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Between The Lines
January 30, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Thoughts on Australia 2001

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Ray Bowers

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 of difficulty.

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 Sampras's?

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 her effort.

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 court."

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 departed.

THE DOUBLES 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 seriously.

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:

Australia, 36
USA, 26
France, 18
Germany, 14.5
South Africa, 13.5
Spain, 13

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.

--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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