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Steve Flink: French Open Reflections

6/9/2010 2:00:00 PM

It has been a couple of days since I returned from Roland Garros, giving me time to reflect on a memorable and compelling tournament, allowing me the chance to fully gather my thoughts on a tournament I enjoyed immensely. First and foremost, the world’s premier clay court event could not have ended in a more appropriate fashion. The game’s greatest ever practitioner on the dirt came away with a fifth French Open singles title, regaining the crown that had belonged solely to him from 2005-2008, winning the tournament without losing a set for the second time, concluding his impeccable 2010 clay court campaign with an astonishing 22-0 match record and his fourth clay court title in a row. Spain’s commendable Rafael Nadal could not have asked for more as he captured a seventh career Grand Slam championship, along with his first major championship victory since the 2009 Australian Open. Nadal gave us a clay court masterpiece as he crushed Sweden’s Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the Paris final.  He avenged a startling loss to the Swede in the 2009 round of 16, played his finest tennis ever in a championship match at Roland Garros, made only 16 unforced errors across three glorious sets, fended off all eight break points he faced, and never lost his serve.

Nadal’s swiftness afoot was as striking as it has ever been, his tactical acuity was spot on, and his ball striking was magnificent. Soderling battled gamely but the Spaniard kept him at bay with perhaps the single most impressive defensive display of his career. To be sure, Nadal dictated points whenever it was possible, unleashing spectacular inside-out winners off that side, going behind Soderling for crosscourt placements as well. But his propensity to defend was even more apparent; Nadal made clusters of mind boggling, full stretch, open stance forehands from well behind the baseline to stay alive in points, and his backhand slice was low, biting and totally secure. With this crucial triumph, Nadal has sent himself back to the top of the international ladder, returning home to No. 1 in the world, setting himself up for a blockbuster summer. The feeling grows that he will win either a second Wimbledon or a first U.S. Open in the weeks and months ahead, and I would not put it past him to take both championships.

But while Nadal’s triumph was the chief storyline in Paris, there were others who made this fortnight at Roland Garros a celebratory time. Francesca Schiavone established herself as the first Italian woman ever to succeed at a major, and what a remarkable run she had. The 29-year-old had never been beyond the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event in 38 previous appearances. No one in the game’s inner circles was expecting anything substantial from her this time around in Paris. I doubt that when the tournament commenced that she believed in any realistic way that she would be holding up the trophy in the end. And yet, Schiavone quietly and assiduously recorded morale boosting victories. Seeded 17th, she upended some impressive names in the draw.

It started with her third round win over No. 11 seed Li Na. She then stopped No. 30 seed Maria Kirilenko to reach the last eight. In her quarterfinal contest, Schiavone accounted for No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki, and then she took a hard fought opening set in a tie-break from No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva in the penultimate round. Dementieva, hobbled by a calf injury, elected to retire. And that win put Schiavone into the championship match.

Facing No. 7 seed Sam Stosur, Schiavone was magnificent in her first major final. She captured 14 of the 15 points when she advanced to the net, catching the 26-year-old Australian off guard time and again by making unexpected approaches. Stosur has an aggressive two-handed backhand, but she also likes to go to the backhand slice. When Schiavone would hit a deep ball to that side, she would wait until the instant when she could recognize if the Australian was opening her racket face to play the slice, and then move forward to take charge on the volley. She played a brilliantly strategic match, breaking up Stosur’s rhythm, mixing up her own shots with heavy topspin and effective slices.

Stosur was clearly unnerved by the extraordinary ingenuity and creativity of her opponent. She never knew quite what to expect, and she seldom looked comfortable as she tried to take command from the baseline with her formidable forehand. Schiavone took the tight opening set, then rallied from 1-4 down in the second to reach the tie-break. In that sequence, she was outstanding. The two players were locked at 2-2, but a highly charged and sharply focused Schiavone did not lose another point, producing four outright winners in a row to set up quadruple match point, which an understandably beleaguered Stosur gave away with a miss-hit off the backhand.

Schiavone realized that this was a monumental opportunity that is not going to come her way again. She seized that moment with authority, and put her name forever into the history books. Followers of the sport from all over the globe were exhilarated by the joy and verve of Francesca Schiavone, who found a level of comfort and confidence that she had not known before. Schiavone won not only the title, but a new legion of admirers who have seldom seen a player who could match her innate charm and entertainment value.

Stosur lost that battle, but came away from the event proudly after toppling two of the game’s central figures, and a former world No. 1 to boot. Taking on four time former champion Justine Henin in the round of 16, Stosur was handily beaten in the first set before recouping to win the second. At 4-4 in the third, Henin reached 30-30, but double faulted and was subsequently broken. In the following game, Stosur was poised and remarkably Henin was not. Three times in the final game, Henin erred off the backhand. Her footwork was sloppy. Her spirits were sinking. In the crunch, Stosur was the better player, and Henin was in disarray.

Moving on to the quarters, Stosur met the top seeded Williams, who had secured her one and only French Open crown eight years ago. Ever since, Serena has struggled inordinately on the Roland Garros clay, and she has never been back to the final. But her incentive this time around was larger than usual. Williams spoke openly about chasing a Grand Slam, and trying to become only the fourth woman (after Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988) to realize that feat. But Stosur was utterly in control against Williams for a long while. She blitzed through the first set by dictating regularly off the forehand and allowing Serena to self destruct, and then Stosur served for the match at 5-3 in the second. She was two points away from a straight set triumph at 30-30 in that ninth game, but with the wind in her face Stosur netted a running forehand down the line. At 30-40, Stosur slid on the slippery clay and tried to recover, but Serena moved in for the kill, lacing a forehand winner into the clear.

Williams had a new lease on life. She reached a tie-break in that second set and played it beautifully to reach one set all. But Serena double faulted at break point to lose her serve in the opening game of the third set. She broke right back, however, and settled into quite a groove on serve. In her next four service games, Williams lost only five points. Stosur was serving at 4-5, 30-40, match point down in the riveting tenth game of the last set. She had just miss-hit a forehand approach long to put herself in that bind, but Stosur escaped, coming forward with gutsy conviction. Serena went for the forehand pass down the line, thought for an instant her shot had caught the line, but realized she had missed it marginally long.

Stosur stepped up significantly from there. She took advantage of a short return from Serena, ran around her backhand, and nailed a forehand inside-in for a winner. Then she served an ace down the T to reach 5-5. Yet her troubles were not over. Serena held at love for 6-5, and had Stosur down 0-30, two points from defeat, in the twelfth game. Stosur was unflustered. She swung her slice serve wide to the forehand, and Williams missed a crosscourt return. Stosur kicked her serve wide in the Ad court for an ace for 30-30, and went on to hold. With Serena serving at 6-6, 15-40, Stosur released her finest passing shot of the match off her two-hander, angling her shot sharply crosscourt, well out of Serena’s reach. Stosur held at 15 to close out a 6-2, 6-7 (2), 8-6 victory. She had won the hard way, but Stosur had regrouped admirably down the stretch. She then obliterated No. 4 seed and 2008 world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic 6-1, 6-2. For Schiavone to stop Stosur after all that the Australian had done took remarkable discipline and determination.

As for the men, while the standout was surely Nadal, a bunch of players distinguished themselves deeply. Soderling did a terrific job to reach his second straight French Open final. The big Swede took down No. 10 seed Marin Cilic in straight sets to earn a quarterfinal appointment against Roger Federer. Federer had not only defeated Soderling in straight sets to garner the 2009 Roland Garros title, but he had also never lost to his rival in 12 previous career meetings. Moreover, Federer had reached at least the semifinals in no fewer than 23 consecutive Grand Slam events.

But Soderling displayed an awful lot of maturity in coming from behind to oust the Swiss maestro. After Federer had won a routine opening set, Soderling roared back to take the second. The pendulum swinging set was the third. Soderling served at 4-5 and was down set point. He hammered a deep approach, and closed in on top of the net for a seemingly simple overhead. But the Swede did not connect that solidly, and he did not angle the smash away. Federer chased it down on his forehand side and responded with a sliced overhead on the bounce, directed down the line. Soderling leaped, and snapped a backhand overhead crosscourt for a dazzling winner. He held on impressively.

With Federer serving at 5-5 in the third, ahead 30-15, rain forced a delay. When they returned, Federer moved to 40-15 but became careless two points in a row off the forehand. Soderling came back to break and served out the set with gusto.

Typically, Federer was not going down without a serious fight. He produced some of his most inspired tennis of the match to reach 2-0 in the fourth, but Soderling was not put off stride. His firepower was too much for Federer on the day. Soderling prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. He then held off No. 15 seed Tomas Berdych in five sets, which was no mean feat. Berdych had enjoyed his best Grand Slam event ever, reaching the semifinals at a major for the first time, cutting down No. 4 seed Andy Murray, No. 11 seed Mikhail Youzhny and the daunting American John Isner along the way. Berdych had not lost a set on his way to the penultimate round. He had two sets to one lead over Soderling, but the Swede was stronger mentally and he came through in five sets.

Meanwhile, No. 22 seed Jurgen Melzer of Austria reached his first semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament as well. His biggest win was over No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic was ahead two sets to love and 2-0 in the third, but contrived a way to lose. To be sure, once he got his teeth into the match, the industrious and freewheeling Melzer played excellent tennis. He has excellent touch on the backhand drop shot, he can attack effectively even on the clay, and his game is flexible. In the end, Melzer stunned Djokovic 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4. I give him full marks for that triumph, but there was no way Djokovic should have let his adversary into that match. Melzer, by the way, tried to make another startling comeback against Nadal in the semifinals.

Melzer was two points away from defeat against an in form Nadal. The Spaniard had won the first two sets 6-3, 6-2, and had Melzer serving at 3-5, 0-30 in the third. Inexplicably, Nadal was hit by a mild anxiety attack. He missed an easy return when he could have gone to triple match point, made another unforced error, and soon Melzer held. But Nadal had been serving quite well throughout that match and had lost his delivery only once. He seemed certain to serve it out at 5-4, but he started that game with an abysmal unforced error off the forehand, drifted to 0-40, and then miss-hit a second serve so badly it barely reached the net. That flagrant double fault made it 5-5.

The set went to a tie-break, and in that sequence Nadal remained uptight. He finally prevailed eight points to six to get the straight set win, but Melzer had gained a measure of self respect by making Nadal sweat it out a bit at the end. Nadal realized he had lost his nerve for a while, but there was never a sign of that apprehension during his final round win over Soderling. On that occasion, we saw the essential Nadal back in his command post, taking complete control of his own destiny. I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of that self assured, robust and eager Nadal for the rest of this year.