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May 21, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Garros Preview 2004

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Ray Bowers

There are seven superstars of prime age in today's women's tennis--four Americans and three Europeans including two from Belgium. Five of the seven have won two or more Slams, and the other two were the finalists in the 2003 year-end championship in Los Angeles.

Injuries have plagued the above superstar group for many months. Reaching championship level in women's tennis seemingly makes severe demands of the athlete's body and raises chances of early breakdown. Might the all-too-brief career of the magnificent Hingis exemplify the future norm, in contrast to the extended reigns of many champions in the past?

One thing is clear. Evaluating the likely success of the female superstars at Garros 2004 requires attention to recent injury history as well as recent performance.


One year ago, Serena Williams, then 21, was the current champion of all four Slams, holder of what she called the "Serena Slam." Her run of greatness ended at Garros 2003 in a three-set semi-final loss to Henin-Hardenne. Serena would soon reverse this defeat by beating Justine in a Wimbledon semi. But the latter triumph would be followed by knee and quadriceps troubles, and then surgery in August 2003 to repair a torn tendon. She returned to action in spring 2004 in Miami, where Serena won the tournament though without facing another member of our superstar group. April brought another withdrawal because of knee pain, from the Tier One tournament at Charleston.

Serena's comeback resumed at the Italian Open in May, where she advanced well but lost to Jennifer Capriati in the semis. But with another week now for practice and preparation, it seems likely that Serena will be strong at Garros. If her knee is wholly ready she is vulnerable only against one of the other superstars, and that opponent must summon very nearly a career-best performance.


With Serena sidelined after Wimbledon 2003, Justine Henin-Hardenne, then 21, dominated last year's summer tour, capturing the Tier One at Toronto and then U.S. Open. Her improvement continued, as her slender frame seemed able to deliver increasing power, her movement seemed ever more athletic. But at year's end 2003 Justine seemed plainly in need of rest. The new year brought blisters and an ankle sprain, but she won Australian Open and Indian Wells. A viral infection has sidelined her since mid-April, however, and it had been uncertain that she will be able to compete at Garros.

If she is at her best, she merits co-favorite status with a healthy Serena. Clay is probably Henin's best surface and probably Serena's poorest. But Justine's recent sickness and her recent absence from competition make it unlikely that the long-anticipated showdown of the two will happen.


Venus Williams has won four Slams--two Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens. Since achieving these triumphs she has reached the final of four Slams but lost them all to Serena. After Wimbledon 2003, Venus was sidelined the rest of the year with abdominal strain, and since her return in January she has been further troubled with knee pain. Her renewed comeback started well with victories on clay at Charleston and Warsaw, but she sprained an ankle in Berlin and withdrew just before the final. She then missed the Italian.


Kim Clijsters, almost 21, is a strong clay player, taller and heavier than Henin and just as speedy with plenty of credentials in the form of past successes. But she has withdrawn from Garros 2004 because of recurrent wrist trouble.


Lindsay Davenport, now nearly 28, has won three Slams but none since Australia 2000. She exited from Garros 03 with foot trouble in the fourth round, and was sidelined by knee surgery in October. She returned in January 2004 to mixed success but further physical troubles. She won four matches at Australian Open 2004 before losing to Henin, won the Pan Pacific in Tokyo, and reached the final at Indian Wells where she again lost to Henin. She has not competed since losing early at Charleston.

She has worked to improve her court mobility, but she remains behind the other elites in that realm. Clay, where speed is critical and where power hitting is reduced in its effectiveness, is understandably her least favored surface. But prior to Charleston she won the clay event at Amelia Island, Florida, defeating Mauresmo.


Muscle strains of the pectoral area, shoulder, and back spoiled late 2003 for Jennifer Capriati, 28. Back trouble then forced Jennifer's withdrawal from Australian Open 2004. Her return began slowly, but she defeated Serena at Rome and lost in a split-set final to Mauresmo. Capriati is a determined, mobile hard-hitter, who has already proven herself at Garros, having won the tournament in 2001. She should routinely defeat any player outside the Big Seven, and when at her best she can threaten and sometimes defeat any of the top group.


Though afflicted with a variety of ailments in 2003, which necessitated mid-tournament or mid-match withdrawals in four tournaments, Mauresmo, 24, ended the year ranked #4. Her physical troubles continued at Australia 2004, where she defaulted after reaching the quarters because of recurrent back injury. Sidelined for more than two months, she returned recently to win both the German and Italian Opens.

Mauresmo has size, mobility, and athletic talent, and her triumphs in Berlin and Rome are assuredly attention-getting. But so far Garros has been her least successful Slam.


The galaxy of fine Russian players provides the foremost threat to the superstar group. Young Russian women have recorded many close matches against the elites and indeed a few wins. Which of them will be the first to break into the top echelon? The answer may very well come at Garros 2004.

Probably the most likely eventual riser is Kuznetsova, 18, who stands #5 in the points race for 2004 to date, up from a year-end ranking of #36 in 2003. Svetlana, who was Navratilova's doubles partner last year, shows a fine court temperament, moves well, and is tall and large--more so than nearly all the other Russians. But there is no shortage of other Russian stars perhaps a little ahead of Kuznetsova at present. Nadia Petrova at 21 reached the semis at Garros last year. Zvonareva was a quarterfinalist at 18 last year. Myskina, now 22, was #7 in both the 2003 rankings and #7 the 2004 race to date. Among other candidates are Sharapova, now 17, who won three matches at Wimbledon last year, and Safina, who won three at U.S. Open at age 17.

The Russian women have regularly been winning more matches at tournaments than women from any other nation, having claimed these laurels at U.S. Open 2003, Australian Open 2004, and four of the five Tier Ones of 2004 to date. Unless all or nearly all the top Americans regain full health, the Russian run seems certain to continue.


Here are the main principals in the eight sections of the main draw. Seedings are given in parentheses. The predictions follow.

Henin-Hardenne (1), Suarez (14), Dokic (24), Loit (31), Zheng, Harkleroad

Petrova (8), Zvonareva (10), Sharapova (19), Daniilidou (27), Frazier

Mauresmo (3), Farina Elia (15), Maleeva (21), Raymond (28), Shaughnessy

Davenport (5), Dementieva (9), Smashnova-Pistolesi (19), Safina (32), Pisnik

Myskina (6), Kuznetsova (11), Sprem (22), Mandula (29), Schett, Molik

V. Williams (4), Rubin (18), Zuluaga (23), Pierce (30), Kostanic, Jidkova

Capriati (7), Sugiyama (32), Schiavone (17), Bovina (25), Czink

S. Williams (2), Schnyder (16), C. Martinez (20), Dechy (26), Hantuchova, Navratilova

For the most part the highest-seeded players should win their sections. But in guessing at the winners, I like to pick at least four reversals. Here are the four.

I choose Suarez to win the topmost section. Paola has a winning record in ten years at Garros, and is presently at her career-highest ranking in singles, having shown strong results at Berlin recently. Meanwhile an already weakened Henin will have to work to win three matches before facing Paola.

I pick Zvonareva to unseat Petrova. These two are very close in performance, and the latter won their only past tour meeting, at Garros last year, in split sets. But Petrova lost in the first round at Rome recently, while Zvonareva reached the semis.

In head-to-head meetings, Davenport has won eight of eleven against Dementieva. But Elena won their most recent meeting on clay, in 2003. I'll pick Dementieva, who is 5-11 and age 22.

I also choose Kuznetsova over Myskina, though Anastasia last year at Garros won their only clay-court meeting. But Myskina withdrew at Berlin several weeks ago with arm strain.

In the quarter-finals, I pick Zvonareva over Suarez, Mauresmo over Dementieva, Kuznetsova over Venus, and Serena over Capriati. Then Mauresmo should defeat Zvonareva to reach the final, while Kuznetsova seems yet a year away from defeating Serena. Finally, in my opinion, Mauresmo will win her first Slam in a terrific final against Serena.


Players from Spain or South America have won six of the last seven men's championships at Garros. But not since Vilas won the Australian in 1979 has a male from Spain or South America won any of the other Slams.

Of the top six males to be presented here as favorites to win the Garros singles this year, two are from Spain, two from Argentina, and one each from Australia and continental Europe. Four of our six are also among the top six in the ATP points race for 2004, though in quite different sequence. Our list differs even more from the official seedings, which are determined by the running 12-month standings.

In here predicting results at Garros 2004, we employ player results at the main predictor tournaments of the last twelve months. The predictor events are weighted as follows:

Garros 2003, 17.0%
Wimbledon 2003, 3.3%
U.S. Open 2003 and Australian Open 2004, each 5.6%
Indian Wells and Key Biscayne 2004, each 6.8%
Monte Carlo, Italian Open, and German Open 2004, each 18.3%
total of above weightings, 100.0% (71.9% clay)

These weights were calculated from how well the predictor events correlated with actual results at Garros over the four-year period 2000-2003. Readers will recognize that we have used this method in past Slam previews here. A new refinement is the introduction of a small correction for player age, described in the footnote.*


Our number crunching identifies these six as the prime favorites, listed in order of rank from the calculations. We also show the calculated raw score for each candidate.

1. Guillermo Coria, score 4.48

I first watched Coria here in Washington in August 2000. It was a brutally hot afternoon, and a brand new pro from Argentina, age 18, was performing on center court before a small crowd. It was one of those early matches on the day's card that few people notice. I wanted to try some photography, so I passed up the shade of the press section in favor of an empty seat on the rail behind a baseline. At first I mostly fiddled with the camera, but I soon realized that the youngster's opponent, Kiefer, who had ranked #6 in the world for 1999, was not having his way with the teen-ager. Coria--I later learned--was one of the world's most successful junior players, having won the Garros junior title in 1999. I made note that this baby-faced fellow with the scrawny body possessed remarkable court mobility, and that he was able to produce hard and accurate shot-making from any court position. My vantage point was very close, and I remember noticing his self-assured manner. Kiefer eventually won in split sets. I was impressed by Coria, but I didn't realize that Guillermo would one day become my choice to win Garros.

Coria, now 22, has traveled far since those first days as a pro. There was a period of injury and suspension in 2001. He came back to Washington in 2002, when he seemed taller and stronger than before. Today, the baby face is still there, but he now lists at 5-9.

Coria's top place in our ranking largely stems from superior performances at three of our clay-court predictors. But he was also runner-up on hard courts at this year's Key Biscayne, where won the first set from Roddick, lost the next two, and then withdrew with back trouble. He won 31 straight matches on clay before he lost to Federer in the recent final of the German. Against Roger he won the first set but then lost the next three. Did Roger figure out what he must do to defeat the Argentinian?

2. Carlos Moya, 4.23

Moya is one of six former Garros champions competing this year. He won the tournament in 1998, but since then has gone as far as the quarter-finals only once, in 2003. The intervening years brought extended back trouble, but Carlos once again finished in the top ten in 2002 and 2003. He now ranks second in the 2004 points race, boosted by an upswing this spring on clay. (He won Italy 2004 and scored well at both Monte Carlo and Germany.)

At 6-3 and 185 pounds, Moya is a strong and hard-hitting clay-courter, apparently at his prime at age 27, favored by long experience in top-level competition.

3. Roger Federer, 3.81

Since his first pro appearances in 1997, every year Roger has climbed higher in the annual rankings. He finished 2003 in second place, up from #6, suggesting that his destiny this year is #1. Indeed, now 22, he has won Australia, Indian Wells, and the German this year and is far ahead in the year's point standings.

There are only a few stars in tennis history who have won all four Slams at least once during their careers. But it seems likely that Roger will be the next. Winning Garros will probably be the most difficult hurdle, as his past results have been best on fast courts. But there seem no aspects of the game where he fails to excel, so proper adjustments to his strengths and tactics may be all that is needed to prevail on clay. His recent wins over Moya and Coria at Hamburg argue that he is ready to do so.

4. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2.87

Ferrero is the defending Garros champion and at 24 is an obvious candidate to win again, but year 2004 has not been kind. After Australian Open in January he complained of varied injuries and a need for rest, and he was subsequently sidelined with chicken pox. He has not competed since a bleak first-round loss to Alex Corretja at Monte Carlo.

If at full health, Juan Carlos assuredly belongs in the company of the first three mentioned here. But the grueling requirements of winning seven best-of-five matches on the red clay, where any round can be tortured, probably ask too much for a player weakened in health and showing no recent success.

5. David Nalbandian, 2.65

Having learned to play on concrete in Cordoba, David is less the clay specialist than most of his Argentine countrymen. His strongest Slam finish came on grass, in his first Wimbledon in 2002, and he has yet to pass the third round at Garros. He rose to enter our elite group, however, by reaching the final at the recent Italian, where he lost to Moya in straight sets. Now aged 22, he had an outstanding career as junior player. (He was runner-up to Coria in the Garros juniors aforementioned.) Tendinitis in his left wrist has been an on-and-off problem for a year.

6. Lleyton Hewitt, 2.57

At just 23, Hewitt has played in every Slam starting in 1999, winning U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon 2002. His game like Coria's is based on outstanding court speed and counter-punching ability in ground-stroking, but he is an inch or two taller and several pounds heavier than Guillermo. Unlike Coria, however, Lleyton competes on clay relatively infrequently. One would expect that his clay record will improve with experience on that surface, and we may have seen evidence of this when he attained the semis at the recent German Open.

It is remarkable that all but one of our leaders are in the age group 22-24. That age cohort also has representatives in our next six. Thus we are probably witnessing a major intrusion likely to color tennis history for many years.

THE SECOND SIX The margins among our second six are close. It is conceivable that a member of this group could win the tournament, but the odds have lengthened considerably.

7. Albert Costa, 2.44
8. Tim Henman, 2.37
9. Andre Agassi, 2.29
10. Fernando Gonzalez, 2.22
11. Marat Safin, 2.20
12. Andy Roddick, 2.19

Costa won Garros in 2002. Now 28, his is the heavy-hitting baseline style with much overspin, par excellence, from both forehand and one-handed backhand. Henman's good score here is perhaps surprising, as he is not known for clay-court prowess. But he showed a fine 8-4 record in the four clay-court predictors used here, along with consistently good results in the fast-court events. His court mobility is excellent, and he is willing to play the patient game. Agassi won the tournament in 1999 but has largely refocused his game to the hard-court style. He lost in the first round at St. Poelten, the only European clay event that he entered this year. Fernando, 23, is a big hitter from South America who can be almost unbeatable when steadiness sometimes intrudes. Safin and Roddick at 21 and 24, respectively, are powerful and consistent hitters from back court, and both bring big serves that enable them to seize the upper hand at the outset of points. Both are capable of patience for at least a few hours. Safin seems the likelier candidate on clay, having been runner-up twice at Hamburg in past years, a Garros semi-finalist in 2002, and winner of eight of eleven matches at the recent Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens.

THE PREDICTIONS We next show the eight sections of the draw as ranked using our scheme. We show each player's computed score along with, in parentheses, his official seeding in the tournament. Having not watched any European clay competition this year, I will entrust the computer's scores to do all the predicting.

Federer, 3.81 (seeded 1)
Schalken, 1.22 (15)
Lapentti, 1.15 (not seeded)
Kiefer, 0.96 (n.s.)
Kuerten, 0.92 (29)
F. Lopez, 0.53 (24)

Nalbandian, 2.65 (8)
Safin, 2.20 (20)
Ljubicic, 2.11 (26)
Grosjean, 1.41 (10)
Calleri, 1.19 (n.s.)
Mantilla, 1.08 (n.s.)
Arazi, 0.92 (n.s.)

Ferrero, 2.87 (4)
Novak, 1.72 (14)
Ferrer, 1.38 (n.s.)
Gaudio, 1.05 (n.s.)
Bjorkman, 1.00 (24)
Mirnyi, 0.85 (29)

Hewitt, 2.57 (12)
Costa, 2.44 (26)
Schuettler, 1.96 (7)
Verkerk, 1.61 (19)
Saretta, 1.47 (n.s.)
Melzer, 1.12 (n.s.)
Escude, 0.66 (n.s.)

Moya, 4.23 (5)
Robredo, 1.69 (17)
Massu, 1.59 (11)
A. Martin, 1.17 (n.s.)
Stepanek, 0.98 (n.s.)
Hrbaty, 0.87 (31)

Coria, 4.43 (3)
Gonzalez, 2.22 (16)
Pavel, 2.19 (21)
Zabaleta, 1.77 (30)
Davydenko, 1.53 (n.s.)
Youzhny, 1.29 (n.s.)

Henman, 2.37 (9)
Agassi, 2.29 (6)
Spadea, 1.50 (27)
Horna, 1.18 (n.s.)
Philippoussis, 0.84 (18)

Roddick, 2.19 (2)
Chela, 1.51 (22)
Srichaphan, 0.97 (13)
T. Martin, 0.89 (n.s.)
Clement, 0.86 (32)
Santoro, 0.77 (n.s.)

We note just two cases--Schuettler and Agassi--where the highest-seeded player in a section is displaced in our calculations, but there are many inversions involving other seeded players. Here is the computer prediction for the late rounds.

Quarter-finals: Federer over Nalbandian, Ferrero over Hewitt, Coria over Moya, and Henman over Roddick. Semis: Federer over Ferrero, Coria over Henman. Final: Coria over Federer. The luck of the draw at Garros appears to disfavor Coria and Moya, who are the two highest-ranked players by our computer but are drawn into the same quarter. Also unlucky is Albert Costa, whose raw score is among the high eight. Lucky is Roddick, whose computed score is lower than Costa's but is good enough to win his section. Also fortunate is Henman, whose raw score is lower than Moya's, whose place he takes in the projected final four.

Best wishes to all for a great Garros 2004.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia


*The age correction was derived from Slam results since 2000, which yielded a straight-line equation telling player improvement/decline each year as function of player age. The statistical age where performance ceased to improve and began to decline turned out to be 24.6 years. The amount of the correction proved to be fairly small. For example, Andre Agassi's score in each predictor event was reduced by 0.020 (same units used throughout the column) for each month that the predictor preceded the target event, Garros 2004. Andre's correction at age 34 is an extreme case.

Note that in determining the weights, the three clay-court Masters events, the two hard-court Masters, and the two hard-court Slams are treated not individually but as groups. This served to enlarge the data populations and remove contrary-to-logic variations within the groups.

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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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