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July 5, 2009 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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The Unfolding of Wimbledon '09
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

As expected, rallies at Wimbledon 09 tended to be shorter, serves more dominating than at the other Slams. Playing conditions were fast in the unusually warm and dry weather. In the last four rounds service aces came more frequently than in any of the last three Wimbledons, indeed more frequently than in any of the last fifteen Slams. Servers also achieved unusually high game-winning and point-winning percentages.
Underspin backhands were fairly frequent, but power was still dominant, as any opponent was capable of punishing a too-inviting offering with a winning rocket to a corner. Players generally came into forecourt more willingly than elsewhere, often behind low-bouncing approach shots. The official statistics for the last four rounds showed more-frequent net approaches than at either Australian Open or Garrros 09 but less-frequent than at U.S. Open 08. Tell-tale patterns of worn grass verified that baseline play was in vogue, that net-attacking remained far rarer than in past times.
The pre-tournament top favorites generally did well. But most players closely behind the leaders faltered, their disappointments opening the way for (1) stronger-than-expected showings among lower-ranking, young risers on the women's side and (2) the seeming rebirths of several veteran careers on the men's. The tournament's epic final produced the historic 15th Slam crown for the male champion, Roger Federer, making Roger the all-time leader. For Serena Williams it was the eleventh Slam, lifting her to seventh place on the female all-time list, one Slam behind Billie Jean King. The good weather rendered the new convertible roof largely unnecessary, though it allowed a late-evening finish in probably the tournament's most dramatic match-up. Watchers everywhere appreciated the joy of the host-nation fans in the chances of Andy Murray until his loss on the final weekend.
Early surprises were few among the women, where the top-seeded eight all survived the first two rounds. The most notable upset was the defeat of former champion Maria Sharapova, age 22, whose seeded place at #24 reflected indifferent results since her recent return from shoulder surgery. Maria lost to Gisela Dulko in a split-set second-round match. Meanwhile Ana Ivanovic narrowly won her first match, where she seemed to regain her past brilliance late in that affair and also in her second-round appearance.
After two rounds of play, the Williams sisters seemed clearly the strongest in their respective quarters. The evidence that Serena's play was unaffected by any lingering knee/leg injury problems improved her pre-tournament overall odds of 5-1 to odds of 3-1 in my estimation now. Venus, with heavily wrapped knee, remained at 6-1. Safina was still the narrow favorite over Kuznetsova to win her quarter, fourth-seeded Dementieva more comfortably over Zvonareva in hers.
Now it was time for the top eight to begin facing other seeded players or their recent conquerors. Exiting in the third round were seventh-seeded Vera Zvonareva, who withdrew with physical problems, and sixth-seeded Jelena Jankovic, victim of American qualifier Melanie Oudin, 17. Melanie showed good power from a low-to-the ground height listed at 5' 4". For Jelena, who was distressed in the day's heat, this fresh disappointment argued that her time among the superstars had ended for now.
Also departing was fifth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, also victim of an unseeded newcomer. Svetlana had won Roland Garros a few weeks earlier, but Sabine Lisicki, 19, was the stronger player this day. At height 5' 10", with a strong, nicely balanced game and with good attacking inclinations, Lisicki had gained notice in winning the clay event in Charleston this April and in contributing to Germany's Fed Cup fortunes. Lisicki d. Kuznetsova, 62 75.
An emerging plot was the success of women under the age of 21. Joining Oudin and Lisicki in the tournament's final sixteen were Azarenka, Wozniacki, and Radwanska. All were teenagers except Radwanska, 20. Three of the five would win their fourth-round matches, played Monday, June 29, while two were beaten by other members of the same youthful group. (Radwanska would defeat Oudin, Lisicki would beat Wozniacki, and Azarenka would beat tenth-seeded Petrova.)
But the larger story was the continued strong play of the sisters Williams, both of whom seemed at their highest level of power and athleticism. Neither lost a set through four rounds. Venus's fourth win came over Ana Ivanovic, who hurt a thigh after losing six of the first eight games, then retiring. Meanwhile the tournament's top seed, Dinara Safina, survived a close call against former champion Amelie Mauresmo, while the largely overlooked Elena Dementieva, like the Williamses, showed four wins, all straight-setters.
As of eventide, Second Monday, the eight surviving women included the four top seeds--still the favorites in the four quarters of the draw. Here were what seemed the current odds for winning the crown:
S. Williams, odds 3-2 (1.5-1)
V. Williams, 3-1
Safina, 8-1
Dementieva, 9-1
Azarenka, 12-1
Lisicki, Radwanska, Schiavone, each 50-1 or longer
Venus opened the quarter-finals with a demolition of Radwanska, whose softish game provided target practice for the American. Dementieva then handled Schiavone convincingly. Meanwhile Serena Williams faced Victoria Azarenka in a showdown of two power hitters. But except for a stretch early in set two, which included a service-break against Serena, Azarenka remained the less consistent player, the slightly less skilled mover, and, as her fortunes declined, the less well composed mentally.
The fourth quarter-final was another match-up of power servers and strokers--Dinara Safina against the teenager Sabine Lisicki. Lisicki took the first set in a tiebreaker, then lost the second by the margin of one service break. Safina's serving thus far had been labored-she had surrendered ten double faults and scored no aces, while Lisicki's ace total stood at twelve. (For the full match, the teenager's average first-serve velocity exceeded Safina's by 110 mph to 99.) But having now lost her lead and after a trainer visit for a lower leg problem, Lisicki lost her stroking consistency even as her count of aces ceased growing. Behind superiority in avoiding errors, Safina ran out set three comfortably. Safina d. Lisicki, 67 64 61.
Elena Dementieva at age 27 could take satisfaction in her career to date, a consistent finisher in the world's first ten, winner of Olympics 08 and runner-up in the earlier Olympics 00. There had been many fine late-round performances, but for Elena there had been no Slam triumphs. Despite persistent problems in her serving over the years, there were never doubts as to her superb court mobility and her prowess in driving ground strokes powerfully. Dementieva moved impressively through the first five rounds at the current Wimbledon, unthreatened in winning all ten sets.
On semi-final Thursday Elena's serve seemed never better, delivered with crispness and variety in placement. Her ground-stroking was firm and clean, her starting and moving on the grass secure and fast. Her opponent, Serena Williams, played with the energy and concentration that she had shown all week, so that the high energy in the serving and stroking by both players never relented. Both players lost a service game early in all three sets, but in all three cases the score soon returned to equal and matters stayed close to the finish.
During the first-set tiebreak the Serena forehand failed repeatedly. Ending the last point was another forehand miss by Serena, going for a winner in returning an Elena second serve. After that Dementieva's stroking seemed to grow in confidence, as Serena faded into uncharacteristic uncertainty and defensiveness, her usually superior serve working not much better than Elena's. Elena was now plainly the superior ground stroker, her shots carrying lesser topspin, the greater velocity. Serena's power of will seemed her only edge, but as defeat loomed she was lifted by two extremely close line calls, both challenged by a player and then ruled upon by the automatic system Shotspot. Both came in critical situations, and in both cases the verdict favored the American. Improved serving also helped Serena late in the second set, but without the favorable Shotspot rulings Serena would probably have lost the set and match.
As the third set unfolded, double-faults and errors by both players grew slightly more frequent. Serena seemed the less fresh-slower in moving into striking position, weaker in her bearing between points, in contrast to Elena's easy movement into the corners to rip back Serena's strong bids for winners. Or was it that Serena's awkwardness was really evidence of the extreme pace and deception in Elena's hitting? Occasional errors by Elena kept Serena's chances alive.
There were more close escapes for Serena late in the third set. But the deciding break of serve came at Elena's expense, in game thirteen, when Serena won two dazzling rallies with aggressive hitting. It was not the first time in major competition that Serena became the winner by force of will. Nor was it the first loss by the narrowest of margins for Elena. It had been a riveting affair, probably the best women's match of the tournament. S. Williams d. Dementieva, 67 75 86.
In contrast, the day's second match quickly became one-sided amid near-perfection by Venus Williams. Dinara Safina tried to answer with extreme power but only produced endless errors. It was over in an hour. V. Williams d. Safina, 61 60.
The sisters had met in previous pro competition twenty times, dividing the victories evenly. On this Fourth of July in London, Serena and Venus both seemed at their best. At first Venus seemed to be striking the more cleanly, answering opponent's power the more easily. Serving was dominant, though Serena nearly lost the eighth game, serving, but she escaped by boldly stepping up her forcefulness. Still, Venus seemed able routinely to punish her sister's serves, while to stay even or prevail it seemed that Serena must play at close to perfection, especially in serving, with plenty of aggressiveness. But in the tiebreak game that ended the first set, Serena indeed did exactly that.
Set two was easier. Serena continued at near-perfection in her forceful play, while from Venus errors began to intrude and first serves now seldom found the box. What became the deciding service break came in the fifth game, which ended in a double-fault by Venus.
It had been another sunny day, with just a bit of wind that may have contributed in Venus's serving decline. One could suspect that Venus's heavily wrapped knee had also been a distraction. The full gallery appreciated the high level of tennis, but partisan passions had been low, the noise level not a factor. It was Serena's third Wimbledon triumph, all three achieved in a final-round victory over her sister. Moments afterwards, the sisters were talking about their final-round doubles, forthcoming. S. Williams d. V. Williams, 76 62.
The late withdrawal of the men's defending champion, Rafael Nadal, spoiled the special sense of history that had flavored pre-tournament anticipations. Still, the air of excitement remained high, lifted by the possibility that a native-son Britisher might this year break the country's drought of male singles champions, a drought that began in 1936.
Andy Murray was indeed a strong candidate to do so. At a muscular 6-3 in height and age 22, the Scottish player in his first two matches showed a patient and mature style, backed by excellent court mobility, forcefulness in serving, and variety in shot-making, all amid plenty of power in reserve. His opponents, American Bob Kendrick and Latvian Ernests Gulbis both brought strong serving ability and, in Kendrick's case, aggressiveness in taking net, thereby giving Murray valuable grass-court tune-up.
When Rafa withdrew, his favored place atop the draw had been given to tall Juan Martin del Potro, 20, whose rocketry in serving and stroking had raised him to world #5. But in his second match del Potro could not cope with the energetic movement and stroking of an unseeded but reinvigorated Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt's first Wimbledon had been in 1999, and he had won the tournament in 2002. His vastly greater experience on Wimbledon grass made Lleyton more comfortable in his movement, producing a clear edge on this day in every statistical category except serving velocities. Hewitt even led in aces, 15-9. Hewitt d. del Potro, 63 75 75.
Lleyton's fine performance suggested a possible run through what was left of the top quarter, which included sixth-seeded Andy Roddick, who had withdrawn at Queen's after turning an ankle.
Logic argued that when fifth-seeded del Potro was moved to the top quarter, his original place in the third quarter should have been filled by the ninth seed, Tsonga. But instead, the player inserted there was seventeenth-seeded James Blake. The result was that the third quarter of the draw contained only one member of the post-Nadal first eight. And when Blake lost on opening day Monday to Seppi, that quarter looked thinner than the others.
The apparent beneficiary of the imbalance appeared to be fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic, who after losing a set to Benneteau then finished strongly in both of his first two matches. Meanwhile Roger Federer looked safe in his quarter, having advanced comfortably against two unseeded opponents.
The presumptive leaders in each quarter-Federer, Murray, Djokovic, and Roddick-all moved through the third and fourth rounds, successfully reaching the quarter-finals. Murray had the most trouble, beating Stan Wawrinka late on Second Monday. It was the twenty-fifth three-setter in the men's tournament to date, a surprisingly large total.
Murray and Wawrinka dueled under the Centre Court roof, which remained closed from showers earlier in the day. Both players showed strong nerves amid the din from the highly engaged gallery, so that the quality of the play remained high. Early on, Murray played more aggressively than usually, regularly unleashing extreme rockets of the kind he prefers to use sparingly. Wawrinka seemed unfazed throughout, but the Swiss player finally faltered amid a few too many unforced errors. It was the last match of the date, continuing one hour beyond the usual last light because of the artificial inside lighting. Those present on this day were mostly admirers of Murray, whose memory of the occasion would be strengthened for having watched the new roof closing for the first time for purposes of play. Murray d. Wawrinka, 26 63 63 57 63.
The other four players advancing to the quarter-finals, all veterans, were an improbable group- Hewitt, Ferrero, Haas, and Karlovic-average age nearly 30. All were ranked outside the world's top twenty.
Lleyton Hewitt, 28, continued his strong play after beating del Potro, coming from two-sets-down to beat Stepanek. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 29, unseeded like Hewitt, overcame Fernando Gonzalez in a five-set third-rounder. Meanwhile Tommy Haas, 31, won a fierce five-setter over Marin Cilic over two dates, showing strong serving, wonderful shot-making, and plenty of aggressive play, including heavy net-rushing in the early going. Finally, the gentle giant, Ivo Karlovic, 30, showed his unmatched serving ability in extinguishing first Tsonga and then Verdasco. Six of the eight sets in these two matches ended in tiebreakers, there having been no breaks of serve in these sets. Servers won nearly 80% of the points in these matches, while Ivo out-aced Tsonga 46-26 and Verdasco 35-7.
Here were what seemed the prevailing odds after four rounds. Federer's strong play to date significantly improved his probability of winning the tournament, although his greatest hurdles lay yet ahead:
Federer, odds 2-3 (odds-on; his pre-tournament odds had been even)
Murray, 4-1 (had been 8-1; his half appeared the easier)
Djokovic, 8-1 (had been 11-1; his half appeared the more difficult)
Roddick, 20-1
Hewitt, Haas, each 35-1
Karlovic, Ferrero, each 50-1
Monday's taste of rain had passed, sunshine and unusually warm temperatures thereafter prevailed. Of the four veterans reaching the Wednesday quarter-finals, only Tommy Haas would extend his run by beating one of the four favorites.
The day began as Federer managed to solve the Karlovic serve just enough to prevail in three sets. Later, Ferrero stayed close for the first hour or so, but the greater and easier power of Murray's serving and stroking eventually settled matters. Next, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt battled back and forth, splitting the first four sets, two of which ended in tiebreakers. Roddick scored many points from his serving edge, but otherwise the Aussie seemed generally the cleaner hitter. The fifth set was intense, where many of the games were extended. Hewitt finally faltered in the ninth game, perhaps the victim of tiredness (following his five-setter against Stepanek) and a possible groin injury. Roddick d. Hewitt, 63 67 76 46 64.
In scoring his upset win over Djokovic, Tommy Haas showed the brilliant all-round all-court game that had carried him through his recent weeks of success. Haas had nearly beaten Federer at Garros when, with Tommy ahead by two sets, the match turned on a seemingly impossible forehand winner by Roger. Haas had then won the grass-court tune-up at Halle, beating Djokovic in the final.
Now, Haas equaled Djokovic in weight of ground-strokes while generally producing the greater topspin and control. The two seemed about equal in mobility. Tommy led in aces and was more aggressive in attacking net, including in repeated serve-and-volley sorties at the very end. Djokovic, who was ahead in the second-set tiebreaker by 6-3 points, ended up losing the game and set, thereby falling behind by two sets. Novak recovered to win set three but seemed nervous, indeed tight during the fourth set, while Haas never let up in his positive, confident manner. The winner, Haas, had first played Wimbledon as a teenager in 1997. This was his first appearance there in the quarter-finals in a career marred by major injuries and surgeries. Haas d. Djokovic, 75 76 46 63.
The Wimbledon run of Haas ended in Friday's first semi-final, against Federer. Both men served with excellent effect, both were aggressive in their stroking and in coming forward often. Federer, who never faced a break point, won the first set in a tiebreaker and the second by applying full pressure-forehand power, severe backhand slicing, and net approaching--to achieve a late service break. Tommy contended admirably most of the way, but finally faded slightly under Roger's strong serving in set three. Federer d. Haas, 76 75 63.
For Andy Roddick the path to the semis had been dicey, including three four-setters in the early going and then the five-set scrap with Hewitt. There seemed no problem from the ankle he turned, causing his retirement at Queen's. His Wimbledon wins reflected Andy's training in recent months, improving his physical fitness and varied playing skills. His grass-court credentials had already been respectable, including excellent past results at Queen's and two runner-up finishes at Wimbledon.
It was surely Roddick's finest-ever performance, played out on the grandest stage of tennis. Ultimately, three factors explained why he came out ahead in this epic four-setter against Andy Murray. (1) Basic to his success was Roddick's rock-solid ground game, especially on the backhand, which had always been his lesser side. (2) Also at play was Roddick's much greater willingness and success in coming to net, especially at critical moments. (3) Although Murray served more aces, more important was Roddick's much higher first-serve in-court percentage, enabling the American to dominate in the many ensuing rallies. His hard-to-believe 85-percent mark for the first set dropped off only slightly thereafter. Murray returned most serves but seldom forcefully.
Murray generally contended well, ripping away with full power far more than usual. He came from behind to equalize by winning the second set, came from behind again in the third set to force tiebreaker. But the narrow margin in the late going was won by Roddick's relentless forcing game, based on power, consistency, and willingness to risk attacking. In winning both tiebreakers, Roddick extended his amazing success of late in that art. Roddick d. Murray, 64 46 76 76.
Readers may pardon my diversion in here comparing Roddick and Murray to the wonderful American and British Wimbledon champions of the 1930's. As here, the American Budge was the relentless hitter, the Britisher Perry the more varied stylist. Sadly their head-to-head duels for amateur or pro world supremacy were few--broken by the years between Perry's turning pro (late 1936) and Budge's (late 1938). In that two-year interval Perry dueled with American pro Ellsworth Vines where, again, it was the American who provided the power-based serving and stroking.
FEDERER d. RODDICK, 57 76 76 63 16-14
Roddick's three-level formula was again at its best, featuring Andy's solid ground game, his newfound taste for aggressive net attack, and a very high first-serve percentage, including many successful serves directly at his opponent. Federer seemed to be playing reasonably well but seemed to be missing by extremely narrow margins more often than usual. Roger never broke Andy's serve until the final game. Roger's own serve was effective--he led Roddick in aces 50-27.
The sets were closely decided. Federer had four opportunities to break serve in the eleventh game but narrowly missed on all of them, whereupon Roger immediately lapsed on his own serve, yielding the first set. Roddick led by 6-2 in points in the tiebreak game in the second set but lost the next six points to settle matters. The adverse turnaround seemed catastrophic for the underdog American, but Andy would fade not at all.
Andy took the third-set to another tiebreaker but lost it as well, nearly recovering from 5-1 points down but finally falling victim to a serve/putaway by Federer. Set four then went to Roddick in a single break of serve. As the fifth set lengthened, both serves became more dominant, most points and games short amid less-frequent net sorties and extended rallies. It looked as if bad bounces had become more frequent on the roughened surface. It ended amid an unsatisfying faltering of Andy's ground strokes in the final game.
It had been a magnificent effort by both men--especially the very disappointed Roddick, whose career had seemed to reverse in recent years. For Sir Roger, whose magic this day was just enough, the joy of surpassing Sampras's fourteen Slams was enhanced by the presence courtside of Pete.
The four-set victory of Nestor-Zimonjic over the Bryans in the men's doubles final reaffirmed their narrow edge over the brothers seen in the year-end rankings for 2008. Their winning of Wimbledon--the only best-of-five-set doubles event--strengthens their claim as world's best. The sweeping of the women's doubles without loss of a set by the Williams sisters was also impressive.
Three of the four sets in the men's doubles final ended in tiebreakers. For the entire match there was one service break in 45 non-tiebreak games. Admittedly, all four players were strong servers, but all four were also top doubles serve-returners. It seems to me that the example epitomizes a problem in pro doubles--that despite many moments of wonderful action, there is little suspense in the outcomes of most points and games. The use of no-ad scoring in tour play helps somewhat.
Russian depth at Wimbledon 09 again enabled the Russkayas to win the most women's matches (singles, doubles, and mixed), ahead of second-place U.S.A. Among the men, the U.S. contingent claimed the honors behind Roddick in singles and Blake-Fish and the Bryans in doubles. Spain was second.
Best wishes to all readers for second-half, tennis year 09. I hope that your computers are behaving better than mine.
--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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