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January 27, 2008 Article

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Genteel Ferocity -- Australian Open 08
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The arrival of Novak Djokovic at the top of the sport and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga not far behind, along with the return to tennis superstardom of Maria Sharapova, indelibly marked the two weeks at Melbourne Park. Meanwhile the tournament gave warning that other members of the newest tennis generation were also crowding the upper echelon.

Favored at the start to win the men's singles was the champion of 2006 and 2007, Roger Federer, whose dominance of pro tennis stirred thoughts of a possible Grand Slam by Roger in 2008. Four female superstars stood out as prospective champions at Melbourne--Justine Henin, Serena Williams, and Venus Williams, plus Maria Sharapova only slightly behind in her perceived chances.

ROUNDS ONE AND TWO

The eight highest-seeded players, both male and female, all successfully advanced through the first two rounds. Of these, the narrowest survivor was third-seeded Jelena Jankovic, who managed to tighten her game repeatedly in the face of multiple adverse match points. Her opponent, Austrian teenager Tamira Pascek, produced many winners from back court often from a relentless backhand drive of admirable power and consistency. In the prime match-up of the early rounds, Maria Sharapova dominated Lindsay Davenport, who was returning from giving birth in 2007. Maria's unrestrained power serving and power hitting scarcely misfired.

Mild surprises marked the men's play, where eleven lesser-seeded players were eliminated. The prime early departee was Andy Murray, who had been seeded #9 and wrongly picked by me to reach the semis. Andy fell to French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a strong and energetic athlete, a steady riser in the pro rankings in the last two years. Another impressive performer was newcomer Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, age 21 and 6-1, whose potent and clean groundstrokes forced Lleyton Hewitt to summon his best. Many of the points were extraordinary examples of angular and power tennis, featuring dazzling shotmaking by both opponents.

In the early tally of matches won by nation, matters were unusually close on the men's side. The French males held a small early lead, but the American contingent included the defending doubles champions, the Bryan twins, and therefore appeared to have the longer-term advantage. Here was the tally after two rounds of singles.

--France, 15 matches won
--U.S.A., 14
--Spain, 12

At the outset the American women, with the Williams sisters entered in both singles and doubles, seemed a threat to the usual Russian dominance. But after Davenport's early loss, along with wins in the first and second rounds by several relatively unknown Russian players, the Russian superiority in depth appeared overwhelming:

Russia, 21 matches won
France, 10
U.S.A., 6

COURT SPEED

Before the tournament began everyone wondered about the playing characteristics of the new Plexicushion Prestige courts. Player comments early in the tournament indicated that the new courts were not very different from the old in their foot traction and horizontal speed of bounce. The surface's sandpaper-like grit reacted fairly well to spin. (Overspin serves could be made to produce a high bounce, side-sliced serves could be made to skid and then curve, undersliced shots stayed low.) Whether the courts were slightly faster or slightly slower than before seemed to depend on the observer. Andy Roddick noted that his own opinion changed from day to day.

There is an indirect test for court speed, where fast courts, which increase server's edge, produce more-frequent sets ending in tiebreaks. Shown here is the percentage of sets reaching six-games-all--i.e., tiebreak--in the first two rounds of men's singles:

Australian Open 08 = 17.4%
average of preceding four Australian Opens = 14.5%

By this test, the Plexicushion Prestige courts at Melbourne Park were playing faster than the former Rebound Ace courts, by a considerable margin.

FIERCE THIRD AND FOURTH ROUNDS

Rainshowers halted play on the fifth day except in the convertible Laver and Vodaphone arenas. Five of the sixteen third-round men's matches became five-setters, all of them producing vast crowd response. Several higher-seeded players showed their vulnerability, but only one unseeded player won his first four matches--Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, already stamping himself the tournament's largest overachiever.

Andy Roddick's loss to Phillip Kohlschreiber was not extremely surprising, as the German star, now 24, had risen rapidly in the rankings in recent years. Now, Kohlschreiber proved superior to Roddick in the baseline game, an advantage which Andy roughly offset with more than forty serving aces and a more-active net-attacking style than usual. Service breaks were rare--none after the second set until the very end. Late in the fifth set Roddick survived four break points, winning three of them by aces, but matters ended a few games later after a run of fine passing shots by Kohlschreiber. It was Kohlschreiber over Roddick, 64 36 76 67 86.

In another splendid five-setter, Roger Federer narrowly defeated Belgrade-born Janko Tipsarevic, 23, unseeded. The Serbian player unveiled a fine all-around forcing game featuring a potent and flat first serve, punishing flat ground strokes featuring a clean and accurate backhand two-hander, and a willingness and skill in coming to net. Slender of physique, under six feet in height, wearing prominent eyeglasses, unbothered by a damaged ankle, and totally indifferent to his unaccustomed situation, Tipsarevic nevertheless played a large-man's game.

The critical moment came in game seventeen of the fifth set, the first service-break since set two. Tipsarevic led 40-love, but Federer's stepped-up play yielded the champion the next three points, equalizing at deuce. After several more deuces, with Janko at net Roger placed several soft shots over Janko's backhand side thereby producing the needed openings. Federer over Tipsarevic, 67 76 75 61 10-8.

Also in the third round, Lleyton Hewitt defeated Baghdatis in a match that ended after 4 A.M., and James Blake defeated an impressive Sebastien Grosjean after losing the first two sets. It was a gratifying outcome for a player long troubled by regular losses in five-setters. Rafael Nadal, the #2 seed, faced six set points in the first set against Gilles Simon, but then wore down his opponent with his relentless overspin deliveries. Nadal, who prevailed in straight sets, looked like the Rafael of two years ago. Meanwhile, looking stronger with every outing was #3 Novak Djokovic, who joined Nadal in reaching the final eight without loss of a set. In his fourth-round victory over Lleyton Hewitt, the young Serb showed a level of power, consistency, and all-court play that suggested a capability to win the crown.

The women's pre-tournament Big Four all advanced relatively quietly. Serena registered sixteen aces in defeating a dangerous Azarenka and looked even stronger in defeating Vaidisova. The young Czech star sometimes overpowered the American with blistering flat rockets, but the slimmed-down Serena was too good in her court covering and too consistent in her own rocketry to be extended for long. Venus meanwhile overcame Marta Domachowska, 22, whose forceful and dominating play was neutralized by Venus's exceptional defensive skills.

After four rounds of singles, two rounds of doubles, and one round of mixed, the tally of wins by nation had taken on what seemed likely to be its permanent shape. Among the men, the lead of the French contingent was now approaching numerical certainty, buoyed by Tsonga's run in singles and by excellent results in the men's doubles:

France, 27.5 match wins
U.S.A., 21
Spain, 19.5

Meanwhile, the Russian women sustained their early lead:

Russia, 29
France, 16
U.S.A., 12

WOMEN'S QUARTERS

Serena looked sluggish at the outset against Jelena Jankovic, even as the defending champion easily won the first two games. But Serena's fog persisted as Jankovic soon turned matters around. I had seen Serena start this way in earlier matches--seemingly a way of maintaining her calm and avoiding excessive errors early-on. But on this quarter-final Sunday, the torpor never vanished for long. The gallery only occasionally glimpsed Serena's familiar hard-hitting and fast-reacting abandon. Serena had the edge in serving and stroking power. But what counted far more this day was Jelena's defensive ability, especially her superior footwork in reaching the ball. Often, Serena's early edge in an exchange ended in an unforced error by Serena. Jankovic d. S. Williams, 63 64.

One week before the tournament began, there was little evidence that Maria Sharapova was now capable of defeating Justine Henin and doing so one-sidedly. Justine had beaten Maria in the final round of the 2007 year-ending championships at Madrid. Maria's right shoulder had been unwell through much of 2007, probably contributing to a long spell of serving difficulties. So when Maria lost to Venus Williams at Hong Kong early in the New Year 2008, she seemed behind the sisters and Henin in her chances at Melbourne.

But now against Justine, as she had from opening day at Melbourne, the tall Siberian-born tennis queen produced full aggressiveness and power in her hitting. Her full serving toss and her flexibility in meeting the ball well over her head and with full racket velocity produced extremely potent first and second serves. Justine responded to Maria's endless pressure with variety--low slices, loopers down the center, occasional droppers, occasional moves forward. The formula worked in game nine where Maria's errors produced an equalizing service break. It remained for Justine to hold serve to reach five games all.

Women's tennis was seldom finer. It had become classic slugger vs. boxer--Maria's aggressiveness in power, placement, and net play against Justine's matchless variety. The tenth game went to four deuces, where one point counted 24 ball strikes, the crowd in uproar. The fury ended with Justine at net, missing a volley, and the first set was Maria's.

The play during the second set was similar, but Maria's even-higher level of play doomed Justine's weapons and strategy. It was probably the finest performance in Maria's career to date. Sharapova d. Henin, 64 60.

Against 20-year-old Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams came on court with a heavily taped left thigh, and the disability appeared to reduce her serving effectiveness for much of the first set. But after losing her first three serving games, Venus's ground game began to show its old dominance. (Ana had never won a set from Venus.) Matters went to a first-set tiebreak, whereupon Venus's shotmaking vanished in a flurry of errors to surrender the set to Ana.

Set two began well for Venus, who swept the first three games quickly. But Ana then began taking the upper hand. Ivanovic was more regularly the aggressor, hitting firmly to the sides, making Venus move, while Ana's own defensive skills now were at least equal to Venus's in the extended exchanges. The firepower was extreme from both women but at the end Ana clearly led Venus in both winners and in avoiding error. Ivanovic d. V. Williams, 76 64.

Serena and Venus were now gone. Remaining were the two Serb youths, plus Sharapova and the unexpected intruder, tall Hantuchova.

MEN'S QUARTERS

All four men's quarter-finals were settled in three straight sets, most of them closely contended.

The power and accuracy of Djokovic was too much for David Ferrer except for a spell near the end when Djokovic showed some breathing troubles while Ferrer kept bouncing around between points. Novak completed the victory with strong serving and a few avoidable errors by his opponent. Djokovic over Ferrer, 60 63 75.

James Blake made the scores close each set with full energy and aggressiveness. But the champion played air-tight tennis when it counted most amid a crowd wildly appreciative of the efforts of both men. Federer d. Blake 75 76 64.

In the lower half of the draw, Nadal continued his straight-set run by beating Nieminen. Joining the top three seeds in the final four was tournament-sensation Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

DOUBLES

Hard to understand was the split-up of the wonderfully successful North American doubles pair of Dan Nestor and Mark Knowles, as the personal and professional bondage of the pair had always seemed ideal. Both found expert partners at Melbourne Park, Knowles now with left-court artist Mahesh Bhupathi and Nestor with Serbian Zimonjic in the right court. Otherwise, the doubles draw contained just about all last year's top pairs.

The newly separated partners both reached the tournament quarters. Nestor with Zimonjic then lost to the strong French pair Clement-Llodra. Both pairs were lefty-righty combinations with exceptional serving ability from the left-hander. Both placed the lefty in the Ad court when receiving. There was plenty of fine action, but the greater familiarity of the French partners with one another seemed to account for the single break of serve in each set. Meanwhile Knowles, with Bhupathi, defeated the Bryan twins in a tight third-set tiebreaker. With the Bryans almost, but not quite, at their usual high level, the match produced many dazzling exchanges. Knowles was highly effective close to net and Bhupathi produced the expected fine serving and serve-returning.

The Saturday evening final pitted Clement-Llodra against the fine Israeli pair Erlich-Ram, who had beaten Bhupathi-Knowles in a straight-set semi. It was tactical, aggressive doubles at its best, wholly engrossing the crowd in the play and in the closeness of the score. That both pairs were same-nation combinations also fueled the appeal of the match. It was the first-ever Slam title for the Israelis. Erlich-Ram d. Clement-Llodra 75 76.

The doubles at Melbourne stirred thoughts of the coming summer Olympics. Other strong same-nation pairs likely to be seen at Shanghai were Coetzee-Moodie of South Africa, who reached the semis at Melbourne, and the Bryan brothers. Also reaching the third round were same-nation pairs from Czech Republic, Poland, and South Africa. Whether India's superb pair of Bhupathi and Paes would reunite for the Olympics, as they did in 2004, remained to be hoped for. Olympics 04 doubles champions Gonzalez and Massu of Chile both played at Melbourne but not as partners.

WOMEN'S SEMIS AND FINAL

Sharapova's wonderful serving seen earlier in the tournament faded badly, and Maria's sub-par in-court percentages and double-faults were remindful of last year's. Maria nevertheless moved ahead at the outset, and she then cruised home when her opponent, Jankovic, hurt her back. Sharapova d. Jankovic, 63 61.

The Serb fans were no happier when, shortly afterwards, Daniela Hantuchova's superb ball-striking wholly dominated Ana Ivanovic in their first set. Ana had no answer to the sizzling shotmaking by the slender star from Slovak Republic, whose rockets consistently stayed beautifully just inside the lines. In the second set Daniela closely won the first two games, making eight consecutive, but her power game was now beginning to fade. Daniela's big shots were now regularly missing, while Ana had now found her best game. The pattern largely continued to the end. Throughout, the match had been marred by incorrect line calls, all corrected by referrals to the automatic system but sometimes leaving controversial whether or not the disputed point should be replayed. The critical service break came in game nine, when Daniela, who had been distraught by rulings, missed an easy volley. Ivanovic d. Hantuchova, 06 63 64.

The main uncertainty in the tournament final was whether Sharapova could recover the lost coordination in her serving delivery. For most of the way against Ivanovic, Maria did just that. Only for a few moments, midway in the first set while serving from the south side into a very difficult Sun, did Maria's faults and double-faults reappear, thereby costing Maria her early service-break advantage.

Maria, as always, refused to temporize in her big deliveries. Instead, she invoked her usual calm and resolve to find the needed adjustments. For the rest of the match, despite the still-harsh Sun, the unrestrained toss and full-body energy remained in her serving, and the momentarily-lost precision returned. Her scorching ground strokes, too, were as potent and accurate as earlier in the week. Both 20-year-olds liked to take the initiative early in points, both persisted in their heavy shot-making. Ivanovic played reasonably well but could not match Maria's relentless rocketry. It was Maria's third Slam crown, the second final-round loss for Ana, who lost to Henin at Garros last spring. Sharapova d. Ivanovic, 75 63.

JO-WILFRIED TSONGA

Jo-Wilfried was born 22 years ago in Le Mans. His parents are teachers--his mother French, his father from Congo. He is listed at 6-2 and 200 pounds but seems taller and broader. He plays right-handed and usually employs two hands on the backhand. Unseeded at Melbourne Park, he began the tournament with world ranking #38, up from #212 in 2006 following a succession of injuries that reached back more than two years.

His 2007 W-L record had been good and his talent glimpsed in Challenger tournaments and occasionally on the main tour--for example in his winning of a set from Andy Roddick at last year's Australian Open and in several early-round wins at Wimbledon and U.S. Open 07. Shortly before Melbourne Park he upset Lleyton Hewitt at Lleyton's home-town event in Adelaide, though he lost his next match there and also in the following week's tune-up. In the early rounds at Melbourne Park, he scored wins over three seeded players--Murray, Gasquet, and Youznhy. His arrival was like an exploding supernova.

It was hard to find anything less than superlative in Jo-Wilfried's semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal. The young French star's serve carried plenty of power and variety. Along with outscoring Nadal in aces by 17-2, he again and again drew weak serve-returns from Rafael. Jo-Wilfried's attacking forehand treated severely any short ball but also regularly produced unexpected winners from behind baseline. (Rafael's habit of cheating to the right in order to use his lefty forehand left him vulnerable to Tsonga's right-handed down-the-line rockets.) Tsonga's backhand two-hander had depth and consistency and, when called upon, plenty of power, but he also showed a severely sliced one-hander, which sometimes brought an error from Rafael. His court speed was dazzling--in my opinion, at least equal to Rafael's if that can be imagined. But most impressive of all was his utterly superior performance at net, including countless magnificent touch volleys from extended positions. Many of today's players at net occasionally turn a strong passing shot into a drop-volley winner, justifiably earning generous applause. But Jo-Wilfried on this day did so repeatedly and consistently, almost without failure.

Not only the outcome but also the manner of its achievement were almost beyond belief. The comparison of Tsonga to Muhammed Ali, widely made, seemed apt not only in Jo-Wilfried's resemblance to Ali in appearance and athleticism but also in his strutting demeanor after winning exceptional points. Tsonga d. Nadal, 62 63 62.

It was hard to see any area where the newcomer should not at least equal either of his possible opponents in the final round.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

But for Tsonga's amazing play against Nadal, the tournament's high point would have been Novak Djokovic's fine victory over Roger Federer in the second semi-final. It was a stunning victory for the top hard-court player of the just-arrived tennis generation.

Djokovic seemed taller than his listed 6-2, and he is obviously more than an inch taller than Federer, listed at 6-1. From the start he generated excellent power with easy energy, and moved about the court at least as well as Federer. In the aspects that mattered most, Novak Djokovic was consistently if only slightly the better player this day. The young Serb star displayed the heavier and better-directed serve, was better in aggressively and consistently returning opponent's serve, was better able to use superior power to seize the initiative during exchanges from back court, and was better in defending against opponent's approach shots and net play.

Many, probably most, points were furiously contested. Roger's best hope was to unleash his full attacking mode, but attacking was difficult against Djokovic's steady power and placement. The first set was narrow. With Roger ahead at 5-3 the champion lost his next two serving games primarily because of forehand and backhand errors during long, moderately forcing rallies. Spells of unforced errors by Roger also settled the second set, also marked by devastating serving by Novak. As the match lengthened into the third set, Federer stayed close, and had two set points to win that set in the twelfth game. But in that game and also in the closing moments of the tiebreak game that followed, the deciding instrument became the outstanding first-serving of the younger and stronger player. Djokovic d. Federer, 75 63 76.

DJOKOVIC d. TSONGA

Both men were dressed in black, both were exactly the same in height, Tsonga slightly the broader. Both showed superb, heavy groundstrokes, Djokovic's slightly the better controlled. Both showed magnificent defense, both able to stay tight on the baseline and yet rip back the opponent's strongest forcing rockets. Set one went to Tsonga, who achieved the deciding service break with a run of marvelous play that exactly recalled his highest moments against Nadal. But after that, the luster began to fade from the French player's brilliance. Djokovic would never again lose a serving game, indeed would seldom lose a serving point. In the match-ending tiebreak game, the Serbian player was almost perfect.

Several aspects seemed to explain Djokovic's victory. Tsonga again showed his effortless power and amazing athletic ability, but he could summon the extreme brilliance seen previously only intermittently. Too often, Djokovic was able to absorb the heavy punishment, usually equalizing matters in one or two replies and often outlasting his opponent into error. Also often pivotal was the inability of Tsonga to produce the close-in magic at net--both the soft half-volleys and the fast-reaction volleys--that had been regularly seen against Nadal and the others. Surprisingly to me, Djokovic was the better volleyer this day. Tiredness also played a role, as the wear of his mighty two-week journey seemed to weigh against Jo-Wilfried's legs and mind. Djokovic showed late-match signs of cramping or leg strain but fought off his difficulty to reach the end. Neither player wasted energy in histrionics. The crowd loudly supported Tsonga for the most part, unforgiving of occasional moments of petulance during the week by Djokovic.

It was a worthy if not quite an absolutely superior final, whether measured in greatness of play or in the competitiveness of the struggle. If the brilliance seen from both men earlier in the week was glimpsed only at times, it was because both of them were skilled at neutralizing each other's strengths. Both will be seen again, repeatedly, at the highest levels of the game. Djokovic d. Tsonga, 46 64 63 76.

GENERALITIES

After watching dozens of matches, many hundreds of points, one general recollection stands in mind. It is a vision of a strong young player, male or female, not very highly ranked, playing against one of today's elites. The younger player uses a marvelous two-handed stroke, ripping backhands to the deepest cross-court corner, pushing the elite player into defensiveness. The older player replies but gradually falls into weaker and weaker position. Yet somehow, as the match proceeds, it is the elite player who narrowly manages to produce the victory. The afterview nevertheless lingers, that the lesser-known youth will in a year or so become the master.

Among the future elites for whom the above picture seemed to apply is Tsonga, of course, but also the likes of Cilic, Istomin, Simon, del Potro, Tipsarevic, Paszek, Domachowska, Radwanska, Dellacqua, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Kirilenko. Almost certainly, from among these relatively unfamiliar names will come the superstars of tomorrow.

In the tally of match wins by nation, the triumph of the French males was impressive. There the margin steadily increased in the late rounds as Tsonga and Clement-Llodra marched to the final round. Here was the final count:

France, 33.5 match wins
U.S.A., 22.5
Spain, 20.5

Meanwhile Sharapova led the Russian women to their customary strong margin: China's third-place tie with France primarily reflected strength of the Chinese women in doubles.

Russia, 33
U.S.A., 19.5
France, 13
China, 13

The new court surface at the Open seemed a success--in producing an attractive style of play, good court reaction to spin, and minimal problems of injury or distress to players. The occurrence of tiebreak games was higher than in any preceding Australian Open of the current century. The court speed thus appears to have been considerably faster than on the old Rebound Ace surface. The values given here show the percentage of sets reaching six-games-all in the main-draw men's singles averaged over years 2001-2007 and also in Australian Open 2008.

avg. Wimbledon = 19.90%
avg. U.S. Open = 16.04%
avg. Australian Open = 13.91%
avg. Garros = 13.02%
Australian Open 08, 18.46%

The above numbers suggest that Australian Open with its new surface should no longer be seen as intermediate in court speed but rather as a tournament that favors fast-court over clay-court players. If so, and this depends on evidence of the next few years, it will represent a disappointing change in the evolution of the sport. The governing bodies of tennis--ITF, the national associations, ATP, and WTA--will surely review the trend, which is also seen in the cessation of the clay tournament in Hamburg as a Masters Series event. Correction might begin with restoration of the lost clay-court Masters, or perhaps early planning toward a fifth Slam tournament, to be held on clay.

As usual the quality and excitement of the tennis at Melbourne, the crowd enthusiasm, and the television brought to America by Tennis Channel and ESPN2 were superb. For two weeks of midwinter in most countries, tennis claimed its place in the world's sporting news. The two retractable roofs served wonderfully in keeping action going, and the automatic line-calling apparatus in the main arenas made up for what sometimes seemed a high number of incorrect calls by the human umpires. Merciful temperatures generally prevailed.

In short, it was a zestful beginning for Tennis Year 08. I can hardly wait for what lies ahead.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

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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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