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Between The Lines
February 1, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australian Notebook 2004

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Ray Bowers

There are countless dramas in every Slam, as widespread as the hundreds of young athletes whose emotions and, indeed, whose lives are wholly focused on their performances. Seemingly obscure early-round matches are high theater for the contenders themselves and their supporters. Months and years of preparation and sacrifice lie behind. If defeated early, which is the lot for most players, ahead are more work and more tournaments. One day, the athlete's hope is finally weakened and the decision is made to turn in another direction of life. But if the moments of glory are few and fleeting for most, the achievements and personal satisfactions can never be taken away--the sense of having taken the journey and given it ones best. As at all levels, it is in the striving that lies the essence of sport.

It is not often that one major tournament is compared to others in terms of its greatness. But it seems beyond question that Australian Open 2004 must rank among the finest ever played in men's tennis. All the top male superstars were on hand and at their best, including the four Slam winners of 2003--Ferrero, Federer, Roddick, and last year's Australia winner, Agassi. Also present and at top form were returnees from injuries or recent disappointments, including Philippoussis, Hewitt, and Safin, as well as David Nalbandian, who rose to enter the elite group in 2003 despite nagging wrist pain. The quality of the play of these eight superstars rose steadily during the two weeks at Melbourne Park, until the furious showdowns among them in the second week revealed to the world pro tennis at its absolute highest level.

EARLY ROUNDS

I watched most of the opening day's Roddick vs. Gonzalez by late-night tv here. Fernando, who has scored some fine victories in the past, seemed a tough first-round opponent for the top seed. But on this day Fernando seemed almost a caricature of himself, as he wacked every forehand with massive backswing and follow-through in quest of maximum pace and overspin. His bludgeons missed sometimes, but when they stayed in court they kept Andy on the defensive. When Roddick occasionally came to net, Fernando sometimes simply blasted away at the American, often with good outcome. All this seemed OK with Andy, as he stayed calm and confident, knowing that if he played well, his opponent's misses would eventually decide matters. In my opinion the high-risk shotmaking was probably Fernando's best chance to overcome Andy's superior mobility and consistency in power-rallying. Thus it seemed a good effort by the Chilean against the world's Number One, but the outcome seemed foreordained. Roddick fell behind in the third set, losing an early service game while trying serve-and-volley tactics, but he then steadied to close out the set and match in a tiebreaker.

Roddick on Wednesday defeated his second opponent, Bohdan Ulihrach, again playing mainly defensively, often camping 10-12 feet behind the baseline. Roddick was scarcely forced to this tactic by Ulihrach, although Andy plays very well from deep.

Meanwhile Fabrice Santoro seemed a dangerous opponent for powerful Philippoussis, having won two of their six past meetings. Flipper played as Gonzalez did against Roddick, blasting every forehand and most backhands with full power and overspin. Fabrice answered with soft, often shortish, often heavily spun shots, occasionally moving to net, where he is very skilled. His purpose seemed to be to keep Flipper off balance and let the errors come forth. For a while it seemed that most points were decided either by a Philippoussis winner or a Philippoussis error. Watching the match in Melbourne was Basil Stafford, whose past e-mailed comments have often provided nourishment for this column. Although it was not very noticeable to me, Basil saw that Flipper after the first set changed his game, toning down the pace and adding some angles and drop shots. The new Flipper won the next three sets comfortably. Basil concluded that the product seemed like Hewitt's head on Flipper's body--a formidable entity indeed.

Basil, having watched much of the early-round men's singles, at this point viewed Nalbandian as the likely tournament winner. He was also influenced by the Argentine player's convincing win over Agassi--my own choice to win the tournament--in the last tuneup event one week earlier.

Of the five teen-agers cited in the tournament preview here, three of them survived into the third round--Ancic of Croatia, Nadal of Spain, and Reid of Australia. Each now held the place of a seeded player in the final 32. Almost surely, all three will have starring roles in future Slams.

The Friday meeting of the young Americans Roddick and Dent proved one-sided, as Andy's power ground strokes were too much for Dent at net. Many of Taylor's volleys were easily reached and then dispatched by a quick Andy, whose passing shots were deadly in both precision and power. Andy's earlier propensity to play from deep court was not seen.

For one set, Andre Agassi and Paradorn Srichaphan cannonaded away at each other without letup. Paradorn seemed the heavier hitter and quicker mover, and the fine Thai player attained set point for the first set--five times. But every opportunity slipped away, and when the set-ending tiebreaker was finished the winner was Andre. It seemed that again and again, it was Andre's first serve that had lifted him out of trouble.

The second set was much the same, except that in an extended eighth game it was Paradorn--nine years the younger player--who seemed winded and finally surrendered a service break. Andre's errors had now become rare, and, as one of the tv commentators noted, Andre seemed more intent on lengthening the points than on winning them. At the finish, with Paradorn now limping on an ankle twisted on the unyielding Rebound Ace, it was hard to remember Paradorn's seeming superiority at the outset. It was another case of Andre winning by his unending drumbeat of groundies accompanied by steadfast avoidance of errors.

I watched the final set of Safin's win over James Blake. The two pummeled each other with great energy, both showing fine court mobility, producing one interesting point after another. Blake had won a recent meeting of the two in Perth. Both men were effective in going to net. Safin led in aces by margin 20-2, with fewer double-faults. In collecting his four-set victory, the tall Russian showed an extremely high level of power and all-around play. Also impressive was Safin's mental stability, also seen earlier in his five-set win over Todd Martin.

The match-up of Philippoussis against Arazi was also fascinating. It was clearly the new Flipper--a softer-hitting giant who seemed to have decided that non-stop slugging was not the answer. But the Melbourne native was in trouble against the speedy Moroccan veteran, who was thoroughly comfortable in this style of play. Arazi brought tough left-handed slice, wonderful angles, and deft net play. Surprisingly, he struck more aces than Flipper. One commentator compared Arazi's game to Rios's, which seemed valid. On this day, in my opinion, Flipper needed to use his power game heavily. But he proved unable to hit consistently at a level of aggressiveness just below that of acceptable risk. Arazi won in three sets.

The world watched the Hewitt-Federer fourth-rounder--a match that would become the first of the tournament's several classics. Hewitt broke Roger's serve in the first game and stayed ahead for the rest of the first set. When I returned one hour later from an errand in the snow outside, Federer had won the second set to equalize matters. But something else had changed. Now Roger was regularly slicing off the backhand, no longer replying with his own power to Lleyton's. The slices were sometimes short, sometimes deep, but almost always to Lleyton's backhand. Lleyton generally replied with spin, either backspin or top, but seldom with a flattish, ripping shot like the ones he produces off an opponent's pace. Roger thus had extra time to attain best hitting position. The result was that when Roger felt just right--often when Lleyton had moved well inside baseline in handling a shortish spinner--Roger would unleash the Federer backhand power, often ending the point. In short, Roger's slices took the sting from Lleyton's shotmaking as they simultaneously moved Lleyton slightly out of best defensive position, thus opening the way for Roger's follow-up precision and power. How does Federer achieve both the power and accuracy of his one-handed backhand finisher?

Quietly and calmly, Roger completed the demolition, often scoring with excellent first-serving. Lleyton fought hard to the end, but in my opinion he must work many hours finding how to attack an opponent's sliced backhand delivery.

WOMEN'S SINGLES, EARLY ROUNDS

The women's field was weakened at the outset by the withdrawals of Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati. The favored Belgians Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters were present, but the only other plausible champions were Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and Amelie Mauresmo. Four of these five would reach the quarters.

Venus, in losing to Lisa Raymond on Saturday in straight sets, played somewhat below her best--probably understandably in view of her family's recent grief and her absence from competition since last Wimbledon. Lisa displayed her usual determined manner along with a penetrating and consistent forehand, holding her own in the many power rallies. Lisa, whose greatest successes as a pro have been in doubles, showed excellent singles all-court awareness and also came to net occasionally--certainly enough to bother Venus. Venus recovered from behind three times and maintained her aggressive hitting to the end, but two unforced errors by Venus in the final minutes settled matters.

In the tally of match wins by nation, the American and the Russian women moved ahead of the others from the start, when Russia advanced nine women into the second round of singles, the U.S. eight. After four days, the Americans led the Russians by one-half match win, but the Russians had several difficult matches ahead--Myskina and Sharapova had to play each other, while Safina and Kuznetsova each faced one of the Belgians. American expected strength in doubles vanished, however, when Navratilova-Raymond and Davenport-Morariu failed to reach the quarters. Entering the quarters, the U.S. led the Russian women by only 1.5 matches, while the latter had a slight advantage in number of players remaining in the doubles and mixed.

QUARTER-FINALS: RODDICK vs. SAFIN

It was heavyweight tennis, blow upon blow--fiercely ripped forehands and backhands delivered with controlled but sustained power. For five sets, the two men went at it, both playing well, both competing to the limit of their resources. Tall and powerfully built, Marat Safin at 24 seemed at his career best, moving superbly over the court in a manner amazing for an athlete of his physique. Andy Roddick answered with equivalent power and mobility. For either warrior, to soften ones shots was to invite fierce attack by opponent. Perhaps Andy's serve was the deadlier, but if so it was equivalently neutralized by Marat's slight superiority in serve-returning. There was one narrow but clear difference. Safin seemed slightly the more comfortable at net--definitely quicker and smoother in handling opponent's rockets when close-in. Angle begat sprint begat an answering angle, begat sprint, point after point, hour after hour.

The climax came at four games all in the fifth set. Briefly it was Andy who faltered--a couple of backhands missed in replying to shortish angles by Safin. Then it was up to Marat to win one final serving game. The tall Russian had not lost serve since the first set, but the task now proved not easy. A couple of fine net approaches by the Russian closed matters.

So Safin was back close to the top, more than three years after winning U.S. Open and two years after faltering in a Melbourne final. It was hard to realize how brightly Marat had earlier flashed, and how depressing had been his decline, plagued by injury and perhaps his own temperament. Against Roddick there had been a troublesome and annoying groin difficulty. But there had been no mental despair at the difficult times, no impatient losses of control.

Meanwhile Andre Agassi awaited, having won his quarter-final easily from Grosjean, who retired early with groin injury.

FEDERER vs. NALBANDIAN

The other big-time quarter-final pitted Federer and Nalbandian, with little to choose between the two. As expected, the going was flavored by high-powered bombardment from both sides of the net. It was wonderful tennis, but after the Safin-Roddick shoot-out this semi seemed perhaps a shade less vibrant. Perhaps the degree of perfection that Roger showed against Hewitt was not quite so consistently seen. Both warriors were wonderful defensively--especially Federer, who extracted the sting of Nalbandian's pressure on the many occasions where David hit with extra aggressiveness. The margin was narrow in all four sets, and if it seemed that Roger was always close to breaking away, somehow it never quite happened. It probably came down to the difference in their serving. Roger's was consistently the higher in velocity, and Roger scored 20 aces against David's 5.

The thought stirred that these two warriors would be near the top for years ahead, along with the other giants of this event. Could men's pro tennis be headed for a new Golden Age?

SEMI-FINAL: AGASSI vs. SAFIN

It sometimes happens that when a Slam produces a run of magnificent matches, the final rounds become anticlimactic--perhaps merely ordinary in the level of play and competitiveness. The choice earlier matches of this tournament--i.e., Safin vs. Roddick, Federer vs. Hewitt, and Federer vs. Nalbandian--had been so superb that it seemed likely that the semi-final and final-round battles would be disappointing.

Not so the Agassi-Safin semi on Thursday evening. I had initially picked Andre to win the tournament, but Safin's stunning and improving performances during the fortnight--the close win over Todd Martin, the battle with Blake, and finally his near-perfect display against Roddick--now stamped the tall Russian a clear favorite over Andre. In Andre's favor, however, was the veteran American's physical freshness, as he had moved through the early rounds without physical ordeal. The match was played with the overhead roof closed because of rain. It became essentially indoor tennis, with no distractions of wind or sun--probably helping Safin and his stronger serve.

Andre played as well as he could in the first set. Marat was clearly the stronger hitter, especially in serving and off the backhand, which must surely be the game's heaviest. Safin moved beautifully, again and again turning points where Andre seemed dominant. Sometimes dominance during a point shifted by just a single deep and powerful shot from Marat. So strong was the hitting ability of both players that neither dared take net more than occasionally. Andre led early in the first-set tiebreaker, then fell behind, then moved again ahead. But whenever in trouble, Marat seemed able to produce his very best tennis, including some breathtakingly superb mid-point turnarounds. Having survived two set points favoring Andre, Marat finally closed out the tiebreaker with a serving ace. It had been titanic tennis.

Perhaps Marat softened a little early in the second set. Andre achieved an early service break, held on thereafter, and led 30-love, 5-4. But again, Safin rose when it mattered most. Andre had a set point later, but Safin's courageous play once again gave him the tiebreak victory. Safin at this point had struck 20 aces, with zero double faults. But it was the frequently unleashed power of Marat's ground game that was Andre's greater problem, coupled with some very fine defensive play by the tall Russian.

Now two sets ahead, Marat continued to attack Andre's second serves, often blistering a return close to the baseline at Andre's feet thereby yielding a rushed and softish reply. But perhaps tiring, Safin surrendered the third set, playing a loose serving game at 5-6. After falling behind in set four, Marat then allowed many points to end quickly, conserving energy for the fifth set. But Andre looked tired too, and the early break in the fifth set went against the American. Marat summoned his reserves to close out his final three serving games, showing some splendid serving and all-around play.

Overall, Safin led in aces 33-10 and, amazingly, made not a single double-fault. He also led in placement winners (excluding aces) 46-34. The outcome was no disgrace for Agassi, who led in points won and games won. Andre's streak of consecutive match wins in the Open was now ended at 26. (Roy Emerson won 27 straight when the event was for amateurs only.) In leaving Laver Arena, Andre took longer-than-usual bows as if to say a final goodbye.

FEDERER vs. FERRERO

To date, Federer had been more impressive than Ferrero in facing the more dangerous foes. Matters seemed equal during the opening stages, both players driving very effectively with good pace, direction, and consistency. Ferrero threatened to break Roger at love-40 late in the first set, but when Roger managed to recover Juan Carlos thereafter seemed to fade. Roger's firm serving and court play now dominated most points, and Ferrero increasingly showed discomfort, perhaps from groin and other physical troubles. The straight-setter ended fairly quickly, and Juan Carlos afterwards talked of his need for rest.

WOMEN'S FINAL

The match-up in the women's final was no surprise. Amelie Mauresmo had withdrawn from the quarters with back trouble. Lindsay Davenport after a good start made too many errors in losing her quarter-final with Henin-Hardenne. Clijsters, perhaps bothered by an ankle injury sustained two weeks earlier, survived weak spells against both Myskina and Patty Schnyder. Thus both Henin and Clijsters reached the final without having lost a set.

At the start Henin played with superior aggressiveness of both foot and racket. Her power groundstrokes dominated most rallies, causing Cljisters to perform passively. Whereas Kim moved quickly forward to attack short-ball opportunities, Clijsters typically moved backward to defensive position after stroking, even after delivering strong shots to Justine's corners. Henin's finely chiseled physique generated amazing power off both sides--her forehand was today her stronger side, ahead of her still-wonderful one-handed backhand. Henin's strong lead after fifteen games--6-3 4-2--reflected the one-sidedness of the play.

Was it nerves? For whatever reason, Justine stopped hitting her forcing backhand and instead began giving Kim a steady dose of softish backhand slices. Many of them landed close to mid-court. Kim punished them ruthlessly. Kim continued in many cases to pull backwards from these attacking opportunities, but her bombardment and Justine's tentativeness persisted until Kim closed out the second set.

Justine righted herself and hit well to win the first four games of set three. But then came the same drama as before. Once again came the soft slices, allowing Kim to dominate play, albeit with restraint, until now it was Kim serving to equalize the third set at four games all. That eighth game would become the decider. At 30-40 Kim hit a strong attacking shot infinitely close to the baseline. Was it in or out? The linesperson called the shot good but Justine firmly gestured out. The umpire, apparently incorrectly, overruled the linesperson. Now leading 5-3 and with the demons apparently gone, Justine served out the last game impressively.

The high drama helped color an otherwise drab women's tournament. Henin-Hardenne was now conclusively the women's Number One. It is unquestionable that since last fall Henin has gotten stronger and increased her superiority over all others, including the rising younger players. Justine, during the long stretches when she played her best against Clijsters, probably exceeded the level of Serena's past best. Women's pro tennis 2004 will apparently center on Justine and the expected return of Serena.

The final tally of matches won among the women remained uncertain until completion of the mixed doubles. Russian player Bovina's win in the mixed (with Zimonjic) over Navratilova (with Paes) gave the Russian women a one-match margin over the Americans in matches won:

Russia, 31.5
USA, 30.5
France, 15

The winning nation in the men's competition was U.S., with France second and Argentina third. The Russian women also won the most matches at last summer's U.S. Open.

MEN'S FINAL: SAFIN vs. FEDERER

For most of the first set, Federer and Safin slugged away with little variety and full power. Roger's quickness and defensive ability diminished the effect of Safin's ferocious forcing game--those relentless aggressive shots and winners that had told against Roddick and Agassi earlier. Both Federer and Safin lost serve twice during the set, and Safin scored only five placement winners against 15 unforced errors. Federer seemed content to keep the score close, joining Marat in this contest of all-out hitting while tuning his own shot-making for later. Roger won the set in a tiebreaker, but there was little indication of what was next to come.

In set two we saw the same Federer that had turned the match against Hewitt. Roger's backhands were now primarily slices--softish and often shortish offerings that seemed suicidal against Safin. Marat indeed handled these well, sometimes answering in kind but often attacking. The Russian's attacks were strong, showing less of the power diminishment seen in Hewitt's replies to the slicing game. The key was Roger's defensive ability--his skill in turning Marat's strong forcing shots, extending the points without surrendering outright sitters. The ensuing rallies often ended in a close Safin miss or a ripping counterattack by Roger. Meanwhile the aces and quick serving points that usually carried Marat through difficult moments no longer happened--denied by Roger's ability to return serve consistently albeit nonaggressively. Marat's mental frustrations seen in the past--the screams, the racket bashing--began to appear. Roger won in three sets--"going away."

One measure of Roger's serve-returning stood out. Against Agassi, who is sometimes called the game's best returner, Safin had produced 33 aces with zero double-faults. But against Federer, Safin recorded only three aces, against five double-faults.

Surely a contributing factor in Marat's demise was mental and physical tiredness. In reaching the final Marat had played three five-setters and three four-setters. But the main element in the outcome was Federer's superb tennis skills, harnessed and employed with high intelligence.

HOW THE PROS PLAY

Watching many hours of intense tennis at the highest level stirs thoughts on how the modern game is played, at least on Rebound Ace. Clearly, the net is not a good place to be, not until ones opponent is severely forced. Headlong rushing to net is usually fatal against today's artists who generate power from both sides. Net skills are nevertheless important, as the tournaments best forecourt players both reached the finals. Both Federer and Safin throughout the tournament took net aggressively when the opportunity seemed right and, once in forecourt, both were extremely skilled in closing out points. But the number of net approaches during their final-round match was relatively low. Neither attacked net directly behind serve except as an occasional variant.

The baseline rocketry that characterized most points in most matches tested each player's mobility and skill, seeking the weak reply that would open the way for aggression. Often, the end product of an extended rally was a close error by one of the players or an attempt to end point with a firm down-the-line backhand. Unless presented with a sitter, taking net usually required several preparatory forcing shots with both power and angle--high-risk and sometimes self-defeating tennis. Surprise in moving forward unexpectedly often paid off behind a moderately aggressive shot that as a minimum required opponent to move.

Every player must be confident in the overspin backhand, whether one-handed or two, for defense as much as attack. But it is also clear that the one-handed backhand slice is now in the arsenal of all players. The slice is no longer used regularly as an approach shot for attacking net, for today's players are fast enough not to be bothered by low bounces. Instead it is largely a neutralizing weapon, changing the pace in rallies perhaps to invite error or, as seen in the Federer-Hewitt battle, as a way of softening an opponent's pace to set up ones own attack. Without outstanding defensive skills, however, a too-soft slice still invites domination by an opponent, as happened during Henin's fades against Clijsters.

Serving ability remains a large part of the game, especially when both players are playing well and points are hard to win, and of course also when server gets behind in a service game. Almost always among the pros, the first serve is struck with full aggressiveness. In returning, the second serve is often attacked with full pace and with only secondary heed to placement.

The drop shot is seen occasionally but almost never produces an immediate winner against today's speedy court-coverers. Getting to an opponent's drop shot is less a problem than in making an effective reply, as too weak a response is usually run down and dispatched by the original drop-shotter. Cat-and-mouse exchanges sometimes ensue where deception is critical.

WHAT'S AHEAD

The notion of moving Australian Open to March offers several advantages, including the likelihood of cooler weather. The 2004 tournament gained greatly from the cooler-than-usual January temperatures.

The first round of Davis Cup follows Melbourne Park by one week. The scheduling is difficult and probably indefensible. Both recent finalists at Melbourne Park will be on center stage. Marat Safin will lead the Russian team in hosting defending champion Australia, while Federer and the Swiss team must play in Spain.

The March tournaments in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne should be superb. The return of Serena seems likely, and the male protagonists of Melbourne Park should be ready for fresh battles. I can hardly wait.

--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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