It was a stunning display of error-free power tennis. For four nearly perfect
games, the strong American pounded her heavy artillery into the opposite
corners, meanwhile moving about her side of the court with a fluid swiftness
remarkable for a woman of her physique. Jennifer Capriati, 24, was clearly in
her zone of peak performance. Meanwhile her opponent across the net struggled
to weather the barrage, shaken by its fury but, as always, game in the face
Martina Hingis began to contain the blitzkrieg as it waned slightly in the
fifth game, and her own hitting began to improve, matching the American's
rocketry. The three-time former champion, still only 20, nearly squared
things at five games all, but instead Capriati narrowly managed to serve out
the set, 6-4. Still, the Hingis surge made it seem that, as so often in the
past, a Hingis recovery was yet ahead. The Swiss Miss, who until this day
hadn't lost a set to Capriati in years, would somehow find a way.
But in the second set, it was Hingis's game that fell off. Her own power in
serving and stroking declined, perhaps by design but probably from tiredness,
and we began to see fewer Hingis bullets, more loopers. Ten or twelve times,
Hingis flicked drop shots--superbly disguised and placed to second-bounce
amazingly close to the net. But Capriati reacted well, sprinting forward and
in most cases producing a well-placed reply. It ended 6-4, 6-3. Capriati was
Australian champion 2001, and the long-delayed superstardom of the onetime
prodigy had at last arrived.
Jennifer Capriati in her early teens had been America's sweetheart, finishing
in the world's Top Ten for four straight years 1990-1993. Then after two
years on the sidelines, she returned to big-time tennis in 1996, but for
three years she won only one match in Slam competition. Last January she
attained the semis at Melbourne, and later she moved into the Top Twenty. She
began 2001 quietly, losing to Kournikova in Hong Kong and to Lisa Raymond at
the Sydney International. Then against higher-seeded Monica Seles at
Melbourne Park, she fell behind when Seles won the first set and led 4-2 in
the second. But suddenly, with Seles tiring, things jelled for Capriati.
Displaying the power, mobility, and consistency that would remain with her
for the rest of the week, Capriati won eight of the next nine games to crush
her long-ago childhood rival. Plainly Capriati had the cleaner and heavier
groundstrokes, was superior in court mobility, and was better at finding the
sideline targets regularly.
Immediately afterwards I wrote that sometimes when a player exceeds
expectations, the next performance is a disappointing letdown. That's not
what happened here. If anything, Capriati was even stronger against Lindsay
Davenport than against Seles. Davenport, whose game depends on flattish,
powerful drives close to the lines, made too many errors in attempting these
relatively high-risk shots. I thought that Davenport was correct in
continuing this pattern in the hope of overcoming her inconsistency, as it
seemed her best chance for winning. But the errors just kept coming, while
Capriati continued moving and stroking superbly.
There is no question that Capriati was the best player in the tournament. She
should certainly do very well in the March events on hard courts, at Indian
Wells and Miami. Perhaps her years away from the tour were in one way
advantageous, allowing her physique to complete its growth to maturity
without the stresses of high-level competition and training. The product is
the superb 24-year-old athlete we see today, apparently physically and
emotionally ready for many more years of championship-level play.
THE QUALITY OF PRO TENNIS
Basil Stafford in Melbourne, who has attended the Open there for perhaps 25
years, wrote that the first four days of this year's tournament had been the
best of them all. It seemed that way to me too as I watched from North
America via ESPN. The main courts, being almost fully enclosed, reduced the
effects of wind, while temperatures during much of the tournament were not
extreme. The players had a month or two prior to the Australian season for
rest or intensive training, so that most of them were at peak readiness. It
was, as Basil wrote, "a true showcase of how great tennis can be."
The quality of pro tennis indeed improves every year across the men's and
women's tours. Established players work hard to keep improving and the
newcomers seem ever stronger. Especially noticeable is the improvement in the
power game among more and more of the women. As dominant a superstar as was
Hingis in 1997 when she won three Slams, of necessity she has become a more
powerful athlete today. The current newcomers--Dokic, Dementieva, Clijsters,
Henin, Bedanova--remain yet behind the elites, but their proximity to the
leaders creates what is by far the strongest field ever in women's tennis.
The same is largely true among the men, where we acknowledge and admire the
determination of Agassi who, having reached the top, ever pushes to improve.
Agassi's place in tennis history continues to grow. Could it yet surpass
Most watchers deemed that the medium-speed courts at Melbourne Park gave no
major advantage to either net attacker or baseliner. The results seemed to
confirm this. The eight successful male quarter-finalists included three
fast-court players (Rafter, Martin, Clement), three slow-court players (Moya,
Kafelnikov, Hrbaty), and two in the neutral range (Agassi, Grosjean). (I
categorized the players according to their past Slam performances on
fast-courts, at Wimbledon and U.S. Open, vs. on slow, at Garros.) In the
late-round matches where these players faced each other--in the quarters,
semis, and final--the player more suited to fast courts won four of the seven.
Other data supported the notion that the men's game is deeper in talent than
the women's. In the first two rounds of singles, against unseeded players,
the seeded male players won 79.3% of their sets, while the seeded women won
83.6%. About the same difference was seen in comparing the percentages of
games won. Meanwhile six of the eight highest-seeded women actually reached
the Final Eight, while only two of the highest-seeded men did so, suggesting
the same conclusion.
As to my own predictions, they turned out slightly better than usual.
Sixth-seeded Agassi proved a correct choice as champion, though my top choice
in the women's, Davenport, lost to Capriati in the semis. I correctly named
five of the eight quarter-finalists among both the men and the women.
PAINFUL BUT FASCINATING
Many readers probably watched the critical quarter-final pitting Hingis
against Serena Williams. The struggle at times showed some truly
distinguished tennis. Hingis's performance in the first set, for example,
seemed almost perfection, as she answered her opponent's superior power with
power of her own along with almost unbelievable accuracy in finding the
corners and side-strips. It was like watching Hingis against inferior
opponents three years earlier, except that now the weight of Hingis's shots
was almost at Williams's level. The Hingis backhand drew every ounce of the
young woman's physique, yet with a smoothness and efficiency that disguised
But for the most part the match was not one of high artistry. After Williams
had levelled at one set all, thanks to the evaporation of the Hingis
shotmaking seen in set one, the match became a tense, deeply contested ordeal
with each player in every point struggling against herself and her opponent
to return the last ball. Williams looked very tired amid the humid indoor
conditions (the roof of Laver Arena was closed owing to rain showers), and she
showed a slight limp as well as general discomfort. From early in the match,
Hingis seemed the fresher both in facial and bodily language.
Inside Laver Arena, Basil Stafford with his two young daughters watched the
drama unfold. He detected a rise in intensity in the third set with Williams
serving, ahead 4-1. Watching Williams closely, Basil saw what all of us have
at one time experienced. "She just went to jelly. Her limbs wouldn't move for
her. Her first serves went low into the net, her second serves were barely
110 km/h. She was trying to take deep breaths but could take only short ones."
"Strangely, Hingis got the yips too," Basil added. "There was real agony on
The two athletes struggled on in their tight play, producing moments of
splendid mobility and shotmaking amid the mistakes. Many of the games were
extended in length, including a tormented but finally successful effort by
Hingis to hold serve to reach 4-3. Most were decided by errors, including two
grievous misses by the Williams overhead, which had previously been rock
solid. Hingis finally prevailed, 8-6. "Engrossing stuff," Basil concluded.
On the men's side, the decisive match was probably the Agassi-Rafter
semi-final, a magnificent struggle between two champions that ended
disappointingly, the verdict sealed by cramping in Rafter's legs after he led
two sets to one. Knowing that this was probably Rafter's last Open, the crowd
gave him a heartfelt farewell. During the ovation Agassi stayed to the
sidelines, postponing his signature kisses and bows until Rafter had
Competing at Melbourne were nearly all the familiar friends from past ATP
World Doubles Championships in Hartford. Old hands Bhupathi-Paes and
Lareau-O'Brien were again together. Sandon Stolle partnered Canadian Daniel
Nestor for the first time in my memory. The retirement of Mark Woodforde
meant that Todd Woodbridge required a new partner, a problem nicely answered
by the accomplished doubles artist Jonas Bjorkman. The field also included
quite a few Australian players relatively unknown in world tennis, many of
whom claimed early-round wins.
Of the eight top-seeded pairs, only Nestor-Stolle and Bjorkman-Woodbridge
actually reached the Final Eight. The veteran Australian pair Eagle-Florent
defeated first Bhupathi-Paes and later Lareau-O'Brien. At the end, it was
Bjorkman-Woodbridge still standing.
More of the top singles stars among the women also competed in the doubles,
bringing such popular pairings as Hingis-Seles, Capriati-Dokic,
Pierce-Testud, and Kournikova-Schett. Navratilova, who has played in several
recent Slams, was not present. Two big-name pairs, both recent Wimbledon
champions, reached the final round, where the Williams sisters defeated
Davenport-Morariu, two sets to one.
Watching the women's final was slightly distressing to this high-school
coach, who endlessly preaches getting off the baseline in doubles. There was
wonderful hitting by all four players, of course, including some nice, low
volleys. I especially liked Morariu's quick racket work at net, along with
the quick and powerful volleying of Venus Williams. It was clear, however,
that both Davenport and, especially, Serena Williams felt most comfortable in
back court. Extended baseline rallies sometimes ensued with one partner up,
one back on both sides of the net. Perhaps the baseline lingering was
justifiable given the power hitting by everyone. But it seemed to me that it
was not volleying ability but rather lack of confidence that kept Davenport
and Serena so often in back court. Much of Davenport's lingering came when
her pair used the I-formation in serving to the ad court. Perhaps staying
back was planned, but there seemed little variety in how the pair used the
I-formation, thereby forfeiting much of the tactic's strength.
The mixed doubles as usual featured many of the stars of both men's and
women's doubles. The champions were Ellis Ferreira and Corina Morariu.
Afterwards, Ferreira attributed the pair's victory to his not usurping any of
the woman-partner's role. Thus, he explained, he played his accustomed
doubles game and avoided errors in overreaching himself. The event employed
an innovation where all third sets consisted of a single tiebreak game. This
procedure, which has a place in senior tennis and in league play, seems
inappropriate at the Slam level if we are to take the mixed-doubles event
THE CHAMPION NATION
In our mythical team competition among the nations, one point was awarded for
each match win in the singles, doubles, and mixed. Doubles points were split
between the two partners. I started the tally in the first round of the main
draw of each event.
The men's competition proved interesting. The American contingent scored well
in the early rounds of singles, but once the doubles and mixed doubles
unfolded, roughly two days behind the singles, the Australians moved ahead.
In third place was France, which placed two players, Grosjean and Clement, in
the singles semis. Here was the final tally among the men:
South Africa, 13.5
Among the women there was no suspense whatever. The American contingent
provided three of the four semi-finalists in the women's singles, all four of
the doubles finalists, and the winning woman in mixed doubles. (Second and
third place in our count, far behind, were France and Australia.) The
extraordinary performance of the U.S. women assured an American victory in
the combined men's and women's tally.
In trying this exercise, I had hoped to put forward a simple and
straightforward scheme, one that might increase fan enjoyment in the early
rounds of tournaments. All kinds of tallying patterns could be used,
allocating points in various ways among the different rounds and events. But
I like the purity of counting just one point for every match in every event,
starting with round one. We thereby give significance to all matches
including ones between players unlikely to go far in the tournament.
I hope that tennis people worldwide enjoy the period just ahead of Davis Cup
play, which should provide a grand celebration of the sport we all share.