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Between The Lines
July 6, 2003 Article

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Wimbledon 2003 Notebook

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Ray Bowers

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.

DAY ONE

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.

DAY THREE

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.

FRIDAY/SATURDAY

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 the group.

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 end-play.

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

Wimbledon 2003 Semi-Final: Federer vs. Roddick DVD 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.

PERSPECTIVES

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.

--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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