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Between The Lines
February 9, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australian Retrospect 2002

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Ray Bowers

Australian Open 2002 produced its share of drama, especially among the women where the members of 2001's Top Ten proved at a level well above all others. None of them lost to a lesser-ranked woman.

Some of the superstars went down with injuries. Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams withdrew prior to start-of-play, and the tournament favorite, Venus Williams, troubled by knee and thigh injuries, lost in the quarters. Her conqueror, Monica Seles, played with power, consistency, and mobility that seemed as strong as in her championship years.

Seles and Hingis, who together brought seven past Aussie singles titles, produced a semi-final of near-historic quality. Seles began superbly, smoking flattish shots to the corners that, again and again, exceeded the Hingis reach. Whenever Seles could set up close on the baseline, especially if near centerline, her artillery quickly ended matters.

After a set of this, Hingis's efforts to hit hard and keep the ball out of Seles's large sweet zone began to take effect. Seles continually menaced the Hingis second serve, but little by little errors by Seles began to creep in. Meanwhile Hingis won all eleven of her occasional net approaches, and her deserved win was the product of consistency and court sense.

Meanwhile Jennifer Capriati's path to the final was not comfortable. With both thighs wrapped, she needed three sets to survive her third-round opponent, Greek teen-ager Daniilidov, who showed a backhand suggestive of Henin's. The defending champion was next tested by Rita Grande, who delivered remarkable angles from backcourt. Grande's softish, sliced backhands also seemed not to Capriati's liking, but the American persisted and claimed her win in a second-set tiebreaker. Clearly improving with each outing, Capriati next yielded only four games in defeating Mauresmo to gain the semis.

Simultaneously Kim Clijsters swept through five matches without loss of a set. Each of her first four opponents failed to win more than three games against the 18-year-old Belgian, and teen-aged countrywoman Henin managed to carry Clijsters only to score 62 63. Clijsters clearly registered her credentials as a likely future champion.

The Capriati-Clijsters semi immediately followed. Both women displayed high court mobility and stamina in repeatedly replying to opponent's rockets to the corners. If Capriati's hammering seemed slightly the heavier, Clijster's court movement seemed slightly the better. After a close first set, won by Capriati, and a second set won by Clijsters, errors began to inflict Clijsters's hitting. At the end Capriati's superior consistency in the heavy exchanges prevailed, comfortably.

The Capriati-Hingis final was riveting. It was hard to envision that Hingis could withstand the defending champion's pounding, but the Swiss Miss had learned her lessons well from the battle with Seles. Hitting with as much power as she could summon withour error and keeping Capriati on the move as much as possible, Hingis claimed the first set and took the first four games of set two. Both players showed early distress at the scorching temperature, which measured 95 degrees and was surely much hotter on court. If anything, it seemed that the larger and seeming harder-working Capriati would be the first to fade.

The turning of the tide was abrupt in the game score but gradual to those watching closely. Still, four times Hingis was only one point from triumph. But on these occasions as well as in much of the play otherwise, it was Capriati who maintained her boldness, going for the lines with full power when the opportunity seemed right, and it was Hingis who sometimes retreated to backcourt, scorning net-attack opportunities. More important, it was now Hingis who was fatiguing most. When Capriati finally won the long second-set tiebreaker to equalize the match, the ultimate verdict was sealed. Hingis knew it, and she slinged her racquet almost the length of the court.

Two magnificent warriors on this day earned the admiration of the world.

THE MEN'S SINGLES

If predictability was high on the women's side, it was utterly absent among the men. Of the top-seeded eight only Tommy Haas managed to defend his seed by reaching the quarters. Similarly only one of the highest eight in my computer-based predicted ranking actually reached the quarters (Safin), while my predictions in Tennis Server likewise correctly placed in the quarters only one player (Johansson).

The intruders to the final eight were, for the most part, veterans playing at close to their career-best--perennials like Wayne Ferreira, Marcelo Rios, Jiri Novak, and Jonas Bjorkman.

The early rounds produced several stories of special interest. Philippoussis returned from long absence with injuries, but was now trimmer by twenty pounds and looked strong. Young Federer confirmed his obvious promise by moving through three matches without loss of a set. He then carried Haas to the limit before yielding, 86 in the fifth. Escude, our Player of the Year for 2001, took Sampras to five sets by coming to net regularly, a tactic that helped minimize Sampras's advantage in weight of backcourt firepower. By following serve to net, Escude narrowed Sampras's margins in returning, and also denied Sampras the opportunity to advance behind chipped serve-returns. Escude is an above-average volleyer who is learning to integrate aggressive net play into his solid ground game, which includes the two-handed backhand.

Both semis were fascinating five-setters. In the final, Johansson prevailed over Safin by virtue of fine serving and serve-returning, superb footwork, power ground-stroking that almost matched Safin's, and solid if occasional net play. Safin looked tired after the first hour, though the temperature was less severe than the day before.

PET OBSERVATIONS

The U.S. contingent, both men's and women's, led the nations in our fantasy competition to win the most matches. The host nation, Australia, failed to show the strength in doubles that gave it the honors on the men's side last year. France was second this year among the men, narrowly ahead of Czech Republic. Spain and Italy tied for second among the women. Spain was second in the combined men's + women's.

The injuries to Roddick and Medina Garrigues seemed further evidence that the Rebound Ace surface gives too much traction. Early in her fourth-round match against Seles, Medina Garrigues crumpled in agony after planting her front leg for a backhand reply. In replay it could be seen that her leg was twisted at the knee as the weight descended. The high-friction court prevented the foot from turning to adjust, so that the joint was forced to, and could not, accommodate to the weight-bearing twist.

The tournament's present court surface provides wonderful tennis and is a good complement to the other Slams. But there seems little doubt that the surface will be seriously reviewed. It was said that the bounce this year was on the slow side, which is otherwise desirable but probably goes with the high friction.

The men's doubles were unusually interesting. The top seven pairs in the 2001 rankings all competed, there having been little of the usual early-year partnership-scrambling. But none of the top seven pairs actually reached the final, won by veterans Knowles-Nestor over Llodra-Santoro. (Earlier, in a match among four Americans, Johnson-Palmer defeated the Bryan brothers, probably complicating Captain McEnroe's plans for the Davis Cup team.)

Of the teen-aged women discussed in this column two months ago, the standout at Melbourne Park proved to be Clijsters. Henin too defended her seed to reach the quarters. Dokic did not compete. Daniela Hantuchova of Slovak Republic looked strong, winning three matches and then a set from Venus before departing in the singles, and also doing well in doubles. She and partner Sanchez Vicario reached the doubles final, losing in three-sets to Hingis-Kournikova, while Hantuchova and Kevin Ullyett won the mixed. Hantuchova will be Navratilova's partner at Indian Wells in March. Meanwhile teen-ager Tulyaganova won two singles matches before losing to Grande in three sets. Entering our scrutiny were teenagers Medina Garrigues and Daniilidou, both noted in our discussion above.

I did calculations comparing the men's singles results at Australia 2002 with those of the four preceding Slams. Australia 2002 correlated best with the results of U.S. Open 2001, second-best with Australia 2001. Not surprisingly given this year's carnage at Melbourne Park, the correlations were much weaker than in similar calculations for last year. Indeed, the correlation was slightly negative between Australia 2002 and Garros 2001. Using the calculations from this year and last, we offer weights for use in predicting Australia 2003 as follows:

Australia 2002, 38.4%
Wimbledon 2002, 16.2%
Garros 2002, 3.5%
U.S. Open 2002, 41.9%

WHAT'S AHEAD

Davis Cup play commences in early February for the sixteen nations of the World Group. The Cup seems in good health worldwide, there having been four different champions in the last four years--Sweden, Australia, Spain, and France. There are many plausible contenders for 2002, including the U.S. if both Sampras and Roddick are physically near their best.

Several of the leading teams will face immediate tests in other lands. Seemingly in possible jeopardy are Sweden against host Britain, Brazil against host Czech Republic, and Germany against host Croatia. Australia, without Hewitt, Rafter, and Philippoussis, looks outclassed at Argentina. U.S., Spain, France, and Russia, all playing at home, appear safe.

March will bring the hard-court, outdoor tournaments in the southern U.S.--the Pacific Life at Indian Wells and the Ericsson in Miami. Success in Australia often carries over to these events, so we can expect strong performances from Johansson, Capriati and the others who reached the late rounds at Melbourne. The major clay-court events will start in April.

--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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