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February 27, 2005 Article

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The March Hard-Court Double

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers


Immediate attention goes to first-round Davis Cup action, March 4-6. In a match-up of exceptional quality, U.S.A. will seek revenge against Croatia in an outdoor hard-court arena in California. The visitors will be dangerous, having defeated the American team in Zagreb in 2003. Once again playing for Croatia will be an improved Mario Ancic, now 20, and tough Ivan Ljubicic, who won two singles and, with Ivanisevic, the doubles in the 2003 meeting. Andre Agassi is returning to Cup competition and, together with Roddick and the Bryans, should give the Americans their strongest lineup in many years. None of these Americans played in the Zagreb loss.

There are few prominent absences among the superstars at the other match-ups. Federer is not on the four-player nomination list for Switzerland against Netherlands, and Joachim Johansson is not listed for Sweden against France on indoor clay, a surface unlikely to benefit Joachim. The latter engagement will be interesting, where home-nation advantage should enable the French to prevail, with Grosjean, Clement, and Santoro. Meanwhile the defending-champion nation, Spain, will visit Slovak Republic--a challenging assignment, though Nadal and Lopez give Spain better-than-usual strength on hard courts.

The year's Cup play should be intriguing from start to finish. Events could produce a wonderful semi-final match-up of Spain and Argentina on clay, and a similarly interesting hard-court meeting of Russia and the United States. If Spain and U.S. then reach the final, as both did in 2004, the host nation with choice of court surface will be U.S. It could be a final round of historic dimension if played on hard courts, but if the choice is grass--a surface relatively unfamiliar to all players--the occasion would be diminished. The U.S. needs a Cup triumph, lacking since 1995, but a victory over Spain on grass would be unsatisfying and a loss would be humiliating. The rules on choosing court surface should be reviewed and, in my opinion, changed.


Although they lack the long traditions of the great national championships, two younger tournaments, held consecutively in North America, now rank just behind the four Slams among the world's premier tennis events. Indian Wells and Key Biscayne--one in the desert country of California and the other across the bay from downtown Miami--each offer more than $5 million in prize money. The main stadium at Indian Wells seats 16,000, the one at Miami 14,000. Both events will feature 96-player main singles draws for both men and women in play extending over two weeks. Both events will be televised worldwide.

The Pacific Life Open at starts in the week of March 7 (ESPN-2 coverage starts March 13), the Nasdaq-100 in Miami starts March 21. With nearly all the top pros on hand, high drama continuing the thrills of Melbourne Park can be expected. Winning both events would give a male champion a total of 200 points in the year's ATP race, the same reward for winning a Slam. The hard courts at Key Biscayne are usually tailored to match the fast bounce at U.S. Open. Indian Wells traditionally offers a slower hard-court bounce, while the ball in its flight should be less retarded amid dry desert air than in Florida's humidity.

The last male player to score the March Double--winning both Indian Wells and Miami in the same year--was Andre Agassi, in 2001, when he also won Australia. Three years before that, in 1999, Marcelo Rios won Indian Wells and Miami after finishing runner-up in Australia. Last year, Federer won Australia and Indian Wells but lost in the third round at Miami.


Recently I calculated how well outcomes at Indian Wells and Miami have been predicted by results at the Slam and Masters Series tournaments of the preceding 12 months. The five years of data clearly show that the best predictors for the March events have been the U.S. and Australian Opens. Another strong predictor for both Indian Wells and Miami has been Wimbledon, and strong predictors for Miami have been the just-completed Indian Wells and the previous year's Miami events. The poorest predictors have been the clay-court tournaments--Garros and the three Masters Series events on European clay.

It is also clear that Miami has been generally more predictable than Indian Wells. Perhaps Miami follows form more closely because the players there have just completed a tournament on a similar surface (i.e., Indian Wells).


By weighting tournament results of the last 12 months according to the measured correlations of the past, we now predict probable outcomes at Indian Wells and at Miami 2005. The emerging top five candidates and their rank order are identical for both target events. (Raw scores predicting Indian Wells are shown; values are generally similar for predicting Miami.)

1. Federer, 5.31
2. Roddick, 4.53
3. Hewitt, 3.78
4. Safin, 3.29
5. Agassi, 3.15

Marat Safin's victory over Federer in their brilliant semi-final at Melbourne Park 05 came as a surprise to everyone. The powerful Russian, who had been runner-up in two previous Australian Opens, appeared Roger's co-equal in all aspects. Otherwise, form generally held up well at Melbourne: None of the above listed superstars lost to an outsider. Note that our first four all reached the semis at Melbourne. Our rank order, however, inverts the results of the last three matches at Melbourne, where Hewitt defeated Roddick and Safin defeated both Federer and Hewitt.

The paths of our heroes have diverged since Melbourne, though results generally support our rank order. Roger Federer, our #1, in February won the indoor tournament in Rotterdam and also won outdoors in Dubai. Andy Roddick won the tournament indoors in San Jose and won three matches in Memphis before withdrawing with ankle trouble. Lleyton Hewitt did not compete during February, and almost the same can be said for Safin, who lost in the first round at Dubai. Agassi lost early at San Jose but then won three times in Dubai before losing to Roger.

Over the years, our top group has done well at both Indian Wells and Miami. Members of the group have won the last four championships at both events. The only group member not contributing in this result has been Safin, who has reached the quarters only once in twelve tries at these events. It seems that this is a favorite time of year for our leaders, a favorite sequence of tournaments.


Our two lists--one for Indian Wells and one for Miami--now begin to differ. Rank order varies somewhat in reflection of weighting differences and the smaller numerical margins that now separate the candidates. Prominent in positions #5 through #12 are players from Spanish-speaking countries. Moya, Coria, and Robredo appear on both lists, Gonzalez is listed for Indian Wells, Nalbandian for Miami. All five are from Spain or South America--regions whose players are often labeled clay-court artists.

Indeed, as a group the five performed better on clay courts than on hard during the past 12 months. But most of them also showed strong performances on outdoor hard courts, which carried by far the most weight in our calculations. Shown here are their W-L records during the 12 months on outdoor hard and clay courts, respectively (includes only Slam and Masters Series tournaments, plus Olympics).

Coria, 11-4 hard, 17-2 clay
Moya, 13-7 hard, 17-3 clay
Robredo, 14-7 hard, 6-4 clay
Gonzalez, 14-7 hard, 3-4 clay
Nalbandian, 5-8 hard, 13-4 clay

Note that Robredo and Gonzalez did better on hard courts than on clay, and that Coria and Moya achieved very fine hard-court records to go with superior performances on clay. Nalbandian's overall record on hard courts was not strong during the period, but he did well at Madrid indoors 04 and Australian Open 05, both of which carried above-average weights for predicting Miami. Tallness and physical strength are usually deemed important assets on hard courts, and in this group all but Coria are at least 5-11 in height.But if Guillermo at 5-9 and 150 pounds cannot deliver the sustained power of the bigger and stronger superstars, his court speed matches that of the game's fastest.

There are three other players in our top 12 for both tournaments. Tim Henman has been close to superstar level for many years, but has seemed eternally destined to remain just outside that elite realm. Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia is a relentless firm hitter who thrives on hard courts. Finally, Joachim Johansson at 6-6, age 22, and nearly 200 pounds has perhaps the game's strongest serve backed by incredible forehand power to the corners. Joachim had the bad luck to draw Agassi at Melbourne Park, and he lost to Andre in four sets, three of them tiebreakers.

We depart from the calculations to add one other prime candidate, a teen-aged player who was injured for part of last year. Rafael Nadal of Spain, 18, is already perhaps the best hard-court player of the current Armada. It was Rafael who shortly before his injury defeated Federer at Miami last year, stopping Roger's bid for the March Double. He carried Hewitt to five grueling sets at Melbourne 05. Nadal is a lefty who resembles Lleyton in his superb court movement, his firm and accurate hitting, and his on-court confidence, but he is even stronger physically than Lleyton--an asset which he generally uses to generate extreme topspin both forehand and backhand. He continued to compete well during February on clay, losing a split-setter to Gaudio in Buenos Aires and winning the tournaments in Brasil and Acapulco.

One other candidate not highlighted by our calculations requires admission to our elite list. Ivan Ljubicic during February reached the semis at Milan and Marseilles, and the finals at Rotterdam and Dubai, showing an overall 15-4 W-L record in these events against much of Europe's best talent. He forced Federer to three sets in the finals at both Rotterdam and Dubai, reaching third-set tiebreak on the first occasion. In what might be ideal preparation, he will face both Roddick and Agassi on a California hard court in Cup play just before Indian Wells.


Which of our prime candidates, above, will prevail? Last year I guessed that Federer would win at Indian Wells, correctly, and I wrongly picked Nalbandian for Miami.

I value the evidence from our computations, and I look forward to learning how well their message works out in detail. But my impressions from the Safin-Federer semi-final at Melbourne Park remain too strong to resist. Contradicting our numbers and also contrary to Safin's first-round loss at Dubai in February, it seems to me that both Federer and Safin--until shown otherwise--are now in a class of their own. Plausibly, either could achieve the March Double. I'll pick Federer to win in California and Safin--the Safin of Melbourne Park--to win in Florida.

Which nation's contingent will win the most matches? Last year, players from the United States won the most often at both Indian Wells and Miami. Argentina was a close second at Miami. Now, with Agassi, Roddick, and the Bryan twins all apparently at their best, it is difficult to see a serious challenger to repeated U.S. success at both events.


No female player in recent years has won the March Double. The recent record however shows a strong relation linking outcomes at the two events with those at Australian Open. Last year, for example, Henin-Hardenne won Australia and Indian Wells but did not play Miami. The year before, in 2003, Serena won Australia and Miami but did not play at Indian Wells. Back in 2000, Davenport and Hingis were the finalists in all three events, Lindsay winning the first two.

Thus the current champion of the Australian, Serena Williams, would seem a likely favorite for the March events. This is assuredly the case for Miami, where Serena has captured the championship in each of the last three years. But she will probably not play at Indian Wells, which she has missed every year since sister Venus was harshly criticized for withdrawing from their semi in 2001.

Besides Serena, the standouts in this year's Australian Open were Davenport and Sharapova. These two subsequently played each other in the final round of the Pan Pacific in Tokyo. Maria won in a third-set tiebreaker amid hamstring trouble for Davenport. Lindsay has not competed since the injury, and questions also linger about her earlier funk half-way through the Melbourne final. Meanwhile Sharapova performed well in winning the tournament at Doha, Qatar, in late February. Maria's continuing improvement, thus, make her my choice to win at Indian Wells and my second choice, behind Serena, for Miami.

Both megastars depend on dominating opponents by means of firm and courageous hitting meanwhile holding down errors. If either succumbs to error-making or otherwise loses confidence in her power game, there are many others ready to move to the top of the women's game.

One improved player, from Australia, gave an unexpectedly strong performance at Melbourne. Victim of several wrong calls at important times, Alicia Molik played well but lost an extended split-setter to Davenport. Since then Molik advanced to the semis at Antwerp, where she lost to Mauresmo, and then revenged that loss the next week at Doha. In the final there, she won the first set over Sharapova before succumbing. Alicia, now 24, is a relative newcomer to the top realm, but there is unquestionable quality and power in her game along with an impressive court presence.

Still on the scene is powerful Amelie Mauresmo, now 25, who lost in Australia to Serena but showed good results in February including a split-set win over Venus Williams. Amid a career troubled by spells of injury, Amelie has never won a Slam championship, but she has reached at least the quarters in the last nine Slams she has entered. Also requiring attention is a three-time former champion at Miami--Venus Williams--whose physical tools remain superb but who lost to Molik in Australia and, as noted, to Mauresmo recently. Meanwhile perennial contender Jennifer Capriati apparently remains sidelined after right-shoulder surgery, and the Belgian superstars, who outranked everyone else just a year ago, continue to struggle in coming back from injuries.

Probably the most dangerous challengers to the top two or three will be from the array of other Russian stars, most of whom are still below prime age as tennis warriors. All, it seems, are firm hitters with excellent court mobility. Kuznetsova, 19, won U.S. Open last fall, Myskina, now 23, won Garros 04 but failed to defend her seed at Melbourne Park, and Petrova, 22, carried Serena to three sets at Melbourne Park. Teen-agers Safina and Kirilenko are close to penetrating the above group. Dementieva, 23, matches the others in her court game and must surely rise as her serve improves.

One year ago none of the Russian women had yet won a Slam, but the rise of that nation in world tennis was already detectible. In the count of matches won by nation, at Indian Wells the U.S. women narrowly outscored the Russians, 24-23. Then at Miami the result was an exact tie, 26.5 matches won by each nation. (Symbolic of the equal outcome, the doubles champions at Miami were American Shaughnessy and Russian Petrova, whose five match victories were split evenly between the two nations, while in the singles final American Serena defeated Russian Dementieva.) Since last year, the Russians have improved individually more than the Americans. It therefore seems likely that the Russian total will surpass America's at both tournaments.

Count on weeks of wonderful tv tennis ahead.

--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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