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
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.
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
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
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 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.