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June 20, 2008 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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One For The Ages -- Wimbledon 08
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

There was inevitability in the unrelenting march of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to their final-round clash at Wimbledon 08. Federer and Nadal are by any measure the surpassing megastars of the present era in men's tennis, and indeed the two had been the finalists in the two preceding Wimbledons. In advancing to their newest meeting both Roger and Rafa regularly showed their best tennis (which means the extremities of brilliance), slipping only occasionally and momentarily into more-ordinary ways. Both men emerged from the first six rounds of the tournament seemingly equally healthy and rested. Both showed a list of victims of about equal ability, though neither had faced a member of the world's top eight.

At the time of the draw, it appeared that Roger's most-dangerous obstacle prior to Nadal would be his probable semi-final opponent, Novak Djokovic. Novak, now 21, had beaten Roger in winning Australian Open 08 and was ahead of Roger in the year-to-date rankings, both behind Nadal. But Djokovic was unexpectedly defeated in the first week by veteran Marat Safin. In a match featuring thunderous back-court exchanges, Safin, 28, served, returned, and stroked at the high level seen in his triumphs of several years ago.

Meanwhile Federer advanced over the likes of Robin Soderling, Lleyton Hewitt, and Mario Ancic. Soderling and Hewitt had shown strong recent results, suggesting readiness to make trouble, while Ancic, who was unseeded, brought strong serve-and-volleying skills that had carried him over two seeded opponents. But in all cases, Roger won comfortably in straight sets. His manner of play generally favored a back-court style featuring strong serving, superb court movement, and potent strikes to the corners, sometimes finishing points at net. In his semi-final meeting with Safin, the play was largely from back court amid exchanges of extreme power. The two seemed closely matched in their hitting contest, but Roger won the only two service breaks of the afternoon as well as the second-set tiebreaker.

Meanwhile Nadal lost only one set enroute to the final--in the second round against Ernests Gulbis, who is almost surely the world's best teen-aged player. Just as at Garros, the young Latvian showed superb power and control from both sides, strong serving, excellent movement, and steady composure. No doubt remains that he will soon be among the game's elites. After Rafa dispatched Gulbis, Nadal's later opponents included Youzhny, Murray, and surprise semi-finalist Schuettler. Perhaps Rafa's finest stretch came in the second set against Andy Murray. Point after point ended in breathtaking shots by Rafa. It was hard to imagine that tennis had ever been played with such athleticism, violence, and precision.

Watchers were closely divided in predicting the likely winner between Federer and Nadal. Roger, age 26, had won their final-round meetings at Wimbledon 06 and 07, and had won his last 65 matches on grass. But other evidence continued to seem more compelling for me. Rafa, 22, had almost won their Wimbledon showdown in 2007, and had demolished Roger at Garros 08 four weeks ago. The demolition revealed much greater improvement by Rafa since he and Federer met at Garros 07.

JULY 6: FEDERER vs. NADAL. 64 64 67 67 97

It was indeed one for the ages, almost surely the signature match of our century's first decade. Nearly five hours of intelligent power tennis, spectacular defenses by both men, breathtaking use of the court's angles, ferocious determination by both--in short a magnificent representation of our sport. Both men seemed at their very best. The countless exhilarating points produced extreme crowd approval. Errors were relatively few, and many of them seemed directly attributable to bad bounces on the badly worn court surface or perhaps to a shifting breeze.

The flow of events was full of drama and emotion. Federer started off playing very aggressively from back court, often forcing his way to net, more so than in his earlier matches in the tournament. For much of the match, Roger's potent forehand and often highly angled backhand seemed the dominating weapons, along with his wonderful serving, which produced many more aces than his opponent's (by 25 to 6). Only occasionally did Roger back away from full power, and when he did so the result might be to allow Nadal a chance to take over matters. For either player, to rally routinely meant risking a screamer to a corner by opponent. Nadal was generally the safer stroker, however, producing fewer errors but also fewer winners than his opponent. Often Rafa tried to make Federer hit shoulder-high backhands, hopeful of reducing the venom produced from Roger's left side. As the match went on, Roger toned down his aggressiveness slightly, especially his backhand, but his devastating inside-out forehand remained a faithful scorer for him almost to the end.

Apart from the scoreboard it was difficult to recognize that either player held any overall edge. Nadal won the first two sets by narrow margin and seemed to have his opponent in trouble in set three, nearly breaking Roger's serve midway. But rain then interrupted play, allowing Roger what may have been a helpful hour's rest. In the set-ending tiebreaker Roger led early and, lifted by three service aces, closed out by a single minibreak. An hour later, it was Nadal who led early in the fourth-set tiebreaker, ahead five points to two with two serves upcoming. But somehow Roger first equalized, then survived two match points in a sequence that included two dazzling passing shots from the deep backhand corner, one by each player, then finally prevailed with a forehand winner and service ace.

Another rain delay interrupted the fifth set and pushed the conclusion into near-darkness. Perhaps the absence of the tiebreak rule was a break for Nadal, given Roger's amazing past record in tiebreakers and his success in ending sets three and four. The deciding service break came in game fifteen, when Roger twice fought off break points with aces but finally, his emotional and physical reserves perhaps finished, yielded errors on two of his trusted forehands. But it was still not over. Game sixteen was not easy for Rafa, who reached thirty-all with two fine moves to net. An incredible backhand serve-return winner by Roger fought off the first match point of the game, but what seemed a bad bounce for Roger ended matters two points later.

There can be nothing but admiration for both gladiators, who both competed with absolute determination, courage, and resourcefulness. Roger would not easily relinquish his crown, while Rafa stayed mentally strong despite what seemed killing disappointments as play unfolded. The skills and athleticism that they displayed on the sport's grandest stage may have been the highest that tennis has ever achieved.

RISERS AND OVERACHIEVERS

The two weeks were of course filled with drama involving the other hundreds of competitors. Offered here are my choices for two informal awards.

Both Marat Safin and German player Rainer Schuettler had been unseeded, and both reached the final four. My vote for the tournament's prime overachiever goes to Schuettler, as Marat, a two-time past Slam champion, did not overachieve his once-proven ability.

Schuettler, 32, battled his way to the semi-finals amid five match wins, including victories over ninth-seeded James Blake and Janko Tipsarevic, conqueror of Andy Roddick. His last win came over Arnaud Clement in a five-hour five-setter beset by several rain interruptions, where the veteran German again showed his excellent mobility and determination. Then in finally losing to Nadal, Rainer carried his weight through many highly watchable points. Clement, too, merits note for his fine run. Arnaud won the Wimbledon doubles last year with Llodra but withdraw at the start this year because of injury to Llodra.

Another surprise came just before darkness on first-week Friday. Coming to net behind every first serve and also behind some second serves, occasional serve returns, and at selected moments in rallies, tall Croatian Mario Ancic showed a style of aggressive tennis rarely seen nowadays. Mario's potent serve was superb, comparable to the world's best in its effectiveness, delivered at high in-court percentage with excellent placement, and backed by Mario's excellent quickness and agility in volleying. Meanwhile his ability in rallying from back court and in attacking from midcourt seemed about equal to those of his opponent, David Ferrer, the tournament's fifth-seeded player. After beating Ferrer, Mario next defeated the strong-serving lefty Verdasco in a fascinating five-setter. He finally succumbed in the quarters to Federer. Mario, who is now 24 at height 6-5, held year-end ranking of #22 in 2005 but has been sidelined for long periods since because of sickness and injuries. We here appoint him, albeit his age, the player whose performance in the tournament most marks him a coming riser.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

The inevitability of an all-Williams final was more obvious in retrospect than at the outset. Both sisters had failed to reach the last sixteen at Garros several weeks earlier, and neither had competed in the grass-court tune-ups. It seemed to me that three other female superstars were ahead of Serena and Venus in their Wimbledon chances. But Maria Sharapova was beaten in an early round by the strong play of a younger Russian. Then Ana Ivanovic was similarly surprised by Chinese doubles star Zheng Jie. Finally Jelena Jankovic, who was troubled by an injured knee, lost to Thai player Tanasugarn.

Meanwhile Serena and Venus stormed through all opposition, both sisters winning all six of their matches in straight sets enroute to the final. Their power and athleticism, both sisters playing at close to her best, clearly placed them a level above every opponent. Thus even before the final weekend, their joint advance to the final, along with their joint advance to the doubles final (also without losing a set) was an achievement worthy of remembrance.

JULY 5: VENUS WILLIAMS d. SERENA, 75 64

Serena opened brilliantly, winning ten of the first eleven points behind several blistering strikes. Venus's hitting gradually improved amid many fine exchanges, and she abruptly equalized the set by breaking Serena's serve from deuce in the eighth game with some excellent and aggressive hitting. Then in the twelfth game, again suddenly from deuce, Venus smoked a strong backhand and Serena next contributed a backhand error.

Early in the second set the pattern that would persist to the finish became clear. It was now Venus who was the more free and more ferocious striker of the ball, whose first and second serves were the faster and more penetrating. Serena, who was hardly serene in the face of events, raged against herself with every miss, using her will and concentration to keep the score close. But too often it was evident that Serena was guiding the ball, waiting for an error by sister, playing tentatively for fear of missing even when holding the initiative. There was good cause for her avoidance of risk, since reward was not often likely given Venus's magnificent ability to go to the corners. Often when Serena forced play strongly, the eventual if not immediate result became an error by herself. Meanwhile Venus, showing excellent composure between points, showed little caution in her striking of the ball, accepting her own occasional error as the necessary price for dominating play. Worthy of note was Serena's second-serving misery, where over the full match her winning percentage on second serves was below 20%. The match-ending service break came in a tenth game marred by three errors by Serena, two of them in unforced bids to take the initiative.

It was a lustrous final featuring utter commitment to winning by both sisters. Venus's boldness of play and Serena's fury to stem defeat placed this among the worthiest of their official meetings. It was the seventh Slam triumph for Venus, five at Wimbledon. (The modern leader in Wimbledon crowns is Navratilova with nine.) Serena has won eight Slams, two at Wimbledon. Venus is now aged 28, seemingly beyond her prime time, but the brilliance of her seven match wins without losing a set in Wimbledon 08 is reason to expect further triumphs ahead.

RISERS AND OVERACHIEVERS

Nominated here as the tournament's foremost riser, mainly from her outplaying and defeating Maria Sharapova on the fourth day, is Moscow-born Alla Kudryavtseva, age 20, height 5-9. Alla's current ranking outside the top hundred gave little reason to suppose trouble for Sharapova. But the day's breeziness that bothered Maria's high service toss and sweeping deliveries made no problems for Alla's more compact serving and stroking mechanics. Kudryavtseva's forehand and backhand produced seemingly effortless power that held up with good precision throughout. Toward the end when matters counted most, Alla's heavy ground strokes seemed to find the region of chewed-up grass just inside the serving position, where Maria's tight positioning and long stroking frustrated split-second adjustments to the uncertain bounce. Alla, who in my understanding attends University of Miami, was the stronger player most of the way except for occasional misses. Maria played with increasing desperation but lacked control when she needed it most. Maria afterwards said it well--i.e., Alla was the better server, returner, stroker, better in every way. Afterwards the young Russian player would win one more match thus reaching the final sixteen, where she lost to Petrova.

The foremost overachiever of he tournament was Zheng Jie, age 24, former Australian and Wimbledon doubles champion but now ranked outside the top hundred in singles. Showing excellent, low-to-the-ground movement along with clean and largely error-free stroking, Jie on the fifth day defeated top-seeded Ana Ivanovic, who was unable to find the error-free dominance that had carried her narrowly through her previous match. Zheng's solid defenses defied Ivanovic's potent bids for winners from back court, too many of which failed to find court.

The scrappy Chinese star went on to reach the tournament semis, where she faced Serena Williams. Zheng was at first overpowered but in the second set, having adjusted to Serena's pace, she began keeping the play even. The much-smaller Zheng moved low-to-the ground and struck low balls very well, generating surprising power with seemingly limited effort especially on the backhand side. Her lack of reach made her vulnerable to Serena's potent serving, however, which is probably what kept Serena close during the second set when both players played aggressively throughout. Serena won the set-ending tiebreaker by a single minibreak, when Jie on the last point contributed her only double-fault of the match.

THE TENNIS NATIONS

In the count of matches won by nation, the U.S. women's contingent prospered from seven singles wins by Venus Williams, six by her sister, and six by the sisters in winning the doubles. But there was insufficient scoring by others to lift the Americans over the superbly deep Russian females. The Russkayas took the lead with 13 first-round singles wins and were never threatened in the count thereafter, although the wonderful finish by the sisters made the final tally close.

Russia, 39.5
U.S.A., 36
Australia, 12.5

Among the men, Spain's contingent took the early lead with nine wins in first-round singles play. France was just behind with eight, Germany seven. After that, Nadal's singles victories along with multiple singles and doubles wins by Lopez and Verdasco kept the Armada ahead. It was Spain's first time atop the Wimbledon tally in this decade, where U.S.A. led in every year 2001-2006 until France prevailed in 2007. The race for second place was close, unexpectedly claimed by Germany led by Schuettler.

Spain, 27
Germany, 18.5
France, 18
U.S.A., 18

SERVING DOMINANCE

The belief prevails that the playing characteristics of the clay surface at Garros and the grass at Wimbledon are becoming more similar. Official data from the last four rounds of this year's men's singles, however, show that the server is still considerably more favored at Wimbledon than at Garros.

Aces per points played:

Wimbledon 08, .092
Garros 08, .058

Games won by servers, % of total games:

Wimbledon 08, 84.4%
Garros 08, 74.5%

Data from the two preceding years show essentially the same story, with no obvious trend from one year to the next. Meanwhile net-approaching this year was only slightly more frequent at Wimbledon than at Garros, where net-approaching increased over the previous two years.

Net approaches per points played:

Wimbledon 08, .261
Garros 08, .256
Wimbledon 06 and 07 (average), .262
Garros 06 and 07 (average), .231

All-out net-rushing nevertheless remains the exception. Clearly, the net is not the place to be if one's opponent has moderate time for shot preparation. Wimbledon's faster bounce appears to encourage net play only slightly.

ONE FOR THE AGES

The expression "One for the Ages" fits all of Wimbledon 08 almost as well as it fits the men's final. Full honors to the new singles champions, Rafa and Venus. Nadal is the first male since Borg to win Garros and Wimbledon back-to-back and is the strong leader in the 2008 year-to-date race. His place in tennis history grows. (See Footnote below.)

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

FOOTNOTE: THE STYLE OF NADAL

Tennis Server readers, I'm sure, are no strangers to the style and greatness of Rafael Nadal. Watching Rafa compete in this two weeks has been fascinating. Sketched here is a portrait of what future generations may wish to know of Rafael's manner of tennis, written on the eve of this, his greatest triumph to date.

The energy and power in Rafa's physique has been magnificently turned to the art of tennis, in such way to produce a level of performance that may be unprecedented. His powerful arms, legs, and torso generate high forehand and backhand velocities together with his foremost characteristic of stroke--rotational momentum, i.e., relentless overspin, that is far greater than that of any of his contemporaries. Meanwhile. his quickness and speed of movement on the court equal those of any other player of his time, including an exceptional ability to generate power on the run with amazing accuracy.

The above assets add up to extreme ability as a defensive player, though not in the traditional sense. During extended rallies Rafa's hitting velocity and topspin make it difficult for an opponent to sustain an aggressive attack without error, even if the opponent has already taken the initiative. Meanwhile if an opponent's attack is resolute, Nadal's mobility allows him to extend matters in the best fashion of a pure retriever, except that the energy in Rafa's replies often neutralizes matters instantly or even reverses the attacking role. With an opponent at net, his heavy passing shots are extremely potent and accurate, such that at times he seems to invite attack knowing that he can turn a difficult shot from difficult position into an immediate winner. He likes to generate sidespin such that his down-the-line strike, whether forehand or backhand, bends inward from the alley to clip the sideline. Typically, he is content to engage in extended rallies, knowing that his routinely punishing blows will probably wear down his opponent, confident in his own consistency and stamina. His speed of foot protects him against drop shots, where his superior racket control usually ends matters in his favor.

The same strengths make him a strong attacker as well, capable of quickness in reaching an opponent's offering in time to take dominance and perhaps come forward. Although heavy topspin is his usual delivery, he will sometimes reduce the spin, flattening out his attacking shot for extra velocity to a corner or side, as he did fairly often at Wimbledon 08. He is not by nature a net-rusher, and he usually shows fewer net approaches than his opponent. But he is excellent at net, quick in volleying whether in cat-and-mouse close-in exchanges or in reacting an opponent's rocket. He is expert in punishing the most difficult overheads. His serving lacks the extreme velocities of a few other stars, but his variety of spin, placement, and pace is magnificent. He prefers high consistency in his first-serving, almost always showing higher in-court percentage than his opponent.

Rafa's left-handed forehand is his most potent weapon. The backhand is usually a two-hander, made the more deadly in that he is a natural right-hander. Of late, he has increasingly used a one-handed underslice on the backhand, sometimes as a variant in baseline exchanges but also sometimes as a severely spinning counter when forced wide and under pressure.

Nadal's match temperament is ideal, featuring quiet concentration occasionally interrupted by inoffensive celebrations. He is always polite in personal manner, contradicting the violence of his game, and rather quiet off the court. He is deliberate between points and is sometimes warned to speed up play. He has toned down the exaggerated on-court displays of energy, including running in changeovers, sometimes seen in his early years.

He is sometimes content to wear down an opponent with his relentless heavy overspin, he can move any opponent about the court from corner to corner, or he can instantly end a point with lightning-like strikes from on or inside baseline. There is really no weakness in Rafa's arsenal, and scarcely a strength that he does not possess to the extremity.

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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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