The year’s clay-court major is over, but the memories from Paris are fresh and demand an overview. What were the biggest (though not always the best) headlines from the past two weeks of tennis on terre battue?
Without further ado:
5 – IVANOVIC’S AGONY
The upsets of Serena Williams and Li Na were notable, to be sure, but Serena doesn’t have anything to prove to tennis fans (only herself). Li remains an erratic player who will achieve poorly in one tournament but then richly in the next. Ivanovic, unable to reach the semifinals of a major since 2008, was and is the player who entered Paris with a big opportunity in front of her. The long-dormant nature of her career is precisely what made her resurgent clay-court season a source of immense personal hope. The global tennis community was hoping for a showdown with Simona Halep in the quarterfinals, in what would have been a matchup of an older former star from Serbia against a young and rising one from Romania.
Yet, Ivanovic tamely bowed out of this tournament before making the second week. A 3-and-3 third-round loss to another largely unfulfilled pro, Lucie Safarova, revealed the clay-court season to be what Ivanovic’s career has been over the past six years: a tease.
This was not “just another major without any real prospects” for Ivanovic. This time, at least some people felt that “she coulda been a contender.” She didn’t turn out to be one.
4 – ACUTELY TERRIBLE PERFORMANCE
The words above form the acronym “ATP,” which is also the acronym for the Association of Tennis Professionals, otherwise known as the men’s professional tennis tour. Men’s tennis has been so good over the past 10 years, and when the likes of Justine Henin, Venus Williams, Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, and Kim Clijsters (among others) either retired or stepped down from the mountaintops of their prime years, the WTA brand lost a measure of its quality.
However, there was and is (and can be) no question about the following statement: Men’s tennis flat-out stunk over these past two weeks in Paris. The Nadal-Djokovic final was a bust, but almost everything that preceded it was also lacking in a combination of quality and drama. If one match had quality (Rafael Nadal soaring in the semifinals against Andy Murray), it lacked any semblance of competitiveness. If one match overflowed with drama (Gael Monfils’s twin matches against Fabio Fognini and Murray, ultimate portraits of what the word “bizarre” means in the dictionary), it featured a constant stream of rubbish-level play and absurd capitulations from one or both players.
The semifinals were dull. The quarterfinals featured one really good first set between Nadal and David Ferrer… only for Ferrer to shockingly fade away in sets three and four of that match. Ernests Gulbis’s win over Roger Federer in the fourth round and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez’s win over Donald Young in the third round were the two best men’s matches of the fortnight.
That’s all you got, ATP? Better bring something much better at Wimbledon.
3 – FIRST-TIME SEMIFINALISTS AND FINALIST
One of the centrally heartwarming aspects of the tennis majors is when the various members of the sport’s global family — players young and old (and in between); journeymen and wide-eyed newbies; hyped talents and the crafty veterans — finally break through at a higher level, getting a taste of the glory, achievement, fat paychecks that they’ve sought for a long time.
At this tournament, three players finally made their first major semifinal, and one of them made a first major final.
Andrea Petkovic has been through a lot — let’s leave it at that and allow you to read her fuller story if you so choose. To see the German use the hollowed-out bottom section of the draw (Li Na’s quarter, which was blown to bits in the first round) to reach a first major semifinal represented the ultimate feel-good story of this whole tournament.
Ernests Gulbis making a major semifinal isn’t nearly as much of a feel-good story — not when he says things like this during his stay in Paris — but it is always (yes, always ) good to see an underachiever finally commit to a line of endeavor; put in the hard yards; and live up to his immense talents for once. Gulbis, only 25, has enough time to build up his mental toughness and win a major before he’s through. He probably won’t get to the winner’s circle this year, and probably not in 2015, either, but when the Nadals, Djokovices, and Murrays push 30 in 2016 and Gulbis is sitting there at age 27, he might have a narrow window in which he could claim one of tennis’s top prizes.
The third first-time semifinalist at Roland Garros became a first-time finalist. Simona Halep (note: her nickname originated from this member of Tennis Twitter, not Brad Gilbert or anyone else) lived up to the advance billing and, with a resilient showing against Maria Sharapova in the women’s final, offered every indication that she’s going to be a central presence on the WTA Tour for many years. Court craft, shotmaking, defense, a sense of the moment — Halep is mature beyond her years. In three years, Sharapova will be 30. Halep should get a crack at many major titles before she’s through — this might seem like an inappropriately premature application of pressure on her shoulders, but really — does anyone want to strongly refute that claim after seeing the Romanian comport herself on court the past two weeks?
2 – SHARAPOVA’S TUNNEL VISION
The match write-up of Maria Sharapova’s win over Simona Halep in the women’s final is here.
For perspective beyond the match, the relevant takeaway (at least for this writer) is that Sharapova’s title was won in much the same way that Roger Federer claimed his sole French Open title in 2009.
Recall that when Rafael Nadal bowed out of the tournament, all eyes turned to Federer as the expected favorite. That’s a lot of fresh pressure to bear, even with a more favorable path to the title. Athletes have to carry different kinds of pressure all the time, especially as fortunes wax and wane. Federer was no one’s favorite to win that 2009 title, but when Robin Soderling did his thing, the equation changed instantly.
It was much the same for Sharapova, who was not expected by anyone to beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. (Anyone who picked Sharapova to win the tournament, and there were some, almost surely anticipated that Serena would be taken out before the quarters.) Once Serena lost to Garbine Muguruza, Sharapova became the favorite to win the tournament. With Li Na and Ivanovic also losing in the first week, only Halep remained as a serious threat on the morning of the middle Sunday of the tournament.
As Sharapova took the court on Sunday evening for a fourth-round match against Samantha Stosur, she knew she was everyone’s target. This is quite similar to what Federer faced when he took the court for his 2009 fourth-round match against Tommy Haas, the day after Nadal was unthinkably dismissed from Paris. Federer was not airtight in that second week of Roland Garros five years ago. He trailed Haas two sets to love and 3-4, 30-40 in the third. He trailed Juan Martin del Potro, two sets to one, in the semifinals. He pulled through.
Similarly, Sharapova fought back from a set and 3-4, 0-15 down against Stosur in the fourth round. She battled back from one-set deficits in the quarters and semis. She absorbed a difficult second-set tiebreaker loss and the loss of a 4-2 third-set lead in the final against Halep.
Tunnel vision is an athlete’s best friend. Sharapova would not allow herself to be denied despite the fact that a fresh batch of pressure rested on her shoulders throughout the second week of this tournament.
1 – NADAL AFFIRMS HIS PLACE AMONG THE GODS; DJOKOVIC IS BETTER THAN EVERYONE… BUT ONE
Novak Djokovic is currently better than every other male tennis player on this red-bricked Earth… except one.
That’s pretty damn good… but it means that Djokovic, very much in his prime years, must be able to make good use of the next three years if he’s going to join the immortals of tennis when it’s all said and done.
McEnroe. Lendl. Connors. Agassi. Becker. Edberg. These are all legends of the game, but they reside at the top of smaller mountains. They’re not part of the Mount Olympus Club in men’s tennis. That supremely lofty place in the sport’s pantheon is reserved for Rod Laver.
It’s reserved for Pete Sampras.
It’s reserved for Bjorn Borg.
It’s reserved for Roger Federer.
It’s reserved for Rafael Nadal, a man who can win 10 French Opens next year and is now very likely to pass Sampras on the all-time major title list. The odds of at least tying Federer’s 17 are — let’s use a diplomatic word here to minimize a Twitter fan war — reasonable.
Nadal’s ability to beat Federer and Djokovic at the major tournaments is what will continue to enhance his place in tennis history long after his career ends. Djokovic will have to be content with a residency among the McEnroe-Agassi-Connors (et. al.) crowd unless he can rediscover the big-moment boldness he captured in a bottle from September 2010 through late January of 2012.