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Between The Lines
August 9, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Legg Mason 2005 Critique

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

It was a good tournament for the big servers. The warmish balls moved through the hot Washington air with high velocity, and the surface was, as one player said, "fast enough to drive through." The strong servers made their way to net sometimes, but baseline play dominated in most matches. Temperatures were brutal for players and watchers through much of the week, so that it was good that much of the play was in the evening. Official temperatures hovered in the upper 90's, and a courtside thermometer showed 112 degrees. Attendance seemed to be excellent, affected only slightly by the late withdrawal of Andre Agassi. For the first time in years, there was no concurrent event at Indianapolis, Los Angeles, or the Olympics.

The American contingent claimed both singles finalists and also the doubles champions. But there was good success for European players too, who provided the most interesting protagonists early in the week, next to be discussed.

THE LUXEMBOURG LEFTY

Gilles Muller, 22, last year's Legg Mason runner-up, on Tuesday confronted the "next-week syndrome." Just 48 hours after facing Agassi in the final at Los Angeles, the tall lefty met--and defeated--stylish Italian player Sanguinetti on the Legg Mason grandstand court. Then on Wednesday Gilles faced Nicolas Massu, champion of the 2005 Olympics in Greece. Muller again showed his fine serve, often placed extremely well to the sidelines. Against Massu's strong back-court game, Muller's forehand held up well under pressure, and he often produced a deceptive and strong inside-out left-handed forehand to the righty's forehand side. His backhand two-hander seemed less secure under pressure, but when not forced he sometimes generated very good angles for winners. On this date, Massu was not the fiery, relentless hitter of Athens. Muller closed out the last eight points, completing his victory in two otherwise close sets.

Gilles Muller
Gilles Muller

By now Gilles had become a crowd favorite, reflecting his imperturbable on-court manner. Against Arnaud Clement on Thursday Gilles won the first set, and it seemed probable that his forcing ground strokes would continue to prevail. But in the late going Gilles several times failed to come forward after hurting Clement with rifle shots to the corners. Arnaud, who is a determined and speedy retriever, was able to extend these points seemingly lost. In abandoning his aggressive court movement at the end, Muller was probably feeling physical and mental tiredness from his busy schedule and the Washington heat. Clement won in three.

THE TALL CROATIAN

Ivo Karlovic
Ivo Karlovic

Ivo Karlovic is 6-10 and a highly athletic 215 pounds at age 26. I am certain that Karlovic's crushing serving against Ken Carlsen on Monday was the finest I've ever witnessed in person. Carlsen fought hard but was destroyed by Ivo's 32 aces. Then on Tuesday the big serving persisted not only by Karlovic but also by his opponent, Max Mirnyi. Both players followed serve forward at all times amid many short points. Max seemed the stronger volleyer, the better serve-returner, and the better hitter of passing shots. But it was the heavier serving of the much taller Croatian that prevailed, along with a knack for winning the points that counted most.

The combination of Karlovic and the continuing heat on Thursday was too much for Rusedski, who faded after losing the first-set tiebreaker. In the second set Ivo scarcely needed to place his first serve to a side but merely pounded it into court to assure an easy first volley off Greg's feeble returns.

But on Friday, the heat turned against Ivo, who had a good chance of upsetting Andy Roddick in the afternoon televised feature. Ivo won the first set in a tiebreak but Andy eventually prevailed when Ivo tired. I had played some senior doubles that morning, and after an hour had become badly weakened by the conditions. I could thus sympathize watching Ivo in the afternoon. Ivo's wonderful serving was again in evidence but, as a quiet-mannered Ivo acknowledged in the post-match interview, late in the second set when he lost his serve he felt "a little tired." The tiredness became obvious late in set three, when he again lost serve. That game began with two double-faults followed by a foot fault--the only one called during the match, Ivo noted. Ivo denied that his late-night doubles match Thursday evening contributed to his fatigue, but he later said that he will be playing only singles in Canada and Cincinnati.

Karlovic led all ATP players in first-serve winning percentage in 2004, and was third in total aces behind Roddick and J. Johansson, tops in aces per match. Roddick said that Ivo's serve is better than his own, and indeed, against Andy, Ivo scored 29 aces agasinst Andy's 19. He is also very strong in following serve to net, finishing points quickly.

THE CZECH TEEN-AGER

On Wednesday evening on an outside court, teen-aged Czech player Tomas Berdych faced veteran Aussie Wayne Arthurs. Berdych at 19 is an obvious rising talent, a heavy server and ground-stroker, listed at 6-4 and 196 pounds. Tomas penetrated the top hundred last year and ranked #36 in the running 12-month standings when Legg Mason started. He arrived here directly from clay events in Europe. Arthurs played against him intelligently, moving his spinning left-handed serves around the service box very well, especially effectively wide, and coming to net regularly when serving. When in back-court Wayne gave Berdych a varied diet of spins, pace, and placement. The teen-ager's winning points mainly came from his potent serving and from pressing Arthurs with heavy ground strokes to the sides. Berdych also showed some fine control off very short, low balls. The outcome remained uncertain--indeed Arthurs seemed the more comfortable in holding his service games--but at the end it was Berdych the winner in three sets. It looked as if Arthurs's three double-faults in the final service break stemmed from Wayne's concern to stay away from Berdych's serve-returning power zones.

Berdych rather similarly dispatched Grosjean, showing excellent power and control to the corners in winning a close first set. Grosjean broke serve early in set two, and thereafter the French player's game seemed to soften, probably because of the heat. The still-strong teen-ager closed out matters convincingly. Then on Friday, Tomas advanced by winning two tiebreak sets over American Bobby Reynolds. Reynolds, 23, is a nice competitor--excellent in his court mobility, able to drive consistently in extended points, and able to summon fairly good pace in his serving and stroking. Berdych again played with little variety, content to plaster his first serves and forehands and achieve consistency in his two-handed backhand hitting. There was one stretch where the Berdych backhand regularly found the net, especially against off-pace shots. But for most of the going the only question was whether Berdych could keep his superior power in court. Reynolds seldom threatened at net, and Berdych came forward only to finish off floaters or when invited by plop shots (soft, low, shortish returns firmer than drop shots).

Tomas 
Berdych
Tomas Berdych

Berdych is the player who defeated Federer in the 2004 Olympics. How high will he reach? He's presently close to Safin when Marat was a similar basher at 19. He seems to have good temperament on court except for a propensity to complain about calls. The outlook for his future dimmed only a little in losing Saturday's semi-final against James Blake--surely the moral winner of the tournament, to be discussed later.

DOUBLES FINAL FOUR

The doubles draw had been excellent. Eliminated in close matches prior to the semi-finals were the current Wimbledon doubles champions, Moodie and Huss, paired with different partners. Also out early were the likes of Grosjean, Karlovic, Berdych, and Hrbaty.

Our dream semi-finals were spoiled early, when Radek Stepanek--partner of Mark Knowles--withdrew because of back trouble. The veteran pair Black-Ullyett thus walked into the final round. In the other semi, the Bryan brothers overcame the strong pair Bhupathi-Damm in two tiebreak sets. Their Saturday evening gallery was primed for excitement, but in my opinion the match went mostly as if by rote. Serving games alternated with monotony, there being no break points during the first set. There were a few break opportunities in the second set, but again no breaks of serve. Not many points produced more than perhaps three quick racket-touches. But the Bryans played well enough to win, and Bob's lefty serve consistently reached the upper 130's when the points mattered most.

The Bryan Brothers
The Bryan Brothers

The above unhappy comments do not apply to the Sunday final. Although the score was not as close as the night before, there was far more action including many thrilling extended exchanges. The difference may have stemmed from the playing styles of the Bryans's successive opponents. Both Black-Ullyett and Bhupathi-Damm are aggressive doubles pairs, as is standard at the top levels. But the Zimbabweans are slightly less risky and less forceful in their hitting, while they are extremely quick during exchanges--good at keeping points alive. The effect was generally longer exchanges. Meanwhile the brothers played at their best, breaking the Ullyett serve early in both sets and holding thereafter without much worry. Their straight-set victory reversed the outcome of this year's Australian Open final.

The fans seemed happy with the doubles. Despite what seemed to me an uninteresting doubles semi-final on Saturday night, the stands were well occupied for the doubles final at noon on Sunday, three hours prior to the starting time for the Roddick-Blake singles final.

The Bryan Brothers -- 2005 Legg Mason Doubles Champions!
The Bryan Brothers -- 2005 Legg Mason Doubles Champions!

But the doubles stars themselves seem uniformly unhappy with the coming changes in ATP doubles rules late this year, where no-ad scoring will be used along with a tiebreaker at four-games all instead of at six-all. I have some sympathy for the scoring changes, which could make matches more exciting to watch. My disagreement is with the larger premise that it is important to lure singles stars into doubles. It seems to happen regularly that the closing days of a tournament are damaged because either (1) a singles player loses because he is tired from doubles or (2) a singles player withdraws from doubles because he wants to be fresh for his singles. In my opinion, the public should be offered the best possible singles, played by fresh players, and also the best of doubles, played by players willing to devote their training and outlook to that game. I like it that Navratilova, who can no longer compete at the highest level in singles, does so in doubles to the benefit of all. For the doubles stars to break away from ATP on the issue would be unfortunate.

WOMEN'S EVENT

Throughout the week a USTA pro circuit women's challenger tournament took place on the outside courts. I watched only snippets of play but happened to observe both women's semis on Saturday. The afternoon winner was slender Ashley Harkleroad, 20, who had been here with the Fed Cup team several years ago. Harkleroad showed excellent court movement, good ball control, and sound court sense. The evening winner was Russian player Olga Poutchkova, 17, who produced severe rocketry, especially off her two-handed backhand. The sum of her backswing and follow-through must exceed 360 degrees. Ashley defeated Olga in their late-Sunday final by comfortable scores.

Olga Poutchkova
Olga Poutchkova

Ashley Harkleroad Challenger Champion Ashley Harkleroad
Challenger Champion Ashley Harkleroad

It seemed to me that the women's tournament in no way hurt the men's, and it added an interesting dimension that can only grow if the event is repeated.

U.S. OPEN SERIES CRITIQUE

The Legg Mason was the third of six consecutive ATP tournaments in the U.S. Open Series. Some of the innovations associated with the Series seem to be working well. Television coverage has been expanded from past years, and the public has reacted well to the modicum of regular programming each weekend. The standardized dark-blue court surface makes the ball more visible for watchers of television and for those attending. (The light-green color outside the lines, however, contrasts very little with the white lines, scarcely helping accuracy in making line calls.) Results of the six tournaments are tallied in a point standing, in which no-one seemed very interested.

Has the Series helped strengthen entry lists? Very little, it would seem. At Indianapolis two weeks prior to Legg Mason, only one member of the top twenty competed (Roddick). Then at Los Angeles, there was only Agassi. Legg Mason was slightly better off, counting Roddick, Henman, and Stepanek of the top twenty, along with a good crop of others including a fine doubles field. Most of the top twenty will play at both Montreal and Cincinnati, as these are Masters Series events. The contrast in entry-field quality seems unfair to those fans who pay disproportionately higher prices for tickets to the earlier events.

TOURNAMENT SURPRISE: JAMES BLAKE

James Blake
James Blake

American players significantly contributed to the tournament's success. Paul Goldstine, who grew up here, roused the crowd in a three-set Stadium loss to Srichaphan, and Bobby Reynolds won three matches prior to his creditable loss to Berdych, noted above. Ginepri, recent winner at Indy, won twice before losing to hard-hitting Peruvian Horna. But the primary American players who took Agassi's role in filling the seats were Roddick, the Bryans, and the tournament surprise--James Blake.

Blake's highest world ranking came in May 2003 at #22. He was hurt in a practice accident in spring 2004 and during last summer fell seriously ill. He returned to competition this spring and just prior to Legg Mason had raised his world ranking to #101. His third-round opponent here was skilled Radek Stepanek, of Czech Republic, at 26 a year older than Blake.

It was a tense and artful match. Blake started out at his very best, outhitting Stepanek with few errors. The Czech player at first played a controlled game, seemingly content to move the ball around while extending the points, probably feeling that Blake could not inflict heavy damage without making excessive errors. But as this strategy simply played into Blake's superb power hitting, Radek began stepping up his own net-approaching, and his more aggressive play allowed him to win the second set, equalizing. But thereafter as the severe heat apparently ground down his stamina, the Czech player competed for net position less persistently. There were many stylish points by Stepanek, but most of them once again were from back court, where Radek proved unable to produce the passing shots when most needed.

2005 Legg Mason Singles Champion Andy Roddick
2005 Legg Mason Singles Champion Andy Roddick

Later in the week, Blake spoke of the Stepanek match as his toughest to date. By then he had also defeated Clement and then Berdych, in both cases convincingly. Berdych again showed his excellent power baseline game against Blake, but James replied with essentially equal baseline power along with better defense and better avoidance of error.

The final between Blake and Roddick, surely watched on ESPN2 by most Tennis Server readers, showed both men at their best. Blake verified his fine all-around ability, including mobility to the corners slightly superior to Roddick's. But otherwise it was Andy's better first-serving ability that made the outcome somehow seem inevitable. Roddick's victory following his weeklong display of stamina and power was impressive. Blake was justifiably admired for his courageous comeback to date.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick

For me it had been a fascinating if physically draining week. It was good to work beside Pablo Sanfrancisco, from Spain via William and Mary, whose wonderful photography enriches this account.

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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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