Here again is clay-court tennis--that wonderful test of footwork, finesse, big
topspin, patience, and determination.
Three tournaments in Latin America began the men's clay circuit. Players from
Spain and South America dominated the entry lists and indeed captured all
semi-final berths in all three. Spain's David Sanchez and Carlos Moya won the
tournaments in Chile and Buenos Aires, respectively, and Augustin Calleri of
Argentina captured Acapulco. The only players reaching the semis of more than
one event were Kuerten of Brazil and Gaudio of Argentina.
Spanish and Argentine strength on clay pervaded the first two rounds of Davis
Cup, in February and in early April. Both nations comfortably defeated
visiting opponents on clay in both rounds. Moya and Ferrero played singles
for Spain, Nalbandian and Gaudio for Argentina, all of whom are now 4-0 in
2003 Cup play. Spain and Argentina will meet in the September semis,
doubtless on clay, where host Spain will be the favorite.
April brought clay-court tournaments in Casablanca and Estoril (near Lisbon),
where the cast now included larger contingents from Europe and North Africa.
French player Boutter defeated El Aynaoui in the final at Casablanca, and the
young Russian Davydenko defeated Calleri in the Estoril final.
The Monte Carlo Open--the first of the clay Masters events--followed in
mid-April. The leading superstars of the hard courts remained absent, but
nearly all the world's top clay-courters were on hand, including full
delegations from Spain and Argentina. Led by tournament winner Ferrero, the
Armada recorded a strong lead in the tally of matches won. Spain thus earned
one National Team Point (NTP) in the unofficial competition outlined in last
month's column. Argentina, which was second in matches won, acquired one-half
Here then are the end-of-April leaders in NTP for 2003.
Andre Agassi made his 2003 clay debut the week after Monte Carlo, winning the
red-clay event in Houston by defeating Andy Roddick in a splendid final.
Andre plays most often on hard courts, but he won the Italian last year and
was Garros champion in 1999. Also entering clay action the same week, at
Barcelona, was Marat Safin, who reached the final and won the first set
against his opponent, Moya, before succumbing. Last year Safin was the only
non-Spanish semi-finalist at Garros. Joining the clay wars the next week, at
Valencia, was Roger Federer, who won the German Open last year at age 20. Yet
outside were Lleyton Hewitt and Pete Sampras. Pete seems content to end his
magnificent career without the crowning triumph at Garros.
Spanish success at Monte Carlo and Barcelona signals that the Armada is
likely to dominate the coming Italian, German, and French Opens, all on clay.
A nation winning all three tournaments would earn 5 NTP. Nothing is assured.
Last year, the U.S. men won the most matches at Rome, while Czech Republic
was second, excelling in the doubles.
THE WOMEN'S CLAY SEASON
A clay surface is often an equalizing factor, where the bounce reduces the
penetration of power serves and ground strokes and where the reduced foot
traction handicaps players unaccustomed to it. Sampras's long frustration in
Paris illustrates the phenomenon. The effect is hardly dominant among today's
top women, however. With Aranxa Sanchez-Vicario and Martina Hingis now on the
sidelines, the era seems past when such artists could employ precision,
variety, court mobility, and determination to outduel the best power players
The top ten women generally stayed away from this year's early clay events.
The Tier One at Charleston, however, brought out a strong field headed by
Serena Williams. In the semis, Serena convincingly defeated Lindsay Davenport,
closing out a tight second set with some remarkable serving. Her opponent in
the next day's final, 20-year-old Justine Henin-Hardenne, had divided
meetings with Serena in the finals of the 2002 German and Italian Opens, both
on clay. Justine won in Berlin, Serena in Rome.
On this day in Charleston Serena seemed uncharacteristically shy of moving to
net, even when Henin was hard-pressed in deep court. Serena also had trouble
weathering her own erratic periods. The result was that Henin's court speed
and rocketry proved very nearly equal to Serena's, and her consistency was
much better. Watching by tv, I was intrigued by Henin's lateral foot movement
in returning Serena's bids for service aces to the corners. Serena's
undefeated run thus ended at 25 (including four wins in Hopman Cup).
But Justine's glory was brief. One week later, she lost in the semis of the
clay event at Amelia Island to Russian player Elena Dementieva, age 21 and
5-11 in height. A decisive factor at the end was the early-afternoon sun,
which made serving difficult from the north. Elena's already weak serve
seemed extremely vulnerable from that direction, but Justine failed to move
up to attack the softies and instead took them on the descent at knee level.
She missed a few and, more seriously, by failing to seize the initiative she
allowed each point to become an equal baseline exchange. Dementieva's nerves
then proved the stronger, and it was Elena into the final.
The rocketry of Lindsay Davenport had been impressive all week, especially in
the first set of her win over Capriati. In the final, Lindsay regularly
attacked Dementieva's weak serves, but the Russian player managed to equalize
exchanges often enough to keep matters close. Meanwhile Dementieva reacted
extremely well in returning Davenport's biggest serves, and her forehand and
backhand rocketry from back court seemed as fast as Davenport's and often
more accurate, though clearly less heavily loaded with topspin. Dementieva
prevailed in three.
Fed Cup week in late April fit well into the clay season, as five of the
eight meets were played on that surface. Most higher-ranking stars of the 16
contending nations turned out, including the Williams sisters of USA. Magui
Serna, 24, fresh from winning clay tournaments at Estoril and Budapest,
recorded two singles wins in Spain's clay-court win over Australia. Russia
won on indoor clay behind singles performers Dementieva and Myskina.
Advancing toward a probable late-year showdown with the Americans was the
Belgian team of Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne.
Looking ahead to the big clay events coming in Berlin, Rome, and Paris, it
appears that Serena Williams remains stronger than the other elites. We can
expect many wonderful points, games, and matches.