Tennis Channel is pleased to have Martina Navratilova on board as an analyst for its coverage of the 2007 French Open at Roland Garros. This year is also the 25th anniversary of Martina winning the first of her two singles championships here. Always willing to speak her mind, Martina's got a few opinions on this great event she'd like to share. Her's the first of Martina's musings.
A Look at the Women's Semis
By Martina Navratilova
Well we're down to the semis here at Roland Garros. The chips are on the table, and it's time to see who's really got what it takes to win this tournament. For me it was always very exciting to make it to these final stages. One thing that's nice is that since the locker room gets empty, you can spread your stuff around and don't have to worry about bumping into people. And the lounge is pretty uncluttered too, so you don't have to wait in line to eat. From a playing standpoint, by the semis, all the hard work has been done, so it's strictly about how well you can play your best possible tennis.
Each of these semifinalists is quite impressive. Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova may play quite differently, but they're both exceptionally driven to excel and will never quit. I love it when people throw themselves into the pursuit of excellence and make every effort to leave nothing on the table. Jelena Jankovic and Anna Ivanovic, the two rising Serbians strike me as intelligent and very much individuals - that is, people who've built their own approach to developing a playing style and approach to the game. More than a week ago my former coach, Dr. Renee Richards, predicted an all-Serbian final, and she's one day away from being right. But as you'll see below, this is one time where my wise friend and I part ways.
It's interesting to see Maria do this well on clay. She's been to every Grand Slam final but Roland Garros. And though she's won 15 tournaments, none of them have been on clay. But as I said earlier, Maria is an unbelievable fighter. She just believes so strongly in herself, and at the big points is willing to go for her shots.
But as I see it, Ivanovic is better in the areas that matter most. The biggest edge she has is her serve. It's powerful, it's safe and she moves it around pretty well. On the other hand, Maria's service motion is still a bit iffy and quite predictable. They both hit the ball big, but Ivanovic is a better mover. That too will make a big difference, as she'll repeatedly force Maria to hit yet one more ball.
My pick: Ivanovic in three
I think for Justine it's helpful that she's been in the late stages of a Slam so many times and understands the emotional and physical feelings you go through at this point of a tournament. Experience is very important.
Though Jankovic got to the semis last year at the U.S. Open, I think she's becoming an even better player since then. She's loose, she's moving well and she can give Justine trouble, particularly with her superb backhand down-the-line. It's a bit of an odd rivalry. They've played five times, and each match has gone three sets - but Justine's won every time. Jankovic has even admitted that she gets nervous against Justine.
Jankovic's best shot is if she's totally relaxed and if Justine gets nervous and starts to play tentatively. But based on the quality tennis she played versus Serena in the quarters, I don't see that happening. Against Serena, Justine was superb - efficient, smart, using her variety and movement to earn a fine win. The crowd will also be in Justine's corner. She's from the French-speaking part of Belgium and in many ways this is pretty much her home tournament.
My pick: Justine in two tight sets.
The Big Quarter - Henin-Williams - and why I'm picking Justine
By Martina Navratilova
Justine Henin versus Serena Williams. That's the match we all had our eyes on when the draw came out. In a lot of ways, this match should take place in the finals rather than the quarters. These two clearly are the world's best players.
It's a funny thing about this match coming so soon. I know whenever I played a big match there was always a lot of emotion in the air - and that could affect different players different ways. Serena's the kind of player, for example, who could win a match like this and then have so much confidence she'll likely steamroll herself all the way to the title.
For Justine it's not that simple. Win or lose, for someone of her size this match against Serena is going to take a lot of energy - physical, mental, emotional. And then if she wins it's not like she has the kind of power game that's just going to roll over people. She'll have to keep working, keep moving, keep building points with all that variety she has.
But it's that variety that I think is going to make Justine the winner. Justine can do so many things. Just with the backhand alone she can drive it with topspin or use the slice to play smart defense and get opponents off-balance. As my Tennis Channel colleague Rennae Stubbs said when we were discussing this matchup Monday morning, one of the keys to playing well on clay is to play smart defense, be patient, and then, when the opportunity comes, take advantage and play offense. Justine does this incredibly well. She's the consummate opportunist, looking for ways when the time's right to move forward and end the point. Her game can really put a lot of doubt in the opponent's head. You play someone like Justine and you're constantly wondering what she's doing, what shape the ball is going to take and how you're going to have to adjust.
Serena's got variety too - not so much with spin but with her ability to use the whole court. But she doesn't do that too much. Instead, she mostly pounds the ball, and as we saw this year when she won the Australian Open and Miami, she does it pretty darn well on the big occasions.
Firepower is the key if Serena wants to beat Justine. If I was Serena's coach for this match, I'd give her a one-word strategy: Impose. Take charge of the points. Jump on Justine's second serve.
Still, I think Justine's ability to move properly on clay will be significant. Justine is just so good at taking those little adjustment steps, and timing her slide into the ball. I guess just as I felt totally home on Wimbledon's grass, Justine is right in her element at Roland Garros.
Serena's a great champion, but she's also been tiptoeing through the tulips on clay, not really as comfortable on this surface. Everyone knows how well she covers the court, but footspeed is different than footwork. The slowness of the clay will force Serena to hit more balls than she'd like, which in turn could lead to unforced errors. I also think that on this surface she won't be able to get herself out of trouble with her big serve.
I also like the way this rivalry has matured. Things got somewhat dicey between these two after that lively '03 semifinal here. But since then, I think Serena and Justine have both come to deeply respect one another. They're so different. Serena likes being out there, while Justine is quite the introvert. But they're also quite similar: two driven, tenacious athletes, each with their own unique style. That's what tennis is all about - individuals, testing themselves. For both of them, this is the ultimate test.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
By Martina Navratilova
It's hard to believe how fast time flies. I so clearly remember coming here to Roland Garros when I was 16, just an ambitious tennis player with a Dunlop Maxply in my left hand, psyched up to play my first Grand Slam match. That was in 1973, and just to give you an idea of how this event has evolved, the court where I played my first match doesn't exist anymore. Directly over that old location is the Tenniseum – an on-site museum. It's currently showing off an exhibit of paintings I've created with a Slovak artist named Juraj Kralik (artgrandslam.org).
I must confess that even though I grew up playing on clay, the Grand Slam event that meant the most to me was Wimbledon. But I should also point out that for many years and for many players, the French Open wasn't quite on the scale of the other Slams. I won't bore you with the bloody details of tennis politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but during that time there was a lot going on – from rival circuits and tournaments to World Team Tennis – that made Roland Garros somewhat less of a priority than it's since become.
Certainly it was easy not to take this event seriously if you were a woman. Our court assignments weren't so hot. Rarely was a woman's match put on a marquee court. And then when I finally did get a chance to play in the big stadium here, it didn't feel like that big a deal as there were not that many people watching.
But what was a big deal in 1973 was when I beat a future Hall of Famer, American Nancy Richey in the round of 16. She'd won here in 1968 and was seeded fifth. Interestingly enough, her playing style was strikingly similar to another American who'd soon enough become my biggest rival, Chris Evert. To say Nancy was steady was an understatement. She was a superb dirtballer who'd just park herself on the baseline and drive deep groundstrokes with the consistency of a dentist drilling a cavity. So for me, a jumpy little teenager who loved to volley, having the chance to play and actually beat Nancy 6-3, 6-3 was a great thing.
So there I was, in the quarterfinals against another past Roland Garros champ, 1971 winner, Australian Evonne Goolagong. It was a tight match. The first set went to a tiebreak that Evonne won. Then she won the second set, 6-4. Sports fans tend to have short memories, so many people who follow tennis today won't remember Evonne. But those that do fondly recall what a fluid, elegant shotmaker she was. Though Evonne could be streaky – “walkabout” was the Aussie term for those odd lapses in concentration she'd have – when Evonne was focused she was a wonderful netrusher, not so much smothering you with power as massaging you with speed, touch and athleticism.
Nancy and Evonne were total opposites. But that's how tennis was then – there were lots of different playing styles. It's ratter ironic. Players off the court then were quite collegial and social with one another, but on the court so many of us were very much individuals when it came to how we hit the ball and went out about winning matches. But today, players off the court don't spend as much time together. Just about everyone has his or her own little camp. But when it comes to playing styles, there's not a lot of difference from one player to another. It's a shame. Then again, there's a lot more money in tennis, so obviously that's pretty good. Ah, the paradoxes of life.
Welcome To Roland Garros: A Hands-On View
by Martina Navratilova
It's so interesting for me to come back to Roland Garros and reflect on how much has changed here - and how much hasn't.
In some ways, everything has changed at Roland Garros since I first came here to play the French Open as a 16-year-old back in 1973. The event has grown tremendously. Every morning when I arrive on the grounds I see tons of fans waiting to get in. The prize money has soared - thank god the folks here have finally decided, this year, to give equal prize money to women. And then you walk around the grounds and see all sorts of merchandise. At some tournaments the products on display can be rather drab, but never here at Roland Garros. This truly is tennis' most colorful tournament.
When it comes to colors, I'm partial to earth tones, so terra cotta suits me fine, whether it's the color of my sweater or the dust in my socks. Which brings to me my next point - that nothing has changed when it comes to the patience and focus it takes to do well at Roland Garros. There's something very grounding - almost spiritual - about these red clay courts.
Then again, to me, Roland Garros is like coming home. While my game and personality lent itself to attacking on grass, I'm very grateful that I grew up playing on clay courts. I have fond, powerful memories of literally getting my hands all over the dirt. We would do everything to get the court ready, from rolling the clay to pulling weeds to putting chalk on the lines. It really gave me an appreciation of what this surface is all about.
What do I mean by that? I'm talking about texture, about sensuality, about playing on a surface that's natural, very different from the artificial surfaces you see so much more these days. You step on a clay court and you begin to think about tennis in a way different than just mindlessly whacking one ball after another. Just like golfers check out sand traps, every time I walk on a clay court I check things out. The footing, the slide - all that time spent with your feet in the earth gives a player a sense of how to get organized and how to start planning for a match. I love that tactile aspect.
My goal over the course of this tournament to give Tennis Channel viewers and readers a sense of what this clay is all about. Clay may be hard and demanding - as you might guess, I'm not the world's most patient person - but if you put in the time and learn to get yourself dirty, few things can be more rewarding than winning on clay.