in all 10 of his Grand Slam victories, he'll quickly seize control
of the match, winning the first two sets with consummate ease. His opponent,
excited to be in a Grand Slam final, will compete nervously at first and not
settle down until the third set -- too late to make an impact. In a way,
Sampras is a victim of dominance. He's never been stretched to a fifth set in
a Grand Slam final. That won't happen to him Down Under either.
Women: Hail Hingis
As much as I love Martina Hingis, I was looking forward to the likes of the
tenacious Monica Seles, the talented Jana Novotna and, most of all, the
resurgent Steffi Graf, to challenge her in Australia. Alas, all of these
three have dropped out of the tournament. Seles' father is on his deathbed.
Novotna is conserving her energies. Graf doesn't feel ready to compete yet.
In theory, this should make the '98 Australian Open a romp for Hingis. But
the rub of being a shrewd counterpuncher is that romping is not easy. Lacking
the bazooka-like forehand of a Graf, the netrushing attack of a Navratilova or
oppressive firepower of a Seles, Hingis must still work diligently for every
point. She played more tennis last year than she might have imagined.
Hopefully, her opponents have studied her game and learned to exploit her
serve and forehand. Most of all, this is the year when everyone will be
gunning for Hingis. Opponents will run down those drop shots, anticipate
those lobs and be on the lookout for that dangerous backhand down the line.
And perhaps a few will be wise enough to deny Hingis pace, hit high to
forehand and show utter disrespect for her second serve. But then again,
maybe Hingis, smart enough to have spoken of these weaknesses, has been
spending time in the lab.
Certainly Venus Williams has been studying. Her win over Hingis last week in
Sydney shows that she's hear to stay. This will be the first year we finally
see how consistent a player Venus can be. Likewise for her rapidly-emerging
sister, Serena, who last week knocked off another new face, Mirjana Lucic.
Here's where the seeds are located:
Things will start heating up Hingis in the third round when she goes up
against her purported rival, Anna Kournikova. It will be interesting to see
if Kournikova has spent more time over the last few months honing her tactics
in lieu of her photo collection. I hope she has emphasized tennis, and would
like to see her make a run at Hingis. But she's still not polished enough.
1. Martina Hingis
14. Dominique Van Roost
11. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy
5. Mary Pierce
3. Amanda Coetzer
10. Anke Huber
16. Ai Sugiyama
7. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
8. Conchita Martinez
12. Sabrina Appelmans
9. Sandrine Testud
4. Iva Majoli
6. Irina Spirlea
13. Lisa Raymond
15. Ruxandra Dragomir
2. Lindsay Davenport
In the quarters, Hingis goes up against the winner of the Schultz-McCarthy-
Pierce match. I think Pierce will overcome the big-serving Brenda. But Mary,
who's beaten Hingis several times, will lack the imagination necessary to take
a Grand Slam quarter from the holder.
As Hingis marches to the semis, there'll be an intriguing matchup between
Coetzer and Huber. Coetzer is a female Thomas Muster -- her biggest weapon is
fitness, grinding and working through every point. Huber is the unfulfilled
Steffi successor, a big power player who lacks intellectual resources. But I
think in this case she'll hit her way through Coetzer, only to be felled in
the quarters by the crafty and hopefully resurgent Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
The last 18 months have been hard for Arantxa. Those tight losses she
suffered to Graf at Roland Garros and Wimbledon set her back -- to have come
so close, but not bring home the bacon, was extremely frustrating. But I
think after relaxing a bit in the last year that Arantxa is ready for another
run. Still, she'll lack the guile necessary to beat Hingis in the semis.
The other half of the draw is wildly deregulated. Martinez, Appelmans,
Testud, Majoli, Raymond and Dragomir may all be seeded, but even if one
reaches the semis, it's hard to take their chances seriously. Most
disappointing is Majoli, who has hardly made a dent since taking out Hingis in
Paris. I look for Lucic to take out Majoli in the second round. Lucic's draw
is favorable enough to get her past Testud in the round of 16 and even over
Martinez or Appelmans in the quarters. This Croatian, who many players think
hits the ball harder than anyone on the circuit, will reach the semis here and
emerge as a top ten player in '98.
Besides Lucic, the future belongs to Spirlea and the Williams sisters. Fate
has brought Spirlea and the Williams family together again in Australia: She
takes on Serena in the first round, with the winner likely meeting Venus in
the second. First, Spirlea will ruin the sister rivalry by humbling Serena.
Then, versus Venus, she'll take control early, face a hitch in closing, but
finally get it done and never look back until she has to go up against Lindsay
Davenport in the quarters.
Now what can we Americans say about Lindsay? She's nice, she hits the tar
out of the ball and, well, she's nice. But she's also testimony to the
troubles tennis faces in America. Lindsay Davenport lacks that certain aura
of physical and mental dominance. Is it athleticism? Does American tennis
occur in too cushy a middle-class environment to nurture the drive necessary
for global success? Where have you gone, Chanda Rubin (she'll go down to ex-
American Pierce in the third round)?
In America, hungry talents like Spirlea are now going into soccer,
volleyball and basketball. In Australia '98, though, Lindsay will pound her
way to the semis and then she and Spirlea will play a wonderful match --
arguably the best of the tournament. Whoever wins it will then be thoroughly
outclassed by Hingis. I'll give the nod to Davenport. Spirlea will be worn
out by all the emotional baggage of playing the Williams sisters. Lindsay
will actually find herself energized by the heat, engaged with the friendly
Aussies and feel relaxed enough to overcome Lucic and reach her first Grand
Slam final. But again, Hingis will reign supreme.
Sampras caricature Copyright 1997 by Picture-Partners. Used with permission. No unauthorized replication is allowed without the express written consent of Picture-Partners.