The skidding, lightning-fast, and unpredictable bounce on grass hampers the ground-stroker and encourages taking the ball before it touches the surface. Aces are frequent in men's grass-court play, where many points end either with the serve or initial volley. The big servers and natural volleyers usually prevail.
A remarkable exception came in the career of Bjorn Borg several tennis generations ago. The great Borg was a superb hitter from the baseline, winning Roland Garros six times. But Borg was also a five-time Wimbledon champion (1976-1980), where he proved uniquely skilled in rifling back the strongest serves of his opponents. Meanwhile Borg's own serve--an ordinary weapon on other surfaces--gained effectiveness on Wimbledon's grass, enabling him to move to net behind serve in a style contrary to his natural one. Borg in 1980 was the last male player to win both Garros and Wimbledon in the same season.
THE MEN'S SINGLES
The small group of top players whose strengths are in power serving and solid volleying provide the front rank of Wimbledon aspirants for 1999. Atop the list is Pete Sampras, the current champion and the winner of the tournament in five of the last six years. Sampras's foremost weapon is his powerful and accurate serve, including a severely overspun and heavy second-serve delivery. His volleying ability is also excellent, especially in moving to net behind serve, and his overhead game is awesome. Meanwhile, when his opponent is serving, Sampras brings a good arsenal of serve-return and passing-shot weaponry.
Since last year's Wimbledon, however, Sampras's career has been plagued by intermittent physical problems, and his results have been below his past performances. He reached the U.S. Open semis last summer but strained an upper leg muscle and lost to Rafter. He fought his way through the late-year indoor events in Europe, narrowly managing to retain his customary lead in ATP points at year's end. He skipped Davis Cup in 1998 and early 1999, passed up Australia 1999, and showed little success in the spring 1999 events until winning Queen's on grass in early June. Clearly, the fast courts at Wimbledon seem just what the great champion's career now requires.
All of last year's semi-finalists are again strong Wimbledon contenders. The runner-up last year was Goran Ivanisevic, a huge server and now a three-time finalist. Ivanisevic tired in the fifth set against Sampras, having come through a five-set semi against Krajicek by winning the final set, 15 games to 13. (Tiebreakers are not used in fifth sets at Wimbledon.) Since then, however, Ivanisevic's record has been undistinguished, including a 7-12 won-loss record in 1999 through Garros and a straight-set loss to Sampras at Queen's. Ivanisevic's lifetime record against Sampras is 6-12, including 1-3 at Wimbledon.
Richard Krajicek is blessed with magnificent volleying ability and a serve comparably powerful with the other Wimbledon favorites. His record in the past twelve months, mainly on hard courts, has been solid. He reached the final last summer in Toronto, losing to Rafter, then played well at the U.S. Open before retiring with injury. He won the Stuttgart indoors last fall, defeating Sampras, Ivanisevic, Agassi, and Kafelnikov, he won the London indoors in early 1999, defeating Rusedski, and he won the Lipton this spring. Krajicek is a former Wimbledon champion, the only player to have defeated Sampras there since 1992. His lifetime won-loss record against Sampras is a remarkable 6-2, against Ivanisevic a dismal 3-9.
Sampras, Ivanisevic, and Krajicek are all 27. The other semi-finalist last year was Tim Henman, now 24, who also reached the quarters in each of the two previous years. Henman's serve-and-volley skills seem natural, and are backed by an all-court game that produced two match victories at each of the three leading clay events this year--the German, Italian, and French Opens. He narrowly lost to Sampras in the final at Queen's. He can expect unrestricted crowd support at Wimbledon.
Probably the two biggest servers today are Mark Philippoussis, 22, and Greg Rusedski, 25. Both men can crunch 130-mph deliveries, and both can produce upwards of twenty aces per match. Philippoussis reached the quarters at Wimbledon last year, and has lifted his career since then, reaching the final of the U.S. Open and winning at Indian Wells. The British star Rusedski retired early from Wimbledon last year with injury. Rusedski reached the quarters in 1997, however, and was runner-up at the U.S. Open the same year. He defeated Sampras in the finals of the Paris indoors last fall.
One other player requires inclusion in our elite list. Pat Rafter's serving ability and, especially, his volleying skills, coupled with his all-court mobility and shotmaking, seem ideally suited for success on Wimbledon grass. Last year, Rafter won the pre-Wimbledon Heineken tournament on grass. Then at Wimbledon he lost in the fourth round to Henman. It was Rafter's third consecutive fourth-round finish there. Rafter has said that he dislikes the footing on grass, but as his Wimbledon experience enlarges, it is obligatory to list him among the topmost prospects.
What of the baseliners, including those players who demonstrated two weeks ago at Roland Garros that they are now performing at their peak--Hrbaty, Agassi, Medvedev, and Kuerten? Admittedly, Garros is a poor predictor of Wimbledon among the men. (No male player reaching the quarters at Garros also reached the final eight at Wimbledon in either of the past two years.) But the magnificent tennis shown in Paris by the individuals listed above is difficult to overlook. French champion Agassi, after all, won Wimbledon in 1992, confirming that his weaponry is sufficient to capture the championship. French runner-up Medvedev is less able at net than the American but has a faster serve. Both men smack the ball early off the bounce with minimal backswing, and both seem able to rip power bullets off either side endlessly. Meanwhile among the current crop of young South Americans, Nicolas Lapentti appears to have the kind of all-court game that could be adapted well to grass. Or should our baseliner dark horse be Karol Kucera, whose softish serve might greatly profit from the skidding Wimbledon bounce and whose ground strokes likewise entail little backswing? Kucera carried Henman to a third-set tiebreaker at Queen's, and is probably a better Wimbledon bet than countryman Hrbaty, who did not enter the grass-court tuneups. Meanwhile, teenaged Lleyton Hewitt defeated Philippoussis at Queen's and nearly defeated Sampras. Can one of these predominantly baseliners be another Borg, capable of excelling at both Paris and London at least during the summer of 1999?
The third rank of Wimbledon contenders includes Todd Martin (a two-time Wimbledon semifinalist), Petr Korda (quarter-finalist in 1998), serve-and-volleyer Jan Siemerink (also a quarter-finalist last year and a recent winner over Rafter at Halle on grass), perennial contender Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Nicolas Kiefer, winner of the Halle tournament. Boris Becker is returning to Wimbledon at 31, and it will be interesting to see if he employs the all-out serving-and-volleying style that brought him three Wimbledon championships in the 1980's. Meanwhile other strong servers cannot be dismissed--players like Safin of Russia, Enqvist of Sweden, and Moya of Spain, although the preference of these stars to attack off the ground will be a disadvantage on grass.
Offering the probabilities is a comfortable ploy for the would-be sage. I would make Sampras the favorite at odds of 3-1, just ahead of Krajicek at 4-1. Then come Henman and Rafter each at 10-1, Philippoussis at 15-1, and Rusedski, Ivanisevic, and Agassi each at 20-1. Next are Kucera, Martin, and Kafelnikov, each at 40-1, and then Becker, Kiefer, Moya, and Enqvist each at 100-1. The other players mentioned above are each 250-1. Please note that the odds proposed here correctly equate to an overall probability of 1.0, while those given in the leading tennis magazine are not remotely close to this value.
Here are the eight sections of the draw. My own predictions, which incorporate a requisite proportion of upsets, follow. I hope Tennis Server readers will offer me their gentle condolences by e-mail when, as has been known to happen, things unfold differently from the script here offered.
Sampras (1), Mantilla (16), Medvedev, Siemerink
Philippoussis (7), Rusedski (9), Hrbaty, Golmard, Stoltenberg
Kafelnikov (3), Kucera (13), Pioline, Larsson, Ulihrach
Henman (6), Moya (12), Courier, Schalken, Di Pascuale, Ilie
Krajicek (5), Kuerten (11), Ruud, Gambill, Woodbridge
Agassi (4), Haas (14), Lapentti, Pavel
T. Martin (8), Ivanisevic (10), Rosset, Arazi
Rafter (2), Kiefer (15), Becker, Hewitt, Enqvist, Bjorkman
Pete Sampras has a clear path to the fourth round, where he will probably face either Siemerink or Medvedev. Either opponent could make trouble for the American very early in the tournament, but with three matches under his belt Sampras should now be at his best. Sampras.
Rusedski and Philippoussis are two rising grass-court stars, both very close to the top. They have met twice, including once at Wimbledon, and both times Rusedski has been the winner. Rusedski.
Kafelnikov's disappointing spring and Kucera's good showing at Queen's gives the latter a clear edge. Kucera.
There are potential pitfalls here for Henman in every match leading up to a likely confrontation with Moya. The Brit has a 3-2 career edge over Moya. Henman.
Richard Krajicek at his best is by far the cream of this section. The grass-court bounces will cripple Kuerten's sweeping shotmaking. Krajicek.
Another run by Agassi following his unexpected Garros triumph seems almost beyond expectations. Unseeded Lapentti was a disappointment at Garros but has the capacity to grow his grass-court game as the tournament proceeds. Lapentti.
Todd Martin has a nice seed at #8 but must face heavy-serving Rosset and Ivanisevic to claim his place in the quarters. This should be Ivanisevic's sixth appearance in the quarters. Ivanisevic.
This is an intriguing section--a tournament within a tournament among the Germans, Swedes, and Australians. This could be the long-awaited year where Rafter makes his Wimbledon run. Rafter.
The late rounds should feature several extended and classic battles. I choose the favorites: Sampras over Rusedski, Henman over Kucera, Krajicek over Lapentti, and Rafter over Ivanisevic.
Sampras has never lost to Henman in five tries and should manage to defeat the Britisher in their semi-final. Likewise Krajicek, with a lifetime 6-2 winning record over Rafter, should advance over the Australian.
Looking to the dream final, Krajicek's winning record over Sampras in recent years is compelling, but this consideration is balanced by Sampras's having won Queen's. We can expect Sampras to be at his best and also at his peak of resolve, as his long dominance of the sport will be clearly at issue. My pick, to win his sixth Wimbledon in seven years, Pete Sampras.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
Of the four women's Slams, Wimbledon often provides the most interesting play. Aces are more frequent than on other surfaces, though points are generally of longer duration than among the men. Skilled net players do well--defending champion Novotna has reached at least the quarters every year since 1992. The low bounces typical on grass and the slippery footing add an additional dimension, improving the efficacy of drop shots, soft volleys, and the cat-and-mouse game in general.
How much Jana Novotna's ankle injury in Paris will affect the agility needed for her net-attacking game remains unclear. Certainly her tournament preparation will have been compromised.
Seemingly at last injury-free is Steffi Graf, 30, seven times a Wimbledon champion and recent winner at Roland Garros. Four of her past Wimbledon triumphs immediately followed a championship at Garros. Graf's powerful serve and forehand, her severely sliced backhand, and her superb court mobility enable her to dominate almost any opponent on Wimbledon grass.
Her foremost rival will be Martina Hingis, who won Wimbledon in 1997 (defeating Novotna in the final) and lost to Novotna in the semis last year. The Swiss miss won this year's Australian Open, again displaying her brilliant backhand and all-court ability, and she leads the women's tour in 1999 points to date. Hingis in the past has bounced back from defeats strongly, so her turbulent loss to Graf at Garros seems unlikely to produce lasting damage. Wimbledon's grass should help Hingis's relatively soft second serve, making it less vulnerable to attack by Graf. A Hingis-Graf rematch at Wimbledon could be a classic.
The heaviest server among the top women is Venus Williams, a narrow loser to Novotna in the quarters last year. Venus's size, quickness, and all-around athleticism nearly guarantee that she will some day capture Wimbledon, probably more than once. Williams has just turned 19--Graf's age when she first won Wimbledon. One senses that Williams's defeat at Garros after holding triple match point will prove a constructive, not a debilitating experience.
Leading the next echelon are U.S. champion Lindsay Davenport, favored by her strong serve and serve-return abilities, and Anna Kournikova, who also returns well and brings good net skills if she resolves to attack. Kournikova, 18, reached the semis in her first Wimbledon in 1997 but, hampered by injury, went down early last year. Meanwhile Serena Williams also seems close to breaking out upward, having excelled early this year on hard courts, winning the Paris indoors and Indian Wells and reaching the finals at the Lipton.
An array of veteran competitors follow, all with only faint hope for a championship this year. Baseliners Seles and Sanchez Vicario have together won twelve Slams but no Wimbledons. Nathalie Tauziat, a fine grass-court player, was last year's runner-up but has largely disappointed since. Dominque Van Roost serves and volleys well but at age 26 seems unlikely to break upward very far. Mary Pierce's serve and strokes carry good power, though her past Wimbledon record is undistinguished.
Younger aspirants include heavy-hitting lefty Barbara Schwartz, 20, who won three matches onesidedly at Garros before eliminating Venus Williams and then losing to Hingis. Australian teenager Alicia Molik brings one of the finest power serves in women's tennis.
Here are the probabilities as I see them. Graf and Hingis are co-favorites each at odds of 5-2, followed by Venus Williams at 8-1, then Novotna, Davenport, and Serena Williams each at 15-1. Kournikova is 30-1, then Seles, Pierce, and Sanchez Vicario each at 50-1. Tauziat and Van Roost are each at 100-1, and all others mentioned above are 250-1 each.
Here are the main contenders in the eight sections of the draw:
Hingis (1), Pierce (9), Fernandez, Spirlea, Zuluaga
Sanchez Vicario (7), Halard-Decugis (10), Martinez, Raymond
Davenport (3), Schett (14), Serna, Fusai, Habsudova
Novotna (5), Zvereva (16), Nagyova, Schnyder, Dechy, Black
Tauziat (8), Van Roost (15), Kournikova, Caprioti, Rubin, Huber
Seles (4), Testud (13), Lucic, Smashnova
V. Williams (6), S. Williams (10), Schwartz, Srebotnik
Graf (2), Coetzer (12), Kruger, Morariu, De Swardt
The former champion Hingis might have wished for an easier path but should prevail in the top section. First Fernandez and then Pierce should test Hingis and give her game the tempering it needs for the tougher road ahead. Hingis.
Julie Halard-Decugis won the recent tune-up event in Birmingham, defeating Tauziat, but then withdrew from the Heineken with injury. Sanchez Vicario is twice a Wimbledon runner-up and will be the favorite. But a hunch vote here for the French player. Halard-Decugis.
Lindsay Davenport is simply too solid for anyone in this section. Davenport.
Novotna's bad ankle makes for uncertainty. Nagyova is a rising star, having reached the fourth round last year. But the choice is veteran Zvereva, who reached the quarters regularly in the early 90's and made the semis last year. Zvereva.
This is a very interesting section, with a host of strong candidates. Unseeded Kournikova faces one severe test after another, starting with Van Roost, then probably Chanda Rubin, then perhaps Molik, and finally Tauziat, last year's finalist. But each test will yield valuable grass-court experience, helping in the next. This is an opportunity for her to erupt at last. Kournikova.
Monica Seles heads a relatively weak section. She defeated Testud in last year's quarters. Seles.
This is the powerhouse section, featuring the Williams sisters, Barbara Schwartz, who defeated Venus at Garros, young Srebotnik, and several fine baseliners. The two Williamses should meet in the fourth round, and Venus's dominance should be severely tested. This should be Serena's turn. Serena Williams.
The final section holds no dangers for the recent Garros winner. Graf.
In the quarters, I'll pick Hingis over Halard-Decugis, Davenport over Zvereva, Kournikova over Seles, and Graf over Williams.
The two clear favorites should then prevail in the semis, Hingis over Davenport, Graf over Kournikova. Thus the French Open finalists will meet again, but in my opinion this time the younger star will figure out the answer. Hingis over Graf to win her second Wimbledon.
A LONGER VIEW
Wimbledon is now the last of the Slams played on grass. In my opinion it is important that grass-courts should remain at Wimbledon, that the sport's all-out domination by the baseline heavy-hitters thus be resisted. The women's grass-court game is today magnificent. Among the men, what's needed is another Borg--a star who can again show that brilliant serve-returning can on occasion overturn the big servers. Could it be that the savior is already before us, the veteran Andre Agassi? This writer, who perhaps unwisely slighted Agassi in offering his predictions above, secretly hopes so.