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Between The Lines
November 20, 2006 Article

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Year End Championships Reviewed

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Ray Bowers

Television by Versus, Tennis Channel, and ESPN2 brought to America the wonderful matches in November from Madrid and Shanghai, where Justine Henin-Hardenne and Roger Federer cemented their #1 places in the singles races for 2006.

THE SONY ERICSSON, NOVEMBER 7-12

The pre-tournament favorite in Madrid was Maria Sharapova, who had not lost a match since capturing U.S. Open in September. Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters, and Mauresmo were plausible candidates, though all three had been sidelined of late with injuries. The coated hard playing surface of Madrid Arena had been used by the male pros a few weeks earlier. It would prove intermediate in its speed, where overspin shots bounced moderately high and firmly sliced balls skid low.

Round-robin competition was tight in the four-player Yellow Group. In first-day action on Tuesday, Henin-Hardenne, wearing an unusual heat-producing attachment along her calf, outhit and outplayed Hingis in winning the first set and taking a double-break lead in the second. But with little warning Martina suddenly became the Swiss Miss of six years ago, dominating with clean strokes that painted the inside area of the sidelines, alternating sides. The brilliant stroking kept Henin on the run and set the stage for winners by Martina. Hingis thus captured the second set in a tiebreaker, equalizing the match. Had Hingis suddenly found her true form? Or had her revival happened because Justine's shots lost their sting--perhaps out of complacency or perhaps from the strange tiredness that had sometimes afflicted Justine since her illness two years ago? No clear answer came with the third set, where Justine reasserted her dominance.

Also on Tuesday, Nadia Petrova defeated last year's winner of the event, Mauresmo, in straight sets. The result was not a complete surprise, as Nadia had been at her best in the fall events following U.S. Open, while Amelie had been largely inactive amid shoulder trouble. But on Wednesday, Petrova fell victim to Hingis's mobility and accuracy, which sapped the energy from Nadia's more-potent weaponry. Petrova wisely toned down her aggressiveness and her errors, but in the end the Hingis magic prevailed.

Henin-Hardenne on Thursday qualified for Saturday's semis with her second win, defeating Petrova in straight sets. Nadia played forcefully but, as against Hingis, missed too many shots in trying to force play. The contrast between Justine's compact forehand, which is capable of much precision, and Nadia's large-backswing forehand, which often misses in targeting the corners, seemed the difference.

Amelie Mauresmo's first-day loss to Petrova had seemed devastating. But she joined Justine in reaching the semis with victories on Thursday and Friday, defeating first Hingis and then Henin (who had already qualified) in split sets. Hingis seemed tired toward the end of this, her third three-setter in three days. But she overcame some uncharacteristic error-making and nearly forced a concluding tiebreaker against an obviously nervous Amelie.

Meanwhile the Red Group provided a fine stage for Sharapova, who won six sets without loss in defeating her three opponents. On Tuesday she dominated Dementieva in a one-sided first set and then narrowly prevailed in an evenly contested second. Dementieva contributed 15 double-faults. On Wednesday Maria's heavy serving and stroking were too much for Clijsters, whose play seemed injury-free. Maria's ability in answering her opponent's power to the backhand deep corner was more than impressive. Then on Friday, Sharapova's big game prevailed against Kuznetsova. Meanwhile Kim Clijsters also qualified for the semis by winning her Thursday and Friday matches. The strong Kuznetsova forehand was no problem for Kim, who had faced Sharapova's power earlier. Kim tallied 18 winners for the match against only 4 unforced errors.

SATURDAY SEMIS

Sharapova was the only one of the four Russians to reach the final four. Maria seemed a clear favorite owing to her powerful successes during the week. But Justine Henin-Hardenne from the outset answered the weight of Maria's game with superb quickness and countering shot-making. Maria put full energy into her serving and aggressive stroking, but too often points ended when a forceful offering by Maria became another error. Justine came to front court often, especially when serving, showing some fine volleys. But she won essentially because of her fine defensive play. It was Justine, 62 76.

Amelie Mauresmo had struggled throughout the round-robin phase, so that Kim Clijsters seemed the favorite for their Saturday semi. In winning the first set Amelie played well, mixing offense and defense generally without error. Kim, like Sharapova earlier, contributed excessive errors, often from what seemed an exaggerated backswing on the forehand side. The second set was even, though Clijsters caught fire for a spell, cutting out the errors so that her firm hitting paid off. The third set too was close, both players raising their game. Late in the set several backhand errors by Kim--it had been Kim's solider side--produced the critical break of serve. With pressure on, Amelie closed out the final service game with dispatch.

FINAL: HENIN-HARDENNE d. MAURESMO, 64 63

The overall level of play in the final was high, and there were many spectator-pleasing points. In its tactical pattern, the match repeated the meeting of the same two stars in the 2006 Wimbledon final. Now, as before, both women moved to net fairly frequently. Henin typically came forward during exchanges upon slightest opportunity. Mauresmo did so behind first serves. Unlike at Wimby, attacking net did not seem to produce consistent winners for either player, but Justine's general level of aggressiveness, including her forcing approach shots, seemed often responsible for inducing errors by Amelie. The second set featured many breaks of serve, Justine closing out impressively from three-games-all. The verdict seemed to vindicate Justine's attacking tactics.

The high level of spectator excitement throughout the week justified moving the year-end event to Madrid, although many fans missed some excellent tennis by their custom of arriving late. The champion, Henin-Hardenne, captured first place in the final WTA rankings for 2006. Sharapova finished second, Mauresmo third. Henin reached the final of all four 2006 Slams, winning at Garros, and in September Justine nearly led Belgium to Fed Cup triumph, though she failed because of injury.

MADRID DOUBLES

On hand were the four leading pairs in the WTA year-to-date doubles rankings. On Saturday French Open champions Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur swept into the finals with a convincing win over Peschke-Schiavone. Stosur's high-velocity serving and Raymond's excellent volleying and overhead work gave the American-Australian pair the early lead, which they relentlessly protected. Moving to net behind every first and second serve and superior to their opponents in quickness, the English-speakers won all their service games, while the Europeans--hanging in back court behind serves--were broken three times.

Also reaching the final were Karen Black and Renee Stubbs, who in a very attractive three-setter defeated the current Australian Open and Wimbledon champion pair Yan-Zheng. Black-Stubbs resembled Raymond-Stosur in playing style, with the larger player receiving serve in the ad court, both partners coming to net ruthlessly. Yan-Zheng rarely came forward behind serve, and sometimes used the I-formation in serving. Their strength was quickness in reaction along with crispness, deception, and accuracy in hitting. The first set was close, Black-Stubbs obtaining a late break. The Chinese pair answered well to equalize in the second. The finish could not have been much closer.

The final-round pairings thus repeated last year's, when Raymond-Stosur prevailed after falling behind by a set and a service break. This time Black-Stubbs won the first five games, most of them one-sidedly, Stubbs roaming the net area with devastating effect. But after that, for the rest of the match Black-Stubbs won only seven more games while the defending champions won fourteen, mainly behind the sizzling racket of Lisa Raymond. There were a few weak moments by partner Stosur, but it was Samantha who fired the forehand service return that completed the crucial break in set two and a similar rocket that produced the initial break in set three. Raymond's brilliance--excellent zip in her shot-making, overhead power, wondrous changes of direction in the exchanges--reached its highest toward the end. Both pairs aggressively crowded the middle at net, sometimes surrendering an alley to a blistering pass. It added up to a 26 63 63 triumph for Raymond-Stosur, amid 90 minutes of breathtaking, aggressive doubles. The American-Australian pair thus confirmed their #1 ranking for the year.

MASTERS CUP, NOVEMBER 12-19

Unlike last year when three of the top four male pros were absent from Shanghai, this year all members of the current first eight were healthy and ready. Once again, the convertible roof stayed closed throughout the week, making this an indoor event.

Roger Federer, the odds-on favorite to become champion, won all three of his round-robin matches though he was carried to three sets by his first two opponents--Nalbandian and Roddick. Andy won the first set against Roger and held several match points in the second-set tiebreaker before succumbing. Joining Roger in qualifying for the Saturday semi-finals from the Red Group was David Nalbandian, who defeated Andy on the last day of the Group's round-robin.

In the Gold Group, James Blake began with a scintillating straight-set win over favored Rafael Nadal. Rafael played his usual heavy baseline game, happy to extend points indefinitely to allow the sustained weight of his artillery to prevail. Blake, playing at his best, was extremely aggressive, both in his attacking off the ground and in moving forward to net frequently. His flattish rockets to the corners made the difference.

Two evenings later, James's attacking game was at first blunted by the brilliant court movement and accurate hitting of Davydenko. Nicolay, who had won the Paris Indoors earlier in the month, took the first set and led by a break in the second. But Blake turned matters around and became the first from the group to qualify for the weekend semis.

In their Friday contest for the other weekend berth, both Davydenko and Nadal played from the baseline but with very different styles. Slender and speedy, Nicolay hit with aggressiveness, displaying his superb backhand two-hander. Strongly built Nadal played from deep behind baseline, willing to run down Nicolay's laser beams to the corners, patiently waiting for a miss by Nicolay or an inviting short ball. Probably because of the fast court surface, Rafael often sliced his backhand. Winners came rarely from Rafael's racket, as Nicolay seldom offered a vulnerable target. Often Nicolay would be stationed at the center of baseline, pushing Rafael from corner to corner and keeping him deep. I missed the late part of the match and was surprised in learning that Rafael won.

So the Saturday semi-finals would offer another Federer-Nadal meeting, another potential classic, with Roger heavily favored given Rafael's declined record since their final at Wimbledon. Roger began with determined aggressiveness, unleashing his power forehand somewhat impatiently but with brilliant success, breaking serve in game two. There was no feeling-out of his opponent, no early temporizing play to adjust to conditions--patterns often seen from Roger. Meanwhile Rafael seemed to be playing better than earlier in the week, hitting strongly and with good consistency, keeping the ball deep, cutting down on his extreme topspin for sake of greater velocity. Rafael stopped Federer's run by holding serve in game four and regained the lost service break in game nine amid a fade spell by Roger. As the set approached climax, the baseline rallies became breathtaking in their ferocity and the brilliance of the angles. With the capacity crowd gasping with every shot, it was Rafael who most often failed in the long exchanges, and the first set was Roger's.

The level of play remained high in the second set, Roger lowering his aggressiveness somewhat, both players holding serve consistently. Late in the set Federer again stepped up his attacking, moving forward with good instincts and occasionally punishing a Nadal looper with a swinging volley from inside the baseline. Roger reached two match points against Rafael's serve in game ten, Rafael showing good fortitude in surviving. Roger held serve easily in the next game, and once again it was Rafael serving under heavy pressure. It was another extended game amid high-order, attacking tennis by both men, the margins of winning or losing points often miniscule. It ended fittingly--in a fantastic drop-shot recovery by Roger producing an untouchable rocket to the deep opposite corner. The final score 64 75 scarcely suggested the drama and the quality of the play.

Roger's one-sided victory over James Blake in the Sunday final lacked the lustre of his meeting with Nadal. But it had been a superb tournament for James, who had barely qualified for admission and then against expectations scored victories over Nadal, Davydenko, and, in their Saturday semi-final, Nalbandian. Federer won the first set at love, Roger's mobility and counter-punching ability largely negating the American's attacking game. Roger maintained clear supremacy thereafter as he allowed James a total of just seven games in breaking his opponent's confidence and closing out his victory in three straight sets.

The greatness of Federer had been once again demonstrated. His triumph echoed his already assured #1 ranking for the year. Nadal finished second in the rankings, Davydenko third, and Blake fourth. In congratulating Blake for his successful week, Roger welcomed James to the first four.

SHANGHAI DOUBLES

The eight top pairs in the year-to-date men's rankings were present. But the early doubles play from Shanghai seemed tepid after watching the wonderful women's doubles final from Spain. Spells ensued of short points and routinely won serving games. Matters picked up for me in watching the mid-week meeting of Bjorkman-Mirnyi and Knowles-Nestor, the world's second- and third-ranked pairs. The power and aggressiveness of all four players were of course superb, and now--perhaps reflecting the top-level skills of all and their familiarity with one another--many points produced exchanges of four or more racket hits, invariably thrilling the lively gallery. Knowles-Nestor won the first set and seemed in command of the second behind spectacular hitting by Knowles. But Bjorkman tightened his shot-making and the favored pair eventually prevailed in a close third set. Both pairs would remain otherwise undefeated in Red Group action, and both would reach the weekend semis.

Gold Group matches also became more fascinating as the cast became accustomed to the conditions and improved in their shot-making. The favored Bryan twins lost twice in three-setters and were eliminated, while Hanley-Ullyett remained unbeaten. Also reaching the semis were Damm-Paes, who had beaten Erlich-Ram.

Starting the Saturday semis, Knowles-Nestor lost the first set but went on to defeat comfortably Hanley-Ullyett, where the difference was in stronger serving. Data for the full match showed that the North Americans led the Southern Hemisphere pair by 9-10% in both first-serve in-court percentage and first-serve winning percentage. They also showed a 9-4 lead in aces. Nestor was by far the solidest performer of the four, greatly improving his serve-returning above that seen earlier against Bjorkman-Mirnyi. Ullyett showed his usual quickness, sometimes spectacularly, and Hanley raised the overall power of the pair.

The other semi-final--Bjorkman-Mirnyi against Damm-Paes--was fiercely contested from start to finish. The match consisted of three tiebreak sets, where each pair broke serve once in each of the first two sets and neither pair broke in set three. Bjorkman-Mirnyi held two match-points in the second set but could not convert. In the last two games before the third-set tiebreaker, both of them long, each pair faced and then survived break points. The intense, concluding tiebreak reached five points all before Bjorkman-Mirnyi prevailed.

The Sunday doubles final thus repeated the choice match-up in the Red Group--Knowles-Nestor against Bjorkman-Mirnyi, where the latter pair was slightly favored given their undefeated run during the week. This time, there was no slow start by the Europeans, who captured the first four games and scarcely let up thereafter. Bjorkman was nearly flawless throughout, Mirnyi nearly so while displaying greater serving and stroking power than any of the others. Bjorkman-Mirnyi thus became the #2 pair in the 2006 standings, behind the Bryans.

LONGER POINTS IN DOUBLES

In my opinion men's pro doubles would be improved if points were longer. In watching the matches from Shanghai, it seemed obvious that it was the long and moderately long exchanges that produced interesting action and good, often wonderful, crowd response. The gallery was mostly quiet when a point ended with only two or three racket-touches, especially if this pattern predominated for several games. In Shanghai spells of spectacular action alternated with runs of many short points.

I tracked the length of points through the full third set of the round-robin match between Bjorkman-Mirnyi and Damm-Paes, tallying whether or not points lasted at least four racket touches. For the first ten games (where there were no service breaks), the shorter points outnumbered the longer by 36-18. But for the last three games including the tiebreaker, I counted 18 longer points and 18 short ones. Could it be that the players began hitting more cautiously as the climax approached, making for longer points? Whatever the reason for the many spectacular points, the crowd response, which surely would have risen anyway as the final verdict approached, became extreme.

It seems to me that abolishing the second serve in doubles would cut down on the number of errors and sitters resulting from serve returns, thus increasing the average length of points. It would also make service breaks more frequent, cutting down on prolonged, sleep-inducing periods without breaks. (Expanding the use of no-ad scoring would also make breaks more frequent.) Further observations--counting racket-touches in first-serve and second-serve points, for example--will be interesting.

Returning to earth, the notion of one-serve-only in doubles is probably impractical, as those current players having strong first-serves and weak second-serves would be harmed. Also the change might make service breaks too frequent. A compromise might allow two second-serves per game.

Alert: Get ready for Davis Cup action from Moscow in early December, to be seen here on Tennis Channel.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, USA

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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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