Fifty parting thoughts from French Open
Fifty Thoughts (cont.)
PARIS -- Fifty parting thoughts from the French Open, where two legends added to their collections ...
• Serena Williams takes another step into the GOAT pasture, winning major No. 16 in stylish fashion. A full write-up is here. But consider this: When she first won the French Open, it preceded Justine Henin's first title, Rafael Nadal was a chubby-cheeked junior, and there was no Facebook. Apart from her excellence, how about her staying power?
• All hail Rafael Nadal, King of Clay. He held off opponents when playing subpar tennis in the first week. He held off Novak Djokovic's palace raid. He ground down David Ferrer in the (protest-marred) final, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. You will never see another player dominate a surface the way Nadal does clay. A dozen Slams. Just turned 27. This will get interesting.
• The good news for Maria Sharapova? She returned to the final (and played quite well) after winning two courageous battles in the previous rounds. The less good news: She is now on a 13-match losing streak against Williams. The excellent journalist Matt Cronin recently wrote about Yuri Sharapova's telling his daughter she could not win majors if Williams was in the draw. You wonder how deeply that got lodged in Maria's psyche.
• We can ooh and ahh over the magic of Nadal and Williams and Roger Federer and Djokovic. But most players would do well to fix their gaze on Ferrer and see what happens when a player maximizes his talent.
• Williams' 6-0, 6-1 semifinal win over Sara Errani might well be the most one-sided match I've ever seen. That it occurred in the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament against a top-five player makes it more remarkable still. I mean, 40 winners in 66 points is a ball-machine ratio. The optimists will marvel at Serena's level. The pessimists will, of course, use it to denigrate women's tennis. So it goes.
• Before the draw came out, many circled the likely semifinal between Djokovic and Nadal as the match of the tournament. They were not disappointed. In a discursive, nonsensical and sensationally entertaining match, Nadal prevailed, of course. A few points here or there and the entire tennis narrative goes in a completely opposite direction.
Let's pause for a moment to praise Djokovic. A) Playing with a heavy heart after the death of his first coach, he still comes with a high level of tennis. B) He nearly beats Nadal at the French Open, the ultimate tennis takedown. C) He's down a set and a break and recovers to level the match. He loses the third set 6-1 and recovers to level the match. He gets the short end of several calls and barely registers a complaint. D) Does anyone still doubt that Novak Djokovic will win the French one day?
• I was literally in the middle of writing about Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's strange tournament, how he wins four matches seamlessly, beats Federer and then is dismissed by Ferrer, when I got this from reader Gavin Spencer of New York. Take it away:
"Funny game, tennis. On Wednesday, Roger Federer, who at 31 is obviously past his prime but who also is considered by many to be the best ever to pick up a racket, and the second-best clay-court player of his era, is administered a sound beating at the hands of one Jo-Willy Tsonga. Not even close. Two days later, David Ferrer, also 31, and a talented and tenacious scrapper, but, with the greatest respect, a player whom no one considers the first- or second-best anything in tennis, administers a similarly dismissive beatdown of the very same Jo-Willy. Difference of style? I don't think so; Ferrer doesn't really have a 'style.' He just hits everything well and never stops running; no high-bouncing topspin there. Why, then, is Tsonga able to trounce the more talented 31-year-old Federer, while losing easily to the 31-year-old less-talented Ferrer?"
Funny game, tennis.
• Bob and Mike Bryan won the men's doubles title. Of course they did; they've now won every major twice, with 14 overall. But spare a thought to the finalists, Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut, who were a few points from victory in the third-set tiebreaker. At the trophy presentation, Llodra had to do most of the talking because Mahut was crying inconsolably. Can someone tap karma on the shoulder and explain that Mahut is due for a triumphant moment?
• In a mild upset, Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova won the women's doubles, beating defending champion Italians Errani and Roberta Vinci.
• Lucie Hradecka and Frantisek Cermak won the mixed doubles title, beating Daniel Nestor and Kristina Mladenovic in the final. Their haul? A combined 105,000 Euros. That's not bad.
• Recently, a reader from Chile told me to keep an eye on a player in the boys draw, Christian Garin, whom Nadal and his uncle Toni spotted at the Vina del Mar event and began to mentor. Of course, the kid goes on to win the juniors. Fame is in the forecast. Belinda Bencic of Switzerland won the girls event. Which is good, because it's been a while since we had a decent Swiss player.
• As for Federer, let's wait until after the grass season before assessing his prospects, shall we? We said that last year and he won Wimbledon.
• The shortest women's match of the tournament? Williams' beatdown of Errani (46 minutes). The next shortest? Serena's first-round defeat of Anna Tatishvili (51). The longest match? Venus Williams' first-round loss to Urszula Radwanska (3:19). As long as we're talking match time, let the record show that the Federer-Gilles Simon five-setter finished in under three hours.
• Tip of the backwards ballcap to Tommy Haas for reaching the quarterfinals. He's 35, you know. (One of you wondered whether, at his age, he is entitled to a 25 percent discount at the players' cafeteria.) Nobody older made it this far in Paris in 42 years.
• So often, the line scores of a match don't begin to tell the narrative. Casual fans see, for instance, that Maria Kirilenko beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands 7-5, 6-4 in the fourth round. Sounds about right. Except Mattek-Sands had a 4-1 lead in the first set before wilting. And in the eighth game of the tight second set -- on consecutive points, no less -- she failed to convert two easy putaways.
To paraphrase a wise man, "Every match tells a story, don't it?" That said, credit Mattek-Sands on her run, a return to the main draw and an upset of Li Na, who remains a mystifying player. Nice to see her back in the upper ranks. Nice to see her acknowledged for more than her fashion sense, such as it is.
• The old glass-empty, glass-full conundrum. Does Jamie Hampton, pride of Alabama, recall this event for her gutty play, her upset of Petra Kvitova (and, crassly, the $132,000 payday that came with it)? Or does she recall it for a flat-as-paillard effort in the fourth round against Jelena Jankovic, a 6-0, 6-2 stinker? Hopefully the former.
• A few of you noticed how often players deferred to each other on line calls, rather than summoning the chair to check the marks. As Dale Stafford of Washington, D.C., wrote after the Serena-Svetlana Kuznetsova match: "These two women, delivering body blows to one another, demonstrated their complete respect for one another by trusting one another to indicate via hand signals. 'Don't waste your time ... that one was 6 inches out.' It was terrific to see how Serena and Sveta regarded one another."
I would add that as Williams walked off the court after the final, Sharapova turned to her and said, "Congratulations again, Serena." Serena's response, "Thanks, Maria." Much as we all like a feud, there seems to be a lot sporting behavior and mutual respect on the WTA these days.
• I'm in something of a compromised position here (having worked for the ace Tennis Channel team), but I agree with so many of you that having three networks at one event is a) problematic for the viewers, b) compounded by erratic streaming options, c) can lead to some unpleasant conflicts among the networks on site and d) is no way to grow a sport. One day we will laugh at this -- as we watch events stream live on our wristwatches while eating Soylent Green in our personal space travel pods. But that does us no good now.
The real problem is that it's a perpetuating cycle. TV is a ratings game and tennis doesn't drive ratings that justify broadcasting matches over Today. Yet, one asks, how does one grow a sport when the most meaningful matches aren't always broadcast live and even hardcore fans are never sure which network has which windows?
• More proof that it's a brave new media world: Word on the rue is the terrestrial rights to the French Open could move from France2 to ... Al Jazeera.
• Sloane Stephens got what she came for. After a dismal spring, she won three matches and then fell to Sharapova. She defends her points from 2012 and now has a real shot of finishing the year close to the top 10.
• The great Martina Navratilova counted up the number of Slavic-born players in the draw. She tallied 50 women and 30 men ("with a couple question marks that I didn't even count.") This is astonishing.
• Haas wasn't the only thirty-something Tommy to make a splash. One of the more heartwarming stories of the tournament was Tommy Robredo, the former No. 5 (in 2006) who was barely in the top 500 a year ago. The 31-year-old stormed to the second week, winning three matches after losing the first two sets, a feat that had never been achieved in the Open Era.
• One of Robredo's stirring comebacks came against Gael Monfils. Great to have him back in the cast. But he still comes with the same ambivalence. You love the showmanship, the athleticism and the personality. You're less fond of the results and tactically absent free swinging. His run here -- wins over Tomas Berdych and Ernests Gulbis and then an inexplicable loss to Robredo after squandering a commanding lead -- is his entire career writ small.
• As many of you happily noted, half the men in the quarterfinals zinged picturesesque one-handed backhands. As we wrote last week ... Wait, what's there a knock on the door? Come in, Tennis Ogre. What is it, Tennis Ogre? "Four things...before you consider this a new trend: 1) if Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro had been in the draw -- and Gael Monfils knew how to close a match -- the number would be reduced. 2) All of the one-handers were older than 25. 3) If you walked around the courts during the junior matches, you'd see that the one-hander is an heirloom. 4) By the semis, none were left. Grrrr ... "
• Grigor Dimitrov has undeniable talent. (And revealed himself to be quite charming on the big stage and in the press room.) But he was positively schooled by Djokovic on the middle Saturday. Me thinks all this talk about the Generation Next and the Decline of the Big Four is a tad premature. There's still a canyon dividing the ranks.
Wait, it's Tennis Ogre again. After giving appropriate respect to The Quartet, he wants to put out an APB for New Balls. Milos Raonic (now coached by Ivan Ljubicic) appears to have plateaued. Kei Nishikori is more of a Ferrer type than a world beater. Even the USTA consensus seems to be that Ryan Harrison has been replaced by Jack Sock as the best American prospect. That there was so much argument over this list reinforces how unsettled "Generation Next" is right now.
• Speaking of Sock, he didn't offer Haas a ton of resistance in the second round. But keep in mind that in his first French Open, he not only beat a Spaniard in the first round but also had to qualify just to get there. It's the old equation from math class ... Four wins over ATP Big Boys on clay plus a main-draw win plus Nebraska provenance = fine clay-court tournament. In other words, he earned his burrito bowl.
• After being pitted against the Big Four players in the first round with eerie consistency, Harrison finally received a decent draw. He won a match and was up two sets on John Isner before fading. I'm not sure where Harrison goes. It's not as though he doesn't work hard or competes without sufficient fervor. He is a very good player in an era that demands great.
• The chorus is now deafening. We need a tiebreaker in the decisive set, whether it's at 6-6 or, say, 8-8 or 10-10. Haas-Isner was good fun -- the match of the tournament, at least before the men's semis -- but by the end there was almost something sadistic about watching. Isner, in particular, staggered around the court as though shot with a tranquilizer gun. The human body is not made to play 10 hours of tennis in two days. The human body is not meant to play these 10-8 sets (much less 70-68). Regardless of how many cheap points are coming on serve.
• If you haven't seen Benoit Paire play, do so immediately. The comparisons to Fabrice Santoro are a bit much. But anyone who can execute the match-point drop shot like he did on Marcos Baghdatis in the first round deserves our attention.
• Victor Hanescu made it to the third round without playing a completed match. First, Bernard Tomic retired against him. Then Dmitry Tursunov did. His third-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber could relate. Kohlschreiber advanced by walkover when Yen-Hsun Lu pulled up with an ankle injury. Hanescu lost but emerged $80,000 to the good. On the other side of the draw, let the record reflect that not a single woman -- zero -- retired on account of injury or illness.
• Speaking of Tomic, after his first-round retirement, he made his way to the press room and preempted the inevitable questions about his dad by stating: "Hello, guys. I hope you're well. You know, I'd like to say some things before you guys ask me about them obviously involving my father. He's here right now in Paris, so he's still working with me, he's still my dad, he's still my coach, and, you know, I love him a lot. Involving the incidents that happened, I don't want to talk about it a lot -- or at all, I should say. And it's a very difficult thing for me to put my words into that. If you can respect all I have to say about this, I'm happy to talk about the match."
A few of you asked about this, establishing these kinds of ground rules in advance. I think it's totally legit, especially given the circumstances.
• Speaking of ETDs -- Execrable Tennis Dads -- Aravene Rezai is back with her father, Arsalan, once banned from attending WTA events.
As she said last week, "Our relationship has changed. I think that everybody in this room has problems with their parents. I'm a normal person just like you. We've all got problems with our respective families. I'm in the public eye so this is blown out of proportion a bit."
• Thomas Drouet, the hitting partner allegedly struck by Tomic's dad, was in Paris working with Marion Bartoli (who lost dismally in the middle weekend.) Drouet told L'Equipe, "It's nice be around normal people." Enough said.
• Richard Gasquet lost a 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6 heartbreaker to Stan Wawrinka, a match he, frankly, ought to have won. (It also marked a record 15th fourth-round loss at a major for Gasquet, who has one win in the round of 16.) This caused significant heartbreak but brought out the French existentialists. Gasquet's first question in the post-match interview: "Which pain is worse at the moment: the one in your soul or the one in your body?" (Gasquet's response: "What do you think?")
• We need a term for what Jelena Jankovic did in the second round. She lost the first three games to Garbine Muguruza. Then she won 6-3, 6-0. A double éclair, maybe?
• Nice to see Cara Black, now a mom, back on tour, playing doubles and mixed doubles. One of the best set of hands in the history of the women's game. And she was hardly the oldest player in the draw. Lisa Raymond, 39, had to pull out when her partner, Laura Robson, injured his back. So Janette Husarova, also 39, took seniority honors.
• Watch for Madison Keys at Wimbledon. The 18-year-old American had a bittersweet French Open. Keys won her opener with ease. But she let a big opportunity slip in the second round, playing shaky tennis when it mattered most and falling in a highly winnable match to fellow teen Monica Puig. Big week for the Puig clan, overall.
• I'm in a compromised situation, but strictly from a legal-telecom perspective, the Battle Royale among the FCC, Comcast and Tennis Channel is worth following. Here's an interesting piece from Bloomberg.
• On a less happy note, Russian player Sergei Krotiouk was banned for life and fined $60,000 after he was found guilty of 41 charges relating to match-fixing. On the other hand, the guy is 34 and ranked No. 789.
• If you are like Gulbis and resent boring players, you are happy to see Jankovic back in the mix. Awfully nice event for the former No.1, getting to the quarterfinals. (Yes, that's a strange sentence to write, given that for certain other former No.1s, a trip to quarterfinals is being seen as grounds for retirement.)
• To repeat: Federer made his 36th straight major quarterfinal. Only five other players in the draw even played in 36 straight majors: Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez, Berdych and Albert Montanes.
• Weird tournament for 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios of Australia. In the first round of the main draw, he beat 34-year-old veteran Radek Stepanek. Kyrgios then lost his second-round match, entered the junior draw as the top seed and fell to unseeded Karen Khachanov of Russia, who turned 17 last month, in the second round.
• Had the chance to spend some time with Taylor Townsend. Just delightful. I'm ripping this from Jim Caple (who did great work for ESPN here).
Where will you be ranked in five years?
Townsend (with mock disgust): "What kind of question is that? No.1 ! C'mon now! Serena will be a little bit older, and I'll be a little bit older."
• More than half the women's qualifiers won their first match. Speaking of women's qualifying, Sandra Zahlavova qualified and so did Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.
• "No wonder everybody thinks you are garbage." Nice piece from Ben Rothenberg on tennis and gambling.
• More "ova" unders. Props to Zuzana Kucova, who qualified, won a round, lost and promptly retired.
• Lots of quotable lines, but here's Fabio Fognini when asked about whether Nadal had a right to complain about the scheduling. "What are you, from Russia?" (The response: "No, Ukraine.")
• Tweet of the tournament goes to Alize Lim, girlfriend of Jeremy Chardy.
• Not to fluff my own fedora, but I was out of the suicide pool the very first day of play, an all-time low. (Nadia Petrova, I have a bone to pick with you!) Winners, send me your info and I'll see what we have in the swag drawer.
Have a good week, everyone. We'll do it again soon, across the channel.