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April 1, 1999 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Reigning Stars of the Clay Courts

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Springtime in Europe and North America brings the start of the clay-court season. Weekly men's and women's tournaments lead into the German, Italian, and French Opens in May. Then, after Wimbledon, an extended, second men's clay-court season unfolds in Europe and Latin America.

CLAY TENNIS AT THE TOP

Three decades ago, clay-court specialists played a varied and highly tactical game, one that often featured drop shots, moon balls, and underspin backhands. Patient, highly mobile players capable of consistency and accurate passing shots often could, on slow courts, neutralize the strengths of the big servers and expert volleyers who dominated the three Slams that were then played on grass.

The soft-hitters were gradually overtaken by a different kind of slow-court player, who hit not only with consistency and control but also with great power. Leading the trend were champions like Connors, Vilas, Lendl, Muster, and Courier, all able to hammer away with overspin from both sides, meanwhile matching softer-hitting opponents in consistency and control.

Today, the slow-court game at the pro level features power and topspin. The clay artist is able and willing to hit endlessly, often from well behind the baseline, believing that his or her superior power and consistency will eventually prevail. Variety can be useful, but too soft a shot invites opponent to take command. Advances to net are risky and are usually made only after forcing opponent to a very inferior hitting situation. Strong serving is important, denying receiver early dominance in the ensuing baseline exchange.

Heavy topspin gives the baseliner a good margin for error and assists the ball's velocity off the bounce. (The grained texture of the court surface grips the ball and converts part of the spin rotation into forward and upward motion, making the shot "explode.") Clay-court players usually show excellent footwork and court speed, and are skilled in sliding the feet to a stop while stroking the ball. Meanwhile, taller net players find the footing slippery when reacting to passing shots or in cat-and-mouse exchanges.

Results on slow clay at Roland Garros and on fast grass at Wimbledon confirm that slow-court and fast-court players are two different breeds, especially among the men. Wimbledon and Garros are held only a few weeks apart, and virtually all the top players enter both events. But last year the eight quarter-finalists at Garros and at Wimbledon were sixteen different people. The same thing happened in 1997. Not since Borg in 1980 has a male player won both titles in the same year.

THE CLAY-COURT STARS

The reigning clay-courters are led by Carlos Moya, who won the French and Monte Carlo Opens in 1998. Next are Albert Costa, who won the German Open, Alex Corretja, runner-up at Roland Garros, and Marcelo Rios, who won the Italian Open.

The is wide parity among the top ranks. Of the 28 leading clay tournaments in 1998 (events in the "world series" class or higher), 23 different players won at least one event and no player won more than two. Listed here are the eight top ATP-point winners in the 28 leading events on clay (data unofficial). The current age of each player is also shown.

  1. Moya (age 22)
  2. Costa (23)
  3. Corretja (24)
  4. Rios (23)
  5. Mantilla (24)
  6. Berasategui (25)
  7. Kuerten (22)
  8. Clavet (30)

Six members of the top eight, remarkably, are from Spain, and the other two (Rios and Kuerten) are from South America.

Since some players play only the leading tournaments on clay, it is wise to look also at the standings where only the top four events are considered (the Monte Carlo, German, Italian, and French Opens). We find that the picture changes only marginally. Kuerten and Clavet are replaced in the top eight by Pioline, who rises to fourth place, and Muster.

Here are the members of the second eight, ranking #9 through #16, again based on the 28 leading clay events.

    9. Pioline (29)
    10. Muster (30)
    11. Gaudenzi (25)
    12. Puerta (20)
    13. Hrbaty (21)
    14. Ulihrach (24)
    15. Kucera (25)
    16. Dewulf (27)

These sixteen players, then, all of them from continental Europe or South America, compose the top echelons of the clay-courters as the 1999 clay season begins. Note that of the sixteen, only five also ranked in 1998's top sixteen overall, where results on all surfaces are considered. (The first four individuals listed here plus Kucera appear on the overall list.) Players in their early twenties predominate, and there are no teenagers. The average height of the sixteen clay-court leaders is almost exactly six feet, which is two inches shorter than the average of the sixteen leaders on all surfaces.

Other clay-court specialists, obviously capable of moving up, follow in the rankings. A few more-familiar names also begin to appear. Boris Becker attained a 10-4 record on clay, including three wins at Monte Carlo, Krajicek was 9-4 on clay, and Sampras was 9-4 including six wins in capturing the artificial-clay event at Atlanta.

But who are the young guns, aged 22 and under, most likely to rise?

Prominent are the young German stars Haas and Kiefer, both now 21, who combined for a respectable 5-6 record in the four main clay events last year. Both have done well in early 1999 on other surfaces. So have Lapentti of Ecuador, 22, Delgado of Paraguay, 22, who pushed Moya at the Lipton in March, and Grosjean of France, 20, who stunned the world at the Lipton. Magnus Norman, 22, won Sweden's opening-singles victory over Italy in the Davis Cup final on clay in December. Meanwhile the Armada continues to churn out young new stars--Vicente, Blanco, and Alonso.

Especially interesting are several teen-aged players of huge promise, just starting out in top-level clay-court play. Marat Safin of Russia, 19, won three matches in his first try at Garros last year. Lleyton Hewitt of Australia has the court mobility and topspin-hitting ability that should translate into victories on clay, especially if given an extended oportunity to develop on that surface. Young Federer of Switzerland and Malisse of Belgium bring European backgrounds.

The view from the United States is largely one of envy. America's weakness on clay mirrors the U.S. decision, more than two decades ago, to focus on the hard-court game. For three years, 1975-1977, the U.S. Open and the mid-summer events preceding it were played on synthetic clay. In two of these three years, players from Spain and South America won the Open. Since the change to hard courts in 1978, however, neither Spain nor South America has provided another champion.

Still, several Americans bring valid clay-court credentials. Chang and Courier are former French Open champions and Agassi was twice a semi-finalist, though all three veterans now seem past their peak. Sampras and Courier won tournaments on American clay last year, though most of the top Europeans were playing elsewhere. Gambill and Spadea would seem to have the baseline power and mobility to do well on clay, though neither is accustomed to hitting with heavy topspin all day. Chris Woodruff, 4-2 in two appearances at Garros, returns to the wars after knee problems in 1998. Todd Martin won the Barcelona tournament last year but had almost no success on clay elsewhere.

CLAY-COURT DOUBLES

The techniques of slow-court doubles are not very different from those on fast courts. Baseline skills, marginally helpful in doubles, are somewhat more valuable on slow courts, but even the best baseliners must fight for net position in doubles whatever the surface.

Listed here are the eight top clay-court doubles teams of 1998, based on ATP points from the four premier clay-court events (the Monte Carlo, German, Italian, and French Opens).

  1. Eltingh-Haarhuis
  2. Bhupathi-Paes
  3. Knowles-Nestor
  4. Johnson-Montana
  5. E. Ferreira-Leach
  6. Bjorkman-Rafter
  7. Carbonell-Roig
  8. Woodbridge-Woodforde

We note that the top clay-court teams are almost the same pairs that lead on all surfaces. Six of the pairs listed above were among the eight who competed in the year-end ATP World Doubles in Hartford, where entry was based on results on all surfaces. (Bjorkman-Rafter also qualified for Hartford but did not play because of Rafter's injury.) Probably the list's main surprise is that the Woodys, who won Wimbledon for five straight years before 1998, seem clearly less effective on clay than on fast courts. We note that, in contrast to the singles, a majority of the above individuals are from English-speaking nations.

Six of the pairs listed above will again contend in 1999. (The Eltingh-Haarhuis pair is gone because of Eltingh's retirement--Haarhuis is now playing with Pat Galbraith--and Johnson-Montana have not been playing together of late.) We can expect a challenge on clay from the French pair Santoro-Delaitre, whose baseline defensive abilities are excellent. Santoro-Delaitre reached the semis at Hartford last year but are not among the clay-court leaders listed above because they played together in only one clay event (the Stuttgart outdoors, which they won). The Brazilian pair Kuerten-Meligeni along with Lobo-Sanchez should be strong on clay. Wayne Black and Sandon Stolle won recently on the slowish courts at Indian Wells, seemingly a likely indicator of success on clay.

THE WOMEN'S TOUR

Listed here are 1998's top eight women on clay, based on success at Roland Garros and the sixteen clay-court events on the 1998 WTA tour. (Results are weighted here according to tournament rank, ranging from the Slam event at Garros to the Tier Ones at Rome, Berlin, and Hilton Head, scaling down to the lesser Tier Two, Tier Three, and Tier Four events.) Each woman's current age is also shown.

  1. Sanchez Vicario (27)
  2. Hingis (18)
  3. Martinez (26)
  4. Seles (25)
  5. Coetzer (27)
  6. Schnyder (20)
  7. V. Williams (18)
  8. Spirlea (25)

Five of the above stars--the top four plus Venus Williams--also made the WTA top eight overall (based on all events, on all surfaces). Missing from the clay-court list above are Lindsay Davenport, #1 overall, Jana Novotna, #3 overall, and Mary Pierce, #7 overall, though all three of these veterans posted some clay-court successes. (Davenport defeated defending champion Iva Majoli at Roland Garros.) Missing also is Steffi Graf, a five-time champion at Garros, who was held back by injuries during much of last year's clay-court season.

There is wider distribution in age among the top clay-court women than among the men. The geographical distribution is also wider. Two of the top eight women are from Spain, but none are from South America, and the U.S. and South Africa are represented. These tendencies among the women, however, are not unique to the clay-court game.

Who are the younger players likely to challenge the current clay-court leaders? Mauresmo, 19, who reached the final at Rome last year, has the power and speed to become a strong challenger on clay. Serena Williams, only 17, has the same if not greater strengths, seen in her stunning run of success in Europe, Indian Wells, and the Lipton. Kournikova and Lucic, both 17, had clay successes last year, and Majoli is still just 21.

There seems to be room at the top. Four of the top eight clay-courters have posted disappointing results since the close of the women's clay season last July, albeit on surfaces other than clay. It will be interesting to see whether the careers of these four--Sanchez Vicario, Martinez, Schnyder, and Spirlea--revive with their return to clay or whether the rising newcomers take their places.

Our survey produces one unmistakable observation. Seedings in the pro tournaments are based on each player's 12-month record on all surfaces. As we have seen, such rankings are poor indicators of clay-court ability, especially in the men's singles. If seedings in clay events were based on clay-court data only, seedings would be more valid and unquestionably fairer to the players.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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