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Between The Lines
January 31, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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LESSONS FROM AUSTRALIA 2000

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Ray Bowers

The competitors quickly discovered that playing conditions at Melbourne Park would be unusually fast. Tournament officials had chosen a firmer tennis ball and a smoother court coating than had been used in the past. It seemed likely that the fast conditions would benefit the power servers and skilled net artists (Sampras, Krajicek, Philippoussis, Henman, Ivanisevic), and that many players would compete aggressively for net position, the traditional tactic on very fast courts.

The above tendencies were indeed there, but only to a limited degree. Sampras, who criticized the fast conditions early, said that he intended to use "grass-court tactics." Pete regularly followed both first and second serves to net and often attacked by moving forward against opponent's second serve. It was interesting to watch baseliner Kiefer trying hard to turn the tide of defeat in his quarter-final meeting with Magnus Norman by following every first serve to net. Even Norman sometimes moved forward aggressively after striking a forcing forehand or backhand. Meanwhile, in her early matches, Martina Hingis showed an uncharacteristic interest in net position, occasionally trying serve-and-volley tactics and often, with much success, advancing unexpectedly to deliver a swinging volley and claim net position.

But in actuality most of the points, especially in the first week, were contested from back court. The winning players in the early rounds were those best able to adjust their ground-stroke timing to the fast, and often windy, conditions. Such players included Agassi and Kafelnikov along with unseeded competitors Hewitt, Norman, Clement, and the Moroccans El Aynaoui and Arazi. Relatively ordinary servers attained unaccustomed pace off the bounce. Meanwhile net artist Krajicek went down early, hampered by his eternal knee troubles, and heavy-hitting favorites Enqvist and Serena Williams found the conditions troublesome. Woodruff's five-set win over Henman demonstrated that a solid baseliner could prevail against a top serve-and-volleyer. Vicente's upset of Todd Martin offered a similar message.

Probably a distinction should be made between matches played on the outer courts in windy conditions the first week and matches played in the well-protected, and sometimes entirely enclosed, centre court inside Laver Arena. Much of the early play seemed ragged, as conditions hindered precision and consistency in ground-stroking. But on centre court, which was used for all the principal matches in the second week, conditions often approximated those in indoor play.

There were plenty of rallies to relish. Basil Stafford wrote by e-mail from Melbourne that the baseliner was still favored, that good footwork and court coverage were being fully rewarded. To Basil, Lleyton Hewitt's first-round engagement with Paul Goldstein, for example, produced "some of the fastest, cleanest hitting, error-free tennis you could wish to see."

The Agassi-Sampras semi-final met all expectations. Agassi preserved his iron will throughout the struggle, squaring things at two sets all against a Sampras close to his best amid conditions seemingly favoring Sampras. The fourth-set tiebreaker, which in effect decided the match, was a classic. During the tiebreak, Sampras delivered two second-serve aces, one of them at 116 mph, and tagged two superb forehand crosscourt winners. But despite his rival's brilliance, Agassi kept his intensity. The fast courts seemed to help Agassi when it counted most--when Sampras, just two points from victory, failed to return two consecutive Agassi serves.

Then in the final against Kafelnikov, Agassi's relentless pressure--making every point a war in itself -- ultimately wore down the Russian star. Kafelnikov played brilliantly, indeed courageously, at the outset and at extended intervals thereafter.

Meanwhile Martina Hingis advanced impressively through the early rounds. The improved pace of her serve and forehand was obvious. Davenport's march to the final was less awesome, though like Sampras she seemed to gain in control with each outing. Meanwhile the Serena Williams of last fall proved unrecognizable, and the athletic Mauresmo lost inexplicably to Schnyder, who then fell to Capriati.

The women's final seemed like three separate events. For the first thirteen games Davenport dominated as both players hammered away from back court. Most points ended with a Davenport rocket to a corner followed by a Hingis error or soft return. Davenport's extreme power denied Hingis (1) her usual accuracy in hitting to the corners, (2) her recent tactic of attacking behind a swinging volley, and (3) a soft game, which would have been suicidal amid the onslaught.

But with Davenport leading 6-1, 5-1, suddenly the American's shots softened and began finding the net. Hingis meanwhile ripped away, keeping her shots well within the lines. At 5-5 in games and serving at love-fifteen, Davenport seemed in serious trouble.

Then, just as abruptly, the old pattern returned. Davenport cashed the next four points to hold serve, and Hingis, perhaps happy at reaching a respectable score, served dismally as matters ended 6-1, 7-5.

Only two of the eight highest-seeded women actually reached the quarters, in contrast to four of the top-seeded men, reversing recent patterns. The top two seeds reached both men's and women's finals.

THE DOUBLES

The final set of the women's doubles, shown live by ESPN, illustrated the weaknesses in not coming to net behind serve. Still, the persistent offender (Mary Pierce) managed to hold serve throughout the set, while partner Hingis's serve was broken twice. The fine Raymond-Stubbs pair captured the championship, stopping Hingis's four-year undefeated record in doubles at Melbourne. In the men's doubles, the all-lefty combination of Ellis Ferreira and Rick Leach prevailed over Wayne Black and Kratzman, 18-16 in the fifth. Black-Kratzman had defeated the Woodys in a close semi.

THE MASTER'S RACE FOR 2000

The decision by ATP to announce weekly standings based on results since the start of the calendar year should make the pro wars more intelligible to fans. To illustrate how it will be, we list here the leaders as the Australian season ended, also showing the Australian Open points and win-loss records. Results from Hopman Cup and Colonial Cup competition, preceding the Open, were not counted (nor will future Davis Cup play). As in the old scheme, winning a tournament is not adequately rewarded -- i.e., a runner-up in two Slams will earn more points than the winner of one, for example.

Year 2000 Standings, as of January 31

Agassi, 200 (Aus Open 200, W-L 7-0)
Kafelnikov, 141 (Aus Open, 140, W-L 6-2)
Norman, 140 (Aus Open 90, W-L 13-2)
Hewitt, 100 (Aus Open 30, W-L 13-1)
Sampras, 90 (Aus Open 90, W-L 5-1)

LOOKING AHEAD TO FEBRUARY AND MARCH

The sixteen World Group nations face off in early February for the first round of Davis Cup play. After that, the men's tour will feature several weeks of indoor events followed in March by two outdoor Master's Series tournaments (formerly Super Nines), at Indian Wells and Miami. Meanwhile the women will play three Tier Ones -- the Pan Pacific in Tokyo, then Indian Wells and Miami. The clay-court season will start in April.

The Sampras-Agassi saga is surely not ended, though Sampras's hip muscle injury will delay the next chapter. Clearly Agassi is a stronger player than ever before, and he should be capable of winning any event he enters.

Who will be the other contenders in February and March? Mark Philippoussis, who played well in his fourth-round loss to Agassi, heads the list. Kafelnikov's showing at Melbourne marks him for contention, though his many losses after winning Melbourne last year create doubts. Lleyton Hewitt is obviously rising, Swedes Enqvist and Norman should like the hard courts, and the big-swinging Kuerten will remain delightful to watch. The physical readiness of Krajicek and Todd Martin is uncertain, and the sidelined Rafter, Rios, and Rusedski all seem unlikely to contend soon.

Among the women, the top echelon -- Davenport, Hingis, and the Williamses -- are clearly separated from the rest. There are other fine players on the scene, but it is hard to see any of them winning events where the leaders are present. Jennifer Capriati, who defeated Hingis in a Hong Kong exhibition in early January and looked strong in her slugfest with Davenport at Melbourne, may be the closest. Disappointing at Australian Open was Mauresmo, who had just defeated Davenport and Hingis at Sydney. Hingis will play the Pan Pacific, and Davenport will join her in Scottsboro, Indian Wells, and Miami. The Williams sisters will take turns in skipping events and may continue to suffer from their comparative inactivity. Although she remains at her best and should win in Tokyo, Hingis must thereafter find a way of coping with her larger and stronger rivals.

Thank you, ESPN, ESPN2, and sponsors, for a marvelous two weeks of Australian Open tennis.

--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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