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Between The Lines
June 5, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Perspective: Garros 2005

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

For the majority of young men and women on the pro circuits, every match can be a critical culmination of weeks, months, indeed years of sacrifice and determination. There is often high-order personal drama in the most obscure qualifying or early-round match-up. But the glory of the would-be stars in these meetings is usually noted only by the immediate watchers and by the aficionados who scan the printed scores. Tennis writers are constrained by the patience of their readers to focus their accounts almost wholly on the headliners. It is thus with apologies to the many lesser warriors that we here compress the hundreds of matches that composed Garros 05, the thousands of points, onto a canvas mainly portraying the fortunes of the elites.

MEN'S SINGLES: FIRST SIX DAYS

In our pre-tournament calculations, it was clear that there were three foremost candidates to capture the men's singles. One, Federer, was the acknowledged current world champion. Another, Coria, had been the top clay artist over the past 15 months The third was the 18-year-old phenom Nadal, who like Federer had been nearly unbeatable so far in 2005. All three advanced to reach the final sixteen, though their success was scarcely automatic. Federer, for example, met good resistance from Spain's Nicolas Almagro, 19, but moved on in straight sets.

In his third-round action, Nadal faced highly regarded French star Richard Gasquet, also 18. Gasquet stayed nearly even for the first hour, showing wonderful mobility and powerful, accurate ground strokes including a superb backhand. But Nadal's relentless game--wonderful court mobility along with endless powerful and highly overspun groundstrokes--steadily increased in effect amid unusually warm conditions. Gasquet gradually wore down, as seen in Nadal's winning scores, 64 63 62.

Many of the other members of the top 16 in our calculations met trouble. Andre Agassi became a second-round victim of nerve pain in the hip and leg area, losing to qualifier Nieminen in five sets. Tim Henman lost in four to Peruvian Horna. On day four, the last American male, Andy Roddick, lost to Argentine player Jose Acasuso in an extended fifth set. Andy played well, mixing good patience with frequent net forays especially off his high-kicking serves, to win the first two sets. But Jose is no soft-baller, and his heavy forehand and, especially, backhand, eventually produced yet another Garros disappointment for the world's official #2. Acasuso, age 22 and a husky 6-2 tall, delivered seemingly endless down-the-line backhand winners. Jose led Andy in aces 20-13 and in other winners 64-35.

A brilliant match-up came on day six, Saturday, when Marat Safin, who was our #4, just outside the Big Three, defeated former tournament champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. The Spanish player's compact stroking produced excellent control and power, and allowed him to borrow Safin's pace in his replies, a phenomenon that promised to wear down the tall Russian on this very warm afternoon. Safin was slightly the heavier groundstroker, slightly the less skilled in his mobility. Ferrero won more points overall than did Safin, but Marat's serving advantage--he led in aces 15-1--largely explained the outcome.

In the tally of match wins by nation, Spain and Argentina were already well ahead of all others, as expected. Spain took the early lead by winning 11 matches in the first round of singles, against Argentina's 7. But the Argentines thereafter gained in both singles and doubles, and by Saturday evening, with three rounds of singles, two of doubles, and one of mixed nearly completed, the Spanish lead in matches won was only 24-23.

MEN'S LATER ROUNDS

The fourth round of the men's singles produced several five-setters. I watched the late-Monday battle between Marat Safin and Tommy Robredo. With Coria having lost earlier in the day, Marat was the last high-seeded player remaining in the lower half of the draw. Against Robredo, the tall Russian was generally the harder server, the more aggressive stroker, but Tommy too was often aggressive and delivered many stiletto-like forehand winners. From 6-all in the fifth set, Robredo played the final moments extremely well, and suddenly the champion of Australia 05--the only male still capable of a Grand Slam in 2005--was out of the tournament. Also exiting on this day was Gaston Gaudio, last year's Garros champion, victim of Spain's David Ferrer in five sets.

In quarter-final matches on Tuesday, both Federer and Nadal advanced with straight-set wins, though Nadal met good resistance from David Ferrer in the first set. The other quarter-finals, held on Wednesday, both produced five-setters including probably the tournament's best match to date--an engagement between two clay artists from Argentina, Mariano Puerta and Guillermo Canas.

With Canas leading in sets 2-1, Mariano became by far the more aggressive player, relentlessly hitting harder and routinely finding the sidelines and corners, almost never missing. Canas held up well under the pressure, showing excellent defensive play and also many ripostes, but the sustained bludgeoning by the stocky left-hander gradually took its toll as both players began to show tiredness. Puerta's physical superiority at the end was complete, comparable to Nadal's in finishing Ferrer. Next, Russian player Davydenko overcame Tommy Robredo in a match less sterling in its conduct but just as close on the scoreboard.

NADAL d. FEDERER, 63 46 64 63

Writer and talker Bud Collins compared it to a heavyweight championship fight. Stadium Chatrier was packed; some people had waited in line through the night. The match-up seemed of historic dimension. Federer and Nadal had played each other two months before, a five-setter in the final at Miami, won by Federer from two sets down. Now, though Federer remained the betting favorite and had been my choice to win the tournament, it seemed likely that playing on clay would help Nadal.

The day was damp, cool, and windy, conditions scarcely favorable for Federer's attacking style. Roger started poorly, losing the first game on his own serve and eventually the first set amid far too many errors. Roger's success rate when at net was dismal. A rain-shower intervened just after the first set, promising even slower conditions to come--yet worse for Roger. But upon resumption it was Roger who seemed to have the upper hand, whose game was the more forcing. Gradually Roger stepped up his serving, increasingly drawing serve returns from Rafael that were attackable. Regularly, Roger stepped inside the baseline to paste Rafael's serve-return offering to the far corner, then moving forward to net. Still, so fast was Rafael afoot and so deadly Rafael's own counter-punching that for Roger winning points was seldom easy. All three shots in his favorite sequence had to be almost perfect and delivered with punch--the serve, the approach, and the winner. Roger thus claimed the second set, equalizing.

Many points of course followed other patterns. There were countless neutral exchanges, and Roger himself was occasionally on the defensive. But the success of his selective attacking made it seem likely that Roger would now pull ahead. Still, every rocket to the corner and every sortie forward was a high-risk venture in the face of Rafael's strengths. At four-games-all in the third set Rafael raised his pace and overspin in stroking, and he finally took the set with a fine swinging volley in forecourt. For the match so far, Federer had won 31 of 49 points at net, Nadal 9 of 16. Very significant had been Federer's rising total of errors, especially off the forehand, and his declining first-serve percentage--down to 33% for the third set.

Roger captured the early service break in set four to lead at score 3-1, as fading light made it clear there would be no fifth set this day. Most points were yet well-contested, and most games were drawn-out. But Roger would not win another game amid the wind and growing darkness. The unraveling began in game six, Roger serving, when the Swiss star missed two set-up forehands from inside baseline. Roger's distemper with the conditions and his own mistakes now grew. A final critical moment came with Roger serving at 30-all to reach four games all. It seemed to be Roger's favorite sequence--a serve-return by Rafael landing short, and the far corner lying open. But Roger's sizzler overshot the line by a fraction. Now, at break point, one of Rafael's heavy-overspin mortars landed on the baseline. Roger was slow in preparing for the difficult bounce, and produced another "unforced error." Rafael now needed only to hold serve, and he produced three outright winners to the corners in doing so.

Perhaps the future will bring even greater matches between these two. A full five-setter will some day perhaps overshadow this one. The immediate meaning was that Nadal would now face Mariano Puerta in the final. For the sixth straight year, the French Open champion would be from Spain or South America. The final round of singles would also decide which nation's males, Spain's or Argentina's, would score the most match-wins at the tournament.

MEN'S FINAL: NADAL d. PUERTA, 67 63 61 75

Puerta won his place in the tournament final by defeating Davydenko in Mariano's second straight five-setter. Already, the world had seen Mariano's strengths in extended offensive play--his ability to pound the corners without relent with power forehands and superb, one-handed backhands. Meanwhile, we had seen glimpses of Nadal's defensive ability, though the teen-ager's spin-laden forcing game had been the more obvious strength. But in this remarkable final, Rafael's defensive talent would be seriously tested by the persistent and heavy-hitting Argentine star, especially in the critical moments.

Rafael moved ahead early, and when Mariano called for the trainer to bandage a thigh, it looked as if matters might soon end. But then Rafael played tentatively, perhaps expecting Mariano's injury to do Rafael's work, and the game score became equalized at 3-3. The ferocity of the play steadily rose. For extended times Rafael became the pure retriever, lengthening points from positions of deep disadvantage, sometimes winning them. (For the full first set Mariano won 12 of 20 points at net, a surprising statistic for a clay artist.) In the tiebreaker ending the first set, Mariano further raised the violence of his serving and stroking to his full ability, claiming the set.

The pattern was less pronounced thereafter. When Mariano was well behind baseline, Rafael often delivered superb drop shots, many of them reaching their second bounce well inside service line. (Mariano's drop shots were less accurate, and Rafael faster in running them down.) Most points were furiously contested, but Nadal won well over half of them to claim sets two and three. For his third straight match, Mariano found himself down two sets to one.

But Mariano made a superb try at again recovering, unlimbering the unreserved hitting pattern he showed late in the first set. It looked as if his amazing consistency in delivering his rockets to the corners might succeed. Each man brought out the best in the other--Puerta by forcing Nadal to his defensive game, Nadal by extending points, forcing Puerta to continue his offense. In the tenth game, three times Puerta held set point, with both players performing magnificently, the gallery ecstatic. Perhaps it was as much mental weariness as physical, but Puerta lost all three golden chances--once on a diving volley that almost, but not quite dropped over the net. With the crowd now in frenzy after every point, the teen-aged toro closed out the fourth and final set 75.

THE TALLY OF THE NATIONS

Prior to the Sunday singles final, Spain's males led Argentina's by just one-half match in the count of match-wins. Nadal's victory completed the final tally:

Spain, 30.0 (singles 29, doubles 1, mixed 0)
Argentina, 28.5 (singles 23, doubles 5.5, mixed 0
France 18.0 (singles 10, doubles 4.0, mixed 4.0)
Russia 14.5 (singles 12, doubles 2.5, mixed 0)
Czech Republic 14.0 (singles 7, doubles 6.5, mixed 0.5)

WOMEN'S SINGLES: THE BIG SIX

The men's tournament had been magnificent, among the best in recent years. The weather had been largely unproblematic, the level of play and competitiveness never better, in my opinion.

It originally seemed that there were six superstars having realistic chances of capturing the women's singles. The two Belgians, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, seemed slightly ahead of all others, Sharapova and Mauresmo came next, and the Americans Davenport and Venus Williams completed the group. Of this group, only one would reach the semi-finals, and that player--Justine Henin-Hardenne--would then go on to win the tournament, convincingly.

The first to depart would be an error-prone Venus Williams, who lost on first Friday to 15-year-old Sisal Karatancheva, last year's French Open junior champion. Next would be Amelie Mauresmo, who lost to Ana Ivanovic of former Yugoslavia, six feet tall at age 17, in a Saturday three-setter. Round four offered a dream match-up of top-seeded Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters. Lindsay lost the first set dismally but then unleashed her superior hitting power to dominate thereafter. Against Mary Pierce in the next round, Lindsay never found her zone against a heavy-hitting Mary, who was assuredly within hers.

Meanwhile despite endless trouble with her first serve, Henin managed to survive a long match against Kuznetsova. With Kuznetsova ahead 5-3 in the third set, both players began playing more cautiously than before. It was the right medicine for the woman of the steel will, a bad time for the disappointed Kuznetsova. It was poignant to note that Sventlana, who held two match points before losing to Henin, one year ago held a match point before losing to eventual champion Myskina.

The other survivor of our original Six was Sharapova, who persisted in her high-risk attacking game to overwhelm four opponents with loss of only one set. Sharapova and Henin would meet in the quarter-final match that, it was later clear, would decide the tournament.

QUARTER-FINAL: HENIN d. SHARAPOVA, 64 62

The quality of the tennis was outstanding from the start. Sharapova's strong serving and stroking seemed at their best. Maria hammered persistently, driving for the lines to open up or end matters quickly. Henin was more selective in her aggressiveness, but there were lightning bolts in her arsenal as well. Clearly the Belgian star at 5-6 was the more comfortable on the slippery dirt, while the tall Russian teenager sometimes errored when forced wide on the run. Henin's edge was narrow in winning set one, but the margin widened after that as Maria's errors became more frequent. Justine was able sometimes to attack Maria's second serve.

WOMEN'S FINAL--HENIN d. PIERCE, 61 61

Mary, now 30, was nearly six inches the taller and was certainly the heavier stroker. Justine was the superior mover and was known to play well against big hitters, having been brilliant in defeating Sharapova a few days earlier.

But it was no contest. After Mary held serve to open the match, Justine captured the next three games at love. After that, although now and again it seemed that Mary might reverse the growing disaster, every time this happened, Mary's rockets--which had found the lines consistently in her victory over Davenport--resumed sailing outside, usually missing only by small amounts. Perhaps it was Mary's knowledge of Justine's superb athleticism and how it could deny opponent's winners that led to her inadequate margins for error.

If the final had been disappointing, the tournament produced its usual quota of quality tennis and high drama. The Russian women, as expected, one-sidedly won the tally of match victories. (Russia also won in the combined total of men's and women's wins.) Henin's comeback from illness and injury now seemed complete, while teenagers like Ivanovic, Karatantcheva, and of course Sharapova promised that the infusion of new blood into the game would accelerate. That tennis was now the world's foremost women's sport seemed beyond question.

--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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