Setting the House in Order

Sunday, August 19, 2007 /by

2007_08_20_henin What began as the week that no one cared about ended as one that set the tennis world’s collective house in order. After mass carnage among the seeds in Cincinnati, and mass indifference to Toronto among the women, the two best players in the world, Roger Federer and Justine Henin, found their best games in time to hold the winners' trophies. In the process, they showed that the cream is rising just as New York City is appearing on the horizon.

Justine Henin d. Jelena Jankovic 7-6, 7-5
These two women always play close, entertaining, back-and-forth, all-over-the-court matches, and Henin always wins—seven straight times after Sunday. They are well-matched—Jankovic tracks down lots of balls and changes direction with them enough to foil Henin’s all-out attack for long periods of time. But in the end Henin dictates virtually all the action, and when that's the case her effective shots will end up outnumbering her misfires. At this level, a good punch nearly always overcomes a good counterpunch.

Each set played out in the same way yesterday. Henin stoned a volley to go down 1-3 in the first, and Jankovic continued to outhit her until she was up 4-2. That’s when Henin went into frantic battle mode, as she drilled a crosscourt return off a first serve at 30-30 to eventually break, and then continued to force the issue at all times to make it 4-4.

From there the match picked up momentum. Henin was at full speed and in every part of the court, a sort of tiny tennis dervish alternating between brilliant shots and wild errors. Jankovic on the other hand was content to sit back and rally to the corners. Her major asset against Henin is her ability to open up the court by going down the lines, a play that fooled Henin more than once yesterday. But all that counterpunching caught up with her at 5-5. Jankovic tried to go up the line twice with forehands from well behind the baseline and missed badly, the second time at break point.

Then Henin’s own Achilles’ heel—her need to force the issue even when the issue has not yet presented itself in a point—got the better of her in the next game. She gave the break back with three forehand errors. But in the tiebreaker she had the courage to go right for the lines again with her forehand, and make it this time. A good punch will always beat a good counterpunch, as I said, but it helps to have punches as lethal as Henin’s. As for Jankovic, her mediocre serve cost her again in the end. Henin won the first four points of the breaker on Jankovic’s serve.

The second set was a rerun, with Jankovic going up an early break. The key was her inability to add another break, which she twice had opportunities to do. Henin began to bring her best stuff at mid-set, breaking Jankovic for 4-4 with an overhead, a drop shot and two on-the-screws down the line backhand passes. In the end, it’s this versatility that elevates Henin over Jankovic. She may spray her share of shots and get beaten up the line by the Serb once a game or so, but her solid serve, net game, and one-hander give her so many more ways to win. It’s an uphill battle for all of her opponents, and it looks like they’ll be fighting it again at the U.S. Open.

Roger Federer d. James Blake 6-1, 6-4
This is, as they say, a bad match-up. For Blake, that is. For Sire Jacket, what could be finer? His opponent’s best shot, his crosscourt forehand, which he always goes for when he has the chance, comes right into SJ's proverbial wheelhouse, his own forehand. Federer also happens to move exceptionally well in that direction and loves to see the ball come in with pace—the more the better, seemingly.

That play defines these guys' matches. Once Blake knows, again, that he can’t hurt Federer—that, in fact, he’s only feeding the guy what he wants—he starts to press and lose belief. Contrast the calm, controlled, athletic sharpshooting he did against Davydenko in the round before with the Blake we saw in the final. This Blake lost the first set 6-1, double-faulted four times in his first service game in the second (but held), and then fought hard to make it 3-3, 30-30 only to fold in about 10 seconds by dumping two off-balance backhands into the net. When Blake did get a look, as he did on five break-point occasions, he couldn't pull the trigger, get over the hump, clear the hurdle—however you want to say it, he couldn't do the one thing he needed to do to win. On a break point in the first set, he even had a hanging midcourt forehand lined up. You could see just a bit of hesitation—uncharacteristic for Blake—and the ball was gone, framed, a foot wide. Whatever the mental obstacle is for Blake against Federer, it's big.

Still, it was an encouraging tournament for the American. Wait, haven’t I said that about a dozen times before? No matter, it’s true again, mostly because he’s heading for the two and a half weeks of the year when he gets around to playing his best tennis, at New Haven and Flushing Meadows. Blake's very solid performances against Davydenko and Ferrero, along with his gutty one against Querrey, are the matches that he needed, and the ones he should remember.

Federer? Cross that bridge if you’re lucky enough to come to it again in New York.

Otherwise, this was a pretty dispiriting week for the ATP. Once again, scheduling two Masters events in a row in August cost Cincy and stalled much of the momentum that had been built for the Open. Djokovic and Roddick put in lame/tame/subpar performances (no matter what the situation), and Nadal had an unfortuante one. Credit Federer for showing the grit to get through a couple ugly days. If the clay Masters schedule is going to change, there should be a change in the summer hard court editions as well, as in more than one day off between them.

Or, what about playing the whole thing at night? Seriously, isn't it so much more enjoyable to watch, even on TV, under the lights?

I’ll be out of commission for a few days but back on the weekend with a preview of the Show in Queens. Is anybody planning to be there?

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