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Between The Lines
September 10, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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U.S. Open 06 Review

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Ray Bowers

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 good bye.

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 weekend.

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 occasional attack.

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.

THIRD QUARTER

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 comfortable scores.

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 lost.

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 trouble.

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 November.

MEN'S SINGLES

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 shot-making skills.

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 attention.

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 Rafael.

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.

--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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