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Between The Lines
September 10, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Ray Bowers

DAYS 1-5

Early surprises were fewer than in past years, partly because the number of seeded players was increased to 32. Only one of the top-seeded 16 men failed to survive the first two rounds. (Five failed last year.)

But if upsets were few, there were plenty of hard-fought games, sets, and matches. Nearly all the top male stars were forced to produce their best tennis. Kafelnikov, for example, survived two five-setters. Hewitt was pushed to five sets by James Blake, and defending champion Marat Safin was taken to four sets, all settled in tiebreaks, by Ljubicic. Agassi required a fourth-set tiebreak in defeating Chilean Massu.

The pre-tournament favorites--Kuerten and Rafter--still looked like the primes. A few players outside the top sixteen won notice--newcomers Andy Roddick and Tommy Robredo (who defeated Todd Martin), along with Rusedski, Rios, and Lapentti. But Roddick later, playing mostly from the baseline, had surprising trouble in finishing Jack Brasington, a qualifier. Roddick approached net on only 14 of the 231 points played.

Meanwhile all the leading women advanced relatively comfortably. An exception came on day 5, Friday, when top-seeded Martina Hingis narrowly survived against Iva Majoli, who became fatigued toward the end of their third-set extended tiebreak.

The severe humidity took toll of several competitors, among them Nicolas Kiefer, a quarter-finalist last year, who withdrew in the third set of his first match.

Leading in our fantasy competition among the nations was the large U.S. contingent. Things were closest on the men's side, where both Spain and U.S. recorded 14 match victories in the first two rounds of singles. Six Spanish and three U.S. males reached the Final 32.

THE LONG WEEKEND

The three-day Labor Day weekend was free of the oppressive heat and humidity seen earlier.

Rafter stepped up his play to overcome a tough Lapentti on Saturday night, joining Sampras, Agassi, and Federer in a common quarter of the draw. Unseeded Argentine Zabaleta also marched into the Final 16, recording a four-set win over Rusedski. I had thought that Rusedski, who looked very strong at the Legg Mason in Washington, would reach the late rounds on the faster courts at the Open.

Andy Roddick had early trouble against Corretja. I wondered that the young American remained in back-court behind his powerful serves, thus allowing Corretja to block back his returns conservatively without penalty. But Roddick's baseline strategy was soon vindicated amid a surprisingly high number of unforced errors by the usually patient Corretja.

The most interesting match was the Sunday-evening meeting of Max Mirnyi and Kuerten. Mirnyi's serving and volleying ability was wondrous, and the tournament's #1 seed was only narrowly able to overcome Mirnyi's two-set lead as the energy of Mirnyi's serve fell off slightly.

But the weekend's marquee encounter was the Monday battle between Pat Rafter and Pete Sampras. Neither player lingered on the baseline behind first or second serves. Rafter's serving was below his usual standard for two sets, while Sampras's serving was never finer. Sampras thus dominated even though his returning and volleying were not strong. As Rafter's play improved, the two battled roughly equally thereafter, Sampras breaking late in the fourth set to prevail.

WEEK TWO

The seedings held up through four rounds with only a few exceptions. Andy Roddick took the place in the Final Eight originally accorded to Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero by defeating Robredo, who had defeated Ferrero. Unseeded Argentine Zabaleta upset #8-seeded Grosjean in the first round and then defended the favored position by winning three more matches. Pete Sampras claimed Rafter's place by winning their fourth-round showdown. On the women's side, Bedanova unseated Monica Seles, and Serena Williams took Henin's place in a straight-set showdown.

My own predictions proved slightly less valid than the seedings. I had correctly named lower-seeded Roddick to reach the Final Eight, but incorrectly included Rafter and Rusedski in that group. Overall, four of my male and five of my female choices actually reached the quarters, a slightly better outcome for me than usual. My choice to win the men's singles, Rafter, was now gone, but Venus Williams still looked strong.

Two quarter-final battles were especially memorable.

Serena Williams won her Tuesday-evening shootout with Lindsay Davenport. When Davenport twice came from behind, first to win the second set and later to equalize the third, it seemed that Serena might unravel amid the disappointment. Past losses after being ahead must have played heavily in her thoughts. But although Davenport continued to display her excellent power game, Serena raised her level, closing out matters brilliantly, 7 games to 5.

Even more riveting was the quarter-final victory of Sampras over Agassi on Wednesday night. Prior to the tournament, I had concluded that Pete's serve was now his only weapon, but on this night Sampras, by consistently producing strong and superbly placed volleys as well as crushing overheads, showed that I was badly wrong. Meanwhile Agassi was magnificent in holding serve against Pete's rocketry. Neither man lost serve during the match, which was settled in four tiebreak sets. Servers were in jeopardy often during the 48 non-tiebreak games, but every time danger loomed the server produced his best tennis. Agassi's lowered performance during his losing tiebreakers seemed a case of tightening-up.

Safin advanced over Zabaleta, displaying consistent power remindful of his Open triumph last year. Kafelnikov showed accurate and crisp hitting, good mobility, and fine court tactics to dominate top-seeded Kuerten unexpectedly.

THE WOMEN'S

In the women's semis, Serena and Venus Williams sisters in turn overcame higher-seeded opponents. Serena dominated Martina Hingis from the outset, producing ten aces to Hingis's none. Venus and Capriati were more closely matched, and both hit with similar consistency, power, and aggressiveness. But Venus's superb mobility regularly neutralized Capriati's attacking shots to the corners. Capriati thus generated only four official winners, compared to Venus's 21.

Serena started well in the Saturday-evening spectacular against Venus. But, as had been the case throughout the tournament, Venus's ability to move to the corners and rip back her opponent's strongest attacking shots soon forced Serena to play beyond her comfort zone. Serena's errors began to multiply, and but for a second-set let-up by Venus matters would have been very brief. Venus won the tournament without losing a set, indeed without losing more than four games in any set.

Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs won the women's doubles, repeating their Wimbledon triumph. Stubbs also won the mixed doubles, with Todd Woodbridge. The exciting 20-point tiebreaker, which took the place of a third set in the mixed, aroused even the tv talkers, who had previously been uninterested in the match except to belabor criticism of the tiebreak notion. (Otherwise, throughout the tournament the tv commenting in the U.S. was excellent.)

Of the 32 seeded women in singles, all but six also competed in the doubles. Our winner in the combined singles + doubles was Venus, by the margin of her two shared wins in doubles. (We count one point for each singles win and one-half point for each shared win in women's and mixed doubles.

V. Williams, 8.0 (7 + 1.0 + 0)
Raymond, 7.0 (2 + 3.0 + 2.0)
S. Williams, 7.0 (6 + 1.0 + 0)
Hingis, 6.5 (5 + 1.5 + 0)
Capriati, 6.5 (5 + 1.5 + 0)
Tauziat, 5.5 (3 + 2.5 + 0)
Stubbs, 5.5 (0 + 3.0 +2.5)

THE MEN'S

The men's doubles ended in a three-setter won by Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe over the newly appointed U.S. Davis Cup pair, Johnson and Palmer.

Not many men competed in both singles and doubles--too few to seek a tournament champion of the combined events. Two players did well in both. Max Mirnyi and Sjeng Schalken each won two matches in the singles draw, four in the doubles (with different partners). Mirnyi also played in the mixed, as partner for Martina Navratilova, losing in the first round to eventual champions Stubbs-Woodbridge.

The ending in singles was stunning in its conclusiveness. In the semis, Hewitt was superb in overwhelming a helpless Kafelnikov, and Sampras closed out Safin economically by winning the points when they counted most. Then in the Sunday final, after a close first set Hewitt thoroughly dominated Sampras by the magic of his returning, which blunted Pete's serving, and his court speed, which blunted Pete's volleying.

It had been a fine tournament, featuring wonderful tennis and ample drama. The United States won our mythical competition among the nations by a substantial margin. Australia was second on the men's side, France on the women's.

Two aspects seemed paramount. First, the return of Sampras's dominating game of four years ago provided the event's biggest surprise. Indeed, I do not remember Pete ever volleying with the authority that he showed this week, in turn against Rafter, Agassi, and Safin--all recent Open champions. Second, Lleyton Hewitt's success in overcoming Pete's excellence by clean hitting and blinding speed was an accomplishment not to be minimized. I had made Hewitt's odds to win the tournament 50-1.

Winning matches and tournaments alone do not make a champion. Hewitt's commitment to Davis Cup and its role in building the game worldwide is praiseworthy. During the Open, Hewitt wisely toned down his sometimes annoying court manner and was unboastful in his public encounters. He has surely learned a lot from the troubling episode having racial implications during his match with Blake, amply described elsewhere. Hewitt, 20, was competing in the heat of battle before a society different from his own. He is forgiven, but there must be no repetition.

Hail the new champion!

--Ray Bowers

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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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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