The cycle begins again, and the eyes of the tennis world turn Down Under. The Old Year was wonderful for tennis fans, producing eight different Slam champions, men and women. Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport won in the official standings for the year, but their margins over the second-place finishers, Marcelo Rios and Martina Hingis, were small. If Grand Slam Cup and Davis/Fed Cup play had counted in the rankings, the final order might have been reversed in both cases.
Of the four Slams, Australia is the one that allows the baseliners and net-game artists to meet on terms closest to equality. What is most needed to win on these moderately slow, rubberized hard courts is the ability to hit groundstrokes with power and consistency, primarily to the corners--along with quickness and foot speed to neutralize opponent's power with all-court coverage. Many points will become fierce corner-to-corner exchanges until one player yields a soft reply, whereupon opponent tries to crush a winner or perhaps advance to net. In general, however, among both men and women, the net will not be a place to be unless a point is virtually won.
Two elements make the Open sometimes a brutal affair. Temperatures, expected to reach 98 Fahrenheit during the qualifier matches this weekend, often exceed 100 degrees. If extreme heat persists over several days, the players--especially the men who play best-of-five and seldom meet a much weaker opponent--grind down into lingering pain and fatigue. The heat adds to the slowness of the court surface, and causes it to become sticky, producing extreme traction and punishing ankles, knees, muscles, and connecting tissue.
The warriors have had a month or so to mend their bodies and spirits, and perhaps to work on improving their weaponry. Fans worldwide, tune up your television sets and get ready for some midnight treats.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES OUTLOOK
In the thirty Australian Opens played since 1969, the first- or second-seeded woman has won 23 times. The pattern will probably continue this year, as the tour has produced two clear leaders. Both Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis finished 1998 strongly. Davenport defeated Hingis in the U.S. Open final, and Hingis defeated Davenport to win the season-ending Chase Championships in New York. Both players appear to be free of major injury, making it difficult to pick against Davenport, whose hammering ground strokes from both sides and her improved court mobility would seem ideally suited for conditions at Melbourne. Hingis, however, is the two-time defending champion, and if extreme heat sets in, the taller and heavier Davenport would seem at disadvantage against Hingis.
But things aren't that simple. There are plenty of solid challengers capable of overturning either favorite, including two contenders who are, in my opinion, capable of beating both front-runners in a given week.
One is Venus Williams, now 18, troubled by intermittent knee troubles last year. Williams has at least as much power and mobility as Davenport or Hingis but is slightly less consistent in her shotmaking. Williams finished last summer strongly, winning Grand Slam Cup in September, but her knee problems kept her out of the November events. I would like to see her become more resolute in advancing to net, but on these slowish courts, raw ability from the baseline can prevail if she can equal her top rivals in avoiding errors.
The other is the four-time Australian Open champion, Steffi Graf, 29, whose protracted comeback finally produced success in late 1998. Graf won championships in November at Leipzig and in Philadelphia, where she defeated Davenport in three sets. Then at the Chase, she defeated Pierce, Novotna, and Seles and finally lost to Davenport, all in close matches. Stomach discomfort troubled her in the Melbourne tune-ups, but she defeated Venus and sister Serena at Sydney, falling to Davenport. If her physical problems are behind her, Graf will be a powerful presence at Melbourne.
Two other former Australian champions cannot be easily dismissed. Monica Seles has played the tournament four times and won it every time (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996). Mary Pierce, who turns 24 this month, won at Melbourne in 1995 and was runner-up in 1997. Both finished 1998 solidly. Pierce has the power game and improved mobility (like Davenport) to threaten anyone.
Others have the ability to defeat any of the favorites on a given day, but none have the weapons for winning seven matches. Here we count Sanchez Vicario, Novotna, and Martinez, all former finalists at Melbourne and all Slam champions elsewhere. Another is the French star, Testud, who defeated Davenport at Quebec and carried her to three sets at the Chase. But it would seem that for these older players, all of them age 26 or more, their best chance to win Melbourne has passed. The same is true for Irina Spirlea, 24, who like Testud played the leaders close during the fall.
Several younger women seem capable of further rise. Patty Schnyder, barely 20, won the tune-up tournament at Gold Coast, defeating Pierce. Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova, both now 17, were both superb at times in 1998 though their overall results perhaps disappointed their strongest advocates. Strong-hitter Lucic of Croatia, 16; and Mauresmo of France, 19, require watching. Newcomer Jelena Dokic, just 15, defeated Sanchez Vicario and Testud at Hopman Cup two weeks ago. My Email correspondent in Melbourne, Basil Stafford, says that while Dokic is still learning her craft, she has a strong all-court game and a dangerous forehand. But he believes that it's expecting a lot for her to pass the third round.
Here are the eight sections of the draw and my predictions. The ground rules I use in making my picks require that at least four players not seeded in the Top Eight must be picked to reach the quarters, including at least one player wholly unseeded:
Davenport (1), Spirlea (13), Huber, Raymond, Habsudova
Venus Williams (5), Zvereva (15), Rubin, Carlsson
Novotna (3), Van Roost (12), Caprioti, Nagyova, Black, Cacic
Schnyder (8), Martinez (9), Mauresmo, Lucic, Morariu, Neiland,
Seles (6), Testud (14), Serena Williams, Serna, Pitkowski, Applemans
Sanchez Vicario (4), Graf (10), Fernandez, Frazier, Suarez
Pierce (7), Kournikova (12), Farina, Grande, Panova
Hingis (2), Coetzer (16), Halard-Decugis, Dokic
Both Davenport and Venus Williams should be able to hammer any opponent in their sections into submission.
Novotna and Van Roost should advance to an intriguing fourth-round meeting. Novotna, 31, has not played Melbourne since 1996. She exited the Chase quickly last year and did not compete in the Australia tune-ups. Still, I cannot forget her magnificent victory at Wimbledon last summer, and her very respectable showing at U.S. Open. I pick Novotna to reach the quarters here.
Likewise, the seeded two, Schnyder and Martinez, should meet in the fourth round of the next section. Last year Schnyder lost to Venus early at Melbourne, and Martinez went to the final. Though their careers seem to be gradually heading in opposite directions, Schnyder's clearly rising, it's hard to choose against the veteran baseliner. Make it Martinez.
Serena Williams is a tempting choice in the next section. She is probably the best of all the nonseeded players in the tournament, and she seems physically stronger than Testud going into a likely third-round meeting. But in the fourth round how does one choose against Monica Seles, nine-time Slam champion, just 25, whose record in the Australian is perfection? Yet youth must one day prevail here, and I'm betting that the time is now.
Steffi Graf is an easy pick in the next section, and likewise Hingis at the bottom.
Pierce or Kournikova? Kournikova will have faced a dangerous opponent in the third round, probably Farina or Panova -- and this may provide the toughening needed to fight through against Pierce. Kournikova's public adulation is surely hurting her tennis, but I saw enough brilliance in her last year to expect at least occasional breakouts. I picked both Serena Williams and Kournikova to reach the quarters last summer at U.S. Open. Both did well, but both fell short of my expectation. I'm giving both of them another chance, believing that added experience and the slower courts will change things. Mark down Kournikova in her section.
Here are my choices in the late rounds:
In what should be a herculean quarter-final, Davenport should exploit her narrow edge in consistency over Venus. Martinez's strong groundstroking should move her past Novotna. Graf should repeat her recent victory at Sydney over Serena. And Hingis's iron will should prevail over Kournikova. Then in the semis, though Davenport and Hingis must play at their best, both should survive to another classic meeting.
Basil Stafford, probably reflecting the outlook of most Australians who have watched the Swiss princess sweep the last two Opens there, sees no need to look beyond Hingis. Indeed, Hingis defeated Davenport in straight sets at Hopman Cup two weeks ago, and is favored to win their final at Sydney this weekend. The slower courts, contrasted with Flushing Meadows, would seem to diminish Davenport's edge in blunt power, but it is also true that Hingis's slightly softer serve may be rendered more vulnerable.
The margin is small, but I go with the proven two-time champion. I choose Hingis.
THE MEN'S SINGLES OUTLOOK
Last year, only four of the 16 men's seeds actually made it to the Round of 16. But oddly, though the first week was chaotic, order largely returned thereafter. The four surviving seeds all advanced to the quarters, and two seeded players met in the final, where Korda defeated Rios. This year, perhaps a dozen stars have plausible chances of winning the championship.
I believe that Sampras was probably wise to withdraw. He is probably still the world's best, but to win a Slam tournament he must be in peak health and must play at the top of his game. Both of these conditions happened only sporadically in 1998. His chances were not good at Melbourne, and the punishing heat and surface there might have weakened him for some time. He can still manufacture a successful year--indeed, yet another year's championship--by focusing on the hard-court tournaments in North America (including four Super Nines and the Open), Wimbledon, and the fall indoor season in Europe.
I had looked forward very much to watching Rios at Melbourne, where the court surface offers full rein to his magnificent shot-making, court speed, and construction of points. At top form, Rios should win the tournament. But physical problems are again troubling the moody Chilean, who withdrew from the tune-up event at Auckland with hamstring trouble. Melbourne is not a good place to fight through injuries.
Pat Rafter's magnificent net game has not produced an outstanding record at Melbourne, where last year he lost to clay-courter Berasategui. Rafter's recent knee surgery provides a huge uncertainty, and he lost early at both Adelaide and Sydney. Krajicek, whose greatest asset is also his volleying and who is also trying to overcome knee trouble, likewise seems an unlikely candidate. Petr Korda, magnificent in winning Australia last year, won almost nothing thereafter. He will turn 31 this month and has been distracted by prohibited-steroid charges. His chances to repeat seem almost nil.
Big servers Henman, Philippousis, and especially Ivanisevic have strong-enough baseline games to require serious consideration. Philippousis reached the final at U.S. Open, and started off 1999 well, defeating Moya and Bjorkman at the Hopman Cup and beating Henman in a tune-up event this week in Melbourne. Rusedski's game came together nicely in late 1998, but he faltered early at Qatar in January and again at Sydney.
Andre Agassi is as intriguing as ever. The courts at Melbourne seem ideal for his power hitting from the baseline or just inside. Agassi won the Australian in 1995, and reached the semis in 1996. His comeback seemed almost complete at mid-summer last year, and he carried Rios to five in the final at Grand Slam Cup, but he withdrew at Hannover with back trouble.
But I believe the top prospects are other all-courters, including the four discussed next. Each has a reasonably strong serve, good stamina, and excellent serve-return and passing-shot weapons. All four are good clay-courters but are not wholly dependent on overspin rocketry from deep court. I especially like the chances of the two Spanish stars, Corretja and Moya. Corretja won Indianapolis in August on paved courts, and won the ATP World at Hannover in November, defeating Moya in the final. I could watch Corretja hit backhands all day. Moya won the French Open, beating Corretja in the final, and again defeated his countryman at the U.S. Open. Moya at 6'3" and age 22 has a penetrating serve and forehand, and knows how to construct a point to reach the net. He was runner-up at Melbourne in 1997.
Close behind is Kafelnikov, 24, who slipped out of the top ten last year but still has the skills that brought him twice to the quarters at Melbourne. The Russian finished 1998 well but went down early at Qatar in January. His superb passing shots off either side are his best asset, but he is an all-court player capable of finishing a point by moving to net and volleying decisively. Another huge threat at Melbourne will be Karol Kucera, who last year won the lead-in tournament at Sydney and upset Sampras in a brilliant match at Melbourne to reach the semis. Then in late summer, Kucera won at New Haven and upset a red-hot Agassi at the U.S. Open. (Agassi reversed the verdict at the Grand Slam Cup in five sets.) Kucera's serve return is excellent, he can attack off the forehand, and he has a strong crosscourt two-hander on the backhand. His second serve appears weak.
A host of other players are close to the leaders and could wreck the seedings. In this category are American Todd Martin, French players Raoux and Pioline (the French as a group, who train together at Noumea for several weeks prior to the Australian events, were strong last year at Melbourne), Swedes Enqvist, Bjorkman, and Johannson, the powerful Russian teen-ager Safin, Muster, Germans Kiefer and Haas, Albert Costa of Spain, Kuerten of Brasil, and last January's teen sensation, Lleyton Hewitt, along with Stoltenberg of Australia. But none of these seem yet the dominating player that the Australian calls for.
Here are the eight sections of the men's draw. My picks follow, in accordance with the aforementioned ground rule:
Rios (1), T. Martin (15), Korda, Roux, W. Black
Rusedski (8), Kafelnikov (10), Stoltenberg, Bjorkman
Moya (4), Pioline (13), Raoux, Muster, Haas, Hewitt, Kiefer
Agassi (5), A. Costa (12), Siemerink, Dosedel, Delgado
Henman (6), Ivanisevic (11), Berasategui, Rosset, Ulihrach
Rafter (3), Philippousis (11), Enqvist, Chang, Gambill
Kucera (7), Krajicek (9), Arazi, Kuerten, Safin, Paes
Corretja (2), Johansson (16), Lapentti, Tillstrom, Norman
Since his disappointing play in Davis Cup last September, Todd Martin has been hot. By reaching the final at Sydney this week, he gives notice that he is ready for Melbourne. He has become a multi-dimensional player, who uses his serve not primarily for aces but rather to set up the groundstroke rally that usually follows. His ability to win on slow courts was shown in winning on clay at Barcelona last spring. Perhaps sentiment is entering here, but I see Martin advancing to the final eight over a lackluster and wounded Rios.
Both Rusedski and Kafelnikov have started 1999 inauspiciously. Jason Stoltenberg is hardly the biggest name among the unseeded players, but he finished 1998 with wins over Raoux and Moya at Paris and a win over a frustrated Sampras at Stockholm. He recorded good wins at Sydney this week. Stoltenberg's is a balanced, aggressive game, though his record at Melbourne is not good. The path will not be easy. He will meet either Kafelnikov or Bjorkman, then probably both Mantilla and Rusedski. Mark down Stoltenberg.
The third section is loaded -- a tournament within a tournament. Here are slow-court powerhouses Pioline, Raoux, and Muster (who has been winning of late). Here are rising players Hewitt, Kiefer, and Haas, who reached the final at Auckland this week. But though his road will be dangerous, the clear choice is Carlos Moya.
Agassi, who thrashed Korda at the Melbourne tune-up 1 and 2, is the best hitter of the tennis ball at the moment, according to Basil Stafford. There appear no impossible obstacles to the quarters for him.
Basil also writes from Melbourne that he has never seen Ivanisevic so relaxed, and that perhaps Ivanisevic's head is finally in the right place. He will have to defeat Berasategui, a quarter-finalist last year. Surviving the Spaniard could be a fatiguing task, perhaps spoiling Ivanisevic's chances against Henman. But Ivanisevic defeated Henman in the Melbourne tune-up this week, and I like Ivanisevic's ground power over Henman's superior ability at net.
Philippousis has a relatively clear path to the fourth round except for Chang. Rafter, on the other hand, must face Thomas Enqvist, back from a three-month layoff, with a good record at Melbourne the last two years, and winner of the Adelaide tournament two weeks ago. Enqvist should upset Rafter, but the effort may bend the edge in the quarters to Philippousis, whose game (Basil notes) seems well suited for the surface. I choose Philippousis.
The next section features a wonderful collection of interesting players of diverse styles, including Safin, Arazi, and Kuerten among the non-seeds. But in my opinion, seeds Kucera and Krajicek are likely to close out these aspirants one-by-one, except that Arazi could well surprise Krajicek in a fascinating first-round match-up. Otherwise Kucera has the tougher road, but the slowish surface should favor his game, and he is my choice.
Corretja should survive in the last section. Johansson has been untested since the U.S. Open because of surgery, though he was superb at Flushing Meadows, losing in a fifth-set tiebreak to Philippousis in the quarters.
In the quarters, I like Martin over Stoltenberg, Moya over Agassi, Philippousis over Ivanisevic, and Corretja over Kucera, repeating his close win at Sydney.
Then in the semis, Moya should end Martin's great run, and Corretja should top Philippousis.
And in a classic final, I believe that Moya will defeat countryman Corretja. Moya has the greater power, he is a former Melbourne finalist, and, although both players seem fit to survive the two-week ordeal, Moya is by two years the younger. This is the year that the Armada will make its mark in Slams other than Roland Garros, and Melbourne is the place.