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Between The Lines
August 21, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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U.S. Open Preview 2002

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Ray Bowers

It is rare when one of the top eight or nine women pros loses to a player outside this group. The pattern was at least temporarily broken, however, at the Morgan-Chase Open outside Los Angeles in early August. Both Capriati and Clijsters lost to non-elite players, while Serena Williams, Dokic, and Davenport were in turn defeated by lower-ranked Chanda Rubin. Order was largely restored, however, the next week at Canadian Open in Montreal, except that Clijsters lost to Barbara Schett in the third round. Mauresmo, showing heavy topspin and good variety, defeated Capriati to win that Tier One event.

It is clear that the Williams sisters when healthy are at a level of their own, one almost surely never before seen in women's tennis. Serena captured this year's Wimbledon and Garros, and Venus has won the last two U.S. Opens. Their power, mobility, and mental strengths of the sisters are superlative. Serena's triumphs this spring would make her the Open favorite except that she withdrew at Montreal with knee trouble. Venus thus requires the shorter odds

Two other candidates have plausible chances of denying one of the sisters the crown. Three-time Slam champion Lindsay Davenport has made a good start in her comeback from January surgery. Her power in serving and stroking is devastating, though her court agility is well below that of both sisters. Davenport's flattish rockets require a level of precision not evident in her loss to Rubin in California. Meanwhile current Australian Open champion Jennifer Capriati probably equals the sisters in power, consistency, and fighting spirit though her results have slipped slightly on this summer's hard courts. Her second serve remains vulnerable to attack by the sisters.

If the crown seems only remotely within the reach of the other elites, all of them are capable of defeating Capriati or Davenport occasionally, or indeed either Williams sister playing at less than her best. We include in this group the young Belgian stars Henin and Clijsters, rising Dokic, and veteran Seles. (Dokic withdrew against Capriati last week with thigh trouble.) We add Rubin for her win in California, Mauresmo for hers in Canada along with consistent strong results, and newcomer Hantuchova. Also included is superstar Martina Hingis, who returned from surgery to move nicely through two rounds in Montreal before faltering to Dokic, 6-4 6-3. Just outside the group is strong Eleni Daniilidou, 19, who this year shows five close losses to the above primes along with wins on grass over Henin and Mauresmo.

Here are the odds as I see them:

Venus, 2-1
Serena, 3-1
Capriati, Davenport, 15-1
Clijsters, Henin, 20-1
Hingis, Seles, Mauresmo, 50-1
Dokic, Rubin, Hantuchova, 75-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

THE PREDICTIONS

Here are the eight sections of the draw and my predictions. The usual rule allows choosing only four of the top eight seeds to reach the quarters.

--S. Williams (1), Myskina (15), Bedanova, Dechy, Tulyaganova, Safina. No problems here. Serena.

--Henin (8), Hantuchova (11), Majoli, Tanasugarn, Granville. Hantuchova defeated Henin in straight sets at Indian Wells this year. Hantuchova.

--Davenport (4), Farina Elia (13), Kremer, Sanchez V, Callens. Davenport.

--Dokic (5), Dementieva (12), Panova, Stevenson, Schiavone, Bovina, Kournikova. With Dokic hurting, it's perhaps Anna's last good chance for another Slam quarter. This year she has defeated Dementieva and twice taken Dokic to three sets. Kournikova.

--Clijsters (7), Mauresmo (10), Schnyder, Daniilidou, Nagyova. Coming off her triumph in Montreal, Mauresmo.

--Capriati (3), Maleeva (16), Sugiyama, Shaughnessy. Capriati.

--Seles (6), Hingis (9), Smashnova, Suarez, Pierce. Hingis defeated Seles three times early this year, and has a lifetime 16-4 record against her. Hingis.

--V. Williams (2), Rubin (14), Raymond, Schett. Venus.

Davenport, Capriati, and the Williamses will prevail in the quarter-finals. The sisters will each win their semi, and the Open will remain Venus's tournament. Venus will defeat Serena in a close-fought final.

THE MEN'S SINGLES

The widespread parity in men's pro tennis persists. Only one player, Andy Roddick, reached the quarters of both recent Masters events--Canada and Cincinnati. This is remarkable because the two events are held on consecutive weeks on similar surfaces with essentially the same entry field. Then Roddick failed to reach the quarters at the Legg Mason last week here in Washington.

Another general observation is the growing ability of players from Spain and South America--the supposed clay-court specialists--to win on faster courts. Argentina's Canas triumphed in Canada, and Spain's Moya in Cincinnati. Also reaching the semis in Cincinnati were Gonzalez of Chile and Ferrero of Spain. A week later, Rios of Chile and Mantilla of Spain reached the semis in Washington and Indianapolis, respectively. These results echoed a message of Wimbledon, where three other South Americans reached the quarters.

There is today much commonality in the playing styles of the top male warriors. Most of them play an attacking game from back court. They rally with astonishing power, often gunning for the corners and sidelines. They are able to rip outright winners against medium-paced shots from baseline center. Their forehands and backhands usually carry good topspin for control, and they often keep margins over net small, especially for finding the short corners (near service line). Their strong first serves can produce easy points, and their second serves are difficult to attack. They are in superb physical condition, and their court mobility is as astonishing as their ground-stroke power. Variety in pace and spin is advantageous for them but less important than consistency in strong hitting. Many of them are not excellent volleyers. Indeed for most players, the net is not the place to be unless opponent is placed in deep trouble.

But what can be done against an opponent who on a given day is the better player at all the above? In my opinion, superior net skills can become a crucial asset in such a case, at the pro level as elsewhere.

Here are thoughts on three prime candidates to win the U.S. Open, from watching and questioning them last week at the Legg Mason.

ANDY RODDICK, age 19

This was Roddick's third year here. As a pro rookie in 2000 having only four previous tour matches, he defeated three opponents in or near the Top 100. Last year he won the tournament, convincingly. Since then his ranking has continued to climb, and it has been interesting to watch his progress regularly by TV.

Roddick's foremost weapon remains his strong serving. His first serve carries the highest velocities in the game, and his second is loaded with severe spin and good pace. Both produce many points outright or often elicit soft replies. His ground strokes are superb for gaining the upper hand in exchanges and attacking weak offerings. Meanwhile his serve-returning, volleying, and court-covering abilities remain short of world-champion quality. Andy, who will be 20 on August 30, is a year older than Sampras in 1990 when Pete--then like Andy a prime strong-serving teenager--captured his first Open.

I had been wondering whether Andy, now listed 6-2 in height, envisioned becoming more of a net attacker. Thus in an interview session early last week, I asked him whether he thought he has the ability to become a dominant net player like Sampras. He became a little irritated by the question but gave a polite answer. He said that he certainly wants to add every weapon he can, including a stronger net game. But his immediate and prime focus now is in winning matches. That means that he must depend on his strong serving ability and his attack game from back court. Legg Mason watchers this week would see him at net sometimes, he added, but they will by no means see a persistent serve-and-volley artist.

Two nights later against Brazilian Meligeni, Roddick trailed by a set and began serving to equalize the second set at 5 games all. To my surprise, Roddick came to net behind practically every first serve in that critical game. He came in behind his second serve once, indeed successfully. But these unaccustomed tactics worked only briefly. After the score reached 30-all, Andy's volleys lacked depth, power, or touch. Meligeni ran down several of them for immediate winners, extending the game. Finally a Roddick double-fault ended the game and the match.

The disaster seemed to confirm my growing belief that that to reach the highest level, Roddick urgently needs to build his big-game skills at net. He will meet difficult opponents--like Meligeni that night--who are able to get his serve into play and answer his baseline power. And also there will be times--like against Meligeni-- when his own serve and ground-stroke rocketry are not at their best.

I afterwards asked Meligeni how he assessed the final moments of the match. The Brazilian answered that the entire match had been a mental battle, and that toward the finish Roddick had lost that battle. The pressure came from everything that had gone before--the strong crowd presence and its expectation that Andy should win, a disputed break point that went against him, and Meligeni's own consistent serve-returning and shot-making. As Meligeni saw it, there was an element of desperation in Andy's resort to serve-and-volley tennis at the critical time--a product of the mental struggle of the evening to that point.

ANDRE AGASSI, 32.

Agassi three years ago reconstructed himself, basing his game on excellent stamina and physical strength, consistent power hitting on the rise from close on the baseline, strong serving and overhead work, and superior patience and determination. He sometimes talked of breaking down an opponent's resistance, and matters often seemed to happen just that way. The formula is still effective, though the annual increments of strong newcomers keep advancing and Andre is no longer #1 in the rankings. Still, he remains a plausible candidate to win the coming Open. By my count, no player has a better two-year W-L record on the summer hard courts (years 2001 and 2002 combined). A two-time U.S. Open champion, last year Agassi lost to Sampras in the quarters in four tiebreak sets.

One of the finest matches I've ever attended was Andre's quarter-final win Friday night over Thomas Enqvist. The two players have very similar strengths--both pound away toward the sidelines and corners with consistency and power, both serve with excellent authority, both have nicely compact forehands and two-handed backhands, neither comes to net except to end an occasional point. Sitting in the press area high above stadium court, I was dazzled by the pace and geometry of their wonderful exchanges. Enqvist's superb serving and baseline power game seemed slightly stronger than Agassi's through most of the going, but with the Swedish star serving for the match in the second set Enqvist's serving ability disappeared. Andre somehow leveled matters and eventually prevailed. He afterwards confirmed that the tough match had been superb preparation for U.S. Open, though of course he would have preferred an easier time. It had been three hours of tennis wonder.

In an earlier session I asked Agassi whether he still works as hard as ever between events. He replied that he likes to think so. But there was no strong affirmation in his voice, and I took it that the almost fanatical resolve that drove his stunning comeback three years ago has withered somewhat, hardly surprisingly. Thus even before Agassi's loss the next evening to Blake, the remark made it hard to see Andre as the top candidate for this year's Open.

Meanwhile Enqvist's strong performance, both against Agassi and earlier against Burgsmuller, suggested that he might do well on the faster courts at the Open.

JAMES BLAKE, 22

James Blake's semi-final demolition of Agassi on Saturday evening was stunning in its completeness. Only in the final few games, when Blake's perfection faded briefly, could the capacity crowd escape its amazement. Just a few months ago in writing about another match, it seemed appropriate to write that Blake's weaker backhand side had managed to hold up adequately. But on this night, the Blake backhand was a superb weapon, capable of producing sizzling winners seemingly at will, either down-the-line or severely cross-court. Meanwhile Blake's short-backswing forehand produced even better power and placement, often in unexpected situations. His net game, too, was very good, and his first serve excellent at regularly above 120 mph. Blake also looked good digging to the corners for Agassi hard ones.

Assuredly, Agassi was not fully rested after his ordeal with Enqvist the night before. But there is no denying that James Blake that evening was a superstar. Probably times of such perfection will come only sometimes for Blake. (James at one point shook his head and smiled in disbelief after yet another outright winner.) But the fundamental arsenal, including the potential for more-persistent net attack, is unquestionably there. Blake has improved every month since he first came on the world scene. What we glimpsed here against Agassi confirmed his vast talent.

But Blake's work was not done. In 100-degree temperatures on Sunday afternoon, he and Paradon Srichaphan performed yet another amazing drama. During the first set Srichaphan moved and stroked with marvelous flexibility, in both respects outperforming the American. Blake in contrast was obviously tight both mentally and physically. I wondered if he had stretched amply since playing Agassi the night before. But Blake resolutely hit though his problems, gradually loosening his body and mind, capturing a close second set, and eventually dominating an exhausted and cramping Srichaphan.

Blake's game should be even stronger on the somewhat faster surface at the Open. He corrected a reporter during one interview last week, explaining that he is not a serve-and-volley player though he likes to be at net a few times per game. His best tournament this year prior to Legg Mason was on grass at Newport, where he reached the final. Against Krajicek at Wimbledon he lost 11-9 in the fifth set.

There is much to admire in Blake's personal character. I also admire his fluency in expressing himself. After his third-round tough win over Coria here I asked him to describe the Argentine player's court mobility. Blake gave an impromptu and perceptive review of Coria's game, including court speed that is "as good as Hewitt's" and an ability to produce strong shots from positions of seeming adversity.

THE OTHERS

Roddick, Agassi, Blake, and Enqvist are among the prime favorites entering U.S. Open. Four other primes played last week at Indianapolis--Hewitt, Safin, Haas, and Henman. Of these, only Haas reached the Indy quarters, and he showed severe arm pain in losing to Rusedski, who won the tournament. Clearly the possibilities at the Open are wide. We here list 25 candidates whose odds to win the Open, as I see them, are shorter than 100-1.

Hewitt, 3-1
Safin, 7-1
Agassi, 12-1
Moya, 20-1
Roddick, Haas, Henman, Blake, Rusedski, 33-1
Sampras, Federer, Canas, Ferrero, Srichaphan, Enqvist, 45-1
Grosjean, Kuerten, Clement, Kafelnikov, Mantilla, Pavel, Dent, Gonzalez, Krajicek, Philippoussis, 70-1
all others, 100-1 or longer

PREDICTIONS

--Hewitt (1), Novak (14), Rios, Blake, Rusedski, Krajicek. This is a very tricky and interesting section. Blake took Hewitt to five sets in last year's Open and is now improved. Rusedski defeated Hewitt at Indy recently. The Aussie has gotten tangled in another public controversy. Krajicek and Rios are dangerous. The choice is Blake.

--Costa (8), Johansson (12), El Aynaoui, Robredo, Arazi, HT Lee. Pick a clay-courter here. Robredo defeated Ferrero in last year's Open. Robredo.

--Kafelnikov (4), Federer (13), Malisse, Mirnyi, Nieminen. Federer is clearly ahead of Kafelnikov and Malisse in head-to-head play. Kafelnikov's high seed seems bizarre. Federer.

--Agassi (6), Moya (9), Gaudio, Pavel, Gambill. Moya was very impressive in Cincinnati and has been strong elsewhere. Moya.

--Henman (5), Roddick (11), Corretja, Chela, Dent, Ulihrach, Mantilla. Roddick defeated Henman at last year's Open. Roddick.

--Haas (3), Canas (15), Sampras, Enqvist, Srichaphan, Kratochvil. Haas has defeated Enqvist six straight times. Either player, as well as Canas, is too much for Pete. Haas.

--Ferrero (7), Grosjean (10), Schuettler, Gonzalez, Clement, Arthurs, Coria. Grosjean is probably the faster on court. Ferrero has won the last two head-to-heads and has the better history in the Open. Ferrero.

--Safin (2), Nalbandian (16), Schalken, Lapentti, Santoro, Kuerten, Philippoussis. Safin has been disappointing lately and withdrew from Indy with flu symptoms. Kuerten and Philippoussis could show equivalent firepower. Safin.

I see Blake, Moya, Roddick, and Safin reaching the semis and the two Europeans then advancing to the final. Moya will finally prevail against a very tired Safin.

Please be advised that in four years of picking Slam champions here (a total of 16 men's and 16 women's Slams), I have been right 37.5% of the time.

WATCHING THE DOUBLES

Having watched mostly singles this year on TV, I found the doubles at Legg Mason appealing, especially early in the week before the theater of the late-round singles claimed attention. I took in three doubles matches the first day, Monday, including a nice win by David Adams and his partner, Schalken. Adams is an attractive doubles artist--animated, hard-hitting, aggressive, who nicely balances the stiffish but usually accurate Schalken. Also advancing was a well-tempered, team-oriented Justin Gimelstob with a seeming inward-focused Mike Hill. But my favorites of the day were Argentina's Lucas Arnold and Spain's Alex Corretja. The two were expert at producing very low and medium-paced replies--seeking opponents' feet, extending the points, avoiding errors and gift sitters. Along with their wondrous touch, they were also good at jumping on soft balls at net and in firing bullets when appropriate. The victims were the young pair of Frank Dancevic and Alex Kim, where Canadian Dancevic, just 17, showed credentials impressive for his years. If, as seemed likely, his ground strokes equal his doubles skills, tallish Dancevic should be a future singles champion. (The next day I watched Dancevic claim his first pro singles win, over the 21-year-old Russian Davydenko. Toward the end of the match, Dancevic indeed revealed the kind of baseline power and consistency that I expected.)

Next day I enjoyed watching the Chilean pair Fernando Gonzalez and Marcelo Rios. I earlier wondered whether the sometimes uncommunicative Rios could be an effective senior partner for the mercurial Gonzalez. But when the two Chileans entered the packed Grandstand Court, Rios was grinning uncharacteristically to the mild ovation. Their opponents, the undersized Rochus brothers of Belgium, were even more avid grinners, and their twinkling manner persisted as long as the score stayed close. The Rochus grins faded, however, as the superior serving power and net play of the Chileans began to prevail. It was a wonderful match for watching, marked by good serve-returning by all and plenty of close-in action. Only occasionally would someone--usually Gonzalez--tee off for an all-or-nothing blast of the kind often seen in Monday's play. Rios showed soft hands in volleying remindful of Corretja's. Later in the week I was disappointed when, with Rios still in the singles and Gonzalez hurting, the pair withdrew from the doubles.

Doubles fans like to argue that a pair of pro doubles specialists will usually defeat a pickup pair of highly ranked and better-known singles stars. I thus looked forward to watching Argentine doubles artists Etlis-Lobo play singles stars Richard Krajicek and his partner Hrbaty. I guessed that Hrbaty-Krajicek would be uncomfortable and that the Argentines would win.

My prediction proved correct for one set only. Krajicek at first missed many easy volleys and seemed out of sorts, though his fine serving preserved his own service games. Etlis-Lobo played solidly and with conventional aggressiveness at net. But in the second set, the Europeans began cutting down their errors and picking up the power. The Argentines continued routinely to capture net position when serving, but the Hrbaty-Krajicek rocketry from back court began consistently skimming the net, often producing errors or weak replies. Hrbaty-Krajicek lost only five games in the last two sets.

I later watched Hrbaty-Krajicek lose to the Bryan twins. The Bryans play strong doubles tactics like the others, while their serves, returns, and volleys are especially firm. They are quick, strong, and they almost never miss. I also enjoyed watching the fourth-seeded Czech pair Damm-Suk twice advance, including over Adams-Schalken. Damm is the heavier hitter of the two Czechs, Suk the more agile and the finer craftsman. They use the I formation often and comfortably.

The most emotional match was the quarter-final win of Gimelstob-Hill over the top-seeded pair, Johnson-Palmer. In three exciting sets filled with varied action, the superb backhand of Gimelstob in serve-returning and in general play plainly made the difference.

Not once in five days did I observe a doubles server fail to follow his serve to net. But having been intrigued by the first-round success of Hrbaty-Krajicek in winning points by back-court firepower, I decided to attempt measuring the value of the net position. I tallied those situations in the Gimelstob-Hill upset of Johnson-Palmer where one pair (usually the servers) had successfully attained good net position with the other pair fairly deep and the point's outcome still in contention. In 45 such instances, the pair at net won 26 points, the pair in back court won 19.

I did not watch the semis or final. All were won by the higher-seeded pairs. On Sunday, second-seeded Wayne Black-Ullyett won the tournament by defeating the third-seeded Bryans in three close sets. More than ever, I wished that the year-end doubles championship was still in Hartford, within my driving radius.

--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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