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Between The Lines
June 9, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Garros Review 2002

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Ray Bowers

The meeting of Serena and Venus Williams at Court Lenglen on Saturday provided a historic moment. Previously the sisters had faced each other seven times in pro competition, Venus winning five times. Younger sister Serena had been the first to capture a Slam, having won U.S. Open in 1999. Since then, Venus had won Wimbledon and U.S. Open each twice. This was their first meeting in a Slam final.

Serena's recent credentials seemed the stronger. The younger sister had been runner-up this spring at Berlin and champion at Rome, where her power serving and ground-stroking prevailed over the slow conditions at these classic clay-court sites. Three weeks ago, believing that Serena must persist in her high-confidence tactics of relentless attack, I wrote that only Serena could defeat Serena at Garros.

Indeed, against Venus on Saturday Serena's courage never wavered. The younger sister ceaselessly drove the ball with heavy authority, regularly stepping up to and sometimes inside the baseline to punish it toward the opposite corners. Inevitably Serena's errors rose, considerably outnumbering her outright winners, as Venus again showed her phenomenal ability to reply to an opponent's heavy firepower. But the steady power of Serena gradually told, often yielding slightly weakened replies which allowed Serena to pounce forward.

Venus and Serena are the two strongest servers in women's tennis. Yet on this date it was the serve that proved the most vulnerable feature of both. Both women regularly punished the other's second serves, and both replied by trying to step up the energy of their second-serve deliveries. Double-faults thereupon ensued, sometimes at key moments. Serena won a creditable 47% of her second-serve points, Venus only 33%. Serena produced the only aces, the fewer double-faults, the deliveries that best penetrated the slow-clay bounce.

Serena won the first two games of the match but Venus quickly recovered, taking the lead at scores 4-2 and 5-3. But Venus played poorly in game nine, and as if to staunch her errors it was Venus who then backed away from her heaviest weaponry. As Venus clearly softened her shot-making in game ten, Serena seized dominance early in most points. Serena began a run that reached seven consecutive games, allowing her to close out set one and take a 3-0 lead in set two. Watching tv, I wrote in my notebook that Serena was attacking almost every ball from close backcourt, even as she remained cautious about advancing to far forecourt. Venus fought back gamely and indeed equalized play in the late stages of the match. But the verdict of those middle seven games proved insurmountable.

The match statistics showed the raggedness of the match. A difficult wind and an extremely tough Sun when serving from the north certainly spoiled the perfection of the play. But the competitiveness of both warriors lived up to the importance of the moment. The day deserves to be remembered both for the grace and will of both players but especially for the heart of the champion.

THE MEN'S FINAL The two men seemed utterly different archetypes. Shorter and broad-chested, Albert Costa looked the workingman, his black shoes adding an effect that made his court movement seem awkward. His opponent, slender and wiry at 6-0 in height, Juan Carlos Ferrero in fashionably trimmed tennis clothes and a stylized haircut seemed to move with the elegance of nobility. The contrasts carried into their stroking styles--Ferrero was the more polished, his smooth free deliveries carrying more pace and overspin than his effort seemed to provide. Meanwhile Costa attacked the ball with compactness, more with fury than elegance. Yet at the end, it would be Costa who would produce the greater variety and style in his play, including superior performance in the occasional net situations--factors that enabled him to claim a victory that for a time seemed to be slipping away.

After an early rain break, Costa rapidly swept though the next eleven games to capture the first two sets in less than one hour. The damp, cool conditions seemed to fit perfectly Costa's skills, meanwhile dulling Ferrero's powerful overspin shots enough to allow Costa to set up well for his forcing deliveries. Ferrero replied with frequent errors, his discomfort compounded by a difficult wind. It also seemed that Ferrero was pulling back from making the last short step needed for ideal preparation in his shot-making. Was there a groin or leg problem?

But abruptly with the start of set three, it was now Ferrero who was attacking, whose rockets were now peppering the corners and baseline area, keeping Costa back and provoking weak replies and occasional errors. The games remained close, but it was clear that momentum had shifted. Ferrero was now playing with the confidence and fire that had lifted him over the great Agassi and Safin earlier in the week. The younger player closed out set three, 6-4.

Ferrero held serve in a hard-fought first game to open set four. I wrote in my notebook that Costa was now looking the slower player, that he was now being overpowered and outplayed in most of the baseline exchanges, that he needed to introduce more variety into the points. As if by signal, Costa began to find a way. Game two was a difficult one, featuring at least one break point favoring Ferrero. But on at least three occasions during the long game, Costa broke the pattern by delivering superb, winning dropshots. With Ferrero's momentum finally broken in the next game by an unlucky net-cord point and with Costa continuing the occasional dosage of droppers, the older player went on to close out his victory.

NOTES

Clay-court tennis at the top pro levels is ever more attractive for the watcher. There seems a new emphasis on finding the short angles with powerful and low, topspin deliveries that seek the opposite sideline near the service box. The effect is to force opponent well off court, opening up things for a next power delivery to the opposite deep corner. The skills of the top players, male and female, in producing these attacking shots--whether cross-court or inside out--are remarkable.

Doubles remained largely unseen by the tv watcher, even as pro doubles on clay provide the longer exchanges so lacking in fast-court doubles. Winning on the men's side was a new partnership of veterans, Paul Haarhuis and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Haarhuis has been purely a doubles artist in recent years, having been world champion with Jacob Eltingh in 1998. Haarhuis and Kafelnikov will be partners again at Wimbledon. Their victims in the Garros final, Knowles-Nestor, remain ahead in the year's standings.

Winners in the women's doubles were Spain's Ruano Pascual and Argentina's Suarez. The losing finalists, the fine American-Aussie pair Raymond-Stubbs, remain atop the year's points race. Champions of the mixed doubles were brother-and-sister Wayne and Cara Black.

The winning nations in my unofficial count of match victories at Garros, by comfortable margins, were Spain on the men's side, U.S. among the women, and U.S. in the combined tally. These results repeated those of 2001 except that last year Spain led in the combined. Argentina was second this year among the men, France among the women, and Spain in the combined.

My use of numerical correlations for weighting various preceding tournaments as predictors of the men's singles worked out fairly well, as the data led me to pick correctly six of the actual eight quarter-finalists. (Only two players officially seeded in the top eight actually reached that level.) However the calculations misleadingly pointed to defending champion Kuerten as the most probable winner. They placed the actual champion, Costa, in the Second Eight.

I hope that everyone has a nice rest this week and next, recharging for Wimbledon.

--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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