Thirty U.S. Opens have been played since 1968. In every year but one, either the first, second, or third seeded player became the women's champion. (Fifth-seeded Sabatini won in 1990.) The success last year of unseeded Venus Williams, who reached the final and nearly won it, was indeed remarkable.
The Open's defending champion, Martina Hingis, leads in the official standings and is the Open's top seed. The talented Swiss Miss, now almost 18, won in Australia this year, reached the semis at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, took two Tier One events, and led Switzerland to the final four in Fed Cup. Still, these achievements are well short of her 1997 results, and indeed her play seems to have lost a little of its sparkle. She no longer is quite so dazzling in nailing shot after shot just inside the sidelines, in finding the merciless angles that came from her racket so regularly last year. Against Davenport in California this summer, Hingis slugged away valiantly but in the end could not withstand the American's big hitting. To try finesse only seemed to invite Davenport's heavy artillery.
Lindsay Davenport, 22, thus stands very close to Hingis and is at least her equal on paved courts. In last year's Open, Davenport lost to Hingis in a straight-set semi-final. In February this year she defeated Hingis indoors in Tokyo, and she swept the summertime outdoor hard-court events in California, defeating Hingis, Graf, Pierce, Seles, and Venus Williams. Davenport can and, I believe, should win this year's Open.
Venus Williams, with two good knees and stronger instincts for attacking net, should consistently defeat both Hingis and Davenport. Since last year's Open, Williams, now 18, has steadily climbed in the rankings. She won the Lipton in March, defeating Hingis in the semis. At Wimbledon, she lost to the eventual champion, Novotna, in a magnificent quarter-final. Williams's anguish over what seemed bad line calls late in the match was an unforgettable episode. Her troublesome left knee worsened at midsummer, however, and she withdrew from all subsequent events. Her relentless power off the serve and off the ground, along with her excellent court mobility, promises many future championships.
THE NEXT TIER
The surpassing achievement in women's tennis in 1998 to date was Jana Novotna's Wimbledon championship, including victories over Venus Williams and Hingis enroute to the final. Novotna's net-rushing propensity is an attractive contrast to the baseline play generally seen in today's women's game. "She has surmounted the quarter-finals only once in eleven
tries at the U.S. Open, however, though she extended Davenport in losing last year. The rising of the new stars suggests that Novotna, now 29, will never win the Open.
Our top three--Hingis, Davenport, and Venus Williams--all reached the quarter-finals of the three 1998 Slams played to date. One other player has the same distinction. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a U.S. Open champion in 1994 and a quarter-finalist or better at the Open a total of seven times, is still only 26. This year, she won Roland Garros and has done well on paved courts, winning at Sydney over Venus Williams and reaching the semis at the Lipton, defeating Novotna. Her determined and scrambling style and her renowned court savvy make her a threat against any opponent. Still, her firepower seems not heavy enough to carry her all the way through the 1998 Open.
Steffi Graf has occasionally looked strong in her comeback at age 29, but various injuries have slowed her progress. When healthy, she seems close to her former ability, but some of the game's newcomers have just as much if not more weaponry. Meanwhile Monica Seles, at 24, has done better in her comeback, having reached the final at Garros this year and contributed heroicly in the U.S.'s unsuccessful Fed Cup try. Troubled by back spasms, however, Seles lost to Venus Williams and Davenport in the summer California circuit, though she defeated Hingis in winning the mid-August tournament in Montreal. Her back trouble suggests that her chances for going all the way at Flushing Meadows are dim.
Mary Pierce has the powerful groundstrokes to give anyone trouble at the Open. Now just 23, Pierce started off well in 1998 but a quad muscle sprain forced her to withdraw from the German Open. She lost early at Garros and Wimbledon, missed Fed Cup, and again had quad trouble in the final at San Diego (after defeating Venus Williams and Hingis). Then at Montreal, she lost her first match 6-1, 6-1. Her chances at the Open seem to depend, like Seles's, on her physical problems.
The official rankings of two relative newcomers, Anna Kournikova and Serena Williams, seem not yet to reflect their present abilities. Kournikova, now 17, in early 1998 began translating her excellent shot-making, power, footspeed, and court sense into major victories. She defeated Davenport and Sanchez Vicario at the Lipton, then split with Hingis on clay at the German and Italian Opens. But she injured her wrist in defeating Steffi Graf just before Wimbledon and returned to competition only in August at Montreal. Meanwhile Serena Williams, age 16, has the hard-hitting game and mobility to threaten any opponent. She has a 1998 win over Davenport, and she held two set points before bowing to Hingis at the Lipton. Lack of recent match play by both Serena and Kournikova makes a U.S. Open championship seem out of the question for either player this year.
This year's Open champion will almost surely be either Hingis, Davenport, or, if her knee is healthy, Venus Williams. Sanchez Vicario, Novotna, Graf, and Seles, sentimental candidates all, likewise bring plausible credentials. Others--Kournikova, Serena Williams, Martinez, Pierce, Schnyder, Coetzer--have strong games and could do well. But none seem capable of winning seven straight big matches, including three or four against the topmost players described earlier here.
Listed below are the seeded players and a few of the nonseeds in each of the eight sections of the draw. I used the following rule for making this year's predictions: the eight selected quarter-finalists must include at least one unseeded player along with at least two others not seeded in the top eight.
Hingis (1), Sugiyama (16), Majoli, Huber, Paulus
Seles (6), Van Roost (11), Kruger, Labat, Halard-Decugis
Novotna (3), Spirlea (9), Testud, S. Williams, Capriati
Graf (8), Schnyder (11), M.J. Fernandez, Lucic, Frazier
V. Williams (5), Pierce (12), Basuki, Neiland, Serna
Sanchez Vicario (4), Kournikova (15), Farina, Grande, Smashnova
Martinez (7), Coetzer (13), Zvereva, McQuillan, Raymond
Davenport (2), Tauziat (10), Ruano-Pascual, Rubin, McNeil
Predictions: Who Will Reach the Quarters?
Hingis. Hingis is plainly too strong for anyone in this section.
Seles. Her recent victory in Canada shows that she is ready for anyone here.
Serena Williams. This is a very strong section, with Testud also a threat to the two seeds. Serena beat Testud in California recently.
Graf. No problem for Graf until facing either Fernandez or Schnyder in fourth round.
Venus Williams. No threat here except Pierce, who defeated Venus in San Diego recently.
Kournikova. Her head-to-head with Sanchez Vicario will be something to see.
Coetzer. Martinez has the tougher draw, probably to face both Zvereva and McQuillan, who beat her at the Open last year.
Davenport. No problems here for Davenport.
Predictions: The Quarter-Finals
Hingis over Seles. This could be a classic, the nod going to the younger player with the wider array of weapons.
Graf over Serena Williams. Two generations meet. Is this where the torch is passed? I think not yet.
Venus Williams over Kournikova. The historians will be writing of battles between these two for many years.
Davenport over Coetzer. Davenport has far too much firepower.
Predictions: The Semis
Hingis over Graf. Here is where the torch is finally passed.
Davenport over Venus Williams. Venus is faster and hits at least as hard, but misses a little more often.
Prediction: The Final
Davenport over Hingis. Confirms the summertime verdict in California.
In making your own predictions, follow the aforementioned rule of including at least one unseeded player along with at least two others not seeded in the top eight when picking quarterfinalists. Score your predictions as described in the companion column on the men's singles. Tell me about your choices and where you disagree with me by sending me e-mail using this form.
Best wishes to Tennis Server readers for two weeks of great tennis watching.