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Between The Lines
September 12, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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U.S. Open 2005 Commentary

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Ray Bowers

Interesting throughout the Open was how players balanced offensive and defensive modes in their tactics. On the fast, hard courts at Flushing Meadows, the advantage generally rested with the attacking player. Accepting a defensive role by retreating deep behind baseline sometimes produced crowd-pleasing retrieving, but given the speed of the bounces such tactics were usually a losing proposition. Moreover, the energy expended in running down opponent's rockets often made for player fatigue later on.

All Slams are wonderful and this one was assuredly so. Rain was hardly a factor. High temperatures, humidity, and winds bothered the first week, sometimes all three at once, but never critically. The big matches of the second week were played in excellent conditions, with just enough breeze to make this a true outdoor event. A keynote became the resurgence of players recently troubled by serious injuries and players who were nearing the ends of their careers. Inspirational were the returns to championship form of James Blake and Mary Pierce, along with the performance of Andre Agassi at age 35. A new face at high rank was Robby Ginepri, 22. Another was Richard Gasquet, barely 19. Richard carried Robby to five sets in their fourth-round meeting. Newcomer Nicole Vaidisova, just 16, lost closely in the fourth round in the women's. There were an unusually large number of very close matches on the men's side. Of the 31 matches of the last four rounds, 13 were five-setters and 11 were four-setters.

Everyone's pre-tournament analysis made Roger Federer the clear favorite to win the men's singles. Our calculations identified four other superstars having plausible chances of dethroning him, at odds ranging from 6-1 to 12-1 (Nadal, Hewitt, Agassi, and Roddick). Roger's odds for winning the tournament were 3-2. Our review here focuses on what befell these five elites, two of whom indeed succeeded in reaching the final.

MULLER d. RODDICK, 76 76 76

The earliest departure of a prime candidate came on Tuesday evening, when the 2003 champion, Andy Roddick, lost to unseeded Gilles Muller in three tiebreak sets. The outcome was more the product of the Muller's brilliance rather than sub-par performance by Andy. Gilles showed the basic pro tennis inventory of mobility and shot-making skills. In addition, at 6-5 he has good height to go with his left-handed serve, which he places very well, is difficult to predict, and produces many short points. He is extremely comfortable delivering his inside-out lefty forehand, disguising it well in driving it to opponent's forehand sideline. Andy, who was having trouble with his backhand and seemed to be favoring its defense, often failed to react well to Gilles's specialty. Muller, at 22, is extremely composed on court, and against Andy was able to produce his best attacking shots when the points were most important.

Andy failed to exploit several set-point opportunities to win the second-set tiebreaker. The third set was tense, Andy desperately trying to get ahead and avoid another tiebreaker. When this failed, Gilles shut out Andy in the tiebreaker to finish convincingly. (In his next match Gilles disappointingly failed to summon the same level of performance.)

BLAKE d. NADAL, 64 46 63 61

Against Agassi last month in Canada, Rafael Nadal had seemed willing, indeed wishful, to play on the defensive, often moving voluntarily to retrieving position well behind baseline. Rafael's defense-mindedness was not fatal against Andre in that best-of-three-set match, though Nadal was showing tiredness in the late going from chasing down so many wide balls from Andre. Rafael's third-round match against James Blake at the Open was strongly remindful of his match against Agassi in Montreal--except that at the Open it was best-of-five sets.

There was a telling instant late in the match, when Nadal received a Blake second serve from his usual deep-court position. The softish serve seemed to invite attack, but instead Nadal replied with a passive return and an immediate retreat to deep court. That decision epitomized Rafael's deep-court preferences, an inclination that was inherently unsound on the fast courts at Flushing. Rafael became the second of our elites to depart--utterly defeated at the finish in his tiredness and frustration, his usual displays of bravado now absent.

AGASSI d. BLAKE, 36 36 63 63 76

Andre Agassi had clawed his way to the quarter-finals, winning three tiebreak sets from big-serving Ivo Karlovic and fighting off teenaged Czech star Berdych after losing the first set. Then on Labor Day, Andre seeemed beaten when Xavier Malisse found his top game to reach a fifth set. But Agassi managed to hang on as Xavier's ripping backhand began to misfire.

In the several weeks before the Open, James Blake attained the final round here in Washington, then lost closely to Federer in Cincinnati, and won the tune-up tournament in New Haven. Following his sterling third-round win over Nadal at Flushing, he next produced a fine Labor Day victory over Tommy Robredo. James floundered early, falling behind by a set and a service break against the speedy and firm-hitting Spaniard. But supported by the screaming crowd, Blake slowly forced his victory. James appeared at his career best in power, athleticism, and stamina.

It was past 1 A.M. Agassi and Blake had battled for three hours, every point a small war, little time wasted between points. Starting the fifth-set tiebreak, the scores were symmetrical--36 36 63 63 66, Blake having won the first two sets, Andre the next two, James leading most of the way in the fifth set until broken in game 12. Early on, James had been the harder hitter and the more athletic, occasionally showing amazing retrieving ability in deep court behind his excellent agility and speed of foot. But with James's heavy investment of energy gradually came a gradual reduction in James's ground-stroke power, so that late in the match James's rockets seemed no more potent than Andre's.

The roar of the crowd was now unrelenting between points. Early in the fifth-set tiebreaker, most of the points were decided by an error, typically a narrow miss when trying to force play. James won an early service mini-break, but when the score reached match point at 6-5, it was Andre ahead, with Andre serving, one point from victory. James survived that crisis by producing a courageous forehand winner. But at six points all, Andre delivered a fine backhand pass and then a scorching serve-return winner.

It could hardly have been closer. Blake deservedly received acclaim for his superb summer performance, the more so because of his disabling physical problems in 2004. Could James be approaching superstardom?

AGASSI v. GINEPRI, 64 57 63 46 63

It had also been a fine summer for Robby Ginepri, including a tournament triumph at Indianapolis and five match-wins at the Open, the last three going the full five-set distance. Apparently explaining his improvement had been a more patient style of play--seeking the outright winner less often, keeping the pressure on by moving the opponent side-to-side, using controlled pace in his stroking. It was a style very much like Andre's.

The first set was Agassi's, both men playing with controlled firmness. In the second set Andre softened his game a bit, tiring Robby and tempting him into errors. It seemed to be working, but toward set's end Robby improved in the accuracy of his forcing shots, pressing Andre in his service games, and breaking through to equalize at set-all.

The pattern was similar in set three. Robby's accuracy was still good, especially on forcing-shot attempts, and Robby's serve seemed to gain strength. But Andre's patient pressure became more relentless, while Robby's--perhaps influenced by growing tiredness--faded enough to allow Andre two close service breaks. Many of Robby's misses came after long exchanges when forced to stretch or when faced with a change of spin.

Andre stayed with his patient game in set four. Ginepri stepped up his serving pace and accuracy, and raised his aggressiveness when Andre was serving. The only service break came in game seven, when Robby twice won points by coming to net, varying his customary pattern.

The gloves were off in set five, neither man now concerned to conserve energy. For a while it seemed that it would be Andre whose strength would falter. Ahead forty-love, serving in game six, Robby delivered an apparent game-ending drop shot. Uncharacteristically, even though the point seemed meaningless, Agassi sprinted from baseline, arriving in time to make a winner. With the score now 40-15, two extended rallies followed, both men ripping shots corner to corner, both points won by Andre. The veteran completed his deciding service break a few moments later. Andre closed out the match with his firmest serving and stroking of the day.

FEDERER v. HEWITT, 63 76 46 63

The defending champion in workmanlike way moved ahead by a set and a break, and he now led 30-love on his own serve. Lleyton Hewitt had battled well in many points and games, having played more aggressively than usual, hitting harder and coming forward fairly often. Despite falling behind, Lleyton persisted in his energetic play, and now matters turned in his favor. Outhitting Roger consistently with sweeping forehands, Lleyton recovered to break Roger's serve. He then went on to reach set point five times in that second set. But Roger somehow managed to hold off the surge, mixing cautious tactics with instant aggression, fighting off all five set points sometimes with spectacular play. In the tiebreaker that followed, Roger played flawless tennis to win the first seven points.

Down by two sets despite his surge and stung by the one-sidedness of the tiebreaker, Lleyton should have faded. But the Australian fighter continued his high level of aggressive play. He won the third set to extend matters but, probably troubled by many foot-fault calls, surrendered the critical break midway in set four. For Roger, who displayed his breathtaking brilliance only sporadically, it was an uncomfortable victory.

FINAL: FEDERER d. AGASSI, 63 26 76 61

Is there a Tennis Server reader who did not watch the superb final between Agassi and Federer?

It was a worthy culmination of all that had gone before. For the most part it was Andre who held the initiative, outhitting Roger and moving him side-to-side along the baseline, all amid nearly error-free tennis. Roger made few mistakes in winning the first set, but errors from his usually wonderful backhand began to undermine his comfort thereafter. Andre pushed ahead to win the second set and take the lead in set three, supported by the huge and energetic crowd. Roger looked unconfident and perhaps a little tired, but the champion summoned his best when needed the most, delivering four consecutive strikes to win back the third-set service break.

The Federer first serve, which had been sometimes hammered by the Agassi forehand, now increased in velocity and began going regularly to Andre's backhand, with immediate effect. Andre started the tiebreaker with a spectacular drop-shot winner, but Roger thereafter took command. At the end Andre showed no outward signs of fatigue, but Roger's severe turning of the tide betrayed that Andre's tank was drying. That precise muscle control was weakening would not have been surprising, as Andre, age 35, had played three consecutive five-setters prior to facing Roger.

Plaudits for Roger in winning his sixth Slam were universal, though his consummate command of the game seen in past Slam triumphs had not been on display. His match with Andre, like the one against Hewitt, had been a dogfight, demanding of Roger cool judgment under fire in employing his ultimate reserves. When needed, Roger's forceful first serve and his superb power forehand, loaded with disguised topspin, were both there. It had been magnificent. That third set had been one for the century.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Our pre-match analysis identified six women having plausible and nearly equal chances of winning the championship--Americans Davenport and the Williams sisters, Russian-born Sharapova, and Belgian stars Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne. Only one of them would actually reach the final round, where she would face a surprise intruder into the elite group.

VENUS WILLIAMS d. SERENA, 76 62

It was middle-Sunday before record attendance, the tournament's first match-up pitting two of our elites. Both knew well the other's strengths--above all that it was suicide to deliver a softish ball of any kind. Attacking shots to the corners had to be point-ending, as both players could rip severe angles from wide on the run. Both returned serve from close-in, thus producing many short points. The result was a colorless match of power against power, with few subleties. The crowd, which had been noisy and enthusiastic during many earlier matches, was mostly quiet.

Venus won the first set in a close and ragged tiebreaker, when toward the end Serena began to show signs of tiredness. At five-points-all in the tiebreak game, surely a critical moment, an out-of-position Serena made no effort to close the opening to head off Venus's bid for a winner.

Serena's remaining energy faded rapidly during the second set, and in the match's final moments she seemed a broken-down phantom of her past greatness. Venus played with good power, safety, and intelligence.

PIERCE d. HENIN-HARDENNE, 63 64

Mary Pierce, now 30, had never beaten Justine, and had lost one-sidedly in their final-round meeting at Garros 05. But on this Labor Day evening, Mary started out, as she said, "on fire"--her rockets consistently landing just inside the court boundaries, even her mis-hits dropping on the lines. Behind five games to none, Justine fought back, but her serving betrayed her badly. Worried by Mary's punishing serve returns, Justine delivered seemingly endless double-faults, her first serves often out by several feet. Mary's serving, in contrast, was superb, providing her foremost weapon in the late going. Justine hit many fine shots and her energy seemed strong to the end, but there were too many uncharacteristic errors. I wondered whether Justine with her topspin backhand was thrown off by the overhead lights, which illuminate primarily the upper half of the ball. The television talkers noted that Justine had lost several important night matches in the past.

CLIJSTERS d. VENUS, 46 75 61

Venus was regal in her purple tennis dress, the color wonderfully suited to Venus's complexion. For the first hour Venus's tennis was also regal. Her excellent power in serving and stroking, her dazzling mobility especially to the corners, were clearly superior to Kim's excellent weaponry and movement. From the start Kim looked tight, Venus relaxed and confident.

Venus won the first set and led by an early service break in the second, serving at 30-love. It seemed a mis-match. But Kim now began to equalize the breathtaking exchanges of rocketry. After one very long point, Venus for the first time looked winded. Clijsters persisted in her steady and firm play to reach tiebreaker and prevail therein, equalizing at set-all.

It now remained for Kim primarily to keep Venus in back court, meanwhile avoiding errors of her own. Venus's serves now were much reduced in velocity, her errors now frequent. She summoned her last reserves, but her exhausted muscles could not perform their required tasks. The end was not long in coming.

DEMENTIEVA d. DAVENPORT, 61 36 76

Elena had been the tournament runner-up in 2004, but her current journey to the quarter-finals attracted little attention. She had only narrowly defeated Russian teen-ager Chakvetadze in a tight third-set tiebreaker. Late last year she had lost to Davenport 60 61.

Lindsay was out of sorts from the start. Her own rocket ground strokes to the corners were coming back with equal if not greater steam. Elena, tall and slender at 5-11 and 23, was ballerina-like in moving to recover court position and find stance for her next shot. Her serve-returning consistently showed her quickness and power--i.e., there were few aces by Lindsay, few serve-return errors by Elena, and many forcing returns by Elena including occasional winners.

Elena's well-known serving weakness became more evident as the match moved toward final stages. It was not so much that her heavily sliced, softish second serves were severely treated by Lindsay--the smooth court preserved their sidespin and modest velocity. It was rather that they failed to land in court, especially at critical moments. Elena contributed a total of 12 double-faults, all in the second and third sets, and as the second-serve faults increased so too did their softness. (Looking at the serving and point-winning percentages, Elena would seemingly have been better off to use her first serve delivery in her second-serving. Surprisingly, the same could be said of Lindsay.)

Trailing 5 points to 2 in the third-set tiebreaker after a dismal siege of error-making, Lindsay seemed already defeated mentally. But she spurted to win the next four points, reaching match-point in her own favor. But things again went wrong for Lindsay, and three points later Lindsay became the fourth of our six elites to depart. Two of our original favorites remained--Sharapova and Clijsters--along with two intruders, Pierce and Dementieva.

PIERCE d. DEMENTIEVA, 36 62 62

For one set, Dementieva outhit, outmoved, and--measured by fewer double-faults--outserved Mary Pierce. During the interval between the first and second sets, Mary received treatment from the tournament trainer for back and thigh difficulties, while Elena walked around uncomfortably in back court. But upon resumption, Elena resumed her strong play, holding serve impressively.

But in the second game after the resumption, it became Mary who was hitting the ball firmer and cleaner. The treatment for Mary's injuries must have been successful, as Mary's power, control, and movement began to equal the levels shown against Henin. Meanwhile Elena's errors, at first occasional, gradually became more frequent. Elena appeared fresh, but her confidence eroded as the score turned against her, and the double-faults began to appear. She nearly recovered one of two service breaks late in the third set, but Mary's rocketry reasserted its supremacy for the kill.

The rule allowing Mary consecutive 6-minute time-outs for two separate injuries plainly seemed unfair to Elena and should probably be changed.

CLIJSTERS d. SHARAPOVA, 62 67 63

For one set Maria seemed helpless to stop the endless run of errors from her racket, her high-powered stroking bordering on overhitting. Kim rather easily closed out set one in 28 minutes. But in the second set Maria managed to find her usual control, and the game score advanced as each player held serves. Late in the set it was Maria in greater trouble, but she repeatedly escaped break points. The icy calm seen in her past triumphs was not evident, as she groused at herself for errors and moved too quickly to start each new point. Trailing five games to six and serving to reach tiebreaker, Maria fell behind love-forty.

Kim was now playing very conservatively, directing all her drives four feet or more inside the lines with ample overspin, waiting for Maria to deliver an error or a sitter. Maria too became conservative, in one point resorting to moon balls to stave off the end. But when the opportunities came Maria was ready to deliver the attacking shot to the sideline or the bold dropper. Exploiting Kim's too-careful tactics, Maria staved off five match points before claiming the critical game and the tiebreaker that followed. One set all.

In the past, Kim had sometimes lost big matches after being well ahead. Was history repeating?

Not this time. In the third set Kim found a more balanced strategy, mixing in more offense with her solid defense. Kim was quickly swept up the first four games of the final set. Although Maria regained one of the breaks of serve, Kim resolutely closed out matters.

FINAL: CLIJSTERS d. PIERCE, 63 61

The final-round was easier than Kim's recent nail-biters against Venus and Sharapova. Mary's strong serve and forcing ground-strokes were largely neutralized by Kim's excellent serve-returning and court mobility. Kim nearly matched Mary in first-serve and ground-stroke velocity but with greater margin for error. Surprisingly, Kim's average second-serve velocity exceeded Mary's. There were many wonderful exchanges, but Kim's superiority grew convincing in the late stages as Mary's errors accumulated. It was over in 65 minutes.

It was the first Slam championship for Clijsters, 22, after four final-round losses. Her triumph came against a field probably as strong as any in women's tennis history.

TENNIS NATIONS (MEN)

In the tally of match-wins by nation, the U.S. male contingent comfortably outscored all others. Andy Roddick lost early, but Agassi, Ginepri, Blake, and Dent all scored well, and the Bryans won the doubles. Spain was a distant second, France third. (The Americans also tallied the most wins at Australian Open and Wimbledon 05. Spain led at Garros.)

Soon ahead is World Group semi-final Davis Cup action, September 23-25. Slovak Republic will host Argentina and Croatia will host Russia on indoor surfaces. Of the four surviving nations, only Russia is a past Cup winner, so that a first-time champion nation is likely this year. On the same weekend sixteen nations will face off in promotion/relegation play, including Belgium and U.S., who will meet on indoor clay at Leuven. The American squad consists of Roddick, Blake, Ginepri, and the Bryans.

TENNIS NATIONS (WOMEN)

The Russians out-tallied the U.S. women at the Open, scoring 33.5 match wins against 32 for the Americans. France was third. (The Russkayas scored highest at all four Slams of 2005.)

Kim Clijsters's triumph at Flushing Meadows meant that Year 2005 produced four different women's Slam winners--two Belgians and two Americans. The Russian women, who won three Slams in 2004, failed to produce a 2005 Slam finalist.

Fed Cup badly needs a worthy final round, and the prospects are good for this to happen when France hosts Russia on Garros clay, September 17-18. The likely singles performers will be Mauresmo and Pierce for France, Dementieva and Myskina for Russia. France is the slight favorite, as Mary Pierce was runner-up at Garros 05. The two Russians were the finalists at Garros 04, however. Completing the four-player nomination lists are Golovin and Dechy, teenagers Safina and Douchevina. The old Wightman Cup format would be appealing, adding a third singles and a second doubles match, for a total of seven matches.

It should be an interesting summer's end.

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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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