Peppy Johansson bests weary Kiefer, reaches final
by Ed Toombs
Saturday, Aug. 7, 1999
Thomas Johansson (11) def. Nicolas Kiefer (9), 4-6, 6-1, 6-3
Previous head to head: Kiefer leads 2-0
6-3, 3-6, 6-1 (Stuttgart, indoor carpet)
6-2, 6-3 (Dusseldorf, clay)
A confident, consistent Thomas Johansson advanced to his first-ever Super Nine final today with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 win over a weary Nicolas Kiefer.
The afternoon semifinal pitted two young players who had never been to a Super 9 semi before. Kiefer had the much tougher draw to get here, as he faced dangerous floaters Vacek and Raoux, then 8th-seeded Teutonic rival Tommy Haas before his dramatic upset of top seed Patrick Rafter last night. Johansson, on the other hand, had yet to play a seed, profiting from the upsets of Henman, Krajicek and Ferreira in his quarter of the draw. The Swede's wins came over Canadian wild card Larose, qualifier Mirnyi, Lareau in an emotion three-setter, and the rambunctious Courier in the quarterfinals yesterday. Kiefer, on the strength of his higher ranking, two prior wins over Johansson, and superior win-loss record this year (33-16, as opposed to 14-17 for Johansson) was the heavy favourite according to most press box pundits. They were wrong, as they often are.
A light rain started falling at the exact moment when Kiefer and Johansson set foot on centre court. The gladiators were sent back to the dressing room. But it was only a brief sprinkle, and they returned after a 30 minute delay and with clearer skies above to start their match. The rest of the match was played in comfortable temperatures and sunshine.
The first set started cautiously. Both men are primarily baseliners, and that's the way most points were played. Kiefer was playing very composed tennis with a greater margin of error, trying to coax errors, although he picked up the cadence toward the end of the first set. On the other hand, Johansson hit harder, flatter balls and was more willing to force the issue. Johansson was the first to worry the opponent's service game, when he got to 0-40 in game five. But Thomas failed to convert on his five break points in this game, primarily because of some aggressive play and good serving by Kiefer. The German only had one break point, with Johansson serving at 4-4, but made it count, aggressively charging behind a second serve return and forcing an errant passing shot by Thomas. Truth be told, Kiefer should have had more break chances than that, as Johansson had a horrible 26% first serve percentage in this set. But Kiefer's returns, so deadly against Rafter last night, were limp or off target today.
With a chance to serve out the first set at 5-4, Kiefer got in trouble early as Johansson decided to turn aggressive and won the first two points at the net. Kiefer reversed the tide by taking the net himself, approaching behind a forehand and knocking off an overhead winner. Kiefer went on to win the next two points on an ace down the middle and a Johansson backhand approach shot into the net, and it was 6-4 Kiefer.
Despite losing the first set, Johansson revealed after the match that he was reasonably confident he could come back. "I served really bad in the first set. But even though I lost it, I was playing well."
Unfortunately for Kiefer, he hit the wall in the second set, his fatigue from the arduous win over Rafter last night taking its toll. After holding serve to start the second set, Kiefer lost nine straight games to lose the second set 1-6 and fall behind 0-3 in the third. During this sequence the German seemed sluggish and made numerous unforced baseline errors, especially on the forehand side (18 forehand errors in the match by my count). Johansson noticed, and started to play consistently to Kiefer's unhappy forehand. After holding serve to start the second set, the woeful Kiefer lost nine straight games. "I was a little tired,", explained Nicolas, who played a tough evening match against Rafter last night, "and I didn't sleep too good the last two nights. I came back at 12:00 and then before I sleep it's 2:00. You want to sleep, but you can't. But this is no excuse. He came back very, very strong and I didn't pay attention." Kiefer did indeed seem inattentive, his head did not seem to be in the match at times: late in the second set he went to stop a Johansson shot with his racquet, they way one does when a ball lands out, but the Swede's shot was clearly in. Kiefer just shrugged.
Nicolas also revealed he was having elbow problems, and suggested that the balls being used might be causing problems: "My elbow hurts all week. I treat it every day, but especially today. The balls were very heavy and I had some problems. If you go into the locker room you see every player puts ice on his arm and a lot of players have arm problems" When asked to comment, Johansson seemed to disagree: "I thought the ball today was the same as any day." But he did agree that fatigue was the main factor in Kiefer's sudden drop-off. "Nicolas was a little bit tired," admitted the modest Swede, "so I was a little bit lucky. Yesterday I had an early match, and when he was playing last night I was at the hotel watching."
When Kiefer finally broke the streak by winning a game, with self-deprecating humour he asked the crowd to applaud him. Many did, and they tried politely to urge Kiefer back in the match. But Johansson, stroking the ball ever more confidently and serving well now, did not back off, and closed out the match. Make the final: 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.
There was not much atmosphere in this match. Neither player is that well known to the average fan, and the crowd had trouble deciding on a player to support. Furthermore, the lopsided character of the final two sets robbed the match of any drama that might have developed.
Johansson seemed justifiably pleased after the match, since this has been an arduous season for him. After recovering from a knee injury (patella tendon) earlier this year, he broke his left wrist in a freak soccer accident and had to go on the sidelines again. His confidence was not very high at the beginning of the week: "I didn't expect too much from this tournament. Maybe in a week or two, but not here." Johansson's return to form comes at an opportune time, since he played well last year at the US Open (quarterfinal) and during the fall indoor season and has to start worrying about maintaining his ranking (currently 22). "I have a lot of points to defend coming up. So I just try to take one match at a time and try to stay in the top 25 this year."
Certainly reaching the final in Montreal will help the ranking, as Thomas has no points to defend this week. Winning the final would be even better, but Thomas has no illusions that that will be easy. Asked if he would prefer to play Agassi or Kafelnikov, he laughed: "Well, uh, they are pretty good, both of them." The only previous Agassi-Johansson meeting was won by Andre on carpet last year, but it was a tight three-setter, 6-7 6-4 6-4. And although Kafelnikov has a 4-3 career advantage over Johansson, Thomas has won their last two meetings. So, said the baby-faced Swede, "I've played both of them and I'm going to try to do some things tomorrow."
As for Kiefer, his Montréal experience is mixed: he is pleased with big wins over Haas and especially Rafter, in his first tournament in five weeks, but disappointed to fall a match short of his first important final. Now it's off to Cincinnati, where he will be in Rafter's half of the draw again....
On a lighter note: Johansson, like many Swedish players, possesses a dry sense of humour. After the match he was asked about an argument he had with a linesperson: "Did you call him a f***ing idiot the way Courier did (note: Courier was given a point penalty for swearing at a linesman this week)?" Johansson, smiling: "I did it in Swedish -- no, I didn't." Courier, who can already curse in English, French and Spanish, might want to learn a fourth language....
Today there were no signs of the gamesmanship that the irascible Kiefer appeared to use against Rafter last night (see Chris Gerby's August 7 report for a discussion of Kiefer's liberal use of his towel...). Late in the second set Kiefer went to the sideline to retrieve a towel for the first time in the match, and I thought, "Oh no, here we go!" But he just used it to dry himself off today....