Marsh McLennon Finals: Natalie Grinham Breaks Through 
By Rob Dinerman

Dateline January 14th, 2003
--- It was in the anonymity of a quiet mid-afternoon practice session that the $20,000 2002 Marsh McLennon Championship, played for the 17th time at the Apawamis Club in Rye, NY, was really won. Set-up, drop shot, set-up, drop shot. Tommy Berden, an up-and-coming player on the PSA tour and two-time Dutch national champion, was setting the ball up and his girlfriend Natalie Grinham was hitting drop shots, from front court, from mid-court, from the back of the court, drop shots from off the ground, volleyed drop shots, straight drops, cross court drops, guiding the ball into the side-wall nicks, fine-tuning and honing the weapon that several hours later that evening would be the main factor behind her first-ever career win, a gem whose stat line read 9-0 9-5 5-9 9-1, over the favored and higher-ranked Rebecca Macree that capped off her splendid march to the first WISPA tournament victory of the 24-year-old Australian native's seven-year pro career.

Though Grinham had contributed a major victory to the 2002 World Team Championship which she and her older sister Rachael along with World No. 1 Sarah Fitz-Gerald had annexed in a close final with defending champion England this past fall, she had lost in the first round of each of the last three tournaments of calendar 2002. She thus entered Apawamis with the goal more of improving her game for future events than of peaking at this one. She admitted that even a first-round loss would not have completely surprised her, but instead she quietly moved to the semi-final round via a 3-0 win over Vicky Botwright and a quarter-final walkover when Madeline Perry injured her back while twisting for a ball during a morning practice session and had to withdraw.

Grinham's semi-final opponent, the top-seeded and third-ranked Natalie
Pohrer, had won the last several tournaments of last year and barely lost the
World Open final to Fitz-Gerald in a fourth-set tiebreaker after first
winning successive fifth-set tiebreakers over Rachael Grinham and Carol
Owens. Pohrer had dominated her last few matches with Natalie Grinham and
sped off to an 8-0 lead in the opening game. But rather than concede that
seemingly hopeless position, Grinham won a few long exchanges, and suddenly
it became apparent that Pohrer had lost the conditioning edge that she had
displayed in attaining such a victory spring throughout the prior autumn.
Incredibly, she could do nothing to staunch Grinham's determined rally, not
even to the extent of finishing off her huge margin in that game, which she
lost 10-8, following which Grinham pressed the momentum and dominated the
remainder 9-4 and 9-1.

This brought the underdog and 11th-ranked winner to her third WISPA ranking tournament final and first since early 2001, when she had been leading Rachael two games to love in Kuala Lampur before an injury incurred late in a 9-0 second game forced her to retire. The 32-year-old Macree, by contrast, qualified for the 21st WISPA final of her 16-year pro career by pre-final wins over Scotland's Wendy Maitland and her British compatriots Jenny Duncalf and Steph Brind. The latter had been Grinham's victim in that memorable Australia-England World Team final, and seemingly still has not fully shaken loose from the trauma of losing in convincing fashion a crucial match against a lower-ranked rival that her national association had been counting on her to win. She showed none of the fight that had helped her defeat Macree when the two met at last year's Tournament Of Champions, submitting meekly in this semi-final rematch by a revealing score of 9-2, 4 and 0.

The ease with which Macree won her semi may ironically have worked to her disadvantage by leaving her insufficiently prepared for the quality of the game Grinham threw at her in the opening salvos of the final. She was cracking her full-bodied strokes deep and wide, stretching the lanky Macree off balance, and then hitting nick winners on the resultant loose replies.

Macree was so flustered by this initial flurry that she lost track of the flight of a Grinham lob, which plunked her in the head, causing far more harm to her pride than to her body. Macree served to open the match, one of only three serves she was allowed to hit the entire game, which went 9-0 to Grinham in just six dominant minutes.

No one could have realistically sustained such a high level of play for an entire match, and a slight Grinham letdown early in the second combined with a rise in a chastened Macree's game to get her to 4-1. But a stroke call gave Grinham the serve and a sequence of carved drop winners (on one of which she held the ball to the last instant, then finger-flicked a shallow cross court that left Macree flat-footed) put Grinham back on top at 6-5. It became 7-5 when Macree tinned a forehand rail volley, then 8-5 when she couldn't scrape back a wall-hugging Grinham backhand rail, one of many she hit off both flanks throughout the evening. Confused and demoralized, Macree then
stumbled off-balance towards the left wall in pursuit of another well-hit drop shot and hit the ball right back at herself for an obvious, and game-ending, stroke call against her.

As has happened in the past when she is being out-played in every aspect of the game (in one instance noticeably enough to earn her a several-month suspension last year for on-court misconduct), Macree responded to her predicament by becoming much more physical, especially when battling for positioning at the tee and blocking the smallish Grinham out after hitting a loose ball. She deserves full credit for the top-ten world ranking she has been able to earn despite being profoundly deaf, and she is affable enough off the court, but she can become quite unpleasant either to play against or to watch from the gallery, frequenting accompanying the on-court and fairly overt physicality with an unhappy blend of grimaces and complaints when a call goes against her. In the case of this match, she was actually allowed to get away with more than she should have been, with a referee who was loath to make stroke calls, thereby forcing Grinham, the cleanest of competitors, either to take detours around the obstacles Macree was establishing and play the ball from a disadvantage or ask for a let and thus sacrifice the advantageous position Macree's loose balls should have given her.

All of these dynamics seemed to be taking a toll on Grinham by the middle of the third game, which had seesawed tensely, with ties at 2, 3, 4 and 5, before a Macree mini-run got her to 7-5. Grinham then tinned an attempted forehand straight drop serve-return to make it 8-5, and sadly watched a lob go out of court to give Macree the third game and a whole new lease on life in the match. The fourth game began with the same contentious aura that had suffused the third, but gradually the superiority in execution that was Grinham's all night turned the tide permanently in her favor. The superb drop shots she kept delivering were tiring Macree out and increasingly landing for winners.

Down 4-1, Macree committed three unforced forehand tins, two on volleys and the last on a working boast she attempted while back-pedaling, to make it 7-1 and essentially seal her fate. A well-placed misdirection cross court got Grinham to match-ball, whence she hit her last excellent backhand drop shot of the night, pounced on Macree's despairing return, nailed a forehand drive down the open right wall and punctuated her remarkable 55-minute gem with a triumphant war whoop, a rare burst of emotion from someone normally so self-contained but fully understandable under the circumstances.

Grinham's breakthrough somewhat symbolizes the changing nature of the WISPA competitive landscape. Fitz-Gerald, who didn't lose a match during all of 2002, hasn't played a tournament in the four months since winning her fifth Worlds title. Pohrer, who rocketed all the way to No. 3 last year, was clearly not in top form in Rye, Cassie Campion is only recently removed from her second back surgery and Rachael Grinham is still not fully recovered from a back injury that forced her to withdraw from the last few 2002 tournaments. Meanwhile, young stars like Tania Bailey, a finalist in both the British and Weymuller U. S. Opens, Vanessa Atkinson, who recently won the Dutch Open, and now Natalie Grinham are steadily rising up the ranks. It figures to be an interesting next few months for the WISPA tour, which resumes in just five with the Forbes Open in Southport, just a couple of MetroNorth train stops north of where Grinham generated her magical milestone.


Natalie Grinham (3) d Rebecca Macree (2), 9-0 9-5 5-9 9-1.





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