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November 26, 2008 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Season's End and the Triumph of Spain
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The long road that began in Australia ended in November with the Sony Ericsson championships in Doha for the top eight women and the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai for the top eight men. Both events seemed anti-climactic, as the year's #1 players, male and female, had already been determined. At Doha, November 4-9, there was relatively little of the extreme crowd engagement seen recently in Paris and the other European indoor events, and on most dates there were many vacant seats. But if the watchers seemed indifferent to the outcomes, there were plenty of fireworks on court. And lots more at the Davis Cup show-down in Argentina.


The field at Doha was attractive, lacking only the injured Sharapova. Inasmuch as every match pitted two members of the year's first eight and given the near-perfect playing conditions under outdoor lights, the level of play was often spectacular.

In the White Group's round-robin, the main surprise was the play of Vera Zvonareva, whose furious hitting lifted her in a three-setter over Ivanovic, who had beaten Vera convincingly in the final at Linz just two weeks before. Meanwhile in Maroon Group, Venus Williams won all three of her matches, in turn defeating Safina, Dementieva, and sister Serena. In all three cases, Venus stepped up her play to recover from behind, showing excellent resolve and concentration.

In the first semi-final on Saturday, Zvonareva continued her scorching shot-making. Dementieva answered in kind but could never break the pattern of Vera's strong play. Almost every point was ferociously contested, both players dazzling in their mobility and counter-stroking. It stayed close until the last few moments, when things came apart for Elena. Zvonareva d. Dementieva, 76 36 63.

Venus Williams was at her best to open the second semi, devouring the diet of medium-paced shots and angles offered by Jelena Jankovic. Dominance shifted early in the second set, however, when Venus entered a period of inconsistency while Jelena stepped up her own power and aggressiveness. The third set featured both brilliance and runs of mistakes by both, but except for a sixth game made long by Venus's double-faulting, the main force was again that of Venus. Venus d. Jankovic, 62 26 63.

The final on Sunday pitted the week's top two performers, both of them undefeated for the event at W-L 4-0. The result was even higher drama than might have been predicted. For much of the first set, Vera Zvonareva showed the wonderful all-court bombardment skills that she had shown all week. Venus Williams started poorly but gradually raised her game, so that many of the points became fiercely contested. Venus managed to fend off four adverse set points in a long ninth game, breaking serve and soon afterwards forcing a tiebreaker. In that tiebreak game, Venus took a seemingly conclusive 5-1 lead, but then, playing poorly, lost the next six points and the set as well.

Although the manner of her first-set loss seemed potentially crushing, Venus answered with superb composure, dominating the second set. Thus it became Zvonareva's emotions that eventually failed, as they had on occasions thought now ended. Vera, it seemed, wanted to win too badly. (The difference in prize money between winnning and losing this match was around $600,000.) Playing her best but still unable to stay even with Venus, Vera broke into tears on court, several times falling to the ground sobbing in her misery. Her meltdown was sad to watch.

Meanwhile Venus kept up her strong play, refusing to lower her concentration. Vera, then having purged her feelings, soon afterwards again began playing at her best, couageously so, so that the last few games were again hard-fought. But by then, Venus was undeniable. Venus d. Zvonareva, 67 60 62.

It had been a remarkable six days, full of superb and highly competitive tennis, a high finish to a formless year in women's pro tennis. The final match, which was well-attended by a closely engaged gallery, offered a remarkable display by two determined women engaged in fierce athletic competition. That it happened in a part of the world only emerging from archaic societal outlooks toward females is worth noting.

The 2008 season was over. The #1 player in the year-end points race was Jankovic, though Jelena had not won any of the biggest events--no Slams, not the Olympics, nor the wrap-up in Doha. Judging our female Player of Year candidates in next month's column will be challenging.


I was unable to watch the Masters Cup singles from Shanghai. Readers of Jane Voight's fine accounts in Tennis Server's daily e-mail feeds already understand the flow of events there. Rafael Nadal's withdrawal left four favorites to reach the semi-finals--Murray, Federer, Djokovic, and the recent winner indoors in Paris, Tsonga. But Jo-Wilfried failed to make the cut after losing two round-robin matches, both closely, while Roger Federer, winner of the event in four of the last five years, narrowly failed to advance amid continuation of the back trouble that had caused his withdrawal at Paris indoors. Jane's reports tell of Davydenko's brilliance in the semis in defeating Murray, who had battled through a long three-setter in beating Federer less than 24 hours before. Djokovic narrowly defeated Gilles Simon in the semis and convincingly destroyed Davydenko in the final. Finishing at #1 in the year's points race was Rafael Nadal. Federer was second, narrowly ahead of Djokovic, third.


In my opinion, Wimbledon merits primacy over the other Slams in men's doubles, as only at Wimby is the men's doubles best-of-five sets. (Also only at Wimby is there no tiebreak game to decide a fifth set.) The Wimbledon 08 champions were a new pairing this year--Dan Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. The brothers Bryan won U.S. Open, Cuevas-Horna won Garros, and Erlich-Ram won in Australia.

The Masters Cup doubles from Shanghai were seen here thanks to Tennis Channel, to my great satisfaction. The surprise semi-finalists were the South Americans Cuevas-Horna. I had watched them here in Washington in August, where Horna had been troubled by a bad shoulder. But in Shanghai Luis's serving power was unimpeded, and the pair rode his (and Cuevas's) potent serving and stroking to a three-set Thursday win over favored Bhupathi-Knowles, thereby advancing from the round-robin. The South Americans are comfortable staying in back court behind their own serves, where they are expert in delivering high-velocity rocketry just over the net. In their Thursday win, there were no breaks of serving games. As was the case in some other round-robin matches, a majority of points were decided in the serve/return game, where the server's edge was wide. Meanwhile in the other late-round-robin match that was also a knock-out affair, the heavier serving and stroking artillery of Fyrstenberg-Matkowski prevailed over veterans Bjorkman-Ullyett. The match ended a 15-year pro career for the universally admired, indeed beloved, Swedish star.

The first semi lasted less than an hour. Cuevas-Horna had beaten Nestor-Zimonjic in the Garros 08 final. But on this date Nestor-Zimonjic presented a solid wall at net in defiance of the back-court weaponry of the South Americans. Meanwhile the excellence of the two Belgrade-born stars in returning serve neutralized the strong serving of their Spanish-speaking opponents. Nenad Zimonjic was spectacular in long stretches, often dominating the play with his quickness and power. Nestor-Zimonjic d. Cuevas-Horna 61 63.

Watching the second semi-final, most of the way there seemed little to choose between the Bryan twins, multi-Slam champions, and the less well known Polish pair Fyrstenberg-Matkowski. The latter had finished the year strongly, winning the Madrid indoors with a run of wins over the world's top pairs, then beating the Bryans at the Paris indoors, and now looking strong in the round-robin phase at Shanghai. Both pairs were lefty-righty combinations. As play unfolded both pairs seemed roughly equal in each of the three co-equal departments of the modern doubles game--(1) serving, (2) serve-returning, and (3) aggressive doubles skills. But in the tenth games of both sets, in both cases the Poles lapsed into brief stretches of poor play even as the Americans clamped down their relentless brand of firm, air-tight tennis. Bryans d. Fyrstenberg-Matkowski 64 64.

Thus the Sunday final would decide not only the tournament championship but also the year's #1 ranking. I had long believed that Dan Nestor is the consummate left-court doubles artist, the tops in his profession. This week I came to understand that Nenad Zimonjic in the right court is Daniel's equal in serving, stroking, and volleying, indeed with superior athleticism and power in all three. Meanwhile Mike and Bob Bryan are close to Nestor and Zimonjic as individual doubles artists, and their partnership deserves a nod over Nestor-Zimonjic in their wonderful team play, honed by many years of common experience and understanding of partner. But after a full season together by Nestor-Zimonjic, this advantage of the Bryans was now very small. Without question, the Sunday showdown pitted the world's two best doubles teams.

The first set was filled with dazzling play by all four men. Both pairs lost a serving game early--results of mistakes by Nestor in serving the fourth game and some sizzling serve-returning by Nestor-Zimonjic in the fifth. After that, both pairs held serve comfortably until reaching the set-ending tiebreaker, where the pairs divided early minibreaks. But the quickness and power of Zimonjic abruptly intervened, which along with a rare Bryan double-fault sealed matters against the Americans.

It was in Bob Bryan's serving game, the sixth, that the gates opened in the second set. Heavy hitting from back court by Nestor-Zimonjic overcame the volleying by the brothers in that game, and in one critical serving point, Bob became caught in back-court, unhappily. The break of serve proved devastating for the brothers, as what followed came quickly and decisively. A couple of unreturnable serves by big and strong server Nenad fended off trouble for the front-running pair in the seventh game. Finally, with the brothers now outplayed on nearly every point, it ended upon yet another break of serve. Illustrating the differential in hitting power, Nestor-Zimonjic led in aces for the match, 10-1. Their superior serve-returning was almost as noticeable. Nestor-Zimonjic d. Bryans, 76 62.

It was hard to believe that anyone has ever played doubles at a more devastating level than that of Nestor-Zimonjic in the week of Masters Cup 08. By finishing the year at #1, the new champions broke a three-year run of the Bryans in that distinction.


The absence of Rafael Nadal because of injury took away from the Davis Cup final, played November 21-23 at Mar del Plata, 200 miles south of Buenos Aires. Argentina's team was now the clear favorite, its two singles representatives both higher ranked for 2008 than Spain's and its 10,000-seat indoor venue assuring close-on crowd support. Argentina had won its last 13 Cup ties as host nation over a ten year period, but had now, unusually, chosen an indoor carpet surface, obviously to avoid facing the clay-court greatness of Nadal, winner of the last four French Opens.


The two Davids had not met in 2008 but Ferrer had the slight edge in earlier head-to-head play. But the Spanish David had slipped out of the first ten in the current year's rankings, while Nalbandian had finished the year strongly, a close runner-up at the Paris indoors.

From the outset, the dominating aspect was the effortless power of Nalbandian, both in serving and stroking. The Argentine's firm hitting, backed by aggressive tactics, was not spectacular but was applied relentlessly, with almost complete absence of error. Both Nalbandian's serve and his serve-returning were increasingly effective as the match unfolded, and he maintained strong net-attacking instincts from start to finish.

Ferrer, always the fighter, tried to reverse matters by stepping up his own power and attacking play. Some exciting forays ensued. But against Ferrer's sometime pressure Nalbandian's defenses were at least as effective as his opponent's in similar circumstances. The crowd and also the relatively fast surface surely helped Nalbandian to his victory, along with the Argentine player's strong mental concentration in resolutely applying his pattern of superiority.

LOPEZ d. DEL POTRO, 46 76 76 63

Af first, it looked as if Argentina would quickly claim a second victory on the day. Even more extremely than in the first match, the Argentine player was the heavier server and stroker, at will driving his Spanish opponent about the court, keeping him on the defensive. Feliciano Lopez had no answers in the many extended exchanges, having trouble adjusting to Juan Martin del Potro's pace, often failing to find the court with his own replies. Still, Lopez had assets not available earlier to his countryman Ferrer in the earlier match--an excellent left-handed serve, along with magnificent volleying ability, which he employed in coming to net behind every first serve. Thus in losing the first set the Spanish player managed to hold serve in four of his five serving games, even though he seemed always vulnerable against the relentless power that was del Potro's.

But scarcely noticeable as the second set began, Lopez began playing better in the backcourt exchanges. Often using del Potro's power to generate his own well-timed forehand replies and consistently accurate backhands, which were usually sliced and often angled, Lopez was now holding his own, obtaining better results behind his own second serve along with increased pressure in the del Potro service games. Neither man broke opponent's serve in the second set, but Lopez seized the first four points in the tiebreak game and then closed out the game and set nicely.

Feliciano's improvement continued in the third set. Again, both players held serve throughout, but Lopez did so more comfortably, losing only three serving points during the set. Feliciano's net play was now at a level almost never seen these days. Behind in the tiebreak game, five points to two, Lopez then won the last five points including two on his opponent's serve to claim set three.

Del Potro's confidence and perhaps his stamina too now seemed low, his power game having failed to produce the needed results. He began coming to net more often, sometimes with good results, but in the fourth game of the fourth set he contributed two double-faults and, moments later, a drive just an eyelash over the baseline. It was the first break of either player's serve since set one. But then, with matters apparently firmly in Lopez's control, the 20-year-old del Potro summoned one more great effort to win an extended game five, neutralizing the just-lost break of serve.

Already, the match had proven one of the year's most gripping. But now there intruded one of the turns of fate that sometimes happen in sports. Del Potro, running wide to reach a nasty angle from Feliciano, pulled up lame, apparent victim of a groin pull. It was a sad end to a herculean contest. Although the strapping Argentine youth played out the last three games for the record, he could generate little mobility or power.

The Cup picture had changed in an instant. With del Potro beaten and perhaps unavailable for the rest of the weekend, the visitors were now the favorites. For Argentina, having only clay artists Acasuso and Calleri available as singles replacements, much--perhaps everything--depended on the Saturday doubles.


It was not quite the quality of doubles seen at Shanghai, lacking, for example, the incessant aggressiveness in poaching at net-center, while the absence of the No-Ad rule here reduced the electricity in most games. But it was skilled tennis, featuring the standard attacking tactics and occasional flashes of brilliance. Meanwhile the highly energized and vocal crowd, along with the importance of the occasion, made for plenty of drama.

The first two sets were settled by single breaks of serve. A poor game and a concluding double fault by Verdasco cost the Spaniards the first set, and a couple of sudden errors at net by Calleri cost the Argentines the second. A wonderful serve-return and charging stretch-volley by Lopez provided an early break for Spain in the third, but after that things turned ragged. The Spanish pair broke again to lead in games 5-1, then became unravelled, the drums and crowd chanting now requiring umpire's intervention before very point. In one case, Verdasco uncharacteristically failed to come forward behind serve, allowing opponents to seize net. Then in the set-ending tiebreaker, Argentina moved ahead in points 5-1. But then it was the Argentines who stumbled, losing the next six points and ceding the set to Spain. The lead-change came on consecutive points lost on Calleri's serve--a botched poach try by Nalbandian and then a surprise topspin-lob winner by Verdasco.

The crowd, now spent, become mostly quiet. The early break in set four came against Nalbandian and another break followed two games later. A late rally by the Argentines stirred matters briefly but this time the Spaniards closed out efficiently. It was a deserved victory for the visitors in the face of a daunting gallery.

Although during the afternoon Verdasco had contributed some dazzling thrusts, there was little doubt that Feliciano Lopez had been the most effective player on court (except during Spain's dismal spell in set three). For the hosts, Nalbandian was the stronger of the partners. Now, Argentina must hope that del Potro had recovered, and that both he and Nalbandian could produce their best tennis on Sunday.

VERDASCO d. ACASUSO, 63 67 46 63 61

But del Potro stayed on the sidelines on Sunday, his place in the fourth rubber taken by Jose Acasuso, a tough and determined fighter but whose record in recent months showed little success. His opponent, replacing Ferrer, was Fernando Verdasco, who was now well tuned to the playing conditions from his previous-day's doubles. Both nominees were strong hitters off the serve and the forehand, where Verdasco's hitting was the more fluid and effortless. Acasuso's play was the more grinding in the fashion of a moderately aggressive clay-courter.

At first, Acasuso seemed handicapped in executing his big-swinging ground strokes because of the fast bounce, and he lost the first set in a spell of erratic hitting at mid-set. In the second set Jose gradually adjusted his shot-making to the court speed. Twice he broke the Verdasco serve to move ahead, and twice the Spanish player equalized. The pattern repeated in the set-ending tiebreaker, Acasuso moving ahead early, then contributing.two bad errors to produce equality, then again attacking effectively against a now-cautious Verdasco to finally close out the set.

It was hard for me to stay neutral, knowing that a win by Acasuso would throw matters into a delicious fifth rubber, Nalbandian against Lopez. In the third set, again it was Acasuso twice breaking serve, both times Verdasco breaking back. Both players took turns from one point to another, moving opponent corner-to-corner, dominating with forehand rocketry. More willing to come to net when thereby advantaged was the Argentine. And probably that was the small difference when Acasuso once again broke serve, then narrowly held his own to finish the set in ten games.

Suggestions that Acasuso might be tiring stirred in the sixth game, set four, when Jose, serving, seemed to lose interest in coming to net--even as he began favoring his not-quite-powerful-enough overspin backhand over his more-effective slice, as if to end points the more quickly. The game slipped away, and though it was unthinkable at the time, indeed Jose would win only two more games this afternoon. With Jose increasingly accepting the defensive, Verdasco closed out the set successfully, and it was now two sets all.

During the changeover between sets, Acasuso received extensive massage to the midsection. When play resumed, the sizzle was clearly gone from Jose's play, whether from tiredness, injury, or mental fatigue following his magnificent stand earlier. Meanwhile Verdasco, impeccably putting controlled pressure on his weakened opponent, collected the final set in relatively short order.

The drama was over. There would be no decisive fifth rubber pitting the week's two best players. For the impassioned Argentine nation, there would be no first-time Davis Cup crown. (Indeed, no South American country has ever been Cup champion.) Spain had won that nation's third Davis Cup championship--captured in the symmetric years 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Argentina's decision to shun clay proved mistaken, but of course Nadal's absence could surely not be foreseen. Sadly, the influence of injuries did not end with Rafa's. Still, the glorious flavor of the meeting had again shown the important place that the annual Davis Cup play continues to hold for pro tennis. For me, the lesson remained--that the essential structure of the competition must be preserved even if the financial rewards remain unattractive for the players and the rest of the pro establishment. It is owed to world fandom.

It's time to start thinking about picking Player of the Year 2008.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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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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