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Between The Lines
June 11, 2001 Article

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Ray Bowers

Day One, Monday

Wow. Three members of the current Big Six in women's tennis are already out of the tournament! Lindsay Davenport withdrew because of injury before play began. But today's straight-set losses by Venus Williams and Mauresmo seem almost inexplicable.

The women's talent is thus oddly split. The lower half now offers the new generation--Henin, Dokic, Clijsters, and the young Russians. The upper half has the familiar Hingis, Capriati, Serena, and Sanchez-Vicario.

Day Two, Tuesday

Sampras today showed his old ability to turn near-defeat into victory. It was sad for Cedric Kauffmann, who has never won an ATP main-tour match but today held several match points against Pete. Kauffmann's calm shotmaking deserted him when he served for the match in the fifth set.

It was good to receive E-mails today from friends who had read my Preview column. Basil Stafford in Australia picks Agassi and Hingis to win the tournament. Norm Bowers in Colorado chooses Kuerten and Capriati.

With round one of both men's and women's singles complete, Spain leads the tennis nations. Twelve Spanish men achieved first-round wins, two more than last year. France is second with seven wins. Among the women, Spain shows nine wins against USA's seven. The early departures of Davenport and Venus alter the certainty of a one-sided triumph by the American women.

Day Three, Wednesday

Andy Roddick overcame cramping in the fifth set to defeat Michael Chang. The teenager's main assets--superior serving ability and very good power groundstrokes from both sides--narrowly outweighed Chang's experience and determination.

Disappointingly, the defending doubles champions--the Williams sisters--pulled out of the doubles tournament. Are the sisters insensitive to a professional code of sport or are they prone to interminable health problems?

Day Four, Thursday

Sampras lost in straight sets to veteran clay-courter Blanco. Meanwhile Agassi advanced nicely, adding to the suspicion that Agassi's career may eventually surpass Pete's. The five-set win of Safin over clay artist Calatrava was a noteworthy success.

With 64 players (32 pairs) surviving in the men's doubles, the nation with the most men's doubles players remaining is, surprisingly, Czech Republic, with ten.

Day Five, Friday

Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt exchanged bullets from the corners for over two sets, but their meeting ended when Roddick was lamed by a pulled hamstring. The score was even when the injury occurred. The two seemed essentially equal in baseline power and consistency, though Roddick seemed able to generate equal penetration with lesser backswing. The advantage in aces went, surprisingly and one-sidedly, to Hewitt, probably reflecting Roddick's inferiority in reacting to opponent's serves. The future should bring many meetings of these two.

Kuerten's win today was difficult, while Kafelnikov and Ferrero won comfortably. With Hewitt, these are the four high-seeds of the upper half of the draw, and all seem on solid ground. The lower half's high-seeds Sampras and Rafter are gone, while Safin seems in jeopardy next against old-nemesis Santoro. The draw seems to favor Agassi.

In the amazing lower half of the women's draw, Dokic exited today but Clijsters and Henin remain. All eight survivors in this half are Europeans.

The expected strength in doubles of the U.S. and Australian contingents is beginning to take effect in the competition among nations. Doubles success today lifted the U.S. women slightly ahead of Spain's in the count of match wins.

Day Six. Saturday

Agassi's four-set win over Brazilian Meligeni showed the North American's ability to break down the game of a classic clay-court retriever-hitter. Agassi moved his opponent around mercilessly, while the crowd was enthralled by the South American's ability to retrieve and counter. Early-on, Meligeni's one-handed sliced backhand offered Agassi a feast. Later Meligeni began ripping overspin backhands, but it was too late, as Agassi was by then in perfect groove.

Day Seven, Sunday

American Michael Russell nearly defeated tournament favorite Kuerten, achieving and nearly winning a match point late in the third set. Kuerten seemed clearly off his game, playing tentatively to avoid errors and frequently missing when he tried to open up a point. Meanwhile Russell displayed excellent court speed, fine consistency, and an ability to exploit the occasional opening. But as the day's strong wind diminished, Kuerten's top game simultaneously returned, and by the end of the fifth set the Brazilian was nailing the corners with his accustomed flair.

Day Eight, Monday

Though his situation was scarcely as dire as was Kuerten's yesterday, Agassi today seemed in trouble. Argentine left-hander Squillari equalized matters at two sets all by sweeping the fourth set 6-1 behind an astonishing barrage of forehand and backhand baseline power. Again and again Agassi found himself in an unaccustomed and ineffective defensive situation. Squillari closed out the set with three brilliant aces. But when the fifth set began, as if on signal, the veteran American found reserves not evident just before, raising his level of play to earn a prompt break of serve. Squillari, who now seemed tired, could not answer, and his shots began to ride over the lines. Agassi closed out matters, 6-0.

Day Nine, Tuesday

The featured women's match, Serena Williams against Jennifer Capriati, proved disappointing, as neither player showed the consistency expected at this point in the tournament. By the time both players began approaching their best late in the match, the audience seemed too numbed to notice. Capriati had the advantage of regular competition in recent months, and it seemed to me that this made the difference in her victory.

The Kuerten-Kafelnikov quarter-final was less flawed. The outcome was in doubt well into the third set, as Kafelnikov appeared to perform at a higher level than seen in recent months. Kuerten's play was also better than in his last outing, and his ability to sustain his heavy hitting and accuracy eventually told.

Day Ten, Wednesday

Early-on, Andre Agassi was in total command against Grosjean, who was tight and error-prone. Agassi took the first set 6-1, while the total of his unforced errors in that set was zero. But as former U.S. president Clinton moved into a front-row seat just behind Agassi's baseline, Agassi's quickness and control abruptly vanished. Grosjean began hitting harder and avoiding errors. Except for an occasional superb moment, Agassi from then on was badly outclassed. At the end, Grosjean had recorded ten aces and zero double-faults, against Agassi's zero aces and five double-faults.

What explained the abrupt change of events after set one? Probably it was mainly the transformation in Grosjean's play into that of a champion. But there was also deterioration on Agassi's part. Could a factor have been the strong wind, which picked up just as the match turned? Or was it a creeping tiredness resulting from the American's hard battles in recent days? Or was it somehow related to the presence of Clinton?

I had seen something like this happen once before, several years ago, when a powerful Agassi overhead felled Agassi's opponent. Agassi had been well ahead prior to the episode, but his game thereafter evaporated and he lost badly. It seemed clear that the concentration and resolve upon which Agassi's magnificent play depends had been broken.

Day Eleven, Thursday

Capriati's convincing semi-final win over Hingis today confirmed that the times of Swiss Miss dominance are ended. Hingis fought hard, much of the time summoning baseline power nearly equal to that of the larger American. But Hingis could not match Capriati's remarkable ability to deliver severely angled, flattish bullets just over the net tape, which again and again nibbled the sideline. These sizzlers moved Hingis outside her comfort area, and often elicited a less-than-forcing reply, meanwhile opening Hingis's court to Capriati's next rocket. Capriati's mobility and stamina assuredly matched and perhaps exceeded Hingis's.

In the earlier semi, Clijsters, who was at one time behind by a set and a break, managed to turn matters against Henin. Clijsters gets her body weight into her power deliveries better than does Henin, while her two-handed backhand seems better designed for sustained hard work in the trenches than Henin's brilliant, higher-velocity one-hander.

Day Twelve, Friday

Kuerten seemed the stronger throughout in the first men's semi, though Ferrero regularly threatened to break serve and turn sets to his favor. But when these moments arose, the Brazilian always mustered his array of weaponry to save matters. Kuerten showed a variety of talents including powerful swinging volleys, excellent touch in conventional volleying, and superb first serves when most needed. But his most devastating asset was his marvelous one-handed backhand, which regularly neutralized Ferrero's bullets into the deep corner and, even more frequently, produced spectacular power winners to either deep sideline. In executing the stroke, the Brazilian takes a large backswing, often turning his shoulders away from the net to increase the backswing extent. The shoulders then uncoil to the fore-and-aft position as the power stroke is launched, and they usually remain parallel to the sidelines until late in the follow-through. He meets the ball off the front shoulder with racquet horizontal and with slight upward spin. Fullest power comes when he steps forward firmly. Again and again he opened up or finished points with the shot.

Later, Corretja overcame Grosjean by playing generally from well behind the baseline and delivering heavily overspun, high-bouncing strokes. Probably troubled by Corretja's defensive skills and by the high bounces, Grosjean seemed never able to unlimber the artillery he showed against Agassi. Meanwhile Corretja displayed his excellent ability to shift to the attack at any opportunity, closing out many points with effective net and overhead play.

Day Thirteen, Final Saturday

In the women's final, it was difficult for Capriati to produce the heights attained against Hingis two days earlier, probably because of the greater shot-making power of her opponent, Kim Clijsters. The Belgian teen-ager swept set one 6-1 before the American veteran rallied to equalize, 6-2. With the tiebreak rule not in effect, set three became an extended marathon. Three times Capriati served to win the match, and twice the prize proved elusive. Clijsters toward the end seemed to be playing tentatively, yielding Capriati the initiative during points. Finally, with Capriati ahead and serving at 11-10 Clijsters tried to return to her aggressive game but things went against her and the American claimed her victory, 12-10 in the third.

Will we soon be adding Clijsters, and perhaps also Henin and Dokic, to our Big Six of elites?

Day Fourteen, Final Sunday

For nearly two sets of their men's final, Corretja seemed the master of the tall defending champion. Corretja generally operated from well behind the baseline, thereby easily returning most of Kuerten's rockets. His own shot-making was sometimes aggressive and, as in the past, he showed an ability abuptly to attack the deep corners and finish off points effectively from forward. The wind was very strong (Kuerten later called it a hurricane), favoring the more-controlled game of Corretja over Guga's more-aggressive style. Clearly, the wind and Corretja's consistency combined to bring Kuerten's game well below the heights seen two days earlier.

But as set two approached its climax and with the wind diminishing somewhat, Kuerten's power game fell into place, just in time to avoid a two-set Corretja lead. Perhaps slightly injured in the leg area, perhaps tiring, and perhaps discouraged by narrowly losing his chance to take command in the score, Corretja began producing errors especially when drawn wide on his forehand side. Gradually Kuerten's play rose to approach that seen against Grosjean. In the fourth and final set, Corretja won only six points, four of them in the last game.

In the mythical competition among the nations, Spain won in the men's result, USA in the women's, and Spain in the combined men's + women's. Here are the leading nations in matches won:

Spain, 32.5
France, 22.5
Czech Republic, 20.0

USA, 29.0
Spain, 22.5
Belgium, 16.5

Combined men's + women's
Spain, 55.0
USA, 48.5
France, 38.5

My predictions were well short of perfection, especially on the women's side. Four of my eight favorites succeeded in reaching the quarter-finals among the men, but only two among the women. I correctly chose Kuerten to win the tournament but was wrong in picking Mauresmo, who in my scheme would reach the final and there defeat Capriati. Congratulations are owed to Norm Bowers in Colorado, who correctly picked both Kuerten and Capriati to win.

--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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