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Between The Lines
August 25, 2004 Article

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Legg Mason 2004 and
U.S. Open Preview

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Ray Bowers

The 2004 version of the Legg Mason here in Washington drew an interesting entry field, only slightly below the usual quality and depth even though the Olympics were being held simultaneously. The headliners were Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, who had been the finalists at Cincinnati ten days earlier. Andre has been a prime seat-filler here for many years. Hewitt played here only once before, in 1998. I remember seeing him in the player lounge when he was barely 17 years old, hanging out by himself over a game machine. Now he was a twice world champion, a two-time Slam winner, and with Agassi the main gate attraction here.

The draw also included a nice contingent from Europe along with those American stars not in Athens. By tradition, the Legg Mason has often showcased top new and rising talent, and this again seemed the case. Thus I decided to report primarily on the fine contingent of young pros, age 21 and younger, in vague hopes of glimpsing a future superstar.

THE 21-AND-UNDERS

Early-on, I witnessed the talent of Brian Baker, who became 19 this spring. Brian had been the top American junior player, runner-up at the Garros juniors in 2003. His first-round opponent here was Kristian Pless, 23, from Denmark, himself once a leading junior who had finished in the ATP top hundred for 2001 and 2002. The product was a close three-setter, finally won by Pless.

It didn't take long to admire the surprisingly advanced game of Baker, a tall (6-3) and slender (170 pounds) right-hander. His forehand and two-handed backhand are delivered with relatively little backswing, so that he hits with excellent accuracy even as he harnesses his body weight and timing to produce good power. (Pless, at 6-2 and 185, uses lots of backswing--high on the forehand side--and thus generates more sustained power.) At first, Baker seemed to produce the more-effective serve, showing excellent variety and placement, clocking in the 120's, though the speeds clearly faded as the match lengthened. A brief faltering after a 30-minute rain break cost Baker the first set, but a run of errors by Pless in the second set allowed Baker to equalize. Baker had discovered that while the Pless backhand two-hander could be devastating, the Dane's one-handed slice, which he used too often, was both soft and erratic under attack. Baker often took advantage of this knowledge, coming forward and volleying away Pless's repeatedly cross-court pass attempts. But late in the third set, it seemed to me that Baker moved away from this ploy, so that Pless's superior backcourt power forced a deciding tiebreak and then prevailed.

In my opinion Baker's wonderfully varied and balanced skills should produce a fine pro career. He is probably already close to the ATP top hundred in ability and should break into this realm in 2005. I very much like his compact strokes, but in learning to answer the extreme power of his future pro opponents, Brian will probably be forced to lengthen the backswing sometimes. Superstardom will depend on his continuing physical development and on gaining still more penetration in serving and stroking.

I also watched 18-year-old Daniel Yoo in his first ATP main-draw match. A lefty, Yoo is smallish--I'd say 5-6 and 130 pounds, though he's listed at 150. During the first point both he and his opponent, French star Mathieu, must have resolved not to make the first error. After what seemed five minutes of moonballs, Mathieu finally pushed one long. But after that the French player unleashed his heftier weaponry and inexorably drove through to his 6-2 6-2 triumph. Yoo, who was born in Korea and lives in Florida, showed fine speed and counterpunching ability, contesting many points very well. By coincidence, a similar match took place on the next court. (I sat in the top row between the courts and thus could watch both matches.) There, Taipei 19-year-old Y.T. Wang dueled against huge-serving Gilles Elseneer. Wang seemed a slightly more advanced version of Yoo, and took the first set convincingly before the more-powerful European untracked himself. Both Yoo and Wang were enjoyable to watch.

The only 20-year-old in the main draw was Colombian Alejandro Falla, who proved unable to display his strengths in the face of a demolition administered by Lleyton Hewitt. The field's three 21-year-olds were luckier in the draw. Dmitry Tursunov lives in the U.S. but lists Russia as his tennis nation. I watched him and his partner, Travis Parrott, defeat veterans Rick Leach and Brian Macphie. Tursonov seemed clearly the dominant player on court, showing excellent racket quickness and firm volleying ability. The pair would win two more matches before losing in the final round. In singles Tursunov lost in two tiebreakers to Swiss player Kratochvil, who throughout the week played at a much higher level than his ranking would suggest.

Rob Ginepri, also 21, has been in the world's top hundred for more than a year. I watched him in all three of his victories before he lost in the semis to Hewitt. At 6-0 and 170 pounds, he competes very well, displaying fine court mobility and sustained pace on serve, forehand, and two-handed backhand. On Monday night, he defeated Alex Corretja in three sets, though the Spanish veteran first put on a 30-minute display of backhand brilliance. Alex's sweeping one-hander has long seemed the epitome of backhand perfection, but I have never seen it generate the extreme power shown repeatedly during this run. Alex led 4-1 in the first set and nearly broke Robbie's serve a second time. But though he seemed disspirited, Ginepri was already the fresher, stronger player, and he went on to claim the victory. Wednesday brought another tough opponent in Harel Levy, who brought an attractive varied game, winning points with astonishing drop shots, attacking net--sometimes by surprise--and showing excellent use of spin. But once again, Ginepri's game was heavier than his opponent's, and late in the third set, Harel's penetration vanished when hitting against a stiffening wind. Softish second serves were Levy's downfall, as Ginepri moved inside baseline for the serve-return--especially with the wind behind. At the end Ginepri was pasting everything.

But the star of our 21-and-under group turned out to be tall Gilles Muller of Luxembourg. Muller had won the U.S. Open juniors and been runner-up in the Wimbledon juniors in 2001. Since then, he has travelled the world tennis circuits, playing in Challenger tournaments and in the qualifying rounds for ATP events. His credentials at higher level are few. (This year, he advanced through the qualifiers at Australian Open to reach the main draw, and in February he won two singles in Davis Cup play against Finland.)

Muller at 21 is now a well-developed athlete--a left-hander with a two-handed backhand, 6-5 tall and 165 pounds according to the official data (he looks heavier). On Friday night, I watched most of his three-set win over Kratochvil. Muller served consistently in the 120's, covered court well, and displayed good control of his heavy ground-strokes. I missed the finish, but it seemed to me that either he or Kratochvil might give Agassi a good fight on Saturday.

But Gilles's upset win over Agassi nevertheless came as a stunning surprise. Muller again showed good control of his heavy game, and many points were superbly fought by both men. Andre lost the first set rather abruptly in the tenth game, and then continued to struggle in set two. Still, the veteran warrior moved ahead, and served for the set at 5-4. But amid several breathtaking exchanges where Muller produced his very best shot-making and Andre fought back well, the younger player equalized the set at 5-5. After that, it became clear that the motivation advantage shifted to the younger player. The last two days had been laden with Washington's midsummer heat and humidity. (I was absolutely drained after three sets of social doubles Friday morning followed by my stint at the Legg Mason.) With a surely grueling final-round match with Hewitt the reward for the winner, Andre's resistance in the final two games was gone. It was Muller, 6-4 7-5. Afterwards Andre withdrew from the next-week's tournament on Long Island.

Muller lost to Hewitt in the CBS-televised final round on Sunday. But his consistent performance during the week, it seemed to me, verified that the young European was now close to the promise he showed three years before. He was strong mentally when in trouble and, as Agassi later noted to reporters, seemed able to produce his best tennis when things mattered most. His court mobility and superb physical stature, coupled with the strong lefty serve and excellent volleying and overhead ability, argue that his near future is bright. Is he the future superstar I sought? Perhaps, but first he must make his way through the qualifiers at U.S. Open.

I deemed the Legg Mason a successful event. Hewitt all week showed his magnificent court speed and tenacity, along with a very effective serve, and Agassi produced his usual charisma. Each of the aforementioned "21-and-unders" should be worth watching at the Open and in 2005. (A few days later on Long Island, Tursunov would defeat the rising Croatian Ancic, who is seeded at U.S. Open, and Ginepri would lose to Finland's Nieminen.) There had been several superb matches, including a fascinating qualifying-round match where Kratochvil defeated the excellent serve-and-volleyer Wes Moodie. Besides Hewitt's achievement and Muller's upset of Andre, the tournament's most distinguished performance was by French player Cyril Saulnier, 29, who won two matches and then carried Hewitt to a third-set tiebreaker. It seemed the tournament's best-played and best-contested match, where the main reason for Hewitt's triumph was probably the Australian's serving ability.

Thinking over how the pros now play the game, it seemed to me that today's players are quicker to attack in their shotmaking than several years ago--i.e., lengthy neutral exchanges are less frequent. All the higher pros are good movers and are power hitters from both sides. They can nail the down-the-line corners if allowed moderate preparation, and all are confident in delivering the short cross-court sizzler. Most are ready and willing to come to net when the opponent's shot is soft, though the net player's advantage is usually thin and requires good execution in volleying. In doubles, all pairs work for close net position--the rallying from back court seen, for example, in the women's doubles final at the Olympics was absent here.

U.S. OPEN PREVIEW -- TWELVE PRIMES

We offer here the twelve males whose chances seem best for winning U.S. Open 2004. Until four weeks ago the general outlook seemed clear. There were two outstanding favorites--(1) last year's winner Andy Roddick, whose recent victory at Indianapolis implied that he was ready to repeat his 2003 summer run, and (2) Roger Federer, the world's current Number One, winner of this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon. This year the two met in the final at Wimbledon, where Andy had been devastating for one set before fading, and also in the final at Canadian Open, where Roger again won.

The engagements between the two are becoming historical. Andy's assets include his matchless ability in delivering both first and second serves, along with a fine power ground game, both from back court and especially in delivering penetrating approach shots. Roger is the superior in serve-returning, variety, consistency, and court mobility.

In their recent July match-up in Toronto, Roger--as in their Wimbledon 2003 meeting--was able to consistently return Andy's big serves. Roger seldom attacked with his serve-return but instead floated the returns back--sometimes with good depth, sometimes shallow. Andy meanwhile was always ready for immediate attack off the ground, and often his big forehand produced prompt success. But Roger's quickness enabled him to reach many of Andy's rockets, often generating successful counter-attack. Only occasionally did Andy move to net directly behind serve to take away Roger's softish serve-return game. Thus although Andy remained the dominant player during his serving games, he lost one of them in each set, which was all Roger needed. Roger later pointed out that a turning point happened in the first set when he, Roger, recovered from love-40 with three consecutive aces. Federer, who won by score 7-5 6-4, at the end approached the brilliance shown at Wimbledon 2003.

Thus as of August 1, neither Federer nor Roddick had lost to an outsider since Garros. But then Federer lost to Hrbaty in the first round at Cincinnati, seemingly a victim of the last-week's-winner syndrome. Afterwards, Roger talked about his tiredness from Toronto and his problem in adjusting immediately to the faster playing conditions at Cincy. Meanwhile Andy--facing the same pitfalls--only narrowly survived his first-round encounter with Mirnyi. But once past Max, Andy gained strength in each match thereafter.

But the biggest story at Cincinnati became the resurgence of Andre Agassi. Andre seemed at his best in defeating Moya in their Friday quarter-final, in then upsetting Roddick in a magnificently played and very close semi-final on Saturday, and then in controlling Hewitt successfully to win the tournament on Sunday. In all three matches, Andre moved and drove the ball extremely well, seldom missing and producing some fine crowd-pleasing winners. Against Moya and to a lesser extent against Roddick, he came to net often and almost always successfully. But against Hewitt he played very conservatively, seemingly confident he could (1) run down Lleyton's heaviest artillery and then (2) outsteady the speedy Australian in extended exchanges. Most of Andre's shots landed many feet inside the lines, leaving most of the risk-taking to Hewitt. Because of the court speed and defensive abilties of both men, the spaces for hitting winners were extremely small, and Andre's conservatism prevailed by keeping his error count well below Lleyton's. We add both Agassi and Hewitt to our highest-elite group for the Open. Doing so is also supported by their performances at the Legg Mason, noted earlier, especially Hewitt's.

In naming the second echelon within our Big Twelve, we rely heavily on what happened at the Olympics. Of the 26 matches won this year prior to Athens by Nicolas Massu, all were on clay. Massu's Olympics run began with a creditable split-set win over Kuerten in the first round. Four consecutive wins followed, all in straight sets. Then television worldwide showed his final-round conquest of his own fatigue and cramping, and his eventual victory over Mardy Fish. Surely disoncerted by the Chilean's distress, Mardy somehow missed too many of his big shots. Massu showed a nice ability to function from very deep court in the fashion of many clay-courters, as well as--more often--in more-aggressive territory.

Joining Massu in our second echelon are German players Nicolas Kiefer and Tommy Haas, both of whom rekindled the promise of several years ago in their play of 2004 to date. Kiefer's W-L record on this summer's hard courts is 15-5, second in total wins to Roddick. Haas's is 9-3. We add to the group Carlos Moya--a top tenner in 2002 and 2003, who now ranks #4 in the ATP standings. Completing our list of nominees are Silver Medalist Fish, Bronze Medalist Gonzalez, Cyril Saulnier for his showing in Washington, and Marat Safin, whose vast talent must soon change his long run of disappointing results.

MEN'S DRAW AND THE PREDICTIONS

We here list the eight sections of the men's draw, shown in officially seeded order, along with my predictions.

--Federer, Pavel, Ljubicic, Santoro, Tursunov. Interesting opponents but no problem for the top seed. Federer.

--Agassi, Massu, Dent, Novak, Mathieu, Ginepri. Though Andre is sharp, the Chilean has plenty of momentum from Athens, Massu.

--Moya, Srichaphan, Hrbaty, Ancic, Malisse, Baker. Malisse has flair and usually does well early in the Open. But I'll stay with the favorite. Moya.

--Henman, Gaudio, Kiefer, Fish, Rusedski, Saulnier, Mirnyi. Many interesting match-ups here. Kiefer.

--Nalbandian, Grosjean, Chela, Bjorkman, Haas, Youzhny. A thin section and an ailing favorite gives Haas a good chance. Haas.

--Hewitt, Gonzalez, Kuerten, F. Lopez, Arazi, Philippoussis. Riding high in confidence, Hewitt.

--Ferrero, Schuettler, Spadea, J. Johansson, Melzer, Gambill.This is the weakest section. Johansson.

--Roddick, Safin, Robredo, Canas, Enqvist, Escude. A huge obstacle for Andy is Safin, who faces a tough road first. Roddick.

Lleyton Hewitt has the lifetime career edge on both Roddick and Federer. He prepared in North America, avoiding the Olympics, and has been playing at his fiery best. In the quarters I choose Federer over Massu, Moya over Kiefer, Hewitt over Haas, and Roddick over Johansson. Federer and Hewitt will advance in the semis, and in the final Hewitt will defeat Federer to win his second U.S. Open.

WOMEN'S SINGLES--THE TWELVE PRIMES

There are two top favorites to win the women's singles at U.S. Open 2004. One of them established herself during the summer on the hard courts in North America. The other emerged from the Olympics.

The main happening of the North American circuit was Lindsay Davenport's three tournament victories--at Stanford, Los Angeles, and in the newly elevated Tier One event outside San Diego, where Lindsay absolutely dominated Garros champion Myskina in a 6-1 6-1 final. Davenport, slender at 6-2 and age 28, showed the devastating serve and ground-stroke artillery that once carried her to the sport's top ranking, along with an improved court mobility. Her supremacy was remindful of her summer of 1998, when her run in California led to her U.S. Open crown. Two weeks later she played in the first-time women's event in Cincinnati, where she defeated Zvonareva in the final. Her summer record W-L thus came to 18-0.

Our other leading favorite for the Open is the new Olympic champion, Henin-Hardenne, whose triumph at Athens capped a year that had run from triumph to misery. As last year's pro champion, Justine began 2004 by winning the Australian Open and then the Masters Series event at Indian Wells. But during the spring she was seriously hit by a viral infection that attacked her immune system. Except for an unwise attempt to compete at Garros, she became inactive after mid-April.

Justine's returned to the tennis wars at Athens, where she won six straight matches to capture the Olympic Gold. The only set she lost was in the semis to Myskina. She beat Mauresmo in a straight-set final. Her achievement surely establishes her readiness to defend her U.S. Open championship and places her in our top echelon.

The second group within our Twelve is headed by the player who one year ago had won five of the preceding six Slams. But Serena Williams had knee surgery in summer 2003 and then remained outside the pro wars until spring 2004. She returned at Key Biscayne, which she won, and competed regularly thereafter, reaching the final round at Wimbledon. (She was victim of Maria Sharapova's wonderful run.) But she lost to Davenport at Los Angeles, then withdrew from the third round at San Diego with recurring knee trouble, and then withdrew from the Olympics. Still, Serena has shown her ability to win after long absence, so if the knee is finally right her chances at the Open are certainly very good.

Very dangerous will be Amelie Mauresmo, who won the Canadian Open early this month and was then runner-up at the Olympics. Amelie is now 24, presumably close to her peak. She was inactive early in the year with back trouble but since her return in April has reached the late rounds of all major events. She has yet to win a Slam but her chances seem best at U.S. Open, where she has been a quarter-finalist or better the last three years. We thus place Amelie in the second group with Serena.

Two Russian players compose our third echelon. Prima ballerina Myskina at 5-8 and 130 pounds is the current Garros champion. She also shows an 11-4 summer W-L record on the summer hard courts, including a very close loss to Henin at the Olympics. Her compatriot Zvonareva is still only 19 and has similarly athletic measurements, slightly shorter and stockier. Vera's summer hard-court record is 13-4, including a loss that was a near-win against Myskina in San Diego (Vera had nine match points) and a final-round loss to Davenport at Cincinnati.

Completing our Twelve is a six-player group beginning with Venus Williams, who has been recently hampered with wrist trouble and achieved no major wins this summer. The suspicion grows that Venus's big game has reached its zenith in the face of the rising newcomers. The group also includes Wimbledon champion Sharapova, who in limited summer competition shows losses to Myskina at San Diego, Zvonareva in Montreal, and American player Washington in the first round at Long Island. Russians Dementieva and Kuznetsova also belong in this group. Another familiar star placed here is Jennifer Capriati. Capriati lost to Serena at Wimbledon 6-1 6-1, and after that has been largely out of competition because of a damaged hamstring. Her return began with a first-round win at New Haven this week.

Completing our list is Australian player Alicia Molik, who upset Mauresmo at San Diego and defeated four opponents at the Olympics before Amelie took her revenge. At age 23, just under six feet and 160 pounds, Alicia may be a later developer than most champions. She shows an overall winning record in her five past U.S. Opens. Just missing our Twelve is another newcomer, Karolina Sprem, 19, from Croatia, whose height and weight are much like Myskina's and Zvonareva's. Sprem shows a win over Venus Williams at this year's Wimbledon and a nice 6-3 record on the summer hard courts. She took Mauresmo to a 6-4 third set at Montreal.

THE DRAW AND THE PREDICTIONS

--Henin-Hardenne, Petrova, Farina Elia, Likhovsteva, Kirilenko. A soft draw for the defending champion. Henin-H.

--Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Frazier, Pierce, Loit, Stevenson. Poor results since Wimbledon downgrade Maria's credentials.Kuznetsova.

--Myskina, Suarez, Smashnova-Pist., Daniilidou, Schett. Myskina.

--Davenport, Venus Williams, Rubin, Bovina, Washington. Lindsay's summer run repeats 1998. Davenport.

--Capriati, Sugiyama, Shaughnessy, Sprem, Dulko, Kostanic. Sprem.

--Serena Williams, Schnyder, Molik, Golovin, Hantuchova, Schaul. Molik.

--Dementieva, Zvonareva, Zuluaga, Dechy, Dokic, Safina. Stronger this summer than her countrywoman. Zvonareva.

--Mauresmo, Schiavone, Vento-Kabchi, Maleeva, Koukalova. Mauresmo.

To win in the quarters: Henin-H, Davenport, Molik, and Mauresmo. To win in the semis: Henin-H and Mauresmo. Wining the championship in a repeat of the final at Athens: the woman of the iron will, Henin-Hardenne.

THE TENNIS NATIONS

The tallies of matches won by nation again proved interesting. At Toronto, the nation winning the most men's matches was Sweden, when both Johanssons reached the final eight in singles and Bjorkman added wins as a doubles finalist. In Cincinnati, the top nation was U.S.A. behind Roddick and Agassi, narrowly ahead of Australia led by Hewitt in singles and Woodbridge in doubles and Spain. In Athens Chilean players won both the men's singles and doubles gold and also the most men's matches.

Among the women, the Russians won the most matches at both Tier Ones, at San Diego and Montreal, taking three of the final four singles berths in the latter event. At the Olympics the winning nation was France, which tallied eleven match wins, ten of them by Mauresmo and Pierce in singles and doubles. (Dechy-Testud added an important doubles win, knocking out the top Russian pair.) The U.S. women are likely to score highest at U.S. Open, led by Davenport, Capriati, and the Williamses in singles and Navratilova-Raymond in doubles. The Russian contingent is deep enough to outscore the Americans, however, and the outcome will probably depend on three or four head-to-head meetings across the groups. My guess is that the Americans will prevail.

Best wishes to all for a great 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.

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