The four major tournaments do a lot to redefine the sport of tennis. Yes, these two-week events affirm many of pre-existing truths — Rafael Nadal’s a tolerably good tennis player on clay; Maria Sharapova is no longer a cow on ice when it comes to crushed red brick — but it’s always particularly fascinating to see how the majors change various realities as opposed to upholding them. How did the 2014 tennis season change as a result of what happened these past two weeks in Paris?
5 – IMPROVE THE PLAN, STAN
The rise of Stan Wawrinka on the ATP Tour over the past several months had been pronounced, yet not entirely free of shocking losses. The majority opinion on the Swiss (not a unanimous view, but a widely-held one) entering this French Open is that he was a likely bet to make the semifinals, but that his first-round match against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could pose problems. Wawrinka’s inability to win that match (and moreover, his inability to put up much of a fight in the last two sets) will rightly put a halt to any talk that he’s an entrenched member of the top tier of tennis’s power structure. Oh, he’s a member of that top tier, but entrenched? Not yet. He’s never been a particularly good grass-court player, so Wimbledon offers him a chance to outperform expectations and demonstrate a measure of staying power. Ultimately, of course, the summer hardcourt season, the U.S. Open, and the Davis Cup semifinals will tell us a lot more about where Wawrinka stands in the larger realm of men’s tennis.
4 – WTA OPPORTUNITY, PART ONE: WIMBLEDON
The transition from clay to grass is always abrupt and brief, and it often unearths different sets of success stories and champions. This year, the move to lawn tennis in Great Britain is worth monitoring not just because of Serena Williams’s quest to reassert herself at the Big W, but in light of how last year’s crazy Wimbledon (you could have called it Wimbledonnybrook ) unfolded.
Sabine Lisicki made a first major final last year at the All-England Club. Marion Bartoli won her first and only major at SW19 before retiring from the sport. Kirsten Flipkens made her first major semifinal last year as well on Wimbledon’s tennis greens. With Victoria Azarenka still in the midst of recuperating from injury and Sharapova unlikely to thrive away from clay, Wimbledon should offer a lot of opportunities for advancement to players outside the top 10. It’s going to be something to pay attention to.
How did the past two weeks in Paris fit into all this? Very simply, Andrea Petkovic, Eugenie Bouchard, and Simona Halep all seized opportunities to move through the draw. Petkovic and Bouchard were the particularly fortunate recipients of favorable paths through the bracket. What happened at Roland Garros could realistically be duplicated in suburban London, only with different players stealing the spotlight.
3 – WTA OPPORTUNITY, PART TWO: THE U.S. OPEN AND THE QUESTS OF THE “ALMOST” CROWD IN WOMEN’S TENNIS
The very same dynamics mentioned above could flow not just to Wimbledon, but also the U.S. Open. The “anything-can-happen” nature of the just-concluded French Open should offer hope to various women who are looking for a career breakthrough.
Look at this handy list compiled by Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract. It was compiled before this year’s Roland Garros tournament began, so you’ll notice that Simona Halep (pictured in the cover photo for this story, with chair umpire Kader Nouni) is no longer the highest-ranked player never to have reached a major semifinal or final. You’ll notice, too, that Andrea Petkovic is not on the list of highest-ranked WTA players never to have made a major semifinal.
One player who came so close to making a first major semifinal in Paris was Carla Suarez Navarro. A quarterfinal showing is a good run, but failing to hold onto a 4-1 third-set lead against Bouchard should — and probably will — haunt her for a long time.
At Wimbledon and then at the U.S. Open, players such as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova should feel that they can make a run. This doesn’t mean that they will make a run or that they should be expected to make a run by the pundit class, but it does mean that they need to believe they can still do great things with their careers. This will give life and definition to the 2014 tennis season.
2 – YOU’RE UP, NICOLAS ALMAGRO AND PHILIPP KOHLSCHREIBER
The list for the WTA produced by Jeff Sackmann in the above section has its ATP complement here. Again, this was a pre-Roland Garros list, so Ernests Gulbis can be removed from the ranks of top ATP players never to have reached a major semifinal. That’s one way in which the 2014 French Open redefined the tennis season. Milos Raonic reached his first major quarterfinal in Paris as well. Cross him off the major quarterfinal section of Sackmann’s statistical buffet.
The events from the past two weeks in Paris leave Nicolas Almagro and Philipp Kohlschreiber (someone you don’t even see on the list, given the German’s unacceptably low ranking) as the two most talented male tennis players to have never reached a major semifinal despite appreciable degrees of longevity on tour. Fabio Fognini is a fraud whose ranking is inflated by strong performances in non-major, non-Masters 1000 tournaments. Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, and Kei Nishikori are still relatively young. John Isner is not a semifinal-level player at the majors. Almagro and Kohlschreiber are the two ATP players who really should have made at least one major semi at this point in their careers. We’ll see if they can get there before they hang up the sneakers and the racquet.
Among the ATP players who have never made a major final, it’s clearly time for Gulbis — based on his performance in Paris — to take that next step. It might not happen in the next 12 months, but it ought to happen in the next 36 to 39 months.
1 – GREAT EXPECTATIONS FOR THE WTA
The women’s tournament wasn’t a great tournament overall — the whole French Open did not produce a copious quantity of great tennis, encompassing both 128-player events — but it certainly bested the men’s event from start to finish, especially in the semifinals and finals.
At the heart of the women’s tournament was the emergence of young players with bright futures. It’s very hard to doubt the claim that Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, and Garbine Muguruza will do big things in tennis before they’re done. Achievements aren’t (cannot be) guaranteed in sports, but some are far more likely to emerge than others. Halep, Bouchard and Muguruza all showed that they have the ability to achieve richly in this sport for several years. Determined, aggressive, and blessed with considerable shotmaking ability, this trio is precisely why the WTA enjoys such a promising future compared to the soon-to-sink ATP. This is likely to become one of the central stories of tennis not just in the second half of the 2014 season, but for the rest of this decade and maybe a few years beyond.