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June 7, 2009 Article

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Garros '09 Review
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

French Open 09 at times produced levels of tennis as high as has ever been seen on this planet, while the tournament's array of players, male and female, were surely as athletic, powerful, highly trained, and professionally motivated as has ever been assembled. The weather cooperated, rain-free except for a few short intervals. Swirling winds sometimes challenged players. Television transmitted much of the action worldwide, including to the United States by Tennis Channel, ESPN-2, and NBC. It was assuredly a historic Slam, stamped by the termination of Nadal's dominance at Garros and by Federer's attaining his milestone 14th Slam crown, equaling Sampras's record total. The sport seemed at a zenith.
On most dates the courts played on the fast side, sped up by the seemingly hard-packed clay just under the topmost layer and also by the often dry and moderately warm atmospheric conditions. The balls used were said to be harder and faster than usual. Comparisons with data from the late rounds of the men's singles in recent years at Garros showed that servers this year won higher-than-usual percentages of games and points, a phenomenon that, along with a higher-than-usual frequency of aces, confirmed that the playing conditions were fast. Not surprisingly, the result was a premium on aggressive play.
These developments reflected the trend reducing the division in styles of play between (1) players most accustomed to clay-court tennis and (2) players most successful on faster surfaces.
Regular followers of predictions in Tennis Server were not surprised by the identity of the women's finalists, Saturday, June 6. Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova had been the dominant performers in the current European clay season, Dinara having captured Rome and Madrid, and Svetlana winning at Stuttgart. The two split their recent meetings in the final rounds at Stuttgart and Rome, while Safina won their semi-final showdown at Garros 08.
Conditions for their final-round meeting on Saturday, June 6, were on the slow side--the courts damp, the air temperature cool. Both players stroked with excellent power, but Kuznetsova's strokes carried greater topspin and were less slowed in bouncing. There were no aces in the match, but Safina misfired on seven second serves, presumably overhitting to overcome the conditions. (Kuznetsova double-faulted only once.) It seemed too that Dinara's stroking was sometimes overly ambitious, though her unforced error total was similar to Svetlana's.
The first set ended with three consecutive breaks of serve. Safina gave away three points to start game eight, which ended when Dinara was victimized by a horribly bad bounce. Kuznetsova returned the generosity in game nine, losing serve at love, but Svetlana then played splendidly in earning the deciding break in game ten.
The second set became a nightmare for Safina, who gradually yielded to tears as Kuznetsova's now-superior movement and stroking produced the critical break of serve in game six and then withstood Dinara's desperate efforts to reverse matters. It was the second Slam triumph of Kuznetsova's career, she having won U.S. Open 04. Svetlana also now surpassed Dinara as the unofficial champion of clay season 09. Dinara would remain the current world #1 player but still without a Slam crown.
If the final match seemed less than climactic, the tournament provided plenty of drama elsewhere.
A little over a year ago Maria Sharapova, having won Australian Open 08 and the Tier I at Doha, held the world #1 ranking. Shoulder trouble intervened, however, including surgery, so that Maria was away from competition for nine months. Her return to slam action at Garros 09 produced widespread interest.
Maria won her first four matches at Garros, all of them in split sets. Her second-round win over Nadia Petrova, 25, a former first-tenner now seeded #11, became the first-week's prime women's match.
Both players blasted away, mostly from back court, both playing early-strike tennis, seeking and taking the initiative at first opportunity. For the first set, Sharapova played at near perfection, stretching her opponent to the court extremities while contributing almost no unforced errors of her own. Matters then reversed, as Petrova dominated in exactly the same way in winning set two. Nadia took an early break in set three but Maria recovered and, with both women playing at what seemed their highest and most ferocious level, Maria ultimately closed out matters in overtime. Both players showed more winners than unforced errors. Sharapova seemed her old self but with a slightly abbreviated serve from in the past. It was an impressive victory for Maria, opening up her passage to the final eight. Sharapova d. Petrova, 62 16 86.
But Maria performed badly in the quarters, where she lost to Dominika Cibulkova, 20, of Slovak Republic, who at 5-3 was almost a foot shorter than Maria but vastly superior in court movement and consistency in striking. Readily neutralizing Maria's big game and unleashing her own attacking on occasion, Dominika won the first eleven games. Cibulkova d. Sharapova, 60 62.
The Serena Williams story paralleled Sharapova's. Serena, having won U.S. Open 08 and Australia 09, held the #1 ranking in early 2009. Leg problems limited her success thereafter, and she slipped behind Safina in the rankings. Scarcely auspicious were Serena's recent losses in her first matches at Rome and Madrid.
Like Maria, Serena advanced through the first four rounds at Garros with moderate difficulty. There was a three-setter in the first round against unseeded Zakopalova of Czech Republic. Serena's left leg was lightly taped at the knee, but no effect on her play could be seen. Several days later Serena lost the first set to lefty Martinez-Sanchez following a mistaken ruling against Serena, which created the set's only service break. The Spanish player showed good aggressiveness and consistency amid the windy and dry, i.e. slippery, conditions, but Serena's strong play after the first set kept the American narrowly in control of events. There was no tape on the Williams leg.
The quarter-finals pitted Serena against the tournament's eventual champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Both women were among the game's strongest hitters, superb athletes both. Back and forth it went, neither player able to sustain the advantage. Serena's strokes carried the greater velocity with the lesser effort, while Svetlana's bore slightly more spin and, with it, equal weight. Past reputations argued that it was the American whose game usually reached its heights when things matted most, while it was Kuznetsova who sometimes faltered when victory was close. Indeed, not long ago Svetlana had lost to Serena after a Kuznetsova victory seemed assured, at Australian Open 09.
Several times on this day, it looked as if the old script was again unfolding, especially when Svetlana, having won the first set, failed to win the second after leading by 41 and then 53. Serena was now approaching her best tennis, moving quickly and easily, serving and stroking with full power and few errors. Then in the third set Svetlana recovered to reach two match points, only to lose both perhaps owing to nervousness. But two games later when Svetlana again gained the same edge on the scoreboard, this time it was Serena who faltered amid some firm hitting by Svetlana. Her victory was an important step toward the championship for the winner. Kuznetsova d. S. Williams, 76 57 75.
Another four-match winner was Victoria Azarenka, 19, tennis nation Belarus, who in the fourth round defeated the tournament's defending champion, Ana Ivanovic. Throughout, Azarenka's stroking was almost as powerful and far more consistent than Ivanovic's flatter deliveries. The teenager was also the better mover, leaving Ana with little weaponry with which to resist the game's newest star.
Victoria's next opponent was the tournament favorite and top seed, Dinara Safina. The first set was hardly a contest. Victoria delivered 14 of 15 first serves into court, winning all but one of those 14 points, meanwhile outscoring her opponent in winners by 10-5. Safina, who had won her first four matches one-sidedly, managed to stop the carnage early in set two, capturing a break of serve while working mainly to Azarenka's less-dangerous side, the forehand.
Both players were now ripping away with full energy, exchanging firepower of extreme weight often to the corners and sides. Victoria managed to equalize at four games all, second set, but after that the balance shifted, scarcely noticeably except on the scoreboard, in favor of Safina. The negative, indeed theatrical, emotions from Victoria now increased in both frequency and intensity, toward the end exploding after every lost point as Dinara's superiority lengthened. Safina d. Azarenka, 16 64 62.
Another teenager, less-heralded Sorana Cirstea, 18, of Romania, also reached the final eight, beating both Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic, who had been women's top-ranked player for 2008. Sorana lost in the quarters to surprise semi-finalist Samantha Stosur.
The first semi was a bruising affair, Dinara Safina prevailing over her much shorter opponent Dominka Cibulkova. Safina was known for her heavy serving and stroking, Cibulkova for her excellent court movement. But somehow on this day, Dinara's big hitting was matched in weight and ferocity by those of the muscular mite across the net. Meanwhile, Dominika's superb mobility seemed only marginally more effective than Safina's.
The points and games were closely fought, and the possibility that the underdog, Cibulkova, might turn matters around seemed never far from thought. The score seemed one-sided, but the points assuredly were not. Probably Dominika's lesser reach was the most important difference explaining in the outcome. One surprising statistic illustrated the energy produced by the smaller player: the two were about even in average first-serve velocity, but Cibulkova led Safina in average second-serve velocity by 8 mph. Safina d. Cibulkova, 63 63.
The second semi also featured an unexpected participant. Brisbane-born Samantha Stosur, 24, height 5-8, had returned to the pro tennis wars in spring 2008 after an 8-month absence caused by illness. Sam was best known as doubles partner for Lisa Raymond over several years, but she won two singles matches at Australian Open 09 before an injury kept her out of this year's early clay season. Thirtieth-seeded at Garros, she showed a hard serve and a power baseline game, advancing to the Final Four with five wins including a head-to-head victory over Dementieva, the high-seeded player in her quarter. (Sam had lost to Dementieva at Melbourne.)
Stosur met Svetlana Kuznetsova in the tournament's second semi. As expected, Samantha's serve was the faster, by considerable margin, but Svetlana stood deep in returning and managed to get most offerings back into play. (Sam's average first serve velocity was 107 mph, Svetlana's 93.) Both played mainly from baseline, and both stroked aggressively, Samantha the more so, showing more winners and unforced errors than her opponent. Probably the most dangerous stroke was Stosur's inside-out forehand, delivered cross-court. Kuznetsova's past troubles in closing out matches came to mind when she lost her second-set lead. But she came through gloriously at the finish. Kuznetsova d. Stosur, 64 67 63.
As was universally expected, the Russian women won more matches than the female contingent of any other nation. Here was the final tally, where each winning female partner in doubles or mixed earned one-half win.
Russia, 38.5
U.S.A., 21
Spain, 15
France, 13
Australia, China, both 9.5
The Russkayas led from start to finish, winning ten first-round singles, twice that of any other national contingent, and eventually providing the tournament's two finalists. It was the sixth straight year at Garros that the Russians finished on top. The Americans were strongest in mixed doubles, contributing the female partner of both finalist pairs. Spain finished third upon the winning of the women's doubles by Medina Garriguez and Ruano Pascual.
Attention is owed to the remarkable performance of female players from eastern European nations other than Russia. Besides Cibulkova, Azarenka, and Cirstea, aforementioned, two or more singles wins were scored by Szavey (who beat Venus Williams), A. Radwanska, K. Bondarenko, Czink, and Govortsova. The total of match wins, singles and doubles, scored by players from these countries comes to an amazing 55.0--many more than by any major nation. Eleven nations contributed to this total, including eight nations with at least five wins -- Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Serbia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania, in that order.
Opening-day Sunday at Garros and next-day Monday brought blue skies and warm temperatures. Attesting to the fast playing conditions were the 55 aces delivered by Ivo Karkovic in his five-set losing effort against Lleyton Hewitt. Cloud, wind, and cold followed early-day rain on the third day, Tuesday, probably helping Leonardo Mayer, 22, whose strong serving and stroking penetrated the court well in outplaying and defeating fifteenth-seeded James Blake.
The favorites in general continued to advance through round two but several did so narrowly. Andy Murray had trouble against an impressive Potito Starace, splitting the first two sets and falling behind 51 in the third. But Andy stepped up his own forcefulness and accuracy, winning in four. Roger Federer faced adverse set points in his first three sets but won two of them against Jose Acasuso of Argentina. The outcome was a four-set win for Roger albeit a praiseworthy effort by Jose.
Another Argentine star played well, but Juan Monaco lost in four sets to ninth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Jo-Wilfried's extreme stroking power seemed to require relatively little effort, while his drop-shot and net games were often sterling. Like Acasuso, Monaco took away lots of applause for his strong effort but only first-round points and prize money.
Meanwhile, Philipp Kohlschreiber, 25, produced the tournament's biggest upset to date, surprising Novak Djokovic in straight sets. On this day Philipp became stronger as the match lengthened, and in the final set he turned back Novak's bids to surge by unleashing his powerful backhand. Probably, Djokovic's heavy schedule in recent months created some physical and mental tiredness, and the Serbian superstar never seemed to find his full power and quickness. But just as important to the outcome was Kohlschreiber's strong play--returning serve consistently, matching Novak in baseline exchanges, and discouraging Novak's taking of the initiative, himself often becoming the aggressor. Kohlschreiber d. Djokovic, 64 64 64.
Saturday evening found Roger Federer once again in jeopardy. French player Paul-Henri Mathieu produced his own best tennis, featuring potent serves and relatively flat strokes of extreme potency, forcing Roger to produce his aggressive best. Matters reached one set all, whereupon the narrow balance between the two turned in favor of Roger's attacking forehand, which was remindful of the magnificent weapon of the glory days, delivered with extreme topspin and extreme pace. Federer d Mathieu, 46 61 64 64.
From the outset, Nadal seemed not at his best. There were too many flubs into the net in stroking and in returning serve, too many balls sailing out of court in Rafa's occasional moments of attack. Meanwhile Robin Soderling was applying the medicine that players had learned worked best against Rafael--keeping the points short, hitting forcefully but without error, getting the champion out of his zone of comfort. The Swedish 24-year-old was playing well, probably close to his best, working over the champion by first-serving and second-serving well, taking the initiative early, and employing a straight-armed, flattish forehand of extreme velocity to score repeated winners and near-winners to the sides and corners.
Watchers were accustomed to slow starts by Rafa, but Soderling's ability to sustain his big game long enough to win the first set and then stay even in the second was unexpected. Rafa then equalized matters by winning the tiebreaker ending the second set amid a run of errors by Robin, so it seemed that Rafa was probably now out of danger.
But as the third set unfolded, it was Robin Soderling who raised his now-pulverizing serving and stroking, thereby neutralizing Rafa's also-improved play. The rockets from Sweden now came often and with deadly effect, many of them unreturned or answered by Rafa with weakish invitations for more. Rafa tried to play more aggressively, but Robin held up well in these exchanges, which fairly often ended in a discouraging error by the champion. The statistics for the full match registered Soderling's aggressive and more potent performance. He led in aces 9-3, in other winners 52-30, in points won at net 27-6, and in average first- and second-serve velocities, each by more than ten percent. He committed no double-faults.
That Nadal lost so conclusively, to a player Rafa had beaten conclusively a few weeks earlier, made the outcome seem incomprehensible. But since Rome, Rafa's vulnerability had been glimpsed in the late rounds in Madrid. Soderling played extremely well in claiming his victory--serving forcefully and returning serve consistently, attacking brilliantly, meanwhile holding his own in neutral situations and when under pressure. There will long be allusions to the events of this windy Sunday in Paris, when ended Nadal's magnificent five-year run.
Tommy Haas, now 31, had been playing about as well as he ever had during his injury-troubled career. At Madrid he had beaten young Gulbis, then forced Andy Roddick to a narrow escape in split sets. Now at Garros 09, having moved impressively through the first three rounds and on his day through two hours of tennis at extremely high level, Haas led by two sets and was ahead in games, 34, at break point for 35. Tommy Haas stood at the brink of defeating Roger Federer.
It is hard to believe that a single point so decisively changed a major match. Roger served at 30-40, Tommy returned with a reply to the backhand corner, moderately soft. Roger, on the baseline, had time to slip into the backhand alley. It happed as if by reflex--a bold forehand inside-out rip by Roger, across court into Tommy's distant backhand corner. The shot carried plenty of velocity and minimal topspin, distance alone slowing and dropping the ball enough to find the opposite sideline. As if in disbelief at the aggressive shot, Tommy barely moved. Score: deuce.
Roger went on to win that game and the next two games as well, capturing the third set. After that Tommy, unable to overcome chagrin at his misfortunes, would win only two more games. Gone was the magnificent play of Haas seen earlier, as Federer, no longer playing passively and now showing his best tennis, captured sets four and five. Federer d. Haas, 67 57 64 60 62.
Often players after scoring major upsets vanish quietly in the next round. But Robin Soderling showed no hint of any letdown against Nicolay Davydenko, the lightning-fast recent destroyer of Verdasco. The strong and, at 6-3, tall hitter from Sweden dominated throughout with his powerful tennis and calm composure, leaving Davydenko helpless in straight sets. Also a comfortable quarter-final winner was Juan Martin del Potro, age 20 at height 6-6, who had beaten Tsonga in four sets and now defeated Robredo in three to capture the quarter that had originally been headed by Djokovic.
Fernando Gonzalez's win over Big Four member Andy Murray was not entirely unexpected. Ferdando had won all four of his earlier matches at Garros in straight, non-tiebreak sets, showing a level of control of his power game seen only occasionally in the past. His formula against Murray resembled Soderling's against Nadal--ripping away with a superior power forehand, which repeatedly forced winners, errors, or weak returns against a defense-minded opponent. Critical was Fernando's ability to hold down errors in his big hitting. The statistics showed his success--during the match Fernando scored 41 winners (not counting aces) compared to only 24 unforced errors, slightly fewer errors than Murray in his less risky play. Gonzalez d. Murray, 63 36 60 64.
One year ago in the Garros semis, top-seeded Roger Federer faced unseeded Gael Monfils, then 21. The two divided the first two sets before Roger established his superiority. Now, at Garros 09, Roger at age 27 was no longer world champion, while Gael stood at the edge of the world's first ten, having just stunned Andy Roddick in straight sets.
For most of the first set, both men played within themselves, both rather passively--Monfils by habit, Federer less aggressively than when at his best, respecting the superb defenses of Monfils. The French player reached set point in the tiebreak game ending the first set, but two points later Roger held -- and won -- a set point of his own. Federer then took the second set easily over a now-dispirited opponent and then the third with a single break of serve.
With Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray all gone, Federer became the only member of tennis's Big Four to reach the semis.
SEMI-FINAL: FEDERER d. DEL POTRO, 36 76 26 61 64
For three sets it was early-strike tennis, both men whacking away often from inside the baseline for winners into corners. The power of the younger player, Juan Martin del Potro, 20, at height 6-6, matched that of the master warrior Federer. Evident in slow-motion replays was how both men found extra spin and velocity in stroking by dragging the racket head slightly behind the arm and snapping the wrist forward and slightly upward in the microseconds just before strike, adding to the energy imparted to the ball.
For three sets the edge was del Potro's. His first serve found the box in nearly 70% of the tries--a first serve whose average velocity exceeded Roger's by 9 mph over the full match. He faced break points only twice, both in the first set, and on both occasions he saved the serving games. Many points had been fiercely contested, but Juan Martin had won 97, Roger only 85. Juan Martin won the first and third, Roger won the second in a tiebreaker.
The turning point came in the fourth game, set four, del Potro serving. The air had cooled with onset of evening, slowing play slightly, perhaps at some penalty to del Potro's serving. But it probably mattered not, as Juan Martin now was missing nearly all his first serves. Roger now returned the second serves softly, keeping the ball low and short, surprising his opponent who came forward awkwardly. The tactic worked, and suddenly, unspectacularly, Roger had the service break that essentially equalized matters.
After that, although del Potro's play remained spirited, suggestions of his tiredness grew as matters lengthened, his first-serve in-court percentage now below 50%. With Juan Martin now often deep behind baseline and his lightning bolts coming only occasionally, Roger was now at his best, seemingly as fresh as at the start. Roger's superiority at the finish was unquestionable.
SODERLING d. GONZALEZ, 63 75 57 46 64
It began with both men slugging away with all their strength, both Gonzalez and Soderling showing the power and control that had carried them through five victories. It was the high-backswing, huge stroking of Gonzalez against the extended, sweeping arm forehands of Soderling, the sweet one-hander backhands of Gonzalez against the two-handers of Soderling, the overspin of Gonzalez's strokes against the nearly spinless rockets of Soderling.
For two sets the edge, ever so slightly, was with Soderling. But little by little, the amazing consistency that accompanied the Swede's magnificent stroking began to waver. As the third and fourth sets slipped away to Fernando and as Gonzalez won an early break of serve in the fifth, it seemed that Soderling was once again the familiar player ranking well outside the top group. But then, down in games 24, it all returned--the rockets to the extremes of the courts amid almost total absence of error. In only a few minutes, Soderling made a run of near-complete dominion, closing out with a display of power and accuracy that recalled his best moments against Nadal earlier.
Anticipation was high for final-round Sunday, June 7. Could the Swedish rocketeer reach his heights yet one more time? If so, could Roger summon his best in reply?
Answers came almost at once, when Soderling failed to hold serve in the opening game amid three unforced errors and a double-fault. Roger, it was clear, was not interested in passively feeling out his opponent, and instead replied to Swedish power with his own. The first set was over in 25 minutes, Soderling never able to reproduce his recent brilliance in the face of Roger's near perfection in his own heavy game.
Soderling improved after that, holding serve to reach tiebreaker in set two, showing flashes of the irresistible hitting seen before but never enough to threaten in Roger's serving games. Play continued through sudden wind and then light rain, as Roger took advantage of the conditions to add in repeatedly-devastating drop shots. Roger won the set-ending tiebreak game by winning seven of the eight tiebreaker points including all four of his own serving points, all four with aces.
Federer broke serve in a hard-fought game to start set three. Soderling would thereafter produce his best tennis of the day and indeed pushed Federer to break points in two games. But Roger's best was always close at hand to keep matters on course. Over the full match, Soderling's serving velocities were the higher, but Federer led in aces, 16-2.
Federer had struggled along the way to reach the final round. On this day, he seemed determined to hold nothing back, to allow no chance for this dangerous opponent to interfere with his intended script. Roger's greatness has seldom been as undeniable. By winning his first crown at Garros, Roger became the sixth player in history to conquer the career Grand Slam and only the third, with Laver and Agassi, to do so in the Open era.
From start to finish, the male contingents from France and Spain stayed close atop the tally of matches won. France was ahead by one match after the first round of singles and maintained that lead until Spain equalized after three rounds of singles, two of doubles, and one of mixed. The French total was hurt by the absence of Gasquet, Spain's by the unexpected elimination of Nadal after only three wins. In a surprising development, the French led in singles, the Spanish in doubles, lifted by three wins by M. Lopez-Robredo. Here was the final count:
Spain, 23.5
France, 22.5
Argentina, 14.0
Germany, Russia, each 12.5
U.S.A., 11.5
Was there ever a greater French Open? Except that the great matches came prior to and not in the final round, it would be hard to disagree.
--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.

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