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June 8, 2003 Article

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Thoughts On Garros 2003

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Ray Bowers

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.


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 three-set final.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 tennis world.

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 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.


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
Argentina, 8
Australia, 6.75
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.

--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.

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