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Between The Lines
September 12, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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U.S. Open Review 2004

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Ray Bowers

At the outset it seemed to me that there were four prime candidates to win the Open. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were the acknowledged leaders in men's tennis, and in my opinion Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt had made clear in recent performances that they were ready to join the highest group. My own choice to win was Hewitt, who had won the Legg Mason here in Washington two weeks before.

FIRST FOUR ROUNDS

All four primes successfully advanced through the first four rounds at the Open, losing just two sets while winning 48 and encountering only a few serious hurdles along the way. Federer lost a set to teen-ager Marcos Baghdatis before closing out the talented Cypriot. Agassi was taken to four sets by German player Florian Mayer. Mayer, a 20-year-old German right-hander who is 6-5 tall, hurt or re-hurt his hip midway while lunging for a volley and later retired. Andre's other three wins were routine.

Meanwhile Lleyton Hewitt showed his court speed, shot-making skills, patience, and determination to register four straight-set wins. As has been the case all summer, Lleyton's serving ability provided a critical asset, especially against larger and stronger foes. In an interesting contest against Hicham Arazi, a critical bad call against Arazi late in their extended first-set tiebreaker marked the high point of Arazi's competiveness that day.

Likewise Andy Roddick seemed in firm control throughout, though lefty Rafael Nadal, 18, made many points interesting after losing the first set 6-0. Roddick's power serves and forehand seldom seemed more effective. Only twice in 12 sets did an opponent win four games. An opponent might answer with equal weight for a shot or two, but almost always the opponent's replies soon weakened. In trying to recall a past player whose sustained weight of shot matched Andy's, my mind turned to big-hitter Ellsworth Vines of the 1930's. But Elly lacked Andy's power physique and used little topspin, and some days lapsed into inconsistency. It seemed unlikely that even Federer could withstand Andy's weight of fire over five sets. But in these musings, I mistakenly gave no thought to Andy's next opponent.

THE QUARTERS

Two of our four protagonists met on Wednesday evening in the first of the men's quarter-finals. Roger Federer won the first set routinely, playing well within himself and accepting the many errors of Andre Agassi, who was not yet tuned to Roger's hitting style and pace. But upon the start of set two and lasting until almost the end of set three, Andre produced what was surely his highest level of play. With both men ordinarily in back court, and with both of them driving to the sidelines and corners at full pace, it was Andre who became the more aggressive hitter, whose artillery was the firmer, cleaner, better directed, and more consistent. Especially his serve-returning firmed. Roger's strokes were the familiar classic one-handers with ample backswing, while Andre's were his more-compact, more-punishing muscular deliveries. Neither man went to net often, but when Andre came forward he almost always was successful while for Roger things at net usually went uncharacteristically sour. Andre won the second set convincingly, and during most of set three defended his serving games comfortably while pressing Roger's. But at five-games-all, 30-all, Andre briefly faltered. Roger served out the set, and a few minutes later rainfall stopped play for the night with Roger ahead two sets to one.

Upon the resumption Thursday, high winds seriously bothered the players. It seemed that Andre's compact stroking should be less handicapped than Roger's more-fluid deliveries, and indeed this seemed to be the case, as Andre won the fourth set, equalizing. There were no service breaks in set five until game eight, when Andre served with the swirling wind mostly behind him. Though both players seemed now to be concentrating on keeping the ball in the court, at score thirty-all Andre twice lifted balls that were caught by the wind and carried long. Roger then comfortably served out the set and match.

In another quarter-final finished on Thursday, Tim Henman completed a four-set victory over Hrbaty. I did not watch this match, but Henman's success was not surprising given his usual more-dimensional game and the high winds which surely bothered Hrbaty's very high toss. Meanwhile in the third quarter-final, Lleyton Hewitt faced Tommy Haas. Lleyton's footwork served him well amid the gale, and his low, overspin shots seemed relatively unaffected. Both players were known to be volatile in temperament, but Hewitt's strong powers of concentration helped him manage, indeed seemingly to ignore, the difficult playing conditions. Hewitt won in straight sets.

Joachim Johannson, at 22 is the same age as Andy Roddick but at 6-6 is four inches taller. Joachim, who has been rising in the ATP rankings since 2002, won the indoor tournament at Memphis this year, defeating Kiefer and Fish, and he won three matches at Wimbledon before a close loss to Florian Mayer. His strengths, like Andy's, are his big serve and big forehand. A strong showing against Roddick seemed likely, but the outcome nevertheless came as a shock.

Many American readers probably watched at least part of their Thursday evening showdown. Joachim's serving matched Andy's--both served in the 130's often and occasionally higher. Joachim was credited with 30 aces, Andy with 34. Johansson's forehand carried the greater velocity, though his topspin was less severe than Andy's. Generally Andy was the more conservative hitter, producing fewer ground-stroke winners but also many fewer unforced errors. But somehow it was Joachim's rockets that found the lines when it was most important, for in losing the match Andy won a total of 152 points, while the victor, Joachim, won only 128. Further indicating that Joachim did best when things matters most, Andy won only 3 of his 15 break-point opportunities, Joachim won 3 of 5. The contest was conducted mainly from the baseline, though Joachim won 17 of 28 net approaches. (Andy approached net only 8 times, not at all in the tight fifth set.) Toward the end, Andy was out of sorts over perceived mistakes by officials, while Joachim steadily maintained his calm concentration. Both men faced break points late in the fifth set, and it was the defending champion who faltered.

MEN'S SEMIS

Lleyton Hewitt's superb court mobility, fine shot-making, unmatched resolve on court, and improved serve added up to yet another victory, this one over the tall Swede. Lleyton handled Joachim's magnificent serves about as well as Andy had, probably somewhat better toward the end. But once points were well under way, Lleyton's footwork and speed took away some of the effectiveness of Johansson's forehands. When he could, Hewitt mostly kept the ball to Joachim's backhand, by far the less dangerous side, extending the points meanwhile keeping down his own errors and occasionally producing attack opportunities.

The formula worked almost to perfection, producing the needed three breaks of serve, one in each set. Johansson led slightly in winners, but Hewitt had by far the fewer unforced errors, 14 vs. 37. Upon reaching four games all in the final set, Lleyton won the last two games at love. It was indeed an impressive performance.

Troubled by a bad back that necessitated a one-day delay in his first-round match, and having survived three five-setters and two four-setters enroute to the semis, Tim Henman seemed hardly at his best physically. Thus he never threatened Roger Federer, who played comfortably within himself to register a straight-set victory. Roger displayed his variety only occasionally, as his basic forehand and backhand skills, along with his fine court mobility, were all that were needed. Toward the end Roger was hitting out with abandon, if anything perhaps too freely in his soaring confidence.

Thus the Sunday afternoon final would match the Swiss genius Federer against the dauntless Aussie Hewitt, who had won all six of his matches in straight sets.

THE WOMEN'S EARLY ROUNDS

With both Serena Williams and Justine Henin-Hardenne back from extended absences, the long awaited showdown between the past Number Ones seemed a possibility. But my choice to win the tournament, Henin-Hardenne, seemed still weak from her long bout with a viral illness, losing a set to Israeli player Obziler in the second round. Two rounds later, Justine was outclassed in straight sets by an impressive Nadia Petrova. Meanwhile another prime candidate, Amelie Mauresmo, lost a set to Russian player Vakulenko but otherwise employed a varied and safe game to reach the quarters comfortably.

Two other pre-tournament favorites powered their way successfully, both notching four straight-set victories enroute to the quarters. Serena Williams was the more impressive, showing the superb serving seen in her past Slam triumphs. Lindsay Davenport had early trouble with the tall Russian player Bovina, who played evenly with Lindsay to reach a first-set tiebreaker. In the fourth round a few days later, Davenport defeated Venus Williams, generally allowing safe margins in her own stroking and pressing Venus to make the errors. Lindsay won both sets by a single break of serve, though in the very last game Venus reached break point five times, hitting out courageously. Over the full match Venus was undone by making twice the number of Lindsay's unforced errors, especially off the forehand.

The tally of match wins by nations unfolded in a remarkable way. In singles, the Russian and the American women alike won 11 matches in the first round, 8 matches in the second round, 4 matches in the third round, and 3 matches in the fourth round. In doubles the Americans scored higher in the first round, but the Russians caught up later. Thus the late rounds would decide the higher-scoring nation.

WOMEN'S QUARTERS

The singles quarter-finals began on Tuesday. Seemingly handicapped by her erratic and softish serve, Russian star Elena Dementieva, 22, neverthess found a way to defeat Amelie Mauresmo. (Elena produced 14 double-faults and endured seven service breaks.) In winning, Elena displayed superb court mobility, a screaming inside-out forehand, and excellent tactical sense in exploiting her fine ability at net. When Amelie stepped in to blast Elena's service sitters and follow them to net, again and again Elena would deftly move to intercept and reply with a rocket that passed Amelie not yet at best net position. Matters ended in a third-set tiebreak, where Amelie's frustration only worsened against a limping but determined opponent.

The second quarter-final on Tuesday was emotional though not well played. Favored Serena Williams moved ahead of Jennifer Capriati early, but during the second set errors by Serena began to proliferate. Jennifer's timing and consistency now improved amid her relatively safe shot selection. Serena continued to pound away with fury--her combined backswing and follow-through on the forehand usually exceeded 360 degrees--but she never obtained the equalizing service break. The third set was similar--Serena lost the opening game when the chair umpire made an mistaken overrule. But although Serena soon equalized, she again slipped behind and--as in set two--could not thereafter overcome Jennifer's firm stroking and defensive play. The final game, where Jennifer held serve to win the set 6-4, was marred by one or possibly more mistaken line calls against Serena. Overall, Serena led in winners 25-12, but she also committed 57 unforced errors against Jennifer's 29. But if her hitting was aggressive, her position play was not. By staying primarily in back court Serena allowed Jennifer to answer most of Serena's forcing ground shots with neutral replies--shots that, in my opinion, would have been dispatched by a Serena bolder in her net-approaching. As it was, Serena won 13 of her 17 points at net. Only Serena knows how much the umpiring disagreements hurt her concentration.

WOMEN'S SEMIS AND FINAL

Both women's semi-final matches pitted a veteran American against a younger Russian player. By winning both semis, the Russian women achieved--for the second consecutive year--the highest number of match wins at the Open.

Lindsay Davenport won the first set over Svetlana Kuznetsova routinely, Lindsay delivering her dazzling power almost unimpeded. But the 19-year-old Russian recovered well to capture the second set. Lindsay then left the court to tape an injury in the upper thigh area, and though the American broke serve early in the third set, the leg problem appeared to intensify. At the end Lindsay had trouble obtaining proper hitting position on reachable balls. Kuznetsova had played well, but it seemed probable that the injury had decided the outcome.

The other women's semi was even higher drama. For the first set, Dementieva played flawless modern tennis, nailing everything to the sides or corners, simply blasting Jennifer Capriati off the court. Elena won 25 of the 30 points played in the set. Elena's forehand and backhand ground strokes were--as was the case throughout the tournament--superb to watch, as she reached most balls early, delivered well-controlled shots, her head and shoulders steady on the backhand. Some of the Dementieva magic went away during the second set as errors began to creep in, and Jennifer's solid, largely defensive play--as against Serena--allowed her to equalize. The long third set unfolded slightly in Elena's favor. Jennifer tried hard but was generally unable to attack Elena's serves effectively. Once rallies ensued, the princess became the aggressor, while Jennifer was generally content to return conservatively, leaving large margins to the lines. One of their power rallies went to 49 shots. With both players still showing magnificent will to prevail but with both tiring, it was Jennifer who finally faltered at the finish of the very close tiebreaker.

In the final on Saturday evening, Svetlana Kuznetsova for one set absolutely dominated Elena Dementieva. The 19-year-old Muscovite had no trouble attacking Elena's softish serves, belting three serve-return outright winners in the opening game alone. In exchange after exchange, Elena found herself falling back deep behind baseline to defend against her opponent's forehand artillery. Svetlana sometimes missed but more often ended points with a heavy winner to a corner. Elena did better in the second set, though Svetlana remained the more aggressive and heavier hitter. Svetlana closed out well at the finish when it looked as if Elena might manage to equalize.

Early this year, we wondered which of the young Russian women would be the first to break out upwards. Now, three have them have captured Slams, and there are perhaps four or five others almost co-equal in ability and promise. Two Russians (Kuznetsova and Likhovsteva) reached the final of the women's doubles at the Open, and another (Zvonareva) won the mixed with American Bob Bryan. Their dominion is impressive but we cannot assume it will persist, as the Belgian superstars and surely Serena Williams are likely to regain their pre-injury greatnesses soon. Assuredly, we are amid a golden era in women's pro tennis, wherein the Russian surge is an important part. The next year or so should be fascinating.

FEDERER VS. HEWITT

Watchers of the Open had already seen several important matches where one player dominated for the first set but had trouble thereafter. But Roger Federer's perfection against Lleyton Hewitt during the first set of their men's final seemed different. In that set Roger lost only five points behind an endless stream of forcing shots to the sides, scarcely missing. His domination, which continued for the first two games of set two, was so complete that there seemed no chance of a reversal. But after deciding to change racquets Roger abruptly began to miss, allowing Lleyton to contend and eventually reach a set-ending tiebreaker. Amid the comeback Roger's hitting had become slightly tentative, and for a spell his first serve missed regularly. The large crowd sensed that a turnaround was at hand like those seen earlier in the week. But it was not to be. Roger stiffened in the tiebreaker, leading from the start and closing out well. Matters ended soon afterwards, Federer winning the third set at love behind the kind of workmanlike excellence he had shown throughout the tournament.

All honors go to Federer for his triumph. It was his third Slam victory of 2004, the fourth of his career. At age 23 he is not far behind the Slam-winning pace of Pete Sampras. Roger's perfection in all aspects of the game suggests that he will join the select group in tennis history who have won all four Slams at least once including Garros, an achievement that eluded Pete.

--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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