Now things really turn serious.
One of the side effects (we'd say drawbacks, but no doubt the hardcourt experts would disagree) of a tour that is dominated by hardcourts is that hardcourt players rise to the top. Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati -- all of them, taking their careers as a whole, have made most of their success on hardcourts. If Serena is on top now, it's because she's added the best results on other surfaces. But the player who dominates on hardcourts (and indoors) will be the year-end #1.
And so this is the week when the big scramble for points begins. It's biggest for Lindsay Davenport, because she has so few events that every point counts a lot. But just about everyone has a lot on the line. Monica Seles has no titles to defend this summer, but a bunch of finals and semifinals and wins over top players. Venus Williams has San Diego and New Haven and the U. S. Open. Serena has the Canadian Open and the U. S. Open final. Davenport has Los Angeles. Kim Clijsters has Stanford. Even Capriati, who of course has no titles, has the Canadian Open final and the U. S. Open semifinal. If any of these players (except Davenport, who is too far behind) can really outdistance the others, she will grab the top spot from Serena. We're not saying it will happen -- these players are all too competitive for anyone to really dominate, unless it's Venus, and based on recent form, Venus won't dominate Serena. But, mathematically, it could happen.
But all these players face question marks. Clijsters is the biggest: She's hurting, and she has a lot of points to defend at Stanford. It looks quite likely that she will lose her #5 spot. But there is also the question of how Davenport can do after her long layoff; she looked good in Fed Cup, but that was against almost token opposition. Another big question is whether Seles can defend her points. She did amazingly well last summer, but she hasn't looked as impressive this year and she won't be as well rested. And can Serena keep up her pace? And what about Venus? Fans don't like it when we say this, but it's a mathematically demonstrable fact: Venus is off from last year. Can she pick it back up? Will Capriati ever win another title? Will Jelena Dokic win a title against real opposition?
Those questions make Stanford more than usually significant this year. In recent years, this event has been much the weakest of the summer hardcourt events; with most players wanting to play two or three U. S. Open warmups, but not four, and most wanting to take at least one week off in the two weeks before the Open, and most wanting to play back-to-back events, Stanford is sort of an "odd event out." But in this summer of injuries and comebacks and a #1 ranking that's already gone to four different players this year, it's stronger than usual (six Top Ten players), and it may well set the tone for what lies ahead.
Stanford is interesting for a whole bunch of other reasons. If Jelena Dokic accuses someone of fixing the draw, this time she will be at least formally correct: The draw is fixed: Lindsay Davenport is returning to the court, and she has gotten a special exempt seeding (#2 behind Venus Williams, even though her ranking would make her the #6 seed). And the player who was bumped as a result was -- Dokic, who would have been the #4 seed but instead finds herself at #5. Which also costs her a first round bye. And she's in Davenport's quarter of the draw. Something -- words, sparks, racquets -- may fly.
Nor is that the only interesting line-up in this draw. #1 seed Venus Williams, in her opening match, will face -- Meghann Shaughnessy, the very player who beat her here last year (Venus's last loss of 2001). It's a big rematch for both players -- though more so for Shaughnessy; this was her last big result of 2001, and she needs the points.
There are, in fact, plenty of fine and interesting matches in this draw. Jankovic versus a qualifier doesn't excite us much, and we're not expecting much of Grande vs. qualifier or Martinez vs. Granville, but just about every other match has something interesting going for it. Let's do our usual and march down the draw, looking at the interesting matches. There are a lot of them:
Shaughnessy vs. Schiavone. Two players in slumps. Schiavone is healthy. Shaughnessy has been saying she's healthy, but not playing like it, for so long that it's getting hard to believe. They're both very good when they're on. Shaughnessy likes hardcourts better. She also has more on the line. Can she finally break out?
Kournikova vs. (8) Smashnova. Kournikova has been having a lot of trouble lately, but she also got to the Roland Garros semifinal in doubles; that has to help her badly shattered confidence. She can outhit Smashnova, and is fast. She has what it takes to control this match. The question is, will she? Smashnova has gotten to the Top Twenty by playing very consistent tennis. Kournikova hates that. This one could well be fascinating.
Husarova vs. Tanasugarn. Two players having their best years. Husarova, in particular, is playing at a level she couldn't even have dreamed of two years ago. The surface is fairly neutral for them. Tanasugarn is ranked higher, and will not have just flown in from Fed Cup. But Husarova survives by not letting problems like that get to her.
Sugiyama vs. Raymond. Past and present #1s in doubles. Both have been marginal top twenty at some point in their careers, both are a little lower now. Sugiyama probably likes hardcourts better (earlier this year, they faced each other back-to-back at Memphis and Scottsdale. Raymond won at Memphis, indoors, Sugiyama at Scottsdale, on hardcourts). It's likely to be a very near-run thing.
(7) Bedanova vs. Panova. A very capable but erratic player in Bedanova, a steady baseboard in Panova. Panova can't really beat you, but she's very good at helping you beat yourself. And Bedanova reportedly has been hurt. How big a door will Bedanova leave open?
Stevenson vs. Tu. Alexandra Stevenson had a great spring. Lately, she's come back down to earth. We haven't yet heard how fast the court is at Stanford. That might make a big difference....
(5) Dokic vs. Frazier. Amy Frazier is having a very, very tough year, but she loves west coast hardcourts. Jelena Dokic has no such fondness. If the Frazier of 2000 should make an appearance, this just might prove really, really interesting.
Granville vs. Martinez. A former great in a deep slump versus a player just coming off her best career result. Granville of course is most accustomed to hardcourts. There probably won't be much offense in this match. But both could really use a win about now.
(1) V. Williams vs. Shaughnessy (or Schiavone). The big rematch from last year. Shaughnessy is way, way off since then -- but Venus isn't at her best either. Obviously Venus is the huge favorite -- but she's also lost her last three tournaments in a row, two of them to Serena. What effect will that have?
Mikaelian vs. Kournikova or (8) Smashnova. Mikaelian won her first title on hardcourts at Tashkent. Admittedly that was a very weak field. But observers say she has a very solid game. This may be her chance to prove it.
Raymond or Sugiyama vs. (6) Henin. Justine Henin is a great grass player. She's a great clay player. She is not a great hardcourt player. At least, not so far, and her tools are not hardcourt tools. Both her potential opponents have more experience. None of them can blow opponents off the court. This could well be the match of the tournament if you like shotmaking.
Stevenson or Tu vs. (4) Clijsters. The defending champion has a lot on the line, and she's not in good form or good health. Can someone take advantage?
With Sopot so much smaller than Stanford, and falling toward the end of the clay season, it naturally doesn't feature as many big names. There isn't a single Top Ten player present. But the seeds all have good claims to attention. First of all is the #3 seed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who has fallen well below her best but who reached a final two weeks ago and just helped Spain come through in Fed Cup. #1 seed Silvia Farina Elia is Top Fifteen, and has a clay title this year. #2 Patty Schnyder has been having her best season in years, and she loves clay. #4 Martina Sucha has fallen off a bit lately, but she's a talented young player. #5 Cristina Torrens Valero is the defending champion. #6 Henrieta Nagyova is also a past champion. #7 Maja Matevzic has a great collection of shots though she hasn't really turned them into a complete game. And #8 Magui Serna, another player with a clay title this year, is the WTA's leading upset artist.
The result is a surprising number of fine matches. There may not be as many names as at Stanford, but there may well be more to see. The following list shows just some of the interesting matches of the early rounds:
Rittner vs. Leon Garcia. Upset artist vs. clay expert. Hard to predict this one.
Koulikovskaya vs. (6) Nagyova. The only woman on the Tour with two forehands is also having one of her better years. And Nagyova is having one of her worst. Watch it just to see Koulikovskaya. An upset would be a bonus.
(3) Sanchez-Vicario vs. Marrero. Marrero, you may recall, is the player who beat the Sanchez-Vicario at Roland Garros.
(7) Matevzic vs. Zvonareva. Zvonareva is one of the hottest young prospects on the Tour. This has high upset potential.
Montolio vs. (4) Sucha. Montolio started the year in the Top 25, and it was all because of clay. She's slumped dreadfully since, but she did win one title this year, and this is just the sort of event where she cleaned up in the past.
(8) Serna vs. Talaja. Talaja has never recovered her form of a few years back, but you never know what will happen when Serna plays.
(1) Farina Elia vs. Rittner or Leon Garcia. Farina Elia likes clay enough that she stayed in Europe when all the other top players headed for the U. S. But so did her opponents....
Garbin vs. (5) Torrens Valero. Garbin is very inconsistent. But that inconsistency gives her the ability to surprise people....
Svensson vs. (2) Schnyder. A Fed Cup rematch.
It's going to be a quiet week at the top; Serena Williams is going to remain #1 and Venus Williams #2. Below that, all is chaos. Jennifer Capriati's lead over Monica Seles is only 41 points. Seles, it is true, has points to defend and Capriati doesn't. But if Seles can reach the final, she is almost certainly going to be #3.
Kim Clijsters is just barely clinging to the #5 spot. She probably can't keep it up much longer. Even if she defends, she's likely to fall to #6. She might even fall to #7. If she doesn't make the final, she is certain to fall to #7, with Jelena Dokic and Justine Henin moving up. Lose in the first round, and it appears she will fall all the way to #8, with Martina Hingis briefly regaining #7.
Lindsay Davenport is safe at #9, though there doesn't appear to be any prospect of her moving up at this time. (Maybe next week, when Hingis loses some points.) Amelie Mauresmo will stay at #10.
The other player with a lot on the line is Meghann Shaughnessy, who beat Venus Williams last year. She is currently #19, and looks very likely to fall out of the Top 20. She might end up around #23 if she loses early.