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Between The Lines
July 7, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Wimbledon Notebook 2002

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Ray Bowers

THURSDAY, FIRST WEEK

The weather has been uncharacteristically dry and warm for the first four days. The tennis has resembled hard-court play, as the firm turf produced high and usually true bounces. Undersliced volleys that might skid or die on soft, moist turf instead came up to provide feasts for the baseliners.

Five of the top eight male seeds are gone after just two rounds, eliminated by relatively obscure players. Pete Sampras was stunningly ineffective for two sets against Swiss player Bastl, then recovered behind better serving to equalize, but finally lost an extended fifth set. Agassi played more evenly than Pete but was outserved and outstroked by Thai player Srichaphan in straight sets. European superstars Safin, Federer, and Johansson also lost, leaving only Kafelnikov, Henman, and Hewitt among the top-seeded eight.

The week's tv delight was the second-round meeting of James Blake and Richard Krajicek. Blake's steady rise in the rankings has won attention in recent months, and the young American on this day showed fine grass-court skills in pushing the former champion to five sets. The greater wonder, however, was Krajicek's return to his best form of years ago. Krajicek held to grass-court attacking tactics, moving to net behind his own serve always and behind his return of opponent's second serve often. In the critical late stages, the tall Netherlander repeatedly swept the centerline with unreturnable serves. Blake's backhand off the ground held up well, but at the end it was Krajicek's attacking that prevailed.

Can the tall veteran possibly maintain this level for the full fortnight after nearly two years away from competition? Two rounds ahead looms power-hitting Philippoussis, also back from an extended absence.

SATURDAY EVENING

If the firm turf seemed to help the baseline hitters uncustomarily on grass, three old-fashioned net players yet remain in the final sixteen. Krajicek and leftys Rusedski and Arthurs all generated sliced serves with splendid technique, setting up their volleying skills. Their volleys have been restrained--placed effectively but, more importantly, designed to stay low and often short, denying the deep-court sluggers their accustomed shot preparation. The success of the three serve-and-volley warriors seems to violate the week's trend. All three are in the bottom half of the draw and seem candidates to reach the semis.

The top half still contains favorites Hewitt and Henman, whose most dangerous obstacles to the semis now seem removed. Of the five male players who upset top-eight-seeded players in the first two rounds, none survived their third match. For the first time since 1922, no U.S. males reached the final sixteen.

On the women's side, six of the top eight seeds remain, of whom only the Williamses and Capriati have plausible championship possibilities. Both sisters had hard going in round three, however. Against Else Callens of Belgium, whom she defeated in two tiebreak sets, Serena lost traction often and fell to the ground several times--not a good omen for a player who will depend on her superior athleticism in her bigger tests to come.

SECOND WEEK, WOMEN'S SINGLES

Intermittent rainfall intervened during the second week, but the speed of the ground crews in covering the courts prevented soaking, so that the surface continued to play hard, the bounces rather high, helping the baseliners. The court speed was certainly faster than on clay but not as fast as in other years.

Both Serena and Venus recovered from their third-round difficulties to capture their next three matches without loss of a set. During the run neither sister lost more than three games in any set. Chanda Rubin played well in losing to Serena 6-3 6-3, while Justine Henin held equal against Venus at the start until her shots began losing their steam before Venus's heavy game. Mauresmo raised attention in defeating Capriati in a contest interrupted several times by rain, but the French player fell very short in her semi against Serena, who showed no sign of her earlier problem in slipping.

Watching the final, I doubted that women's tennis had ever before reached this level of speed and power. Both sisters drove the ball regularly at full strength, again and again ripping it just inside the corners and lines. Both showed magnificent mobility, replying to opponent's powerful and well-directed offerings with fresh spin and velocity. Winning a point typically required three or four aggressively placed and powerful strikes. Many points were of dazzling quality.

Both sisters kept up good first-serve percentages throughout the match, close to 70 percent. Serena's edge was in her second serve, Venus's in her superior defensive ability. But defense does not win a struggle such as this, and little by little Serena's more aggressive shotmaking proved telling. Venus, who is probably the stronger at net, did not get there regularly. (She won 7 of 9 points at net.) Serena lost early leads in both sets but successfully closed out both sets, winning a tiebreak in set one and breaking Venus late in set two when Serena's threat to Venus's second serve produced a disastrous double fault.

Serena now leads the tour both in the running 12-month rankings and also in the 2002 race to date.

SECOND WEEK, MEN'S SINGLES

The Final Eight consisted of favorites Hewitt and Henman, along with six lower-ranked players--three South Americans and three players from the Low Countries. Except for Krajicek and Henman, it was an array of players most comfortable on the baseline. Rusedski had been eliminated by Malisse in five sets and Arthurs by Nalbandian in four. Krajicek claimed his place by defeating Philippoussis in a five-setter of big serves. There were only three breaks of serve in the 62 games.

The Hewitt-Schalken quarter-final was played mostly from back court. Hewitt had several match points to close out in three sets, but Schalken's fine power backhand kept the contest alive. Hewitt finally won, 7-5 in the fifth, when Schalken's generally consistent forehand turned briefly erratic. Henman also advanced, defeating Andreas Sa of Brazil in four sets, as expected moving to net far more regularly than his opponent. Hewitt then defeated Henman comfortably in their semi, primarily by consistency in returning serves and excellent speed in running down Henman's volleys. Hewitt also served with good authority, delivered several devastating overspin lobs, and outplayed Henman in most back-court exchanges.

Meanwhile in the lower half, both 20-year-old Nalbandian of Argentina and 21-year-old Malisse of Belgium advanced to the semis by winning five-setters. In winning the fifth set over Krajicek 10-8, Nalbandian committed only three unforced errors. Then in the Nalbandian-Malisse semi, Malisse was troubled by a coronary problem but recovered from two sets down to equalize when darkness stopped play on Friday evening. The eventual verdict went to the less flashy but more consistent Nalbandian, however. Loser Malisse recorded 25 aces to Nalbandian's 1.

Lleyton Hewitt's victory over Nalbandian in the final, 6-1 6-3 6-2, was not as easy as the score suggests. The two were co-equal in their rocketry--i.e., the baseline heavy exchanges that occupied most of the play. The huskier Nalbandian generated weight of shot with less seeming effort than the Australian. But Hewitt's edge was in his serving, which sometimes produced short, easy points, and in his treatment of short balls, which he usually plastered to the backhand corner to force a Nalbandian reply on the move. Two rain breaks intervened in set two with Hewitt apparently in difficulty, and in both cases Nalbandian played poorly in the next few games. A good surge by Nalbandian in set three ended in a very questionable line call against the Argentinian, whereupon matters ended quickly.

SUNDAY NIGHT

Was the unexpected success of the baseliners the result of stated efforts by tournament personnel to slow and raise the bounce by modifying the soil? Or it is that backcourt skills are so emphasized among today's pros that the talent to win at serve-and-volley tennis is vanishing? Either way, it seems that back-courters can be expected to do well in coming Wimbledons. Or was Wimbledon 2002 simply a one-time anomaly?

Except for Hewitt's success in winning the tournament, neither the official seedings nor my own pre-tournament selections closely predicted the actual results of the men's singles. Both of these ranking schemes were based on past results giving extra weight to grass-court outcomes. The official 12-month "entry-system" rankings were just as weak a predictor. Thus this year's evidence fails to support the Wimbledon practice of deviating from the entry-system rankings in making the seeds, a practice which has alienated the top clay-courters.

In the unofficial competition among the tennis nations to win the most matches, on the women's side the USA prevailed one-sidedly. The U.S. also led among the men thanks to 10 first-round singles wins and good results in doubles. The Australian men were a close second. (The U.S. men won at Australian Open this year, Spain's men won at Garros.)

Tennis Server readers who also participate in the fantasy tennis competition at atptennis.com may, like me, be finding the experience enjoyable. I currently rank fifth among the "Media Experts," having slipped during the grass-court season. None of the 21 "Experts" are among the overall top predictors among the hundreds of others, however. I've chosen my fantasy team players while consulting my computer-based predictions described in recent Slam preview columns here. A new player-substitution period will occur at the start of the North American hard-court circuit shortly. Last year's Canada, Cincinnati, Washington-Indianapolis, and U.S. Open would seem the strongest predictors for the coming summer, along with this year's Australia, Key Biscayne, and Indian Wells.

The Wimbledon men's doubles profited greatly in the best-of-five-set format. All the world's top pairs entered, and most of them reached the late rounds thus setting up many superb head-to-head match-ups. Artists Bjorkman and Woodbridge won the tournament. The Williams sisters won the women's, defeating Kournikova-Rubin in an interesting semi and Garros champions Ruano Pascual-Suarez in the final. Both matches were seen on network tv in the U.S. The quickness and power of Venus and Serena in close-in play is amazing. But as a high-school boys' coach who requires serve-and-volley doubles after about age 14, I was not pleased by the sisters' tendency to lag in back court. I was glad, however, when tv commentators McEnroe and Evert scolded the sisters regularly for their laxity.

--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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