6/10/2014 7:00:00 PM
I made the journey home from France back to New York yesterday, and those flights always provide me with a good opportunity for contemplation after a major tennis tournament. The fortnight at Roland Garros gave us this year a healthy mixture of highly anticipated clashes and some important upsets. It was an intriguing tournament in many different ways, a time of reaffirmation for some iconic players and a major step forward for others hoping to establish themselves as front line candidates in the Grand Slam tournament game. I followed it closely over the airwaves across the first week and then arrived in Paris in time to catch the quarterfinals on. Here are my musings on a first rate French Open.
RAFAEL NADAL TAKES NINTH FRENCH OPEN CROWN
The utter domination of Nadal at Roland Garros surpasses the impact of any other champion at a particular major event. To be sure, Martina Navratilova won nine singles championships at Wimbledon, an astounding accomplishment. Both Roger Federer and Pete Sampras have won on the lawns of the All England seven times, and Chrissie Evert recorded seven tournament triumphs on the dirt in Paris. All of these estimable champions celebrated enduring success at Grand Slam events, coming through more than they ever could have imagined on the sport’s monumental stages. Rod Laver’s second Grand Slam in 1969 is another singular achievement that may not ever be replicated in the men’s game; the red-headed Australian swept all four majors that year against a cavalcade of outstanding rivals including John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and Tony Roche. No man has matched that feat since.
But in my view, Nadal’s Roland Garros record stands in a class of his own. Not only has Nadal won 66 of 67 matches at the clay court shrine—losing only to Robin Soderling in the round of 16 in 2009—but he has been just about untouchable. He has been stretched to five sets only twice—by John Isner in the opening round of the 2011 tournament, and against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals a year ago. His propensity to bring out his best on the red clay of Roland Garros over and over again has been beyond extraordinary.
That he managed to succeed this year was even more commendable because Nadal had never headed into Paris having lost so frequently on the clay en route to the big event. From 2005-2013, he set the stage for success at Roland Garros by establishing his clay court superiority almost everywhere else. In all of those seasons, he won at least a couple of clay court tournaments on his way to Paris, and usually three or four. This time around, he won only Madrid, and took that title unconvincingly after Kei Nishikori built a 6-2, 4-2 lead. Nadal captured seven games in a row to move ahead 3-0 in the third but the Japanese player retired with an injury. It was not a morale boosting win.
Otherwise, Nadal was beaten in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo by David Ferrer, upended by Nicolas Almagro in the same round at Barcelona, and ousted by Djokovic in the final of Rome. The skeptics were out in force after those setbacks, but no one seemed to be tougher on Nadal than the Spaniard himself. And yet, he looked reasonably sharp in the early rounds of this French Open, and did not drop a set in the first four rounds despite some concerns with a recurring back problem that reduced his velocity on serve in some matches.
In the quarterfinals on a cool evening with the wind swirling, Nadal dropped the first set to David Ferrer on the Suzanne Lenglen Court, but rallied to sweep the last three 6-4, 6-0, 6-1. He then performed majestically in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 over a weary Andy Murray in the penultimate round. Nadal connected with 76% of his first serves, won 91% of his first serve points and 57% on his second serve. He made only 15 unforced errors while producing 24 winners. Most importantly, he rediscovered the art of running around his backhand at absolutely every opportunity and blasting a flurry of heavy topspin and flattened out forehands with uncanny precision, depth and unrelenting authority. This was devastatingly potent stuff. Nadal called it his best clay court match of the season; his Uncle Toni said it was among his best ever performances at Roland Garros.
When Nadal destroyed Murray in that semifinal on a hot day, his topspin was bounding up high the way he likes it and his opponent wilted in the heat. Clearly, Murray had been compromised by two five set matches before the Nadal appointment, along with a bunch of other long contests. His play was abysmal, but the fact remains that Nadal was almost letter perfect and his heightened intensity and unbending eagerness to hit forehands with admirable ruthlessness and venom carried him into the final looking like the essential Nadal once more.
But the Spaniard was surprisingly apprehensive in the first set against a near top of the line Djokovic in a final that would have lasting historical implications for both players. They were locked at 3-3 in the opening set before the Serbian collected three games in a row. Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic held on from 15-40 as Nadal pressed on both break points with errant forehands. The contest changed complexion decidedly in the second set as Nadal broke for 4-2. Yet his nerves were not yet fully under control, and he was broken in the seventh game, giving away the first point with a forehand unforced error, double faulting into the net for 15-40, and miss-hitting a forehand long off an aggressive Djokovic return at 30-40.
Djokovic rallied to 4-4. This was dangerous territory for the Spaniard, who could not afford to fall behind two sets to love against his primary rival in tennis. Perhaps the most critical game of the match was played when Djokovic served at 5-6 in that second set. The Serbian was unstable at that pivotal moment, double faulting to knot the score at 15-15. Nadal was fortunate on the following point as Djokovic’s shot clipped the net cord and gave Nadal time to set up a routine forehand winner. At 15-30, Nadal sent one of his deceptively difficult topspin forehand returns crosscourt, and Djokovic ran around his backhand, only to miss a tentative inside out forehand wide. At 15-40, Nadal drove a forehand for an outright winner after seizing control of the rally, and he had the break at 15 to seal the set 7-5.
At one set all, Djokovic was starting a brand new, best of three set match, and his spirit was sharply diminished. Nadal, conversely, was soaring, his conviction having been restored by the hard work he had done to get back in the match. In the opening game of the third set, Djokovic narrowly missed a forehand inside-in winner attempt wide at 30-30, and Nadal gamely held for 1-0. The Spaniard broke in the next game and then held at love for 3-0 with surging confidence, closing that game with a pair of sizzling forehand winners followed by an ace down the T. Nadal would win that set 6-2, but the score-line was misleading in some ways. Nadal fended off a break point against him at 3-1 when an off balanced Djokovic steered a backhand down the line wide, and the Spaniard saved another break point in a five deuce seventh game. Djokovic was distraught by his missed opportunities, and was broken again when he served at 2-5.
Nadal seemed to be closing in tight on the title when he broke for 4-2 in the fourth set, playing some magnificent defense on the last point of that game, coaxing a backhand error from a discombobulated Djokovic. Serving to enhance that lead, Nadal seemed fatigued and perhaps apprehensive again. He drove a standard forehand crosscourt into the bottom of the net for 0-15, double faulted for 15-30, and eventually lost that game. Rather than being down and almost out at 2-5, Djokovic was back on serve at 3-4, and revitalized. He held for 4-4. The Serbian seemed capable then of sending the match into a fifth set, which would have been dangerous territory for the Spaniard, who was suffering from cramps.
Djokovic, meanwhile, had his own issues, throwing up at least one changeover. Now, however, he seemed ready to battle ferociously, and that is just what he did. The 4-4 game was admirable on both sides of the net. Djokovic opened by winning a hard hitting exchange, drawing a backhand down the line error from the Spaniard. Nadal retaliated with a forehand winner behind Djokovic to make it 15-15. Nadal drove a forehand down the line winner for 30-15, but netted a backhand crosscourt under pressure for 30-30. Nadal realized he absolutely had to have this game, no matter what it took or how much he had to work for it. Djokovic was no less committed.
At 30-30, Nadal dictated the rally, directing a backhand crosscourt at a fine angle. Djokovic netted a running forehand. But Djokovic rallied to deuce with a thundering forehand return off a first serve hurrying Nadal into a mistake. It was deuce, but Nadal was not backing off. He produced a superb backhand crosscourt that elicited a short ball from Djokovic, and the Spaniard swiftly moved forward to put away an inside out forehand for a clean winner. At game point for the second time, Nadal’s kick second serve to the backhand bounded up relatively high, and Djokovic’s backhand return went long. Nadal had moved deservedly to 5-4.
That was a critical hold. Now Djokovic was serving to save the match, to stay in the tournament. He took a 30-0 lead but then missed a two-hander down the line wide off a Nadal topspin forehand crosscourt. Then Djokovic approached down the line off the backhand, and Nadal answered that bell with clarity and conviction, lacing a backhand pass acutely crosscourt for a winner. It was 30-30. Djokovic took a relatively short return from Nadal and went inside out off the forehand, but his shot landed out. Suddenly it was match point for Nadal. Djokovic missed his first serve and was tossing the ball for his second when a fan screamed out from the stands, causing a brief delay. Djokovic then double faulted long, replicating what he had done in the 2012 final against Nadal when he was match point down at 5-6 in the fourth set, and also serving to the ad court.
Nadal’s tactical acuity in this final has never been better. He used his forehand down the line frequently yet deceptively, keeping Djokovic off balance. He exploited his inside out forehand at all of the right times. He served with good variety and was broken only three times in the four sets, saving six of nine break points. Djokovic saved only four of the ten break points against him. The Serbian won only 36% of his second serve points, while Nadal managed to finish at 50% in that category. That was critical. Nadal hit 44 winners in the match, one more than Djokovic. The Spaniard used the sliced backhand down the line judiciously, teasing Djokovic into a good many backhand errors by making the Serbian generate his own pace. It was a masterful strategic performance from Nadal, who can think his way through a match as capably as anyone in tennis with his nimble mind and sharp instincts, and adapt to any opponent or situation.
By virtue of that victory, Nadal became the first man ever to win five French Opens in a row, and he placed himself in a tie for second place with Pete Sampras on the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles title list with 14. Now Nadal trails the leader Roger Federer by only three titles. He also increases his lead over Djokovic to eight. The Spaniard has a 4-3 lead in Grand Slam finals against the Serbian, and a 23-19 lead in their overall head to head series. Djokovic was denied the opportunity to achieve a career Grand Slam, and it was the sixth time Nadal has knocked him out of Roland Garros in the ten appearances by the Serbian. Djokovic also was prevented from realizing a personal Grand Slam of sorts by losing to Nadal in Paris because the Serbian has beaten Nadal in the finals of all the other majors.
And so Nadal has taken another monumental historical step and he has now won at least one major for ten consecutive seasons, a record for the men. Federer, Sampras and Bjorn Borg all secured at least one Grand Slam event for eight consecutive years; Chrissie Evert has the women’s record of 13 straight years (1974-86).
Nadal would have been more than disconsolate had he lost this French Open final to Djokovic. He has seldom needed a championship as badly as he needed this one. In turn, Djokovic has suffered a serious blow to his pride. He had beaten Nadal four times in a row. He was determined to win Roland Garros this year. The Serbian would have gladly traded all four of those recent triumphs over Nadal for a victory this time around in the Roland Garros final. Djokovic has not won a major since the 2013 Australian Open, and he may be haunted by this setback for a very long while. The 28-year-old Nadal will cherish his ninth crown forever, and the feeling grows that over the next couple of years he is going to capture a tenth.
SHARAPOVA VICTORIOUS A SECOND TIME AT ROLAND GARROS
Maria Sharapova was seeded only seventh at this edition of Roland Garros, and placed in the same quarter of the draw as Serena Williams, a player she has not beaten since 2004. The Russian’s prospects did not look particularly bright, but then Williams bowed out in the second round, and once that happened Sharapova realized her plight had changed immeasurably.
The 27-year-old was typically resolute over the fortnight, yet her task became increasingly difficult. In the round of 16, she confronted Sam Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion and 2010 French Open finalist. Sharapova has owned Stosur over the years and she had a 13-2 career record against the Australian coming into Roland Garros. But Stosur’s inside out forehand was on. Her trademark kick serve was doing a lot of damage, particularly in the ad court. Sharapova was unsettled, missing too many returns, letting chances to finish off points get away from her, making mistakes that were costly and inexplicable. Sharapova lost the first set and was serving at 3-4, 30-30 in the second. She missed her first serve but Stosur could not connect with an aggressive forehand return off the second delivery.
From that juncture, Sharapova took her whole game up a notch and captured nine games in a row to win 6-0 in the final set. In the quarterfinals, she faced Garbine Muguruza, the Spaniard who had toppled Serena Williams. Muguruza was fearsome for nearly two sets, keeping Sharapova largely at bay with the potency of her returns and the escalating pace of her shots. Sharapova lost the first set and served at 4-5 in the second before bailing herself out of danger. In the third set, Muguruza lost her range and Sharapova gained comfort at last in the rallies, winning 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Next up for Sharapova was the unapologetically self-assured Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian took the first set 6-4, outdueling Sharapova from the backcourt with sounder execution off the forehand. She made no concessions with her court positioning, hugging the baseline, refusing to allow Sharapova much latitude in the rallies. Sharapova moved ahead 5-2 in the second set but dropped three games in a row. The chips were on the line, but Bouchard was not ready to respond. Sharapova took two games in a row for the set, which lasted 59 intense and entertaining minutes.
The level of play remained exceedingly high in the third set, but Sharapova played the big points better and came away with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory over a resilient opponent. That took Sharapova into a final round duel with Simona Halep, the most improved female player of the last year. It was a suspenseful and well played championship match, and the Romanian acquitted herself handsomely in her first major final. Sharapova was setting the pace to a large degree, but Halep kept battling back with composure and consistency off the ground. She was going to make Maria earn it, and that was no facile feat for the Russian.
Sharapova had already completed a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open two years ago. She was back in the final a year ago, losing to Serena Williams in a high quality match. Now, meeting Halep, the pressure was entirely on Sharapova, the clear favorite despite the fact that Halep was seeded three places above her at No. 4. Sharapova took a 5-2 lead, dropped two games in a row but broke again to seal the first set 6-4. She had an early break in the second at 2-0 but Halep raised her level and her forehand became more solid. Twice, at 5-4 and 6-5, Halep served for the second set but she could not close it out.
In the ensuing tie-break, Sharapova had a 5-3 lead, and was two points away from the title. She tried a running forehand crosscourt and missed it wide, but not by much. Instead of triple match point for the Russian, her lead had been cut to 5-4. Halep swept three more points in a row for one set all. At the start of the third, Sharapova broke for 1-0 but dropped two games in a row, and then bravely fought off two break points at 1-2 and held on in the fourth game. Sharapova advanced to 4-2, but Halep was in the habit now of making comebacks, and she reached 4-4 as Sharapova released her 12th and last double fault.
But Sharapova clipped the baseline on the first point of the ninth game and Halep had no play. Sharapova closed the account commandingly, sweeping eight points in a row to win 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4. The last woman to win Roland Garros with four consecutive three set victories at the end was Sue Barker in 1976. That is a rare feat, but then again Sharapova is a rare competitor with as much pride as anyone in her profession.
GULBIS TOPPLES FEDERER EN ROUTE TO SEMIFINALS
Many of us have spent the past five to six years waiting for the real Ernests Gulbis to show up and start playing the kind of tennis that can take him just about anywhere he wants to go. He has that unorthodox forehand that defies description. He has an ever changing disposition. He can be his own worst enemy. But Gulbis made a significant move at this tournament to reach his first major semifinal. Six years ago, he lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals but he had never really built on that moment, although he had performed brilliantly at various times ever since.
This year, Gulbis seems locked into his talent on a week in, week out basis, and that left him well prepared for Roland Garros. He won two tournaments this year in France, taking the first indoors on hard courts in Marseille and garnering the second the week before Roland Garros on the clay in Nice. Gulbis is putting in the hard hours and being rewarded for his professionalism.
The key match for him at Roland Garros was his round of 16 appointment with Roger Federer. The Swiss had been at least a quarterfinalist every year in Paris since he lost in the third round to Guga Kuerten in 2004, and he seemed certain to keep that streak going when he rallied to win the first set from Gulbis. The Latvian led 4-2 in the set but Federer drew him into a tie-break. Gulbis took a 5-3 lead in that sequence but bungled an easy high forehand down the line, and Federer took over from there to win the tie-break 7-5.
Federer served for the second set at 5-3 and had 40-15, double set point. He made a perfect forehand approach down the line and Gulbis could only scrape the ball back. It was a lob attempt but he did not get the ball that high in the air. Federer tried to put his overhead away from short range but could not get enough on it. Gulbis passed him down the line off the backhand. Federer then missed a forehand on the next point that he should have kept in play. Gulbis came all the way back to win that set in a tie-break, seized control to sweep through the third, and then fell behind two breaks at 2-5 in the fourth.
At that point, Gulbis took an injury/medical timeout and when he returned he seemed brand new again, blasting away off both sides prodigiously. He broke back once and almost twice before Federer closed out that fourth set, but Gulbis served almost impeccably in the fifth set to get the win over the No. 4 seed. He won 20 of 27 points on his delivery in that set, and made one break against Federer count to prevail 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. Federer now has a 22-18 five set career record. He did not lose the match in the fifth set; he lost it in the second.
Gulbis kept going into the semifinals before losing in four sets to Djokovic, but the good run was long overdue. He now resides at No. 10 in the world. I expect him to stay in that territory for the rest of the year.
WAWRINKA DOES NOT DO HIMSELF JUSTICE
The No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka had the toughest draw of any leading player at Roland Garros, meeting the Spaniard Garcia Lopez in the opening round. They split the first two sets and Wawrinka seemed to be in a good position to compete favorably. But Wawrinka won only two more games in the last two sets against a wily yet hardly overwhelming clay court player. He did not compete with the fervor we expect of a player who has acquired newfound status. This was, after all, his first appearance at a major since he had won his first major at Melbourne back in January. I was disappointed by his tameness. This is not to say Wawrinka did not try, but there was no sense of urgency, no feeling that he could not accept defeat, no spark that could carry him past his woes toward victory. I hope Wawrinka does a lot better at Wimbledon because he has worked hard to reach No. 3 in the world. At Roland Garros, he did not look anything like the third best player in the world of tennis.
HALEP MAKES HER MOVE
We knew that Halep did not make it to No. 4 in the world by accident. She got there with persistence, professionalism and very good court sense. She won six tournaments in 2013 and took another title in Doha this year. She has become one of the most reliable ball strikers in women’s tennis, sound in her execution, thoughtful in the way she approaches matches, unswaying in her competitiveness. Halep reached the Roland Garros final without losing a set, and then gave Sharapova all the Russian could handle in the first three set French Open final since Jennifer Capriati rallied to defeat Kim Clijsters 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 in the 2001 championship match. Halep—the junior champion at the French Open back in 2008—was the first Romanian to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Virginia Ruzici won the title in 1978.
Halep is 22. She will be back in many more major finals, and she has the mindset to break into the winners circle at some point over the next couple of years. Her performance in the final of Roland Garros was good news for women’s tennis. She fought diligently. She erased Sharapova’s leads time and again. She lifted her game considerably over the last two sets. She pushed a great champion to the hilt. I enjoyed it all immensely.
SERENA LEAVES IN ROUND TWO
Serena Williams was expected by most learned observers to successfully defend her Roland Garros crown and win her third French Open title. She had prepared well, and her clay court game has been markedly better over the last two years. Moreover, she was eager to succeed this year after a disappointing loss to an in form Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open. But the American was caught off guard completely by Garbine Muguruza, a Spaniard ranked No. 35 in the world.
Watching Muguruza play that match, it was difficult to comprehend why she was not ranked much higher. She had Williams reacting from the outset of the battle. Muguruza was controlling the tempo almost entirely, making deep, penetrating returns, staying aggressive on her own serve. Williams was strangely listless and taken out of her comfort zone, and her inability to shape a new strategy by the start of the second set was baffling. But Muguruza maintained extraordinary standards, hitting through the court, making Williams play the match on her terms. Muguruza simply overwhelmed Williams on the say with controlled and unrelenting aggression. The 6-2, 6-2 loss was the worst Serena has ever experienced at a major.
At Wimbledon, Williams will be ready to make serious amends.
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. |