Greatest Ever On Clay? Garros 08 Review
by Ray Bowers
The match player seeks an optimum level of aggression--i.e., a level of
forcefulness in placement, stroking, and court position that must be balanced
against chance of error. Many aspects enter the reward-risk equation--ones own
capabilities, of course, as well as opponent's strengths and weaknesses in defensive
and offensive play. The equation may change during play with changes in
playing conditions, the score, opponent's tactics, and each player's remaining
mental and physical strengths. Many matches at Garros 08 seemed to fit this kind
of analysis, where victory seemed to lie in finding the right level of risk
vs. prospective reward.
The cool and damp conditions that prevailed on most dates at Garros 08
assuredly slowed down the speed of the ball both after the strike and especially
upon the bounce. The effect on outcomes was not always predictable, as it was not
always the patient, defensive player who benefited. Sometimes the slower
play helped the stronger hitter, who gained time to prepare for his or her big
shots and could still penetrate the slower conditions, while the less-powerful
opponent might find his more-limited offensive weaponry seriously dulled.
As usual, the clay surface produced varied tactics. Most players could end
points with a single strike from on the baseline or closer, given time to
prepare. The best preventative measure against this threat seemed to be heavy and
deep hitting, while angular fire offered possibility of opening up opponent's
court for attack. There was plenty of room for drop shots, for low, shortish
angles, for slices and relentless topspin. Net rushing generally happened only
after severe forcing, but an occasional serve-and-volley ploy sometimes produced
success at critical junctures. Retrieving in desperation sometimes kept
points alive but most often only delayed the outcome. Quickness and energy was
important for achieving good shot preparation. Close-in cat-and-mouse play always
appealed to galleries.
It was the first Slam conquest for Ana Ivanovic, whose light-footed mobility,
effortless-seeming power, and superb mental strength assure more triumphs to
come. Nadal's fourth Garros victory, all consecutive, is assured historical
significance. That the 22-year-old wonder from Spain will eventually prove
himself history's greatest clay-court warrior seems increasingly certain. There
were thrills in witnessing the emergence of Ernests Gulbis and the fulfillment of
years of high promise by Gael Monfils.
Of the hundreds of main-draw matches played, all had distinctive character
and ample drama. In here tracing the tableau as it unfolded, we comment on those
matches that seemed the most significant, watched in America via Tennis
Channel, ESPN2, and NBC.
WOMEN'S SINGLES: EARLY CARNAGE
Downpours disrupted the scheduling for the first three days. Early excitement
came on First Wednesday, in the first appearance of top-seeded, World #1 Maria
Sharapova. The rains had now stopped but the afternoon's severe winds
steadily exceeded 20 knots, gusting higher. Conditions were thus grossly unfavorable
for the aggressive Sharapova, whose extremely high ball toss in serving was
affected unpredictably. Maria's serve lost its effectiveness and, with it, the
rest of her arsenal. Despite her problems, Maria won the first set. But after
that her determined but smallish, teen-aged opponent, Evgeniya Rodina,
discovered how to make matters miserable for the tall one. Resolutely keeping the ball
in play, Rodina encouraged Maria to blast away to the lines with her
customary rocketry. Often slightly out of best hitting position because of the wind
and unwilling to temporize in her hitting, the result for Maria was a
proliferation of unforced errors. If Maria tried to play conservatively, often Rodina
became the aggressor. Seriously close to defeat late in the third set, Maria
finally found the needed level of conservative play, cutting out the errors but
still playing strongly enough to retain the initiative. Sharapova d. Rodina 61
First Friday brought the departure of both Williams sisters. Serena--my choice
to win the tournament--faced dangerous Katerina Srebotnik, who had played
closely against Serena in Charleston back in April. Tall, slender, and moving
with determination and confidence, Katerina now sped to an early service break.
In contrast, Serena seemed sullen between points and correspondingly less agile
in her movement during play, but her superior power in serving and stroking
kept matters close. Katerina's forehand proved rock-solid throughout the first
set, deceptively powerful and extremely accurate in deep shots landing close
to the baseline. Such deliveries gave Serena trouble amid her slowish footwork.
The climax came in game ten, Katerina serving to finish off the first set.
Amid at least four deuces, the Slovenian player's superior volleying ability
settled matters when Katerina proved impeccable in several net approaches, Serena
missing on both of hers.
The second set had a different flavor. Serena, who had shown signs of
aggressiveness late in the first set, now shed her early torpor. Moving now with
energy, attacking at every opportunity especially against Katerina's second serve,
berating herself after misses, Serena tried to find her former self. But
although her intensified pressure now regularly put Srebotnik in trouble, Serena's
own error-making undid all. Especially the Serena forehand produced some
spectacular winners, but it also produced a greater number of errors, especially
on important points. Serena's net game, too, failed her, turning several
winning opportunities into dismal errors. Katerina's play was below her level of the
first set, but it was good enough to take advantage of Serena's many gifts.
Serena thus departed, angry with herself but without cause for complaint.
Srebotnik d. S. Williams 64 64.
The loss of Venus late the same date was less turbulent. Her conqueror was
Flavia Pennetta, who had won the most recent meeting between the two. Flavia
showed a nice court composure, concentrating intensely on her shot execution,
moving early into position for each shot, and generating an extent of
aggressiveness at least as forceful as Venus's. Venus found that her own attacking was
not strong enough to overcome Flavia's defensive abilities. In the longish and
moderately forceful exchanges, it was Pennetta clearly the equal of Venus in
her aggressiveness and, just as clearly, the cleaner hitter of the ball and the
less likely to err. Venus finally succumbed amid fading light. Pennetta d. V.
Wiliams 75 63.
With three rounds of singles, two of doubles, and one of mixed recorded after
one week, the Russian women were far ahead in the number of matches won.
Czech Republic, 14
There was plenty of warning that Sharapova was in for trouble against Dinara
Safina in their fourth-rounder on Second Monday. Dinara had beaten Maria at
Garros two years earlier and had recently captured the Tier One tournament at
Berlin. True, Maria was indeed slightly the heavier hitter on this day, but the
effects of the high humidity and court wetness largely neutralized her edge in
power. As in Berlin, Dinara stroked with moderate forcefulness and excellent
consistency. The two divided the first two sets, both of which ended in
tiebreakers where in both cases the loser had the edge on the scoreboard until the
very end. Dinara moved ahead midway in the third set, and although Maria
appeared to call on all her powers of concentration and will, her big game failed
her at the finish. Safina d. Sharapova 67 76 62.
Safina's quarter-final opponent was athletic Elena Dementieva, who had been
Dinara's final-round victim in Berlin. Elena's often-deficient serving now
held up well as Elena--hitting cleanly and with wonderful movement and body
control--won the first set and took a double-break advantage in the second, one game
from victory. But Safina struggled back, taking advantage of a sequence of
errors by Elena. With Safina badly winded but refusing to miss, it was
Dementieva who finally weakened in the tiebreaker, closed out by a marvelous
on-the-baseline forehand by Safina, reaching one set all. In the third set Safina
maintained her tight tennis, Dementieva again gave the errors. Safina d. Dementieva
46 76 60.
Meanwhile Kuznetsova along with the Serbian stars Ivanovic and Jankovic all
reached their expected places in the semis without loss of a set.
Jelana Jankovic in an early round victory over Cibulkova at Roland Garros 08.
WOMEN'S SEMIS AND FINAL
Dinara Safina had narrowly avoided defeat against both Sharapova and
Dementieva. Her semi-final victory over Kuznetsova was less dramatic. Dinara led from
the outset, and although many of the points were hard-fought, featuring
strenuous baseline duels, most often Dinara proved the heavier and more
consistent--indeed the more aggressive-hitter. At all times, Safina seemed the more
comfortable and more confident player. Safina d. Kuznetsova 63 62.
Ana Ivanovic continued her past success against countrywoman Jelena
Jovanovic. The larger and stronger player, Ana produced the more severe and the more
effortless power. Jelena used all her weapons, attacking selectively, to capture
the second set, but after matters reached three games all in the third set,
Ana turned on her full groundstroke rocketry to pull away impressively. Ivanovic
d. Jovanovic 64 36 64.
Having watched the travails of Dinara Safina all week, including recovering
from match point down against two opponents, it was easy to empathize with
Dinara as she raged against her troubles against Ana Ivanovic on final-round
Saturday. Ana seemed to have the slight edge in most departments of the game,
including mental composure, but given Dinara's recent miracles things remained
uncertain almost to the finish. Both women contributed many wondrous plays as well
as probably too many errors. In both sets Ana had opportunity to close out
comfortably but failed to do so, just as in both sets Dinara narrowly failed to
square matters toward the end. Ivanovic d. Safina 64 63.
Shown here is the final tally of matches won. Tops were the Russkayas, for
the fourth straight year. Spain's late rise to a third-place tie reflected six
wins by Medina Garriguez and Ruano Pascual in capturing the women's doubles.
Czech Republic, 15
MEN'S EARLY ROUNDS: EMERGENCE OF GULBIS
James Blake as usual sought a level of aggressiveness that would allow him to
control matters without excessive errors. The problem was that James's
opponent, Latvian teen-ager Ernests Gulbis, struck with even greater forcefulness
than James and even earlier in rallies. Gulbis, who was unseeded at 6-3 and age
19, achieved more winners and contributed more errors than Blake, but the
ferocity of his hitting within an acceptable rate of error turned the scoreboard
in his favor. The newcomer is a right-hander with two-handed backhand, with
plenty of zip and good consistency from both sides and in serving, with
excellent on-court composure. Born in Riga, Gulbis (like Djokovic) attended the
training center at Munich under tutelage of Niki Pilic.
Meanwhile the Big Three males safely survived their first three matches,
Nadal winning all nine of his sets, Federer and Djokovic both losing only one set
Roger Federer in an early round victory over Montanes at Roland Garros 08.
The tally by nations looked surprising. Even though French stars Gasquet and
Tsonga contributed nothing, France stood nearly tied with Spain atop the
count. Of the sixteen singles players still in the tournament, five were from
France, four from Spain.
The persisting damp, slow conditions seemed to suit Chilean Fernando
Gonzalez, who swept to a quarter-final berth with a convincing win over American Rob
Ginepri. Gonzalez has always been known as a big hitter, and in his earlier
matches he showed that his potent forehand could regularly penetrate the heavy
conditions. After losing the first two sets to ninth-seeded Stan Wawrinka, the
strong Chilean then broke through to win three 64 sets.
Gulbis faced Novak Djokovic on Second Tuesday in the first of the men's
quarter-finals. The two Young Lions provided a display of ferocious power tennis,
both men striking with severe power and aggressive placement on another day of
damp, cool conditions. Gulbis, the larger of the two, seemed to generate his
power with less effort and also showed greater willingness to take risks. The
result was three close sets, all won by the World #3. Gulbis's almost unlimited
potential seemed obvious, as the Latvian teenager proved himself only a year
behind the Serb both in his physical and his tennis development. Djokovic d.
Gulbis 75 76 75.
Federer worked hard in defeating Benneteau in straight sets, advancing to a
quarter-final meeting with Gonzalez, who had won their most recent meeting
(indoors at Masters Cup). Fernando swept through the first set, breaking Roger's
serve three times behind severe and consistent hitting by Gonzo along with some
stretches of desultory and ragged play by Roger. The prevailing heavy
conditions again seemed to favor Fernando's penetrating forehand. But early in set
two, Roger's efforts to step up his play began to take effect. There was little
temporizing by either player as the two alternated in dominance from point to
point. Gradually it became Roger who took command on the scoreboard and
retained it, increasingly comfortably, to the finish. Federer d. Gonzalez 26 62 63
Meanwhile Nadal easily turned aside the Nicolas Almagro, also in straight
sets. The heavy conditions took velocity away from Almagro's heavy deliveries in
bouncing, while Rafa's heavy overspin gripped the dampish surface and
accelerated. Thus the three pre-tournament elites all reached their predestined berths
in the semis. The fourth semi-finalist remained to be determined in a
quarter-final battle between Paris-born Gael Monfils and David Ferrer. Their showdown
proved to be a fascinating test of styles and minds.
Monfils at height 6-3 has a potent serve, absolutely superior court mobility,
and a capability for mercurial all-court play. But his victory over the tough
Spanish star was mainly attributable to his penchant for soft, non-forcing
stroking, reminiscent of what was once called "pat-ball." It is a style seldom
seen today, but given the heavy conditions and Ferrer's less-than-superior
power in the attack, Gael's mobility and agility were sufficient to stave off his
opponent long enough to yield, often enough, a mistake from David. Ferrer
meanwhile worked to draw his opponent wide, albeit at raised level of risk, which
sometimes led to winners or forced errors in favor of David. David thereby won
the second set, and at that point, with Monfils showing what appeared to be
severe lack of wind, it seemed that the Spanish player had found the right
formula. But Gael's tiredness passed and, with nearly total support from the
crowd, the Paris-born star began mixing in his best serving along with occasional
lightning-bolts off the ground. David's own steadiness finally vanished amid a
stretch of unforced errors off the forehand. Monfils d. Ferrer, 63 36 63 61.
MEN'S SEMIS AND FINAL
It was a windy and cool Friday, remindful of when Sharapova struggled in
serving against Rodina, though conditions were not quite so treacherous. The wind
probably hurt Novak Djokovic in his serving.
Still, Novak played at a high level, seemingly resolved to press Nadal with
every shot. But Rafa responded with almost total perfection. There was no
amount of pressure--short of several consecutive screamers to opposite
sidelines--that Nadal could not absorb and then answer. In most cases, Rafa's reply was a
nasty, heavily overspun delivery that promptly neutralized matters. If Djokovic
allowed himself to make a neutral offering, Nadal was quickly atop matters,
himself becoming the attacker. Nadal
d. Djokovic 64 62 76.
In the second semifinal, Federer quickly showed his ability to demolish the
pat-ball tactics previously favored by Monfils against Ferrer. Monfils thus
fell behind by an early break, but then, having learned his lesson, Gael began
using more of the court, no longer gifting Roger with near-sitters. Roger, who
returned nearly all of Gael's serves during the set albeit defensively, in his
other stroking continued to force matters. Although his edge seemed to
diminish, Roger gained a second service-break before the set ended.
In the second set the French speedster continued raising his forcefulness
along with his own level of net play, serving, serve-returning, and defensive
court coverage. The points grew in ferocity as matters gradually turned to favor
Monfils until it seemed that that Roger's only effective weapon was his own
strong serve. When Monfils captured the set in a final burst, it seemed to me
that, with the score now even, Roger was in real trouble.
But Federer took the third set, rather comfortably, amid too many errors by
Gael. Roger was now delivering more than his usual quota of drop shots, often
catching his opponent deep, and also stepping up his net-attacking. (For the
match in its entirety, Roger won 49 of 64 points when at net, Monfils 26 of 45.)
Roger's brilliance in drop-shotting and at net persisted into the fourth set,
which yielded many of the hardest-fought points of the day. Once again
playing at his best, Monfils now ripped away with his heaviest artillery, returning
to defensiveness only occasionally. (He scored ten aces for the day, Federer
only two.) Crowd involvement was extreme, mainly in support of the French
player. The set's only break of serve came in the final game, where Roger produced
three superb, winning volleys. Federer d. Monfils 62 57 63 75.
Can there be a Tennis Server reader who did not see the Federer-Nadal final,
either as it happened or on tape later? Nadal's magnificent defenses defeated
Roger's superb attacking so fully as to be among the more memorable happenings
in tennis history. Roger tried everything that his many admirers could have
asked, doing so at a level of play that probably would have succeeded against
any other opponent. But just as against Djokovic, Nadal's performance approached
perfection. There was one strong run by Roger, attacking early in the second
set. The Spanish champion, pressed hard, responded as the champion should.
Otherwise, although the match was filled with brilliant play, Roger scarcely won
a game. Nadal d. Federer 61 63 60.
For the record, here is the final tally of matches won. Helping Spain to its
top finish were Nadal's seven singles wins and four each by Almagro and Ferrer.
The year's clay-court play is not finished, but there is no question that
Nadal is the year's champion on that surface. Djokovic and Federer follow, far
behind, with the likes of Gonzalez, Almagro, Ferrer, Davydenko, and perhaps
Wawrinka closely next.
Matters now resume on grass. Can Nadal translate his genius on clay into a
Wimbledon triumph? After watching his performance at Garros 08 and his fine run
at Wimbledon 07, I believe Rafa can do just that.
Between The Lines Archives:
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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.