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August 9, 2009 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Report Cards: Legg Mason 09
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

With more than double the usual prize money on the line, the 2009 version of Legg Mason Classic drew the strongest field in recent memory. Forty-eight players joined in main-draw action, August 2-9, including 16 of the world's top-ranked 32 singles artists. The courts, situated in residential northern Washington, D.C., were surfaced with Deco-2, the same as at U.S. Open, and appeared medium-fast in the bounce. Midsummer heat and humidity proved less than extreme until the last weekend, the effects moderated by the tournament's emphasis on evening scheduling. It was a happy time for tennists hereabouts, as the Washington Kastles had just won the World Team Tennis crown, playing in a smaller arena built for tennis downtown.
Here, we review and evaluate the performances at Legg Mason of the foremost players, keeping an eye to their chances in the late-summer events just ahead.
All 16 seeded players received first-round byes. Eight of them then failed to win their first matches. Among them were Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic, and Tommy Robredo. (Short report cards for the seeded players who lost their first matches are given in the footnote.) Several circumstances probably explained the many reversals -- (1) the lack of time for adapting to North American heat and humidity among players just arrived from Europe, (2) their limited opportunity to adjust from clay to hard courts, and (3) the advantage held by the nonseeded players from having played first-round and, in some cases, qualifying-round matches.
Those seeded players who survived their first matches did better thereafter. Athough most next-round matches were decidedly competitive, only one member of the seeded group was beaten. That was Sam Querrey, who despite losing could take satisfaction in his strong performance against Andy Roddick on Stadium Court.
The good-natured and lanky Californian, age 21 at height 6-6, arrived from winning the tournament in Los Angeles, August 2, including a semi-final win over Tommy Haas. Here, Querrey quickly demonstrated the strong serve and newly improved forehand and backhand firepower seen out West. The first victim of Sam's dazzling power was Russian player Kunitsyn, in straight sets, where the close-to-the action setting in Grandstand Court gave emphasis to the bigness of Sam's hitting.
Querrey had taken a set from Andy Roddick indoors last winter in Memphis, but Sam's ability to stay close with Roddick on Thursday evening still came as a surprise. The air had turned coolish even as the humidity remained high from two days of threatened rain, thereby reducing serving and stroking velocities. Sam's rockets were flatter than Roddick's, and they seemed to penetrate better in the conditions. But Sam's consistent pace was not the main story. Even more remarkable was Sam's consistency in directing his aggressive strokes just inside the lines. His pace, placement, and deceptiveness in stroking were all applied with good avoidance of error.
Querrey captured an early service break but then lost the first set in a close tiebreak game. He fell behind in the second set but narrowly missed equalizing at five games all. But more impressive than the closeness of the score was the aggressive play of the 21-year-old -- a willingness and ability to blister the corners and sides with persistence backed by excellent consistency in rallying. Barring injury setbacks Sam seems likely to become America's next champion, probably within a year or two.
Ferrero won Garros in 2003 but is still at competitive age, 28. He arrived from a previous-week's appearance in Umag, Croatia, where he lost in the final to Davydenko. But despite the short interval, he defeated Lapentti here on Tuesday and then countryman Robredo on Thursday. Robredo was plainly the heavier server and stroker, but it was Juan Carlos whose play was the crisper and more imaginative, whose stroking was the more effective. Then on Friday Ferrero again showed his varied offensive and defensive skills against Tommy Haas. Juan Carlos held set point in serving to win the first set and then succeeded in winning the second. But Tommy raised his game when it mattered most to leave no doubt as to the validity of his victory. Still, it had been quite a week for the resurgent Spanish hero.
Lleyton Hewitt's journey through the week followed a similar pattern. In his first outings since his five-set loss to Roddick in the Wimbledon quarters, Hewitt here defeated Donald Young and Dudi Sela. Next, on Friday, Lleyton's irrepressible competitiveness was almost, but not quite, enough to bring down the tournament's defending champion, Juan Martin del Potro. Showing court mobility and an overall game only slightly below his once abilities, Hewitt was steady in the long rallies, forcing his opponent to raise his level of risk in order to take command. Late in the third set del Potro gifted away a serving game, thereby setting up a match-ending tiebreaker. But the young and tall Argentine player served strongly in the tiebreak game to collect his expected win. Hewitt's fine Legg Mason performance falls between Querrey's and Ferrero's; we award him the same grade as Querrey's.
Arriving from weekend action in Los Angeles following a fine spring run at Garros and Wimbledon, Haas at first seemed totally comfortable in facing Canadian Frank Dancevic. Tommy's power backhand one-hander was sometimes devastating as his opponent seemed poorly able to react to its direction. But Dancevic turned matters in the second set and seemed ready to prevail, but Tommy stepped up the net attacking late in the third set, surviving. Next, the pattern was much the same for Tommy against Ferrero, noted above, where Tommy clearly raised his game in the third set. But in the Friday quarter-finals Haas's reserves were insufficient against the heavier and more consistent stroking of Fernando Gonzalez, who won in straights. Still, it was not a bad week for the 31-year-old, surpassing his seed.
Elbow trouble forced Soderling to yield a walkover to his scheduled quarter-final opponent del Potro. But before the injury, Robin had shown some of the greatness seen at Garros and Wimbledon earlier this year. Especially in his opening victory here, Soderling's crushing serves and forehands simply overwhelmed his opponent, the hard-working and resourceful Mikhail Youzhny. Again in winning his second match, against Gicquel, there seemed a confidence in Robin's striking, including especially in his second serves, that seemed to show a fearlessness of error seldom glimpsed. His departure was a huge setback to the Legg Mason and would be likewise to pro tennis if the elbow problem persists.
Ivo advanced beyond his seeded place without facing the player he displaced, Cilic. His remarkable serving ability held up in the humidity through two rounds, and his improving net play and stroking was on display. But his serve lost its effect in cooler air against Roddick in the quarters amid Ivo's uncharacteristically low in-court serving percentage and Andy's ability to nudge back a high percentage of returns. Once rallying set in, Roddick's power stroking was far superior, as expected, and most of Ivo's net attacking off the ground proved untenable. Somewhat unexpectedly both players lost serving games in each set; both sets ended in tiebreakers won by Andy. There were more than a few dismal errors by Ivo. Karlovic's performance averaged over the week was about as expected.
It was a heavy-hitting and rather memorable affair on an outside court among two tall Europeans--Berdych at a strapping height of 6-5, Ernests Gulbis, a slender 6-3 at age just 20. The firepower from both in serving and stroking was awesome. By inclination Tomas crushed every shot he could reach, while the Gulbis replies were more whiplike, showing somewhat more topspin on the backhand side and generally more variety. Berdych won in two sets, but the sense remained that the younger player would reverse matters not too distantly. Tomas's bludgeoning play persisted in subsequent three-setters where he defeated Petzschner and lost to Isner.
Fernando Gonzalez, 28, had not competed since Wimbledon, resting a damaged knee, but he seemed close to his career best in his Friday Legg Mason win over Tommy Haas. It was clear that Gonzo, always a basher, had become a controlled basher with tactical purpose, having cut down on what had been excessive backswing for the sake of consistent accuracy. A strong server, eager to attack the corners and sides with forehand pace, and a very fine defensive mover, he presented a package beyond Haas's resources to overcome.
Gonzalez produced the same fury and quality the next afternoon, Saturday, amid a return of oppressive on-court temperatures. Fernando's semi-final opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, answered with comparably potent tennis, so that the gallery was treated to more than an hour of the finest conceivable, indeed dazzling play. Both men were fast, powerful, determined, resourceful in the extreme. But as the first set approached tiebreaker unforced errors from both players became more frequent. Three times, Fernando held set point, but all three times his own mistakes kept the set alive. His bad run intensified in the set-ending tiebreak game.
Now a set behind after 90 minutes of exhausting effort, Fernando's stamina if not his determination became exhausted. There was a brief recovery when del Potro too showed signs of wilting. But the inevitable end came quickly.
John's run to the final round here in 2007 attracted far more notice, but his current success was just as impressive. At height 6-9 and a frame well over 200 pounds, the good-natured Isner, 24, easily delivered serves as potent as any in the game, including those of Karlovic and Roddick. When serving, he came forward regularly, sometimes serve-and-volleying directly, more often ripping first-strike forehands to the sides for quick winners. He contended well in long rallies, where the opponent required care against inviting John's forehand lightning. The formula worked well in his three wins here, including in three-set upset victories over Tsonga and Berdych.
Isner's Saturday-night meeting with Roddick proved no pure serving contest. There were more than a few aces, but for the most part both men managed to return the other's serves, though seldom with mustard. Interesting shot-making exchanges were thus fairly frequent, with Isner more often the risk-taker, delivering, for example, some fine drop-shot attacks. Roddick's ability to produce passing shots while on the run was remarkable, and repeatedly influenced the flow of the match. Roddick never lost a serving game, but the first-set tiebreaker was a nightmare for Andy, which he lost by margin of three minibreaks. But after that Isner tired badly, losing serve twice in the second set. John recovered in the third set, managing to hold serve under heavy pressure until the twelfth and final game, which Isner lost mainly by his own errors.
Comparing Isner and Querrey from their outings against Roddick, it seems to me that Querrey is the better in movement and stroking, but that Isner's tactical sense in exploiting his own serving strength and forehand power assures that their future meetings will be decided narrowly.
For Roddick it had been an unusual run to the final, including three opponents in succession, all much taller than Andy, extremely strong servers -- Querrey, Karlovic, and Isner. In these challenges Andy was usually content to return conservatively, sometimes just blocking his reply, making sure that the point would not end at its outset. Against Querrey and Karlovic he returned generally from deep, against Isner from surprisingly close-on. Both patterns achieved the intended result, i.e., enabling Andy to prevail behind his superior ground game. Andy's final-round opponent, del Potro, offered an added challenge -- a set of ground strokes equal to or perhaps superior to Andy's. The Argentine youth had prevailed over Andy one year ago, winning their final-round meeting in Los Angeles and capturing the Legg Mason here over Troicki, who had beaten Andy in an earlier round.
Now, both Roddick and del Potro served brilliantly most of the way. Serving velocities were high, not very different on average between the two opponents. Roddick gradually pulled ahead in the count of aces. Throughout there were countless splendid exchanges, both men moving the other with high-velocity precision, both countering often with stunning replies. The air temperature was well into the nineties, the highest of the tournament to date, and as the first set unfolded it was hard to believe that both men could long sustain the blistering pace of the action. Mid-way in the first set, it looked as if del Potro might be faltering in the heat, especially when he lost game six, serving, and when he played poorly as Roddick closed out that set.
But del Potro had shown himself all week to be a slow starter, having lost first sets in two of his victories and been closely pressed by Gonzalez in the first set of his semi-final win. Now, in starting the second set Juan Martin seemed refreshed, stepping up in his aggressive use of his forehand, more and more moving Andy side-to-side and pushing him deep by means of extreme velocities generally directed with safe margins from the lines -- i.e., dominating play. Andy countered with an improving count of aces, but he lost his serve in the eighth game, broke del Potro's in the ninth, and then lost again in the twelfth, thus yielding the second set. Though Andy might have won the set, it seemed clear that his opponent had been the dominant player therein. Meanwhile no longer could be seen any difference in the freshness of the two men. The third set followed a similar pattern, except it was Andy who broke first and Juan Martin who later equalized. Andy came from behind in the match-ending tiebreaker to reach six-points-all, but a rifled forehand by del Potro remindful of many others seen during the day provided the final and deciding, minibreak point. It was a victory by the narrowest of margins, yet rather convincing in its manner of unfolding.
The composure in del Potro's court movement and stroking seems contrary to the violence of the product -- sizzling rockets fortified with topspin and delivered with precision. At height 6-6 and age 20, he is the youngest of the tall ones, big servers all, who seemed ubiquitous at the Legg Mason. But if his serve is assuredly in the class of Roddick, Querrey, Isner, and Karlovic, it is in the movement and stroking of his ground game that is his greatest strength.
How will the leading actors in Washington fare in Canada, Cincinnati, and New York against the Big Four -- Federer, Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic, all of whom missed Legg Mason?
The week-long glow in watching the performers here makes it tempting to think otherwise, but reflection makes it clear that the Big Four remain well ahead of all others, with the possible exception that del Potro and Roddick may have closed with Djokovic. Among those who performed here, Roddick, del Potro, and Gonzalez verified that they are closest to the elites, though none of the three played at his expected best throughout the week here. Meanwhile Soderling seemed also among this group prior to his injury, and Querrey and Isner showed improvement beyond their known serving prowesses. Veteran stars Haas, Ferrero, and Hewitt, all with good runs here, seem beyond the age for surpassing the current elites.
Note that many of the Legg Mason stars came to Washington very early in their adjustment to summertime hard-court tennis in America. Having played here should help these players do better in the events just ahead, especially in facing opponents only then playing in their first outings of the season -- a group that includes all members of the Big Four.
The draw for Montreal became known prior to del Potro's triumph here. Certainly del Potro's chances in his projected quarter-final meeting with Nadal will be strengthened by Juan Martin's successes this week here. Roddick is placed to meet Djokovic in the quarters, where Andy's prospects seem reasonably good. Likewise the hopes of Gonzalez to unseat Murray atop their quarter are fair -- if Fernando can first beat fellow Legg Mason warriors Berdych and either Haas or Karlovic. (After that stands Davydenko.) Sam Querrey's early-tournment match-ups against Petzschner and then Robredo should be fascinating to those who watched all of them here.
In two weeks we will examine possible outcomes at U.S. Open. By then we will know how well the report cards from Washington, offered here, foreshadowed the actual performances in Montreal, Cincinnati, and in the early play at New Haven. The quest for better prediction schemes will continue.
--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
[Editor's note: for extensive photography from Legg Mason 09 along with daily match reports, please see our Legg Mason 09 Tournament Archive.]
-- Dudi Sela, seeded #15, letter-grade "D-plus" -- Pushed Hewitt to three sets, showing fine shot-making.
-- Dimitry Tursunov, seeded #14, letter-grade "D-minus" -- Lost in three to qualifier De Chaunac.
-- Igor Andreev, seeded #13, letter-grade "D" -- Some potent attacking, but lost to ever-troublesome Odesnik.
-- Viktor Troicki, seeded #12, no letter grade -- Defending runner-up, withdrew from his first match with foot trouble.
-- Mardy Fish, seeded #9, no letter grade -- Had withdrawn at Los Angeles the previous week with injury and lost here to Petzschner after winning the first set. No letter grade given because injury effect unclear.
-- Tommy Robredo, seeded #7, letter-grade "D" -- Unable or unwilling to attack often, lost to Ferrero in straight sets.
-- Marin Cilic, seeded #6, letter-grade "D-minus" -- Slugged away against the defenses of Devvarman, but could not produce more winners than errors.
-- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, seeded #3, letter grade "D" -- Lost to tall American Isner in three sets without yielding a service break.
-- Somdev Devvarman, reached final 16, letter-grade "C-plus" -- A qualifier. Defeated Cilic in main draw with quickness, defense, polish, along with occasional pop. Later, Karlovic's serving was too potent.
-- Mark Giquel, reached final 16, letter-grade "C-plus" -- Played well in extending Soderling, showing plenty of energy and some potent shot-making at age 32.
-- Wayne Odesnik, reached final 16, letter-grade "C-plus"-- Pushed aside by F. Gonzalez after defeating Andreev in three sets.
-- Philippe Petzschner, reached final 16, letter-grade "C-plus" -- Beat Fish and then showed well in carrying Berdych to three sets. Out-aced Tomas by 11-6.
-- Sebastie De Chaunac, reached final 16, letter-grade "C-minus" -- A qualifier. Beat Tursunov in main draw.
-- Frank Dancevic, reached final 32, letter-grade "C-minus" -- Severely tested Haas with strong all-around game.

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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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