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Steve Flink: Powerful Trio Gone from Wimbledon

6/24/2009 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON---  Having been an eye witness here for the first three days of the most prestigious tournament in the world of tennis, I am struck by how predictable the early rounds have become at all of the major tournaments. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the Grand Slam events have all suffered in recent years from the fact that 32 players are seeded in the men’s and women’s divisions. The first couple of days used to be much more intriguing and less monotonous in the old days when only 16 competitors were seeded in each of the singles fields.

Having said that, the fact remains that a trio of renowned players have departed in the first two rounds across the past three days, and that is no small thing. First James Blake--- the No. 17 seed among the men and a man once ranked fourth in the world--- was ushered out of here with almost embarrassing ease by none other than Andreas Seppi, a resourceful and intelligent player from Italy who is ranked 50th in the world. Blake, after making it to the final at Queen’s Club before losing to Andy Murray, fell back into a pattern of instability he has repeated far too often this year. He lost in straight sets to Seppi on Court 3, a distracting location that used to be Court 2 until that court was moved to a different spot this year.

Blake never quite found his range despite three relatively close sets (7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (5)), and he wasted a 5-0 tie-break lead in the final set. He has simply never done himself justice at the majors. This was his 30th “Big Four” appearance, and this popular and highly regarded player has never made it past the quarterfinals. That is simply not a record that inspires confidence, but I thought on the grass at the All England Club that he would be able to set the tempo against Seppi, a relative lightweight who would seemingly be at the mercy of the American during the baseline exchanges.

That was not really the case. Seppi was able to exploit Blake’s ineptitude off the ground. Blake made 38 unforced errors over the three sets, 20 more than his largely unerring and sturdier adversary. Just as telling, Blake’s 19 forehand ground stroke winners were matched by the 25-year-old Italian. Off the backhand, Blake produced 7 winners while Seppi went one better in that department. The serving statistics are also revealing. Blake won 71% of his first serve points while Seppi was at 69% in that category, but the 29-year-old American won only 43% of his second serve points while Seppi surprisingly took 63% of the points on his second delivery.

That tells you virtually everything you need to know. Seppi is well known for being a mediocre server at best. And yet, Blake broke his opponent only twice while dropping his own serve no less than four times. There was no real excuse for that. Blake simply came up short again on a big occasion. It has been a bad year for him despite reaching the final on clay in Estoril and then making it to the championship match at Queen’s before losing to Andy Murray.

Let’s move on to Safin. He has announced that this is his last year, and if he feels he no longer wants to play this game for a living, so be it. That is his decision, and it should be respected. But what has saddened me is he does not seem to care whether or not he goes out with a flourish. I don’t believe he is going through the motions, but as I have watched him play during this season it has been apparent that his heart is not fully in it. He seems almost resigned to losing, even in matches when he has given himself every chance to win. He is 29 now, and has won two majors in his remarkable career. He played the match of his life to beat Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 for the 2000 U.S. Open crown, and was stupendous in ousting Roger Federer 9-7 in the fifth set of the 2005 Australian Open semifinals before rallying gamely from a set down in the final to defeat Lleyton Hewitt in a four set final that year.

Safin is heading for the International Tennis Hall of Fame some day; about that, I have no doubt. But I only wish he could find a deeper purpose within himself as he moves through his final months as a player. There is no joy evident in this man. Consider what happened in his match with the American qualifier Jesse Levine on Tuesday. Levine, a left-hander ranked 133 in the world, took the first set comfortably, lost the second, and then the two players travelled to a third set tie-break. Had Safin been more opportunistic, had he perhaps displayed more vigor and intensity, maybe he would have taken control of the match in that sequence.

But instead it was Levine who took that pivotal playoff, and soon the American had moved out to a 5-1 lead in the fourth set as Safin’s distress became evident to one and all. Safin did manage to make one last stand, collecting three games in a row. But Levine did not panic when he served for the match a second time, crushing a brilliant inside-out forehand winner for triple match point, and soon closing out the account 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 with impressive composure and resolve.

This was essentially a high quality clash. Safin was guilty of only 28 unforced errors, six fewer than Levine. But Levine unleashed 44 winners, 14 more than Safin. Safin connected with 63% of his first serves while Levine was at 57%. But Levine won 87% of his first serve points and Safin was only at 73% in that department. That may have been the number that really mattered. Levine returned serve decidedly better than the big Russian.

As for Sharapova, she had done a terrific job since returning to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour after nearly ten months away from the game this spring. She had endured shoulder surgery. She had cast aside the inevitable nagging doubts that surely surfaced during her time away from the game. And she had rediscovered how to win tennis matches in the upper levels of the game with remarkable speed and acuity.  In her first tournament back in May of this season, the 2004 Wimbledon champion was a quarterfinalist in Warsaw. She then garnered four consecutive three set victories on her way to the quarters of the French Open. And in her third tournament, she was a semifinalist on the grass at Birmingham.

And so Sharapova came into Wimbledon on something of a roll, and must have believed she could perform well at the place where she won her first of three majors when she was only 17. But she played a very uneven match against Gisela Dulko on the Centre Court in the second round. Missing second serve returns by wide margins over the baseline, serving with less velocity than she needed and not the best of placement, mired in a lackluster performance, Sharapova dropped the first set to Dulko and fell behind 3-0 in the second. She was being picked apart by a player who seems to relish taking on the biggest names in her profession.

But then Sharapova elevated her game, dictating more and more, breaking down Dulko’s forehand whenever she could.  Sharapova won seven games in a row. But she lost steam at a moment when it appeared she was fully capable of closing out the match with conviction. Dulko got the crucial break at 3-3 in the third. But in typical fashion, Sharapova displayed her gumption and ferocity in the last game of the match. Dulko moved to 5-4, 40-15, double match point. Sharapova would not surrender. She saved four match points, two of them with audacious and spectacular winners. But the determined Dulko came through 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, winning deservedly, fending off a rival who was coming at her full force in the last stages of the contest.

Sharapova--- despite her inauspicious start--- ended up playing a relatively clean match. She made 27 unforced errors compared to 23 for her less adventuresome adversary, but what crippled Sharapova in the final analysis was her second serve. She won only 38% of her second serve points, and that was too big a burden to carry through a long contest.

So where do these defeats leave the powerful trio of Blake, Safin and Sharapova? The view here is that Blake is very close to the end of his line as a major presence in the upper levels of the game. He could remain a top 20 to top 30 player for a few years more, but it is hard to imagine him ever going far into a Grand Slam event. He will be 30 on December 28, and the feeling grows that he has left nearly all of his best tennis behind him. Safin is clearly through as a top of the line player. He may be good for one decent win over a quality opponent at the U.S. Open, but that is probably his limit. He should have won a few more majors given his vast supply of talent, but he lost focus and intensity and commitment too many times across the years.

As for Sharapova, her loss here at Wimbledon will not hold her back for long. Her 2009 comeback has still been largely successful, and I see her celebrating a triumphant summer and putting herself in a position to get to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, or maybe even the final. Sharapova’s willpower is phenomenal, and her game will come around in a big way during the upcoming hard court season. Safin’s goodbye is justified because he no longer believes in himself as a threat at the big events. Blake has hit a crisis point late in his career. But Sharapova is going to achieve on a substantial level over the next couple of years.

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