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Between The Lines
September 7, 2003 Article

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U.S. Open 2003 Reviewed

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Ray Bowers

In surveying the candidates just after the main draw, three male and four female superstars seemed standouts in their chances to win the Open. Andy Roddick was assuredly a prime choice based on his superb summertime run, while the all-around perfection of Roger Federer in winning this year's Wimbledon marked him an almost co-equal favorite. Andre Agassi, meanwhile, had shown only mixed success during the summer, but he brought top credentials--as two-time past Open champion, last year's runner-up, and this year's Australian Open winner. Among the women, with Serena Williams absent, the top favorites were the Belgian stars Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne, along with Americans Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport. Soon after the draw, however, Jennifer Capriati's strong triumph at New Haven propelled her into our prime group, replacing Venus who had withdrawn from the Open at the last minute because of injury.

EARLY PLAY

All seven of the above primes came through the early rounds of the Open impressively. Clijsters and Henin both won four matches to reach the quarters without losing a set. Capriati lost a set against French lefty Loit, but her fine fourth-round win over Dementieva on Labor Day erased this mild blemish. Lindsay Davenport had trouble with the strong Russian player Petrova in their duel of baseline rocketry, but Lindsay prevailed in the third set despite a painful foot, mainly because of her superiority in avoiding error.

Our prime males--Roddick, Federer, and Agassi--likewise advanced through the early going, each performing at close to his best. The luck of the draw had matched Roddick in the first round against Tim Henman--the only player to have beaten Andy this summer--but Andy responded well, asserting a convincing victory in straight sets. Roddick's second opponent was also dangerous--heavy-hitting Ivan Ljubicic, hero of Croatia's Davis Cup win over the U.S. earlier this year. Roddick prevailed in four sets, bearing down impressively in winning the fourth-set tiebreaker. Meanwhile Agassi, playing well, won his first three matches without loss of a set. Federer conquered a wonderfully competitive James Blake in a night match-up. Also impressive in reaching the final sixteen were Argentinians Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian. Nalbandian wore down Philippoussis and now loomed as a dangerous fourth-round hurdle for Federer.

THE NATIONS

The nation that would score the most match victories is often evident after the first week. In this case, the Russians had taken the initial lead on the women's side, placing five women in the final sixteen. But four of them went down in fourth-round play, including Petrova (defeated by Davenport) and Dementieva (defeated by Capriati), leaving only Myskina. The Russian lead thus slipped to only two matches, so that with Capriati and Davenport still alive in the singles, the Americans seemed in position to close the gap. Russia's Bovina, however, remained alive in the doubles as partner of doubles-superstar Karen Stubbs, and Krasnoroutskaya was still in the mixed as partner of doubles-superstar Daniel Nestor. Meanwhile Clijsters and Henin of Belgium had both scored singles wins consistently, but the greater depth of the French contingent placed that nation in third place, though not yet conclusively.

First place among the men, however, was already settled. The Americans led comfortably, having scored 18 singles victories in the first three rounds, six more than any other nation. Moreover Agassi and Roddick were still alive in the singles along with the Bryans in doubles. In second place was Czech Republic, thanks to early-round success in doubles. Spain, Australia, and Argentina followed.

Three days of intermittent rain then ensued, stopping the tennis.

AFTER THE RAIN

Limited play resumed at mid-afternoon Thursday, and shortly thereafter the first of our seven prime stars met demise. Roger Federer failed to summon the sustained brilliance he showed at Wimbledon, losing to his past nemisis David Nalbandian. As in defeating Phiippoussis earlier, against Federer the Argentine star again showed a strong all-around game based on good court mobility, clean ground-stroking, intelligent variety, and physical strength and conditioning. Federer won the first set when Nalbandian's forehand seemed ready to break, but thereafter the Swiss star could not match Nalbandian in the consistency and firmness of his shotmaking. At the end Nalbandian was badly outplaying Federer from back court. It was Nalbandian's fifth tour victory over Federer without loss and the third this year.

Our two remaining prime males advamced in Friday's quarter-finals, Agassi defeating Coria, who was favoring an injured thigh, while Roddick's power game proved too strong for Schalken. Nalbandian defeated El Aynaoui and Ferrero defeated Hewitt, completing the men's semi-final lineup.

That evening brought the meetings of the prime Belgian and American women. Matters began with Clijsters's swift victory over Davenport, Kim's fifth win over Lindsay this year. Kim's court speed and racket skills largely neutralized Lindsay's power game. The American made a nice bid early in the second set but matters ended soon after game six when Lindsay--seemingly out of breath but trying to step up her game--began spraying shots outside the lines. But the far greater drama was next to come.

CAPRIATI vs. HENIN-HARDENNE

It was magnificence, indeed greatness in sporting competition--easily the match of the tournament to date. For the first hour or so, with both warriors fresh, nearly every point became a battle--evenly and fiercely contested, the advantage sometimes swinging several times before the concluding stroke. Both women delivered endless power along with often spectacular angles. Jennifer, the larger player, was nevertheless the equal of her opponent in athletic movement. Henin-Hardenne seemed the more muscular, able to summon the consistent power needed to match Capriati's. Both concentrated fiercely and showed unlimited determination. I watched closely to see which player seemed to be weathering the exchanges more easily, which one would prove able to sustain the extreme physical and emotional effort to reach final victory.

As the games wore on, neither warrior weakened in her intensity. It seemed to me that it was Henin who showed the first signs of tiredness, evident mainly in slight breathlessness after extended points. As the time approached three hours, it seemed that the greater effort required of Henin to match her opponent in weight of shot was taking a toll. Justine began cramping in her left thigh, and there was a tell-tale moment of hands-on-knees recovery after one long exchange. Both players lost accuracy as tiredness increased, and less often did either go for the deep corners. Henin's forehand, especially, lost its usual consistency. The heavily supportive galley had carried Jennifer, and Jennifer had responded with her finest tennis in memory.

Although the points and games seemed evenly contested, the scoreboard showed that each set had contained a remarkable turnaround. In the first set, Capriati came back from a 4-1 deficit to win the next five games and the set. In the second set, Henin faced a 5-3 deficit but managed to win the next four games to equalize. And in the third set, it was again Henin who faced a 5-3 deficit but managed to recover to reach a deciding tiebreaker.

That it was Capriati who faltered in the third-set tiebreaker came as a surprise. Perhaps it was emotional exhaustion after twice serving for the match without success. From the start of the tiebreak, Jennifer's unforced errors came one after another. Thus a few minutes later, it was an exhausted but still mentally strong Henin-Hardenne who took the crowd's acclaim.

I cannot remember watching a finer, more fiercely contested and better played match of tennis.

SEMI-FINAL: AGASSI vs. FERRERO

In the first semi-final on Saturday, Australian Open champion Agassi faced French Open winner Ferrero. Ferrero was the rangier and slightly faster player, able to deliver power equal to Agassi's with slightly heavier topspin, superb in his court movement on the paved surface. The Spanish star had endured difficult matches on Thursday and Friday, a disadvantage probably neutralized by his ten-year advantage of youth. Andre played well, unlimbering his top game based on physical strength and stamina. But Ferrero stood up well under the barrage, and when the four sets were over Juan Carlos seemed ready for more. Another of our primes had fallen.

SEMI-FINAL: RODDICK vs. NALBANDIAN

Andy Roddick was the heavier server, by far the superior striker of aces. But in other realms of tennis, for well over two hours David Nalbandian was the better player. In the many baseline exchanges, the Argentine star was the cleaner and more deceptive hitter, the more intelligent tactician, the better at covering court, and, when he chose to slug it out, co-equal in firepower. Nalbandian also showed an uncanny fortune in finding the lines when it mattered most. As these matters gradually became evident, Roddick became frustrated and seemed at sea. He tried coming to net, including sometimes behind serve. But, as sometimes in the past, his net abilities failed him repeatedly. In the first three sets Andy hit 28 aces against David's 4. But it was Nalbandian who found the open corners time after time for critical points. It was a stunning reversal of expectations.

Andy was plainly not at his best. But he produced some fine serving to stave off match-point-down in the third-set tiebreaker, and then on to win that vital game. Then, having made a total of 44 unforced errors in the first three sets, Andy committed only 9 more in winning sets four and five in less than one hour.

WOMEN'S FINAL: CLIJSTERS vs. HENIN-HARDENNE

Henin's miraculous midnight victory over Capriati left Justine cramping and exhausted, facing a final-round meeting with Clijsters in less than 20 hours. Fluids were administered, but at mid-afternoon Saturday an announcement suggested that Justine would have to withdraw. But that evening she came on court with confidence, and during the warm-up she appeared strong. Still, it seemed unlikely that she could prevail over her well-rested countrywoman, who had not lost a set during the tournament to date.

It was Kim who started poorly, offering many unforced errors in the early going. But after losing the first three games Clijsters abruptly regained form--hitting with superior power and accuracy, forcing Justine to do most of the running. Clijsters during this spell plainly dominated and momentarily forged ahead. But with the set almost in hand, she inexplicably again lost her precision--just enough for Henin to squeeze out the first set. Kim's error-making persisted into set two, and though the points were often long, Henin was pocketing most of them. With the end finally in sight, it was Henin who raised her game.

MEN'S FINAL

Andy Roddick, aged 21 years and 2 weeks, became the 2003 singles champion, fulfilling the destiny that many observers glimpsed in his pro debut three summers earlier. The three years had been uneven. Bright successes had been followed by disappointments that seemed deep because of the earlier progress. But Andy kept growing in physical size and strength, meanwhile adding even more power to his solid ground game and improving his magnificent serve in its placement, variety, and overspin. On this date, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who was tired from three difficult matches in three days, proved helpless against Andy's serving, while Andy produced his best tennis of the tournament. Ferrero served well, but in the several big moments Andy produced the shots needed to break. The triumph was Sampras-like in its tempo and finality.

THE DOUBLES

I enjoyed watching the final of the women's doubles, where defending champions Ruano Pascual-Suarez outclassed Kuznetsova-Navratilova. Wretched volleying by Martina, now 46, made the first set brief, and though Martina showed brilliance in the second set, the superior play of the opponents produced an identical result. The Spanish-speaking pair showed fine all-around doubles skills, and they coordinated their tactics very well. Their greatest strength was in their ability off the ground to attack opponents at net with a variety of accurately delivered overspin lobs, dipping low shots, and flattish rockets. Indeed, they never came to net directly behind serve and indeed sometimes seemed to invite opponents forward in order to expose them. Left-handed Martina played the ad court for the Slavic-speaking pair, who proved especially vulnerable at net with both backhands in the center. Medium-height overspin lobs by the Spanish speakers up the middle went for winners or yielded weak returns, and hard low shots down the middle often produced errors or went untouched.

Sadly, the men's final between the Bryans and Bjorkman-Woodbridge, won by the latter pair in three sets, was played at the same time as the women's and was not telecast.

THE TALLY BY NATION

The Russian women held to their earlier lead, finishing ahead of the Americans by a margin of four match wins. A late contributor was Krasnoroutskaya, who reached the mixed doubles final, while no American women reached the semis in the mixed, both Stevenson and Raymond losing in the quarters. Third place in the team tally went to France, just ahead of Belgium, whose total was hurt when Clijsters quit the doubles early.

The U.S. led comfortably in men's matches won. The Czechs finished a distant second, just ahead of Spain and then Argentina. By thus earning 3 National Team Points (NTP) in our unofficial competition, the Americans moved ahead of Spain in the year's running tally, 14.5 NTP to 12.25. Spain can earn 4 NTP by winning their Davis Cup semi-final later this month against Argentina. U.S. can earn 1 NTP by winning their promotion/relegation meeting with Slovak Republic.

PREDICTIONS CRITIQUED

In previewing the Open, I wrote that upsets would probably be frequent. This prediction proved wrong, as form strongly prevailed throughout the two weeks. Thus, my not-too-difficult identification of the four prime women--Henin, Clijsters, Davenport, and Venus--held up although Venus withdrew prior to play and Capriati thereupon took command of that quarter. My choice of Henin-Hardenne to win the tournament proved correct, though the heroic performance of the slender superstar could scarcely have been foreseen in its dimension.

In analyzing the men's singles, my strong dependence on this summer's hard-court results proved reasonably valid. In identifying the male primes--Federer, Roddick, and Agassi--I failed to include Ferrero (who would defeat Agassi in the Open) and Nalbandian (who would defeat Federer). Both Ferrero and Nalbandian had competed on European clay into the first week of August, thereby missing the tournament here in Washington and thus suggesting weak commitment to preparing for the Open. But Nalbandian then did well at both Montreal and Cincinnati, strongly affirming his candidacy. Meanwhile, though I had been a strong believer in Coria's ability, from his late summer performance I wrongly chose Mardy Fish over Coria to reach the quarters, and I wrongly chose Srichaphan to defeat Hewitt. I correctly picked underdogs Schalken and El Aynaoui as quarter-finalists. But in choosing Federer to win the tournament I deviated from strict reliance on the summer hard-court results, to my present chagrin.

I hope all of you also enjoyed this rain-troubled but otherwise wonderful Open.

--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.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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