All posts by Mertov

Roland Garros and Wimbledon Reprise: The Fans (Part B)

Last Saturday in ‘Part A’, the focus was on how the French approach Roland Garros. Interviews with the fans in Paris mainly underlined their sentimental attachment to the nostalgia surrounding Roland Garros and the importance they place on their own countrymen and women competing in the tournament. This second installment will put into perspective how the English approach Wimbledon. In contrast to Roland Garros fans, Wimbledon fans are less emotional and more serious, and their attachments to tradition and to the sport outweigh all others. Watching great tennis supersedes the outcome of the matches. For example, Mark and Claire, a tennis-loving couple traveling from Yorkshire to London every summer for three decades to watch some Wimbledon, have a rather rational disposition when it comes to their expectations of Wimbledon. I found these two lovely characters at the Champagne Bar at Wimbledon, celebrating their arrival to the grounds with a rather large champagne bottle and anticipating a full day of tennis (pictured below).Resim2 - Mark and Claire

When I asked the same question to them that I asked the Roland Garros fans – if they had the power to change one thing with regards to their Slam tournament with the snap of a finger, what would it be? –, Mark quickly brought up the presence of a number of fans, who come to Wimbledon not because they understand tennis or love the game, but simply to make an appearance and “be trendy.” Mark did remain a gentleman about it – “not really a major complaint,” he added – nevertheless suggesting a rather abrupt solution: “The LTA should probably prioritize members of tennis clubs and players who really support the sport and not just make it a complete free for all for those that just want to be seen!!!! A bit harsh maybe… but sadly true.” Both Mark and Claire mentioned the high prices on the grounds but seemed to accept it as a fact of Wimbledon: “Be prepared to be parted from your dearly beloved cash, very swiftly” Mark added while Claire pointed to the bottle on their table and said tongue-in-cheek: “I’m not sure there is anything I would change other than maybe the price of the champagne.”

When it came to tradition, Mark started out mild-mannered at first, and then finished fairly firm: “I personally think that if the changes are better for the sport and improve the general game then we should be open-minded. Having said this and from the stand point of what is a traditional British competition, we should not be in a hurry to lose its heritage and appeal. I love the etiquette that remains staunch and changing (for example) the ‘all white’ would be a travesty. Embrace the modern game but don’t forget the tradition!” Claire’s disposition could not be any clearer either: “I think we should stick with tradition as much as possible. The British are so good at it. I would hate the all-white rule to be lifted. The smartest person I have ever seen on court was when Roger Federer walked out in traditional whites a few years ago. How lovely!”

Perhaps the most striking contrast with the French fans at Roland Garros appeared when I asked Mark and Claire how they approached their countrymen and women and if it mattered to their routine of watching tennis at Wimbledon. Unlike their neighbors from France (see Part A), if forced to decide between a potentially high-quality tennis match vs. a match involving their compatriot, they would choose to watch the match that promises the best tennis, even if it did not involve a British player – and not simply go to the court to cheer their compatriot: “I think it important to remember that this competition is not a national championship” Mark added, “these players are there for themselves first and foremost and so it’s not like supporting a team at the Olympic Games. Everyone has their own favorite and it nice to have your own opinion rather than just following your own nation’s players.” Claire’s reply was less analytical but just as clear: “Always for the love of tennis!”

Danielle, a nurse in a London hospital and fresh out of university, had the same type of reactions to my questions as Mark and Claire did above. One notable difference in her responses was the emphasis on weather. Her Wimbledon program essentially gravitated around the weather conditions. She insisted that she never bought tickets in advance, and thanked Wimbledon for keeping the tradition of selling tickets as late as the day of competition, understanding that there was no guarantee that she could get them. Danielle said that she has been coming to the grounds since she was 12 years old and praised Wimbledon for thinking of its “faithful fans.” As far as she is concerned, the weather was too “upsy-downy” to make plans in advance. She preferred waiting until the morning of the day in question, watch closely the weather forecast, and then make the decision to purchase tickets or not. She accepted that she may get left out in the race to buy the tickets online once they go on sale, but added quickly that she has “become an expert on the particular art.” Apparently, she has succeeded to buy tickets on the same day for the last 6 years in a row, and even got to see the 2012 men’s semi-finals through that procedure.

This article would not be complete without mentioning Maurice, a wonderful man and the most authentic Wimbledon follower that I have ever seen. He was on the grounds with his lovely grand-daughter Sylvia to enjoy a full day of early-round matches (pictured below).Maurice
He was sporting a classy looking summer suit and carrying around an extremely vintage racket that, according to him, belonged to William Renshaw, the 7-time Wimbledon champion in the 1880s. I happened to sit next to Maurice and Sylvia by chance on court 12. Maurice’s outfit and the racket piqued my interest for obvious reasons but it was rather his knowledge of the game and its history through his comments while watching the men’s singles first-round match on the court that drove me to talk to him further. He has been coming to Wimbledon for 65 years! He was a true gentleman, engaging me in small dialogues here and there about the history of Wimbledon. He had excellent comments about both players on the court and their tactics (it was the Marcos Baghdatis vs. Dustin Brown match) and it was truly remarkable to listen to him compare the players and their strokes to those from years or decades back. By the time he gave me his card and informed me that he was a tennis writer and a coach for many years, I felt more than lucky to have spent a whole match sitting next to him and listened to countless past anecdotes, the kind you don’t necessarily find in historical data sheets. If Wimbledon valued tradition, Maurice represented it by his mere disposition.

In conclusion, it would be unfair to set the parameters of the comparison between the French Open and Wimbledon on reductive dichotomies such as “emotional vs. rational,” “nostalgia vs. tradition,” or “complainer vs. solution-seeker.” That being said, distinctions in the ways that fans approach both tournaments foreground certain inclinations: the fans of one Slam tournament do not resemble the fans of another, and by extension, there is hardly anything similar about two Slams other than the fact that they are two of the four Majors in the ATP calendar, thus shell out the largest money prizes in the professional tennis circuit. Just as the surfaces differ from Paris to London, the expectations of the fans also vary largely from those of Roland Garros to those of Wimbledon.

Roland Garros and Wimbledon Reprise: The Fans (Part A)

The densest portion of the professional tennis season has come to an end last week on the grass courts of Wimbledon. The European clay and grass court season, featuring two Majors and a plethora of Masters 1000 and Premier tour events in men and women, can overwhelm even the most insatiable tennis fan. This article takes a closer look at the contrast between the fans of the two Majors, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, through a few in-person dialogues that I had with some fans in both locations. It was interesting to notice certain traits that were unique to each Major with regards to their fans. Especially, the striking attachment to nostalgia and ambience manifested by Roland Garros fans, and the remarkable appreciation of tradition and the sport itself among Wimbledon fans impressed me tremendously.

For French fans, Roland Garros is not just about watching quality tennis. They live and breathe all that comprises the makeup of the grounds and the atmosphere of the tournament. They also show no reluctance in saying that the results of the French tennis players matter, a lot! Although I talked a large number of fans here and there, I selected a few that may describe the best the approach of the fans. Catherine (pictured below), who is married and a mother of a wonderful boy named Clément, immediately noted that the pleasure of attending Roland Garros was something that she tasted for the first time as a youngster in the 1970s, one that she never get tired of experiencing again and again since then.

Christian, a mild-mannered man in his 50s, sporting a hat and a backpack, has been coming to Roland Garros every year for a decade. This year, his daugther Aurélie, a university student, decided to join him for the first time. They were accompanied by Alain who is a “Roland Garros nut” in the true sense of the expression (see picture below).
RESIM1 - Christian-Aurelie-Alain

Both Christian and Alain expressed how addictive it was to come to Roland Garros every year and watch world-class tennis. Aurélie let it be known that, despite her first time, she felt the ‘virus’ of Roland Garros invade her as well. Then, there was also Ombeline, a high-school teacher in Paris, who confessed that she could not think of life without attending Roland Garros every year!

Most French fans take their countrymen and women seriously and will support them before any other player. It was no exception with this group of fans. I still wanted to put them on the spot and hear them admit it! So I first asked straight forward if they are coming to Roland Garros to watch their compatriots play or simply to watch some good tennis. While Alain and Ombeline flat out said that they would first like to see the French win, the other four said they wanted to see good tennis without neglecting to add that they are also there to support their compatriots. As I suspected, the question did not put them enough on the spot, so I decided to push further with more specific questions: if two top 10 players took the court at the same time as a match between Gasquet, Tsonga, or Simon and a player ranked around no. 100 in the world, which would they watch? Alain and Ombeline once again preferred to watch the French player over a top-ten match-up. Catherine said if one of the top 10 players were Federer or Nadal, she would prefer to see them, but if it was Djokovic playing she would rather see the French player’s match. I did not feel the need to ask her feelings about the current number 1 player in the world from Serbia! The father-duo combo of Christian and Aurélie said the top 10 match-up without hesitation.

My next question was even more precise. I talked to these people in the middle of the first week, so there was still a chance to have a Djokovic vs. Federer semi-final on one side of the men’s draw, and a Nadal vs. Gasquet (or Monfils) semi-final in the other. Given that they could only attend one of the matches, which one would they prefer? Surprisingly, Ombeline and Alain, who have been choosing the French players so far, went with the Federer-Djokovic match, while Christian, Aurélie and Catherine all took the Nadal-Gasquet match. I could not make sense of that deviation from the norm in the answers to that specific question, but then again, when talking to fans, must we look for logic in every answer? I think not! In the case of a choice of a ticket between the women’s final involving a French player vs. Maria Sharapova and the men’s final between Djokovic and Nadal (nos 1 and 2 in the world), Aurélie proved to be the only one who said she would “naturally” watch the ladies’ final with a side-eyed look at her dad and Alain who did not hesitate a second in choosing the Djokovic vs. Nadal final. In this case, Ombeline and Catherine also chose the men’s final over Sharapova and the French player. Alain did however add a caveat: if I gave her the choice of a women’s final between Gabriela Sabatini and Anna Kournikova, his answer would have been completely different!!

Nostalgia took over when I began asking questions about what they like about Roland Garros, and what they could change if they had the power to do it with the snap of a finger. With the exception of Alain, the difficulty of circulating around the grounds and the lack of space came up in all conversations (see picture below for an idea of how stifling the crowds can get). Aurélie, a fairly tall girl, complained that the seats at Suzanne Lenglen had no leg room and that her legs were aching after watching Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeat Jerzy Janowicz in straight sets. Catherine was adamant about the negative effects of over-crowding: she said that she brought her son for the first time to Roland Garros, and that he was so disappointed by the stifling lack of space that they were going to have to leave early because he lost his enthusiasm to watch matches.
Resim 4

Alain’s expression turned pensive, and he said that he is not a good person to answer a question about ‘changes’, because he always loved Roland Garros with all its pluses and minuses. He even began talking about how it was “at that spot, right there” (fixing his eyes and pointing to a location close to the player’s tunnel on the way to Suzanne Lenglen court) that his son saw Steffi Graf in the 80s and got her autograph on a picture. Apparently, they framed that autographed picture and it still sits in a prime spot in their home. He also affirmed that the demolition of Court 1 in the upcoming years as part of the renovation plans makes him sad because of the endless great moments that were staged on that court: “history will be demolished, not just a tennis court” he said. Christian added that the round stands – thus called ‘the bull ring’ by the Anglophone media – made it unique in that there were no bad seats in the stadium. The two ladies, Catherine and Ombeline, both took a serious tone about the issue of high prices at Roland Garros. Catherine kept rolling her eyes, citing the prices of some items. Ombeline took it a step further: “A shirt for 55 euros? An umbrella for 65 euros? A towel for 75? Allez! I don’t want to hear anyone complain in this country about not having any money if these items are selling left and right in Roland Garros, or else the managers of these boutiques live in a dream world!” Ombeline went on and on, stretching her comments all the way to the President François Hollande, without much regard to the type of vocabulary used, mind you!

Stay tuned for Part B of this article for a comparison of the above, with how English tennis fans react to similar questions about their beloved Wimbledon. Coming soon!

Wimbledon in Pictures – 2

We have reached the semi-finals of the 2014 edition of Wimbledon. Here are some more pictures from the beautiful grounds with little tidbits of info, stories, or in some cases, ‘tales’ attached to them… Enjoy!

1 Court First, to rehash how quick the courts get worn out… Here is the baseline on Court 16 toward the end of the first week.

2 CourtAnd, here is that same baseline 5 days later! Got it?

Court 3One of my favorite courts at Wimbledon, Court #3, also one of the “show courts,” meaning in this case, ticketed separately.

Court18Immediately after the “show courts” in the pecking order – meaning Centre Court, Court 1, 2, and 3 – there is Court 18 where John Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut in 11+ hours in that historical match in 2010.

5 Court17One of the outside courts, Court 17. They are used mostly in the first three rounds. The picture above is from the Tereza Smitkova vs. Bojana Jovanovski third-round women’s match.

Baghdatis - Mayer WaitingQuestion: What are Leonardo Mayer and Marcos Baghdatis doing on this picture? (Answer, next pic)

Sick FanWaiting for one of the spectators to get carried out on a stretcher after she fainted from heat exhaustion. To everyone’s relief, she left the court smiling on the stretcher accompanied by cheers and applauds. Everyone wished her the best.

7 Davenport With FansLindsay Davenport, always smiling, always accommodating fans..

8But then again, some fans prefer pictures with the look-alike of Andy Murray…

fan reading newspaperAnd some fans prefer to read the newspaper instead of the live Wimbledon match in front of them! Seriously Mister? Really Sir?

FedererRoger Federer warming up on Court 4, in the morning hours before the crowd gets to the grounds. He warmed up with his coach and Stefan Edberg.

BallboyBallboys & Ballgirls take their task very seriously. this is how the ball boy stood throughout one match unless he was picking up balls and giving them to the players in a military fashion. You don’t believe me? Watch this clip to see how clinical this ballgirl’s movements are: Soldier-like ballgirl (15 mb)

KudlaThe answer is “Yes!” The question: “Did Denis Kudla get to this ball?” It’s called scrambling for balls, and Kudla’s effort payed off. He eventually won the point and got rewarded for making his opponent hit one extra ball.

13 Mauresmo 1aCaption — Amelie Mauresmo to an unidentified friend: “What did I get myself into with this Andy Murray character?”

Tennis Balls BreastsYes! Tennis can be a fashion statement indeed!

RaonicIf you thought Roger Federer’s hair stays immaculate through hs matches… He’s got nothing on Milos Raonic! This guy’s hair never moves! This is a shot taken late in the third set of one of his matches!!

CentreCourtLet’s end it with the most beautiful sight in tennis: Centre Court at Wimbledon!

Until next time!

Of the Importance of 2nd Serves…

Back in my college coaching days, my ex-roommate and life-long friend named Michael Kreider originally from Buffalo, NY, and a current tennis pro in Atlanta, said to me one time “you are only as good as your second serve.” At the time, I would make my team practice second serves as part of our daily serving routine. However, after Michael’s reminder, I began designing drills specifically geared towards making my players feel under pressure, and force them to serve second serves under those circumstances. Eventually, I got on the same page with Michael and began believing that second serves were just as important as any other single shot in tennis, if not more. You may have even read one of my pieces where I praise Raonic, Federer, and Isner for being, in my opinion, the best second-serve hitters in the game.

Let’s take a quick look at the Wimbledon Men’s Draw from the perspective of second serves.

2nd serve

There is a stat called “2nd serve points won” and you can find it on Wimbledon’s website. Three of the quarter-finalists are in the top 8 of that list (see picture above). At number 1, there is Tatsuma Ito whose percentage is based on one match only since he lost in the first round, thus not very indicative of the overall second-serve effectiveness. At number 2, 3, and 4, we have Roger Federer (68%), Feliciano Lopez who lost today (66%), and Milos Raonic (65%). At number 7, there is the guy who took Lopez out, Stan Wawrinka (62%). I will also add as a side note that, on the women’s list in the same category, after Kristina Pliskova, who also played only one round, you can find Petra Kvitova at #2 with 64%, and Simona Halep at #3 with 63%.

But wait! It does not end there.

It is generally accepted that the serve is an essential factor in playing successful tiebreaks. Until today, Lopez was 6 out of 7 in tiebreakers in his first three rounds. Today he lost two tiebreakers to Wawrinka who is third on the list among the players still alive in the tournament. Additionally, Federer is the leader of the career tiebreak winning percentage category on the ATP Tour.

No, it still does not end there.

Here is an incredible stat from today: against Tommy Robredo, Federer lost only one – yes, ONE – point on his second-serve points in the first two sets combined! Furthermore, since second serve is the shot that determines if you double fault or not, I should add that Federer had 0 – yes, zero! – double faults today, despite hitting them well enough to serve-and-volley on several of them. In fact, today’s four quarterfinal winners had a total of only 8 double faults between them. Half of those came from Nick Kyrgios who more than made up for that with his 37 aces against Rafael Nadal.

Is it becoming clear how important second serves are yet? If not, here is one last tidbit…

Out of all 8 men left in the singles draw, Dimitrov and Kyrgios have the highest number of double faults per match. They both average just below four double faults a match. They also average 10 aces (Dimitrov) and 26 aces (Kyrgios) per match. Next, there is Marin Cilic at less than 3 double faults per match and he is averaging 24,5 aces per match. The other five quarterfinalists are averaging less than two double faults per match.

Three of them are still in the tournament in the men’s draw. Watch Raonic, Wawrinka, and Federer, on their second serves, and you will see the variation on the spin, slice, speed, and placement. That is why these three players love the pattern of putting the next shot away with their big forehands (or even volleys in Federer’s case who serves-and-volleys on second serve occasionally), because they get a number of returns back from their second serves that are placed exactly where they want them for the winning shot.

Does all this mean that a tour player cannot win without a terrific second serve? No, but it does mean that if a player wants to succeed at the highest level, second serves will have to be incorporated into his/her practice routine, just like any other shot in tennis. Not just “serves,” but specifically “second serves”.

Wonderful Little Story from Wimbledon Court 17

… And it’s entitled: In case you wondered what “choking” looks like!

In the clip below, you will see the 19-year-old Smitkova play a 15-40 point on her opponents’ serve at 7-6 in the final set. In other words it’s a match point for her after over 2,5 hours of play on Court 17 at Wimbledon. But read this before you watch the clip!

Smitkova entered top 500 in the world only two years ago, and top 200 only two months ago. Now she is 175 in the world. She came from qualifying rounds here, and has NEVER been to the main draw of a Slam tournament before this week! In fact, she has won only one match in the main draw of any WTA Tour event prior to this week! Not only did she make it to the main draw but she won two rounds to get to this match. Her career earnings for all the hard work through her teenage years is $75,562! If she wins this match point, she is guaranteed to make $200,000 at least!! This is what is on the line, this is a career moment for her. So when you watch the clip and see her return the ball, hit a couple of ground shots, and then make a terrible error on an easy forehand put away, you can understand why she chokes on the same shot that she has used numerous times during the match to hit winners. Now here is the clip, then come back and read the better half of the story!

Click here to download and watch Smitkova choke the 1st match point away (18.2 mb)

The misery does not end there! She also makes an easy error in her 2nd and 3rd match points, and loses the game to get to 7-7! Furthermore, she loses her own serve to go down 7-8 and she literally starts crying on her way to sit down in the bench on that 7-8 game change. She stays alone sitting on the bench for one minute and cries really hard with the towel on her face.

But then, guess what?

She gets up, wipes the tears off and gets back to the court. She keeps fighting. She breaks back to get to 8-8. After almost three hours of play, she wins the third set and the match 10-8 in the final set. This time she has tears of joy in her eyes. She won, after choking three match points, in a match that could make or break her career. She did it alone, nobody on the bench to pat her back or calm her down, no coach to tell her what to do, nobody can talk to her. She knew how to dig deep and pick herself back up all on her own!

This is what champions are made of, this is why tennis players learn quickly how to handle adversity on the court and in life!

Tennis is a beautiful game…
Smitkova is already a champion in my eyes…


June 23: Day 1 at Wimbledon in Pictures

The most prestigious tournament in tennis, namely Wimbledon, got underway today at the courts of The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club with first-round singles matches. Around one month ago, in one of my Roland Garros updates, I decided to let the pictures do the talking and I was suprisingly pleased to hear that many of you enjoyed it. So, what better way to start the Wimbledon updates than with pictures to tell the tale of Day 1? Here we go…

SAM_2300Be ready to trim the fat off your wallet for tickets. At the time of this article, 1 GBP is worth 1.703 Dollars, or 1.252 Euros. You do the math.

SAM_2302Stunning statue of legendary British player Fred Perry, Wimbledon’s winner in 1934, 1935, and 1936.

SAM_2308Henman Hill already in full gear with Andy Murray’s opening match of the tournament.

SAM_2313Two days after losing in the finals of the AEGON International ATP 250 tournament in Eastbourne, the 13th-seed Richard Gasquet practices under the watchful-eye of his Coach Sebastien Grosjean (now-retired 4-time Slam semifinalist and ex-world number 4) – to prepare for his first round match tomorrow against the Australian James Duckworth.

SAM_2310Gasquet’s practice partner was Marsel Ilhan of Turkey, one of the qualifiers to make it to the Main Draw. He practices under the guidance of coach Alberto Nunez and his physical trainer (in blue) to prepare for his match tomorrow against another qualifier Denis Kudla of U.S.A.

SAM_2362Around 2:30 PM…

SAM_2326(Caption) – Ball Girl: “Hmmm, should I ask him how I could get my hair to do that?”

SAM_2346Surely Marcos Baghdatis did not miss this put away, did he?

SAM_2360Around 3:44 PM… Note: Courts 14 and 15, seen here, are out of commission until the 2015 edition of Wimbledon.

SAM_2365Samuel Groth may have lost to Dolgopolov in a tight 7/5 7/6 7/6 match today, but I will gladly hire him as my bodyguard if tennis does not pan out! He has one of the biggest serves in the ATP Tour and has a bright future as a big hitter.

SAM_2372Can Dolgopolov please look at least once like he is not bored on the court? So much talent, yet so casual…

SAM_2380And…. the day ends with the rain interrupting the last round of matches. Should we be surprised?

Stay tuned for further updates!
Mertov’s T-Desk is also on Twitter !

Ending Tale of Roland Garros 2014

Clay Court Sweep
Roland Garros ended with two usual characters holding the winning trophies. Ironically, it will remain as one of the most upset-filled Slams in recent memory. Through all the upsets and the unexpected twists, the men’s number one and two seeds kept coming to a collision that all tennis fans expected since the beginning of the tournament. On the women’s side, once the top 3 seeds, Williams, Li Na, and Agnieska Radwanska, lost in the early days of the tournament, Sharapova and Halep were the two names that they predicted for the finals before any other name.

No need to go into details of each match, since most tennis fans have either watched them or read about them. It is worth noting however that for the first time in many years of worth of Slams (and yes, it’s “Slams” and not “Grand Slams”, a whole write-up needed for that mistake that keeps getting repeated over and over), the final weekend of the women’s draw witnessed as much excitement as the men’s, contained more dramatic matches with extremely tight finishes. The semifinals on Thursday – Sharapova vs. Eugenie Bouchard and Halep vs. Andrea Petkovic – undoubtedly provided more thrills for the spectators than the dull Friday of the men’s semifinals in which both matches remained sub-par in quality, and above-par in disappointment in terms expectations. Ernests Gulbis and Novak Djokovic played mediocre tennis for the most part, piling up the unforced errors. Djokovic’s physical condition deteriorated as the match went on and Gulbis could not raise his level of play to take advantage of it. The second match between Nadal and Andy Murray went from start to finish at maximum warp speed as Nadal totally outclassed Murray for a one-man-show that lasted 1 hour and 38 minutes.

On Saturday, Sharapova and Halep brought their “A” games to Philippe Chatrier and provided the crowd, as well as the millions in front of their TV screens, with a spectacle to be remembered for a long time to come. It made me think back to the last three-set-final at Roland Garros, some 13 years before Saturday, when Jennifer Capriati confirmed her comeback year that started at the Australian Open with a thrilling victory, 1/6 6/4 12/10, over the young newcomer Kim Clijsters of Belgium. It was a high flying period for the WTA with the Williams sisters in the beginning of their dominance, with Capriati and Martina Hingis challenging them, the Belgian duo Clijsters and Justine Henin joining the race and Sharapova getting in the mix in the mid-2000s. That match on Chatrier between Capriati and Clijsters was the stamp on the envelope that contained the sealed confirmation that WTA was a highly popular product among tennis fans. Around late 2000s, the product got old and stale, with many of the stars who built it, retiring or losing their skills. Yet, the new crop of players never managed to take over the few remaining names that kept dominating most tournaments. Saturday’s final match was not only a thrill in terms of quality of tennis played but also the stamp that the WTA desperately needed to confirm that it is on its way back. Sharapova may have lifted the winner’s trophy but the fresh crop of players such as Halep, Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza, Ajla Tomljanovic, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Garcia, and few others are not going anywhere, and will stay around for a long time. WTA has a golden opportunity to capitalize on a new, radiant group of players, and it could not have asked for a better Slam final match to launch their product.

The men’s final lacked nothing with regards to hype. The two best players in the world met at the highest stage of clay court tennis. The first two sets matched the expectations in quality and competition. Djokovic and Nadal traded blows, with each attempting to gain control over the other’s baseline game through aggressive shots. In the first set, Djokovic managed to stay inside the court and push Nadal around. In the second set, Nadal began going for winners much more often and succeeded in taking the middle of the court away from Djokovic. With the first two sets split, everyone expected a thrill ride the rest of the way. It never happened, due to two things. First Nadal completely found his rhythm and remained on high gear for the next hour, only to come land from space down to earth for the last few games of the match. Second, Djokovic’s physical state rapidly deteriorated from about 4-3 in the second set to 2-0 in the third set, to the point where he began shaking and stretching his legs and arms between points to relax and recover, stretching for balls to avoid extra steps, and as the usual result of fatigue, increasing the number of unforced errors in abundance. It was only after the middle of the fourth set, when the clouds came and the wind picked up, that Djokovic found a way to get back into the match – and Rafa had a hand in it too, with a few unexpected unforced errors. Yet, it was too little too late, as Djokovic did not have enough reserve in the tank to match the quality of his tennis from the first set. Nadal remained the king of clay and the number one player in the world, improving on his record of French Open titles and adding a new one to his expanding resume: he is now the only player in tennis to have one at least one Slam title for ten years in a row.

That being said, the stars of the last weekend of this Slam were the women. It was the first time in many years that women’s matches outclassed the men’s matches in excitement, thrill, and in quality. Unlike in men’s matches, there were no ‘empty moments’ in the three women’s matches of the last weekend, no one-sided shows, and plenty of quality shot making. Unlike in the men’s matches, each of the three women’s matches remained hard to predict all the way to the very last few points. Roland Garros 2014 was the recipe that the WTA desperately needed, the injection that rejuvenated a stale product.

I hope you enjoyed the series of updates from Paris.
Let the grass court season begin…

Women’s Final Preview: Sharapova vs. Halep

Since the eliminations of the top 3 seeds Serena Williams, Li Na, and Agnieska Radwanska in the early days of Roland Garros, the few left who were still daring to make predictions called on two names to meet in the finals: Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep. To their relief, the two players stayed the course and reached tomorrow’s final match, although not without some difficulty in Sharapova’s case.

Logic would dictate that with all her previous Slam titles and her mental toughness, Sharapova should overcome yet another challenge by a newcomer to the elite world of “big time” in WTA in the form of Halep. She has already held off challenges by the so-called the ‘new generation’ by recording remarkable comeback wins against Garbine Muguruza and Eugenie Bouchard, and one other against a proven player in Samantha Stosur. She came back to win in three sets after losing the first against all three. Especially her win against Bouchard deserves special mention.

The 48 hours leading up to the match, a photo of Sharapova taken with an 8-year-old Bouchard circulated all over the social and main stream media, courtesy of the editor at TV Guide who initially posted it on Twitter. The effects of this picture, coupled with Bouchard’s reference to Sharapova as her idol – ‘back then’ Bouchard specified, adding that they are “not friends” now – when asked about it, transformed the match into the image of a champion who stands to cede her younger rival the status of the revered champion and let the newcomer take her place. This was reminded to her more than once in the form of direct question – how did she feel about playing someone who took her as an idol when she was young? –, and in the form of newspaper articles and TV spots, in case she followed the media. She even had to respond to the last-second question by the colorful French TV personality Nelson Monfort on screen right before she walked on the court. He asked her how she felt about being the favorite and Sharapova, probably sick of the hype, bluntly answered that there could be no favorites in a match like this, and walked out. If she lost she would drop out of top 10, and Bouchard would enter it. Thus, it was under tremendous pressure that the Russian took her first steps to the court. To exasperate things further, the Philippe Chatrier crowd overwhelmingly supported Bouchard throughout the match. In short, Sharapova played a match where all the elements worked against her and she had everything to lose, while Bouchard stepped on the court as someone who had everything to gain from a victory.

So, one can understand when Sharapova celebrated her victory as if she won the tournament after her courageous comeback from a set down again. It was not happiness or contentment that she manifested. It was relief! I am not a big Sharapova fan, but I admired her tenacity, her sheer will to find a way to win, or refusal to lose. I believe that she will enter the court much more relaxed against Halep, an recently established top 5 player. She has already passed the toughest mental tests against Muguruza and Bouchard. She will play a match in which she is not the clear-cut favorite, although she is the slightly on paper. Her main advantage is her experience and her awareness that she can accomplish what is necessary when clutch moments arrive.

In contrast, Halep has steamrolled through the tournament, just as she has steamrolled through the last 12 months. If one was to pick the best player on the WTA Tour without a Slam title in the last 12 months, it would be Halep without a doubt. Yet, she has never been to this stage in a Slam tournament. Will that be a factor? It sure did not in her first semifinal in a Slam against Andrea Petkovic. She played the best tennis of the tournament by any player in the first set of that match. Her biggest strength is her footwork. She is able to move around the ball in small steps and get in position better than anyone in the current generation and probably better than any player since Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain, the French Open winner of 1989, 1994, and 1998. Her forehand is lethal and she does not seem to have a clear weakness.

If the past was not considered and tennis history began in the last 12 months, it would be a 50-50 call. Halep has numerous titles on every surface, skyrocketed to the number 4 ranking. Sharapova recovered from an injury the latter part of 2013, and has won Stuttgart and Madrid. In Madrid and on clay, she did beat Halep in three sets. When the past and the aura are added to the equation, the balance tilts in Sharapova’s favor. She has been to this stage, and has won Slam titles. Halep will play in her first final. All indications show that it has the potential to be a final for ages. Let’s hope it turns out so.

SAM_2144a Friday evening – Trophy presentation ceremony rehearsal on Philippe Chatrier

Race to Finish the Matches!

It was around 4:45 PM in Paris when Andrea Petkovic and Sara Errani began warming up for their match on Philippe Chatrier and Svetlana Kuznetsova and Simona Halep began theirs on Suzanne Lenglen. Nobody at that time believed that all four quarterfinals scheduled on both courts would end by the end of the day. Yet, approximately five hours later, the semifinals on both draws were set. How did it happen?

This was the worst possible day for the rain to make a comeback. In every Slam tournament, this topic comes up. One side of the draw plays one day and the other side plays the next day. At some point in the second week, in order to bring all the rounds together to the same level, the players on one side of the draw get an extra day of break because the side that has been coming from behind needs a day to catch up and a day of rest. At Roland Garros this transition is executed between the quarterfinals and the semifinals. Today happened to be the day where the matches on the side of the draw that has been a day were to be completed in order to play the semifinals on the same day. If rain delays the matches, you sweat bullets as tournament organizers because you are left with players who will not get a day of rest playing against others who have been resting a day, or even two on the men’s side. Thus, you can imagine how worried they must have been around mid-afternoon when it was raining cats and dogs at Roland Garros.

However, they received help. Twice!

First help arrived when the rain that stopped around 4:30 PM, still allowing – thanks to Paris where it truly gets dark after 10 PM – over 5 hours of tennis-wise-safe daylight to get one women’s and one men’s match in on each court. Next help, though unintentional of course, came from the players. Petkovic and Halep defeated their opponents with identical scores, 6/2 6/2, in less than 1 hour and 20 minutes. The turnover from the end of the two women’s matches to the beginning of the two men’s matches was probably realized in record time. The usual end-of-the-match, on-court interviews with French TV were canceled (Halep looked like she had absolutely no problem with that), and even though they were not told directly, the movements of the ball boys and the referees made it very clear to the women players that they needed to get off the court quickly to allow for the men’s matches to commence. Just like that, in an hour and a half after the women took court, the men’s matches began. Although one went 4 sets and the other 5, none of the sets went to 5-5 and both matches featured last two sets that ended with either 6/0 or 6/1 scores. At the end, all quarterfinals were miraculously completed and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

I will finish with a few interesting observations.

- The Lenglen crowd was almost 100% pro-Halep. Strange that the 2009 winner Kuznetsova virtually received no love, although she has a larger arsenal of shots versus Halep’s solid baseline game with no variation. While it’s true that there were plenty of Romanian supporters (there were several Romanian flags), the French crowd overwhelmingly took Halep’s side. Considering the popularities of Bouchard, Petkovic and Halep, it confirms what I have felt for the last couple of years: women’s tennis fans are ready for a new crop of players to take over from Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and others that have been at the top of women’s game for many years.

- Gaël Monfils will probably close his career out as one of the most underachieving athletes to ever play the game. The guy is probably the most athletic guy on the ATP Tour, he can hit a big forehand as well as a big serve, and he has decent skills at the net. Yet, he remains 4-5 meters behind the baseline and reduces himself to an ordinary baseliner, only using a fraction of the arsenal of weapons that he possesses. Again today, he had Murray on the run and stretched him more times that I can remember, yet, he was content with waiting behind the baseline and letting the ball drop low to his ankles before hitting a regular baseline shot to put the ball back into play and let Murray recover. He is the kind of player that would be a nightmare to coach. He is the quintessential “almost” player that frustrates every coach. I imagine this is why he spends long periods of time without a coach throughout his career. They probably age quickly and go elsewhere. In fact, he played this French Open without a coach.

- As one media member said, Simona Halep gets into the “A-B-C’ of court tactics in her after-match press conferences more than any other women’s player. It’s refreshing to listen to her. She acts like she is talking to a large number of tennis coaches who understand the game well, rather than to a group of media members, many of whom have probably never played tennis.

Until next time!