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Between The Lines
September 9, 2002 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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U.S. Open Review and What's Ahead

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Ray Bowers

The two weeks of the Open produced an abundance of good theater. Especially intriguing to me were the struggles of four Americans of two tennis generations--Sampras and Agassi, ages 31 and 32 respectively, and Roddick and Blake, ages 20 and 22. The fortunes of these stars became entwined with that of Lleyton Hewitt, 21, the first superstar of the newer generation. None of these five players lost to any outsider.

HEWITT vs. BLAKE

Enormously impressed by James Blake's recent performance in Washington, which included a decisive win over Agassi, I originally picked Blake to prevail in this section of the draw. Thus I was not surprised by Blake's good work against Hewitt in driving firmly to the corners and following with strong net approaches. The main question became whether Blake's winners on the attack would outnumber his associated errors. Over the full match, Blake scored 51 winners (not counting aces) against 86 unforced errors. Hewitt had 38 winners, 40 errors. Hewitt led in aces and on average had the faster first and second serves, but it was primarily the winners/errors ratios that accounted for the final outcome. Just as he did last year, Hewitt defeated Blake in five sets.

SAMPRAS vs. RODDICK

The Sampras-Roddick quarter-final seemed a likely classic, conceivably a final confirmation of the Changing of the Guard. Pete had been playing his best tennis in years, but the chances seemed good for the rising heir-apparent, now just 20, as Andy had defeated Pete twice in the past without loss. But from the outset Roddick seemed unprepared for Pete's strong hitting and aggressiveness. Troubled by a sore foot and the swirling wind, Andy found his baseline game largely ineffective. His serve-returning was generally torpid and seldom created trouble for Pete enroute to net. Under pressure Roddick's passing shots repeatedly found the net. During Andy's serving games when both men were in deep court, the power of Pete's forehand overmatched the younger player, often opening Pete's way to net. The completeness of the demolition was stunning.

AGASSI vs. HEWITT

It was the Agassi formula at its best--(1) relentless heavy ground-stroking, featuring brute strength and stamina, (2) striking the ball early to cut down opponent's recovery time, and (3) firm serving. Andre used to say that the overall effect was to break down his opponent, physically and mentally. Now, against the defending champion and world's number one, Agassi's full syndrome was again at work.

Hewitt answered fairly well. The young Australian's more-flowing shots often carried at least as much pace and penetration as those of the American. Point after point, the two dueled from the baseline where Hewitt's mobility, the best in the game, extended the points until one of the warriors misfired. Typically it was Hewitt who found himself in deeper court, doing the harder work, forced to take the extra steps for each reply. The first three sets were very close, Agassi winning two of them.

The effect of Agassi's heavy game became evident toward the end. For the full match, Hewitt's first and second serves both exceeded Agassi's in velocity by 4 mph on average. But in the fourth and final set, Hewitt's serving betrayed the Australian's tiredness and mental desperation. Only five Hewitt first serves found the box during the set, of which only three led to winning points. Hewitt lost two of the four games he served.

AGASSI vs. SAMPRAS

It was the fifth meeting of the two in Slam finals. Pete had defeated Andre on all but one of the earlier occasions. It seemed likely that the outcome would depend primarily on Pete. If Sampras could continue to play at the level shown earlier in the tournament--including superior serving, good net work, and, especially, selective application of extreme power in his forehand--it seemed that Pete would prevail. Stamina too seemed a possible factor, as Sampras had weakened in the final round of the last two Opens, held just one day after the semis. Still, it was Agassi who in this Open had endured the more strenuous semi-final.

For two sets it was indeed Pete at his best. Sampras produced 16 aces, meanwhile breaking Agassi's serve three times by a combination of effective serve-returning, baseline hitting, and occasional net attacks. Andre's ability to keep his opponent on the run from backcourt, seen the day before against Hewitt, was neutralized by Pete's extreme power on the forehand, which even when there was no opening sometimes broke the pattern of Agassi's dominance from the baseline or opened the way for a Sampras net rush.

Pete maintained his strong game in set three, and though Agassi managed several near-breaks with superb returns at the Sampras feet, on every occasion Pete's serve saved the day. As the set wore on, Pete's serve-returning and baseline power declined, weakening his pressure on the Agassi serve. Finally, in game 12, in serving to reach the tiebreaker Pete lost his serving magic, and Andre squeezed out the break. Pete still led 2-1 in sets but the factors of momentum and stamina seemed to favor Andre.

As the games advanced with serve during set four, Pete's tiredness seemed to increase, especially during several extended serving games. But perhaps hopeful of keeping the points short, Sampras late in the set again unveiled his baseline power. Now it was Agassi's serving that was under pressure, with the rhythm of Agassi's baseline game spoiled by Sampras's intermittent rocketry. Sampras's big backhand, which had been dormant throughout the tournament, produced several unexpected winners. Though Andre still seemed the fresher, at the end it was Agassi's serving that failed, Agassi's backhands that lost their energy. Several times, having created narrow openings, Andre's bid for winners landed just outside the lines. In the final moments, Sampras closed out the match with a sequence of aces.

It was a satisfying triumph for a superstar whose greatest days had seemed past. Two years ago, I suspected that Andre, in his career rebirth, might yet surpass Sampras in his career achievements. Pete's Slam victory at age 31 now erases this thought and instead rekindles the idea that Pete's may yet be deemed tennis's finest career. Is another Wimbledon still ahead? Wildly perhaps, could there yet occur the missing Garros triumph?

One last thought. Might we have just witnessed a blessing for the future of tennis, in that the seemingly vanishing net-attack game, as played by Pete Sampras, has been magnificently vindicated in a demonstration for a new generation?

VENUS AND SERENA

Influenced by Serena's withdrawal at Montreal with knee trouble, I originally picked Venus to win this expected final-round match-up. But Serena's superb performances during the earlier rounds of the Open, along with Venus's close escapes against Mauresmo and Rubin, made Serena the strong favorite at match-time. There had been no further evidence of Serena's knee problems.

Venus played well for several games against Serena but had trouble holding serve. Serena's consistent and powerful serve-returning regularly took the initiative from her sister and contributed to frequent Venusian double-faults. It fairly soon became evident that Serena was better than her sister in moving to and setting up for her ground strokes, thereby attaining superiority in all-around power and consistency. Venus did better work at net, but was seldom able to move forward in the face of Serena's power. The final score was a respectable 6-4 6-3, but it looked as if Serena eased up sometimes to keep things close.

COUNTDOWN TO SHANGHAI

Once again in 2002, four different male players won the year's four Slams. Hewitt's reaching the semis at the Open preserves his lead in the year's points race, with Agassi now second. Here are the leaders as of September 8, immediately after the Open.

1. Hewitt, 690
2. Agassi, 554
3. Safin, 430
4. Henman, 420

Coming up are a series of indoor tournaments in Europe. Two are Masters Series events--Stuttgart and Paris, each rewarding its champion with 100 points (half the amount for winning a Slam). Meanwhile, International Series events in Vienna, Lyon, Basel, Stockholm, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, along with the Japan Open outdoors in Tokyo will each yield 45-60 points to the winner.

Last year no player dominated the aforementioned nine events. The only double-winner was Tommy Haas, who won Stuttgart and Vienna. The year's championship was decided in the year-ending Masters Cup in Sydney, where winner, Lleyton Hewitt, captured 150 points, enough to pass Kuerten in the standings. This year's Masters Cup will be played in Shanghai. The top seven in the points race will qualify, and the eighth place will be reserved for a Slam winner (who must, however, stand in the top twenty).

Hewitt's lead in the standings is substantial, very nearly beyond the reach of the others, as Lleyton will surely add to his present total. The closest challenger, Agassi, has played Stuttgart and Masters Cup regularly over the years, and indeed won the Paris indoors three years ago. Any other player, to overtake the leader, would nearly have to sweep those events he enters. The three Slam winners other than Hewitt (i.e., Sampras, Costa, and Johansson) will probably finish outside the top seven, so the one ranking highest of the three will probably be the eighth competitor at Shanghai.

COUNTDOWN TO LOS ANGELES

The late-year gathering of the top 16 women in singles and the top eight women's doubles pairs, held last year in Munich, will take place in Los Angeles in early November. Interesting matches among the top stars can be expected, but no player will be close enough to supersede Serena's place atop the year' standings. The final event was held in Munich last year and was won by Serena when Davenport withdrew with the bad knee. Venus did not compete.

DAVIS AND FED CUPS

Immediately forthcoming is Davis Cup weekend in mid-September. France will host the U.S. at Roland Garros in one World Group semi-final, and Russia will meet Argentina indoors in Moscow.

The American team's return to Garros stirs memories of the classic Cup meetings at that site 1928-1930, when the Musketeers for three years held off Tilden and the Americans. Playing on familiar clay, defending champion France will be favored over the current Americans. The French reached the semis by defeating Czech Republic in April, where the 3-2 verdict was sealed by Santoro in the fifth match. Grosjean and Clement seem likely singles players in the forthcoming tie, Clement having defeated Grosjean last week at the U.S. Open, though his tournament record at Garros is undistinguished.

The Americans reached the semis by defeating Spain on grass in Houston. Corretja upset Sampras, but Roddick won both his singles. The American team for Garros has not yet been named, but Blake and Roddick seem likely singles nominees, failing late discussions with Agassi or Sampras. Because Cup rules allow only a four-member playing squad, Captain McEnroe will probably choose a doubles pair that includes a possible singles substitute.

Meanwhile in the other semi, Russia will host Argentina on indoor carpet. Kafelnikov and Safin should be favored, though the Argentines have an array of fine singles and doubles performers from whom to choose. Canas has wrist troubles, so Chela and Gaudio seem currently the strongest in singles.

Taking place the same weekend will be promotion-relegation competition among 16 nations. The eight winners will be part of World Group next year. Five of the host nations, all strong tennis powers, seem safe--Australia, Germany, Slovak Republic, Britain, and Brazil. The other outcomes are less clear--Belgium at Zimbabwe, Switzerland at Morocco, Netherlands at Finland.

Changes in the format for Fed Cup have come too often. The annual women's competition now stands at a low point. Last year the favored U.S. team--already unhappy because of a rule change moving the final competition away from the defending champion's homeland--withdrew after the terrorist attacks. Then in early 2002, despite claiming the world's three or four best players, the Americans lost dismally after Capriati was dropped from the team just before her first outing. Then defending champion Belgium was eliminated in the quarter-finals when that nation's top two stars did not participate. Still remaining in this year's hunt are Spain, Italy, Austria, and Slovak Republic. Their matches the week of October 28 should be interesting, although the only top-tenner likely to participate is the Slovak teen-ager Hantuchova.

POSTSCRIPT

It was a wonderful U.S. Open from start to finish. The accuracy of my predictions was below standard, at least on the men's side, but I was pleased that my three rounds of Fantasy Tennis selections put me currently in first place among the 21 "Media Experts" at atptennis.com. A round of selecting for the late-year events lies immediately ahead. The best picks for the price, in my opinion, are Enqvist, Blake, Mirnyi, and Rusedski. Expect also Kafelnikov, although pricey, to do well.

--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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