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Between The Lines
May 3, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Clay Season 2003

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Ray Bowers

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 NTP.

Here then are the end-of-April leaders in NTP for 2003.

Australia, 6.75
Spain, 6.75
USA, 6
Argentina, 5.5

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.


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 on clay.

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.

--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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