Paved courts are sometimes seen as an equalizer, where baseline players compete against aggressive net players and big servers under roughly equitable conditions. The paved courts at Flushing Meadows, however, are resurfaced each year, and are usually tailored to play somewhat faster than the normal. Thus, the clay-court specialist at the Open will miss the slow bounce that makes it easier to deliver safe, very powerful shots from behind the baseline. The familiar footwork on clay, sliding into shots, will be impossible. Hard serves will be more difficult to return than on slower courts, and strongly hit volleys will be more difficult to run down. Meanwhile, the player at net will enjoy excellent traction when reacting to the baseliner's passing-shot attempts.
Even so, today's powerful rackets will make the net an uncomfortable place unless one's opponent is first put under pressure. Big servers at the Open, like Pete Sampras, will create this pressure with their first serves, which they will follow to net. A few more-athletic volleyers, like Pat Rafter, will also charge net behind their second serves and sometimes behind their own returns of second serves. But more typically, points will develop into hard-hitting baseline exchanges, where each player pits shot-making power and accuracy against opponent's quickness and speed of foot. When one player is drawn well off court or yields a soft reply, the other will come forward behind an approach shot or perhaps paste an outright winner.
THE TOP FIVE
Five stars from four continents--Sampras, Agassi, Rios, Korda, and last year's winner, Rafter--are the strongest candidates for the championship.
Pete Sampras at age 27 is a four-time champion of the Open. Big server, big hitter, excellent volleyer, and possessing a superb competitive temperament, Sampras at the top of his game is almost unbeatable. A year ago at the Open, he lost to Petr Korda, 7-6 in the fifth set. After that, he finished 1997 strongly, capturing the Number One position in the official rankings for the year. A calf-muscle strain brought him down in the Davis Cup final at year's end, and year 1998 brought more physical troubles and few victories until Wimbledon, where he won a magnificent fifth title. He was impressive at times in the summer paved-court tournaments, but showed fatigue in losing to Agassi in Toronto, tiredness in losing to Rafter in Cincinnati, and uncharacteristic mental softness in losing to Paes at New Haven. Can he collect himself to win consecutive best-of-five-set matches at the Open?
Andre Agassi has done well in recent U.S. Opens, having won the championship in 1994. In coming back from a poor 1997, Agassi regained the official Top Ten at midsummer 1998 after winning convincingly at Washington and Los Angeles and reaching the semis at Toronto. Agassi is strongest on hard courts, where the true bounce helps him take balls on the rise while playing close to the baseline, not deep behind it. His sharply angled, hard shots across opponent's court often allow him to dominate the play.
Sullen Marcelo Rios has twice this year briefly overtaken Sampras atop the official rankings. A year ago at the Open, he lost in five sets to Michael Chang, then at the top of his game. Early this year, Rios's brilliant shot-making and superb footspeed took him to the Australian Open final and brought him championships at two paved-court Super Nines (Indian Wells and the Lipton) and on clay at Rome. Elbow troubles have sidelined him intermittently through the year, however, and his summer paved-court record was poor. His withdrawal from the doubles at Cincinnati left doubt as to his readiness for top-level competition. I believe that Rios at his best should defeat all others except Sampras at his best. But coming into the Open, Rios--now troubled by allergy sickness--seems well below his best.
Petr Korda's crushing all-court game and strong serve has produced a 10-3 record in the last three Opens. Last year, he defeated Sampras to reach the quarters. He won the 1998 Australian Open, convincingly defeating Rios in the final. Spine troubles have hampered him since, and his summer was undistinguished except for defeating Ivanisevic and losing a tight match to Rafter at Cincinnati. At age 30 and with a long history of injuries, Korda withdrew from an event at Long Island just a week before the Open. Until then, Korda had been my choice to win this year's Open.
For much of 1998 it seemed unlikely that volleying artist Pat Rafter could repeat as U.S. Open champion. His year had been disappointing, as he failed to reach the quarters in any of the first three Slams. But he won the Canadian Open at Toronto without losing a set, then won again at Cincinnati, where he defeated Korda, Kavelnikov, and Sampras. Rafter's serve is designed not primarily for power but rather to allow him good volleying position. Fans enjoy watching his athleticism at net, where he seems unbeatable at close-in cat-and-mouse exchanges. Defensively, he is good at keeping his serve returns and groundstrokes low when his opponent is at net, and he can deliver effective passing shots. His all-court footspeed is excellent, and his transition from defense to offense is blinding. He has head-to-head losing records against Sampras, Agassi, and Korda, however, but leads Rios 2-1 in matches. Rafter should go far at Flushing Meadows, though his lack of rest since Toronto could bring him down.
THE NEXT TIER
Four big servers--Krajicek, Ivanisevic, Rusedski, and Henman--all are able regularly to deliver unreturnable first serves, and each has a strong enough all-around game to beat almost anyone at the Open.
Of these stars, Richard Krajicek's chances are perhaps the best, provided that his troublesome knees stay healthy. Krajicek, now just 26, won Wimbledon in 1996. His best showing at Flushing Meadows was in reaching the quarters last year. He defeated a red-hot Agassi in three sets at Toronto this summer, repeatedly delivering sharply angled, skidding volleys off Agassi's severe passing shots, but then lost to Rafter in the final.
Goran Ivanisevic would be a tempting choice in view of his herculean performance at Wimbledon this year, winning a long semi-final against Krajicek and then losing the next day, tired, in a fifth set to Sampras. Ivanisevic has never won a Slam, however, and his best effort in ten tries at Flushing Meadows came in 1996, when he lost to Sampras in the semis. His paved-court summer record this year included losses to Agassi, Korda, and Kucera. He showed a recurrence of shoulder pain in his victory over Kafelnikov in New Haven. His power serving and hitting will be, as always, wonderful to watch.
Britain's Henman and Rusedski have good credentials. Tim Henman has the big serve, net game, power off the ground, and mobility to produce good results at the Open. He has never beaten Sampras, Agassi, or Rios, however, in a total of six tries, though he holds a winning record against Korda and Rafter. Greg Rusedski was the Open runner-up last year, but lost at Wimbledon with a bad ankle injury and returned to competition only at Indianapolis, where he lost in the quarters to Corretja.
Four outstanding players, all considered stronger on clay courts--Kafelnikov, Kucera, Moya, and Corretja--have shown the ability to adapt their strengths to hard-court competition.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia has finished in the official Top Ten in each of the past three years. His best Slam effort is usually at Roland Garros, where he was champion in 1996. Last year, he won the late-August tournament at New Haven, defeating Henman, Korda, and Rafter, but faltered early at the Open itself. He defeated Agassi and Courier in Russia's failed 1998 Davis Cup try. Having played both singles and doubles throughout the summer circuit, he was treated for exhaustion after New Haven, a week before the Open. At age 24, his career would seem to be entering its prime.
Karol Kucera of Slovakia, also 24, joined the summer's hard-court circuit in America late, but he did so in a big way. He arrived in mid-August to win the tournament in New Haven, where he solidly defeated Krajicek and Ivanisevic. Best known to Americans for his upset of Sampras in this year's Australian Open, Kucera has outstanding court-covering quickness. He strikes the ball firmly and controls it well with little backswing, delivering accurate passing shots and rallying with varied pace and placement. His ability to rip balls hit wide to his forehand is astonishing. His serve has good variety and produces aces on occasion. Given his proven ability to defeat the big servers, it would be tempting to place Kucera in the Top Five group. His first-round loss in Boston in windy conditions a week before the Open was disappointing, however. He lost in the first round in all four of his U.S. Open appearances to date, though his obvious improvement in recent months makes it unlikely that this bleak record should continue.
The array of fine players from Spain--the Spanish Armada--are as a group the world's best clay-court players. Their futility on paved courts seemed confirmed at Cincinnati this summer, however, where the five seeded members of the Armada all failed to survive the first two rounds. One member, Alex Corretja, lost to Australian Scott Draper in three sets. But just one week later, at Indianapolis, Corretja not only defeated Draper but went on to win the tournament, coming from behind to beat Agassi in the final. Corretja is a former quarter-finalist at the Open, and at Indianapolis he showed that his huge ground strokes and superb court mobility--hallmarks of the Armada--are now tuned to the uncomfortably fast courts.
Another Armada member--the 1998 French Open champion--also brings good paved-court strengths. Last year, Carlos Moya reached the final of the Australian Open, beating Becker and Chang, and he won the U.S. Open tune-up at Long Island, defeating Rafter. With a strong serve and a moderately aggressive all-court game, at age 22, Moya's stock is rising.
THE DARK HORSES
Other members of the Armada--Bruguera, Berasategui, Mantilla, Clavet, and Albert Costa--after spending three weeks on paved courts prior to the Open, will be dangerous against anyone. Costa, especially, seems capable of surprises.
Thomas Muster, once the world's Number One, is now 30 years old and plainly near the end of his competitive career. His hustling, energetic power game continues to please fans, however, and his paved-court record is better than ever, including victories over Sampras and Henman in 1998 Super Nines.
I also like Jonas Bjorkman and Magnus Larsson, the keys in Sweden's late-1997 Davis Cup victory over the United States. Bjorkman, whose career has been most distinguished in doubles, reached the semis in the 1997 Open and finished the year strongly. This summer at Cincinnati he lost to countryman Larsson, who went on to extend Sampras to three sets. It was Sampras's first win over Larsson in four tries. Larsson's strong serve and overpowering forehand could make an impression at the Open, where he has twice reached the final eight.
Finally, there are several dozen others capable of fighting their way into the later rounds--among them Chang, Kuerten, Kiefer, Medvedev, the heavy server Philippousis, indeed virtually every pro in the top fifty or so. I admire Kuerten's power and mobility, and also his two-set victory over Rios in late August. It will also be interesting to watch Marat Safin, the powerful young Russian, whose physique seems ideal for the net game he yet lacks.
Only once since 1966 has an unseeded player won the Open, and that was in 1994 when Andre Agassi was unseeded after finishing in the Top Ten the previous five years. But if the championship seems out of reach for them, unseeded players often decimate the seedings in early rounds. In last year's Open, for example, only one of the top eight seeds--Michael Chang--actually reached the final eight.
I therefore used the following rule for making this year's predictions: in picking the eight quarter-finalists, at least four players not seeded in the first eight were chosen, including two players not seeded at all. This rule prevents loading up the choices from among the top seeds, who would in almost all cases seem the safest picks.
Listed below are the eight sections of the draw showing the seeded players in each section and a few of the higher-ranking others.
Sampras (1), Berasategui (15), Muster, Gustafsson, Safin
Agassi (8), Kucera (9), Raoux, Damm, Escude
Rafter (3), Ivanisevic (14), Kuerten, Martin, Woodforde
Rusedski (6), Bjorkman (12), Pioline, Siemerink, Ulihrach
Krajicek (5), Kafelnikov (11), Kiefer, Paes, Haas
Korda (4), Henman (13), Mantilla, Philippousis, Draper
Corretja (7), Moya (10), Chang, Stoltenberg, Spadea
Rios (2), A. Costa (16), Medvedev, Vacek, Larsson
Predictions: The Quarter-Finalists
Sampras. An easy road to the fourth round, when Sampras will face the survivor of Muster, Gustaffson, Safin, and seeded Berasategui.
Agassi. Both seeds are hot. Agassi must face Raoux early, but he won his only head-to-head with Kucera, in 1996.
Rafter. The Australian must beat dangerous Kuerten. His fourth-round confrontation with Ivanisevic could produce the tournament champion.
Bjorkman. The Swede's good showing late last year and Rusedski's inactivity since spring point toward this counterintuitive outcome.
Krajicek. Kafelnikov has the more difficult path to the fourth-round showdown with Krajicek. Krajicek has the lead over Kafelnikov in head-to-head victories on paved.
Henman. The Brit has an easier path than Korda, who must face Philippousis. Henman beat Korda at the Lipton in two sets and at Wimbledon. Korda's injury propensity makes him a bad risk.
Chang. The American has had little success in 1998 but does well at the Open. His injured wrist is the big question.
Medvedev. A wide-open section. Vacek beat Rios in Cincinnati but even if he does so here, he must also face Larsson.
Predictions: The Quarter-Finals
Sampras over Agassi. A sharp Sampras has too much power on the serve, groundies, and volleys. Pete, well rested, should reverse their outcome in Toronto.
Rafter over Bjorkman. After Ivanisevic, Bjorkman will seem easy.
Krajicek over Henman. A classic serve-and-volley battle, with a narrow edge to the physically stronger man.
Chang over Medvedev. The American leads Medvedev, 7-1, in career head-to-heads.
Rafter over Sampras. A truly historic confrontation. Rafter won in Cincinnati, but it was a narrow thing.
Krajicek over Chang. The net player's advantage on hard courts ends Chang's amazing run.
Rafter over Krajicek. A worthy conclusion for the tournament. Anything less than a five-setter would be disappointing.
I hope Tennis Server readers will make their own predictions, being careful to follow the aforementioned rule. Score one point for each quarter-finalist correctly picked, another point for each correct semi-finalist, another two for each correct finalist, and another three if you correctly pick the winner. Let me know how well you do by sending me e-mail using this form. Par is the score if one disregards the house rule and chooses the higher seeds for all places.
POSTSCRIPT: THE RACE FOR NUMBER ONE
Sampras and Rios have jockeyed most of the year for the first place in the official point standings, which are a twelve-month running tally. The disappointing performance of the two men this summer makes it unlikely that Sampras and Rios will meet in the Open final. Such a confrontation would be indeed historic, however, as they have never played each other.
Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, Korda, and Moya, all of whom are well behind Rios in 1998 points going into the Open, are nevertheless close enough to close the gap by winning the Open provided that Rios himself fails to make the quarters.
After the Open, two Super Nine tournaments remain in 1998 along with the world championship event, all played indoors in Europe. (Grand Slam Cup and Davis Cup results do not count in the official standings.) Unless Rios wins the Open, this year's champion will probably not be decided until the final event.
Best wishes to all Tennis Server readers for a super U.S. Open 1998.