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Between The Lines
January 30, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australian Open Review 2005

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Ray Bowers

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 Joachim Johansson.

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 straight sets.

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 service break.

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 vanished.

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 Federer.

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.

WRAP-UP

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 than usually.

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 ahead.

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 set all.

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 23.

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 Lindsay's excellence.

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 tournament.

WRAP-UP

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 Draper.

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.

--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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