Twas another magnificent Australian Open. The middle-of-the night telecasts by ESPN2 were superb, and the featured matches, many of them broadcast live, were carried to their conclusion regardless of length. It was thrilling to see the aerial views of the Melbourne setting, and the superb crowds again showed that the sport is scarcely in decline worldwide. I kept up-to-the-minute via the tournament's web site and the internet editions of the Australian press. A special treat was the opportunity to chat by Email with Basil Stafford in Melbourne, who attended many of the sessions and sent me frequent observations and thoughts--"postcards" for my Tennis999 internet magazine.
HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED
It proved not perfectly true that the relatively slow, rubberized hard courts at Melbourne allowed baseliners and net specialists to compete on terms close to equality. My prediction that the Armada stars Moya and Corretja would reach the men's final was quickly wrecked, but otherwise the baseliners generally held the upper hand. Perhaps the direction of tennis was seen in the third-round victory of the tournament's solidest baseline hitter, Enqvist, over the world's finest net artist, Rafter. Many players were able and willing to finish points at net, at least occasionally. But the winners were usually the ones superior in their ability to hit with power and consistency, and who had the quickness and footspeed needed to go to the corners and reply to opponent's heavy hitting. Errors were intolerable, but too soft a shot usually meant that opponent would dominate the point and eventually prevail.
Still, in both the men's and women's final, the more-rounded game of the seeded player eventually blunted the heavier hitting from the baseline of the non-seeded aspirant.
To this spectator's eye, the bounce seemed reasonably fast. Television voice Fred Stolle remarked that the courts seemed faster than last year. But most comments from players and the evidence of match outcomes plainly confirmed the traditional slowness of the Rebound Ace surface. It also appeared that the velocity of the ball slowed during evening play when humidity rose, and also when the center-court roof was closed because of rain.
THE MEN'S AND WOMEN'S SINGLES
The two finalists, Enqvist and Kafelnikov, both 24, take the early lead atop the men's standings for 1999. Both players should do well at the forthcoming indoor tournaments and in the Super Nines at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne in March. Last year both Super Nines were won by Rios, who is now recovering from back injury. Enqvist reached the quarters in both events, losing to Rusedski and Rios, while Kafelnikov won the London indoors. Kafelnikov's serve-returning is a huge asset, and he showed excellent serving skill, achieving high first-serve percentage throughout the tournament and out-acing the powerful Tommy Haas by 13 aces to one. Against Enqvist, his consistently well-placed overspin strokes carried greater margin for error than Enqvist's flat bullets, which after the opening set gradually began to find the tape.
Melbourne unveiled a host of unexpected contenders for the forthcoming year's race. Todd Martin reached the quarters, playing superbly, but injured a stomach muscle and served at less than his usual velocity in losing to Kafelnikov. Basil Stafford thought that a healthy Martin might have won. Mark Philippoussis was impressive but fell behind early to Enqvist, then lost in five. Michael Chang seemed his old self, and his contest with Philippoussis was, according to Basil, the match of the tournament. (Chang lost, 7-5 in the fifth.) My selection among the non-seeds, Jason Stoltenberg, played well but lost to Kafelnikov in four close sets. Semifinalists Lapentti and Haas will obviously merit future watching. To the above, Basil adds Andrei Pavel, who all but defeated Kafelnikov in the fourth round, and Lleyton Hewitt, whose straight-set early demolition of Pioline was, to Basil, "the most sustained hot tennis over three sets I have ever seen."
Among the women, the foremost message of the tournament was the obvious power, ability, and mental strength of Amelie Mauresmo, 19. Her performance in her semifinal victory over Davenport was so impressive that one cannot imagine her a one-tournament wonder. Mauresmo will assuredly be a threat in any event she enters and should become a Top Tenner in 1999. She outpowered Hingis in the final and showed excellent stamina in their many extended points. Neither player went to the net often, but Hingis was far more effective in doing so, which in the last analysis made the difference. The coolish, misty conditions slowed down things and helped Hingis withstand Mauresmo's artillery.
Other clear messages from the women's event were the arrival of 15-year-old Jelena Dokic of Australia, the resurgence of Monica Seles and emergence of Barbara Schett, and, by virtue of her ability to neutralize Seles's and Mauresmo's hammering, once again the talent and mental strength of Hingis.
The men's doubles featured largely the same performers who had battled two months earlier in the ATP World Doubles at Hartford. Jacco Eltingh, now retired, was absent, but the Bjorkman-Rafter pair, who missed Hartford because of Rafter's knee problems, were present.
Eltingh's old partner, Paul Haarhuis, playing with Pat Galbraith, lost to fourth-seeded Ellis Ferreira-Rick Leach. The surprise semi-finalist pairs at Hartford, Johnson-Montana and Delaitre-Santoro, went down early. The most successful all-American pair was Rich Reneberg and Jonathan Stark, who reached the quarters and then lost to top-seeded Bhupathi-Paes. One would like to see Reneberg again playing the deuce court in Davis Cup, paired with Stark, Martin, or perhaps, if he backs up his recent remarks, John McEnroe.
Order largely prevailed in the men's doubles, unlike in the men's singles. All four semi-finalist pairs had been seeded in the top five. Bjorkman-Rafter defeated Woodbridge-Woodforde in one semi before a strangely divided crowd, which included a noisy contingent of Swedes. The Woodys won the first two sets, then lost the next two after gaining early breaks of serve, and finally lost 8-6 in the fifth. The losers afterwards took consolation in deeming that they played like the Woodys of old. Bjorkman and Rafter then narrowly defeated the younger India pair, Bhupathi-Paes. The score reached four games all in the fifth set before several excellent returns by Bjorkman of Paes serves ended things.
The Bjorkman-Rafter championship weakened the observation sometimes voiced by the doubles specialists that the top singles players rarely win in top doubles.
Thanks to ESPN2 I watched the eventual winners of the women's doubles, Hingis and Kournikova, in early-round action against Novotna-Seles. (Hingis and Novotna were not playing together, Novotna having decided only at the last minute to travel to Australia.)
Novotna-Seles seemed an uncomfortable pair. Seles was inclined to linger in back court, even behind serve, where she belted cross-court screamers all day. TV commentator Pam Shriver noted that Novotna, the inveterate net-player, seemed frustrated in the one-up, one-back exchanges.
Meanwhile Kournikova managed to avoid the double-faults that plagued her singles at Melbourne, holding up adequately against the more-experienced opponents. Hingis showed why she is the reigning queen of doubles, placing the ball and moving aggressively about the court with instincts one would expect only from a mature doubles specialist. Hingis-Kournikova won in straight sets before a packed outside-court gallery.
Meanwhile Davenport-Zvereva, runners-up in all four Slams last year, swept toward the final while losing only one set, to the Williams sisters. ESPN2 gave us the final set of the final match in late-night replay, a real treat for the close watcher as well as for the Anna watchers.
Hingis's doubles prowess was again on display. Her serve-return percentage was an astonishing 95%. She volleyed not so much with power but rather with depth, keeping opponent in back court and often yielding the softy for Kournikova to crush. After the match, Davenport and Zvereva said that their plan had been to play Kournikova. The key to the outcome, they noted, had been Kournikova's solid play, especially her serve returning. Kounikova double-faulted only once.
Hingis won Melbourne in 1997 with Zvereva, in 1998 with Lucic, and now in 1999 with Kournikova. For the rest of this year, she expects to reunite with Novotna. Kournikova said that she prefers not to commit to a regular partner.
The mixed doubles offered many of the top doubles stars, men and women. Absent, disappointingly, were the defending champions--Venus Williams and Justin Gimelstob, America's Team. Reaching the final were Serena Williams and Max Mirnyi of Belarus, the reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champions. Their opponents were South Africans David Adams and Mariaan De Swardt, who prevailed in a third-set tiebreaker.
CLUES FOR DAVIS AND FED CUPS
Looking to Davis Cup, Americans can take some hope from the play of Todd Martin and Vince Spadea. Spadea scored a convincing fourth-round win over a previously untouchable Agassi, showing crisp shotmaking and ample court-covering. Both Martin and Spadea reached the quarters, while the forthcoming U.S. opponents, Brits Henman and Rusedski, both lost earlier.
The strong play of Philippoussis and the Woodys bid well for Australia, and Enqvist gave Sweden encouragement for the Cup defense. The large Spanish contingent failed badly. Safin disappointed for Russia, but his potential and Kafelnikov's present ability remain obvious. Meanwhile, Mauresmo's blossoming bids well for French Fed Cup hopes. Four French women reached the round of 16, and a French player won the girls' singles.
I can't wait for the rest of 1999.