Calling The Shots - Edition #69
Thursday, May 23rd, 2002
Darkhorse Triumph at French?
The French Open kicks off at Roland Garros, on the outskirts of Paris, next
Monday. Wish I could be there. The last time I made it was in 1961. My dad
took me to see the pros in the days when the tennis game was divided into
amateur and professional circuits. Some referred to the amateur side as
"shamateurism" since the best amateurs, like Roy Emerson, the Australian
who holds more Grand Slam championships (singles and doubles) than anyone,
were able to live the life of kings scarfing up lucrative under-the-table
What I remember most about that tremulous (for me) spring afternoon, during
which I witnessed some of the world's all-time greats take the court, was
when Alex Olmedo, the 1959 Wimbledon and Australian champ, entered
the stadium with about 20 rackets in his arms. My 11-year-old jaw dropped
about a mile as the crowd reacted with a wild cheer of bemused appreciation.
Too bad they were the old wooden rackets, since Russia's Marat Safin,
the No. 2 seed at this year's French Open, could need some of Alex's extras,
given his penchant for hardware destruction.
Anyway, here are my prognostications for the second Grand Slam tennis tournament
of the year. Feel free to send me your thoughts and predictions.
Lleyton Hewitt: Top-seeded on basis of ranking significantly bolstered
by breakthrough U.S. Open triumph last fall. Since then, the 21-year-old
Australian has been more a contender than a winner. He fell to Safin in the
quarters of Hamburg a week ago, which was small surprise given his lackluster
record on the European clay circuit this season. He won't win this year's
French edition, even though he has the talent to do it. (Hewitt admits he's
more comfortable on hardcourts.)
Marat Safin: What more can you say about the mercurial Russian who
owns every shot in the book, is seemingly more powerful on court than Superman
himself, let alone his peers on the ATP tour? Still left to be seen is if
his brain can properly direct his prodigious talent. In January, the heavily
favored Safin lost the Australian Open final, shockingly, to Sweden's Tomas
Johannson. He'll be lucky to get to the semis this year at the French.
Tommy Haas: The German is still not a household name despite finishing
second to Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the 2000 Olympics, and most
recently to Andre Agassi in the Italian Open. And that's the point.
Despite consistent results that have allowed Haas to be seeded No. 3 in this
tournament, he has not come close to breaking through to win a major. Don't
count on him to do it at Roland Garros, either.
Andre Agassi: This American icon has made more comebacks than Frank
Sinatra and Michael Jordan combined. He won the Italian Open earlier
this spring, in a compelling performance that erased a heart-breaking loss
in the same final as a 19-year-old. But Agassi is now 32, and the
three-out-of-five set French Open format over a two-week period undermines
his bid to win the tourney for the second time after a lone victory in 1999.
Still, at No. 4, a heavy betting favorite.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov: The other temperamental Russian won the French
Open in 1996, beating Sampras in the semis, in what likely was Pete's best
shot at winning the only Grand Slam to elude him. Now Kafelnikov is seriously
contemplating retirement. Is a last hurrah in order for the No. 5 seed? Sorry,
don't plan on a Shmirnoff party come June 9.
Tim Henman: The British hope has had bad luck for some time at Wimbledon,
outside of London, losing in the semis three times. So does it get any better
in the suburbs of Paris on a surface not to Tim's liking? Reaching the semis
of Monte Carlo earlier this spring, where he bowed to clay court specialist
Carlos Moya, surprised many. It helped Henman acquire the No. 6 seed
in France, where he'll likely fail to reach the appointed round.
Gustavo Kuerten: Hard to believe that the Brazilian superstar, the
three-time winner of this event, is seeded as low as No. 7, but a longstanding
injury to his hip has caused this year's ranking slide. Can Guga return to
form in time to win a fourth French? The odds are against it, but Kuerten
is a proven champ, which helps a lot when the crunch comes.
Roger Federer: At No. 8, this up-and-coming Swiss star, who won last
week's Hamburg Masters Series event convincingly over Safin, is obviously
rated below his potential. The talent is there, and the all-around game suggests
that he won't suffer an unexpected loss. But Federer's resume is still short,
thus the doubts about how far he can go.
Darkhorses: You've got to like the chances of Spain's Carlos Moya
(unseeded), back from a back injury, and another former champion (1998).
Don't count out countryman Alex Corretja (seeded No. 18), who succumbed
to Moya in that final and was game again against Kuerten in the decider last
year. Juan Carlos Ferrero (No. 11), also from Spain, is seemingly
not as strong as last year, but is another superlative clay court player
who could sweep the championships. Then there is Pete Sampras (No.
12), who won the Italian Open in 1994, so is not so much the chump many depict
him on clay. In fact, Sampras got to the final of the U.S. Clay Court
Championships a couple of months ago, losing to Andy Roddick (No.
Sampras and Roddick, despite their limitations, age on the one hand, and
lack of experience on the other, could provide some stunning results.
And finally, another important factor is the luck of the draw, still to be
to Calling The Shots