Getting to Know Rising Stars Feliciano Lopez and Angelique Widjaja

by Ed Toombs
March 2003

Can we call them the Splendid Sixty-Threes? By the sheerest concidence, two of the most talked-about newcomers in pro tennis, Angelique Widjaja and Feliciano Lopez, were both ranked 63rd by their respective tours entering the 2003 Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, California. We though we would take advantage of On the Line?s presence at the event as a chance to get to know these rising stars. They are both young, good-looking, charismatic and talented, and figure to be among the leading lights of professional tennis for years to come.

Ladies first!

Angelique Widjaja is a young woman who makes an instant impression. In 2001, as a 16-year-old wild card at the Bali tournament in her home country of Indonesia, Widjaja played her first WTA tournament. Known as an excellent junior player but with a humble pro ranking of 579, she won the tourney, thereby becoming only the sixth player in WTA history to win her début event. Now aged 18, the native of Bandung has since continued her fast progression in the sport, breaking into the top 100 last year and add ing a second title in Pattaya City, Thailand, in 2002.

Widjaja is known as ?Angie? in her homeland, where she is already a well-known personality, winning Indonesia?s female athlete of the year award for 2002. This was her first trip to Indian Wells, and she performed admirably, reaching the third round. Along the way she defeated No. 13 Patty Schnyder, the highest-ranked victim of her career so far. We spoke to Angelique after her 7-5, 6-2 loss to Spain?s Magui Serna.

As a player, the 5?8? (1.73m) Widjaja is a baseliner who considers the forehand her best shot. When we told her we had seen her strike some excellent two-handed backhands this week, she laughed, ?forehand and backhand, okay!? On the backhand side she can generate some nice angles to open up the court for forehand winners. In general, she is more of a control player than a power player,. She will sometimes play looping shots and forehand slices to sustain rallies and keep her opponents on the move, befo re surprising them with hard, driving shots.

Despite her two titles, 2003 can be considered Angelique?s first full year as an established tour regular, since she entered the year for the first time as a top 100 player. ?This year has been not too good, but not too bad either? kind of in the middle,? said Widjaja when asked to assess her performance so far. ?This year I lost a lot of close matches that I almost won.? For example, Angelique had chances for upsets over Ai Sugiyama at the Australian Open and Tamarine Tanasugarn in Dubai, but lost nar rowly in three sets on both occasions. ?My game is improved, but I need to improve mentally.? The Indonesian teenager feels it is a question of time before she turns some of these narrow losses into wins. ?I just need more experience in the WTA, because it?s very different from juniors.?

The toughest adjustment Widjaja has had to make in transitioning from the juniors to the pro circuit is dealing with the unrelenting competitiveness of the pro tour. ?In juniors it?s more like friendship, but in the pros you are more alone.? Angelique feels fortunate that when she arrived on the scene, Indonesia already had a player on the pro tour, Wynne Prakusya (three years Angelique?s senior): ?That helped a lot.? Now she is in the process of building friendships among the other players. ?On the tour I am friendly with some of the Asian players,? says Angelique, ?and now some of the Spanish players also.? When asked if Serna, the Spaniard who had just eliminated her from the Indian Wells tournament, was one of her Spanish friends, she laughed, ?No, not really!?

Angelique has also been endeavouring to learn English, the lingua franca of the tour. Angie?s English is still halting, but the WTA communications staff told us that she is making excellent progress.

Indonesian players are beginning to be a consistent presence on the WTA tour. Now-retired Yayuk Basuki was a fixture on the circuit, briefly reaching the top 20 in the late 1990s, and has been followed onto the tour by Prakusya and now Widjaja. But Angelique is concerned that the well of tennis talent may be running dry in her country. She told us that tennis is still a low profile sport in Indonesia, a land where badminton is king. ?The sport in Indonesia is not too big, no. In the last couple of y ears, there are no tennis players coming along after me. They just changed the president of the federation (Martina Widjaja, a longtime patron of the sport in Indonesia and no relation to Angelique), and they are trying to create more tournaments to have more new players from Indonesia.?

Federations and developmental programs notwithstanding, the biggest boost for the popularity in tennis in Indonesia would probably come from the continued success of popular role models such as Angelique Widjaja.

Another much-discussed youngster making his début Indian Wells appearance this year was 21-year-old Spaniard left-hander Feliciano Lopez. The 21-year-old native of Toledo, now living in Madrid, established himself as a name to watch last year when he blasted his way to the fourth round of Wimbledon. He further cemented his status as a rising star at the Masters Series in his home town of Madrid in September, where, after defeating talented Frenchman Arnaud Clement, he waged an epic battle against eventu al champion Andre Agassi, finally succumbing 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (8-10), 7-5.

The first thing one notices about the 6?2? Lopez is his big lefty serve, which he says reaches a top speed of 219 kmh (136 mph). His opponents have certainly taken notice. "I was prepared for him but I just couldn't do anything with his serve,? marvelled Agassi after his narrow escape in Madrid. Andy Roddick, who has a cannon serve of his own and who eliminated Feliciano from Indian Wells this year, 6-3, 6-4, also paid homage to the Spaniard?s powerful, kicking deliveries. ?He?s got some nasty stuff,? commented the young American star. ?The second serve especially has got some nasty stuff on it, some of the nastier I?ve seen.?

The Indian Wells fans were also impressed. During Feliciano?s 6-2, 7-6 win over veteran Dominik Hrbaty in the opening round, we heard a fan behind us exclaim, ?A big guy with a huge serve like that, how can he be from Spain?? When we told Lopez about that remark, he smiled and said he hears comments like that from time to time. ?Maybe it?s not usual,? admitted the big lefty. ?But we have a lot of Spanish players. There are more coming through now with different styles, that?s normal. A guy like Moya h as a very big serve. But yeah, I guess I am a little bit different because my serve is my best shot, and I like to go the net and serve and volley.?

However, in the two matches we saw here, we saw few serve-volley points from Lopez. We asked him about this after the win over Hrbaty, and he admitted the serve-volley was not part of the game plan for that encounter. ?Not for this match, no. It was a special strategy my coach [former Spanish pro Francisco Roig] made for Hrbaty. His returns are very good, and passing shots too, so I was staying back more and winning from the back of the court.?

True enough, but we thought Lopez missed an excellent chance to use the serve-volley against Roddick. The American has in the past been vulnerable to aggressive players who attack his weaker backhand side. The slowness of the hard courts in Indian Wells may have influenced Feliciano's decision to stick to the baseline here. He says that when he reached the fourth round on Wimbledon's slick grass courts last year, he relied on the serve-volley. ?Always.?

Lopez impressed us as having a strong mind and lots of confidence on court. For example, when he was down set point in the Hrbaty match he calmly served an ace as if it was nothing special. Or, so it looked. ?Oh,? smiled the Spaniard, ?you know, all players get nervous at times like this. I just try to calm myself the best I can, and the serve was there for me.?

Lopez, whose nickname is ?Feli? (the inscription ?Feli Lopez? can be seen on his tennis bag) got an early initiation to the game as a child. ?My family all played tennis, my father was a teacher of tennis, and I started to play when I was five.? He established himself as a very good junior player, but was unable to break through for a big junior title against other fine players of his generation such as Guillermo Coria and Andreas Vinciguerra.

As a professional, Lopez finds himself as one of 13 members of the Spanish ?armada? in the top 100. He admits the presence of so many fellow Spaniards on the tour constitutes excellent support for a newcomer. ?They are a great example for us. I could practice in Barcelona in the winter with guys like Alex [Corretja] and Albert [Costa]. It?s great motivation and learning for a young player.? Among the Spanish players, ?Feli? says he is closest friends with Corretja. ?Sometimes he will give me advice b ut most times we talk about anything but tennis!?

Like Angelique Widjaja, Feliciano?s main goal is short-term, to continue improving and gaining more wins over top players. Lopez would like to be firmly established in the top 50 this year. ?From the top 50 I can get entry into all the big tournaments,? said the Spaniard, ?and then I see how high I can go.?

At this stage in the budding careers of both our ?Splendid Sixty-Threes?, the sky is the limit.