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Between The Lines
January 26, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australia Notebook 2003

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Ray Bowers

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 preparation.

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 all respects.

DAY SIX.

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 sets.

DAY TEN. EL AYNAOUI vs. RODDICK

Australian Open 2003 Quarters: Roddick vs. El Aynaoui DVD 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 Youzhny.

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 applause.

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 heavy hitting.

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.

DAY TWELVE.

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.

--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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