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January 16, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Australian Preview 2004

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Ray Bowers

How well do results in pro tournaments predict outcomes of later ones? In exploring this question four years ago, I began measuring correlations across events. It became evident, for example, that among the Slams the best predictor of the Australian Open was the preceding U.S. Open. Only once in the four years studied, in January 2001, did the preceding year's Australian Open prove better than U.S. Open in predicting results at Melbourne Park. (Probably explaining this phenomenon, the U.S. Open takes place only four months before the Australian.) Not surprisingly, the poorest predictor of Australia in every year was Roland Garros. Indeed, Garros 2001 correlated negatively with Australia 2002.

The four years of correlation data inform us how to weight the results of the 2003 Slams in order to predict the most probable results at the forthcoming Australian Open 2004:

Australian Open 2003, 28.8%
Roland Garros 2003, 5.4%
Wimbledon 2003, 21.2%
U.S. Open 2003, 44.6%

Less amenable to calculations but certainly significant for our analysis here are player results happening in the last four months--i.e., in the European indoor events, Masters Cup (played last November on outdoor hard courts), the Davis Cup semis and final, and the early January tune-ups in Asia and Australia. We will note these results in our discussion.


Here are our prime candidates, purely as ranked by the calculations.

1. Andy Roddick
2. Andre Agassi
3. Juan Carlos Ferrero
4. Roger Federer
5. David Nalbandian

Our top-rated entrant is Andy Roddick, 21, winner of last year's U.S. Open--our heaviest-weighted event--along with the preceding Masters Series hard-court events in Canada and Cincinnati. Subsequent to these triumphs, however, Andy's record has been spotty. He lost on clay to Hrbaty in Davis Cup play in September, he then showed indifferent results in the late-year indoor events, and he lost to Schuettler and Federer at Masters Cup. In early January he lost to Jonas Bjorkman at Doha. It would not be surprising if Andy's future opponents try to emulate the Swede's successful net-attack tactics.

Still, it seems obvious that Andy's game is inherently well suited to the Rebound Ace courts at Melbourne. His power-laden overspin second serve grips the hard, rubber-like surface well, exaggerating the height of the ball's trajectory off the bounce. Likewise, Andy's ground-strokes--especially his approach-shot forehand--carry heavy overspin and work against deceleration in bouncing. The high traction of the surface, which bothers players tuned to sliding on clay, probably helps his footwork. The fierce summer heat at Melbourne can be debilitating sometimes, but Andy's patient attacking style generally demands more energy of his opponent than of himself.

In his first appearance at Melbourne Park two years ago, Andy retired after hurting a leg in an early round. Last year he won five matches, including five-setters against Youzhny and El Aynaoui before losing in the semis to Schuettler. Almost surely, the extreme ordeal against El Aynaoui hurt Andy's chances against Schuettler.

That Australia should be Andy's best Slam is a matter of opinion. That it is Andre Agassi's best has been proven beyond question. Agassi, 33, is four-time Australian Open champion, and he has won three times in the last four years. (He did not compete in 2002.) His career W-L record in the event is a stunning 39-3. Andre's relentless power hitting thrives on slowish hard courts, and the ones at Melbourne Park have been just about ideal for him. Andre had been largely inactive after U.S. Open, but he then finished second at Masters Cup. He has persisted in his strength and conditioning work, and he returned to action in the Australian tune-up at historic Kooyong, an event Andre won last year. If he is at his best and if he is able to preserve his underlying stamina through the Open, Andre can defeat any and all comers. It would be his ninth Slam triumph.

Third in our ranking is Spanish star Juan Carlos Ferrero, 23. Ferrero's best results have come on clay, but his strong all-around game has sometimes produced impressive results on hard courts. Last September he defeated Hewitt and Agassi to reach the final of U.S. Open, for example, and he won the Madrid Masters indoors in October, defeating Federer in the semis. He was winless at Masters Cup, but soon afterwards he produced two fine matches, losing five-setters to Hewitt and Philippoussis on grass in the emotional Davis Cup final in Melbourne. His win over Federer in early January at Hong Kong raised eyebrows, but he promptly lost in the first round at Sydney. Probably the loss should be dismissed as an example of the often-seen thud effect, where tiredness, momentary euphoria, and hasty travel combine to bring down a just-crowned tournament winner in the first round of a new event. (Roddick's success in overcoming the effect during his last-summer's run was remarkable.)

Our fourth prime candidate is Roger Federer, 22, whose perfection at Wimbledon last year made him our Player of the Year for 2003. Roger also approached perfection at Masters Cup in November, where on outdoor hard courts he defeated all three of our higher-ranked contenders, above, including Agassi twice. He also defeated Nalbandian, who had beaten him twice in 2003 Slams. It was an impressive registration of his readiness to win in Australia. This will be Federer's fifth try at Melbourne Park. He won three matches there last year before the five-set loss to Nalbandian.

Our #5 player is also in his early 20's. Hard-working David Nalbandian in 2003 reached the final eight at Australian Open, the final sixteen at Wimbledon, and the final four at U.S. Open, thus lifting him into our top group. But the same wrist injury that troubled David's play last year caused him to withdraw recently from the tune-up at Adelaide to obtain treatment. He returned to the courts at Kooyong, however.

The Kooyong Classic, a non-ATP "exhibition," merits closer look. The event attracts the top pros because it takes place on Rebound Ace just one week before the Open and because three matches are guaranteed, win or lose. Participants are able to adjust to the local setting prior to the start of the Open and can get some practice time at Melbourne Park. The recent semis at Kooyong brought together four of our top five--Federer against Agassi and Nalbandian against Roddick. Agassi defeated Federer convincingly, causing a general shift toward Andre in the local betting patterns, as reported in the Melbourne daily newspaper The Age. Nalbandian lost the first set to Roddick but then won the next two in tiebreakers.


6. Rainer Schuettler
7. Younes El Aynaoui
8. Sjeng Schalken
9. Guillermo Coria
10. Lleyton Hewitt

At our #6 position is Rainer Schuettler--a determined fighter having strong backhand and serve-return skills. Schuettler has risen in the year-end rankings in every year since coming on the tour in 1994. Last year he jumped into the top ten, up from 33rd place in 2002. Australia has been his best Slam, measured by career W-L record, and last year he was runner-up there to Agassi. His later hard-court record was also good, as he reached the semis at both Toronto and Cincinnati and won the events in Tokyo and Lyon. In November he reached the semis at Masters Cup, where he lost to Agassi in split sets. But to start 2004 he lost his first-round matches inauspiciously at both Doha and Sydney.

Last year at Melbourne Park, an exhausted Younes El Aynaoui battled Andy Roddick through a gripping five-setter. Andy won the last set by score 21 games to 19. Younes's hard-hitting playing style and determined court manner also won crowd admiration at U.S. Open, where he lost in the quarters to Nalbandian. His record outside the Slams was unimpressive, however, and like several of our other front-runners, he started 2004 poorly, losing in the first round at Doha. At Melbourne Park Younes can be expected again to thrill the galleries in one or two fine performances. At 6-4, his strong serve provides a fine weapon. But at age 32 and now with plantar trouble, he seems a very unlikely first-time Slam winner.

Netherlander Sjeng Schalken, 27--the same age as Schuettler--has been in the world's first hundred since his first appearance there in 1995. His career W-L record in the Australian is a dismal 3-8, but he won four matches last year at both Wimbledon and U.S. Open, losing in the quarters to the eventual champions of those events. Though his height is 6-3, Schalken is primarily a ground-stroker. His serve is sometimes criticized for the form which retards extreme power, but he often delivers it with good pace and placement.

Our #9, Guillermo Coria of Argentina is smallish of stature at 5-9 and 145 pounds. He brings blinding speed and fine all-around ability, which lifted him to fifth place in the 2003 pro race, behind the four Slam winners. In the year-end showdown in Houston he defeated Moya and lost three-setters to Roddick and Schuettler, but he began 2004 by withdrawing from the Auckland tune-up with stomach trouble.

Coria and Lleyton Hewitt are probably the fastest players in the world's top hundred. Hewitt, our #10, also brings wonderful shot-making ability from all parts of the court, a firm serve and serve-return, and a defiant determination never to yield. World champion in 2001 and 2002, Hewitt vanished from the highest echelons in 2003. One close observer noted that Hewitt seemed to play passively during much of the year but that a return of his attacking instincts coincided with his superb recoveries in late-year Davis Cup play. Basil Stafford in Melbourne also points out that Hewitt had put the Cup atop his goals for 2003, an ambition that was wonderfully fulfilled. Then too, we add, there was lingering irritation over an ATP fine disputed by Lleyton and perhaps also a distraction is his courtship of Kim Clijsters.

A further puzzle is that despite the splendor of his career to date, Hewitt in seven tries at Australian Open has never managed to reach even the quarters. Last year at Melbourne Park he lost to El Aynaoui in four sets, three of them tiebreakers.

Hewitt started the new year 2004 by winning all three of his singles matches at Hopman Cup and reaching the final at Sydney. That he is ready to return to the top seems likely. A proven champion at highest level, at age 22 his prime years seem yet ahead. Basil believes that Hewitt must be placed among the top favorites for the forthcoming Open, and the betting odds reported in The Age seem to agree.


Other candidates abound capable of battling evenly with and sometimes defeating one of the headliners. These are our dark horses--well worth watching, though none of them seems likely to sustain the supreme form needed to continue winning over the full two weeks.

--Mark Philippoussis (our #11). At 6-4 and a trim 200 pounds, Scud's thunderous power game has been muted by injuries for the last four years. At his best he remains assuredly capable of attaining the heights, as in reaching the final at Wimbledon last year. But whenever his physical health returns, another relapse seems to happen.

--Jonas Bjorkman (#12). Must use risky net-attack game to advance. Jonas ranked tenth in money winnings in 2003 but only thirtieth in the singles race. Doubles anyone?

--Todd Martin (#13). At age 33, shows a fine 23-9 career W-L record at Melbourne Park.

--Paradorn Srichaphan (#14). Paradorn's fine performances have pleased tournament galleries worldwide for the last several years. At age 24, 6-1 in height, and 180 pounds, matters seem auspicious for a nice jump in 2004.

--Carlos Moya (#15). A long-time leader of the Spanish Armada, Moya, now 27, finished in the world's top eight in both 2002 and 2003. He is a former runner-up at Melbourne Park (1997) and has the mobility and power ground strokes to triumph on hard courts. He won the tune-up at Chennai, India, in early January, winning a third-set tiebreaker from Srichaphan in the final, and advanced to the final at Sydney to face Hewitt.

--Marat Safin. With a physique like Philippoussis's and perhaps even greater potential, Safin too has been plagued by injuries. His last match win in 2003 came at Barcelona in April, just before he withdrew from the final against Moya. He began 2004 with wins over Novak and old nemesis Santoro at Hopman Cup.

--Nicolas Escude. Missed most of 2003 with injuries but returned magnificently in January at Doha, where the strong entry list included Roddick, Philippoussis, El Aynaoui, and Schuettler. Escude won the tournament without loss of a set, defeating Ljubicic in the final.

--Mardy Fish. Has a fine power game built around a strong serve and backhand. His performance in the Open is of special interest, as he is a likely singles starter for the U.S. if, as seems likely, the Americans and Australians meet in second-round Davis Cup play. Other possible Cup performers for the Americans (joining Roddick) are Blake, Dent, and Ginepri, all of whom will compete in Melbourne Park, as will the Bryans in doubles. In my opinion, the Cup meeting in April deserves to be staged at Melbourne Park on Rebound Ace.

--Dominik Hrbaty. The career of this hard-hitting baseliner has declined after Hrbaty finished the 2000 race at #17. But he won the recent tune-up at Adelaide and then advanced to the final in Auckland.

--Martin Verkerk. Finished 2003 at #14 in the points race, having reached the final at Garros behind a strong serve and backhand. With good power at 6-3 and 198 pounds, age 25, he likes slow surfaces, and he defeated big-hitters Arthurs, Mirnyi, and Philippoussis before losing to Hewitt while troubled by sickness at the Sydney tune-up.

--Ivan Ljubicic. His strong serving lifted Croatia over the U.S. in indoor Davis Cup play last year. He reached the final at Doha, where he lost to Escude in two sets.

--Ancic, Gasquet, Nadal, Reid, Guccione. Readers should start getting familiar with these teen-aged players, any of whom could cause stir in the Open as a step toward a big rise in 2004. The first three are Europeans. Reid and Guccione are Australians, and both won notice in the tune-ups.


Players in each section of the draw are listed in the order ranked by our calculations. The top eight official seeds are shown in parenthesis. My own guesses, which by rule may include only four of the official top eight, are offered.

--Roddick (1), El Aynaoui, Schalken, Gonzalez, Dent. I pick Roddick.
--T. Martin, Moya (7), Blake, Karlovic, Nieminen, Fish, Massu, Safin. Moya.
--Agassi (4), Srichaphan, Tursunov, Ljubicic, Kuerten. Agassi.
--Schuettler (6), Grosjean, Ginepri, Youzhny, Escude, Gambill. Escude.
--Coria (5), Philippoussis, Luczak, Costa, Santoro, Ancic, Verkerk. Philippoussis.
--Ferrero (3), Novak, A Martin, Lopez, Popp, Kiefer, Mirnyi. Lopez.
--Nalbandian (8), Ferreira, Stepanek, Henman, Moodie. Nalbandian.
--Federer (2), Hewitt, Bjorkman, Malisse, Kucera, Sargsian, Nadal. Hewitt.

My instincts say that Roddick, Agassi, Philippoussis, and Hewitt will advance to the semis. Agassi and Hewitt will prevail and advance to the final. And in a performance that will once again raise discussion as to Andre's ultimate place in tennis history, Agassi will claim his fifth triumph at Melbourne Park.


Only once since 1979 has a player seeded outside the top four won the championship. (Jennifer Capriati was seeded twelfth when she won in 2001.) But because of a rash of injuries among the superstars, there is clear opportunity this year for members of the second tier to reach the late rounds and a fair chance that one of them could carry off the championship.

Just a week or two ago, it looked as if the Open would bring a delicious meeting of the sport's four supreme superstars. Serena and Venus Williams had finished 2002 at #1 and #2 in the world rankings, respectively, but because of injuries neither sister had competed after Wimbledon 2003. With the sisters absent, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters between them swept the Canada and U.S. Opens, the year's final Tier One at Zurich, and the year-ending WTA championship at Los Angeles. The top two places in the year-end rankings for 2003 thus belonged to the Belgian superstars.

But the expected confrontation will not occur. Serena, not yet fully recovered from her knee/leg surgery, will not compete. Venus returned to action in early January at Hong Kong, winning both her matches there. She remains, however, relatively untested in recent match play. Kim Clijsters's readiness is uncertain, as she dropped out in late Hopman Cup play because of a sore ankle and then withdrew her entry for Sydney. Meanwhile Henin-Hardenne, who seemed badly in need of recuperation in Los Angeles, returned to competition in the Sydney tune-up, winning her first two matches there but in the process experiencing blisters and an ankle sprain.

The three remaining superstars of women's tennis are all capable of defeating any Big Four member who is just slightly below her best. But Jennifer Capriati, tournament champion in 2001 and 2002, announced her withdrawal from Melbourne Park because of lingering back trouble. Questions also linger as to the readiness of Lindsay Davenport, 27, who had played little since the U.S. Open but started the new year with four singles victories at Hopman Cup and two more at Sydney. But she withdrew from Sydney prior to her scheduled semi-final meeting with Henin because of a strained shoulder muscle. (She said she believed that the injury would not keep her out of the Open.) Meanwhile Amelie Mauresmo, 24, won two of three matches at Hopman Cup, losing to Davenport, and advanced nicely at Sydney seemingly toward a final round date with Henin. Mauresmo sparkled in late 2003 by reached the final at Los Angeles in November, defeating Henin, but she was then demolished by Clijsters.

The aforementioned seven are the established power elites, and even though at least two of them will miss the Open, the champion of the event is very likely to come from this group. Still, the door is farther open than usual, and strong runs by several others would not be surprising--the fine Japanese player Sugiyama, for example, the recently disappointing Hantuchova, or Chanda Rubin perhaps.

But the foremost trend in women's pro tennis has been the steady rise of the fine Russian players, who dominate the tier just below the top seven. All of them on a good day can force a close match upon any of the leaders. Myskina, Dementieva, Petrova, Zvonareva, and Bovina all finished in the top 25 for 2003. Meanwhile another wave of potential Russian stars, still teen-agers, is at hand. Kuznetsova was strong as doubles partner for Navratilova in 2003. Dinara Safina, 17, is sister of Marat Safin and has a comparably superb physique. Sharapova, 16, finished 2003 at a remarkable #32 in the world standings and defeated Dementieva in Hong Kong recently. A recent opponent said that playing Sharapova was like playing Davenport in the weight of her artillery. It seems likely that several of the Russians will be around well into the second week and perhaps longer.


The players are listed here in order of their seed.

--Henin-Hardenne (1), Serna, Daniilidou, Kuznetsova, Schett. Henin-Hardenne.
--Davenport (5), Zvonareva, Shaughnessy, Tanasugarn, Marrero. Zvonareva.
--Mauresmo (4), Hantuchova, Bovina, Pisnik, Molik. Mauresmo.
--Dementieva (7), Petrova, Maleeva, Zuluaga, Asagoe. Petrova.
--Sugiyama (8), Suarez, Dechy, Schnyder, Casanova. Suarez.
--V Williams (3), Pistolesi, Krasnouroutskaya, Raymond, Sprem. Williams.
--Myskina (6). Rubin, Schiavone, Sharapova, Chladkova. Rubin.
--Clijsters (2), C Martinez, Coetzer, Nagyova, Farina Elia. Clijsters.

The four top seeds should all reach the semis, whereupon the Belgian players should reassert their eminence, where Venus's long absence will probably prove costly against Clijsters. The championship will probably depend on who is less hindered by injury. My crystal ball says that Clijsters will prevail over Henin to win the championship.


Last year the tennis nation winning the most matches at Melbourne Park on the men's side was the United States. Australia was second, narrowly ahead of Spain because of greater success in doubles. A similar pattern is likely to happen this year, with the performances of Australian and Spanish teen-agers perhaps to decide second place. Meanwhile among the women, the American and Russian tallies would expectedly be close. But with Capriati and Serena both absent and Davenport hurting, in my opinion the Russians will finish on top.

Here's looking forward to many hours of wonderful tennis from Melbourne Park.

--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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