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Between The Lines
May 23, 1998 Article

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Between The Lines By Joel Drucker
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Welcome To Paris: An All-Star Cast & A Cast Of Thousands

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 rounds:

    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.

Crunch Time

    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 forceful play.

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 Lindsay's firepower.

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
    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

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.

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.

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

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1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2002 | 2003 - 2007

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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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