Our calculated odds published here two weeks ago identified seven male
players whose chances for winning the tournament were better than 100-1. All seven
successfully advanced through the first two rounds, played over four days. Our
odds-on favorite, Roger Federer, was dazzling in defeating onetime nemesis
Fabrice Santoro. Andy Roddick was carried to four sets by Rusedski, and Lleyton
Hewitt for a time had his hands full against a James Blake seemingly at his
best. Advancing comfortably were our other favorites--Safin, Henman, Agassi, and
With two rounds of singles completed and one of doubles on Thursday evening,
more than half the tournament was over in terms of matches played. The male
contingents from Spain and Argentina were nearly keeping up with the U.S. group
in total singles and doubles matches won. The U.S. had attained 16 wins to
date, Argentina 14, Spain 13. But with an edge in the number of individuals
remaining (including Agassi, Roddick, and the Bryans) the U.S. seemed likely to
increase its lead.
Agassi ran into trouble in the third round on Friday. Taylor Dent had won the
tune-up event at Adelaide two weeks before, and had won his first two matches
at Melbourne behind his all-out net-attacking game. Against Andre, Dent only
narrowly lost sets one and two. The play was full of wonderful points
featuring Dent's volleying, remindful of Rafter's, and the passing shots of Agassi,
especially off the low backhand. But after Andre captured the second-set
tiebreak to take a two-set lead, the veteran ran out the third set 6-1 to win in
On Saturday night here, with the entire northeastern U.S. buried amid the
year's heaviest snow to date, it felt good to be warm indoors. As usual I watched
the late-night telecast from Melbourne on ESPN2, which began with the final
set of Federer vs. Baghdatis. The teen-aged underdog, already two sets down,
showed endless energy, a delightful court manner, and a series of devastating
forehands to reach six games all. Whereupon the defending champion, whose only
losing set at U.S. Open had been against the solidly built Cypriot, closed out
the tiebreaker nicely.
SUNDAY -- AGASSI d. J. JOHANSSON
The tournament's first match-up between two of our elites featured Joachim
Johansson, whose high score in our calculations reflected his win over Andy
Roddick in a U.S. Open shoot-out last September and his recent victory in the
tune-up tournament at Adelaide. In the Adelaide final he defeated Dent, who had
beaten Hewitt. At height 6-6 and age 22, the Swedish star has a devastating
serve, certainly among the game's best.
Joachim's opponent and the slight favorite according to our numbers was Andre
Agassi, age 34. Andre opened with his patented heavy game, easily winning the
first three games. But Joachim then found his big serve and enough of his
groundstroke artillery to reach six games all. The pattern continued in the
tiebreaker. Andre was unable return several serves, and two of the Swede's crushing
forehands found a corner to give Joaquim the first set.
In the second set whoever served won all 12 games prior to the tiebreaker.
Andre had begun receiving serve from slightly deeper than his custom, seemingly
to little effect. But during the tiebreak, the American veteran moved much
farther back, almost into the shadows. Joachim seemed distracted, twice
delivering softish second serves which Andre promptly punished. Match even--set all.
The effectiveness of Andre's serving was now improving, and the four-time
champion held serve comfortably throughout set three, Joachim's return percentage
badly failing. The youth continued to hold serve and his incredible ground
power remained, but now there were many errors. Andre easily won the third set
tiebreaker and broke early to lead in set four, which he soon won.
In losing, Joachim registered an amazing total of 51 aces, many of them on
second serves. But otherwise there had been only occasional stretches of
brilliance, when Johansson's potent forehand found the edges. His performance was
remindful of the early Ellsworth Vines, who eventually became the acknowledged
world's best behind a more controlled power game. If he practices seriously on
grass, Joachim could do very well at Wimbledon 05.
Seen here on next-day tape here was the fourth-rounder between Hewitt and
Nadal. There are many similarities between the two--both are energetic
competitors, able to find the edges of the court regularly with good power. Left-hander
Nadal's backhand seemed a mirror image of righty Lleyton's straight-elbowed
delivery. Hewitt is huskier in the chest, shoulders, and arms than a year ago,
but Nadal has the greater weight of shot, which he usually translates into
severe topspin. Hewitt's serve is better than the Spaniard's, and he had never
lost to Nadal. The result this day was a grueling five-setter, won by Hewitt.
MEN'S QUARTERS -- FEDERER d. AGASSI
At U.S. Open last summer, Andre had taken Roger to five sets in a
rain-and-wind-troubled showdown. Conditions were very different now inside Laver Arena,
with air temperature above 90 degrees. Many watchers thought that Andre was the
player most likely to upset the defending champion.
Andre started off hitting consistently harder and with greater finality than
is his custom. Roger handled the pressure well, calling on his superb court
movement to defuse Andre's attack. Several games in the first set were
prolonged, and many of the points furious. But it was Roger who fought off Andre with
many well-placed and deceptive aces and who early achieved the set's only
The pattern persisted in sets two and three. Roger occasionally slipped into
trouble when serving, but every time this happened Roger escaped behind
superior serve deliveries. It seemed that both men gradually began to accept the
pattern, Roger saving his best play for his serving games and Andre never able to
find right formula to break through in those games. The foremost difference
seemed Roger's serving--he scored 22 aces against Andre's 1. Andre seldom was
successful in anticipating the placement of Roger's serves.
Meanwhile Tim Henman lost to Russian player Davydenko thus becoming the only
member of our elite group to fall to an outsider during the tournament.
Reaching the semis were Federer, Roddick, Hewitt, and Safin, each the highest-ranked
player in his quarter of the draw according to both our calculations and the
official seeding. The most difficult road to the semis had been that of
Hewitt, who had survived five-setters against Nadal and Nalbandian and four-setters
against Blake and Chela.
SEMI -- SAFIN d. FEDERER
The tall Russian star came into the tournament an enigma. After a dismal
summer 2004, he won the fall indoor tournaments at Paris and Madrid, where nearly
all the top tenners appeared except Federer. In November Safin reached the
final four at Masters Cup, losing to Federer in a second-set tiebreaker,
point-score 20-18. But then at Hopman Cup in early January Safin lost three matches to
lower-ranked European players. Everyone acknowledged that Safin had the
physical tools to stand up to Federer, but given Marat's wobbly reputation for
mental strength and his several losses to Roger in 2004 it seemed likely that
Federer would again prevail.
There were no doubts as to the defensive skills of Roger Federer, including a
remarkable ability to counter an opponent's forcing pressure off the rising
ball. In defeating Agassi two dates earlier he had played a patient game,
turning up his own attack only as necessary to attain a single service break in
each set. Now, against Safin, it seemed that Roger was again relying on his
patient game, playing safely and waiting for Marat to err or offer up attack
opportunities. But Marat seemed to like Roger's biting backspin, which reinforced
Marat's own topspin in replying.
But by the fourth set with Roger leading two sets to one, Roger was clearly
trying to force matters on Marat's second-serve points. Marat blunted these
attacks very well, however, often answering with forcing replies of his own.
Entering the fourth-set tiebreaker, things still looked good for Roger, who had
won all five tiebreak games previously played between the two. Marat fell behind
in points 5-2, with Roger to serve the next two points. But Roger failed to
deliver a first serve and Marat seized both points. Soon afterwards, leading at
match point 6-5, Roger's first serve again failed. Despite two beautiful
drop-shot winners from deep, Roger went on to lose the vital tiebreak game.
There were many critical moments in the fifth set, amid some of the most
ferocious and competitive play I have seen. There were few neutral shots by either
player. Every blow had a purpose. Six times in the late going Marat held
match point, and six times Roger managed to survive. With no tiebreak in effect in
the fifth set, the end finally came in the sixteenth game with Roger sprawled
on all fours, still scrambling to retrieve a hopelessly out-of-reach
placement by Safin.
Marat's win was a narrow thing. Over the five sets Roger won more points than
Safin--201 vs. 194. Both men scored more winners than unforced errors. The
match statistics were closely divided in nearly every category except
double-faults, where Roger committed eight, probably reflecting Roger's respect for
Safin's serve-returning. Safin double-faulted only once. Mentally, Marat held up
very well. He raged against himself or his misfortunes occasionally, but there
was never a let-up in his concentration during play.
It had been a match for the ages.
SEMI -- HEWITT d. RODDICK
Like the Federer-Safin match-up, the Hewitt-Roddick semi repeated a November
Masters Cup semi in Houston. On that occasion, Lleyton had demolished Andy,
showing an ability to blunt the American's power ground-stroking by superior
court mobility, avoidance of error, and firm hitting.
Lleyton's prolonged duels during the past week probably contributed to his
early malaise, where Andy scored many aces and generally out-hit the Aussie in
all-court exchanges. But after Andy won the first set, things equalized. Andy's
won many short points in serving but these were roughly matched by Lleyton's
accuracy and power in longer rallies. Andy delivered 23 aces during the first
two sets, but none came in the second-set tiebreak, won by Lleyton to square
the match at one set all.
Lleyton continued to improve in getting back Andy's serves, while his timing
and anticipation further adjusted to Andy's strokes and to the indoor-like
conditions. Still, the momentum shift favoring Lleyton was narrow, as Andy showed
a good mix of patience and aggressiveness. But now sheer power seldom hurt
Lleyton, who responded to pressure with consistent hitting firm enough to
neutralize play. After losing the third-set tiebreaker, Andy took an off-court break
and was admonished for staying too long. Andy's effectiveness thereafter
Over the full match, Lleyton's total of unforced errors was just 21, though
Lleyton's play was by no means soft or unimaginative. Andy meanwhile committed
50. In winning the last two sets Lleyton equaled Andy in aces at eight apiece.
FINAL -- SAFIN d. HEWITT
Five inches shorter and with 30 pounds less weight behind his shot-making, it
was clear that Hewitt must find a way to blunt Safin's heavier power game. A
winning formula would harness Lleyton's court mobility, firm-enough hitting to
prevent attack by Marat, backboard-like consistency, and good
counter-punching to find the exposed opening at moments of pressure.
At first no formula was needed, as Safin was badly off form in all
departments. During the first set Marat committed 13 unforced errors against Hewitt's
one, and the host-nation hero captured the set in short time. Safin's control
improved to start set two, and he began stepping up the velocity and overspin in
his baseline hitting, though yet patiently. A blistering serve-return to a
corner gave Safin a service break in the fourth game. Soon afterwards Lleyton
made known his displeasure with the high bounces produced by the court surface.
Was he already starting to lose in the mental game? (Indeed, throughout the
match Safin served many high bouncers to Lleyton's backhand, to excellent
effect.) Marat served out the set, and was now playing at the level seen against
Lleyton's formula, sketched above, worked well in the early going of set
three. Safin, loser of the first three games and probably annoyed with Lleyton's
crowing, joined in the mental antics by taking a timeout for a thigh massage
and engaging in two long, Spanish-language discussions with the chair umpire
about crowd behavior. Lleyton's disposition can scarcely have improved at all
this. Soon afterwards Lleyton earned a code violation for berating a linesman
over a foot-fault call. Earlier, he had protested a chair overrule, and there
would be yet another foot-fault call later in the set. (Television showed that
all three rulings against Lleyton--the foot faults and the umpire overcall--had
been correct.) The winner in these mental games was Safin, who was again
performing at peak level and now broke Hewitt twice to claim the set. Of his 18 aces
during the full match, nine came in that intense third set.
Hewitt could not use Spanish with the umpire but he answered by obtaining a
thigh massage for himself, obviously seeking to break the momentum. But Marat
quickly broke Hewitt's serve to start set four. The break came with a
wonderful backhand shovel shot that left Hewitt at net frozen by Marat's lob feint.
Safin then closed out the match--not by playing passively but by even heavier
power hitting along with stepped-up net-approaching off Lleyton's serve returns.
In winning his second career Slam, Safin deserved superlatives matching those
awarded to Federer in 2004. The big game was assuredly there, along with
plenty of control and intelligence. His court mobility--especially after the thigh
massage--was astonishing for a player his size. His net play was extremely
good, in both touch and power volleying and in the overhead. Some of his stretch
volleys were as spectacular as I've ever seen. His first serve is crushing and
his second serve is amply forcing, while over the full tournament he
committed, astonishingly, only seven double-faults. Beating Hewitt in the mind game
requires no comment. Looking ahead to the rest of 2005, Safin must be regarded
co-equal with Federer.
The men's tournament provided wonderful match-ups among the prime favorites.
The idea that Federer might achieve the Grand Slam in 2005 has been replaced
by thoughts of intriguing battles ahead between Roger and Safin. The U.S. males
led in total match victories during the tournament, well ahead of
second-place Argentina, which scored well mainly in the early rounds of singles. The pair
Black-Ullyett won the men's doubles, defeating the Bryan brothers. The
failure of the clay-court artists to reach the late rounds seemed to show that the
Rebound Ace surface indeed played faster than in most past years, contrary to
Hewitt's railings about the high bounce. There appeared to be few if any cases
where high traction caused lower-extremity injuries.
I have not yet done the calculations measuring how well various predictor
tournaments correlated with the actual tournament outcomes. But it seems likely
that the Paris and Madrid indoor tournaments, both won by Safin in 2004, as
well as last year's AusOpen, will prove to have been better predictors of AusOpen
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
At the outset we identified nine female stars having plausible chances of
winning the open. There was no strong favorite. Serena Williams and Maria
Sharapova seemed most likely to win, at odds 4-1 and 6-1, respectively.
Serena looked very strong in her early matches, showing no sign of the muscle
injury incurred against Sharapova in November. Sharapova meanwhile was tested
by American Lindsay Lee-Waters, 27, who won their first set and played nearly
even in the third. Maria, who seemed to hit harder than I remembered from
2004, was forced to produce her best tennis. Also unexpectedly losing first sets
but surviving were Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo. After four days, the
Russian contingent held a strong early lead in the count of wins, ahead of
the U.S. women by 26 matches to 18. With nine players still alive in the singles
compared to just six Americans, it seemed likely that the Russians would stay
All nine of our elite stars succeeded in reaching the final sixteen. Two of
them (Myskina and Dementieva) lost their next match to lower-ranking European
players, and late Monday--in the first match-up between members of our prime
group--Alicia Molik faced Venus Williams for a place in the quarters.
MOLIK d. VENUS WILLIAMS
Venus's hard serving and hard hitting backed by superior court mobility
proved not quite enough to overcome her very solid opponent and her own shot-making
errors. I had not previously watched Molik closely. Alicia is 23 and a sturdy
six feet in height. Her shoulders are broad and high, her right arm hefty.
Her serve is modern-classic in form, potent in both velocity and placement. The
backhand is by far the weaker side, and on this day she appeared to over-use
her one-handed slice, which lacked bite. Her forehand is an aggressive weapon,
both potent and accurate.
With the crowd firmly supporting the Australian player, Venus did well to
stay in both sets, competing well but too often forfeiting the upper hand during
play by committing an unforced error. The close score of Alicia's victory, 7-5,
7-6 fairly well represented the narrow difference between the two players.
SHARAPOVA d. KUZNETSOVA
Second Tuesday brought the quarter-final showdown between Russian teenagers
Kuznetsova and Sharapova, champions of U.S. Open and Wimbledon 2004,
respectively. At first there seemed little margin between the two. Both showed excellent
court mobility and plenty of heavy artillery. Svetlana was the physically
stronger, it seemed, and she translated this advantage into extra-heavy topspoin
on most shots. Maria, four inches taller, matched her opponent's pace by using
longer backswing and flatter delivery. Her tallness helped in establishing
her serving superiority off a very high ball toss and a smooth, long swing,
finding the corners of the service box with regularity.
Svetlana won the first set and a service break early in the second. But Maria
stepped up her concentration and shot-making power, so that little by little
it was Svetlana whose deliveries, especially off the previously deadly
forehand, became the more erratic. Extreme mid-day heat bothered both players, and it
seemed that Maria was the more troubled. But the rockets from Maria kept
coming, and the Wimbledon champion at the end seemed clearly the superior in
claiming her triumph.
SERENA d. MAURESMO
Slugging it out with a Williams sister demands highest court mobility. But
with a wounded and taped thigh, Amelie Mauresmo was whollly outclassed by a
robust and determined Serena.
DAVENPORT d. MOLIK
Meanwhile Lindsay Davenport unlimbered her severe artillery, outlasting
Alicia Molik in an extended three-setter, with both players tested by severe
temperatures. Molik at first had trouble handling Lindsay's severe and flattish
power, but once Alicia achieved her consistency, every point and every game became
a severe test for both players. Clearly relishing the strong crowd support,
Alicia seemed the likely winner in the late stages, as the vulnerable backhand
slice seen against Venus had now acquired severity. In a finish marred by
several doubtful, indeed incorrect, line calls and overcalls, mostly against
Molik, Lindsay put forth her most powerful and consistent hitting of the day to
prevail, 9-7 in the third.
SERENA d. SHARAPOVA
This semi-final was the dream match-up of the tournament. Sharapova's path to
the semis had been strained, as she lost the first set in three of her five
wins to date. Perhaps influenced by these earlier opening-set troubles, Maria
began this day cautiously, reining in her instinct for all-out hitting. The
tactic seemed to work amid a horrible run of errors by Serena, enabling Maria to
capture the first set comfortably. But Serena then found her control, playing
patiently using controlled topspin and only occasionally going for the
corners with full power. With the potential rewards for Maria's high-risk habits
minimized by Serena's mobility and power, Maria's occasional errors became
magnified, and the confidence of the younger player weakened as her bids for
in-the-corner screamers missed with increasing frequently. On this day the humidity
was oppressively high, and both players seemed more depleted than would be
expected at temperatures below 90 degrees. Maria was unsuccessful in serving out
the second set at 5-4, and Serena then ran out two games to equalize at one
Perhaps it was the humidity, or perhaps it was disappointment after almost
winning the second set. After a short break, it was a lethargic Maria who
started the third set. Absent was Maria's characteristic grunting along with her
usual power and intensity. But Serena, strong and still patient, seemed unable to
exploit the moment. Only gradually Maria's grunting and power returned,
leading to some stupendously well played points by both players. Maria served for
the match ahead 5-4 in games, then again at 6-5. But with set-and-match points
in hand three times, Maria could not silence Serena's power forehand, which now
knew and was finding its targets. The end came with Maria serving at 6-7, and
Serena had survived the physical and mental ordeal.
Neither titan had played her best except in spells. On average, Serena's
first serves were 8 kph faster than Maria's, Maria's second serves 12 kph faster
than Serena's. Maria was at net 12 times, winning 5; Serena 32 times, winning
In the opposite semi-final, not seen here, Davenport struggled against
Nathalie Dechy, conqueror of Myskina, but Lindsay prevailed in another three-setter.
FINAL -- SERENA d. DAVENPORT
I don't believe I've seen Lindsay Davenport play better. For the first half
of her final-round meeting with Serena Williams, the taller American was
almost perfect. Her blistering forehands and backhands, delivered with little
seeming effort, found the angles and lines almost unfailingly. Her court movement,
typically aided by good anticipation, seemed never better. A back injury to
Serena required a long delay for treatment but scarcely changed the momentum of
The reversal came later, mid-way in set two. Abruptly, Lindsay's ground
strokes, many of them unforced, began to sail beyond the lines. Double faults
appeared, and Lindsay began reacting poorly to Serena's serving. First serves by
Serena not far outside Lindsay's strike zone were now allowed to become aces.
Serena, who now displayed her peak game, relentlessly ran out sets two and
three, finishing with a 6-0 third set.
What explained the change in Lindsay's performance? Was it chagrin at failing
to break Serena's serve after six break points, then losing her own serve a
few minutes later? Was it tiredness--Lindsay had played a full doubles
tournament along with the singles? Or was the change primarily a product of Serena's
raised game? Lindsay afterwards acknowledged that there was some validity to all
of these explanations--the mental, the physical, and the pressure from Serena.
Enormous credit is owed to Serena for her nerveless heavy hitting late in the
match, thereby preventing any bid by Lindsay to reverse her unraveling.
Certainly Serena's superb closing ability was never more evident. But Lindsay's
strange collapse made it an unsatisfying end to what had been a superb
The Russian women maintained but did not increase their early lead in match
wins over the Americans, who placed two players in the singles final.
Australia, with good depth in the women's doubles and mixed, was third.
Kuznetsova-Molik won the doubles and Aussie Stosur won the mixed as partner of countryman
The overall field had been strong despite the absence of the Belgians and
Capriati. Serena's triumph suggests that her long physical problems may be over
and that she can regain #1 ranking. With Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters seemingly
close to returning, with Molik clearly now a member of the top group, and
with the younger Russians probably still improving, the near-term prospects seem
delicious. It would be good once again to see the great Hingis, now just 24,
if only in doubles.
The quality and competitive intensity of women's tennis at the top levels are
breathtaking. The game advances every year by large increments.