The year's four Slams are now history. Each event brought plots and subplots that in their fascination seemed the equal of any in the past. Four different stars captured the women's Slams, as in 1998, while among the men Andre Agassi won both the U.S. and French Opens thus lifting himself to the top of the official ATP rankings. The 1999 races now enter the home stretch, composed of indoor events in Europe and America.
THE WOMEN'S RACE
Listed here are the four Slam winners for 1999:
--Australian Open: Hingis
--French Open: Graf
--U.S. Open: S. Williams
Steffi Graf has announced her retirement, but the other three Slam winners, above, remain in contention for the year's overall championship. Australian winner Hingis stands clearly in first place, having won four Tier Ones and finishing second at Roland Garros and U.S. Open. U.S. Open champion Serena Williams has captured a total of four tournaments, including the Tier One at Indian Wells. Lindsay Davenport also has four victories (including Wimbledon), and is the only player to have reached the quarters of all four 1999 Slams. Also near the top in official WTA points for 1999 is Venus Williams, who has six tour victories including two Tier Ones (Lipton and Italy). Only these four stars have realistic chances to capture the crown for 1999.
The semi-finals of Grand Slam Cup, in Munich, produced the same match-ups seen in the U.S. Open semis. Venus defeated Hingis in three sets, reversing the Open result. Serena again defeated Davenport, this time in straight sets. This lucrative tournament does not count in the official tour standings, but ahead lie several indoor events that decidedly will. Hingis and Davenport are expected to compete at the Filderstadt indoors (Germany) and at the European championships in Zurich, both in early October. The Williams sisters will take turns in appearing at these events. Four more weeks of play will then precede the season-ending Chase Championships in New York, November 15-21. To claim the lead over Hingis at year's end, either Davenport, Venus, or Serena must dominate in the fall circuit and must achieve a strong margin over Hingis herself.
All four have shown the ability to win indoors. Davenport and the Williamses are physically large, strong players, whose power can dominate in indoor competition where the leveling effects of wind and sun are absent. Meanwhile Hingis has visibly worked to improve in the power game, especially in serving, though her second serve remains seemingly vulnerable to attack. Still, her magnificent shotmaking and control, her on-court quickness, her improving power, and her unmatched tactical sense and fighting spirit often enable her to prevail.
Several other stars who are now too far behind to contend for the overall lead are nevertheless capable of winning any indoor event. Mary Pierce, who nearly defeated Davenport at the recent U.S. Open and won the indoor tournament in Moscow last year, remains an erstwhile candidate. Jana Novotna, whose aggressive net game and high serving toss seem tailored for indoor play, cannot be dismissed, though her announced retirement makes her an improbable tournament winner. Other familiar stars--Seles, Coetzer, Kournikova--can be expected to make strong showings, and the array of rising newcomers--Mauresmo, Dokic, Stevenson, Lucic, Clijsters, and others--will be watched for progress toward the elite rank. Clijsters, 16, nearly defeated Serena at the U.S. Open, and subsequently captured the tour event at Luxembourg.
Leading in the doubles race are Hingis-Kournikova, champions in Australia and finalists at Garros, along with the Williams sisters, who triumphed at Roland Garros and U.S. Open. A showdown between these pairs in a Chase final would be a fitting closing for the doubles year.
Women's pro tennis has prospered in 1999, a year most prominently marked by the emergence of the newcomers mentioned above, by Graf's final triumph, at Paris, and by the arrival at the highest level of both Williams women. A late surge by one of Hingis's rivals would add yet another dimension.
THE MEN'S RACE
Here are the 1999 Slam winners:
--Australian Open: Kafelnikov
--French Open: Agassi
--U.S. Open: Agassi
Agassi's two Slam victories, along with his runner-up finish at Wimbledon, almost seal the competition for the year's crown. Only Kafelnikov stands within realistic range of the American leader in 1999 ATP points. Two Super Nines remain (the Stuttgart and Paris indoors), followed in November by the season-ending ATP World Championship in Hannover. If Kafelnikov triumphs at both Stuttgart and Paris and if Agassi loses early in both events, then the two men will be roughly even on entering Hannover. If Kafelnikov closes only half the gap, then a victory at Hannover along with an early Agassi exit could give the Russian star the crown, albeit narrowly.
Kafelnikov's head-to-head results against Agassi in the U.S. Open final and at Washington argue against his chances to overtake the American. The Russian's recent losses in Davis Cup singles play on grass at Brisbane further question his readiness to challenge for the lead. Still, the indoor hard courts will be assuredly more suitable to his game. Last year, Kafelnikov came close at both Stuttgart and Paris, losing to big-servers Krajicek and Rusedski, the ultimate winners of the two events. Soon afterwards, Kafelnikov won the indoor tournament in Moscow, defeating Ivanisevic. Meanwhile Agassi's performances were creditable--1-1 at Stuttgart, losing to Krajicek, 2-1 at Paris, losing to Todd Martin.
Bunched well behind Kafelnikov in 1999 points are the next three warriors--Sampras, Gustavo Kuerten (with victories at Monte Carlo and Rome), and Todd Martin (runner-up at U.S. Open). None seem likely to pass Kafelnikov, though a continuation of Martin's recent success could elevate him if the Russian slips badly. Both Sampras and Martin passed up the Grand Slam Cup this week. It seems clear that Sampras's run of consecutive years atop the rankings has ended, even though Sampras's superiority when healthy over Agassi was confirmed in Pete's three wins in 1999 head-to-head matches.
It will also be interesting to follow the races to complete the eight-player field at Hannover. More than a dozen other players are close enough to contend for the final three or four positions, including Krajicek, Rios, Henman, and the young Germans Haas and Kiefer. Pat Rafter's point total places him in the same grouping, but his current injury troubles seem to rule out his chances.
The Hannover event itself remains far behind the Slams in its intrinsic lustre. Last year, there seemed little interest in the outcome beyond whether or not Sampras would do well enough to surpass Rios in the year's rankings. Once this was assured, Sampras quietly lost to the tournament's eventual winner, Corretja, the American visibly tiring at the end. Corretja's five-set win over Moya in the final, then, earned less attention than it deserved.
Starting in year 2000, the season-ending event will rotate annually among major cities worldwide, after ten years in Germany. Certainly, the event offers a superb spectacle of pro tennis--a week of head-to-head encounters among the world's best eight. Getting rid of the event's grandiose and misleading title and once again calling it the Masters would probably be an improvement. I also like the plan to rotate the location. What seems important is to find the right formula and then leave it alone, thus allowing a tradition to emerge and fandom worldwide to grasp that tradition.
Hannover will not quite end the tennis year. The Davis Cup final between France and Australia will be held in December in France, probably on clay. At first glance it would seem that the outcome will depend on Rafter's physical health. Basil Stafford in Melbourne, however, reports with superlatives on Lleyton Hewitt's tenacity in defeating the Russians in recent Cup play. Against Kafelnikov, the 18-year-old from Adelaide was relentless in his pursuit of the world's number two, according to Basil, counterpunching from the baseline to win the first set, then recovering from 2-5 down in the second to deny the Russian player's grip on squaring the match. Basil's satisfaction at the final outcome is undisguised.
Probably the other Brisbane hero, Arthurs, will be replaced on the French clay. But whether or not Hewitt is required once again to fill the role expected of Rafter, the meeting in December of these two great tennis nations will cap what has been a stormy and fascinating Cup year, one that has moved Cup play closer to what it once was--the supreme competition in international tennis, the equal of the Slams.
There is one other season-ending event--the only tournament purely in the doubles game. I look forward again to covering the ATP World Doubles in Hartford in November. Last year's winners, Eltingh-Haarhuis, will not be there, nor in all likelihood the Australian Open champions, Bjorkman-Rafter. Nor will the overall tour championship for 1999 be at issue, since Bhupathi-Paes have already outdistanced all competition. Still, it should be a fine event--a week of head-to-head play among the world's best. I hope that Tennis Server readers who see me there will introduce themselves. Let's say hello and talk.