Garros again demonstrated the wondrous sport that is today's clay-court
tennis, where court mobility and power (meaning both pace and topspin) are foremost
but where important roles remain for patience and finesse.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
Two weeks ago seven women--the game's current elite--seemed plausible
contenders for the Garros crown. One of the group indeed won the tournament, and one
of the others joined her in establishing what seems at least a momentary
two-player hierarchy clearly above the rest.
Somehow Justine Henin always seemed fragile--the slender superstar least
likely to withstand the demands of heavy-hitting modern women's tennis. Her
backhand was always magnificent, featuring a full backswing and a free one-handed
frontswing, able to produce the consistency and power matching or exceeding that
of the larger-sized elite women. Henin regarded clay as her favorite surface,
and she reached the Garros semis in 2001 and won the German Open in 2002.
This year's early clay season gave indications that at age 20 Justine's time
might be at hand. Now known as Henin-Hardenne, Justine surprised Serena
Williams in winning the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, though she then faltered
before Dementieva in the latter's surprise run at Amelia Island. Justine then
repeated her 2002 triumph at Berlin, defeating fellow Belgian Clijsters in a
SERENA AND JUSTINE
To the semi-final meeting of Justine and Serena Williams this week, Serena
brought a run of four consecutive Slam championships--an achievement of historic
dimension. Serena had won four of her six previous meetings with
Henin-Hardenne, but both of Justine's wins had come on clay.
Garros 2003 would not produce a fifth straight Slam for Serena. Against
Justine, the American superstar was unable to exploit her powerful serve in her
usual manner, producing an undistinguished first-serve percentage and ace total.
Justine meanwhile showed excellent clay-court mobility, including superiority
in handling short balls and an ability to use her speed and footwork to blunt
Serena's power attack.
Serena played with more patience and caution than customarily, moving Justine
from side to side but largely directing her fire well inside the lines. When
she gunned for the lines with big shots, too often errors came. Justine
meanwhile varied the pace of her shots well, stinging flattish forehands
occasionally with good effect. Nearing the end of the third set, Serena moved ahead to
lead 4-2 in games and 30-love. But Serena managed to capture only one more game
after that. (Justine contributed a gift game when serving for the match at
5-4.) Two games later, serving at 6-5, Justine prevailed easily. Afterwards, talk
focused on the effect of the unfriendly crowd on Serena's performance in the
final stages. Justine's fine play was overshadowed.
THE SATURDAY FINAL
Though she had never defeated Kim Clijsters on hard courts, Justine had won
two of their three past meetings on clay. But this hint scarcely suggested the
completeness of Justine's supremacy over countrywoman Kim on this day.
Clijsters started the first game reasonably well, seemingly confident and
consistent in serving. But Justine stayed in the points and later produced a
sizzling backhand pass from deep court that set up the first-game service break.
After that, though she came under pressure in serving, Justine won the next
five games and indeed the first set, 6-0. Though she was the smaller player, it
was Justine who produced the heavier serving and shot-making. She also showed
the greater variety, including the delivery of several stunning drop shots from
behind the baseline that every time led to winning points.
The second set was closer on the scoreboard, but Henin-Hardenne's superiority
remained clear. Clijsters had trouble keeping her forehand inside the
baseline. Were her strings perhaps too loose for this warm day? Justine put the
greater energy into her shot-making, producing pace equivalent to Kim's and
superior topspin. Meanwhile Justine's mobility neutralized Kim's hitting, and except
for a lull by Justine in game eight that brought the score to 4-games-all,
Justine seemed never in trouble. Matters ended a few minutes later.
It was Kim's last day as a teen-ager. For Justine, it was a joyous
confirmation that a smaller player could indeed prevail in modern power tennis against
today's larger women-athletes. Her strength and physique seemed testimony of
years of weight training.
THE OTHER ELITES
Thus the dominance of Serena Williams has been dented, at least momentarily.
Justine and Serena are clearly the two top warriors. Clijsters has been pushed
back by the convincing nature of her loss to Justine. Of the remaining
members of the recent elite, the standings of Venus and Capriati were diminished in
fourth-round losses to younger, rising Russian players. Mauresmo, who lost to
a Serena bent on reversing a loss in Rome, and Davenport, who withdrew with
foot trouble, likewise fade to a level well behind the two leaders.
THE MEN'S SINGLES
Andre Agassi faced Guillermo Coria in a Tuesday quarter-final. It was the
tournament's first and only match pitting two members of our pre-draw Top Six
prospects. For me it was an extremely interesting match-up, as both players have
performed repeatedly in the mid-summer tournament here in Washington. I first
watched Coria in 2000, the year after he won the Garros juniors, and had been
impressed by his speed and composure. His appearance here that year had been
overshadowed by the debut of Andy Roddick.
Against Agassi now at Garros, it seemed clear that the young Argentine player
had reached the promise glimpsed three summers ago. His superb court
mobility--probably superior to Hewitt's on clay given Coria's comfort in sliding into
shots--largely neutralized Andre's attacking game. For Agassi to hit a winner
required that the veteran American deliver a sequence of high-risk rockets.
Coria sometimes played 15-20 feet behind the baseline in the manner of the
early-modern clay-courters. But more often he played on or just inside the
baseline, returning Agassi's screamers with screamers of his own, taking the ball on
the rise. He gave Andre few easy points; seldom matching Agassi's pace but
ready to seize the attack with shots having equal the energy of Andre's including
inexorably heavier topspin. Very short balls, he handled with dispatch, often
sliding several feet to reach his contact point ready for racket work of
deception and placement. Andre survived the first set, recovering from 4-1 down,
but after four sets at the end there was no doubt that the younger player was
the better man this day.
FERRERO-GONZALEZ AND ROBREDO-COSTA
Juan Carlos Ferrero in the quarters showed almost the mobility of Coria,
equal familiarity with clay-court play, and certainly greater sustained power on
the serve and groundies. But Juan Carlos found it difficult to weather the
all-out heavy game of Chilean Fernando Gonzalez. Gonzalez, as is his custom,
plastered most of his shots with full power, sometimes as if pace alone could
create winners, as indeed sometimes it did. The style was reminiscent of
Philippoussis's. Meanwhile Ferrero at times seemed tight, issuing frequent unlikely
errors. The first set was a dismal time for Gonzalez, but after that the Chilean's
spells of effective shot-making made the outcome long uncertain. The five-set
verdict reversed the outcome of the previous meetings of the two men,
probably because the clay surface took enough of the pace from Gonzalez's rockets to
enable Ferrero to perform at something approaching his normal effectiveness.
In another quarter-final, defending champion Albert Costa claimed his fourth
five-set victory in the tournament and the third after losing the first two
sets. His opponent, fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo, had also survived several
long matches, having defeated Hewitt in five sets and both Kuerten and Davyenko
in four. But the younger player seemingly lost the battle of stamina and
perhaps also that of will, as Costa uncharacteristically worked to end points
quickly by frequently attacking net. It was a nice demonstration of sustained heavy
hitting combined with all-court variety by the veteran.
MEN'S SEMIS AND FINAL
Three of the four quarter-finals had required five sets, including the
impossible upset of Carlos Moya by tall Netherlander Verkerk, and the other
quarter-final required four. The semis and final were a different story, all ending in
three sets. Against Ferrero, there would be no miracle comeback for Albert
Costa. After winning the first two sets Ferrero firmly and confidently closed
the door against another Costa recovery, mixing in drop shots, and though Costa
showed an ability to win many of these points, the toll on Albert's stamina
after the several extended matches was probably heavy. At the end Ferrero was
convincingly the stronger of the two. For Juan Carlos, it was a nice reversal of
the disappointing outcome of last year's final.
Coria and Verkerk offered an interesting semi, where the 6-6 Martin Verkerk
at nearly 200 pounds initially seemed unlikely to defeat the speedy and
talented conqueror of Agassi. The tall Netherlander's early-round successes,
including his win over Moya, had made him an instant celebrity in the tennis world.
Along with his heavy serving and consistent heavy hitting toward the corners
came an appealing manner both on court and off.
Against Coria, Verkerk again kept his opponent on the defensive with heavy
serving and sustained heavy hitting from both sides. Coria fought well, but the
remarkable consistency of Martin's power game left the much smaller Argentine
player few options. It appeared that Verkerk liked the slow surface, which
enabled him to set up for his superior artillery. The convincing outcome made the
unseeded and relatively unknown giant an instantaneous celebrity in the
The Sunday final was anticlimactic. By now, Juan Carlos had found his top
form and was no longer to be denied his expected championship of clay tennis.
Verkerk confessed himself surprised to be still standing. Part of the
Netherlander's problem this day stemmed from the damp conditions (it had rained earlier
in the day) and a temperature drop from earlier in the week. The conditions
slowed play and diminished the effect of Verkerk's serving and stroking, making
it hard for him to end points. Strong wind probably also hurt his serving. But
more important was the role of Ferrero, who played confidently and at his
best, producing a sustained and controlled power game far beyond that offered by
Coria against Verkerk two days before. In reply to the Ferrero pressure,
Verkerk's forehand often became an awkward half-slice, and when he tried to summon
full power his errors multiplied. The splendid power game and the wonderful
on-court manner that Verkerk showed all week were now gone.
It seems likely that Verkerk at 24 will remain a dangerous opponent on the
tour, perhaps a regular member of the world's Top Twenty. His serve could make
him a major force at Wimbledon. As to Ferrero, 23, the future looks lustrous.
The Spanish star finished the last two years ranked in the world's Top Five.
Now, his Garros triumph and his confident performance in the final suggest that
he is ready to challenge for the very top.
THE MEN'S DOUBLES
The men's doubles final, shown in two increments by NBC, pitted the defending
champions, Haarhuis and Kafelnikov, against the Bryan twins. The match-up was
extremely attractive for an American audience, and the play proved equally
appealing, where the slow surface helped returners produce a high percentage of
in-court returns. Servers in all cases aggressively sought net position, but
the clay slowed volleys and regularly led to long points. Generally, receiving
pairs in back court tried to undo net defenders by low rocketry, thereby
diminishing the dazzling net play that these stars sometimes produce against
less-potent hitters. The Bryans captured the first set tiebreak, winning a critical
late point by successfully retrieving three smashes with high lobs into the
Sun, producing an error by Haarhuis-Kafelnikov on their fourth overhead bid.
The American brothers also took the second set, 6-3, winning the last twelve
points against their fading opponents. One key to the outcome was the
ineffectiveness of Haarhuis's slice serve, which in the past seemed to me deadly in
indoor play. Having watched the splendid, aggressive doubles of the Bryans ever
since their first appearance here in Washington after leaving Stanford in
1998, I have wondered why America has been slow to accord them celebrity status.
They have now won their first Slam.
Mike Bryan also captured the mixed doubles, with countrywoman Lisa Raymond.
Easily the margin of victory was the strong play of Raymond, who wholly
outperformed Elena Likhovsteva across the net. It is sad that the spectacular pair
Raymond-Stubbs have split up and no longer perform in women's doubles.
THE TENNIS NATIONS
Spain's men led in matches won at Garros from the outset, though the
Argentine contingent remained close through three rounds of singles and two of
doubles. But by placing four players in the singles final eight, Spain established an
unassailable margin. Argentina finished second. U.S. was third, though
France outscored the Americans in singles. Spain thus earned three National Team
Points (NTP), extending its lead in the 2003 unofficial race. Argentina earned
one NTP for second place, the U.S. one-half NTP for third.
Spain, 11.75 NTP
United States, 6.5
The standings are likely to tighten in coming weeks, as the English-speaking
nations traditionally excel at Wimbledon.
Among the women, the Americans won the most matches at Garros, scoring
heavily in the early rounds. Russia's total was second, Belgium's third. All the
Belgian wins were by Clijsters or Henin-Hardenne except for one-half win in
doubles by Callens.