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Between The Lines
January 28, 2007 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Australia Review 2007

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Ray Bowers

Merciless heat at the outset was followed by extended rainfall badly needed by the island continent. Temperate conditions followed, but for the top players the tournament often resembled an indoor one, staged largely in the convertible Laver or Vodafone arenas. Overall, it was hard to see that the game of tennis--men's as well as women's--had ever been played as well.

The ultimate high points in the men's and women's singles were (1) the supreme magnificence of Roger Federer and (2) the return to past greatness of Serena Williams. Several older players showed significant leaps of improvement, among them Gonzalez, Roddick, Clijsters, and to a lesser degree also Fish, Haas, Zvonareva, and Hingis. There was ample evidence that wonderful things lay ahead for the current teenaged contingent, both male and female.

The Rebound Ace surface made for excellence in play at seemingly little penalty in terms of player injury. It was again evident that pro singles is today played mainly from backcourt--that unless opponent is severely forced, net approaches are hazardous, often suicidal. Still, aggressive play was almost always key to winning, favoring the player best able to attack firmly to the sides amid strong instincts to move forward to meet any soft reply. The killing shot was often a swinging volley taken at midcourt. Highly indicative during matches was the tally of winners vs. unforced errors, where a favorable plurality seemed key for advancing to the late rounds. Soft hitting when in trouble was disastrous and during neutral exchanges invited attack.

The balance of power among the tennis nations remained stable. Russia was the comfortable winner in the women's tally, comfortably ahead of the second-place U.S. females. The Russkayas placed five players in the final sixteen of singles. Meanwhile the leading nation among the men was U.S.A., where Roddick, Blake, and Fish scored well in singles, all at least reaching the last sixteen, and the Bryans won the doubles. The French males were second.

WOMEN'S FINAL - S. WILLIAMS d. SHARAPOVA, 61 62

It was as complete a demolition as ever seen in a Slam final. Earlier in the tournament Serena had played erratically in long stretches. But on this day the muscular American played at close to perfection, replying to just about every offering with full-power attack. The result was a ruthless forcing game backed by absolutely superior court mobility along with quickness in racket and body shot-preparation. There was little caution in Serena's serve-returning. Williams relentlessly punished nearly all Sharapova's serves--not only Maria's already-suspect second serve but also any first serve that was not in the tightest corner of the service box. Even when Maria managed to reach one of Serena's serve-return rockets, her unfamiliarity with Serena's extreme weight of shot often produced weakish replies. Sharapova tried to stop the deluge by stepping up her own play, but the result was often errors or mishits of her own. Even when the outcome was beyond doubt, the ferocity of Serena's game dropped off hardly at all. It ended in little over an hour.

SERENA'S ROAD TO THE FINAL

After winning Australian Open 05, Serena competed only sparingly owing to long-standing knee trouble. Fully sidelined in late 2006, she returned to action in early January at Hobart, Tasmania, where she lost in the third round to unseeded Austrian player Bammer. At Melbourne Park she defeated two unseeded opponents and faced fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova in the third round. Nadia had in recent months approached the game's elite level, having shown all-around hard-hitting excellence. Serena seemed on the hefty side, but she was clearly trimmer than in her 2006 appearances.

I watched the last half-hour or so of play, where Serena, who had been error-prone earlier in the match, now found her strong attacking game while avoiding excessive errors. It was the Serena of past times--determined, utterly concentrated, and ruthless in her strong serving and hitting. Petrova was consistently outplayed, her own attacking shots easily neutralized by Serena's athletic mobility. Serena's level of play in the late going suggested that the American superstar--if she could sustain that quality--was again capable of defeating anyone.

In her fourth match Serena again brought to mind the Serena of old, dominating the rising Serb star, Jelena Jankovic. Serena's serving and stroking carried more weight than Jelena's, helping her generally maintain the initiative. Just as decisive was Serena's athletic mobility, which largely neutralized Jelena's bids to attack. It seemed that the only player that could have beaten Serena this date was Serena herself, and that was not to be.

Serena was now favored to win her half of the draw owing to her own strong performances and the demise of Mauresmo, the defending champion who lost early to unseeded Safarova. Serena's quarter-final opponent was Jerusalem-born Shamar Peer, age 19, who finished 2006 as World #20. On this date Serena's play reverted to the error-prone and often listless game seen earlier, far below her fierce perfection in closing out Petrova and overwhelming Jankovic. Meanwhile the teenager, behind her excellent mobility and counter-punching skills, moved ahead early and kept matters close until the conclusion. It was a highly competitive if not especially well-played contest, where errors far outnumbered winners. Serena found her wonderful serve and power stroking in several critical moments, ultimately prevailing in a tense and extended third set.

In their semi-final meeting, more often than not the dominating player over Serena was Nicole Vaidisova--tall and powerful at age 17, winner over Safarova. Vaidisova seemed eager for the initiative, exploiting her excellent power in serving and in driving to the deep corners in hopes of offsetting Serena's superior mobility and tactical strengths. The score remained close, and Nicole reached a set point late in the first set. Meanwhile Serena largely played within herself, keeping her errors--although alarmingly frequent--at an acceptable level. But after losing the first-set tiebreaker Nicole turned cranky. Though she recovered from two games down in the second set, her persisting negative manner seemed--probably correctly--to doom her chances.

Watchers applauded Serena's wins to date, but her difficulties against Peer and Vaidisova clouded memories of her excellence earlier. Thus Sharapova, who had steadily improved after first-round trouble amid severe heat, was still generally regarded the favorite.

THE UPPER HALF

When the tournament began the upper half of the draw seemed the stronger, featuring Sharapova and Clijsters, along with Martina Hingis and the rising 19-year-old Muscovite, Anna Chakvetadze. These four became the half's four survivors into the quarter-finals. In all three matches among the four, the losing player was, paradoxically, the one with the fewest number of unforced errors (and also the fewer winners).

In the quarters, Chakvetadze made things scary for top-seeded Sharapova. Anna indeed appeared superior to Maria in the consistency of her ground game, forcing the favorite to seek the initiative. Chakvetadze answered Maria's rockets to the corners with spectacular replies, often executed on the run, exceeding even the counter-punching strengths of Peer seen the day before. After narrowly losing the first-set tiebreaker, Anna for a while seemed listless and concerned with shoulder pain. But she reversed matters and pressed the taller Maria closely toward the end, showing occasional extreme power off the backhand. Anna's serve was less than deadly, however, perhaps weakened by her shoulder trouble. Maria needed all her powers of concentration and will, along with her bold attacking instincts to prevail.

Meanwhile Clijsters defeated Hingis in the other quarter-final albeit with more difficulty than expected. Kim made an unaccustomed number of errors, typically in attempting to force play. Martina executed her usual clean all-court game, but Kim's greater hitting power was evident on those occasions where Kim unloaded at full weight and also in the consistent difference in their serving velocities. Hingis did well in partially defanging Kim's attack, but the latter succeeded in finding the necessary level of attack now without making too many errors.

In the semi-final meeting of the survivors, Sharapova seemed more aggressive than Clijsters. Maria often scored well from midcourt or forecourt behind blistering serves or attacking shots. Matters reached four-games-all and, with both players hitting and moving well, Maria seized the next two games and the first set behind some fine service returns.

Both players were now competing at what seemed their best, but it was Maria's sustained heavier firepower off the ground that paved the way for winning putaways from closer in. Kim managed to reach most of Maria's forcing serves and ground strokes, but whereas Chakvetadze had usually managed to rip back such offerings, Kim often produced softish floaters. Toward the end, except for an inordinate number of double-faults, Maria's dominance became complete.

THE CURRENT ORDER IN WOMEN'S TENNIS

Does the completeness of her triumph at Melbourne mean that Serena is ready to resume her domination of the game relinquished two years ago. Indeed, there was no evidence at Melbourne of Serena's past knee trouble, nor of any lessening of her fierce competitive desire. That further Slam successes for Serena lie ahead seems strongly likely.

With mind to the months ahead, we here offer an informal ranking of the top women based mainly on evidence from Melbourne and the months just before. Note especially the prominence of relative newcomers after the first four.

1. S. Williams
2. Henin-Hardenne
3. Sharapova
4. Clijsters
5. Vaidisova
6. Chakvetadze
7. Hingis
8. Peer or Jankovic or Safina or Mauresmo.

MEN'S FINAL - FEDERER d. GONZALEZ, 76 64 64

The final round matched the two men who had clearly been the tournament's best. The defending champion, Roger Federer, had won his first six matches without losing a set, while his opponent, Fernando Gonzalez, was playing at his best-ever levels of speed, power, and consistency. For several months it had been evident that Fernando, or "Gonzo," now working with coach Larry Stefanki, was tempering his past overhitting style to cut down on excessive errors. The result was a top-ten finish at the end of 2006. But now, at Melbourne, Gonzo seemed again to be putting full energy into nearly every shot, except that now his errors were few.

Both men produced superlative tennis. Amid their extreme power, both played with tactical awareness, mixing in superb aggression and defense. Federer seemed more consistently forceful than customarily, and he moved into forecourt frequently, approaching and volleying strongly and often. Fernando showed off his new strong game, and although Roger's pace helped cause several now-uncharacteristic errors by Gonzo, both men held serve until game nine when Roger, serving, contributed some close errors and was twice beaten at net. Thus the first service-break of the match was Gonzo's. In the next game, game ten, Gonzalez held two set points. But somehow Roger, now mixing in periods of patient play, managed to secure the equalizing break. Two games later Roger nearly broke serve again, reaching several set points, and a few minutes later Roger decisively won the set-ending tiebreaker.

The magnificent level of play scarcely let up. Federer now became almost perfect in holding his own serving games. In set two he lost only two serving points, and set three was nearly as impressive. Amid many breathtaking points, Gonzo's serve held up well, while Roger's movement and defensive ability blunted Gonzo's strongest attacking. Roger broke serve once in both second and third sets, and it was enough. Gonzalez played with determination to the end, and the Chilean merits great credit for bringing forth Roger's very best along with a seldom-seen net-attacking game.

ROAD TO FINAL - GONZALEZ d. BLAKE 75 64 76, GONZALEZ d. NADAL 62 64 63, GONZALEZ d. HAAS 61 63 61

Just as noteworthy was Gonzo's road to the final, including straight-set wins over James Blake, Rafael Nadal, and Tommy Haas.

Blake and Gonzalez staged breathtaking rallies, many of them taxing the athleticism, physical strength, stamina, and mental limits of both men. Years ago, most tennis players could be typed--some were big hitters, others wonderful movers, others precise and consistent placers of the ball. But Blake and Gonzalez now seemed to be performing at highest level in all these traits, so that this struggle of two top-tenners seemed to exemplify how far the pro game has advanced. Many points in themselves became extended contests. Gonzalez managed to stay ahead all the way, but somehow his superiority never seemed clear. His victory set the stage for what seemed likely to be a fascinating quarter-final battle against the Murray-Nadal winner.

The Murray-Nadal fourth-rounder pitted the world's top teen-ager, Murray, against the player who had outgrown this distinction just last year and was already a superstar,. Nadal at 20 has already won Garros twice. Every time I watch Andy Murray, he seems physically stronger, more in control of what once seemed an ungainly body. His serve is now extremely potent, and his rocketing ground strokes seem effortlessly delivered amid his excellent court movement. Nadal meanwhile still shows the weighty overspin deliveries off both sides, the tireless court coverage, even as the youthful fire seems slightly dimmer. The match swung back and forth for five sets, but in the end Nadal's relentless presence prevailed--67 64 46 63 61.

Against Nadal, Fernando's power forehand, delivered with extreme sweeping backswing, was amazing to behold. The misfires that watchers had come to expect in past years were almost wholly absent. Again and again, the lithe Chilean ripped inside-outers using fearsome overspin to the left-handed Nadal's forehand corner, tempting Rafael to cheat in that direction. Once Gonzo gained the edge during a point, which happened often, Nadal could seldom break the pattern.

When the exchange was neutral, as in Nadal's serving games often, Nadal tried to keep his shots to Fernando's backhand, where the Chilean showed patience in employing a consistent one-handed slice, which Rafael attacked only gingerly. Fernando's court mobility was excellent, and even when forced onto the defensive, his power from either side posed threat of immediate offense. Once again, as in his recent victories, Gonzalez showed an impressive excess of winners over unforced errors, in ratio 2:1.

Against Tommy Haas in the semis, Gonzo's heavy hitting was again tempered by large doses of backhand slices, delivered cross-court to Tommy's strong backhand side. It is a tactic seen fairly often in today's otherwise hard-hitting baseline game, where the recipient of the slices is tempted to vary the pattern by driving down-the-line, thereby opening up the point but also at risk of error or opponent's strong forehand reply. In these backhand exchanges Gonzalez was generally better than Haas in avoiding error and also entirely able to cover the eventual down-the-line bid from Tommy's classic backhand. The resulting statistics were like those in Fernando's earlier triumphs--more than twice as many winners as errors by Gonzalez.

UPPER HALF -- RODDICK d. SAFIN, 76 26 64 76

This third-round meeting of two heavy servers and heavy strokers seemed likely to decide Federer's opponent in the semis. Marat Safin had regularly produced his best in past Australian Opens, and he had indeed won the tournament two years earlier. Knee trouble had held back Marat's success since then, but his physical readiness now seemed high, and he had played Federer closely in the semis at Kooyong just the week before. Meanwhile Andy Roddick had shown clear improvement in recent months, and had beaten Federer in the Kooyong final. The heavy-hitting power styles of both men were well suited to the slowish-bouncing Rebound Ace courts.

Both seemed strong early-on. Safin's serve was the more smoothly delivered and seemed the more effective, more often finding the lines and corners and more often producing aces. Roddick's attained slightly higher first-serve velocities but his edge was in his higher-bounding and more-forceful second serve. When baseline exchanges ensued, Roddick was more often the aggressor, showing nice statistical success when at net, though Safin produced some dazzling passing shots.

At one-set-all, Safin's game began to fray, though only slightly. There was an unwise drop-shot try and an inexplicably soft treatment of a sitter, both of which proved costly to the Russian. Now and then, Marat neglected to make the extra half-step needed to attain best hitting position. Then Marat hurt a finger, and next came a stream of complaints directed at the umpire. Marat successfully challenged several line calls, but the tall Russian's discontent seemed to grow along with increasing evidence of physical tiredness. Meanwhile Andy, who had been surly in his previous match, stayed well focused and seemingly fresh, perhaps helped by the close-by presence of consultant coach Jimmy Connors, who had just arrived from America. With his game now at its peak, Andy was a convincing winner of the tiebreak game ending the fourth and final set.

The official statistics showed that Andy had come to net considerably more frequently than Marat, so that Andy's plurality of points W-L at net was +19, compared with Safin's +11. The comparison appeared to vindicate Andy's more-aggressive approach.

After defeating Safin, Roddick indeed moved on to the semis, defeating Mario Ancic in five sets and Mardy Fish in three. Meanwhile Federer defended his top-seeded position with straight-set wins in all his matches. Among his victims were Youzhny, Djokovic, and Robredo.

FEDERER d. RODDICK 64 60 62

It was hard to imagine that anyone has ever displayed a higher level of tennis than did Federer in his semi-final conquest of Roddick. Andy kept matters even for most of the early going, but lost the first set amid several errors of his own, a firm serve return by Roger, and Roger's fast reaction in making a mid-court volley. Andy won the first two points of set two, but after that Federer's total domination set in. Ripping winners, point after point, Federer made Andy's resistance seem absent. Often--presumably following plan--Roddick tried to establish himself at net, but now the tactic almost always brought an immediate winner by Roger. Even from positions of disadvantage Roger's magic prevailed. The one-sided nature of the contest persisted into the third set. It was a stunning performance by the defending champion, one that would underline the quality of Gonzalez's resistance in the final.

THE CURRENT LADDER

Almost surely, Roger's place atop men's tennis will persist in months to come. It also seems likely that Gonzalez will sustain something close to his current level of play and perhaps establish his position as the sport's hard-court #2. The other veterans of the 2006 top eight, including Nadal, Roddick, and Blake, should stay in contention for second place, while newcomers Murray, Djokovic, Gasquet, and Berdych showed at Melbourne that they too belong in this group. Here is an informal current ranking of the men for hard-court play, derived from performances at Melbourne Park and in the months just before.

1. Federer
2. Gonzalez
3. Roddick
4. Blake
5. Nadal
6. Murray
7/8. Haas, Ancic, Davydenko, Safin, Djokovic, or Ljubicic.

February will be relatively quiet for most of the leaders. There will be indoor events in America and Europe, the women's Tier One in Tokyo, and the clay circuit in Latin America, all broken by Davis Cup play in the month's second week. There will be little time to reflect on Australia and the March events ahead in pro tennis.

Gratitude is owed to the Aussies for a wonderful Slam, and to ESPN/ESPN2 for bringing the matches to America.

--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.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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