A Match From Mars, and the Man From Jupiter
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Here’s the short version of yesterday’s ugly, yet oddly compelling, final between Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters at the Acura Classic in San Diego: 7–5, 7–5 for Sharapova after Clijsters commits heinous errors to lose her serve at the end of each set.
Rather than delve too deeply into the tedious details of how the match unfolded, and why Clijsters of 2005 would have won this contest, we’ll spend some time with the first set, perhaps the strangest on the women’s tour this year among top players, if not in several years.
While service breaks are more common in women’s tennis as compared to men’s, few sets play out like the first one between Sharapova and Clijsters.
Sharapova broke serve four times and held serve three times, while Clijsters broke three times and held twice. Each woman connected on a good percentage of her first serves — 64% for Clijsters and 79% for Sharapova — but neither could win those points with much consistency (52% for Clijsters and a slightly more acceptable 59% for Sharapova). On second serves, the damage was far worse: Clijsters won 5 of 14 second serve points (36%), and she performed far better than Sharapova (2 of 11 for 18%).
In sum, each woman won more frequently while returning serve than while serving: Sharapova won 54% of her return points and 47.5% of her service points; Clijsters came in at 52.5% and 46%. As common as this might be among weekend hackers with deteriorating hips, it’s unheard of in professional tennis, and it made for more than a few perplexing moments.
The spectacle of it all resulted in good television, though, and the two did play the best point of the summer hard-court season. Sharapova served at 5–4 in the first set and earned a set point after trailing 15–40.In a 33-stroke rally, the 19-year-old Russian dictated the pace of play and sent Clijsters scrambling left, right, and left again. Clijsters recovered one forehand with her now patented sliding split (the squeak of her sneakers is enough to make one’s hamstrings feel a twinge of pain). She floated a slice backhand over the net on a full run, and then immediately turned around and chopped a forehand high into the air (it landed in the far corner). A few shots later, Clijsters took her chance, hitting a forehand crosscourt that Sharapova — faster these days, but still slower than most — awkwardly slammed into the net.
If only Clijsters could have shown as much patience and tenacity the rest of the match. She saved another set point at 5-6 in the first set, but lost it on two terrible forehand errors. And despite holding her serve easily for the first five games of the second set, she could not capitalize on any of six break points, including a 0-40 opportunity at 3-3 (Sharapova rattled off five straight points, three of them owing to Clijsters’s mistakes). The Clijsters who won the U.S. Open last year would have frustrated Sharapova into a few more errors of her own, eventually crushing her spirit. Though this year’s version continues to show signs that she can capture that form again, there is work to be done.
While Clijsters continues to search for her old self, Arnaud Clement need look no further. The 28-year-old Frenchman yesterday won is fourth career title, and his first in the United States, in a surprise run at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C.
For tennis players like Clement — 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, stylish game, goofy sunglasses, usually a purple bandana — titles are rarely won on skill alone. Even at his best, Clement, a 10-year veteran, can’t hope to win a tournament without a lot of luck. In Washington, D.C., last week, he had plenty of it.
Clement ruined the first tournament of tennis’s new million-dollar duo, Brad Gilbert, erstwhile coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray, the talented Scot with the soft physique and, at times, wandering mind. Clement recovered from an early deficit to win the first set in a tiebreaker, and then comfortably watched Murray implode in the second set, 7-6(3),6-2. The 19-year-old Scot spent more time examining a blister on his right hand than thinking about why he had lost an early lead to a player who should not have posed so many difficulties.
Credit Clement for a fine week (he defeated Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, too).The Frenchman is not blessed with size or strength or a sizzling serve. Nor does he supply much of his own power from the baseline. But as a counterpuncher, Clement can dazzle, as he did on the final point of the first set when he charged up to a half-volley from Murray and flicked a forehand crosscourt for a winner. And Clement’s commitment to doubles throughout his career paid dividends, too. As the match wore on, Murray had an increasingly difficult time creating passing shots as Clement moved forward.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without some subpar performances (James Blake first among them), a few ill-timed temper tantrums by Safin (he reached the semifinal of a tournament for only the second time since June 2005), and an extended vacation by the best in men’s tennis (of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian, and Ivan Ljubicic, the world’s top four players, only Ljubicic has entered a tournament since Wimbledon, and that was on clay in Switzerland).
Today, the good times end for middleof-the-pack men like Clement. In Toronto at the Rogers Cup, Federer and Nadal return, and we’ll see if the time off has even slightly reduced the immense distance between the two of them and the rest of the field. Ljubicic and Nalbandian will appear, too, along with Marcos Baghdatis, who last month helped Cyprus to a victory over Egypt in the Group II division of Davis Cup.
Two notable absentees: Andy Roddick, who has yet to recover from a back strain, and Andre Agassi, who suffered an embarrassing second-round defeat to an Italian qualifier in Washington, D.C. James Blake opens his tournament this evening with a match against 18-year-old wildcard Philip Bester, a top junior talent from Canadian. ESPN2 will broadcast matches daily.