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Between The Lines
May 21, 1999 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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French Open Preview 1999

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Ray Bowers

It was a coolish Sunday in Hamburg several weeks ago, the final day of the 1999 German Open, on clay. As the score shifted back and forth, the favorite, Marcelo Rios, displayed his excellent court mobility and brilliant attack style. Across the net Argentinian Mariano Zabaleta, who had come through a week of long, demanding matches, answered with power off the forehand and good angles from the backhand. Late in the fourth set Zabaleta reached match point, but Rios hung on to equalize at two sets all. Then rather suddenly, Zabaleta's baseline strokes began to lose their depth and penetration, and his previously punishing forehands began sometimes to find the net. At the end, after more than four hours of intense play, Rios claimed the victory over a very tired opponent.

Two days later, both men faced first-round opponents at the Italian Open in Rome. Rios, who won the Italian last year, fell behind early to German qualifier Prinosil. Rios fought back to recover, but the Chilean star ultimately lost, two sets to one. Meanwhile, Zabaleta struggled against his opponent, the Spanish player Mantilla. Zabaleta lost the first set 6-0, and then retired because of a strained body muscle. It seemed clear that both Rios and Zabaleta, having exhausted their reserves at Hamburg, had little left for Rome.

The above events underlined the harshness of top-level clay-court play, where every game, indeed every point, can become an extended marathon. Looking ahead to the two weeks on the infamous red clay at Roland Garros, where all matches are best-of-five sets, we can expect that the cumulative effects of fatigue and minor injury will be a huge, perhaps decisive factor.

As is usual on clay, the players at Garros having the heavier topspin artillery from the baseline along with the ability to move fast to the corners will have a fundamental advantage. Scope for variation will remain, however--probably more so than in the hard-court game, as the slowness of the court surface will make it difficult to end points with a single power serve or groundstroke. A change of direction in the exchange, a severely angled shot, or a low-bouncing dropper can alter the dominance in the exchange. Indeed, a baseliner who is unhappy at net will be unlikely to defeat an opponent of equal backcourt ability but willing to approach net selectively. In short, the inferior player in the power game must turn to variety in order to change things.

Critical too will be mental toughness. A player must not allow fatigue or temporary discouragement to spoil his or her consistency in shotmaking. Every point must be played with intensity, for the careless and error-prone player is soon finished.

THE WOMEN'S SINGLES

Can anyone answer Venus Williams's heavy hitting, her magnificent all-court mobility and athleticism, and her current resolve to avoid errors?

In late April, Williams swept to victory on clay at the Barclay Open in Hamburg without loss of a set, and the following week she won the Italian Open in Rome, losing only one set (to Hingis). These triumphs followed by only a few weeks her win at the Lipton at Key Biscayne, where she beat Novotna, Graf, and sister Serena. Could Roland Garros this year be the first in a long sequence of Slam victories by the most powerful and athletic competitor in today's women's tennis? Maybe so.

There are, however, several players able to test Venus in the heavy-hitting game. Serena Williams is undeniably close to equalling Venus in both power and mobility, while Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles also can slug away heavily and accurately. Any of the three, if healthy, can defeat Venus by virtue of superior consistency if Venus is anything below her absolute best. Slightly less plausible candidates are the rising French player Amelie Mauresmo, who reached the final of the Australian Open in January and defeated Hingis indoors in Paris soon afterwards, and Steffi Graf, five-time champion at Garros. Graf, however, missed Hamburg and Rome this year with a foot injury and then lost in the German Open amid back pain.

The prime threat to Venus Williams remains Martina Hingis. Venus's superiority over Hingis is not yet conclusively established, and the clay at Roland Garros gives the Swiss star her best chance to blunt the American's power. Hingis's victory over a superbly playing Mauresmo in Melbourne in January demonstrated Hingis's ability to neutralize a powerful opponent. Hingis used her own quickness, along with superior variety and accuracy in shotmaking, to stop the French player's run. She goes to Garros fresh from victory in the German Open without loss of a set.

It seems improbable that any other player can defeat either Venus Williams at her best or Martina Hingis at her best. I believe that the meeting between these two super-stars in the quarter-finals will determine the tournament winner.

The predictions

Here are the leading candidates in the eight sections of the draw. As is my usual procedure in predicting the eight quarterfinalist survivors, only four of the top eight seeds may be chosen, and at least one nonseeded player must be picked:

Hingis (1), Testud (12), Mauresmo, De Swardt, Dragomir, Serna
V. Williams (5), Van Roost (13), Huber, Dokic, Molik, Zvereva
Novotna (4), Schett (15), Rubin, Nagyova, Po
Sanchez Vic (7), S. Williams (10), Lucic, Spirlea, Fernandez
Pierce (8), Tauziat(9), Likhovsteva, Martinez, Suarez, Black
Seles (3), Halard-Decugis (16), Smith, Habsudova
Graf (6), Schnyder (11), Applemans, Kournikova, Morariu
Davenport (2), Coetzer (14), Farina, Capriati, Sugiyama

Here are my choices:

Hingis faces a meeting with Mauresmo in the second round and then with the survivor of Dragomir-Testud in the fourth. Perhaps the difficult road to the quarters will prepare her for Venus in the quarters. Hingis.

There is really no obstacle here to Venus's place in the quarters. Venus Williams.

Novotna deserves to be favored, but a hunch vote here for Schett, who defeated Novotna in Hamburg earlier this year. Schett.

Sanchez Vicario led Serena, who retired with elbow-muscle injury, in the German Open in Berlin. But the younger, rising player is the choice here. Serena Williams.

This is a relatively weak section, with Pierce having withdrawn from Berlin and Tauziat struggling of late. Likhovsteva.

Seles is a three-time champion (1990-1992) and was runner-up last year, defeating Hingis. The easy choice is Seles.

Graf's injuries seem prohibitive. The path could be open for Kournikova, but Schnyder is back on track. Schnyder.

Davenport will have three tune-up matches to get ready for Coetzer, who must get by an improving Capriati. The choice is Davenport.

Then in the quarters, Venus over Hingis, Serena over Schett, Seles over Likhovsteva, Davenport over Schnyder.

In the semis, I predict Venus will win over Serena, Seles over Davenport, and, finally, Venus Williams to win the crown.

THE MEN'S SINGLES

Year 1999 has been topsy-turvy in men's tennis. Of the year's eight top ATP-point-winners in late April, not one had been among the eight leaders in the standings for all of 1998.

Things became only slightly more orderly in the early springtime clay-court season. The first ten clay-court tournaments of the year produced ten different champions, all of them familiar clay-court stars, including Rios, Kuerten, and Mantilla. The Roland Garros finalists of last year, Moya and Corretja, however, were not among the 1999 tournament winners.

Then came the Italian Open in Rome and the astonishing run of Australian Patrick Rafter. On the slowest clay courts of the circuit, the game's top net artist produced a week of exquisite play, a sequence remindful of his summers of 1997 and 1998 on the hard courts of North America. Defying conventional wisdom for clay-court tennis, Rafter came to net behind nearly every first and second serve. His heavily overspun and well-placed serves lifted high off the granular surface, making it difficult for opponent to return effectively and giving Rafter good court position for wielding his superb volleying skills and athleticism. When it was opponent's turn to serve, Rafter stroked slow, underspin backhands endlessly from the baseline, remaining every ready to move forward, meanwhile neutralizing opponent's power with excellent mobility and defensive play. Among Rafter's victims were Ivanisevic, Agassi, Lapentti, and Mantilla. Only Lapentti won a set, partly because of an extended spell of subpar play by Rafter.

It took a remarkable display of thunder by Gustavo Kuerten on final Sunday to stop Rafter. In the opening game, the free-swinging Brazilian broke Rafter's serve at love by striking three serve-return rockets. Rafter fought back hard, but the rockets kept coming, many of them with devastating accuracy. Kuerten won three straight sets, though the scores were close.

The remarkable performances of Kuerten and Rafter in Rome strengthened their candidacies for winning in Paris. Still, only three times in the last twenty years has the Italian winner also won at Roland Garros (Muster, Courier, and Lendl), and not once has the runner-up at Rome even reached the final at Paris. Rafter at age 26 is beyond the age of most Garros finalists (only four of the last twenty have been 26 or older). Perhaps unwisely, Rafter spent the week after Rome competing in team play at Dusseldorf. For myself, however, having seen Rafter's ability in the past to sustain his best tennis for weeks on end without faltering, and noting that he very nearly reached the finals at Garros in 1997, I believe it will take a huge effort by one of the clay-courters to upend him. Probably only Kuerten, Rios, and Moya have the necessary weapons. These three plus Rafter then, provide my prime favorites for Garros 1999.

The current leader in 1999 clay-court points is Gustavo Kuerten, 22, the surprise Roland Garros champion two years ago. Kuerten's sweeping groundstrokes carry huge power, forehand and backhand, and can open up the court or end points from anywhere. He has a powerful first serve which is also capable of winning points outright. His rangy frame at 6'3", 165 pounds, seems wholly relaxed on court, while his pleasant court manner makes him a favorite to watch. With victories at Monte Carlo and Rome, he is the only player with two clay tournament wins this year. Before losing to Carlos Moya in the recent German Open, Kuerten had defeated Moya in five of six career matches, including on clay in Davis Cup this year. Perhaps significantly, however, the clay surface and the balls are usually faster at Garros than at Rome, so it may be more difficult for Kuerten to load up for his rocketry.

Chilean Marcelo Rios, 23, had been troubled this year by back and leg problems but is now clearly on the upswing. He reached the semis at Estoril (Portugal), defeating Kuerten, and was runner-up to the Brazilian at Monte Carlo, where Rios retired with leg trouble. He next won the German Open, defeating Moya in the semis and then Zabaleta, as described above. When fully healthy and at his best, Rios's mobility, court sense, and shotmaking are absolutely brilliant. If his serve and groundstrokes lack the heaviness of Kuerten and Moya, he is nevertheless able to open up the court with good deception, pace, and angle, while his footspeed makes his defensive game close to the world's best. Despite his short stature, at 5'9", he is a fine volleyer and has an excellent overhead.

Our final prime favorite is the defending champion--Carlos Moya, 22, born in Mallorca and now a resident of Barcelona. At 6'3" and 177 pounds, Moya has devastating power and control in his forehand weapon, which is struck with only moderate topspin and relatively small backswing. His serve is strong and often yields a softish return, which allows his forehand to dominate thereafter and prepare the way for a point-ending approach to net. His two-hander backhand is hit firmly. His best match this year was in defeating Kuerten at Hamburg, where he commanded play from tight on the baseline while Kuerten was anchored deeper.

Two other players would require membership in our select group but for slumps in recent months. Alex Corretja of Spain, 25, was runner-up at Paris last year, and won the season-ending ATP world tournament in Hannover last fall. His subsequent results were disappointing, however, and he recently withdrew from competition for several weeks to regenerate his strength. Returning to action at Rome, he reached the semis before losing to Kuerten. The story is much the same for Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 25, the 1997 Garros champion. After winning the 1999 Australian Open he lost six straight tournament matches, was sidelined in early May for a viral infection, and then won two matches at Rome before bowing to Kuerten.

Although Roland Garros sometimes produces a surprise champion, it is hard to envision a winner outside our prime group. There are, however, several other spoiler candidates in our favored 22-25 age range. Spain's Berasategui was runner-up at Garros in 1994 and is still just 25. Felix Mantilla, 24, is another perennial clay star, who lost in the semis to Moya last year but defeated his countryman this spring in Barcelona. Another Armada member, Albert Costa, 23, is a baseline pounder who can make the day torture for any opponent. Meanwhile Andrei Pavel of Romania, 25, gained notice at Melbourne in January and won the clay tournament in Munich this spring. Hicham Arazi of Morocco, 25, has reached the quarters at Garros the last two years. Karol Kucera, though his serve seems vulnerable to attack, won three matches at Rome before bowing to Kuerten in three close sets. Finally, Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador, at 22, has the kind of attacking and varied clay game currently favored on clay. He reached the final four in this year's Australian and German Opens and recently split with Zabaleta on clay, winning in Davis Cup and losing at Hamburg.

The American Slam-winners of several years ago--Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Chang--seem now beyond the age of serious contention for the French championship, although each member has achieved some clay-court success. Down but perhaps to be heard from at Garros is Sampras, who once won the Italian Open and showed good clay-court results in the team play at Dusseldorf this week. Several other older players bring plausible credentials--Ivanisevic, Muster, Krajicek--but the grinding requirements of Garros clearly work against the older population.

The rising stars, 21 and under

Five times in the last ten years, the champion has been a player aged 21 or under. The current array of younger stars is impressive, and any one of them is capable of making a large mark at Roland Garros this year.

Prominent recently has been French player Sebastien Grosjean, 20, who wears a baseball hat backwards (an acceptable practice for players in the age group here discussed). Grosjean stood out in America during the spring and was runner-up to Krajicek at the Lipton. He has obvious clay-court strengths, including powerful, overspun ground strokes, and good tenacity. Countryman Di Pascuale, 20, defeated Mantilla at Hamburg. Similar clay skills belong to German star Tommy Haas, 21, who won three matches in the recent German Open before bowing to Rios. (Haas lost to Grosjean at Monte Carlo.) Haas's countryman, Nicolas Kiefer, also 21, returned to competition at Rome, where he defeated Enqvist and Krajicek. The Belgian teenager Xavier Malisse is a hard hitter, just 18, who reached the final at Del Ray Beach. He lost there to Australian Lleyton Hewitt, 18, who has excellent court speed and counter-punching ability. Hewitt probably does not yet have the heavy firepower needed to win at Garros. The young Russian, Marat Safin, at 6'4", 180 pounds, age 19, defeated Agassi and Kuerten at Garros last year to reach the final sixteen. Safin has the heavy weapons lacked by Hewitt but not the latter's mobility and accuracy. Emerging from the pack in the recent German Open was Mariano Zabaleta, 21, who nearly defeated a healthy and well-tuned Rios in the Hamburg final, noted at the outset here. At the moment, Zabaleta may be the best of the 21-and-under clay-courters.

The predictions

Here are the eight sections of the official draw:

Kafelnikov (1), Ivanisevic (13), Courier, Hewitt, Chang, Hrbaty
Henman (7), Rios (9), A. Costa, Berasategui
Moya (4), Agassi (13), Lapentti, Squillari, Pioline, Muster, Korda
Krajicek (5), Rusedski (12), Pavel, Kiefer, Spadea
Corretja (6), Kucera (11), Grosjean, Koubek, Vicente
Rafter (3), Mantilla (14), Haas, Meligeni, El Aynaoui, Federer
Kuerten (8), Philippoussis (10), Clavet, Stoltenberg
Sampras (2), Enqvist (16), Zabaleta, Di Pascuale

My picks follow:

Kafelnikov, a former champion, has struggled all spring and will have four difficult matches to the quarters. But I like the pure talent. Kafelnikov.

The Chilean must play his best against Costa and either Henman or Berasategui. My choice is Rios.

It's difficult to go against a defending champion. But the unseeded Ecuadorian seems ready for a big run. Lapentti.

Krajicek has twice reached the quarters or better at Garros. But Kiefer defeated him in straight sets at Rome. Pavel will be tough for either one. My choice is Kiefer.

Alex Corretja seemed refreshed at Rome and Dusseldorf. Corretja.

Rafter should survive, although Federer represents a dangerous unknown in the first round. Rafter.

There seems no obstacle for the Brazilian at his best here. Kuerten.

Sampras has an encouraging draw. Enqvist was strong at Dusseldorf but has never done well at Garros. But I think Zabaleta is the real thing. Zabaleta.

The South American run will raise many eyebrows. In the quarter-finals, Rios over Kafelnikov, Lapentti over Kiefer, Rafter over Corretja, and Kuerten over Zabaleta.

Then in the semis, Rios over Lapentti, Kuerten over Rafter, as in Rome.

And in a dream final, the former Garros champion against the worthy aspirant--Kuerten over Rios, in five.

--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.

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