When Grand Slams arrive, it's tempting to articulate a symmetry between men
and women. Sampras equals Hingis, Rios matches Kournikova, Chang is Sanchez
Vicario. But these days, any such comparison is about as valid as a wood
racket. The plot lines for each gender vary so much that any effort to weave
a sport-wide through them is pointless.
So, let's begin by taking a look at the women's game. Billie Jean King
recently told me that she thinks the Corel WTA Tour is deeper than it's been
in decades, since the years when the likes of her, Evonne Goolagong, Chris
Evert, Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin were all competing
at the same time.
This year's French Open figures to be an incredible showdown -- and a
powerful venue for setting the rest of the year's agenda. Martina Hingis, of
course, is the favorite, and her recent win at the Italian Open gave her even
more confidence (if that's possible). The Williams sisters have arrived as
fullscale players. Anna Kournikova is getting better every week, including
her first win over Hingis ten days ago in Berliln. Lindsay Davenport still
has miles of her best tennis ahead. Veterans like Jana Novotna, Amanda
Coetzer, Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario are right in the thick
of things. Perhaps the biggest wild card is Monica Seles, tenacious but no
doubt grief-stricken by her father's recent death. Oh, and in case we've
forgotten, Iva Majoli won this thing last year.
Here's how the 16 seeds would shake out should they reach their appointed
1. Martina HIngis
12. Nathalie Tauziat
9. Irina Spirlea
8. Venus Williams
3. Jana Novotna
13. Anna Kournikova
16 Lisa Raymond
6. Monica Seles
5. Amanda Coetzer
11. Mary Pierce
15. Dominique van Roost
4. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
7. Conchita Martinez
10. Iva Majoli
14. Sandrine Testud
2. Lindsay Davenport
The Hunted Hingis
Hingis' losses this year to Venus, Kournikova and Davenport have likely given
her that sense of doubt, that eerie feeling that she's being followed, pursued
and ready to be stuffed. As much as she must remain the favorite, I foresee a
cranky, besieged quality to her tennis that will not make it easy to earn her
first French Open crown. Her early rounds figure to be easy, but in the
quarters she'll likely face the winner of Spirlea and Venus. Though Hingis
and Venus have split their four matches this year, Hingis taking the most
recent tussle in the Italian final, you can tell that the way Hingis is
currently playing she's not enamoured of dealing with Venus' arsenal. Their
match in Rome was deadlocked at 3-all in the third when Hingis ran the table,
whipping through the last three games. But one can only be impressed by
Venus' skill at playing on Hingis' native surface, European clay.
Assuming Venus can get by Ai Sugiyama in the second round (Sugiyama is the
highest-ranked player who's unseeded), and also counting on Spirlea to keep
her head in check, their round of 16 match figures to be a doozy. Spirlea is
starting to come into form, and can beat anyone on a given day -- and also
play some of the most lackluster tennis in the world when the muse doesn't
strike her. I'll give Venus the slight edge in this one; something will annoy
Spirlea at a critical stage and the tents will fold up.
In the next quarter, Kournikova's got a great chance to make a big splash
versus Novotna in the round of 16. This is Anna's match for the taking.
Novotna's least effective surface is clay, and Kournikova has a game that's
fluid enough for all surfaces. Her likely quarterfinal opponent will be
Seles, who even in the wake of her father's death figures to turn on the juice
for a few rounds. But Kournikova has confidence from having beaten Seles at
Lipton. Moreover, she's got the mobility to hang with Monica and force the
three-time French champ into fatigue and errors.
On the other half of the draw, Amanda Coetzer has been playing her brand of
airtight, rabbit-like tennis. But she's got a tough first-rounder against
talented Swiss southpaw Patty Schnyder. If Coetzer can grub her way through
this, and I think she will, she'll move smoothly to the round of 16, probably
versus the mercurial Mary Pierce. For my money, Pierce is now becoming an
overvalued stock. She's a less talented, less accomplished female Andre
Agassi: a crowdpleaser who hits the tar out of the ball but rarely delivers.
Most times, she's blown Coetzer off the court, but here I'll give the nod to
the South African.
But Coetzer's run will end in the quarters when she meets an even craftier
version of herself in Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. For most of the last year,
Arantxa has been in the doldrums, still searching for the form that made her
number one several years ago. This year in Paris, aided by a benign draw, I
see the Spaniard reaching the semis. Her most compelling match will be in the
round of 16 versus either Dominique van Roost or, most engaging of all, Serena
Williams. Sanchez-Serena would be captivating. Unlike Venus, Serena has a
smoothness to her strokes, backed by a floating kind of footwork. She's still
got some rough spots and patches of inconsistency, which I believe will give
Sanchez just the opening she needs.
The lower quarter is the toughest one in the tournament. Majoli has played
utterly uninspired tennis since her big win last year over Hingis in the
finals. Though slated for a round of 16 battle with Conchita Martinez, I
wouldn't be surprised if she went down in the second round to talented
underachiever Natasha Zvereva. No matter what, look for Conchita Martinez to
reach the quarters.
Lindsay Davenport starts the tournament with a challenging match. She'll go
up against Kimberly Po, a fellow Southern Californian who took her out of the
'97 Australian. Po's steady, intelligent, but won't have enough firepower to
ward off the new, improved Davenport.
Here's how the semis will look:
- Hingis vs. Kournikova
- Sanchez Vicario vs. Davenport
All four semifinalists will have a lot to prove. Hingis, annoyed throughout
the tournament by all the attention paid to others, will seek to annihilate
Kournikova. But again, Anna's constantly gaining confidence, and if she can
get off to a good start -- say, a 4-2 first set lead -- she might severly
press Hingis. On clay, this could lead Hingis to hunker down and retreat to
the baseline. That could well give Kournikova even more of an opening --
provided she stays calm and methodical.
But the thinking is that Kournikova still needs more polishing. As much as
I'd like to think Martina will force the action by coming to net, I believe
Hingis will win this match more on the Russian's errors than on her own
Davenport would like to finally reach a Grand Slam final. I think she will.
Faster, trimmer and smarter than ever, Lindsay is at last growing into her
game. Arantxa will bring out the whole arsenal -- moonballs, drop shots,
sorties to net -- but at this stage her slight stature won't be able to handle
The Hingis-Davenport final will have many fine rallies. Virtually all of
them will be won by Hingis, who'll enjoy countering Lindsay's baseline blasts.
Whereas a nimble netrusher like Kournikova might challenge Hingis, Davenport
lacks the flexibility necessary to follow up her drives and relentlessly press
Martina. Lindsay will feel the need to put the ball away from the backcourt,
a tall order on red clay. When the dust settles, Hingis will hold that trophy
-- but I doubt if she'll have invested enough of her time in fitness and
netrushing to feel any less hunted. Wimbledon, and especially, the U.S. Open,
could tell another tale.
Men's Preview: Who Was That Man?
Now wasn't that a nice look at the women's game? Think of women's tennis
these days as an all-star cast. Familiar faces, rising stars, a few upsets,
but the ones you know made it to the final stages, right?
The men's field of the French Open is an altogether different animal.
Check that -- an altogether different solar system.
Last year, after I'd made the stereotypical journalist assessment of picking
Thomas Muster to win the tournament, I received an e-mail admonishing me for
not paying attention to other players. All I wanted to say was, "Hey, buddy,
did you have Kuerten, DeWulf, Rafter and Bruguera in your office pool?"
Here's the deal: The French Open is one of the greatest tournaments in the
world. There'll be magnificent, long matches, compelling rallies, epic human
drama carved on baking orange courts. It'll make for luscious TV. And we're
long past the moonball days of old. The winner will work the whole apron,
striking big shots, subtle volleys and streaking all over the court. Look at
all that exuberance Kuerten showed last year in winning.
And then, whoever wins at Roland Garros will remind me of an old joke. Two
brothers left home. One joined the Navy. The other became Vice President of
the United States. Neither was every heard from again.
That's how it's gone in Paris. Please note that except for Rafter -- the
French Open equivalent of a guy who shows up in a Halloween costume at a
black-tie formal -- none of last year's semifinalists advanced past the fourth
round of another Slam last year.
It's as if the colossal effort it takes to win in Paris is so all-engrossing
that the player is then spent for the rest of the year -- and even, to some
degree, the rest of his career (between them, such past winners as Noah,
Bruguera, Muster, Kafelnikov and Kuerten collectively reached the semis of two
other Slams following their best years in Paris).
So given all this, I will predict a winner, but where the other 127 players
will go is an anarchist's dream. The rub here is that since so many French
champs don't do much elsewhere, they're not even ranked high enough to be
seeded. Muster, Courier and Bruguera are all dangerous floaters. Other
volatile non-seeds include Thomas Enqvist, Magnus Larsson, Goran Ivanisevic,
Wayne Ferraira and Marc Rosset.
Marcelo Rios will be the '98 French Open champ. I know this is hardly going
out on a limb, but I concur with a statement John McEnroe made to a group of
us journalists last week: The tournament is his for the taking.
Here's a look at how the tournament would shake out in the unlikely event
that all 16 seeds justified their seedings:
1. Pete Sampras
Point one: Pete Sampras will not win in Paris. Even though he'll speak
forcefully about his desire to take this title and become only the fifth man
in tennis history earn all four Grand Slam singles crowns, nothing in his play
or training patterns indicates any true chance for him. In fact, '98 has seen
one of his worst starts in years. Sampras has only won titles in Philadelphia
and Atlanta, triumphing over weak fields. He was shocked in the Australian
quarters by Kucera, upset by the Muster, Ferraira, Santoro and Chang at Super
Nine events, and was even displaced from his number one ranking for a few
weeks by Rios. Unquestionably, he wants to reassert his greatness, but he
won't make that statement until he's on those beloved British grasscourts.
15. Felix Mantilla
9. Karol Kucera
7. Jonas Bjorkman
3. Marcelo Rios
13. Albert Costa
12. Carlos Moya
5. Greg Rusesdski
6. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
11. Michael Chang
14. Alex Corretja
4. Patrick Rafter
8. Gustavo Kuerten
10. Richard Krajicek
16. Alberto Berasategui
2. Petr Korda
Earlier this year, Andre Agassi acknowledged how haunted he feels by his
losses in the '90 and '91 French finals. But back then, he was the hardest
hitter in tennis. These days, he's one of many, and while his comeback from
141 to 19 has been impressive, he's just about the hit wall. Rios made him
look old at Lipton and Kafelnikov whipped him in Davis Cup.
What's most exciting for Agassi, though, will be a chance to take on Kuerten
in the second round of Paris. My feeling is Kuerten, still somewhat dazed by
all that last year's title meant, won't be able to stem the tide. Agassi will
be fresh this early and win the match. But even if Andre can emerge from a
tough section -- rising American Jan-Michael Gambill, Cedric Pioline and
Krajicek are among those he could encounter on his way to the quarters -- he
won't win the tournament. Seven matches on clay is just too tough.
Michael Chang just hasn't had enough healthy match experience this year. He
could even go down to crafty Spaniard Francisco Clavet in the second round,
and by the round of 16 Chang will meet his end, for in his same section lurks
one of the toughest Slam early rounds ever: Imagine a second round clash
between Kafelnikov and Enqvist. Just a couple of spaces over is a first
rounder between flamethrowing Swede Magnus Larsson and Dewulf, the winner to
play Goran Ivanisevic. Talk about a combustible draw!
Other intriguing potential early round matchups include Sampras' first
rounder versus Todd Martin (who surprised even himself by winning a red clay
event in Barcelona last month), a first-round clash of German prodigies
Nicolas Kiefer and Tommy Haas, the winner who'll play the victor of the
Muster-Bjorkman first rounder; a third round match between Courier and Carlos
Moya; a third-rounder between Corretja and Bruguera.
The big collective question I have is if the Spaniards can step up and make a
big impact. In the same all-for-one manner that made the Aussies and Swedes
endearing in their days, these guys have become the sport's leading nation.
Yet except for Bruguera's wins here several years ago, and Moya's run to the
Australian Open finals in '97, they've yet to make their presence felt
repeatedly at the Slams. I wonder if they play too much, or if they're too
drained by working with each other, or too friendly, or what. One hopes that
with such a wide opening in Paris -- it's hard to imagine Rafter, Rusedski or
Korda advancing far -- the Spaniards boldly advance to the late stages.
Meanwhile, as Americans seek to learn patience, and clay court specialists
grind away, Rios will float his way through. His draw is rather comfortable:
a first-rounder versus netrusher Brett Steven, possible danger from Magnus
Norman (winner over Sampras last year) or Ferreira in the third round, a
grinding round of 16 against Albert Costa; a quarter versus Moya.
But none of these guys should pose that much difficulty. Remember, earlier
this year (or was it a million years ago?), Rios made the finals on an
Australian hardcourt. He loves the Paris clay, and his wins in Indian Wells
and Lipton gave him even more confidence. Despite his prickliness, he truly
is an artist with a racket, able to combine elements of McEnroe's variety,
Connors' ability to drive the ball early and his own soccer-bred brand of
movement. Maybe victory will even make him friendly.
But if I had any idea who'll meet Rios in the finals I'd tell you. Men's
tennis is so deep, and Paris is so demanding, that I'm utterly stumped.