Well wonder of wonders, we managed to pull a pretty decent final out of the women at the year-end championships in Madrid on Sunday. Of course the semis featured better play overall, but still. The men should be so lucky. They do their thing this week in Shanghai. It will probably take me that long to figure out the time zones.
Justine Henin-Hardenne beat Amelie Mauresmo in two sets, and the score, 6-4, 6-3, does not really indicate the good stuff contained herein. Sure, we may have wanted to see three sets, but the two we got were pretty high quality. There was some good serving, along with the usual baseline bombardment.
But surprise surprise, there was a lot of, dare we whisper its name, serve and volley. Amelie started it in the very first game, which is not too surprising in her case. Then Justine did the same in her opening game. OK, I thought, great, we are going to play anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better. That promises good things when both players come out of the gate feeling their oats. Both looked confident and physically on top of their games from the get go.
Sharapova would have loved to start like these two did in her semi-final match against Justine. Instead she came out as flat as a pancake. I wonder why. She’s usually way down the road at this point in her matches and already looking over her shoulder at the receding opponent. Maybe it was a bad biorhythm day for her. “Maria Succumbs To Bad Vibes,” shrieks the imaginary headline I was kicking around in my head.
Maria had her chances but out she went on Saturday, and that was as it should have been. We were probably all secretly, or in my case not so secretly, lusting for a reprise of Australia. Justine and Amelie were together at the beginning of the year there, how fitting they should be dueling at the end. And for a nice fat million dollar check to the winner.
Did they deserve it? Well, does ANYONE really deserve this obscene amount of money for having fun on a tennis court? If the market bears it, we guess so. This time it was straight ahead tennis without any drama. Definitely the round robin style of tournaments is the way to go if you have gotten tired, like me, of watching the usual blowouts in women’s matches that accompany the first week of the Grand Slams. The round robin bypasses all the piffle and we leap right into the cream of the top eight who played their way here. Make a mental note of this if you will, because the top eight have not made their way to the year-end championships since 1997. Too bad they can’t get the top women together sooner at some of the other events.
I detect a new note of power on the backhand of Henin-Hardenne. She is really whacking that ball now, in a more decisive fashion since last we saw her at the Open. It appears she cocks her wrist more emphatically at the end of the swing, adding an extra fillip of power.
The new serving motion she has I am uncertain about. She made changes recently to spare her arm any undue stress, but it looks kind of strange. There is no momentum from the swing now as she approaches and hits the serve. It seems she has to generate power more from her shoulder strength. I am wondering, how is this less stressful on her arm than what she was doing before? I don’t get it quite yet, so let’s carry this thought into next year and see how she plays.
Mauresmo uses this abbreviated service motion too, but to a lesser degree. She served pretty well throughout the week using this motion, but her serve could be bigger with a bit more momentum coming into the ball. This is one area of her game that could still be improved quite a bit, particularly as she double-faulted to end the match. Ouch.
Tracy Austin had her usual criticism of Mauresmo: she loops so many of her ground strokes instead of flattening them out. But the difference on Sunday really came down to attitude. Justine wanted it more than Amelie, her determination held at the key points. It has been “the best year of my career,” said Henin-Hardenne after the match. She sounded a bit surprised her body had held up over a week of five matches in six days.
For Amelie it was perhaps an even more spectacular year, with two Grand Slams in her win column and the ghost of Amelie the choker laid to rest once and for all. “Once you’ve tasted these emotions,” she said after the match, “these big moments, you want to have more.”
We want to have more of those Boss ball boys, an idea I like very very much. Especially when I found out that the men in Shanghai get no such perk. It’s nerdy types for you, my sons, in rugby shirts no less. But where do you go as a Boss boy when you’ve had the undeniable thrill of looking up Sharapova’s skirt for a whole week? We shudder to think. It must be all downhill faster than you can mutter, “Nice gams, baby.”
Forget the auctioning off of those Wilson racquets. Let’s divvy up the leftovers on the Ball Boy Front. That’s an improvement to the sport that some of us female fans might get behind.