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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…

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!

2014 Early Season Notes…

2014 season has begun with several unexpected events that set the stage for a terrific year in tennis. The Australian Open, although by now it seems to be a distant memory, provided a number of spectacular matches and ended with a surprise women’s final in which Li Na captured her second Slam and her first Australian Open titles, defeating Dominika Cibulková in the finals. She also went through the draw without facing a single top 10 opponent. On the men’s side, Stanislas Wawrinka did a couple of things that he has never done in the previous 12 meetings against Nadal: win a set, and then win the match. He also defeated the world number one Novak Djokovic en route to the title. His win was overshadowed by Nadal’s injury in the second set which caused the Spaniard to play the rest of the match at less than one-hundred percent; however it should take nothing away from the Swiss’ well-deserved title, especially considering that he was dominating the match when Nadal injured his back in the second set.

On the one hand, Djokovic’s early form produced a couple of disappointing losses and no titles, putting question marks next to the Nole-Boris collaboration that began two months ago. I find it premature to question the partnership based on two losses to two in-form players, Wawrinka and Roger Federer. While Nole has not necessarily looked to be in top form à-la-2011, he has certainly not played poorly either. The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments should shed more light on the direction of the partnership. On the other hand, Federer seems to have found his good form. He played better in the Australian Open, even in his semi-final loss against Nadal, than he has played throughout 2013, and performed impeccably in the Dubai tournament, especially in the third sets against Nole in the semi-finals and against Thomas Berdych in the finals, before capturing his 78th career tournament victory.

Like Djokovic, Serena Williams has suffered couple of unexpected losses, first to Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open, then to Alize Cornet in the semifinals of the Dubai tournament. Unfortunately, her after-match comments following her loss to Cornet once again showed the stunningly wide gap between the amounts of class that exist amongst the elite of men’s tennis and that of women’s. John Isner pointed out after his victory against Juan Martin Del Potro in Cincinnati several months ago that the top guys in men’s tennis were all class acts, and it shows in their comments about each other in the post-match conferences as well as how they handle the fans and the media. What do the elite women have to show in comparison? Bunch of players who never talk to each other, who do not acknowledge some of the lower-ranked players in the locker room, and who, like Serena did following her loss to a lesser-ranked opponent, cannot find the magnanimity to simply say “my opponent was better than me today, all the credit goes to her.” instead, Serena sarcastically chuckled and laughed through the questions saying how embarrassed she was to have lost (to Cornet) and that she has not played that poorly since three or four years ago. There is no need to wonder why women’s tennis is losing audience while men’s tennis is flourishing: if I were the WTA, I would desperately search for ways to make the top faces of the tour more identifiable to fans. There is more to being a ‘complete’ player on the tour than shrieking on the court as loud as possible and grimacing as if it was a miracle when an opponent hits a good shot.

Davis Cup also produced the unexpected so far, with Spain, minus Nadal and David Ferrer, losing to Germany, and Serbia, minus Nole, losing to Switzerland that featured both Wawrinka and Federer. With teams like Kazakhstan, Japan, and Great Britain in the quarterfinals, the last one making it to this stage for the first time since 1986, the weekend of April 4-6 promises to be an exciting weekend. If Andy Murray plays, the tie between Italy and Great Britain in Naples, Italy, looks to be the most compelling tie of the quarterfinals.

I close this article with an “I told you so” anecdote. For years, I have been saying that I found it disingenuous that the players constantly complained about the length of the season and argued that the season should be cut shorter so that they could have time to recuperate from a grueling season of tennis. I did not believe in their candidness at the time because many of them scheduled exhibition matches, and traded trips and days in the hotel to pocket more money instead of resting and staying home like they claimed they desired to do. Now the hypocrisy is official. The International Tennis Premier League (ITPL) is set to begin its first year of competition at the end of this year, and just about every top player in women’s and men’s fields, as well as some legends such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, have signed up for the event that will occupy half of the period of the so-called 7 weeks of rest following the WTA and ATP year-ending championships.

The competition will take place in Asia, putting players like Nadal, Djokovic and Williams in traveling mode and hotels for over three weeks at a time that they supposedly need their rest. Yes, the matches are supposed to be one set only per match, and yes maybe the intensity may not be what it is in the Slam tournaments, but when there is money to be made, you can bet that the competition will not be taken lightly either. It will certainly require an intensity level that is higher than that of an exhibition match. I am simply curious to see how Nadal, Nole, Murray, Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki will answer the tough questions by the press about the need for “rest.” If Roger Federer were to win the 2015 Australian Open, and Maria Sharapova and Li Na were to play in the women’s finals, I will certainly not want to hear about how well-rested those three were because they chose not to participate in the ITPL. The “worn-out” excuse will not carry much weight at that time.

SAM_1417

No more tired legs excuse in the end of 2014!