Andre Agassi's triumph in Paris and Pete Sampras's at Wimbledon argued that these two superstars should be the favorites for the hard-court season in North America. A third champion--the twice-defending U.S. Open winner, Pat Rafter--clearly also belonged in the same group. The first hard-court event, at UCLA, reaffirmed the above hierarchy when both Sampras and Agassi reached the final. As at Wimbledon, Sampras's dominating serve brought him the championship.
At the Canadian Open the following week Agassi lost to Kafelnikov, the Australian Open champion, whose convincing win established him as a fourth member of the above elite. (The tournament was won by Thomas Johansson, who then became sidelined with leg trouble.) Next, in Cincinnati, our four favorites--Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, and Kafelnikov--all reached the semis. There Sampras again defeated Agassi, Rafter defeated Kafelnikov, and Sampras defeated Rafter in the final. Thus the reigning Slam champions attained the top four places in the official ATP 12-month rankings, even as they stood as our clear favorites for the forthcoming Open.
The third week of August offered a late proving ground, a last test before the week of rest that most frontrunners would enjoy prior to the U.S. Open. The week featured two men's tour events, the RCA championships in Indianapolis and the Legg Mason in Washington, D.C. Two of the reigning four--Sampras and Rafter--went to Indianapolis, but both men withdrew there at midweek because of injuries. The Indy tournament thus lost much of its significance for previewing the Open.
Meanwhile fans in Washington found themselves at the center of the pro tennis wars. In former years the Legg Mason had been held in early summer--too soon after Wimbledon to attract most top players. This year, the entry list included two of our top four--Kafelnikov and Agassi--along with such prominent hard-courters as Kiefer, Henman, and Todd Martin.
The week unfolded with many subplots. I watched Gambill and Gimelstob, the two players who a year ago seemed to carry America's hopes for the future. Gambill was now ranked in the fifties, Gimelstob in the nineties. But it was Gambill who faltered early, showing lapses at critical times in a close loss to the unseeded Danish lefty Carlson. Gimelstob won two matches, then bowed to Kafelnikov by the margin of one break in both sets. Meanwhile I also became interested in watching a remarkable contingent of promising teen-agers, most of them from Europe (see sidebar text). An emerging story was the success of Paul Goldstein, 22, a product of the local area here, who after one year on the pro tour was now ranked in the top hundred. Goldstein wore down Corretja to reach the quarters. Meanwhile, it was disappointing to watch Henman lose to baseliner Kroslak.
Conditions throughout the week were humid, slowing down the speed of the ball, while the players deemed the court surface itself to be on the slow side, definitely slower than at Montreal and Cincinnati. These circumstances probably accounted for Henman's early departure. Often, a player advancing to net behind what seemed a strong approach shot would be beaten by his opponent's backcourt play. Even the most aggressive serve-and-volleyers confined their use of this tactic to the first serve only.
Reaching the semis with Agassi and Kafelnikov were Kiefer and Martin. All four displayed a basically similar hard-court style. All preferred playing close on the baseline, working to create opportunities to advance to net. All exhibited sound, powerful groundstrokes from both sides, all employed two-handed backhands except when, surprisingly frequently, hitting with backspin. All showed forcing serves, though only Martin regularly followed first serve to net.
In the first semi, Kiefer seemed the equal of Kafelnikov, but the latter showed an ability to intensify his power off the ground when necessary, winning in three sets. Kiefer's net approaches produced many lost points early in the match. Meanwhile Kafelnikov sometimes declined to move forward despite opportunities. I wrote in my notebook, "the net seems not the place to be." That evening in the second semi-final, Agassi overcame Martin in a battle featuring many hard-fought, extended points. It was a remarkable demonstration of power tennis by both players, but I gradually came to understand that the stronger and better conditioned Agassi would eventually prevail at this style of play. Martin's net rushes behind first serve produced few volley winners for him (though they surely created problems for Agassi in returning). Both players hit 12 aces. Agassi won in two sets.
Thus the Sunday final became a showdown between Kafelnikov and Agassi--the two presently healthy members of the world's quadumvirate.
I watched the final from the desk reserved for Tennis Server in the press area behind the south baseline. The area was basically a covered platform three stories in
the sky, fully exposed to wonderful breezes that moderated the heat and humidity. It was a marvelous vantage point, and earlier in the week I had climbed there often, looking down on play both inside the stadium and on the three courts just outside.
The first set was remindful of the Agassi-Martin semi in its closeness and the heaviness of the ground-stroking. Kafelnikov's second serve lacked the weight of Agassi's, but the 25-year-old Russian's excellent court mobility usually neutralized this disadvantage. The first set went to a tiebreaker, which was essentially decided in the eighth point when Agassi overcame Kafelnikov's commanding position at net by brilliant court coverage and, finally, a spectacular pass. (During the post-match interview, Agassi correctly recounted the successive points of the tiebreaker.) It was a huge disappointment for the Russian player. As the second set began, I wondered whether Kafelnikov had the will to continue fighting.
The answer was yes, but the answer did not matter. Agassi clearly stepped up his determination and, with it, his footwork, concentration, and the pace of his shots, especially his punishment of Kafelnikov's second serve. Kafelnikov kept trying, but the score reached 4 games to 0, and soon it was over.
Can Agassi convert the magnificent form he showed at Washington into triumph at the Open? His obvious strength of will, along with his high level of physical fitness (his trim physique of a year ago is now even trimmer), will be enormous assets in best-of-five encounters. The New York courts will be faster than in Washington, hurting Agassi against the top opponents, but the probable high humidity should help him in two ways--(1) wearing down the stamina of his opponent, and (2) slowing down his opponent's shots, helping them sit up for Agassi's hammering.
It will not be easy. Sampras has won all seven sets against Agassi this summer, testimony to the effect of Sampras's superior first and second serves. Agassi has also lost his last two meetings with Rafter--at Cincinnati in 1998 and 1999. Kafelnikov, too, remains a threat to Agassi on the Open's courts, which are expected to be similarly fast to those at Montreal, where Kafelnikov defeated Agassi convincingly. Much will depend on Sampras's and Rafter's physical readiness, on their recoveries from the injuries at Indy.
At the press conference after the final, Agassi said he felt extremely confident going into the Open. A few minutes later I asked him what he would have to do to defeat Sampras. Agassi, previously chatty in manner, paused and became thoughtful. Obviously, he was not going to give away his secrets, but he went on to say that he must play his best, must take advantage of every emerging opportunity, playing well when it counts--and get a little lucky. The confidence that Agassi had described earlier was not detectible in his response.
In my opinion, Sampras at his best should defeat anyone on fast hard courts. Likewise each member of the top four at his best should defeat anyone else. But there are scores of other pros fully capable of defeating any of the leaders if the toprunner is not at his best.
Here are the odds as I see them. I make Sampras--undefeated since June except for the injury at Indy--the favorite to win the Open at 1.5 to 1. Agassi and Rafter are next, each at 5-1, then Kafelnikov at 15-1. The foremost outside threat, at 25-1, is the strong server and superb volleyer Krajicek, who has a career winning record over Sampras. A healthy Philippoussis would be in the same class but now falls into the second echelon, which consists of a dozen or so stars including Martin, Kiefer, Johansson, and Ivanisevic, all at 75-1 or longer.
Here are the main performers in the eight sections of the draw, along with my picks. Each section is a mini-tournament in its own right.
Sampras (1), Lapentti (16), Courier, Gambill, Safin, Grosjean -- A first-round meeting with Safin will require the world champion's best. Three engagements with tough back-courters will follow. Still, Sampras.
T. Martin (7), Rusedski (9), Schuttler, Larsson, Ruud, Prinosil -- The Swede has reached the quarters in the past two U.S. Opens. Larsson.
Rafter (4), Haas (14), Pioline, Siemerink, Arazi, El Aynaoui, Zabaleta, Enqvist. The defending champion starts against the heavy-hitting Enqvist. Haas is a probable future Slam champion. Rafter.
Kuerten (5), Philippoussis (11), Ivanisevic, Ilie, Ulihrach, Ferreira. The Scud has hardly competed since his injury while ahead of Sampras at Wimbledon. A late withdrawal seems possible. Still, Philippoussis.
Henman (6), Krajicek (12), Spadea, Schalken. Despite a loss yesterday on Long Island, Krajicek has the weaponry conceivably to go all the way. Krajicek.
Kafelnikov (3), Corretja (13), Johansson, Hewitt, Bjorkman, Lareau, Rosset. With Johansson and Hewitt coming off injuries, Kafelnikov.
Moya (8), Rios (10), Hrbaty, Raoux, Kroslak, Goldstein. A relatively weak section. Some day Rios will blossom again. Rios.
Agassi (2), Kiefer (15), Gimelstob, Stoltenberg, Pavel, Clement. Kiefer will be a dangerous opponent. Agassi.
Then in the quarter-finals, Sampras should defeat Larsson in an extended battle. Rafter over Philippoussis, Kafelnikov over Krajicek in another beauty, and Agassi over Rios. Thus, based mainly on the recent history sketched in the first part of this column, all four favorites should make the semis, as in Cincinnati.
A year ago at the Open, Sampras might have defeated Rafter but for injury during play. Sampras's form this summer has been superior, Pete having defeated Rafter in the final at Cincinnati. Sampras should defeat Rafter in the Open semis. Meanwhile, Agassi should continue his supremacy over Kafelnikov seen in Washington despite the Open's faster courts. Finally, to defeat his closest rival for the fourth time this summer, to win his fifth U.S. Open and his thirteen career Slam, Pete Sampras.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
When Lindsay Davenport opened the hard-court season by winning at Stanford, it looked as if the pattern of 1998 might repeat, where Davenport captured the three California events and later the Open itself. Fast, hard courts seemed ideally designed for Davenport's heavy serving, returning, and power off the ground from both sides.
But at San Diego the following week, Davenport lost to Venus Williams, whose mobility exceeds Davenport's and who can deliver equal power. Venus then lost to Hingis, where the Swiss miss showed her ability to win a baseline slugging contest despite her softer serving. With Steffi Graf announcing her retirement, it looked as if Davenport, Venus, and Hingis would be the hard-court leaders.
But then at Manhattan Beach, Davenport lost to Halard-Decugis of France and Hingis lost to Serena Williams. Then in the final, Serena pounded the French woman impressively, certifying the younger Williams's top-echelon credentials. But at Toronto a week later Serena withdrew with tendonitis of the right shoulder. In the absence of Davenport and the Williamses, Hingis won the event.
I make Davenport, Hingis, and Venus Williams co-favorites to win the Open, each at 3-1, with Serena Williams slightly behind at 8-1.
There are many fine stars in the next rank, but it is difficult to see a 1999 Open champion among them. Leaders in this group are veterans Novotna, Seles, and Pierce, each at 40-1. Novotna reached the Open semis last year, losing to Hingis in three. Seles was a recent finalist at Toronto, and Pierce carried Hingis to a first-set tiebreaker there. All other competitors, in my opinion, are long shots at 75-1 or higher, including the dangerous heavy-hitters Mauresmo, now barely 20, and teen-agers Stevenson, Dokic, Lucic, Molik, and Srebotnik. Tennis Server reader Ian Robertson reported last night from New Haven on Srebotnik's up-and-down performance there albeit her enormous promise. He was also impressed by the power and control of Barbara Schwartz.
Hingis (1), Sanchez Vicario (10), Dokic, Schnyder, Raymond. Hingis has a free ride for three rounds, but must then face the survivor of the other four players listed here, probably Dokic. Hingis.
Novotna (8), Mauresmo (15), Lucic, Huber, Talaja. Mauresmo and Lucic are clearly rising stars not yet at their peaks. Lucic won two matches in each of her first two Opens, and she made the semis at Wimbledon this year, losing to Graf in three. Mauresmo is making a mark at New Haven and must face Davenport tonight. The meeting of Lucic and Mauresmo in the third round of the Open will be worth watching. Mauresmo.
V. Williams (3), Van Roost (13) Schwartz, Nagyova, Sidot. No problem here for the American star except for the presence of Barbara Schwartz, who defeated Williams at Garros this year. Venus Williams.
Coetzer (8), Schett (12), Spirlea, Panova, Likhovsteva. Schett's recent good run at Toronto ending in her loss to Seles in three, gives her the edge over Coetzer. Schett.
S. Williams (7), Martinez (16), Dechy, Srebotnik, Rubin. Serena's withdrawal in Toronto creates uncertainty. Srebotnik is probably a year or two away. Dechy is showing some good results. On a hunch, I like Chanda Rubin.
Seles (4), Tauziat (11), Stevenson, Capriati, Sugiyama, Majoli. Another interesting section, starting with Tauziat vs. Stevenson in the first round. The winner will probably meet Capriati, who defeated Tauziat at Toronto. Seles failed to make the quarters last year for the first time in her last six tries. Capriati.
Pierce (5), Testud (14), Serna, Applemans, Suarez. No plausible alternative here. Pierce.
Davenport (2), Halard-Decugis (9), Zvereva, Morariu, Plischke. Morariu could make trouble for the defending champion in the first round. After that, Halard-Decugis could be dangerous, having defeated Davenport three weeks ago in California. Davenport.
In the quarters, Hingis over Mauresmo in what could be a trying day for the favorite. Venus Williams should win over Schett, Capriati over Srebotnik, and Davenport over Pierce. In the semis, the hammering and mobility of Venus should be too much for Hingis on the hard courts. Meanwhile, Davenport's solider game will prevail over Capriati's. And, in a classic final, Venus should redeem the promise of two years ago when she reached the final in her first U.S. Open. Venus Williams over Davenport.
THE SLAM-PREDICTING GAME
Trying to predict pro tennis outcomes can be humbling. One's past observations and thoughts about the players are weighed along with other circumstances--the court surface, the probable weather, each player's past success in this and similar events, recent injuries, and each player's current form. Knowing the draw is helpful, opening the way for considering the head-to-head record and perhaps showing which players seem to have the easiest paths. I try to stay uninfluenced by the writings of others.
I enjoy exchanging thoughts with readers, who are typically considerate in ignoring my wrong predictions. I invite readers to play the same game. Please send me your selections early using this form for possible congratulations in cyberspace afterwards
August 26, 1999