Few sporting events rival tennis's Slams in drama and world attention. What
follows are glimpses from 14 days and nights of tv watching from North
America, narrowed to track the fortunes of the superstars.
DAY ONE. EXIT THE CHAMPION
For the first hour Jennifer Capriati, playing well, dominated an erratic
Marlene Weingartner. A careless error by Capriati when leading 3-0 in the
second set allowed the German player to hold serve for the first time. With
Weingartner reducing her errors and now driving to the corners and sidelines
with confidence, matters reached a second-set tiebreaker, lost by Jennifer
with a close double-fault and a too-careful forehand lifted out. At 4-5 in
the third set Weingartner laid two straight winners in the corners, and one
point later the two-time defending champion was out of the tournament.
Jennifer afterwards noted that recent eye surgery had spoiled her tournament
DAY TWO. CLOSE CALL FOR SERENA
Perhaps it was the faster-than-expected court surface. Like Weingartner, Loit
showed impressive ability to deliver power to the corners and sidelines. Like
Jennifer, Serena was superior to her lower-ranked opponent in relentless
application of power and mobility. But Serena, like Jennifer, was at times
erratic, and Loit knew how to employ consistency and intermittent attack to
plague her superstar opponent. All three sets were well contested. Serena's
narrow victory seemed a product of her intense will to prevail.
The first round of singles was now complete. On the men's side, the leading
nation in first-round matches won was Spain, with 9. Next came Australia with
8 and Argentina and USA, both with 6. In the women's first-round singles, USA
led with 10 wins followed by Russia with 6 and Italy with 5.
In most pro tournaments, a few players earn their way into the main draws of
the men's and women's singles by competing in the qualifying rounds. Those
who succeed in winning three qualifying matches are, it is true, lower in the
rankings than most direct entrants, but the qualifiers have a special
advantage against their first-round opponents in the main draw: They have
already adapted to the conditions of the tournament.
The results of the first round here support the thought. Qualifiers won three
of their twelve first-round matches against seeded stars, and achieved a W-L
record of 8-9 against nonseeded opponents.
DAYS THREE AND FOUR.
In second-round surprises, Moya lost to American Mardy Fish. Srichaphan lost
to Philippoussis, and Schalken lost to young Croatian Ancic. Kuerten, who had
looked very good in defeating Arazi in round one, lost in five sets to
improving Czech player Stepanek, age 24. Noteworthy was Agassi's one-sided
score over the fine Korean player H.-T. Lee, 6-1 6-0 6-0. Andy Roddick, whose
ineffectiveness at net kept things close in the first round against Krajan,
had an easier time against Voinea. Andy seems to understand that to reach the
very top he must develop and employ a strong net game.
Meanwhile Lindsay Davenport struggled against Iroda Tulyaganova, 23, who is
listed at 5-7 and 139 pounds but seems almost as large and strong as
Davenport. With Lindsay out of sorts, matters reached four-all in the third
set. Davenport then raised her power and consistency to prevail, 7-5. For
Tulyaganova, it was a demonstration of her readiness to return to the world's
top 20 after a disappointing year 2002 marred by knee troubles. Meanwhile
Seles turned her ankle early and lost to Koukalova in split sets.
DAY FIVE. AGASSI vs. ESCUDE
It was easily the tournament's most interesting match yet seen here, played
in suddenly extreme heat. Slender Nicolas Escude, now 26, who was Tennis
Server's Player of the Year in 2001 for his Davis Cup heroics, brought a fine
serve, good mobility, scorching ground strokes including a wonderful backhand
two-hander, and excellent net instincts and ability. It appeared that the
French player was determined to attack whenever remotely possible, both off
the ground and at net, to avoid the kind of extended, punishing play that
Agassi often used to break down opponents. With the French star playing at
his best and fulfilling his reputation for doing well in big matches, it
added up to a severe test for Agassi.
Indeed Escude came to net 62 times (winning 65%), Agassi only 15. Escude's
serves were consistently 10-20 km/hr faster than Andre's, producing 10 aces
against Andre's 8. Escude scored 50 winners (not counting aces) against
Andre's 19. But at the end Agassi was comfortably the winner.
It was Andre's patented formula--relentless heavy hitting from close on the
baseline, backed by excellent court mobility and resolve. In the fourth set
Escude, with a service break in hand, seemed ready to level the match at two
sets all. But Agassi raised his game another notch, and the French player,
very tired, weakened slightly. The quality of the match was outstanding in
Marat Safin, our computer's third choice (after Hewitt and Agassi), departed
today with a wrist injury.
Three rounds of singles and two rounds of doubles plus a few mixed-doubles
matches have been completed. The competition among the tennis nations remains
close on the men's side. Australia and USA males have each recorded 20.5
match wins, and Spain is next with 20. (Each winning partner in doubles earns
a half win for his tennis nation.) Spain had led in the count through the
first five dates. USA appears to have a clear advantage henceforth, having
the largest number of players and pairs still remaining in the tournament. On
the women's side, USA is well ahead, with 29 wins. Russia is second with 19,
France is next with 10.
In compiling the above tally I noticed an oddity. Of the 16 men's and 16
women's doubles pairs still remaining in the tournament, 11 of the men's but
only 3 of the women's pairs are composed of two players from the same
country. The phenomenon was also evident in the original draw. Is there a
social or psychological reason for this strong effect?
DAY SEVEN. DAVENPORT vs. HENIN
The week's first match-up of two elites became a down-to-the-wire struggle of
fierce determination. The slender Belgian star, Henin-Hardenne, nearly
matched Lindsay Davenport in power shot-making and showed a slight edge in
court coverage. Both players showed wonderful backhands, both wholly
different in their execution. Perhaps surprisingly, Henin served the more
aces and recorded faster first-serve and second-serve average speeds. As the
match passed three hours both players wore down. Henin, already troubled with
foot blisters, temporarily collapsed with leg cramping. Davenport's footwork
seemed to betray tiredness. It was riveting competition, with the mental
battle never far from view. Serving at 7-8 and 30-40, Lindsay foot-faulted,
then delivered a softie to Henin's zone. The Henin forehand ended matters,
9-7 in the third set.
DAY EIGHT. EXIT HEWITT.
The Moroccan star, Younes El Aynaoui, 31, served magnificently, showing
superior velocity, deception, and placement in his deliveries and an amazing
71% first-serve in-court percentage for the full match. Against the world's
#1 player, Lleyton Hewitt, who during 2002 posted the world's best
game-winning percentage when returning serve (33%), El Aynaoui delivered a
total of 33 aces. The Moroccan player also showed a devastating forehand,
with which he forced play relentlessly. Hewitt had some success attacking the
backhand and moving to net. But the El Aynaoui backhand was hard to find,
usually requiring one or two strong shots wide to the forehand in
preparation. And it was the tall Moroccan who flourished in front court,
winning 39 points at net against Hewitt's 20. The only break of serve came on
El Aynaoui's sole break point in the fourth and final set, a Hewitt
double-fault. Top-seeded Hewitt was now gone.
The education of Andy Roddick turned another page when the young American,
after losing the first two sets to Mikhail Youzhny, gradually established
dominance. Roddick showed the will to attack net early-on, often with poor
results, but after two sets he found the right balance between aggression and
patience, meanwhile turning on the ground-stroke power and consistency behind
wonderful serving. In the third set, during which the match turned, Andy won
14 of 20 net approaches, while Youzhny came forward only 5 times.
The eight male quarter-finalists are now known. Only two of them had been
seeded in the first eight (Agassi and Ferrero). My own pre-tournament
predictions, which leaned in part on calculations weighting various predictor
tournaments, correctly named only three quarter-finalists (Agassi, Ferrero,
and Grosjean). The calculations, but not my predictions, had also correctly
shown Wayne Ferreira among the top eight, and had suggested strong showings
by El Aynaoui, Roddick, and Nalbandian--all successful quarter-finalists.
DAY NINE. FERRERO EXIT
South African Wayne Ferreira outserved and outstroked favored Spanish player
Ferrero in straight sets. The South African regularly mixed in a strong slice
serve to the Spaniard's forehand to good effect, meanwhile consistently
delivering a heavy forehand from his trademark high backswing, essentially
neutralizing the Spanish player's fine back-court game. To generate
comparable power on the forehand, Ferrero required a flat stroke having
reduced margin for error. The South African player, ten years the older,
moved with speed and agility equivalent to Ferrero's. Ferrero seemed to wilt
after failing to capture several set points and then falling behind by two
DAY TEN. EL AYNAOUI vs. RODDICK
There was plenty of built-in drama. The slender Moroccan player had been
rising in the rankings for some months, but at age 31 seemed past
consideration as a serious Slam contender. Two days before, his dazzling
serve and forehand had produced a convincing victory over the current world
champion. On the other side of the net, the boyish American with the
superlative serve, at 20, had begun to disappoint those who once saw him the
possible successor to the older superstars Sampras and Agassi. Both El
Aynaoui and Roddick had come through difficult and wearying earlier rounds--El
Aynaoui's last two matches had been four-setters where nearly all sets were
extended, and Roddick had fought back from two sets down to defeat Cup hero
After four sets it was dead even. Roddick had been the heavier server,
leading in both first-serve and second-serve velocity, though El Aynaoui led
slightly in total aces. For both men, the forehand was clearly the dominant
weapon. Andy's forehand from inside the baseline was an especially
devastating point-winner. Contrary to his usual pattern, Roddick had come to
net frequently--72 times compared with El Aynaoui's 42--winning a creditable
67 percent of such points. Along with his backhand two-hander, Andy often
used a one-handed backhand slice either to extend points or to attack the El
Aynaoui backhand while enroute to net.
Tiredness took effect as the fifth set unfolded. Roddick's net game
deteriorated amid errors until Andy stayed mostly in his more-comfortable
back-court area, probably wisely. (In the fifth set El Aynaoui won 32 points
at net against Andy's 23, reversing Andy's much larger advantage during the
first four sets.) Andy was down, match point at 4-5, but survived by
unleashing a courageous forehand rocket. Younes's fatigue gradually became
more evident, as the veteran's serves and forehands lost some of their energy
and his feet began to seem heavier. Both players fought superbly in the
highest sporting tradition, and the large gallery responded wonderfully to
every point, scarcely noticing the softening in the play. Finally, well after
midnight and after nearly five hours of battle, Roddick prevailed 21-19,
ending what was said the longest fifth set in Open-era Slam history.
Afterwards the players embraced at the net while the crowd gave sustained
It was indeed a worthy addition to tennis history, an event momentarily
weakening my own view favoring the use of tiebreaks to avoid such marathons.
DAY ELEVEN. THE WOMEN'S SEMIS
It was a comeback of surpassing magnitude. Serena Williams, who had struggled
intermittently during the match, fell behind Kim Clijsters five games to one
in the third set. To this point Serena had been unquestionably the more
athletic and mobile competitor, the more-aggressive hitter. But her frequent
errors had given Kim the lead and caused Serena in stretches to temper her
The Belgian player's third-set nightmare developed slowly. In the seventh
game, with the finish seemingly in sight, Clijsters maintained moderate
pressure and good consistency, threatening Serena's serve but not managing to
break it. Serving in game eight, Kim twice held match points to close out
affairs. Serena saved one of the match points in the way of a champion--by
pounding aggressively close to the lines and finishing at net. As Serena's
comeback went on, Kim faltered--she began the tenth game by serving two
double-faults, and after losing that game her stroking became more and more
tentative. The final game was utterly one-sided, Serena hitting all-out to
win the game at love, the set at seven games to five.
It seemed a classic case where mental pressure produced tentativeness and
deceleration in stroking, and, with it, breakdown in power and accuracy.
Serena also became unconfident but surrendered less completely to it. It
seemed to me that Kim needed a few seconds of upper-body stretching on court,
for example just before serving those tenth-game double-faults. She hopped a
little, but a shade of tightness in her chest, shoulder, and arm must have
lingered. There will be many triumphs in Kim's future, but she will always
remember these sad moments.
In the other semi-final earlier, Venus in straight sets proved superior to
Henin-Hardenne. Thus the tournament would be the fourth-straight Slam final
matching the sisters.
Serena and Venus captured their sixth Slam in women's doubles, defeating
Ruano Pascual and Suarez in three sets. The sisters came from behind in the
final set, sparked by the energy, quickness, and power of Serena, and closed
out the final game behind superb serving by Venus.
In the semis of the men's singles, Agassi defeated Wayne Ferreira for the
eleventh straight time, in straight sets, and Schuettler defeated an unfresh
and sore-wristed Andy Roddick. Andy's problems seemed to uphold my view
preferring use of tiebreakers to decide all sets.
DAY THIRTEEN. VENUS vs. SERENA
Venus proved a worthy finalist, carrying the score to four games all in the
third and deciding set. Dominance between the two players had shifted back
and forth during the contest such that the direction of flow in the final
moments almost seemed a matter of random chance. At the finish it was Venus
who faltered. The exhibition of power tennis and almost superhuman mobility
and athleticism put on by the sisters had been breathtaking.
Serena's achievement in winning four consecutive Slams, and Venus's in
reaching all four finals, defy overstatement. Serena's narrow escapes against
Loit and Clijsters provide reminders of how difficult were the
accomplishments of the sisters.
DAY FOURTEEN. ANDRE PREVAILS
Finalist Rainer Schuettler said beforehand that his chances were slim. The
German player worked hard for every point, showing excellent court mobility.
But Agassi's superior ground game put the German player in trouble early in
almost every point. Andre's hitting was never cleaner, firmer, and more
consistent. Agassi has now won three of the last four Australian Opens,
having missed in 2002 because of injury.
A year or two ago, I began to suspect that Andre might yet surpass Sampras in
career achievements. The notion weakened when Pete defeated Andre in the U.S.
Open final last year. But Andre's newest triumph along with his obvious
physical strength and condition, at age 32, now once again stir the thought.
The mixed doubles produced an interesting outcome when Martina Navratilova
and Leander Paes defeated Daniilidou and Woodbridge in the final. For
Martina, age 46, it was a 57th Slam championship--18 in singles, 31 in
doubles, and 8 in mixed. She trails Margaret Smith Court, who won 62. The
mixed doubles at Garros this spring will stir special interest if, as
promised, Agassi and Steffi Graf compete as a pair.
The U.S. led in the final tabulation of matches won at Melbourne Park on both
the men's and women's side. The Australian males, buoyed by success in
doubles, were second, just ahead of Spain. France was fourth thanks to the
fine doubles triumph of Llodra-Santoro, Argentina fifth. Among the women,
Russia was second, Belgium was third, and Spain and Australia tied for
fourth. Behind USA in the combined totals were Australia, Spain, Russia, and
France, in that order.
One final matter. A member of the tournament's championship pair in boys'
doubles was American Philip Simmonds, who two years ago competed in the
high-school district where I coach. Philip was far better than Jefferson's
top player, who that day received nothing of value from my sideline coaching.
I especially remember the power of Philip's forehand, which seemed to be
accelerating even as it reached the backstop after a clean winner.
DAVIS CUP PICKS FOR FEBRUARY
World Group first-round play happens in the second weekend of February.
Recent player performances in Melbourne strongly suggest how the teams are
likely to match up.
Defending champion Russia must play Czech Republic on indoor clay at
Ostrava--a tough assignment against Novak, Stepanek, and an array of fine
doubles warriors. Safin's recovery from Australia will be critical for the
Cup defenders, with Youzhny and Kafelnikov sharing the load. My guess is that
the Czechs will prevail, continuing the pattern where Cup defenders often
lose in the first round. Meanwhile, American chances on indoor carpet in
Croatia will heavily depend on Roddick's recovery from wrist trouble. With
Agassi almost surely absent, the Americans without Andy would depend on Blake
and Fish. Croatians Ljubicic, Ancic, and (in doubles only) Ivanisevic will be
difficult in any case. Every match could be close, though by choosing a
high-ranking pair the Americans would have a strong edge in doubles. I pick
U.S., with or without Roddick and Agassi.
Spain and Argentina should each survive comfortably on home-court clay,
Australia is safe against a British team lacking Henman and Rusedski, and
French depth should prevail indoors in Romania. In my opinion, host
Netherlands with Schalken and Krajicek plus Haarhuis in doubles will be too
strong for Switzerland behind Federer, while host Sweden at the moment lacks
an on-form top player against Brazil's Kuerten, who should capture two
singles wins and whose teammates should squeeze out one more match win.