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Between The Lines
June 11, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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The Winning of Garros 2006

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

There is never a boring Slam. Garros 06 yielded its share of high drama, ending in a much-anticipated match-up of the two current megastars of the men's game. Meanwhile the women's draw produced a teenaged future superstar from Prague, whose serve and forehand seem already comparable to those of the great Steffi. Sharing the attention of the world was the repeating women's champion, an athlete of unquenchable mental strength.

In my opinion, Garros once again proved itself the most watchable of the Slams. As expected, consistency in applying severe weight of shot was usually a prerequisite for victory among both men and women. Too soft an offering invited punishment by one's opponent from on or inside baseline--a point-winning rocket to a corner or perhaps a safer yet aggressive approach shot forcing the offender well off court. Most matches were played primarily from back court, where net approaches resulted from one's own attacking shot or opponent's drop shot. The cat-and-mouse game of angles initiated by a drop shot was seen more often than in past years. Skills in serving and in serve-returning were often basic to the eventual outcome of many points. Stamina and mental strength as usual played large roles.

The first week brought wind, rain, and cold, troubling players and watchers and reducing the ball's horizontal speed both before and after the bounce. The weather was better the second week, though players were not acclimated to the warmish temperatures and winds were again high on several dates. Major upsets were relatively few, though favorites often had to produce their best tennis in order to survive. The clay surface seemed harder--i.e., faster--than in other years, perhaps helping explain the high number of tiebreak sets among the men and also the many player retirements.

Throughout the early rounds, there seemed an unusual number of close line decisions necessitating inspection of marks by chair umpires. The automatic Shot Spot system, which was deployed but was not used officially, often differed in its verdict from the evidence of the mark. After a while the inaccuracy of Shot Spot as installed for this event became obvious. I wondered how Shot Spot, which tracks the ball's trajectory, tells the extent of the ball's flattening on impact and thus whether or not its fuzz brushes line's edge.

MEN'S SINGLES

Primary attention most days went to the matches involving Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal--the co-favorites to win the tournament. Roger survived two strong sets by qualifier Hartfield and lost a set to Chilean Massu but otherwise advanced comfortably. Straight-set wins over Berdych and Ancic followed, Roger having followed his usual pattern in tournaments, improving as the quality of the opposition rose.

Meanwhile Rafael seemed slightly less dominating than a year ago. His third-round opponent, Paul-Henri Mathieu, won the first set and maintained strong, forcing pressure thereafter. Nadal won the next three sets, each at score 64.

Surprisingly tough was Rafael's next opponent, Lleyton Hewitt, now 25. It proved to be as much a test of wills as of skills between two of the fastest players in tennis history. After losing the first set, Lleyton stepped up his serving while some of the steam seemed to leave Nadal's ground game. Lleyton won the second set behind some sizzling, flattish rocketry, and he continued to press Rafael thereafter. But the defending champion squeezed out set three thanks to some fine drop-shots at key moments. Matters swung clearly to Nadal only toward the end.

Other stars won momentary attention. Alberto Martin outplayed Andy Roddick, who retired with ankle sprain. Croatians Ancic and Ljubicic advanced into the second week, defying their reputations as hard-courters heavily dependent on serving prowess. James Blake and Gael Monfils produced a brilliant and crowd-pleasing five-setter, narrowly won by the 19-year-old French player. Monfils in turn lost to Novak Djokovic, who thereby became the tournament's most successful teenager.

Highly competitive was David Nalbandian's four-set win over Nikolay Davydenko, where the South American's sustained heavy game outlasted the latter player's quickness and elegance. Julien Benneteau, 24, advanced beyond expectations but proved unable to answer Ljubicic's solider stroking and much heavier serving. In spells where the French player began to dominate, Ivan, who played mostly in back court, raised his serving and, behind his rock-solid backhand one-hander, comfortably closed out all three sets.

Thus the four highest-seeded players became the four actual semi-finalists.

FEDERER d. NALBANDIAN 36 64 52 ret.

The day was warm, dry, and windy. Court Chatrier was slippery to the footwork and fast off the bounce. Roger, as sometimes happens, showed little fire at the start, apparently seeking to adjust to his opponent and the conditions while avoiding risks. But probably because of the wind, the world's #1 produced an unusual quota of errors. Meanwhile Nalbandian played with good energy, served with more than his usual velocity, and broke Federer's serve in the fifth game and again in the ninth. Roger's malaise continued into the second set, David breaking ahead to lead 3-0. Were the relatively fast conditions perhaps helping David more than Roger? Perhaps so, as David had last beaten Roger in the year-end final in Shanghai on an indoor fast court.

But the tricky footing on the dry clay probably was Nalbandian's downfall. David slipped several times in trying to change direction, and it was probably in one of these episodes that he strained a muscle at one side of the abdomen. At about the same time, Roger began a nice run of winners, meanwhile eliminating his own errors almost totally. Thus Roger captured the next five games and, soon afterwards, the second set. Roger still showed little interest in coming to net except at opponent's bidding, though when opportunity arose he showed his usual decisiveness in handling short balls. Meanwhile David's injury was becoming evident. He now served at well below his earlier velocity, and early in set three he began trying to end points quickly. David's net forays were generally unsuccessful, however, and though Roger's game again swung toward blandness, it was good enough to take command and force David's retirement. Mostly it had been a mediocre semi-final, spiced only occasionally by moments of brilliance.

NADAL d. LJUBICIC 64 62 76

The tall Croatian exchanged ground-strokes in extended baseline rallies with the defending champion quite well, and delivered forcing ploys often. But many, perhaps most, of these attacks were defeated by Nadal's superb mobility and shot-making skill. Rafael sometimes offered shortish shots as prelude to angular cat-and-mouse exchanges, where he often proved superior. It made for many interesting points, but there never was much doubt as to the outcome of the match. Ljubicic's main superiority was in his serving, which was most effective in the long third set. Though his inclination is to play from back court, in that set Ivan won 16 of 19 points at net. But Rafael captured the extended third-set tiebreaker shortly after Ivan double-faulted in trying a 130-mph delivery at second serve.

FINAL: NADAL d. FEDERER 16 61 64 76

Federer had never defeated Nadal on clay, having lost at Garros last year and at Monte Carlo and Rome in 2006. Roger's success at net during their recent five-set final at Rome suggested that to win in Paris Roger needed to find ways to employ his penetrating forehand for aggressive approaches to net. Meanwhile Rafael needed to keep his shots away from that forehand and improve his play whenever Roger managed to reach net.

The quality of the tennis only occasionally matched the significance of the event. Roger captured the first set comfortably when Rafael, who seemed supercharged during the warmup period, seemed unable to stop his own run of unforced errors. Roger's sometime tactics of attack, including some nice swinging volley approaches from mid-court, proved sound amid Rafael's inconsistency.

After that there were only a few moments of glory for Roger. Rafael ceased his error-making, while Roger's overspin backhand, ordinarily a picture stroke, was failing repeatedly. Roger seemed shaken after failing to break Rafael from love-40 early in the second set. The Spanish youth now found a zone of consistency--almost never missing while ever keeping moderate pressure on Roger's shaky backhand. Perhaps the 90-degree heat or the rising breeze was a factor as Roger's stroking again and again failed him. The larger factor was Rafael, who turned back many of Roger's best efforts with his superb mobility and those nastily-spinning lefty ground-strokes. Surrendering the second and third sets, Roger then lost serve to start the fourth.

Roger woke up the crowd toward the end, showing some of the greatness previously seen late in big matches. With Rafael serving to end the match at 5-4, Roger ripped away, moving very well, equalizing the set despite two more backhand misses. But in the deciding tiebreak game, which was well played by both men, it was Roger who faltered, losing consecutive serving points by narrow margins, both in aggressive ploys. Rafael ended matters with a fine swinging volley winner from mid-court--the stroke that had been Roger's most successful throughout the afternoon.

Thus there will be no Grand Slam for Federer in 2006, no "Roger Slam" of four consecutive Slam triumphs over two calendar years. Roger's credentials for highest place in tennis history must await a Garros crown another year. For Rafael, the newest triumph means further proof of his superiority on clay. He has already shown high ability on hard courts and, to his credit, he is ready to give the grass-court season full commitment albeit his Spanish pedigree. Could he be the one to become history's next conquistador of the Grand Slam?

WOMEN'S SINGLES

In the women's singles, our pre-tournament First Eight generally fared well. Five of our elites successfully attained the quarter-finals, while three of them lost to outsiders. The first to depart was Nadia Petrova, loser in the first round to Japanese player Morigami. Petrova had excelled in recent tournaments, but was below her best at Garros because of a groin strain. Departing on middle Sunday was Maria Sharapova, victim of Dinara Safina, age 20. Maria seemed in full control, leading 5-1 in the third set, but seemed to lapse in concentration just as Dinara raised her level of play. Dinara, sister of Marat Safin, seemed overweight and not deft in changing direction, but her victory before the capacity crowd marked her for future success.

But the most exciting of the young and rising players was Nicole Vaidisova of Prague, who is barely 17 and a sturdy 6-0 tall. In defeating tournament co-favorite Mauresmo on middle Sunday, Vaidisova showed a strong serve and excellent power and control from both sides. Nicole's relentless pace exceeded that of Mauresmo, who seemed to wilt as the possibility of defeat grew.

Successfully attaining the quarter-finals were our other elites--Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters, Hingis, Venus Williams, and Kuznetsova. Joining them in the final eight were Safina and Vaidisova, along with German player Gronefeld, 21, who won the section exited by Petrova.

LAST EIGHT

Nicole Vaidisova followed up her wondrous performance against Mauresmo by defeating Venus Williams in their quarter-final. If Venus held a slight edge in mobility, it was exceeded by Nicole's greater consistency. The two players showed very similar strengths in their power serving and stroking, especially in the mechanics of their backhands. After a close tiebreaker loss in the first set, the teen-ager captured sets two and three by convincing scores. Venus contributed many unforced errors.

Martina Hingis fought from behind to force Kim Clijsters to a first-set tiebreaker, won closely by Kim. After that Hingis seemed to sag in energy, evidently weakened by flu-like symptoms. A glaring difference in second-serve pace reflected the greater weight of Clijsters's game overall. The Kuznetsova victory over Safina was even more bipolar in its flow, where Safina led early, then lost a first-set tiebreaker and then won only three points in set two. Meanwhile Henin-Hardenne continued her run of straight-set victories, defeating Gronefeld.

Justine also prevailed against country-woman Kim Clijsters in a semi-final disappointing in its one-sidedness toward the finish. After early error-making by both players, Justine stepped up matters, breaking Kim's serve with controlled power and aggressiveness. Down 5-3, Kim answered with power and aggressiveness of her own, but her efforts were spoiled by successive aces by Henin to end the first set.

After that, there was little need for risk-taking by Henin. Kim slugged away trying to end points with big shots, but her hammering turned into a morass of errors. Justine meanwhile showed superb defensive skills featuring severe slices, along with an ability to attack successfully if given soft offerings by Kim. Henin-Hardenne defeated Clijsters 63 62.

PRIME SEMI: KUZNESOVA d. VAIDISOVA 57 76 62

Has a relative newcomer ever played stronger tennis against so able an opponent? For nearly two hours the 17-year-old showed a dazzling, all-court power game. Nicole Vaidisova's first serve frequently set up early strikes using her crushing forehand. When receiving serve, Nicole often punished Svetlana's second-serve offerings for forces or outright winners. Especially early on, Nicole mixed in drop shots and net approaches with excellent results. But it was her sustained power in serving and stroking that minced Svetlana's defensive skills.

Svetlana competed well, softening her own shot-making, taking extra time between points. Somehow the Russian player, a veteran of the pro wars at age 20, managed the first break of serve to lead 5 games to 3. But Vaidisova captured 15 of the last 18 points of the first set, her big game approaching complete dominance. The tall Czech player then broke ahead early in set two and continued to serve commandingly. Nicole led 5-4, serving for the match. I wrote in my notebook that there seemed no hope for Svetlana "unless Nicole's nerves intervened."

Outwardly there were few signs of anxiety as Nicole continued her uncompromising style of play. The critical break-of-service came with two very close errors by Nicole followed by a game-ending double fault. Soon afterwards came the tiebreak game. There were more blistering winners by Nicole. But Nicole also produced several disastrous unforced errors. Two of them came in succession from 5 points all. Now it was one set each.

Was it early fatigue? Was it overconfidence--thinking too soon about winning--or perhaps excessive self-anger? Was it the rising wind? Or was it a tightening from fear of losing? Whatever the cause, Nicole's forcing first delivery was now failing to find the service box. Meanwhile Svetlana's second serve was now evading the Vaidisova forehand. Destroyed by her frustrations, and with Svetlana giving away no easy points, Nicole's error-making continued until the merciful ending. The final statistics revealed Nicole's dominance in the court play--her winners (excluding aces) outnumbered Kuznetsova's 49 to 18.

Nicole's future greatness can scarcely be doubted. Her classic serve and forehand have weight and penetration seldom seen in women's tennis. She produces good, not exaggerated, topspin by stroking through the ball with downward-tilted racket face. The backhand two-hander is accurate and firm. Her movement seems impeccable--again and again at Garros she placed herself in good position to turn back thunderbolts from Kuznetsova. Her shoulders are high from the ground, helping her attack high-bouncing serves and overspun ground strokes. Her reach is useful at net. She and her advisors must reassess how to use her excellent drop-shot and net-game skills to complement her heavy hitting for best results at crunch time. Nicole lost to Kuznetsova at Wimbledon last year in split sets. Her chances there this year are intriguing.

FINAL: HENIN-HARDENNE d. KUZNETSOVA 64 64

Barely 5-6 tall and slight of build, how did Justine do it? Her opponent, the athletic Svetlana Kuznetsova was nearly three inches the taller, much the sturdier, three years the younger. The early lead went to Justine, four games to one, thanks to an excess of errors by her opponent. But from then the Russian star, cutting down her errors, took command in the court play. Svetlana's dominance lasted almost to the finish line. Displaying full confidence in her stroking and movement, she produced a game of incessant power and court sense, forcing Justine to the defensive. It was the combination that had turned deficits into victories for Svetlana against Schiavone, Safina, and Vaidisova. Meanwhile, apparently tiring in the unaccustomed warmth of late spring, her shots lacking in energy, Justine was sometimes unable to close out some points after moving her opponent out of position.

Justine narrowly held serve in a long eighth game to reach 5-3, leading, but Svetlana held at love so that almost immediately Justine was again serving under pressure. Trouble loomed at score 30-all. But the Belgian superstar, as so often in the past when in trouble, summoned the will and energy for some fine first serves, thereby closing out the first set. Still, Svetlana's growing dominance made it seem unlikely that Justine could find the strength to capture another set.

Svetlana resumed her excellence in the second set, winning the first ten points. Justine seemed helpless. But the run ended at thirty-love when Svetlana abruptly produced four straight errors, thereby denying herself a 3-0 lead in games. Justine's tiredness was now plain to see. On one occasion between points, she bent over with hands on knees--the telltale sign of fatigue. But the Belgian superstar managed to hold serve for 2-all, then pressed Svetlana's service in a long fifth game, then held for 3-all. The critical break of serve came in the seventh game, when Justine, now looking less weary, brought forth her best tennis of the day. Strong serving by Justine in game eight, made the score 5-3. Justine then wisely kept the points short as Svetlana held serve for 5-4.

Needing to hold serve to win the championship, Justine still seemed the physically weaker player. After the changeover, before serving she waited for the crowd to stop its noisy wave demonstration, thereby winning a minute or two for extra rest, perhaps feeding Svetlana's stirrings of desperation across the court. Six points later, having posting a service ace and a wonderful backhand down-the-line winner amid two dreary, unforced errors by Svetlana, Justine was raising the championship trophy.

It was Justine's fifth Slam conquest, three at Garros, one each at Australian and U.S. Opens. (She has three times reached the semis at Wimbledon, once the final.) Her newest triumph showed that clay is probably her best surface, where her defensive strengths and excellent overspin have most effect. If the final score looked bland, it had been an enormously dramatic, fascinating contest of strategy, skill, and will.

TENNIS NATIONS

The expected leadership of the Russian women and Spanish men in total matches won emerged early and grew as the tournament progressed. France was second among both men and women. The nation with the most wins combining men and women was Russia.

Don't forget to plan time for watching Wimbledon, June 26 to July 8.

--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.

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