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July 4, 2004 Article

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Wimbledon 2004 Memories

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Ray Bowers

Plagued by rainy weather and with several of the game's superstars absent because of injuries, this year's Wimbledon for a while seemed below the event's usual greatness. But in my opinion, the high drama of the late rounds, including a stunning reversal of expectations in the women's final and a rare showdown between the acknowledged world's #1 and #2 fast-court males, far surpassed all negatives.


It was a Monday marked by repeated rain interruptions, and nearly half the scheduled matches were unfinished or not even started.

It was nostalgic to watch two former champions, both competing in Wimbledon singles for the last time. In both cases, fans saw grass-court tennis of an earlier time, played extremely well. Strong, precise serving, relentless net attack, sliced backhand approaches, heavily sliced drop shots, superb volleying--all were marvelously exhibited by Goran Ivanisevic and Martina Navratilova in demolishing younger opponents.

The Wimbledon Collection - The 2004 Official Film Otherwise it seemed a day for the tallest, strongest servers. Moodie carried Coria to a fifth set, and 6-10 Karlovic, who had beaten Agassi in the first round a year ago, defeated seeded Srichaphan in four sets.

A special treat was listening to Martina Hingis in the broadcast booth. She offered why the Williams sisters had not prepared on grass prior to Wimbledon. (Both sisters had returned to Florida after Garros for two weeks on hard courts.) Hingis said it was best to groove one's strokes on a true surface--that her own game usually deteriorated the more she practiced or played on grass because of the difficult bounces.


Day Two brought more rain delays and interruptions. I was surprised when two of the top Russian women met defeat. Elena Dementieva, finalist at Garros last month, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who had won the grass-court tune-up at Eastbourne the previous week, both lost to unseeded Europeans. In Kuznetsova's case, it was another example where one week's winner stumbles in the first round of the next event.

After Wednesday's wash-out, Thursday produced Venus's unexpected loss to Croatian Sprem, 19, who captured two tiebreak sets. Excessive errors by Venus explained the outcome. Both Venus and her father were generous in accepting an umpire's mistake in giving a critical extra point to Sprem. In my opinion, errors by officials are part of the luck of the game, comparable to the many points decided by tiny margins at the edges of lines and net cords. I felt sorry for the guilty umpire, as I know the horror of making a mistake in the chair.

On Friday, French Open champion Myskina lost in three sets to American Amy Frazier. Both players performed courageously and well toward the end. Meanwhile Serena Williams fell behind Foretz in their second set, but Serena turned on the power and determination--as she often does late in tough matches--and closed out matters impressively.

Maria Sharapova's demolition of Hantuchova was also surprising, as Hantuchova had been producing excellent results in recent months. (The Slovak player had defeated Mauresmo the previous week at Eastbourne.) Sharapova, a 17-year-old six-footer, unleashed a devastating power serve and non-stop ripping power to the corners. Her play was fearless, and her power of concentration excellent. Not until her victory was collected was there the slightest hint of a smile or other distraction. Possessing excellent court mobility both in defense and in preparing to attack, I noted that this young woman seemed headed for superstardom.

Meanwhile, the two pre-tournament favorites in the men's singles, Federer and Roddick, advanced quietly. Federer reached the final sixteen by defeating Thomas Johansson, whose recent resurgence after two years of relative inactivity marked him as dangerous, and Roddick by taking the measure of Taylor Dent. Andy was uncharacteristically committed to attacking net against his energetic serve-and-volleyer opponent, and did so well. Also reaching the fourth round without loss of a set were Grosjean and Hewitt. Lleyton demolished Ivanisevic with devastating topspin lobs. Goran pushed to net behind essentially all serves, as he must against Lleyton, but the Australian's fine court coverage, passing-shot accuracy, and surprisingly strong serve--along with the lobbing--clarified the result from the outset.

Players from the U.S., both male and female, led the contingents from all other nations in total matches won. The margins were substantial in both cases, and it appeared that no plausible match outcomes henceforth could change the tally. The anticipated close run between the U.S. and the Russian women had failed to materialize when Dementieva, Kuznetsova, and Myskina all lost unexpectedly early.


Both Roddick and Federer advanced on Monday toward what still seemed the likely final-round pairing. Andy's controlled, baseline game against tall Alexander Popp paid off. Popp's adequate but not overpowering serve often set up the German player for firm, well-placed approach shots, especially off Popp's backhand. Thus for most of the match the German player held serve comfortably, but his late-set lapses proved costly in all three sets. Meanwhile in a comparable match-up, Federer from back-court defeated the tall Croatian Karlovic in three sets, two of them tiebreakers.

The marquee match took place late in the day on Centre Court--Henman against last year's finalist, Philippoussis. It was old-fashioned fast-court tennis where both players attacked net behind essentially all serves. Philippoussis won the second set and had a chance to equalize by reaching a tiebreaker in the fourth. But crowd-favorite Henman managed to prevail, essentially because of his superior agility at net. The two combined to record an amazing total of 135 winners, and only 34 unforced errors. Meanwhile Lleyton Hewitt played well in defeating heavier-hitting and heavier-serving Moya in a baseline contest.

Ten days earlier, our computer had predicted winners for each of the eight sections of the men's draw. In actuality, six of the eight players chosen by the computer succeeded in reaching the quarters, including two players not seeded to do so (Grosjean and Schalken). The computations incorrectly picked Nalbandian, who withdrew prior to the first round, and Coria, who lost to 20-year-old German player Florian Mayer. The result encourages further development of our predicting scheme, which is based on historical correlations between results of predictor tournaments and past Wimbledons.


As soon as the draw was announced, it was plain that the choice quarter-final match-up would be the meeting of Serena Williams and Capriati. The two had faced each other often in major events, and Capriati had won their most recent encounter--in the quarters at Garros a few weeks before. A Serena victory on the Wimbledon grass was nevertheless expected, but no one anticipated that the score would be utterly one-sided.

Capriati briefly seemed the more focused, the more determined warrior. But in the third game it became evident that Serena was hitting with the greater force, the more abandon, largely without missing. After saving three break points in that game Jennifer double-faulted on the fourth. Thereafter with little need for strategy, Serena simply hit cleaner and harder, outpowering Jennifer and often forcing Capriati misses, meanwhile largely avoiding errors of her own. Given the completeness of her victory over so strong an opponent, 6-1, 6-1, it seemed that only her own excessive errors could deny Serena the final crown.


A quarter-final meeting between the Wimbledon champions of 2002 and 2003, Hewitt and Federer, had also been expected from the outset. During the first set, watchers saw near-perfection by Roger, who glided about the court to answer firmly Hewitt's best offerings. Federer seemed able to nail the sideline zones consistently in any situation. Lleyton played very well, but--for one set--his opponent was the Federer of Wimbledon 2003.

But after a rain break, Roger's edge faded slightly. Hewitt was starting to master Roger's serve, and late in the second set the Australian was regularly ripping back serve-returns. Federer chose to remain in back court on most points, and though Roger survived several set points to reach tiebreaker, Hewitt won the tiebreak game comfortably, continuing to produce heavy and accurate hitting to the corners.

Federer promptly turned matters around, winning Set Three convincingly, but in the fourth set, Roger lost a serving game for the first time in the tournament. But having virtually equalized matters, Hewitt thereafter failed to win another game, losing Game Eight with two errors and a double-fault and in Game Ten double-faulting at match point.


For Andy Roddick, staying in back court against Schalken was probably wise, given the deception and accuracy of Sjeng's ground-strokes and Andy's sometime erratic perfornance in forecourt. Andy also seemed especially passive in returning Schalken's softish serves, making many errors and never advancing to net behind his own serve-returns. But Roddick's superior serve carried him to three victorious sets, two of them settled in tiebreakers. Schalken placed his serves well, sometimes slicing very effectively to the extreme forehand in the deuce court. His backhand was firm, consistent, and often forcing, and he also showed an abbreviated forehand also capable of attack. Roddick's first serves averaged 132 mph, the highest of any of the quarter-finalists. Schalken's averaged 105 mph, the lowest.


Mario Ancic, 20 years old and 6-4 or 6-5 tall, was now a strong and flexible athlete, capable of superb net attack. Both players followed serves to net regularly. But as the match lengthened, it was Henman who was most troubled in coming forward by his opponent's serve-returns. Ancic's serve was the more penetrating, and Henman usually did well just to get it back. Ancic typically dispatched his volleys with excellent depth, often into a corner. At the end, there was little doubt who was the superior grass-courter on this day. That Ancic is a potential Wimbledon finalist or champion seemed evident, if not in 2004 then soon.

The match between Europeans Grosjean and Mayer was not seen on television here. Grosjean, who won in straight sets, was the heavier server and unlike Mayer produced more winners than unforced errors. Mayer was the player more often at net.


For the full first set, eighty-seven percent of Lindsay Davenport's powerful first serves found the box. With her big game in full flower, Lindsay won the set 6-2 and captured an early break in the second against the teen-aged Sharapova.

But two rain delays intervened, and thereafter Lindsay's serving declined to a merely excellent level. Meanwhile her 17-year-old opponent began finding her power, her customary ice-cold bearing now showing a hint of emotion after each point. Davenport continued to win about half the points, but increasingly, most of the Lindsay's winning points were close errors by Sharapova on aggressive shot attempts. Maria's excellent court mobility allowed her to attack balls that most players might barely reach, and more and more of the teenager's rocketry--which appeared to match Davenport's in its power--began to find the areas near the lines. Throughout the third and final set, Lindsay was a plainly beaten warrior.

Meanwhile Serena's win over Mauresmo also came after a lost first set. Amelie moved and hit well, showing a surprising interest in following serve directly to net. Serena seemed unable to produce her best power game, and her facial expression seemed to show lack of confidence, in contrast to the determination that usually propels her at the big moments. Perhaps reflecting her mental discomfort, Serena seemed a bit slow getting to and setting up for potential attack balls, and she sometimes seemed lazy in generating the topspin needed for safety in her big hitting. But Mauresmo's past back troubles began to reappear, and the resulting drop-off in Amelie's serving velocity was probably key in Serena's late-match success in finally attacking consistently and effectively.


It seemed improbable that the Russian teen-ager could continue the level of play seen in the second half of her match against Davenport. But against the defending champion, the precocious Siberian-born six-footer would surpass her earlier performance.

It wasn't that Serena started slowly. At the beginning she hit firmly, playing with intensity and determination, successfully winnng her first service game. But it soon became evident that Sharapova's weapons were essentially the equal of Serena's and that it was the younger player who was playing with the greater confidence. Meanwhile it was Serena who seemed most bothered by the pace of her opponent's hitting, who most faltered in the exchanges. Sharapova's perfection scarcely wavered in winning the first set, 6-1.

Serena answered as best she could. Her concentration seemed good as she threatened Sharapova's serve early in the second set. Maria survived but finally lost serve in Game Six. With Serena now leading, 4-2, it was easy for watchers to assume that the champion would now serve out the set. Could it be that Serena, too, unconsciously made the same assumption and now faintly relaxed?

For the champion lost Game Seven on her own serve. Indeed, Serena would not capture another game this day. Both players fought hard, producing many breathtaking power rallies. Serena answered Maria's attacks to the corners with strong replies, hardly defensive in their pace and direction. But again, it was Maria who seemed least troubled by the sheer pace of the exchanges. She was also the more composed, retreating into her own thoughts after every point by ritual. Sharapova's ability to summon power in dispatching shortish balls seemed to belie her slender frame. But she also produced two superb overspin lobs for winners. Meanwhile Serena lost her footing several times and once dumped an easy volley into the net under the pressure of a speedy opponent. And in one of tennis's most demanding challenges--closing out a match by serving and winning a final game--Sharapova's attacking serves and ground-strokes stayed at, indeed rose above, their previous high level.

We had wondered which of the Russian princesses would first penetrate the ranks of the superstars. Our question had been convincingly answered. It was a transcendent moment--a match and an outcome that would remain a treasured part of tennis history.


There is no question that the attacking player has the advantage on Wimbledon grass. But except in the Henman-Ancic match-up most of the attacking in the men's quarter-finals had been off the ground. Only when a short ball strongly invited were most of the warriors willing to come forward. Strong serving too paid off, as all four quarter-finalist winners led their victims in average first-serve velocity. Both men's semi-finals also went to the faster servers. Both winners won largely from back court.

Friday was stormy and wet, delaying, interrupting, and eventually stopping both men's semis. On resumption early Saturday, Roger Federer completed his straight-set victory over Grosjean, though he fell behind twice in the third set. Andy Roddick had greater trouble with his opponent, Mario Ancic, who again showed the strengths seen earlier. It was an interesting struggle of styles. Both men served spectacularly well, Ancic coming to net behind every first and second serve, Andy playing his heavy-hitting back-court game and pressing Ancic at net with high-velocity bullets. Trailing when play ended Friday, on resumption Ancic reached one-set-all before Andy managed to stem the tide, capturing the last two sets narrowly.

How aggressively to come to net played a much larger role in the unfolding of the final-round match, now at hand.


Except for an occasional moment of brilliance, it was not the Roger Federer of Wimbledon 2003. Especially in the first set, the violence of Andy Roddick's serving and ground-stroking was the dominating element against the passive-seeming defending champion. Andy's serve, which had produced only three aces against Roger in last year's semi-final, delivered that number in the first few minutes of this match. Again and again, Roger failed to get the big serve back into play--something that almost never happened the year before. Andy was in trouble only once in the first set--down love-forty--and he responded with three successful net forays, then closing out the game from deuce with two big bombs, neither returned by Roger.

Roger later said that Andy's serving weakened in velocity after the first set, and indeed Roger thereafter was much more successful in getting his returns into play. But if Andy's velocity fell off, Roger himself clearly softened his serve-returns--a tactic that marked his success in 2003. Roger began Set Two with two service breaks. Andy responded with a surge of brilliant hitting, breaking twice to equalize the set at four games all. But Roger managed to hold serve in Game Nine and then broke Andy in Game Ten--getting the serve-returns into play, benefiting from a lucky net cord, and delivering a superb passing shot at set point. Match equal.

Andy led in Set Three until another rain interruption. Roger later testified that the break allowed him to think through his tactics--i.e., that he should come to net more aggressively. And indeed, for the full third set, won by Roger in a tiebreaker, Roger's net forays outnumbered Andy's for the first time in the match, by count of 16 to 10.

In the fourth and final set Andy seemed repeatedly on the verge of breaking Roger's serve behind strong returns and groundies. During his near-breakthrough in Game Eight, Andy's confidence seemed to soar, though in his emotional venting Andy seemed perhaps too aware of the gallery. Roger managed to survive his crisis, and Andy--perhaps ever-so-slightly euphoric after the rush of confidence that had almost produced the service break--now seemingly weakened in his concentration. He fell behind in serving Game Nine and, now suddenly under huge pressure and probably knowing he must attack forecourt, then lost the game dismally. Roger then served out the match brilliantly under the strong threat of Andy's best.

Roger's victory had not been easy, lacking the perfection seen in Roger's performances against Andy in last year's semi-final and then against Philippoussis in the final. The combatants had been almost equal--Andy's superior serving ability roughly balancing Roger's small edge in stroke-making, serve-returning, and mobility. Certainly Andy played one of his finest matches. The difference was probably what happened in those critical moments at the end, where the mental edge momentarily belonged to Roger.

One thing is certain. There will be many great meetings of these two. Perhaps the next will happen next month in Athens.

--Ray Bowers

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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.

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