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January 29, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australia Review 2006

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Ray Bowers

The energy and enjoyment among the crowds at Melbourne Park gave this year's Australian Open its customary vibrancy. Very hot temperatures marked many of the dates, and the overhead roof was closed for several of the prime matches because of the heat or an occasional rain. The recent trend to make the Rebound Ace surface smoother (to cut down on injuries) appeared to have been halted or perhaps reversed, judging by the apparent speed and height of the bounce. Still, the hard-court players generally held the advantage over the clay-courters.

Among the men, the big question was whether anyone could topple the current world champion, Roger Federer. Both Tommy Haas and Nicolay Davydenko extended Roger almost to the point of defeat, but in both cases Roger produced a final reserve. Federer's sublime greatness, seen over long stretches in some of his past triumphs, was only sporadically evident in these excellent matches.

Comparably large was the story of Marcos Baghdatis, the 20-year-old Cypriot, whose brilliant tennis and appealing manner produced overnight stardom. In reaching the final against Roger, Baghdatis defeated Roddick, Ljubicic, and Nalbandian--three of the four players identified in our pre-tournament calculations as having the best chance to defeat Federer.

Meanwhile the favorites generally held form in the women's division. All four semi-finalists came from our pre-tournament best seven. A delightful surprise was the performance of Martina Hingis, who won four matches before losing a split-setter to Clijsters.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Venus Williams lost on opening day to Tsvetana Pironkova, 18, of Bulgaria, who was making her first Slam appearance. I watched the third set on ESPN2 where Venus--who was by far the stronger server and also the heavier hitter--struggled to overcome her own error-making. Toward the end it was Venus breathing the harder after long rallies, and it was the teen-ager who was the steadier to win the deciding set, 97.

Hingis was dazzling in her first-rounder, easily destroying seeded-player Zvonareva 61 62. From early on, Martina's ground strokes equaled Vera's in pace and were far superior in consistent placement to the sides. If Martina's serve seemed soft by today's standards, it was she who most often punished opponent's second serve. She looked like the Swiss Miss at her former best.

Surviving the first two rounds were most of our pre-tournament prime favorites--Davenport, Mauresmo, Clijsters, and Henin-Hardenne. The exception was Mary Pierce, who fell to Czech player Benesova in a match I did not watch. The official statistics showed that Mary hit many more aces and winners than her opponent but committed a greater plurality of errors.

In third-round action, Serena Williams was dismissed from the tournament by the firm stroking of Daniela Hantuchova and by Serena's own error-making. Serena's unreadiness for top competition, seen at the Hong Kong tournament earlier in the month, was again evident in her extra weight, heavy breathing after long points, and lazy footwork. The bad knee, which explained her minimal activity in past months, was not an obvious factor. Serena lost the first set badly, then recovered, and finally succumbed in a second-set tiebreak.

Hingis looked superb in defeating Benesova, conqueror of Pierce and wielder of a punishing backhand two-hander. Martina lost an early service break but then dominated her opponent with endless crisp shots to the sides plus occasional sharp angles, droppers, and net approaches. The sense was growing that Hingis might, incredibly, win the tournament.

HENIN-HARDENNE d. DAVENPORT, 26 62 63

This was the prime match-up of the quarter-finals. Play was on the ragged side--Lindsay's bad ankle, injured earlier in the tournament, handicapped her in serving and moving, and Justine appeared troubled by Lindsay's power. Double-faults far outnumbered aces, errors far outnumbered winners, service breaks nearly outnumbered holds amid windy playing conditions.

After losing her serve four times in the first set, Justine righted matters thereafter, showing excellent defensive play and enough zip in her stroking to deny Lindsay easy winners. Davenport's errors came often enough to assure Justine's come-back victory.

CLIJSTERS d. HINGIS, 63 26 64

Less than three years in age separated these two, who somehow seemed divided by a full tennis generation. Clijsters pounded her way to win the first four games, but the score unfolded to reach three games all in the third set. Both women were moving superbly, answering opponent's firepower with wonderful footwork and firepower in reply. Kim's thigh was heavily taped, but there was nothing in her play to confirm that she was injured.

Throughout, the first serves and second serves of Clijsters were on average 10 mph faster than those of Hingis, and in the ground-stroking it was clear that Kim could deliver the greater power with lesser effort. In the final stages a run of backhand errors by Kim, a problem seen earlier, kept Martina close, and the wonderful ability of Martina in moving the ball about opponent's court, seen throughout the tournament, was still evident. But the victory slipped away from Martina in the final moments, as Martina's consistency faltered and Kim's advantage in weight of shot production turned several late points.

It had been a splendid tournament for Hingis, whose presence will enhance every tournament that she enters henceforth.

HENIN-H d. SHARAPOVA, 46 61 64

Both women in Thursday's first semi-final were known for extreme mental strength in intense competition. Under the closed roof, conditions were warm, humid, calm--ideal for high-calibre play and for the flattish, power game of Maria Sharapova.

I don't believe I'd ever watched Maria drive the ball with greater power, accuracy, and avoidance of error than during the first set. Justine answered the bombardment with good power and mobility, keeping the score close though at seeming heavy price in energy. Maria scored the deciding service break in game ten, helped by a seeming bad call against Justine and a remarkable left-handed desperation retrieval by Maria that landed on Justine's baseline untouched.

After the first set, mistakes by Sharapova began to creep in, including several poorly conceived drop shots and net approaches. Falling behind, Maria wilted as her errors increased. Was Maria tiring? Or was the earlier upper-torso injury causing distress?

Maria steadied at the start of set three, reaching two games all and attaining several break points against Henin's serve. A bad call saved one of the break points for Justine--an episode which bothered the usually focused Sharapova for some time thereafter. Justine managed to hold serve in game eight (again helped by a close call) and though her nerves failed her in losing game nine, she closed out the match 64. Maria kept up her aggressiveness to the end, demonstrating that she intended if she lost, it would be with her big shots.

It had unquestionably been the tournament's finest women's match. If one factor explained Justine's victory, it would be her mobility and marvelous defensive play. Repeatedly under heavy pressure, Justine sustained points very well, often regaining neutrality and in many cases the offensive.

FINAL: MAURESMO d. HENIN-H, 61 20 ret.

Amelie Mauresmo reached the final round quietly. In the fourth round she defeated Czech player Vaidisova, 16, the most promising of today's teen-agers, by score 61 61. Amelie then beat Patty Schnyder by comfortable scores, and prevailed over Clijsters in the third set of their semi-final when Kim rolled her ankle and retired.

Henin seemed the more likely winner of their final-round meeting, as there had been no earlier indication that Justine was physically impaired. But from the start Henin offered little effective resistance to the power and error-free stroking of Mauresmo. Early in the second set, a 33-stroke exchange featured ceaseless dazzling firepower and mobility by both women. The effort probably cost Justine's her last reserves. Soon afterwards Henin, citing stomach distress, surrendered.

A LOOK AHEAD

In winning her first Slam, Mauresmo established herself a significant threat for the near future. Melbourne Park also showed that Sharapova too will be a prime candidate especially at the hard-court events prior to the clay season and at Wimbledon. The physical problems of Henin and Clijsters suggest that a period of inactivity, perhaps of several months, is ahead for both. Heavy-stroking Lindsay Davenport showed herself certain to be major factor everywhere. Their performances at Melbourne mark several players as part of a secondary group. These are Petrova (extended Sharapova in their quarter-final), Kirilenko (took a set from Davenport), Hantuchova (pressed Sharapova), and Schiavone (made things interesting for Clijsters). Venus, Serena, and Mary Pierce seem also at this secondary level but are of course capable of abruptly rising. Nicole Vaidisova must continue to be watched.

MEN'S EARLY ROUNDS

Last year's runner-up, Lleyton Hewitt, was the first of the prime contenders to meet elimination. Lleyton had trouble in his first-rounder against Czech player Robin Vik, 25, who showed roundhouse topspin forehands and firm two-handed backhands remindful of Hewitt's. Two days later, tall and gaunt Juan Ignacio Chela used minimal backswing to equal Hewitt in sustained power. Again and again, the Argentinian unleashed his backhand two-hander for strikes down the line--immediate winners. Limping after having his left ankle taped, Lleyton seemed a fraction slower than usual in getting to the corners. Pat Rafter was later quoted saying that Lleyton needed to vary his game, opening up play more frequently with angles and drop shots. Such tactics, it would seem, should exploit Lleyton's superior court mobility.

The early rounds of tournament are made more interesting by compiling match wins by nation. In making such a tally, we assume that each player's preferred nation of affiliation is the one given in the official press materials.

With two rounds of singles and one of doubles completed, more than half the tournament's matches were already in the books. The count of matches won was remarkably close on the men's side, as follows:

France, 12.5
Spain, 12.0
U.S., 11.5
Argentina, 11.0

BAGHDATIS d. RODDICK, 64 16 63 64

The drama of Australia 2006 took two main pathways. One was the unexpectedly difficult march of Roger Federer to the tournament final. The other was the amazing run of a wonderful newcomer.

A year ago at Melbourne Park, Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis made a nice spash at age 19, winning three matches before losing to Federer in straight, albeit competitive sets. In commenting on this match twelve months ago here, we noted Baghdatis's unusually powerful forehand along with his appealing court manner. After Australia 05, Marcos experienced arm surgery and a succession of unexciting results. That changed at Basel in late October, when Marcos defeated Nalbandian enroute to reaching the final round.

In tune-up events of January 2006 Marcos won two matches and lost two, one of them to Federer. He then advanced nicely through his first three matches at Melbourne Park, which included a five-set win over the fine Czech player Stepanek. Meanwhile Andy Roddick came to their fourth-round meeting from winning Kooyong Classic and three comfortable wins in the early rounds at Melbourne Park.

Baghdatis at a sturdily built 6-0, possesses excellent arm and shoulder strength. Against Roddick, he again displayed his savage and accurate forehand, which enabled him to stay equal with Andy in rallies and often to step in for untouchable winners. The backhand too was almost as penetrating. Marcos's court mobility was excellent--indeed his energy during points was remindful of Nadal's (but without the histrionics). He muscled his first serve to the edges of the box very well, and if the overall in-court percentage was low his aces seemed to come at the most critical moments.

Roddick's answered with his strengths--the excellent first and second serves, the relentless forehand. But Marcos showed excellent ability in serve-returning, holding down his own errors and often attacking Andy's strongest offerings. Meanwhile, any neutral, less-than-forcing ground stroke by Andy invited immediate punishment by Marcos. In winning, Baghdatis outaced Roddick 16-15 and led in other winners 47-24.

Still, the match was suspenseful to the end. With the overhead roof closed because of extreme heat outside, the more active Baghdatis broke service to lead 3-2 in the fourth set. Needing to hold serve three times for victory, Marcos showed convincingly that he was the better player on this day.

FEDERER d. HAAS, 64 60 36 46 62

Roger won the first set routinely, the second set comfortably, and early in set three threatened to break the serve of Tommy Haas. The expected script seemed to be unfolding even more plainly than supposed. But Tommy, who had played superbly throughout the tournament earlier and who had defeated Roger at the Kooyong Classic one week before, refused to accept what seemed to everyone else inevitable. The 27-year-old German star raged against his own errors, lashing himself after every mistake, trying to generate his own best tennis.

It seemed to work. Amid the long rallies Roger began missing occasionally and slipping into a primarily defensive game. Uncharacteristic errors off the Federer volley and overhead appeared, sapping his attacking instincts. Haas became the harder hitter, the aggressor, and he seemed able to stay atop Roger as long as he avoided errors of his own. Sets three and four went to Tommy, who was clearly outplaying the Swiss superstar. And with Roger falling behind on his own serve in game five of the fifth set, it was Haas who took the lead with the finish line in sight.

Amid some magnificent power rallies, corner to corner, sideline to sideline, the two ripped away in some of the finest tennis surely ever seen. Often before, the world has watched Roger turn things in his favor in the late stages. It happened again--a half-dozen or so untouchable winners from Roger's racket, often from positions seemingly of disadvantage. If pulled well out of court to the right, Roger sometimes produced a rolling cross-court forehand too severe for Tommy's reply or, alternatively, a down-the-line forehand to the deep backhand corner of Tommy, an untouchable. Several times Roger--on the run behind the baseline--produced backhand inside-out rockets defying any reasonable expectation. Federer's final brilliance closed out what had been a superb challenge by Haas.

TENNIS NATIONS

As the singles, doubles, and mixed events now entered the quarter-finals, the count of match wins among the men showed an exact tie between France and U.S.. The French had the greater number of wins in men's singles by 16-10 and was the only nation with two players still in the singles (Santoro and Grosjean). But with the powerful Bryan pair yet alive in the men's doubles and with both brothers well positioned in the mixed, an eventual U.S. triumph seemed probable. The tally to date:

France, 18.5
U.S., 18.5
Australia, 16.0
Argentina, 15.0

BAGHDATIS d. LJUBICIC, 64 62 46 36 63

The noisy cheering section that helped Baghadatis two days before were again on hand. Balancing them was an equally well organized band of Croatians to lift their countryman. It was not quite enough.

Ivan recovered from two sets down to force a fifth set. But Marcos now became reanimated, surging with energy, exploiting his superior mobility just enough to make the difference. Both men served and drove the ball well. A few narrow mistakes early in game five and finally a thunderous cross-court pass by Marcos produced the service break. After that, the energy in Ivan's stroking seemed to fade along with some of his consistency. Marcos closed out the final game at love.

FEDERER d. DAVYENKO, 64 36 76 76

In recovering from two sets down to defeat Hrbaty two days earlier, Davydenko's firm and consistent game had shown itself well-suited to conditions at Melbourne Park. Now, Nicolay's solid play from back court presented major problems for the tournament favorite.

I watched parts of the match--about half of it in total. There seemed little to separate the two men. Davydenko moved superbly about the court, at least as well as Roger. His groundstrokes were clean and crisp--forcing enough to keep Roger from attacking and sometimes to place him on the defensive, amid relatively few errors. Some of the exchanges were breathtaking. Perhaps Roger's main advantage, albeit narrow, was in his forehand power and accuracy from extreme right-hand court. Some of the most critical points in the very late going, won by Roger, came from this weapon.

Writing in The Age, Melbourne journalist Jake Niall deemed that in winning Roger played "ugly"--struggling against his own errors and against the relentless pressure from his opponent. Never comfortably ahead on the scoreboard, Roger saved six set points before winning set three. Niall concluded that Federer's close win owed something to "luck."

Did Davydenko's close loss and that of Haas earlier mean, as it seemed, that Federer's edge over the next tier has narrowed?

BAGHDATIS d. NALBANDIAN, 36 57 63 64 64

Two sets down, Marcos stepped up his serving, stroking, and all-around play, while the Greek-Cypriot chorus lifted its raucus cheering and chanting after every point. Marcos's serve now often produced quick points or opened up the initiative. It was not a collapse of Nalbandian, but rather a demonstration of Top Five tennis by the game's newest star.

To start the fifth set, Baghdatis fell behind 2-0 in games and later by 4-2, but in both situations he immediately fought back to equalize. Now, at 4-4 in the fifth, every point seemed critical to the outcome. Nalbandian began game nine by double-faulting, for only the second time in the long match. Then came three quick errors by the Argentine star. With Baghdatis now serving for the victory, a rain delay intervened. Returning for a closing climax, Nalbandian did some fine shotmaking but also produced several close errors. At match point, the chair umpire made an overruling, apparently wrongly, giving Nalbandian a final chance. But a few moments later, a Baghdatis service ace closed out matters.

FINAL: FEDERER d. BAGHDATIS, 57 75 60 62

The two players were about the same size, Roger slightly the taller and slimmer. Marcos used two hands on the backhand, Roger employed the classic one-hander, his shoulders wonderfully turned for proper execution of the stroke that has baffled so many intermediates. But otherwise, there was much similarity in how the two men--the world's best this week--went about trying to win.

Both possessed unusually strong and accurate first serves, which customarily provided the margin for holding service games by generating aces and near-aces and by eliciting weak serve-returns. Both men possessed superior forehands, which they employed to seize the offensive or sometimes to end points from neutral or even adverse situations. Both backhands could be almost as forcing, and both were occasionally unleashed for down-the-line winners. Both men were confident in their ability to sustain neutral rallies from either side or to generate advantageous angles. Both showed superior defensive skills--covering court in answering opponent's forcing play, neutralizing situations of disadvantage, or in sustaining rallies. Because of the superb defenses of both men, to open up or produce a winner each player had to push his margin of safety.

The evening was warmish but comfortable, the temperature down from the 90's during the day. Most of the tactics and point outcomes could be traced to the interactions of the strengths of the two men just described. Roger lost serve early in the second set but quickly recovered. Late in that set, leading 40-love and needing just one more point to reach tiebreak, Marcos abruptly lost command of his first serve. Roger, showing more aggressiveness than before, captured the game. Thus, after two sets the scoreboard was exactly even.

It was fast downhill thereafter for Marcos. Again his first serve temporarily departed, and again Roger stepped up his play for a service break and then another. Now well behind, Marcos let the third set go. Then, early in set four, Marcos went to the ground with leg cramping. Roger thereafter showed no pity.

TENNIS NATIONS

The doubles outcomes showed good international flavor. Yan and Zheng, both from China, won the women's doubles, the American Bryan brothers won the men's, and European and Asian pair Hingis-Bhupathi won the mixed. The Bryans' success capped the U.S. leadership in the tally of match wins among the men:

U.S., 21.5
France, 18.5
Australia, 17.0
Argentina, 16.0

There had been little suspense in the women's tally, where the Russkayas remained far ahead from the first day.

Russia, 36.0
France, 19.5
U.S., 18.0

THOUGHTS AHEAD

Thoughts of a possible Grand Slam in 2006 by Federer inevitably arise, but Roger's rough road at Melbourne shows how difficult would be this achievement. He will surely be the favorite in any event he enters. But the opposing fields will be so strong, especially at Garros where Nadal's return is likely, that Roger's odds of sweeping the year's Slams appear on the order of only 5-10 percent. Melbourne showed the readiness of Tommy Haas to surge, Baghdatis and the other under-21's are already close, and to the list of the other established contenders who were at Melbourne must be added Agassi and Safin.

Deep thanks are owed to ESPN-2 for marvelous presentation, commentary, and scheduling.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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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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