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Between The Lines
June 6, 2004 Article

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The Flow of Garros 2004

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Like most Slams, Garros 04 daily produced dazzling action and drama, dulling the memory of what had come before. The men's final brought high theater and an unexpected champion. Meanwhile the event may have signaled the beginning of a new era in women's tennis.

FIRST SIX DAYS--MEN'S SINGLES

Of the top six males identified by our computer prior to start-of-play, after six dates four still remained. Defending champion Ferrero had departed, not surprisingly as Juan Carlos had been troubled by illness and hip trouble since January. But the elimination of Roger Federer by Gustavo Kuerten was very unexpected. Kuerten, a three-time Garros champion, had been slow recovering from hip surgery in early 2002. But on this day it was again the old Guga, possessed of the magnificent variety and seemingly easy power that made him world's Number One for 2000. Toward the end, Guga seemed able to nail the sides whenever he wanted, with few errors. He mixed in a drop shot occasionally, but basically he out-powered and out-steadied the current Number One. An error-prone Federer seemed lost amid the barrage. It seemed obvious that Guga must now be placed among the prime favorites to capture the tournament.

The others of our original Six all looked strong to date, especially Guillermo Coria, who had not lost a set in his three matches, and Carlos Moya, who had lost only one. These two, who stood #1 and #2 in our computerized predictions, seemed headed for a quarter-final match-up. Meanwhile David Nalbandian had lost two sets in his three victories, and Lleyton Hewitt lost four. Lleyton's road had been the more difficult, but he overcame last year's runner-up, Verkerk, in five sets.

Our Second Six were now just three. Gone was Andre Agassi, who had wrongly counted on rediscovering his clay-court skills during the early rounds. Also departing early were Andy Roddick and Fernando Gonzalez. The survivors were Henman, Costa, and Safin.

The six-hour marathon between French players Santoro and Clement made for good conversation. It was top clay-court tennis of the kind played a decade or two ago. Neither man used, or indeed possessed, sustained power, so that there were many spinners, drop shots, close-in exchanges, net approaches, and indeed an occasional long exchange of moonballs. Santoro won 16-14 in the fifth set.

We expected that the Spanish contingent would prevail in the count of singles and doubles matches won. But the early departure of Ferrero altered the outlook. Here was the six-day standing:

France 23.0
Spain, 21.5
Argentina, 20.5.

The three nations were roughly equally positioned in terms of how many singles and doubles males remained in the tournament, though the Argentine contingent, with a member remaining in each quarter of the singles and with Etlis-Rodriguez still alive in the doubles, seemed especially well-situated.

THE WOMEN

Our pre-tournament analysis focused heavily on the game's prime female superstars, all of whom brought uncertainties stemming from recent injuries or absences. We also noted the array of rising Russian players, and we speculated as to which one of them was ready to move into the elite group. Our prime nominee was the strong teen-aged player Kuznetsova.

Both groups--the superstars and the Russians--navigated the first three rounds with general success. Last year's female winner, Henin-Hardenne, departed early, having been out of competition with lingering illness. (The other Belgian superstar, Clijsters, did not compete because of injury.). Meanwhile neither Venus Williams nor Davenport lost a set in advancing, Serena and Mauresmo had lost only one, and Capriati had lost two.

The Russians also looked strong, though there was a minor surprise in the win by Sharapova, 17, over Zvonareva, 19. Myskina and Kuznetsova moved forward comfortably toward a fourth-round meeting. Dementieva advanced to a fourth-round date with Davenport. Bovina took a set from Capriati in a match featuring breathtaking hitting. Perhaps the difference was Capriati's occasionally use of low, backhand slices late in the going. Kirilenko, 17, lost to Serena but gave the American her only lost set to date.

A footnote was the appearance of Martina Navratilova at age 47 in the women's singles. Navratilova proved unable to match the power of young Argentine player Dulko. Martina's familiar serve-and-volley tactics were only occasionally successful, as the South American's strong groundies seldom offered an easy volley. Martina tried--or was forced by Dulko's power--to slow down the hitting, without success. There were some nice points, but the match-up mostly showed how far the women's game has advanced in speed and power. Martina plans to play singles at Wimbledon, where she should fare better. Whatever happens, I hope she continues to compete in doubles.

After six dates, the Russians led the Americans in match wins, 29.5 to 28. Both nations placed four players in the final sixteen in singles and six players among the final 16 pairs in women's doubles. The outlook seems to favor the Americans, as the superstar Yanks seem to have surmounted their physical uncertainties, and Navratilova-Raymond appear strong in doubles.

WOMEN'S ROUNDS OF SIXTEEN AND EIGHT

Dementieva's stunning win on Sunday over Davenport may have marked the break in recent American and Belgian dominance at the top. On the other hand the outcome may have been attributable to Lindsay's knee trouble, occurring at mid-match. Meanwhile. Myskina's win over Kuznetsova, by 8-6 in the third set, spoiled one of my predictions. But the greater drama awaited the quarter-finals.

The umbrellas came out occasionally against the damp, the jackets and sweaters stayed on against the cold air as Venus lost to Russian player Myskina. The conditions took some of the effect from Venus's attacking ground-strokes, and Anastasia's graceful court mobility took care of the rest. Venus's first serve averaged 12 mph (19 kph) faster than Myskina's, and her second serve by a similar ratio, but raw power had little to do with the verdict. By official count, Venus made 43 unforced errors, Myskina only 13. Venus toned down the errors somewhat as the match progressed, but at the end it was still the Russian maintaining steady but firm hitting, Venus making the errors in the long exchanges.

Capriati is not usually thought of as a defensive player, but it was her superior defensive play that keyed her victory over Serena. Again, the unforced-error count told a lot--Serena missed 45 times, Jennifer only 24. A telling aspect was Serena's inability to capitalize on her serving strength. Serena's ace total was negligible in the very slow conditions, and though she showed a distinct advantage in serving velocity, quick points were few. The score reached three games all in the third set. Serena, as she often does toward the end of close matches, turned up the power so that it became Jennifer, racing side to side to stay in points. But untimely errors by Serena and an occasional transition to attack by Jennifer produced the decisive service break and the final-game hold of service by Capriati.

The player who best exploited the cold and wet, it seemed to me, was Elena Dementieva, the 22-year-old Russian star, who defeated Mauresmo in straight sets. Elena's flattish forehands and backhands seemed to knife through the heavy conditions better than the endless topspin deliveries of Mauresmo. Dementieva's serve seemed weak, consisting of varieties of sidespin which made for little trouble on the soaked clay, but her fine court mobility and strong ground production, which produced 27 winners--the largest total of any of the women quarter-finalists on the day--made for a persuasive victory.

MEN'S QUARTER-FINALS

The tournament's anticipated marquee match finally happened: Coria vs. Moya. I watched part of the second set, during which Moya's superior serving and ground-stroke power seemed about to reverse Coria's early dominance on the scoreboard. But Coria's superb court mobility and accuracy in shot-making thereafter proved constant, while Moya's nailing of the lines could not last. At the end, the count of error-making was 56 by Moya, 26 by Coria. That meant more than Moya's 22-mph advantage in first-serve velocity (36 kph). Coria won in straight sets, having not yet lost a set in the tournament.

The unheralded Gaston Gaudio defeated Hewitt in straight sets, showing a marvelously controlled one-handed backhand that thrived on the slow conditions and produced magnificent angles.

Having defeated a blister-troubled Safin in the round of sixteen, Nalbandian now dueled Kuerten amid wind and blowing dirt. Guga produced many magnificent points featuring a succession of superbly crafted forcing shots, but often an abject error followed. Nalbandian played along with this game, hitting more safely albeit with firmness, always a threat to himself become the attacker. Behind two sets to one, Kuerten then led throughout most of the fourth set, including through most of the set-ending tiebreaker. But the end came abruptly on David's first match point after several errors by Guga.

Thus three Argentine players reached the final four. It would be Coria against Henman, Gaudio against Nabandian in the semis. An all-Argentine final was conceivable, almost probable.

THE SEMIS

Myskina had shown patience, fine court mobility, and consistency in causing Venus to self-destruct in the chill. Now on Thursday, in full sunshine against Capriati, the princess added a penetrating forehand and occasional crisp backhand. The more dismally things went for Jennifer, the faster she played, the flatter--and therefore riskier--her attacking shots. At the end there was no question that the Russian was on this day the superior player. Myskina ended matters with several ripping attacking shots, destroying Capriati's serve for her second break of the set.

Friday brought a rare happening, an evenly contested match-up on a clay court between a top baseliner and and a top net rusher. The attacker, Tim Henman, on this day resembled Pat Rafter a few years ago in his several great clay-court performances. Henman's formula, like Rafter's, included effective serving, superb volleying and overhead work, high mobility in forecourt, and a willingness to attack whenever possible, including behind most first serves. With all this came another important ingredient, an ability to extend points defensively, mainly with a sliced backhand. Guillermo Coria's magnificent court speed and shot-making ability would be severely tested.

Tim's formula, executed to perfection, worked superbly as the British star captured the first set and a service break in the second. Some of what happened next was probably random chance, as Tim's first serves began to miss by very small margins. At the same time Coria was visibly adding more sting to his ground game. Behind 2-4 in the second set, Coria began a run of thirteen straight games, thus winning the second and third sets and gaining a 3-0 lead in set four. During Tim's nightmare, neither his first serve nor much of anything else worked. Forced by Coria's foot speed to add pace to his volleys, Tim's volleying errors multiplied. Whereas he had won 11 of 14 net approaches during the first set, Tim for the rest of the match lost more points at net than he won.

But abruptly, Henman's perfection returned for five games, including some firm attacking ground strokes that produced winners. Coria, still ahead two sets to one but trailing 5-3 in the fourth set, faced a likely fifth set, with the momentum Henman's. Could Coria turn the flow once again?

The Argentine held serve to keep the set alive, stepping up pace and depth in his groundies, on which Henman had been feasting. Then, serving for the set at 5-4, Henman's first serve again departed. Only one found the box during the game, and Tim lost all four of the second-serve points to square the set. Coria again held serve comfortably, and with Coria now hitting with pace and absolutely without error, Tim's strong serving and stroking vanished. The last point ended when a nasty sliced-backhand approach by Tim landed an eyelash beyond the baseline. In that critical fourth set, Henman won only three of fifteen points behind his second serve.

Earlier in the afternoon, unseeded Gaston Gaudio defeated Nalbandian in three sets. At the end, Gaudio's superb ground-stroking--including that magnificent backhand--absolutely dominated his opponent.

WOMEN'S FINAL: MYSKINA vs. DEMENTIEVA

Dementieva failed to deliver the expected strong performance, and Anastasia became the first of the Russian brigade to join the current superstar group.

MEN'S FINAL: CORIA vs. GAUDIO

Gaston Gaudio, 25, had finished in pro tennis's top fifty for the last four years. Most of his success had been on clay, and he did well this spring at Barcelona, reaching the final. But then he lost in the first round at both the Italian and German Opens, though he took a set in losing to eventual champion Federer at the latter event. Entering Garros, he stood #44 in the ATP race for 2004. In predicting his chances at Garros, our computer ranked him 33rd. Physically, he was only slightly taller and stronger than his final-round opponent, Coria, but probably Gaudio was the better conditioned of the two.

In advancing through the first two rounds Gaudio defeated countryman Canas and Czech star Novak, both in five sets. He then beat Enqvist in four sets, Andreev in three, two of them tiebreakers. His fourth-round elimination of Lleyton Hewitt, noted earlier, was generally unexpected, as the Australian had defeated him at Monte Carlo this year. But Gaston's semi-final blitzing of Nalbandian was even more astonishing. Still, there was no denying that the magnificent backhand, accompanied by Gaston's fine overall court coverage, a consistent forehand, and excellent court presence seen this week, plainly merited a place in the final. It seemed to me that Gaudio's current level of play might make things very difficult for Coria.

But for nearly two sets, Gaudio scarcely kept the ball in court. Whenever he played a point well, it seemed that the next two ended with dismal misses. He produced a brief surge late in the second set, and when the third set began Gaston's perfection returned. That set became a magnificent clay-court war, every point severely contested, with both men playing at their best. Gaston had a narrow edge in power with precision, but Coria's speed equalized many of the points. Coria had to attack occasionally to keep things close. Coria had a chance to close out the match, but things slipped away to force a fourth set.

It is hard to interpret what happened next. Coria began cramping in the left leg, asked repeatedly for the trainer, and made essentially no effort to win points during the rest of set four. Meanwhile he gulped bananas and drinks, and perhaps from this infusion of chemistry the cramps went away. The fifth set was not well played, as neither player was much inclined to try high-risk attacking shots, but it was certainly high drama. The crowd, which had lifted Gaudio when the end seemed near, hardly knew how to respond. Coria, who was again at close to his old mobility but seemed weaker in generating power, somehow reached two match points. But although Gaudio had been playing raggedly, it was Coria who faltered on these occasions. Soon afterwards, it was Gaudio lifting the champion's trophy.

It had been an emotional match. Gaudio produced his wonderful tennis only in the third set. Whether Coria mismanaged his physical difficulty cannot be judged. Surely the fear that the cramping would recur influenced Coria's tactics in the final set.

Gaudio will be a popular champion. His fluency in French and his ever-pleasant demeanor won him many friends. His success will help the sport, giving hope to the many strivers not yet in the top echelon that years of sacrifice on the tour can bring success.

MATTERS AHEAD

Two weeks of grass-court tune-ups are directly ahead, followed by Wimbledon. In my opinion, we will learn that the Russian incursion in women's tennis is no temporary phenomenon. The wonderful court mobility and stylish grace that generally marks the group seems beautifully suited to classic grass-court tennis. The non-Russian superstars will remain the favorites, however, as the extremely slow conditions of mid-tournament at Garros will be of the past. If Wimbledon indeed becomes a domain primarily for the big hitters, it may become Kuznetsova who rises. Note that the skidding grass bounce may do wonders for Dementieva's serve.

Here is the final tally in matches won among the women at Garros 04:

Russia, 42
USA, 35.5

Here is the tally among the men:

Argentina, 32
France, 28
Spain, 22.5

The tournament revealed two male players who are now at their best--Tim Henman and Carlos Moya. Both must be considered among the Wimbledon favorites. Others whose play in Paris make them prospective contenders at Wimbledon are Nalbandian, Safin, Kuerten, Hewitt, and Llodra.

Bjorn Borg showed that the skills needed to win at Garros can be harnessed into Wimbledon titles as well. For Gaudio or Coria to do the same seems unlikely. But after Garros 04, anything is possible.

--Ray Bowers

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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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