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Between The Lines
August 3, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Washington, D.C., 2003

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Moving the Legg Mason from mid-August to late July was troubling. The change meant that fewer non-U.S. players were likely to attend, as the European clay season was still in progress. The stable of ATP male stars would be divided among the events here in Washington, another hard-court tournament in Los Angeles, and a clay meeting in Poland.

But an interesting field nevertheless arrived here, comparable to that in past years despite the last-minute withdrawal of Wimbledon champion Federer. Attendance the first two days was plainly better than in other years, and despite threatening weather sell-outs became the norm late in the week. It appeared that July was a better time for tennis in Washington than August, when Congress is in recess.

DOUBLES SHOCKS

The early doubles action produced excellent theater. At one of the outer courts, I watched Kafelnikov-Sargsian give excellent, hard-hitting performances, outplaying last year's tournament winners, Black-Ullyett. As a four-time Slam winner in doubles, Kafelnikov is of course no singles performer merely dabbling in doubles for extra practice. On this date he showed himself a splendid doubles artist, fully concentrated on the business at hand, coolish in court manner but supportive of his partner. Meanwhile Sargsian showed good quickness and aggressive play.

But the more surprising outcome came on Stadium Court, where the recent Garros champions, the Bryan twins, were stunned by Andy Roddick and Brian Vahaly. Roddick-Vahaly took the first set, but as the match lengthened the Bryans seemed ever on the verge of equalizing. In game ten of the second set they held two set points against Andy's serve at 15-40, but Andy responded with two 130-mph service aces. Then in game 12 with Vahaly serving, the twins held three set points at love-40, and again the twins failed to capitalize. But the Bryans still seemed likely to escape as Bob's serving produced consecutive serve-return errors by Andy and Brian, giving the twins a 5-4 points lead late in the tiebreak game.

But things completely changed in just another four ball strikes. Three of them were from the racket of Andy Roddick. First, Andy aced Bob wide at 115 mph, thus bringing the tiebreak score to 5-5. Next, Andy aced Mike down the middle at 131 mph. The score was now 6-5, and it was match point for Roddick-Vahaly. And next, Andy's rocket return of Mike Bryan's serve struck the tape and managed to dribble over, hopelessly out of reach. The transfixed crowd scarcely recognized how to react, so fast had been the conclusion.

The sudden exit of the top-seeded Bryan pair seemed especially unsatisfying because of a line-call dispute late in the match. But even apart from this misfortune, the lucky and abrupt outcome seemed to give ammunition to those who dislike tiebreaks.

I remain a strong advocate for tiebreakers. But the case did illustrate another problem--a flaw in the present tiebreak rule which here gave an improper advantage to the Roddick-Vahaly pair, as follows.

One would suppose that in a 12-point doubles tiebreaker, each of the four players should serve three times. But in this case, by rule Andy Roddick served four times (the second, third, tenth, and eleventh points). Vahaly, who is by far the weaker server, served only twice.

INTRIGUING MATCH-UPS

Like most tennis watchers, I especially enjoy matches between players of opposite styles--i.e., a baseliner playing against a net rusher. Few of today's stars are extreme practitioners of either style, so that the Tuesday meeting of Max Mirnyi and Alex Kim provided a rare meeting of two utter opposites. Mirnyi is very tall at 6-5, with especially high shoulders, who unfailingly plays an all-out net-rush game. Alex, in contrast, is a smallish and agile backcourt shot-maker. Alex won the first set, and thereafter continued to show serve-returning consistency along with fine mobility and passing-shot skills. It was a close struggle to the finish, the score reaching 3-all in the third set. Max finally prevailed, having remained relentless in his net-attacking despite many successful counters by Alex.

The Wednesday match-up of Kafelnikov and Thomas Enqvist stirred memories. Both men at age 29 seem past realistic hopes of greater glory. Indeed, the better part of a whole new tennis generation, superbly trained and conditioned, has joined the scene since Kafelnikof and Enqvist began their careers. I was struck by the many similarities between the two men, who were born less than a month apart in 1974. They are also close to each other in stature, physique, and complexion. Both are righties with two-handed backhands. Both reached their highest career ranking in 1999 at age 25. (Kafelnikov was world #2 in that year, Enqvist #4.) Enqvist has finished in the world's first hundred for a remarkable eleven straight years, Kafelnikov for nine straight.

Watching them, it was hard to see that their skills have much declined. Enqvist still provides non-stop heavy-hitting from back court along with high-velocity serving. Kafelnikov brings greater variety in speed, spin, and placement, along with generally heavier use of topspin and lesser sustained pace. Thus there was interesting contrast amid their baseline exchanges. The two split the first two sets. Kafelnikov's greater consistency eventually prevailed, 6-3 in the third.

Thursday brought the anticipated meeting of Roddick and Rusedski, echoing their recent match-ups at Queen's and Wimbledon. Once again, Roddick won by close set scores. Roddick served first, got into trouble, but blasted out. In the second game Rusedski similarly fell behind, but Greg failed to recover, losing the service break narrowly. Thereafter, with Rusedski following all serves to net and with Roddick almost always staying in back court, it was generally Andy who held serve the more comfortably. Andy closed out the first set, and the score reached six-games-all in the second. The tiebreaker went twelve points, of which all but one were captured by the server. The game's only minibreak and the set decider came on a backhand pass by Andy.

I watched the performance on an outside court by American Mardy Fish, age 21, who defeated Kafelnikov in a close three-setter. Mardy at 6-2 and 180 pounds showed a strong first serve, which he regularly followed to net, and a forcing second serve, which was difficult for Kafelnikov to attack. Mardy contended well in the many baseline exchanges, showing a strong two-handed backhand which produced a good number of down-the-line power winners. The forehand was less confident--not quite the attacking weapon one would expect to go with the American's strong serve. For a time Mardy seemed wedded to a sustained power game, but later he began to produce as much variety as his opponent. After the Russian player missed a couple of Mardy's low-and-slow sliced crosscourt backhands, Kafvlnikov began seeing more of them. The effect of Mardy's mixture of power and variety began to turn matters.

Afterwards, I was able to talk with Mardy for a few minutes before his press conference. He confirmed that the short backhand angle seemed to make Kafelnikov uncomfortable, though his basic game plan had been to work the Kafelnikov forehand. Later, with the other reporters, Mardy confirmed that he was encouraged by his 2003 performance to date, and that it would be fine with him if he could follow the footsteps of Roddick and Blake, who had won the Washington tournament in 2001 and 2002, respectively, making the victory here a big step in their breaking out of the pack in those years.

The quarters on Friday came with intermittent halts for rainshowers. Waiting for the start of Srichaphan against Henman, I wrote out my expectations. I realized from their earlier play this week that Srichaphan would be the heavier server and hitter, and that Henman would come to net behind first serves. I deemed that Srichaphan's strong forehands and backhands would often defeat Henman's net game, and I noted that Henman had seldom done well in Washington, while Paradorn had been a close runner-up last year. My pick, then, was Srichaphan, who certainly looked bigger, stronger, and more athletic.

Matters remained close throughout the first set, with Paradorn producing little resistance during Henman's serving games but easily dominating when he himself served. The tiebreak game reached five points to six, Henman ahead and scheduled to serve the next point. With no warning thereupon, the steady mist turned to droplets, halting play.

Thus there was plenty of time to ponder the forthcoming set point. After a delay of about 20 minutes, the players resumed. Henman's long-awaited first serve, however, was a fault, and his second serve floated to the middle of the box at a soft 75 mph. The Thai player, probably salivating, reached back for a huge forehand and whaled the balloon beyond the sideline, six feet out. It was scarcely a glowing moment in tennis history. The second set was somewhat less ragged, Henman improving and winning, but scarcely auspiciously.

The week's best match thus far came in a packed and lively stadium that evening. James Blake for a time played at his absolute best, outhitting Agassi from all over the court almost without errors. Andre, who is seldom dominated, answered early-on with extreme power, but it was power directed mainly down the center, which only fed the Blake locomotive. Blake captured an early service break and won the thunderous first set, 6-3.

The second set was similar, though Andre began moving his targets closer to the lines and corners, meanwhile maintaining full and consistent power. An early service break for Andre was answered later in the set, and the score reached five games all. Agassi then held serve nicely and, stepping up his power angles, finished the twelfth game with a whiplike forehand winner to a corner from deep, equalizing the match.

Midway in the third set, I wrote that Andre disliked it when his opponent imposed his own game. Blake had been doing this with his all-around power, but, I also noted, had begun to miss more frequently in recent minutes. Soon thereafter James lost serve in the sixth game. After that, Andre's power and angles--now at their deadliest--doomed hopes for a Blake recovery. It had been a superb match--breathtaking, modern power tennis. To win, Andre had produced his best tennis.

LATE-ROUND SHOCKERS

Andy Roddick played the full previous week in Indianapolis, defeating Srichaphan in the tournament's Sunday final. Thus his withdrawal from the event here in Washington would not have been a surprise, as tournament winners often choose a week of recovery over commitments. But Andy appeared in Washington on Monday, ready to play both singles and doubles. It became a busy week for him, and Friday proved especially taxing amid rain delays, when Andy defeated Mardy Fish and then played a doubles quarter-final. Thus when summer sunshine, heat, and humidity returned full-square on Saturday, Roddick was hardly a fresh athlete.

Andy's unexpected semi-final loss to Henman on Saturday came after winning a ridiculously easy first set. Those who watched on television can judge whether Andy's tiredness and perhaps mental weakness explained the outcome. In my opinion, both were at work during Henman's comeback to equalize matters and, especially, during the deciding third-set tiebreaker. Andy played dismally in the closing moments and Tim with perfection. Afterwards Andy said he felt fine out there, but he withdrew from the doubles.

The drama was of even higher order in the evening semi-final between Agassi and Fernando Gonzalez of Chile. Fernando's sustained hitting was even heavier than Blake's had been the previous night, though the South American produced more frequent errors. But again and again, when situations became critical Fernando produced the goods. For a time in the third set it looked as if Agassi's motivation had faded, but Andre fought back to reach a tiebreaker and carry the tiebreak score to five points all. Both men were very tired toward the end, and it appeared from the softening of his shot-making that Andre, for once, was more tired than his opponent. Two stunning backhand winners by Gonzalez settled matters.

Fernando's brilliance on Saturday appeared only occasionally in the Sunday final. His unforced errors were twice those of Henman, who captured the championship with impeccable play both in forecourt and in back, including some fine defensive retrieving, taking the sting from Gonzalez's power.

COMING NEXT

The next two weeks bring the Masters Series tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati. Many of the early losers here in Washington went directly to Montreal to enter the qualifying rounds, which listed many familiar names. By chance, the Legg Mason finalists--Henman and Gonzalez--drew each other as opponents in the first round of the main draw in Montreal. The semi-finalists at Los Angeles, Hewitt and Ferreira, along with Coria, who won in Poland, will be other strong contenders, along with Agassi, Roddick, Wimbledon winner Federer, and Garros winner Ferrero. Viewers of ESPN and ESPN2 have two weeks of good tennis-watching ahead.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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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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