Tennis: Hits and misses on the road to the Roger and Serena show

By Bernard Whimpress

It was a bad start to the women’s part of the 2010 Australian Open draw with the best body and maybe the best legs in the tournament exiting in the first round.

Out went Maria Sharapova, the 2008 champion, back on the tour after shoulder injury and seeded fourteen. But this wasn’t just the loss of body and legs but THAT SCREAM. Thousands of male fantasies would be put to bed. It would be an ORGASMLESS event! Out also went Aussie Alicia and Aussie Jelena. At 29 Alicia had battled back after a year in retirement and had played backblock tournaments from Darwin to Mount Gambier to Mildura. She led 6-3, 5-2 against France’s Julie Coin when she went walkabout, started to think about her victory speech, and contrived to lose in three sets.

Poor Jelena’s support team didn’t offer much support. A heated argument with her boyfriend, Tin Bikic, during practice for the Open was poor preparation and followed disagreement with coach Borna Bikic the previous week. The Bikic brothers also helped derail her grand slam campaign after being interviewed by Australian Federal Police over an air rage incident on a flight from Hobart to Melbourne a few days before. In bowing out to the big Russian Alisa Kleybanova (whom she defeated in the fourth round last year) Jelena said at her press conference, ‘It was a poor performance and I am very disappointed with today and this whole month hasn’t been great. I would have liked to have played better, but in a way I am glad it’s over. I can move on and I have to refocus.’

On the men’s side Aussie Pete (that’s Peter Luczak) was game to serve for the first set against Rafael Nadal, not so game when he got into a tie-break and didn’t win a point, and was scarcely noticed thereafter. In stayed Aussie Bernard (Tomic) which hasn’t got an Aussie ring to it and Our Casey (Delacqua), Our Sam (Stosur) and, of course, Lleyton, who’s outgrown Little Lleyton, and doesn’t need to be Aussie Lleyton cos he’s the Aussiest of them/us all.

Round two and Elena Dementieva departs, the other best set of legs. Only the week before she had beaten Serena Williams to win the Medibank International in Sydney and at 28, seeded five was running into the best form of her career, and a strong chance to win her first grand slam championship. Her misfortune was to meet the unseeded Justin Henin so soon, in her second comeback event, and go down 5-7, 6-7 in a match lasting two hours 50 minutes that would have done credit to any final but will be quickly forgotten.

A diversion.

What is it about women’s tennis? Throughout the year they play the same best of three set tournaments as the men but come to the slams why can’t they do it in five? It’s not a question of pay and equal pay for equal work. Five sets is like a thrilling five-day Test match. There is much more ebb and flow and room for manoeuvre. It offers the opportunity for heroic comebacks and it’s more difficult for the player in front to maintain peak performance. The test is thus greater, finer, nobler. We are not back in the 1920s when it was unfeminine for women to sweat. We like women sweating. Clive James even wrote a poem about the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.

I can think of many women’s matches that it would have been lovely to extend. In the Wimbledon final of 2008 Serena and Venus Williams slugged out a brilliant two-setter that Venus won despite the fact that Serena was working her way back into the match when it was over. A day later Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played a game where Nadal was on top early but Federer came back from two sets down, and won the next two before Rafa triumphed 9-7 in the fifth in one of the game’s greatest encounters. The potential for the women’s match to reach similar heights was denied.

Don’t tell me the women don’t have the stamina. The WTA Championship (formerly Virginia Slims) which has been played at Madison Garden since 1979 saw five set finals from 1984 when Martina Navratilova defeated Chris Evert until 1998 when Martina Hingis beat Lindsay Davenport. And come to think of it Gabriela Sabatini did play one of those five set matches in 1990 but was defeated by Monica Seles 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. Perhaps she did sweat at the end of it. Perhaps they both were knackered. So are the blokes!

And so Elena D had gone. What is it with these long-legged blondes who can surely hit a ball? I though of English poet John Betjeman and wondered, if he was around, who he would favour with a verse. Who would be his Amazonian ideal,

Pam, I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous

sports girl,

Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength

of five;

his Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, his Olympic Girl?

Oh! Would I were her racket press’d

With hard excitement to her breast …

Would it be Elena or Maria? Too cool, too sophisticated these Russians. Would it be their countrywomen Kleybanova or Nadia Petrova? Or would it be Venus or Serena? Venus maybe, Serena’s breast might be welcome but that strong right arm would crush a poet’s head to mush. But then what about Kim? Aussie Kim Clijsters that was. Kim it has to be you. No doubt he would feel a poem coming on. It has to be you.

Back to the main game.

Bernard Tomic went out in round two in a five-set centre court thriller against the Croatian fourteenth seed Marin Cilic 6-7, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. He put a wonderful game on show, displaying superb depth of shot in the Andy Murray mode and (like Murray) an ability to vary the pace of his strokes. At 17, however, he needs to pay his dues and not give a stupid press conference in which he complained about his match being scheduled in the evening and not finishing until 2.09 a.m., way past his usual bed time. The junior champion must now realise he’s playing in the big league and can’t expect to be tucked in with his teddy by nine or ten o’clock every night.

Our Casey had fought through a three set win in the first round and two tie breaks in the second before running up against Venus in the third and being defeated 6-1, 7-6. Our Sam had overcome a three set first match, to follow up with comfortable wins in the next two rounds but the surprise loss was Kim who’d won her first two matches with ease following her victory over Justin Henin in the Brisbane International a fortnight before. Seeded fifteen, she took her worst game on to the court against nineteenth seed Nadia Petrova who won 6-0 6-1. If Betjeman had been urging his Olympian Girl he would have found that Nadia had even better credentials than Kim as her father was a leading Russian hammer thrower and her mother was a bronze medallist at the Montreal Olympics in the 400 metres relay. She also packs a frame to throw hammer herself.

Lleyton is still in it, cruising his through his opening two rounds to set up a Saturday night clash with Marcos Baghdatis. Aussie Marcos when there are no other Aussies left and a five setter for certain. Two fellas playing the same game, almost like hitting against a wall. In this case half the wall gave way. With Marcos trailing 0-6, 2-4 he retired hurt with a shoulder injury. The men were crumbling in a disappointing round which saw Lukasz Kubot win in a walkover from Mikhail Zouhnzy and Stefan Koubek retire after losing the first set against Fernando Verdasco. Can’t they stand the strain? Perhaps like long-distance swimming it’s the women who are made for the long haul? Perhaps the men should play the best of three and the women five!

Sam is into the fourth round but is up against Serena. Sam has a powerful serve and great athleticism but needs to eliminate loose ground strokes to be a force at the top level. Serena dispatches her 6-4, 6-2. Lleyton is also in the fourth and facing Federer. In the early part of his career he was Roger’s master. Not since 2003. Roger makes it 15 wins in succession with a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 demolition job. It’s time for the Australian media to face facts. Lleyton has had a fine career, done better than could have been expected to win two grand slams and 27 singles titles in the modern big man’s game, but the day’s of glory are over. Lleyton then had surgery on his right hip to match his left but it’s hard to see it making a difference.

The first week ends, the Aussies are gone. It’s been a long time thus.

At the quarter final stage the women’s competition was much more open than the men’s with five of the seeds remaining. In the top part of the draw a semi-final between Venus and Serena loomed likely. In the bottom Nadia Petrova was the only seed but Justin Henin was the danger. However, there were some surprises. Chinese sixteenth seed Na Li defeated Venus 2-6, 7-6, 7-5 and Serena had the mother of all struggles against Belarussian seventh seed Victoria Azarenka 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. Down a break in the second set Serena seemed set for an early flight home. China’s unseeded Ji Zheng had an easy win over Russian Maria Kirilenko and Justin beat Nadia in two closely fought sets 7-6, 7-5.

The men’s quarters saw all seeds through. Murray five against Nadal two, Cilic fourteen versus Roddick seven, Tsonga ten against Djokovic three, and Federer one against Davydenko six. The superb matches were between Marin Cilic and Andy Roddick and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic which saw the (slightly) less fancied players triumph in five sets. Andy Murray was in superb touch against Nadal leading 6-3, 7-6,

3-0 before Rafa quit with a knee injury. The most bizarre match was Federer’s opening against Nikolai Davydenko to whom he had lost at their last two meetings. Looking strangely tentative Roger lost the first set 2-6 and was down a break 1-3 and 15-40 on serve in the second, before changing gears to win thirteen games in a row and take the match in four sets.

China’s women’s honeymoon ended in the semi-finals although Serena had to work hard to defeat Na Li 7-6, 7-6 while Justin made short work of Ji Zheng 6-1, 6-0. Justin, who had quite reasonably struggled through her early matches seemed to be peaking at the right time whereas Serena after romping through her early rounds had had to tough it out in the quarters and semis. Neither men’s semi-final reached a climax because neither Tsonga or Cilic, after back-to-back five setters in both the fourth round and the quarters, had any gas in the tank.

Williams against Henin pitted the finest two women players of the present time against each other with Serena leading seven wins to six in their previous encounters. Federer against Murray was the case of the champ versus the coming man and yet Andy held the lead head-to-head against Roger six wins to four, the only man apart from Rafa with a career advantage over the Swiss.

The women’s match began with an unyielding struggle with Serena breaking through to take the first set 6-4 but then give ground as Justin stormed back to take the second 6-3. The balance of play shifted quickly at the end of the second set. First with Serena in control and then with Justine winning 15 straight points to win the set and make a break in the third. Somehow, however, Serena stayed calm and Justine was unable to hold serve again in the match which went to the American 6-2 in the third set. Again the question has to be asked. If they were playing best of five would the momentum have changed again? Would it have been a greater contest?

In the men’s final Federer was at the top of his game in the first two sets with Murray doing his best to stay with him. A couple of my mates talked a lot of rubbish at a pub the following night after our customary low-class doubles match. They reckoned Murray was disappointing, negative and failed to take his chances. I felt this was mainly unfair. The third set offered an opportunity for the Scot when he managed a break in the sixth game and served for the set leading 5-2 but was unable to hold. A thrilling tie-break then followed which, as it grew, started to bear comparison with the famous fourth set Borg–McEnroe tie-break of the 1980 Wimbledon final; Murray’s frustration was that he failed to convert his chances on four set points. If Murray had managed to win the third set, he might have got back into the match, or Federer might have reasserted himself and won in four. We’ll never know. Federer’s drop shot near the end saw Murray make a freakish scramble from the base line to push a backhand down the line for a winner but Federer won shortly after when Murray netted a backhand.

Two years ago at the presentation ceremony on the Rod Laver Arena, Roger Federer forgiveably wept. A year ago he less forgiveably blubbed while a most deserving winner, Rafael Nadal, was left standing on the sidelines like a stale bottle of piss by thoughtless tennis officialdom. This year there was no danger of Roger weeping and indeed it was Andy who choked back tears. Roger offered Andy consolation by saying he was too good a player not to win a grand slam and it is to be hoped that he can take a braver heart into his next major final, particularly if meeting the same opponent.

Bernard Whimpress                                                                                      © February 2010

About Bernard Whimpress

Freelance historian (mainly sport) who has just written his 40th book. Will accept writing commissions with reasonable pay. Among his most recent books are George Giffen: A Biography, The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018, Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man (with Graeme Ryan) and The MCC Official Ashes Treasures (5th edition).


  1. Bernard,

    I had to dig it out:

    Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini

    By Clive James

    Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini
    For I know it tastes as pure as Malvern water,
    Though laced with bright bubbles like the aqua minerale
    That melted the kidney stones of Michelangelo
    As sunlight the snow in spring.

    Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini
    In a green Lycergus cup with a sprig of mint,
    But add no sugar –
    The bitterness is what I want.
    If I craved sweetness I would be asking you to bring me
    The tears of Annabel Croft.

    I never asked for the wrist-bands of Maria Bueno,
    Though their periodic transit of her glowing forehead
    Was like watching a bear’s tongue lap nectar.
    I never asked for the blouse of Francoise Durr,
    Who refused point-blank to improve her souffle serve
    For fear of overdeveloping her upper arm –
    Which indeed remained delicate as a fawn’s femur,
    As a fern’s frond under which cool shadows gather
    So that the dew lingers.

    Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini
    And give me credit for having never before now
    Cried out with longing.
    Though for all the years since TV acquired colour
    To watch Wimbledon for even a single day
    Has left me shaking with grief like an ex-smoker
    Locked overnight in a cigar factory,
    Not once have I let loose as now I do
    The parched howl of deprivation,
    The croak of need.

    Did I ever demand, as I might well have done,
    The socks of Tracy Austin?
    Did you ever hear me call for the cast-off Pumas
    Of Hana Mandlikova?
    Think what might have been distilled from these things,
    And what a small request it would have seemed –
    It would not, after all, have been like asking
    For something so intimate as to arouse suspicion
    Of mental derangement.
    I would not have been calling for Carting Bassett’s knickers
    Or the tingling, Teddy Tinting B-cup brassiere
    Of Andrea Temesvari.

    Yet I denied myself.
    I have denied myself too long.
    If I had been Pat Cash at that great moment
    Of triumph, I would have handed back the trophy
    Saying take that thing away
    And don’t let me see it again until
    It spills what makes this lawn burst into flower:
    Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.

    In the beginning there was Gorgeous Gussie Moran
    And even when there was just her it was tough enough
    But by now the top hundred boasts at least a dozen knock-outs
    Who make it difficult to keep one’s tongue
    From lolling like a broken roller blind.
    Out of deference to Billie-Jean I did my best
    To control my male chauvinist urges –
    An objectivity made easier to achieve
    When Betty Stove came clumping out to play
    On a pair of what appeared to be bionic legs
    Borrowed from Six Million Dollar Man.

    I won’t go so far as to say I harbour
    Similar reservations about Steffi Graf-
    I merely note that her thigh muscles when tense
    Look interchangeable with those of Boris Becker
    Yet all are agreed that there can be no doubt
    About Mar lira Navratilova:
    Since she lent her body to Charles Atlas
    The definition of the veins on her right forearm
    Looks like the Mississippi river system
    Photographed from a satellite,
    And though she may unleash a charming smile
    When crouching to dance at the ball with Ivar Lendl,
    I have always found to admire her yet remain detached
    Has been no problem.

    But when the rain stops long enough for the true beauties
    To come out swinging under the outshone sun
    The spectacle is hard for a man to take,
    And in the case of this supernally graceful dish
    Likened to a panther by slavering sports reporters
    Who pitiably fail to realise that any panther
    With a top-spin forehand line drive like hers
    Would be managed personally by Mark McCormack –
    I’m obliged to admit defeat.

    So let me drink deep from the bitter cup.
    Take it to her between any two points of a tie break
    That she may shake above it her thick black hair
    A nocturne from which the droplets as they fall
    Flash like shooting stars –
    And as their lustre becomes liqueur
    Let the full calyx be repeatedly carried to me.
    Until I tell you to stop
    Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.

  2. Tony Roberts says

    Struck by your references to Maria Sharapova’s…umm, utterances.

    A couple of years ago (can’t remember exactly where I read this) some rock musician in NYC managed to engage Ms Cocktail Dress in the activity where her screams and grunts would be entirely understandable and appropriate. Result: total, inert (well, perhaps a little bit ert) silence – just like her tennis practice sessions, apparently.

    Between the fantasy and reality falls the shadow. I believe that Sharapova was in the womb when her parents fled the vicinity of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident for the Urals, so perhaps there’s some sort of answer.

  3. Bernard Whimpress says


    If the divine Maria is a Chernobyl baby it’s a wonder she hasn’t been sponsored by the nuclear industry who would have even more money than Nike.

    Glad to see you making an allusion to T.S. Eliot.

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