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