Writers of fiction start with a few characters and allow the cast to
gradually expand. But a tennis tournament begins with a cast of hundreds, of whom
several dozen are primary. These one-by-one pass from the story until only the
protagonists of the final weekend remain.
The 2006 Open faced all-day rain on First Tuesday and then another day of
hurricane passage later the first week. Scheduling was distorted, and some
players fell behind. Andre Agassi's farewell run commanded most attention during the
early going, where Andre overcame a tough opponent, Andre Pavel, in four sets
on opening evening and Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in five sets three nights
later. Andre's third-round dismissal by Ben Becker made for an emotional final
The rains returned on Second Wednesday. Upsets involving the prime headliners
remained few, however, although the unexpected victory of Youzhny over Nadal
spoiled the possibility of a third consecutive Slam final between Rafael and
Federer. Meanwhile the three prime favorites among the women--Mauresmo,
Sharapova, and Henin-Hardenne--all survived to reach their expected places for the last
WOMEN'S TOP QUARTER, MAURESMO d. SERENA 64 06 62
Serena Williams looked strong in winning her first three matches, including
straight-set wins over Hantuchova and Ivanovic. The latter had been the leading
point-winner in the summer's U.S. Open Series. Serena looked slightly trimmed
down and in better condition than in January. Her fourth-round meeting with
Mauresmo opened Labor Day Evening.
For most of the first set, it was Amelie who had the more trouble holding
serve. Serena's power was clearly the greater, both in serving and stroking, and
her mobility seemed only slightly below that of her championship years. But
late in the set it was Amelie who lifted her game--abruptly coming to net several
times behind forehands to Serena's backhand. Reacting to the sudden loss of
the set, Serena then opened the second set with furious attacking power,
sweeping six straight games from her opponent.
Amelie managed to stem the tide to start the third set, holding serve twice
to reach two games all. Serena's recent aggressiveness abated and both players
now became patient in their tactics. After long exchanges Serena could be seen
breathing heavily, and it seemed as if tiredness was sapping her movement,
shot preparation, and power. Amelie accordingly ran out her victory in the next
four games; Serena trying hard to cut down her error-making but unable to take
the attack fearing errors of her own.
Meanwhile Amelie's expected quarter-final opponent, Hingis, faltered against
unseeded Razzano, who in turn lost to Safina. Amelie now completed her
expected journey to the final four with a fine victory over Safina, again moving
superbly, playing brilliantly in defensive and neutral situations, mixing in
SECOND QUARTER: SHARAPOVA d. GOLOVIN 76 76
Sharapova advanced through four rounds without loss of a set. Her next
opponent, Tatiana Golovin, had advanced by upsetting higher-seeded Nadia Petrova in
a three-setter. Golovin, 18, was born in Moscow, lists Florida as her
residence, and gives France as her tennis nation. Maria and Tatiana had been childhood
opponents, and after their earlier meeting this year there had been
controversy about Maria's on-court etiquette.
The first set was close, Golovin covering court well and replying crisply to
Sharapova's greater power. Maria showed her mental strength in the first set,
surviving two adverse set points and then extending her good run by winning
the first three points of the set-ending tiebreak game. At this critical moment,
Tatiana then stopped play to have a nasty foot blister re-taped. Maria stayed
calm during the interruption, practicing serves and stretching on court. On
resumption, however, Maria's lead in the tiebreaker quickly vanished. But
favored by a lucky netcord, Maria closed out the tiebreaker, showing excellent
firmness in the attack at the end.
In the second set, Maria was again the more aggressive hitter against solid
countering by Tatiana. Matters reached another tiebreaker where after falling
behind, a dispirited Golovin allowed Maria to capture all seven points.
This seemed the most uncertain quarter, where the higher-seeded veterans
Kuznetsova and Dementieva seemed only slightly ahead of rising Europeans Vaidisova
and Jankovic. The ultimate survivor would be Belgrade-born Jelena Jankovic,
age 21. Jelena overcame her third-round opponent, Vaidisova, 17, in three sets.
Showing excellent ground strokes especially from the backhand side, Jelena
then defeated in turn Kuznetsova in three sets and Dementieva in two, thus
reaching her first Slam semi-final. In all three triumphs over players seeded in
the first ten--Vaidisova, Kuznetsova, and Dementieva--Jelena closed out the final
sets by the comfortable score of 62.
BOTTOM QUARTER, HENIN-Hardenne d. DAVENPORT 64 64
Davenport and Henin-Hardenne advanced from opposite sides of this quarter.
Lindsay's road to their meeting had been the more hazardous, as she twice faced
match-point-down against Katarina Srebotnik before squeezing through. Justine
lost her opening set in the third round to Sugiyama but then prevailed by
Throughout the week, Davenport had shown her familiar power in serving and
stroking--equivalent to the best in women's tennis--and outwardly seemed free of
injury. But now, Justine's wonderful court movement sapped the deadliness
from Lindsay's rocketry, while Justine's own attacking abilities denied Lindsay
the luxury of playing safely. Lindsay played well, showing only a hint of back
or trunk injury, but Justine showed her best athleticism along with more
winners and far fewer errors than Lindsay. Surprisingly, Justine's serve exceeded
Lindsay's in maximum, average-first-serve, and average-second-serve velocities.
SEMI-FINAL: HENIN d. JANKOVIC 46 64 60
In the baseline exchanges that characterized most of the first set, Jelena
consistently outplayed Henin-Hardenne. She showed few bad errors, plenty of zip
on all shots with good margin for error, excellent court mobility to reach all
but the most forcing of Justine's offerings. Meanwhile Justine produced six
double-faults during the set--a critical margin in lost points as well as
destructive of Justine's confidence in her own attacking. Meanwhile Jelena was at
net more than Justine, and when there she played well.
The double-faulting by Justine persisted into the second set, contributing to
a lost service break in game four. Once again she produced six double-faults,
making twelve for the match against only ten in all five of her earlier
matches. A larger factor was the growing strength in Jelena's stroking, especially
her backhand. Her weight of power was excellent amid superior consistency,
maintaining her dominance as most points unfolded. Soon Jelena led, four games to
two, serving. And moments later, with a 40-30 lead it looked as if a Jankovic
triumph was only minutes away. But then, Jelena became involved in a dispute
with the umpire over a line call, an episode seemingly of minor importance
except perhaps in disrupting Jelena's concentration. Upon resumption of play,
Jelena promptly missed her second serve, and moments later her serving game was
The crisis was not over for Justine. Jelena produced excellent pressure and
gained break point in game eight. Justine narrowly survived to reach game score
44 and in turn pressed strongly against Jelena's serve in game nine. A strong
wind suddenly appeared from the north, softening Jelena's serve and adding
velocity to Justine's returns. Justine squeezed out the critical service break
to reach score 54. And with loss of the set soon afterwards, Jelena's mental
state turned negative. There would be no more double-faults from Justine, who
was now playing at her best. The impressive lass from Belgrade, no longer
smiling, would not win another game.
Justine's renowned mental strengths, aided by Jelena's agonies and a
fortuitous wind, had saved the Belgian superstar.
SEMI-FINAL: SHARAPOVA d. MAURESMO 60 46 60
The two had met in the Wimbledon semis, where Amelie had prevailed.
Throughout, the heavier, more aggressive hitter was Sharapova. In the first set Maria
almost never missed, ripping away with abandon against Amelie's defenses,
producing winners and forcing errors.
Despite losing the first set in a whitewash, Amelie kept good composure and
began playing better, while Maria's shots began occasionally landing outside
the lines. Both players now regularly held serve, and Amelie found a rhythm in
generating every conceivable variety of spin, pace, and placement. Seldom were
consecutive shots by Amelie similar. Meanwhile Amelie began coming forward
sometimes, thereby offering a further problem to her opponent. Maria finally
faltered, losing her serve in game ten.
The patterns changed slightly in the third set. Maria remained the heavier
stroker but now played more carefully than before, while Amelie continued her
varied shot-making but seemed to forget her recent interest in coming forward.
In every game, it was Maria's formula that prevailed.
FINAL: SHARAPOVA d. HENIN 64 64
It was scarcely the quality tennis that befits a Slam final, especially in
the early going. Most points were brief in the first set, and most were decided
by errors. Henin held serve to start despite several errors, and it was
Sharapova who nervously lost serve in game two. Justine promptly gave back the
service break, and Maria nearly did the same in her next two serving games. Only
in holding serve at love in game eight did Sharapova begin finding anything
close to her top game, featuring serving precision and aggressive stroking.
As Sharapova raised her play, Henin could not do the same. Four errors by
Justine, two of them unforced, gave Maria the needed service break in game nine,
and Maria closed out the first set with a strong serving game amid weak
returns by Justine.
Maria's dominance never wavered thereafter. Yielding errors now and then,
Maria remained firm in her determination to stay atop the rallies. She came to
net more often than usually, helping contain Justine's usually strong attacking
strengths. The error count was about the same for both players, but Maria's
errors came from aggressiveness, while many of Justine's were inexcusable. Maria
followed-up her important break of Justine's serve in game seven with a
superb display of controlled attack in game eight, won at love. The end was not
long in coming.
In losing her bid for a second U.S. Open crown, Justine successfully overcame
the double-faulting that had plagued her against Jankovic. But serving
deficiency appeared a major element in her defeat, as Justine put into play only 53%
of her first serves, against 72% by Maria. Her average first-serve velocity
was higher than Maria's, but her first serves produced lower point-winning
percentage. There seemed no tiredness in Maria's play but some indication of back
Justine remains a strong candidate for our coming Player of Year selection,
having reached the final of all four Slams, winning in Paris, and still atop
the WTA year-to-date points race. Just ahead is the Fed Cup final-round tie,
Belgium against Italy, and the year-end championship event in Madrid in early
Roger Federer's march to the final round seemed predestined. The two-time
defending champion and top-seeded entrant defeated all six opponents enroute,
where only James Blake succeeded in winning a set, in their quarter-final
meeting. Against Nicolay Davydenko in the semis, Roger turned on the heat only when
needed and even took the opportunity to practice his net-attacking, closing out
comfortably. Throughout his progress, Roger showed his calm, almost
unemotional, ability to prevail from back court by virtue of his superb movement and
The greater drama unfolded in the other half of the draw, where a foremost
actor would be the 24-year old Muscovite, Mikhail Youzhny.
YOUZHNY d. NADAL 63 57 76 61
Was it the evening coolness and moisture that sapped the energy and lift from
Rafael Nadal's ordinarily venomous overspin? Was it the shock of unexpectedly
meeting an opponent able to contend equally with Rafael, point after point,
game after game, so that the fear of losing gradually overtook Rafael's usual
bravado and fire?
Mikhail Youzhny was best known for winning the deciding match in Russia's
first Davis Cup championship in 2002. But since then there had been little to
indicate that Youzhny, persistently troubled by knee or back injury, could be a
serious threat in late rounds of Slams. His summer 2006 record had been
undistinguished, and he had moved through the first three rounds here only at
considerable peril. His comfortable fourth-round victory over Robredo raised
Against highly favored Rafael, Mikhail surprised me with his success when he
sometimes played as a human backboard, returning Rafael's artillery with easy
nonchalance. In these intervals, he extended points comfortably--moving the
ball around the court, keeping it deep, varying the pace and spin. It was
classic tight tennis, where it was difficult for the Garros champion to generate
heavy pressure except at high risk. Mikhail also showed ability to execute
flattish forehand rockets to the lines in sudden attacks.
Rafael's errors mounted and confidence weakened as he lost the first set and
only narrowly won the second. Even when he sometimes succeeded in reaching
Mikhail's backhand above the shoulder, Mikhail's reply almost unfailingly stayed
inside the lines and out of trouble. Rafael reached three set points to win
the third set on Mikhail's serve, and when this advantage evaporated, anxiety
became unmistakably evident across the features of the recent Wunderkind. In
contrast, Mikhail played calmly, confidently, increasingly taking the offensive
from both wings amid an occasional brilliant net approach.
The third-set tiebreaker became the critical moment. Plainly rattled by
Mikhail's ability to stay in contention, Rafael fell behind in the point score,
then moved ahead, then--obviously tight--lost the lead amid several dismal misses.
At five points all, bad luck intervened when the netcord lifted a neutral
offering by Rafael slightly over the baseline. Then at set point, Mikhail's
movement to net behind an unimpressive approach shot produced another bad error by
The final-set demolition started with Rafael's first two serving points when
Mikhail twice tagged winners catching the outer edges of lines. Youzhny's
solid play seldom wavered thereafter, while Nadal's morale went steadily downhill.
The match ended with Youzhny, who produced double the total of winners by
Nadal, having exposed vulnerabilities in Nadal's forehand and mental strength.
RODDICK d. YOUZHNY 67 60 76 63
Was it the hand of Jimmy Connors, Andy's new coach? Whatever the reason,
throughout the early rounds Andy played at his level of his championship year,
2003. The serve had never lost its energy, and now both the serve and his power
overspin forehands were landing with impressive consistency. His shot-making
now found excellent angles unusual from Andy, and his sliced backhand seemed
more effective, especially when directed down-the-line. Tony Trabert was quoted
citing Andy's taking the ball earlier off the bounce, comparing the tactic to
Connors's. Andy's only early stumble came in losing two tiebreak sets to
Verdasco in their third-rounder, and he stormed into the semis with a
straight-setter over Lleyton Hewitt.
Andy had won his last two encounters with Youznhy, both on hard courts, but
the scores had been close. Andy now had the greater familiarity with the
stadium court and surroundings, and would also benefit from crowd support. One
question was Youzhny's physical readiness. Besides fresh back trouble, Mikhail's
rest time after his win over Nadal had been interrupted by his two doubles
matches, both three-setters. Still, it seemed likely that Youzhny's quickness and
stroking ability would make him superior to Roddick in routine baseline
exchanges. Andy's main weapon would be, of course, his serve.
The first set showed that Mikhail would be able to answer Andy's raw power
very well. Andy attacked net much more than usual, showing only mixed success.
The score reached tiebreaker, won by Mikhail closely. But Mikhail lost serve to
start set two, and after falling behind another service-break plainly
conceded the set.
Mikhail recovered with set three, his serve soon regaining the velocity
absent earlier. Most typically, Mikhail's wonderful ground strokes would force Andy
onto the defensive, where Andy showed surprising skills but where Mikhail
scored a very high winning percentage after reaching net. Andy's willingness to
come forward faded only slightly, and though success was mixed the tactic
helped break up Mikhail's fine attacking game.
But in Andy's service games, the American's superior serving ability became
overwhelmingly dominant. For the match, Andy produced average first-serve
velocity of 125 mph, against Mikhail's 109. Especially in the late going, Andy's
second serve had excellent both angle and lift, often earning a defensive
return from shoulder level or higher by Mikhail's backhand one-hander. Mikhail had
no more break-point opportunities, as Andy captured the third set in a
tiebreaker and the fourth by gaining a single service break.
FINAL: FEDERER d. RODDICK 62 46 75 61
In winning ten of their eleven past meetings, Federer had plainly shown his
ability to blunt Andy's serve, returning it with consistency although usually
without forcefulness. Roger's unquestioned superiority in baseline exchanges
made it seem that Andy's best hope was to get to net regularly behind forcing
approaches and, once in forecourt, end points quickly and decisively. Surely
Andy must also occasionally test Roger by coming to net directly behind serve,
taking away Roger's usual preference for floating back Andy's serves.
After a first set dismal for Roddick, moderated only by evidence of revival
by Roddick late in the set. Andy's resurgence then continued, Andy outplaying
Roger to break serve in the opening game of the second set. It would be the
only break of the set, as Andy began holding serve largely by forcing his way to
net directly off his first strike of Roger's serve return, as prescribed
above. His first-serve in-court percentage for the second set was an excellent 72%,
making it difficult for Roger to prevent Andy from his attacking game. If
Roddick ripped his approach at high velocity and directed it well away from
Roger's position, success came often.
The pattern continued in set three, the crowd utterly engaged and cheering
for Andy. Both players faced several break points, but the server always
survived. For a time, it seemed that Roddick's chances were as good as Federer's,
who was playing his fourth match in five days. Toward the end of the set,
however, it was evident that Andy's high first-serve percentage was in decline. In
the twelfth game of the set, Andy serving, Andy's approach-shot game failed him
four times. Roger broke through to win the set, and with Roger ahead two sets
to one and clearly on his game, Andy's momentum was permanently lost.
It had been a superb final. For Roddick, his wonderful effort redeemed a year
or more of disappointment and suggested more to come in 2007. For Federer,
his ninth Slam triumph further improved his already high place in tennis
history. Could we be witnessing tennis's greatest player ever? What more can be
asked of Roger?
A few credentials remain unachieved--a Garros crown to complete Roger's
career Grand Slam, for example, or, even more difficult, a rare calendar-year Grand
Slam. An overall winning record against Nadal would seem achievable. Could a
Davis Cup crown for Switzerland lie ahead, won by Roger with help from
Wawrinka, Chiudinelli, Allegro, or some yet unknown star? Might a second career as a
doubles champion, like that of Navratilova, add something precious? It will be
thrilling to watch Roger reach for these or perhaps other goals.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.