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Steve Flink: French Open Retrospective 2013

6/12/2013 1:00:00 PM

By Steve Flink

In the end, after a fortnight of extraordinary tennis at the clay court capitol of the world, after a few mild surprises and many hard fought and high quality contests, after the game's finest performers put themselves fully on the line in pursuit of a highly coveted prize, the French Open was ruled fittingly by champions of the highest order. Rafael Nadal established himself as the first man ever to claim eight singles titles at a Grand Slam championship, capping a spectacular comeback in the process. Serena Williams secured her first singles title at Roland Garros since 2002, ruthlessly cutting down her opposition with a single-mindedness she had never exhibited in Paris before. Nadal and Williams were towering figures.

But others played supporting roles in making this French Open a gripping fortnight. At 31, in his 42nd career appearance at a major, after reaching the semifinals five times previously over the course of his career, David Ferrer at long last arrived in a final. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga toppled 2009 victor Roger Federer to make it to his first semifinal at Roland Garros. The industrious and enterprising Sara Errani advanced to the penultimate round, as did Victoria Azarenka. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka overcame the gifted Frenchman Richard Gasquet in a five set shotmaking extravaganza that was dazzling in every way.

It's time to reflect upon the second major of 2013.

MEN’S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT 
One of the most regrettable things about the French Open this year was that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic landed on the same half of the draw. Nadal, of course, had won the tournament seven of the previous eight years and had been the dominant force once more on the clay court circuit this spring, riding considerable headwinds into Roland Garros after sweeping three consecutive titles at Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. He had captured six of the eight tournaments he had played this year after being gone from the game for seven long months. He should have been elevated to his rightful place as the No. 1 seed.

But the French Open authorities decided to stick with tradition and simply seed the players based on their official status on the Emirates ATP [World] Rankings. Nadal was No. 4 at the time, but he was seeded third because Andy Murray withdrew from the event with a back injury. Djokovic was seeded first. Thus we were denied the possibility of a rematch of the 2012 final between Djokovic and Nadal. Instead, the two best clay courters clashed in the semifinals, but they gave us a contest worthy of a final, and even something beyond that. They gave us a classic. They were magnificent.

Djokovic had been targeting this title all year, knowing it was the only major he had not yet secured, realizing how much he wanted to complete the career Grand Slam. Nadal was every bit as determined to hold on to his cherished crown. He had won Roland Garros four years in a row (2005-2208) before losing to Robin Soderling in the round of 16 four years ago, but he had gone unbeaten ever since. Now he was striving for four titles in a row once more. Nadal knew that this encounter with Djokovic would be a test like no other for him. He understood that he would need to be at his very best for the occasion. He realized that Djokovic wanted to win this match as much as he did. It was the single most intriguing semifinal duel at a major for a very long time.

At the outset, Djokovic came out blazing, releasing three outright winners and holding at love in the opening game. Nadal was a bit apprehensive, but he made it to 1-1 after two deuces. Djokovic struggled through two deuces on his serve before holding for 3-2. But then Nadal found his range, holding at love for 3-3 and breaking Djokovic in the following game, taking his forehand up the line to draw an error from the Serbian. Nadal closed out the set confidently from there, conceding only one point in his last two service games, keeping Djokovic largely at bay with good locational variety on his delivery. Nadal took that set 6-4, and then seemed to take control again in the second set.

At break point in the fifth game, Nadal read Djokovic’s backhand drop shot down the line easily, scampering forward to roll a backhand passing shot winner down the line. He was up a set and a break, leading 3-2 in the second set, but serving into the wind. And then Djokovic assembled his game brilliantly at a critical moment. He captured four games in a row, hitting out more freely off the forehand, opening up the court with authority, rocking Nadal briefly back on his heels. Djokovic took the set convincingly, 6-3, joining the battle and then some.

Nadal got a small piece of good fortune early in the third set. After holding from deuce in the opening game, he reached break point. Djokovic sent a backhand crosscourt that the Spaniard believed was wide. He circled a mark. Umpire Pascal Maria came down the chair, and concurred with Nadal. The Hawkeye replay on television showed the ball hitting the line, but Hawkeye is not used at the French Open and other clay court events, which makes no sense. Be that as it may, Nadal was up 2-0. Djokovic lost a significant amount of energy for the rest of the third set. Nadal charged to a 5-0, 15-40 lead, with double set point on the Serbian’s serve. The Spaniard had won 21 of the last 25 points, maintaining a high standard from the backcourt. But Djokovic had essentially disappeared, physically and mentally, even emotionally. He managed to hold on for 1-5, but Nadal surged to 40-0 in the next game. 

The Spaniard received a point penalty then for taking too much time between points, but he easily held at 15 to move ahead two sets to one. Astute observers of Djokovic in recent years were well aware that he would make another big push. He was not going to play another set like the third.

Nevertheless, Nadal achieved the first break of the fourth set in the seventh game, moving ahead 4-3. But Nadal was serving against the wind and Djokovic broke him for 4-4 at the cost of only one point. And yet, Nadal played some of his best defense of the match off the forehand to break again for 6-5, and served for the match in the following game. Once again, he was serving into the wind, but Nadal produced a pair of gorgeous inside-out forehand winners to reach 30-15, two points away from a four set triumph. The Spaniard was in control of the next rally, pummeling forehands as only he can. But Djokovic displayed his outstanding defense here, and Nadal sent a forehand inside-in over the baseline. Then Djokovic clipped the baseline with a searing backhand return to draw an error from Nadal. At 30-40, Djokovic cracked a forehand winner to Nadal’s backhand side. Those three clutch points from Djokovic altered the chemistry of the match decidedly. The Serbian won the fourth set 7-3 in the tie-break.

Djokovic was thoroughly revitalized while Nadal was at least somewhat deflated. Nadal double faulted to fall behind 0-30 in the opening game of the fifth set. He rallied from 0-40 to 30-40 but Djokovic but took the next point when Nadal missed a forehand passing shot. Djokovic saved a break point on his way to 2-0, and soon moved to 3-1. The fifth game of that fifth set was critical. Nadal could not afford to go two breaks down, and Djokovic pressed him hard that entire game. It went to deuce two times. But Nadal kept pounding the forehand with all of his might and no inhibition. He held on with asparkling backhand down the line winner followed by an astounding crosscourt backhand winner that left Djokovic smiling incredulously. Yet Djokovic put that disappointment aside, holding at love for 4-2.

Nadal, however, was finding new life, taking his game toanother level. He held for 3-4 at 15 with four outright winners off the forehand. At 30-30 in the following game, Nadal made a remarkable forehand winner down the line, but totally miss-hit a forehand at break point. Djokovic gota time warning, and then Nadal garnered a second break point as Djokovic’s lost his balance and touched the net with his body after hitting an overhead from very close range. Deeply aggrieved, Djokovic still managed to win the next point for deuce, but Nadal was now totally unrelenting. He defended superbly, then took control with a backhand crosscourt that coaxed Djokovic into a forehand error. At break point, Nadal made a deep return off a 202 kilometer first serve from Djokovic, drawing an error from the Serbian.

Nadal had surged back to 4-4. Despite missing five consecutive first serves in the following game, he held at 15 for 5-4. By virtue of taking three games in a row, Nadal seemed to be closing in on victory. But Djokovic fought on valiantly in the tenth game. After Nadal’s miss-hit forehand passing shot down the line somehow fell into the corner for 30-30, Djokovic approached the net on the next two points successfully to reach 5-5. The tension from every corner of the arena was palpable. Nadal held at 15 for 6-5 with an ace out wide in the deuce court, but Djokovic retaliated by holding at love for 6-6 without missing a first serve in that game.

With Nadal serving at 6-6, he connected impeccably with a forehand down the line winner off an inside-out forehand from Djokovic. Then Nadal laced a backhand winner up the line for 30-0. He held at 15 for 7-6, but Djokovic would not surrender. On his third game point in the fourteenth game, the Serbian struck a gutsy backhand winner down the line. That shot was not working for him throughout the match because Nadal’s crosscourt forehand was bounding up so high. It was 7-7. Nadal promptly held at 15 for 8-7, driving a two-hander down the line behind Djokovic for a winner.

For the fourth time, Djokovic was serving to stay in the match. He had become deeply perturbed by the condition of the court, which he felt was too dry and slippery. He wanted it watered; Nadal did not. Djokovic let the referee know of his feelings, and asked the umpire to take a stance. But the decision was obvious—the court was not going to be watered. At 7-8, Djokovic got himself in an immediate bind when he missed a routine inside out overhead long. Then he misjudged a Nadal crosscourt backhand passing shot,which landed in the corner for a winner. It was 0-30. Nadal kept his return reasonably deep on the next point, and Djokovic drove a forehand long. It was triple match point for Nadal, but he sealed it on the first with another good return off a first serve. A depleted Djokovic had run out of energy, belief and answers, driving another forehand out. Nadal had come through 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 in four hours and 37 minutes. It was his toughest ever semifinal at Roland Garros, and, in many ways, one of the most significant wins of his career.

He succeeded in the end because he refused to back away from a very aggressive game plan. He went ceaselessly for his inside-out forehand, took the forehand up the line when the openings were there, and his backhand was outstanding. Nadal’s defense was stellar. He kept daring Djokovic to makethe inside-out forehand winner off high balls, and that was a tall order for the Serbian on this day. Moreover, he neutralized Djokovic’s backhand as much as possible with good depth. Furthermore, Nadal returned with enormous consistency all afternoon, while Djokovic was sporadic in that department. Quite simply, Nadal imposed himself in this match more than Djokovic. 

In many ways, this classic resembled the Australian Open final of 2012, when Djokovic stopped Nadal in five tumultuous sets in a battle lasting five hours and 53 minutes. On that occasion, the pattern was strikingly similar to this French Open clash. The first three sets of both matches featured excellent yet not spellbinding tennis. There was no hint of an epic in either case. But the last two sets of both skirmishes were phenomenal. In Australia, Nadal escaped from 3-4, 0-40 in the fourth set and later rescued himself from 5-3 down in the tie-break to push the match into a fifth set. Then Nadal built a 4-2, 30-15 lead in the final set before Djokovic improbably rallied to take five of the next six games for the triumph.

This time around, Nadal seemed to have the match in his grasp when he was two points away and serving for it at 6-5 in the fourth set, but Djokovic seemed certain to prevail when he led 4-2 in the fifth set. A good case could be made that Nadal should have won in Melbourne and Djokovic should have been the victor in Paris, but no one runs out the clock in tennis. These two ferocious competitors don’t know how to give in. They played sterling tennis. For Djokovic, it was surely as deep a psychological wound as he has ever felt after losing a match; for Nadal, the taste of victory has probably never been better. Nadal’s resilience in the fifth set reminded me of his triumph over Federer in the incomparable Wimbledon final of 2008. Nadal had led two sets to love, and then had two match points in the fourth set tie-break. In the end, Nadal was two points from losing in the fifth and final set, but he recorded a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 9-7 triumph.

WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT
Over the years, Svetlana Kuznetsova has demonstrated that she is one of the few players who can walk on a court with Serena Williams and not be intimidated before the first ball is struck. She is a well-rounded player who reached a career high of No. 2 in the world in September of 2007, right after she lost the U.S. Open final to Justine Henin. Kuznetsova won the U.S. Open in 2004, and five years later she was triumphant at Roland Garros. In that French Open run of 2009, she toppled Serena in the quarterfinals. Kuznetsova, however, has left many of her best days behind her. She finished 2004 at No. 5 in the world, concluded 2006 at No. 4, ended 2007 at No. 2,stayed in the top ten in 2008, and concluded 2009 at No. 3.

But Kuznetsova has not been playing the same lofty brand of tennis across the last three years. She was No. 27 at the end of 2010, No. 19 a year later, and No. 72 at the end of 2012. She was out of the game after Wimbledon last year with a right knee injury. Although she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open at the start of this season, Kuznetsova was not making inroads for the most part. But there she was again last week, out on Suzanne Lenglen Court, facing Serena in another major quarterfinal.

Williams had blitzed through the draw until this contest with the 27-year-old Russian, and she moved swiftly through the first set. Kuznetsova took a bathroom break after the set, and seemed to have recaptured her game. She began taking a more offensive posture in the rallies, and Serena seemed caught off guard. Kuznetsova found her range, and took the second set.Williams looked entirely unsettled, and her ball control off the forehand deserted her for a while. Kuznetsova went out in front 2-0 in the third, and the third game was crucial. Serena was in danger of falling behind two breaks.The game went to deuce five times.

At 30-40, Serena wiggled out of trouble with a penetrating backhand down the line inducing an error from the Russian. She went down breakpoint again and Kuznetsova missed a backhand drop shot. Kuznetsova earned a third break point, only to slice a backhand wide. Williams finally held on for1-2 and never really looked back. She saved another break point in the fifth game and won the match 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 despite losing 20 of 32 second serve points. Williams told the crowd when it was over, “I am very happy to have won this match because the whole night I was afraid of my quarterfinal match.”

WOMEN’S FINAL 
Maria Sharapova is about as prideful a female athlete as I have ever seen. She had done quite well against Serena Williams at the outset of their rivalry back in 2004. That year she defeated Williams in the final of Wimbledon with a first rate performance on the Centre Court, and at the end of that season she upended Serena again at the season-ending WTA Championships indoors. But the rivalry turned dramatically at the Australian Open in 2005, when Serena wiped away three match points on her way to a three set semifinal triumph. That was the first of 12 consecutive victories that she had recorded over Maria as they headed into the final of the French Open this past Sunday.

Sharapova was the defending champion at Roland Garros, and she had played some outstanding tennis to make it back to the final, upending Azarenka in the semifinals. Had anyone else been on the other side of the net, I would have liked the Russian’s chances. But she was confronting Serena again, and almost always Maria seems to bring the best out of Serena. Sharapova is a better player now than she has ever been before. Her footwork is markedly improved, her defense is more dependable, her second serve is often first rate, and her mechanics are to be admired.

But the fundamental problem for Sharapova is that Williams has soared to another level altogether over the past year and she is playing the finest tennis of her career. And yet, the other day in Paris, Sharapova admirably tried to forget about history and get on with the task at hand. She held from 0-40 in the opening game, broke Serena in the second game and reached 2-0, 40-15, serving an ace down the T. But Serena took the next point with a sizzling forehand down line after recovering earlier in the rally as both women grunted loudly. Sharapova missed a difficult running forehand on the next point. Williams broke back and kept right on going until she was up 4-2.

Once more, Sharapova went back to work. On her way back to 4-4, she won 8 of 11 points. She had broken Serena for the second time in the set, which was no mean feat. But Williams broke Sharapova in the ninth game and served out the set. It had lasted 51 minutes, and Sharapova had played about as capably as she can. Yet Williams had still prevailed. Serena broke Maria for 2-1 in the second set, and that was essentially the end of the match. Williams served prodigiously throughout that second set, winning 20 of 23 points on her delivery and keeping Sharapova largely at bay. Serena closed out the match a t5-4 in the second set in style, serving three aces. She won 6-4, 6-4, but it was an absorbing match and Sharapova could hold her head high after such a good effort.

Williams took her 16th major to move within two titles of a tie with both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time ladder. This formerly ambivalent woman has found the clarity of mind and the all consuming passion that was so often missing in the past. She will be 32 at the end of September. But she will not be slowing down anytime soon. It is inevitable that she will move past Chrissie and Martina on the all-time list for majors, and then she will surely surpass Helen Wills Moody, who captured 19 Grand Slam championships in the 1920’s and thirties. 

That would leave only Margaret Court (24) and Steffi Graf (22) ahead of the surging Serena. She has a very good chance of at least tying Graf, and perhaps will move beyond her. Court will probably remain the leader on the all-time list, but Williams has such an insatiable appetite that anything is possible.

MEN’S FINAL
Nothing in the men’s tournament was going to top Nadal-Djokovic, which is why it was such a shame it was not the final. But if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had followed up on his quarterfinal win over Roger Federer with a win over David Ferrer in the semifinals, the title round match might have been a more compelling battle. Ferrer is so industrious and such a thorough professional that he must never be taken for granted. At 31, he is playing perhaps the best tennis of his life. He did not lose a set en route to the final, crushing a disheveled Tsonga.

But there was no way he was going to beat Rafael Nadal. Nadal owned a 19-4 career edge over his countryman. Nadal had won their last eight encounters. Although Ferrer had given Nadal a surprisingly hard time in their two most recent showdowns leading up to the French Open in Madrid and Rome - coming within two points of victory in the former, extending him to three sets again in the latter - Nadal was not at his best in those meetings, and let’s face it: Madrid and Rome are not Roland Garros. Meanwhile, Ferrer was not petrified but he was in foreign territory as he appeared in his first major final. He was clearly uncomfortable, while Nadal was firing from all cylinders, particularly off his fearsome forehand.

Time and again, Nadal was making inside-out forehand winners from deep positions, sometimes with his weight seemingly falling back. Ferrer is one of the quickest competitors out there, capable of running down almost any ball, a superb scrambler, a master of anticipation. Nadal was driving through the ball with such velocity and severity that Ferrer was frequently caught in his tracks, and confounded by his opponent’s unrelenting avalanche of crackling shots.

In dissecting Ferrer 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, Nadal broke serve eight times and lost his own serve only three times. He largely set the tactical agenda, and allowed Ferrer to win only 25% of his second serve points. Nadal kept his returns remarkably deep and he kept Ferrer on the run all match long. Now Nadal has won not only eight French Opens but 12 Grand Slam championships. He is tied with Roy Emerson, so only Pete Sampras (14) and Federer (17) are ahead of the Spaniard. The feeling grows that he will at least tie Sampras, and will almost surely move past the American. He has at least one more French Open title run in him, and more likely two. To really close in on Federer, though, Nadal must stay healthy and add majors at the three other venues. I believe he will do that.

Unsung Heroes and Heroines
At 35, Tommy Haas is performing like a man eight to ten years younger. He is astounding. For the first time in his career, he reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. Along the way, he won a bizarre contest from the towering John Isner. Haas led two sets to love but a resolute Isner fought off twelve match points in rallying to take the match into a fifth set. Isner built a 4-1 lead in the final set but Haas broke back. And yet, Haas still had to fight off a match point before he came through 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8. Haas now stands at No. 11 in the world, and that is where he belongs after all of the hard work he has put in over the last year.

Meanwhile, Errani must be lauded for her run to the semifinals. A year ago, she was the runner-up at Roland Garros to Sharapova and then she went to the semifinals of the U.S. Open. When you make it that far at the majors so often, it is no accident. Errani is not even 5’5” but she has a large heart and flexibility as a player. Serena Williams obliterated this 26-year-old Italian with a breathtaking performance, but that could not diminish Errani’s impressive run at Roland Garros. We will see her in the latter stages of a major again.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.