Margin Of Error
January 20, 2010 -- Take one point from today's second round match between Justin Henin and Elena Dementieva on Rod Laver Arena's court. Pick either woman to serve. It doesn't make much difference. And that's not a slur on their service skills. Here we go.
The return of serve sizzles, landing deep. The groundies connect. Tune out the crowd and pick up the rhythm of the ball hitting string beds. Watch Dementieva and Henin scurry along the baseline, back and forth. They take a few steps inside the baseline periodically, then retreat. Knees bent. Racquets poised. It's rapid-fire tennis.
In the blink of an eye, the ball's pace changes ever so slightly. One hits a slice. Topspin return. It lands inches shorter in the court, or at a more acute angle to the net. Henin's on her way to net. Momentum swings. Did you see it shift? Fans are silenced. Players hunker down, compact athletic tripods. Then, a minutely less-than-perfect shot brings down the curtain for one player. Point over.
That's what today's match between these two women was like. Minute differences over two hours and fifty minutes with wildcard Justin Henin prevailing 75 76 (6).
At the same time on Hisense Arena, Juan Martin del Potro and James Blake battled. Blake was on the verge of two major breakthroughs -- beating the #4 seed Del Potro, and scoring a five-set victory. Del Potro was on the verge of a major letdown. Either man could have won this match. Del Potro did it, though, 10-8 in the fifth set. He stung Blake on the important points.
This year's Australian Open has seen a bundle of hard-fought matches, tight five- and three-setters and week one isn't over. Roger Federer squeaked by Igor Andreev, in the first-round. The #1 seed Federer was a little lucky toward the end of the second set. Andreev slammed three forehands in the net as he attempted to clinch a two set lead. Had one shot gone over, the match result might have rocked the tennis world. We'll never know. But that's not the point.
The point is players are better -- all of them. Therefore, the margin for error between a topped ranked pro and another ranked within the top 100 is slim.
Take the equipment. It has been refined and tuned, musical instruments for the users. Wilson's new line of BLX racquets offers a wide selection with narrow distinction between some. One brand has two stringing patterns: 16 x 18 and 16 x 20. The wider pattern gives you more spin. Babolat, too, has expanded its selection within a line. Make a Pure Drive GT, follow it with an Aeropro GT. Mirror images with infinitesimally small variations.
Hybrid strings and perfected tensions, plus a slew of technically extravagant racquets stuffed inside those huge tennis bags announce players' proficiencies as loudly as the man on the mic.
Couple all that with a level of fitness never seen and coaching that runs along similar lines, and we have a sport that's formulated at the margins.
The defining characteristic of a world-class tennis player these days comes down to their minds. How well they can march from one stroke of the ball to the next, steering clear of poor shot selection, tipsy technique, and momentary brain death.
Elena Dementieva played an outstanding match. So did Justin Henin. Dementieva, though, wasn't as aggressive as she should have been at opportune times. Her return of serve off second serves from Henin just didn't get on top of the point well enough and early enough in the match. That drop shot late in the tiebreak was ill considered. But the pressure from Henin to come up with new goods, not just baseline bashing, was monstrous.
"I was not playing deep enough," Dementieva said in her press conference. "I just let her dictate the whole game. That's not the way I was planning to go. I feel like I was not aggressive enough. If you look at the statistic, I was not able to make a winners, which I usually do."
Dementieva was right when she said that matches aren't about one point. They are, however, about consistently stringing together winning points -- especially the important ones -- over the course of a match.
"When she came back to 5-all, I thought about Brisbane and the opportunities I got over there," Justin Henin said in her press conference. "Already playing well, and got the opportunity to finish the match and I couldn't because my nerves weren't probably solid enough."
Henin served for the match twice in the second set. Both times she failed. Both times Dementieva clenched her teeth and roared back to even things. In the match-deciding tiebreak, Henin upped the ante. She served and volleyed successfully on match point. That edge of aggression helped her forge her way to the third round.
"We both fought very hard," Henin said. "I think maybe my game at the net [made the difference]. Maybe I took the opportunities a little more, you know, attacking. It was the key."
Keen fans sensed early in the match that Henin had altered her game over the 21-month hiatus. She appeared to be preparing for Wimbledon today. She leaned into the court on her serves, which could have accounted for a few of the 8 double faults. She approached the net, winning 35/43 points. Both improvements are necessary for Henin because her serve is the weakest part of her game.
Henin, though, has not altered her fascination, her habitual fascination, with the people in her box, namely Carlos Rodriguez, her life-long tennis coach. After each point she glanced there for something. Confirmation of her abilities? A nod and a wink for reassurance? A nod and two winks as a strategy signal? On the changeovers, too, she carried on conversations, her lips moving in French, her hands directing an invisible ball, her eyes averting the lens of the camera, just off her shoulder.
Some things never change.
Wildcard Henin is on a crash course with qualifier Yanina Wickmayer. Both hail from Belgium. Next week, either could face Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals. Then, of course, on the other side of the draw sit the Wiliams' sisters. They could meet in the semifinals.