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Predictability and Perfection at Open

Top-ranked Federer takes apart Henman and Hewitt dominates young Johansson in straight-set semifinal victories.

September 12, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Tim Henman's classic game of serve-and-volley tennis was made invisible Saturday at the U.S. Open.

Henman, the 30-year-old Briton with the tidy white shirt and shorts and tidy game, was deflated by Roger Federer's precision from both the backhand and forehand sides and punctured by Federer's sharply angled volleys. In only 1 hour 46 minutes Federer, the top-ranked player in the world, moved into his first U.S. Open final with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over fifth-seeded Henman.

In today's final, Federer will find Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian pest who didn't back down from the booming serves of Joachim Johansson and will not back down from Federer's calm pursuit of perfection.

The scrambling Hewitt, who hasn't lost a set in the tournament, incapacitated the power of Johansson by sheer perseverance and beat the 28th-seeded Swede, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, in 1:59.

It was an afternoon of tennis missing any tension or competitive balance. The only angst was the family passion play among the Hewitts. Lleyton's sister, Jaslyn, is Johansson's girlfriend and had been running from the question of who to root for since the 22-year-old Johansson shocked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals Thursday night. Jaslyn sat in a box owned by sports management company Octagon and spent most of the match turning her head or giggling with a friend.

Hewitt, 23, didn't ease up for a minute on Johansson, who spends much of the off-season at the Hewitt home in Adelaide, where he plays on Hewitt's backyard court.

"I've had to play against other Aussie guys in the past," Hewitt said. "You've just got to put your competitive hat on and just worry about trying to get the job done and not worry about who's on the other side of the net."

Johansson, who is 6 feet 6 and still learning what to do after pounding in 130-mph serves, was wrong-footed and left lunging fruitlessly for the ball by Hewitt's baseline consistency.

"It feels like he has got a lot of confidence because he's won every match he's played the last three, four weeks," Johansson said of Hewitt. "He's playing more aggressive and that makes him a dangerous player."

But the most dangerous player remains Federer. The 23-year-old from Switzerland is trying to become the first man since Mats Wilander 16 years ago to win three of the season's four major titles. When he won the Australian Open in January, Federer beat Hewitt in the fourth round. At Wimbledon in July, Federer beat Hewitt in the quarterfinals.

"Roger is playing absolutely phenomenal tennis," said the well-beaten Henman. "From a fellow competitor's point of view, you're always trying to find a way to counteract the way he plays. It's so difficult to do because he's so complete in every area. I feel fairly confident he'll show again tomorrow why he's No. 1 right now."

If Federer had given Henman an opening, the crowd was ready to support the Brit. In the fourth game of the second set, it seemed Henman had a chance for a breakthrough moment. After Federer had jumped ahead, 40-0, on his serve, Henman won three consecutive points. After Federer reached game point with a breathtaking lob that slipped off the baseline as Henman ran after it, the game reached deuce again.

The next point was filled with stab volleys and smashes, passing shots that were saved and finally a stinging forehand volley winner by Henman. As the noise exploded around him, Henman played the conqueror, playfully feinting back and forth at the net, as if to say, "Try it again."

But it was false bravado and Federer went on to hold serve with an ace in the corner.

"He's setting the standards for everyone," Henman said. "Lots of people are just trying to catch up."

Federer, who is also trying to become the first man to win his first four Grand Slam finals, doesn't doubt his shots or his place at the top right now.

"I like my game," he said, "the way I play it because this is how the seniors now used to play and this is how I looked to learn the game. Now that I can play it on the modern basis, it's very special for me."

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