It was a splendid Wimbledon, helped by generally dry weather and some superb
performances from younger members of the current superstar list. On the
fashionable question whether Wimbledon has moved away from its traditional
favoritism to the net rusher, the answer seemed twofold--(1) superior serving is more
important than net skills in determining outcomes, and (2) the ability and
resolve to attack net is nevertheless nearly as critical as ever. Last year's
trend, where two baseliners met in the final, was clearly reversed.
In preparing the preview column here two weeks ago, five male and four female
players stood out in their chances to win Wimbledon 2003. As the tournament
unfolded the five prime males--Agassi, Hewitt, Federer, Roddick, and
Henman--indeed provided the foremost drama. At the start of the second week a sixth prime
candidate forced himself into the group. Meanwhile the four elite women--the
American sisters Williams and the two Belgian superstars--all reached the
tournament's Final Four despite serious challenges from Americans Davenport and
Capriati. Offered here are some of the observations and thoughts written from
America after each day of TV-watching.
Each year in the opening at the All-England, the previous year's winner takes
Centre Court against a first-round opponent. Not since 1967 has the defending
male champion been beaten in his first match. That Lleyton Hewitt might lose
to qualifier Ivo Karlovic in his first main-draw Slam appearance, on First
Monday of 2003 seemed unimaginable.
The victory of the 24-year-old Croatian player was earned fairly. His superb
serving took full advantage of his 6-10 height, including a second serve
almost as severe as his first. The grass was fresh and quick, and after the first
set--won easily by Hewitt--the renowned Hewitt return-of-serve became
ineffective. Karlovic produced an average velocity of 123 mph on the first serve and a
thunderous 111 mph on the second, the latter figure 17 mph faster than
Hewitt's. Karlovic also showed a magnificent overhead game, good quickness and touch
in volleying to back up an all-out serve-and-volley strategy. When in back
court, Karlovic displayed a strong attacking forehand and a consistent sliced
backhand, which sufficed to defuse Hewitt's attack game. Karlovic was at his best
at the end, breaking Hewitt's serve at 4-all in the fourth set by dusting the
baseline three or four times and then closing out the match with his finest
serving and volleying of the day.
In the meeting of the game's fastest servers, Andy Roddick won the first-set
tiebreak when Greg Rusedski's second serve weakened and his first serve
vanished. Andy ended the set with a superb backhand pass from behind the baseline
after Rusedski gained net postion off a Roddick second serve.
In the second-set tiebreaker, Rusedski's serve became even less effective,
Roddick winning the first six points and closing out shortly thereafter. Greg
looked tired, perhaps reflecting his lack of match play in the previous six
months except for his winning at Nottingham the week previous, where matches were
best-of-three. Could it be that the big Britisher was out of gas?
Maybe Andy thought so, for after nearly breaking Rusedski to start set three,
Andy's serving and stroking fell off drastically. Perhaps his concentration
had weakened--at one point Andy lost track of the score. Rusedski led 5-2 in
games. But a dispute after a fan's out call seemed to give Greg the excuse to
lose. Andy swept the next five games, repeatedly taking advantage of weak
volleys to pass Greg at net.
It was a convincing win for Roddick, whose body has filled out with added
muscle and whose court mobility seems improved. Neither player threatened their
jointly held serving record of 149 mph, Andy delivering one at 138-mph, Greg
one at 133. But it was clear that the quality of Andy's serving outlasted
Greg's, becoming overwhelmingly superior to Greg's late in the match.
DAY FOUR, FIRST THURSDAY
With three-fourths of the singles and half the doubles entrants now
eliminated, the American male and female contingents, led by Agassi, Roddick, the
Williams sisters, and Capriati, led the nations in the unofficial tallies of
matches won. On the men's side, five nations were in contention for second place.
France and Spain each placed nine males into the third round of singles (U.S.
placed 13), while Australia and Czech Republic were slightly ahead in doubles.
The loss of Hewitt in the first round seemed a damaging blow for Australia,
last year's runner-up nation. Among the women, the Russians were surprisingly
close to the Americans, having scored 15 singles victories in the
first two rounds against 17 by the Americans.
The mixed doubles commenced this date. The field consists of 64 pairs, twice
that of the other Slams. Disappointingly, many of the higher-seeded players in
the men's and women's doubles events are not playing in the mixed.
Satisfyingly, third sets are being played in their entirety--i.e., the idea of
replacing them with a single tiebreak game is not being used.
Several players gave impressive performances. Venus Williams--a twice
Wimbledon champion--seemed the superstar of old in overwhelming the strong Russian
player Petrova, 6-1 6-2. Petrova looked very good on many points including many
that she lost, but she simply could not equal Venus's power, mobility, and
shotmaking consistency. Lindsay Davenport likewise performed well, as did Farina
Elia in showing clear superiority over high-seeded Chanda Rubin. But the star of
the day was American Andy Roddick, who showed no letdown from his fine win
over Rusedski. Andy solidly defeated stylist Tommy Robredo by consistent power
off the ground along with absolutely superior serving. There was no need for
serve-and-volley tactics for Andy, who has yet to lose a set.
(Ivo Karlovic, conqueror of Hewitt, lost his third-round match in four close
sets to Max Mirnyi.)
On Saturday, Andre Agassi defeated El Aynaoui in four sets in a riveting
match played mainly from the baseline. There were countless extended
points--dazzling exchanges featuring relentless pace from Agassi and a fine power forehand
and a sometimes soft, sliced backhand from El Aynaoui. Often given time to set
up, the American had the upper hand in moving his opponent about. The Moroccan
had the faster and more dangerous serve, which Agassi countered by
serve-returning at his best. Toward the end El Aynaoui at times seemed out of breath,
though there was no letup in his energy in contesting every point. Still it
seemed as if, as so often in the past, Agassi's drumbeat of pressure eventually
broke down his opponent.
SECOND MONDAY. AGASSI vs. PHILIPPOUSSIS
Second Monday is a favorite day for the watcher, offering the fourth round of
both men's and women's singles. All eight men's and all eight women's
contests offered appealing match-ups.
The racket magic that carried Agassi past El Aynaoui on Saturday proved
insufficient against the bigger, stronger Aussie Philippoussis. Compared with the
weaponry of El Aynaoui, Flipper's serve was one level more powerful, his sliced
backhand one level greater in its bite, his overspin backhand one level
higher in confidence and power. Usually, the big serve was there when needed--once
in the fourth set, Flipper recovered from love-forty by producing five
consecutive serves not returned by Agassi. Nor was Andre able to wear down Flipper,
who seemed fresh even in the late fifth set. Basically, the points were shorter
than on Saturday because of Philippoussis's attacking serves and
groundstrokes. While his volleys were seldom masterful, his relentless advancing behind
serve pressured Agasssi in returning. Philippoussis produced a total of 46 aces,
Agassi just 10.
When I last watched Flipper here in Washington his performance was almost
disgraceful, as he persisted in all-out hitting off the ground despite countless
errors against an opponent he should have beaten by more-careful play. But
against Agassi on this day, Flipper's big game was necessary and was indeed
present. Philippoussis is now trim, his stature imposing, and his flexibility
excellent. The memory of watching his first knee injury when leading Sampras at
Wimbledon in 1999 remains vivid. Three surgeries have followed. Can Flipper
produce this level of play three more times this week?
The departures of Agassi and Hewitt earlier leave three of the our
pre-tournament primes still surviving--Roddick, Federer, and Henman. Philippoussis's
strong performance through his win over Agassi requires that he now be added to
Prior to this round, five Russian and four American women had reached the
tournament's final sixteen. But the Russian challenge vanished during today's
play, when Serena defeated Dementieva, Capriati defeated Myskina, and Venus
defeated Zvonareva, all in straight sets. The only Russian to reach the quarters
was Kuznetsova, who defeated teen-aged countrywoman Sharapova.
SECOND TUESDAY -- WOMEN'S QUARTER-FINALS
Venus Williams showed herself essentially equal in power and consistency to
Lindsay Davenport but with much superior athleticism and movement in back court
and, on the few occasions, at net. Davenport played well, but many of her
stronger attacks were thwarted by Venus's superb court covering and firm
counter-game. Lindsay contended to win the second set, but once broken midway in set
three the verdict was sealed. Venus took all but one of the final 16 points.
Against Capriari, Serena seemed out of sorts, erratic in her shot-making.
Jennifer moved well and attacked the ball consistently and with few errors in
capturing the first set. Serena's comeback was for a time tortured, but finally
the forcing first serve began to produce aces, serve-return errors by Capriati,
and weak returns that set up early winners for the defending champion. The
two players were essentially equal in power and mobility, and if anything the
greater confidence was Jennifer's, who perhaps had less to lose. It was the
first serve, along with Serena's occasional--and almost always successful--sorties
to net that brought Serena to her 5-3 lead in set three.
But suddenly the first serve disappeared, and with it the thunder in Serena's
power ground game. With Capriati beaming confidence and with Serena suddenly
tentative in her shotmaking, it looked as if Jennifer might turn things
around. But after several deuces there finally came a big Serena serve not returned
by Jennifer, and then a bold net sally by the champion to finish the emotional
The match statistics validated the importance of Serena's first serve and her
effective net-attacking.. For the entire match, Serena won 75% of her
first-serve points, only 37% of her second serves. At net, Serena won 19 of 25
points, Capriati 5 of 9.
In early evening the sisters lost their bid for a third Wimbledon doubles
crown, defeated by Russians Dementieva-Krasnoroutskaya in three sets. Tiredness
after playing three-set singles matches earlier may have had a role. The
decisive late stages were marked by some excellent hitting from back court and
mid-court by Krasnoroutskaya.
QUARTERS -- WEDNESDAY/THURSDAY
Rain on Wednesday forced completion of the men's quarters on Thursday.
Philippoussis had trouble with Alex Popp, who won the first two sets. But Flipper
unlimbered his heavy serving and eventually prevailed 8-6 in the fifth. Popp
showed excellent ground-stroking along with a calm demeanor and an easy
maneuverability over the grass for his 6-7 frame. Several big forehands by the Aussie
finally settled things after both players had been in jeopardy several times
in the well-played final set. Meanwhile Tim Henman was outplayed by Grosjean,
losing in four sets. The French player, at just 5-8 in stature, served with
consistency and power, out-acing Henman 12-2. His groundstrokes were also
excellent, further complementing his primary asset--his court speed, which is in the
class with Hewitt and Coria. Meanwhile Roddick and Federer advanced to the
semis comfortably in straight sets and will meet in Friday's semis.
Serena steadily outplayed Henin-Hardenne, delivering consistent power in
serving and stroking, thereby obtaining revenge for the recent outcome at Garros.
Henin answered with equivalent power and her remarkable ability to fire the
angles, but Serena's mobility and power were too much. Venus's win over
Clijsters was more difficult after Venus re-injured a stomach muscle, but Clijsters
seemed unable to exploit her advantage.
MEN'S SEMI -- RODDICK vs. FEDERER
For one set the play was even. Both men held service to reach six games all,
where Federer had somewhat the easier time holding serve. Federer managed to
block most Roddick serves back into play. Roddick, who avoided serve-and-volley
net rushes, nevertheless held serve by virtue of excellent approach shots off
Federer's block-returns. The tiebreaker reached the late stages dead even.
Roddick held a set point on his own serve but muffed an easy forehand. Soon
afterwards, Federer captured the set.
In the second and third sets, Federer displayed near-perfection in both
tactics and execution. His consistency in serve-returning continued, causing
endless jeopardy for Andy in his serving. Federer's own serve stepped up in
placement and power, and his statistical edge in out-acing Andy began to build up. His
own skills in movement were on display--changing direction seeming
effortlessly, reacting quickly to Andy's rockets, and hustling with good body control to
reach the most difficult angles ready to make effective reply. His backhand
became a wondrous weapon, delivered with power and precision. And his own
volleying ability rose to heights remindful of Pat Rafter. Andy tried replying to
Federer's soft but deadly serve-returning by serve-and-volley tactics, but the
completeness of Roger's weaponry defeated this. At the end, the superiority of
Federer was unquestioned, and he closed out the straight-setter with a final,
seemingly superfluous service break. The Swiss player led in aces by the
unbelievable margin 17-4.
Philippoussis too looked strong in defeating Grosjean in three sets with
power and strong net play.
FINAL SATURDAY -- VENUS VS SERENA
The women's final was undistinguished. Serena eventually prevailed in split
sets over sister Venus, who was still hindered by the abdominal injury. Venus's
play during the first ten days of the tournament had been stronger than
Serena's, so that the injury may well have changed the final-round outcome.
FINAL SUNDAY -- PHILIPPOUSSIS VS FEDERER
The first set produced near-perfection by both players. Philippoussis when
serving quickly showed himself a tougher opponent for Federer than Roddick had
been. By coming to net behind every delivery, Flipper cancelled out Federer's
softish, defensive returns that had denied Andy his accustomed quota of cheap
points when serving. Federer managed one or two firm returns of Flipper's big
serve in most games, but every time Philippoussis obtained enough quick points
to survive. Meanwhile, Federer on his own serve played aggressively and
without error, advancing to net behind every first serve and, once there, volleying
brilliantly. I have not seen clean and firm volleying of this quality in many
years. In the set-ending tiebreaker, the score stayed even until Philippoussis
produced a dismal double fault near the end.
The shattering loss of the first set after playing so well probably accounted
for Flipper's lapse early in set two. It recalled Federer's jumping ahead of
Roddick two days earlier after Andy lost their close first-set tiebreak.
Philippoussis recovered late in the second set and Federer's perfection faded
slightly, but the young Swiss superstar held on for a two-set lead.
Philippoussis, who had come from behind to defeat Agassi and Popp, fought
well in set three, carrying matters to another tiebreaker. But this time the
verdict was swift, as Federer won five of the first six points and soon after
closed out matters. For Federer, it had been a dazzling exhibition of high-quality
tennis, including superb serving, serve-returning, mobility, net play, and
ground-stroke firepower, especially on the backhand side. In no part of the game
was Federer's play other than superior. He out-aced the mighty Flipper 21-14.
The U.S. men and women led in total matches won during the tournament.
Australia was a close second on the men's side, Philippoussis scoring well in
singles and Woodbridge in doubles. Hewitt's early departure made the difference.
Czech Republic, with good strength in doubles, was third. Among the women, the
Americans stayed well ahead of the Russians after winning the fourth-round
showdown. Belgium was third.
The breathtaking quality of play in many of the late-round men's matches
plainly argued that tennis on grass should be allowed to survive. The balance of
net-rushing and back-court play seen in Wimbledon 2003 seemed an exactly right
complement to the preceding clay-court season. There is planning to lengthen
to three weeks the grass-court season prior to Wimbledon, an admirable goal.
The clay-court stars continue to dislike the Wimbledon seeding system, which
gives added weight to past grass-court success. Their case has merit, as
Garros does not reward past success on clay. Either Garros (and other clay-court
events) should change or Wimbledon should conform. ITF and ATP should take a
stand on this gnawing and unnecessary friction.
Finally, the threat by many players to stay away from Wimbledon and perhaps
other Slams unless prize moneys are increased must be headed off. The Slams are
magnificent sporting endeavors, producing worldwide attention four times a
year. Along with Davis and Fed Cups, they link ourselves with past generations
and promise future greatness for our sport. Pro tennis would survive the end of
the Slam era but would be further stained as just another bid for the
entertainment dollar. Probably something is needed to help fund players below the
tour's upper tier. Common sense would seem needed by everyone.