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January 31, 2010
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Heaven Down Under
by Ray Bowers
Another magnificent Slam is now part of tennis history. Two esteemed champions of the past, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, again commanded the final weekend. But if the champions were of the elder generation of pro stars from Europe and America, respectively, there was also excitement in the successes of two other elders, female players from China, where a next generation may be ready to claim world attention.
The setting was splendid, featuring the Melbourne skyline, the fine modern facilities, and the enthusiastic crowds that daily provided the spark for player commitment. The weather, which one year ago brought searing midsummer heat, was close to perfect, featuring moderate temperatures, patterns of wind and sun that enhanced the challenge, and only occasional intrusion of rain. Watchers worldwide by television were daily treated to offerings that in former decades were only for those eyewitnesses present. Meanwhile the level of tennis provided by the world's top pros was probably as high as ever before seen.
This year's competition was unusually close. The array of pre-tournament contenders having plausible chances of capturing the crown was especially wide, including a dozen male and almost as many female singles artists. Five-setters proved frequent in the men's singles -- a total of 37 among the 127 main-draw matches, up from a total of 23 last year. But it was the women's side that produced most of the unexpected results, starting with the opening match.
The generally cooler air slowed ball velocities slightly, but servers nevertheless held a considerable edge over serve-returners. Data from the last four rounds showed that servers won 81% of games served, compared with the tournament's previous four-year average of 77%. Aces happened on 9.5% of the points, up from the previous four-year average of 7.4%. In both aces and in serve-holding, the Aus Open 10 values also exceeded the four-year averages at Garros and, surprisingly, at U.S. Open, though not at Wimbledon.
Over the last nine years the best predictor of results at Australian Open had been the preceding year's U.S. Open. The next-most-accurate predictors had been the preceding Wimbledon, Australian Open, and Miami tournaments, in that order. The new results at Australia scarcely overcame the historical pattern, as all four of the above events forecast the Melbourne results better than usual. Of the four, the slightly better predictors for Australia 10 were Wimbledon 09 and Miami 09.
It began on Monday, January 18, the roof of Laver Arena closed because of early-morning rainshowers. Two tall and fair-haired Russian women held the stage -- Maria Sharapova regal in her carriage and confidence, Maria Kirilenko, the same age at 22, both women serious and determined. Both were regular grunters, their screeches magnified inside the enclosure.
Sharapova had won the tournament just two years before. Now Sharapova, as expected, was the more forceful hitter, and as matters progressed her total of winners far exceeded Kirilenko's. But so too did her errors. The Moscow-born Kirilenko, it was becoming apparent, was quite skilled in returning Sharapova's hard serves and was remarkably consistent in returning her taller opponent's flattish rockets to the corners, often with enough power and placement to avoid immediate further punishment. The score swung back and forth. Slipping behind, Sharapova In the final game struck two untouchable power winners, but she also committed four errors, ending the affair. Kirilenko d. Sharapova, 76 36 64.
The rains of Monday yielded to several days of coolish and windy weather as the intended schedule for completing matches was gradually regained. The winds bothered play only slightly in the main arenas, which were semi-enclosed even with their tops open, but became a factor in most matches outside.
The Henin-Dementieva second-rounder might have been a final-round match-up in a different draw. Neither player was particularly brilliant at the outset, both troubled by double-faults and neither serving forcefully. But as expected, the stroking and court movement of both soon became magnificent. (For the full match, the serve-returning player won more games and also more points than did the server.) Elena, the taller and heavier-built, produced her stroking power with seemingly less effort. Justine was the more aggressive in coming forward and was the better player once there, winning 81% of her 43 points at net. The outcome reaffirmed Henin's reputation for winning tight matches. Henin d. Dementieva, 75 76.
FIRST WEEK: ROUNDS THREE AND FOUR
The temperatures shifted abruptly upward into the 90's on Friday, Day Five, making problems for many players not adapted to hot weather. Both Justine Henin and Alisa Kleybanova, 20, who seemed overweight at a listed 159 pounds at height 5-11, seemed affected. Alisa served and stroked with impressive power, capturing the first set and leading by 31 in the second. Justine was hard-pressed to recover but managed to do so by raising her game, helped by increasingly frequent errors by her opponent. Henin d. Kleybanova, 36 64 62.
Moscow-born Nadia Petrova, now 27, has been just outside the elite group in women's tennis for most of an injury- and illness-troubled career. At size comparable of Kleybanova's, her power and form have always been strong. On this early Friday evening in Melbourne, Nadia scorched every serve, forehand, and backhand, capturing the first set in 18 minutes. Her opponent, Kim Clijsters -- my pick to win the tournament -- was helpless to change matters, unable to match Nadia's incessant power, mostly unable to keep her own serves and strokes in court. The second set was not much better for Kim, taking only 34 minutes. It was hard to believe the happening. Petrova d. Clijsters, 60 61.
Both Henin and Petrova continued to advance in the Third Quarter, which was by far the most difficult one. In split-set fourth-rounders Justine fought off Yanina Wickmayer, whose seeded place had been denied amid a short suspension for drug-test non-availability, while Petrova prevailed over Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Victoria Azarenka, 20, and Vera Zvonareva, 25, dueled well past midnight Monday morning for the right to face defending champion Serena in the next round. The wondrous backhand of the Russian player, Zvonareva, produced an initial edge, bringing the emotionally fragile star the first set and an early break in the second. But Azarenka, who emerged from the tournament the most advanced of the game's pre-21's, abruptly turned the momentum in a stretch marked by her own error-avoidance and Vera's several backhand errors. Perhaps concerned over a long-standing ankle injury, Vera lost eleven of the last twelve games. Azarenka d. Zvonareva 46 64 60.
All four quarter-finals, played on Second Tuesday and Wednesday, were of high interest, flavored by the unexpected successes of two Chinese players.
It was not the Nadia Petrova that had swept away Kim Clijsters a few days earlier. Nadine's natural power was still evident but the serves and shots that had found the corners and lines previously were no longer doing so. Nor was Justine Henin at her best, so the flow moved back and forth until the arrival of a first-set tiebreaker, which became a nightmare for Petrova as Justine stepped up her forcefulness and consistency.
Then it became the Nadia of earlier as the Russian won the first three games of set two, twice breaking the Henin serve. But Justine soon stopped these goings-on, regaining her best -- superior in her shot preparation, her attacking instincts, and her avoidance of error. Henin d. Petrova, 76 75.
So far the tournament had been easy for Serena Williams, who had stormed through four victories without losing a set or indeed a service break. But now, against Victoria Azarenka, Serena seemed sluggish. The scores stayed close, but Victoria was beginning to dominate in the rallies. Behind her sweeping backswing, her velocities were matching Serena's, and her placement and avoidance of error were superior. Serena seemed slow to react to Victoria's shots, slow in moving once under way, and it appeared that the left knee, wrapped just below from the outset, was making trouble.
But down by a set, loser of the first four games of set two, Serena abruptly found her old confident self. She now moved into striking position easily, the rockets leaping from her strings, finding their targets regularly. There was no noticeable decline in Victoria's play -- simply an abrupt reversal by Serena. Soon it was tiebreak game, and there too, after falling behind, Serena recovered to equalize the match, now at one-set-all. Victoria held serve to start set three, but from then on, Serena's serve-returning became pulverizing. The American closed out matters with the aplomb of a champion. S. Williams d. Azarenka, 46 76 62.
Six years ago, in 2004, female players from China captured the doubles at the Athens Olympics. Four years later another Chinese pair, Zheng Jie and her partner, won the bronze medal at Beijing. Meanwhile China had for three years hosted Masters Cup and become site for other, regular events on the pro tours. Chinese athletes had excelled in badminton and table tennis. Successes in tennis singles, however, had been elusive.
In the early rounds at Melbourne Park, Zheng Jie, diminutive at age 35, defeated three seeded players. Now in the quarter-finals, she faced the weaponry of Maria Kirilenko, who had advanced over Sharapova and three others. Kirilenko was the more powerful player, but behind excellent retrieving ability, Zheng took command of matters with excellent placement, court craft, and moderate power, all amid an almost absolute freedom from error. The Chinese star mixed in ample doses of controlled aggression, but in those very long rallies where neither player applied pressure, Zheng showed almost complete superiority in avoiding error. Zheng d. Kirilenko, 61 63.
One of the marvelous things about tennis is how the scoring system requires that a player -- not a clock -- must close out the end of a match. Against Li Na in their Wednesday quarter-final, Venus Williams easily took the first set amid atrocious error-making by the Chinese player, age 27 at a listed 5-8 but surely taller. Early in the second set, Li began to equalize the exchanges, perhaps overcoming her nervousness or perhaps becoming familiar with Venus's pace. And as the points and games became tougher for Venus, it seemed that Venus's confidence slowly slipped away and with it, her interest in coming forward, in getting to short balls quickly.
Li had more firepower than countrywoman Zheng, and her ground strokes often carried almost as much weight as Venus's. Meanwhile Venus's serve began showing signs of deterioration, especially in the second-set tiebreaker, won by Li. Venus led much of the way in a third set marked by frequent breaks of serve. But as the end approached it became evident that it was Li who was playing with boldness, maintaining her firm hitting. Meanwhile Venus played in fear of losing, especially in the last several points. Li d. V. Williams, 26 76 75.
It had been a remarkable two days for the Chinese women.
The first-serving of Serena Williams was almost enough to swing the first set to Serena, though her opponent, Li Na, was the better mover and stroker throughout. Serena seemed slowed in reaction and movement by her various lower injuries. But the difficult early-afternoon sunshine took the sting from Serena's serving, allowing the set to reach tiebreak game. The sun played a role in the tiebreaker, helping the player on the favored side. Seemingly tight, Li let two successive serving points from the favored side slip away, and Serena managed to clip a sideline with a second serve from the bad side. First set to Serena.
Set two was also close, as neither player broke serve. Serena was still unaggressive, inclined to return safely and await errors by Li. Serena reached several match points, but her passiveness was probably unwise when Li stepped up her play on these occasions. But again, Li failed to produce her best tennis in the tiebreak game. Serena survived despite never attaining her best. S. Williams d. Li, 76 76.
Zheng Jie held serve to win the first game from Justine Henin and then lost the next twelve games. The slight Chinese player's serving and stroking weaponry were simply inadequate to cause Justine any trouble. Henin d. Zheng, 61 60.
Serena had struggled two days earlier in her semi, and since then she had played and won two doubles matches. Justine on the other hand enjoyed easy going in the semis and then had opportunity for rest and preparation. Since their last meeting, won by Serena at Miami 07, Serena had dominated the women's game, but she had also endured varied and often lingering injury problems. Meanwhile Justine in her 20-month retirement seemed to have refreshed her physique and spirit.
Throughout their three-set final on Saturday evening, neither Serena nor Justine showed signs of tiredness or injury. From the outset Serena was quick to the ball, employing a moderately forcing, controlled style generally. Justine played a forcing game from the outset, as she had throughout the tournament, very nearly matching the power of her opponent although at greater effort in arm speed and body energy, relatively uninterested in rallying passively. Both were quick to go for winners when opportune. It was high-quality, intense tennis.
The tally on the scoreboard swung back and forth, Serena won sets one and three, Justine won set two behind a late-set run of consecutive points. Serena's edge in generating easy power was important, especially on her backhand side, where her two-hander seemed equal to Justine's fine one-hander, both in attacking and defending. The most marked difference was in the serving, where Serena led in aces 12-4 with fewer double-faults, 3-6, the differentials more than accounting for Serena's small edge in total points won. Indeed, excluding aces and double-faults Justine made more winners and fewer unforced errors than did Serena. Serena won the last four games from 2-all in the third set, raising her determination and striking velocities even higher than before. Probably the key moment came at 30-40, break point against Justine in the fifth game, when a Henin bid for a backhand winner landed beyond the line. S.Williams d. Henin, 64 36 62.
For Serena at age 28 it was her fifth Australian crown. It was also the twelfth Slam triumph of her career thus tying her with Billie Jean King at #6 on the all-time list. Her rolling 12-month ranking at #1 atop women's tennis remained secure for the immediate future, along with a strong lead in the year-to-date race for 2010. Meanwhile Justine, 27, could take huge satisfaction in having reached a Slam final so early in her comeback, despite a highly unfavorable draw.
There was no surprise in the final tally of matches won by the female contingents of the various nations. The Russkayas led comfortably, outscoring the women from every other nation for the fifth consecutive Australian Open. Second place remained an uncertainty until American strengths in doubles, including the championship run by Serena and Venus Williams, began to outweigh Italian depth in early-round singles:
In early action, Roger Federer met serious trouble in Igor Andreev. The Russian's big forehand was key in Igor's winning of the first set. In the second set, Roger was able to recover enough of the initiative to equalize. Federer took the early lead in set three, then slipped into a spell of error-making, and nearly lost the set but for a stretch of fine defensive play. With Roger at his best both offensively and defensively, and with Andreev discouraged and tiring, set four went rapidly. Federer d. Andreev, 46 62 76 60.
Also unfolding on Wednesday evening was the del Potro-Blake five-setter. James played with ferocity and aggression throughout, sustaining a level of play well beyond his recent performances, seemingly relishing his opponent's seldom-varying weight of shot. Juan Martin displayed his usual calm amid relentless power stroking. As the end approached both men weakened physically. Del Potro closed out the affair with two unreturned, indeed unreturnable, first serves. Del Potro d. Blake, 64 67 57 63 108.
All members of the men's top eight except Soderling survived the first four days, thereby becoming members of the tournament's Final 32. After two rounds of singles and one of men's doubles, the nation whose male contingent led in matches won was Spain:
U.S. prospects were favorable, however, as the Bryan brothers were seeded first in men's doubles, and additional wins were likely from Roddick in singles, Isner-Querrey in men's doubles, and Bob Bryan in mixed. It looked as if the final lead might depend on whether Spain's Nadal and Verdasco could fulfill their seeded expectations in singles.
ROUNDS THREE AND FOUR
Tall American John Isner broke into the Final 16 by unseating Gael Monfils. As always, Isner showed extreme serving ability, leading in aces 26-12, as well as excellent skills at net, where John won 35 points against his opponent's 12. Even more fundamental, however, was John's consistently potent forehand, along with a backhand adequate to sustain rallies indefinitely. Monfils overcame his early seeming lethargy, but the French star was unable to neutralize the forceful play of the American, especially Isner's strong serving in the two tiebreak games, both won by Isner. Isner d. Monfils, 61 46 76 76.
The two favorites in the Bottom Quarter of the draw, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, faced similar challenges in the fourth round -- the tall big serving John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, respectively. Against Isner, Murray's fine defensive mobility and excellent avoidance of error largely made him safe in his own serving games, though he faced an adverse set point, serving, in the first set. Andy survived that momentary crisis and eventually prevailed in straight sets, scoring repeatedly with drop shots and making trouble for John at net with slow net-skimmers or hard passes. Matters were much the same for Rafael Nadal against Karlovic, and although Ivo captured the second set the verdict was almost as conclusive as Murray's.
Sunday evening brought two five-setters, both heavy-hitting battles. Marin Cilic prevailed over a slightly wounded del Potro and Andy Roddick over a disappointed Fernando Gonzalez, whose path to the victory seemed open late in the fourth set. Then Monday brought yet another five-set thriller, matching Fernando Verdasco, a veteran of past classics, against Nikolay Davydenko, whose play in recent months had been at his career best.
For the first two sets, Davydenko was machine-like in his excellence against Verdasco -- covering court brilliantly and driving the ball with excellent consistency and force. But the strong forehand of the persistent Spanish player then began to weigh down the Russian star's crispness in moving and stroking, Fernando equalized matters at two-sets-all when Nikolay fumbled away a lead in the fourth-set tiebreaker. It had been an uphill fight for Fernando, amid his 17 double-faults in the first four sets (a total 20 for the entire match). But following his emotional and hard-fought comeback, Verdasco surrendered set five by a single, quiet service break. Davydenko d. Verdasco, 62 75 46 67 63.
After four rounds of singles, three of doubles, and two of mixed, the men's race had turned to favor the Americans.
Marin Cilic, hitting firmly and aggressively, took the first two sets from Andy Roddick, who called for trainer attention to his shoulder. Andy came back to equalize at two-sets-all and threatened to break serve in the first game of set three. Cilic survived, then broke Andy in game four and found clear sailing thereafter. Cilic d. Roddick, 76 63 36 26 63.
The Murray-Nadal quarter-final matched the two superstars who headed the 2009 statistics for effectiveness when opponent served. Both men played more aggressively than they usually did, especially Murray, whose tactics included successful serve-and-volley ploys more than occasionally. Dazzling all-court exchanges occurred often, where both men showed their wonderful defensive abilities against the forceful pressure of their opponents. Nadal was the first to break serve in the first two sets, and in both cases Murray broke back promptly and eventually took the set. Nadal, who damaged his right knee apparently when changing direction during a rally, abandoned the match after getting behind in set three. Murray's lead in aces, 13-1, correctly reflected Andy's edge in power both in serving and in full-energy stroking. An MRI on the Nadal knee was reported a day or so later. Murray d. Nadal, 63 76 30 ret.
Roger Federer won three straight-setters after his affair with Andreev, setting up the anticipated match-up with Davydenko, who had won their two recent meetings, at London and Doha. Rather quickly, Nikolay found the pattern that had brought him his recent wins -- quickness in reacting to Roger's bids, aggressive court positioning on baseline, moderately forcing deliveries off forehand and backhand, strong cross-courts and occasionally deadly down-the-liners, all along with nearly complete avoidance of error. Roger's own steadiness faltered after a few early games, and Nikolay ran out the first set impressively.
The score worsened for Roger early in the second set, as Davydenko's superb play persisted. Nikolay won three of the first four games and had Roger's shoulders close to the floor, Roger serving at 15-40 with a double-break looming. But several close points and misses ensued, and Federer would save that fifth game. A run now ensued where Federer would win 13 straightgames. Dismayed at what was happening, Davydenko lost his earlier perfection and contributed horrible errors in bunches.
Was it that the sudden cooling of the air that came with the onset of early evening had taken away the bite from Nikolay's forcing shots and given Roger more time to unleash his bigger firepower? Not until the fourth set did matters again become competitive. And then, under Nikolay's renewed pressure, Federer was able to stem the surge. Federer d. Davydenko, 26 63 60 75.
With favorable draw Novak Djokovic reached the quarter-finals comfortably. His opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had survived a tough four-setter with Tommy Haas, still very spry at 31, and a five-setter with Nicolas Almagro. Amid incessant heavy hitting, Djokovic and Tsonga divided their first two sets, both ending in tiebreaks. In the third set, Djokovic played at his absolute best, striking with full power to the deep corners consistently and repeatedly. Tsonga seemed tired, unable to react quickly enough. But at that very moment, ahead two sets to one, the Serbian star began showing signs of stomach and perhaps fatigue troubles. Upon resumption of play Djokovic's power was reduced, his energy between points down. The end came mercifully quickly, Tsonga allowing no respite. Tsonga d. Djokovic, 76 67 16 63 61.
Marin Cilic, the 6-6 belter from Croatia, age just 21, had come through three five-setters and a four-setter earlier in the tournament. He now faced Andy Murray, who had won all his matches in straight sets including an early withdrawal by Nadal. Cilic won the first set from Murray, but tiredness was probably already sapping the energy from his shot-making and movement. Gradually his performance became noticeably softened, and he could no longer match Andy's level of play. The points and games remained hard-fought, and Cilic generally continued hitting with the slightly greater velocity. Murray, who was usually the less-aggressive, safer hitter of the two, sometimes moved spectacularly on defense. Murray d. Cilic, 36 64 64 62.
In the second semi-final, Roger Federer lost no serving games while breaking Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's service five times. Tsonga's sometimes mighty first serve kept things interesting only briefly, and his otherwise lackluster play produced little success against a highly focused Federer at his best. Federer d. Tsonga, 62 63 62.
The Sunday Evening conditions were heavy for tennis -- 66 degrees in Melbourne proper, the humidity 61 percent -- probably just right for the attacking game of Roger Federer, who likes the slower ball in order to unlimber his full rocketry. Andy Murray had once beaten Roger four times consecutively. But on this occasion there was no holding back by Roger -- no extended passiveness seen in many matches in past years, no feeling out of the other fellow, little or no gradualism in adjusting to conditions. It was attacking tennis early on -- heavy hitting forehand and backhand, aggressive placement to the corners.
Murray started nervously, surrendering his first serving game but then breaking back promptly as Federer played too aggressively. The rallies became thunderous, extended in length because of the slowish conditions and the defensive skills of both men. The play was even -- Murray nearly broke again in game five but then lost serve in game eight after failing to challenge a wrong close call. Federer blistered two winners to finish off the game. Roger's full-blooded attacking produced an early break in the second set, and Murray seemed ready to fade. But Roger briefly softened his play, and Andy recovered enough to limit Roger to just one break in the set.
Down by two sets, Murray stepped up his hitting velocities in set three, and Federer moderated his attacking somewhat. Both lost serving games twice, so the score reached six games all. The crowd now exploded in what became a memorable tiebreak game. Both men were now careful in their shot selection, but Roger was again generally the bolder in coming forward. Murray held four set points, Federer four match points. Matters ended only with the game's 24th point, won by Roger on a backhand netted by Andy.
It was the 16th Slam triumph for Roger, who was already the game's all-time leader. For Murray, it was his second Slam final, he having lost to Roger at U.S. Open 08.
Over the two weeks, expected form held up well on the men's side, as six of the original top eight seeds actually made the quarters. The separation of the world's top ten or twelve stars above the rest had clearly grown. We can expect a fascinating year ahead in the new sorting out of the elite group.
The U.S. males increased their lead in the tally of matches won at Melbourne:
Cementing the above American margin were the matches won in men's doubles by the Bryans. In the final round the brothers defeated their prime rivals of the past two years, Nestor-Zimonjic, in straight sets.
Dare we comment that Rod Laver was past age 30 in winning the only open-era Grand Slam of men's tennis? The odds will be long, but nothing at Melbourne showed that this greatest of sporting achievements is beyond Roger at 28.
Sir Roger unleashed his best Thunder,
Serena left no room for Blunder.
The roof seldom closed,
No spectators dozed,
Twas two weeks of Heaven Down Under.
-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.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.