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withdrawn from the Open at the last minute because of injury.
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 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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