In the hours and days following Marion Bartoli’s maiden Grand Slam win, pundits and commentators have been hard at work spinning the wheel of adjectives (if not euphemisms) to describe the Frenchwoman. “Quirky.” “Eccentric.” “Unique.” All of which are ways of dancing around the word one really wants to use when opining on the veteran top tenner: “weird.”
Compared to her WTA colleagues, it’s true: Marion Bartoli is weird. While her two-handed groundstrokes set her apart from the rest on a fundamental level, Bartoli has made a career of exaggerating the sport’s fundamentals. She takes dramatic practice cuts before kangaroo jumping her way into a widely open-stance return position. She winds up to serve in a hitch-filled motion that looks more like a manual flip book of what a serve is supposed to look like. She is very aware of her surroundings, acknowledging cheering fans with an emphatic fist pump of appreciation.
Even in the context of a tournament so full of surprises and early round upsets that Wimbledon itself was re-dubbed “Wimbleweird,” Bartoli managed to stand out. Though coming into what has been her best major tournament (reaching the finals in 2007), the Frenchwoman had suffered through a middling 2013 highlighted by her decision to extricate her father from his perennial position as her coach and confidante. While bigger names went out in her half of the draw, Bartoli continued to cruise, not only reaching the final without losing a set, but also doing so without facing a top 10 player.
Against prohibitive favorite Sabine Lisicki, Bartoli continued to “weird out” those in attendance. The German had taken out two of the top four seeds, and had won three of her four matches against the Frenchwoman (including a quarterfinal encounter at the All-England Club two years ago). Yet, Lisicki crumbled under the weight of expectation, and Bartoli steadied her own nerves to play with the enthusiastic poise that has seen her conquer multiple Slam champions and reigning World No. 1s throughout her career.
As she closed out victory with an ace and jubilantly skipped over to greet her supporters (including her father with her new hitting partner, Thomas Drouet), I began to wonder if the read on Bartoli was all wrong.
Maybe Marion is one of the normal ones.
As a player, what was weird about Bartoli, whose best results have come on grass, using her on-the-rise groundstrokes to overwhelm seven opponents en route to the title? As a person, shouldn’t the athlete who gracefully stalks about big stages seemingly immune to nerves and tension look more to viewers like the “weird” one?
In this way, Bartoli is the People’s Champion in more ways that one would think. Over the years, she has approached a game often played at immortal levels as methodically as she has uniquely, constantly trying new and better ways of competing with the game’s elite. What many deemed “rituals,” she has seen as formulas for success. Where she has shown fits of greatness, she has also shown human frailty as she struggled with various injuries that derailed potentially earlier title runs.
When she saw she could go no further with her father’s coaching earlier this year, she began opening up to other ideas, and even made amends with the French Federation after years of ostracism and alienation. Fed Cup Captain Amelie Mauresmo and teammate Kristina Mladenovic’s presence in Bartoli’s player box was proof that Bartoli had been warmly welcomed back into the fold.
With these changes came a dip in form; some may have thought her master plan had backfired, but Bartoli refused to buckle under the immediate consequences of major change. As she’s always done, she continued to work and fine-tune her team until they were as formulaic as her two-handed volleys.
In victory and in press, she was charming and unguarded, standing in stark contrast with the high-jumping cartoon character one sees between points. Her pure, unadulterated joy was very human, something we all could imagine feeling after reaching the precipice of our life’s purpose.
If there was anything “weird” about Marion Bartoli holding the Venus Rosewater Dish aloft, perhaps it had to do with the fact that, despite the changes in technology, the vast accumulation of natural (or superhuman) talent, even the steely nerves shown throughout the tennis world, a normal young woman can continue to grow, change and tinker with her game and rise to the pinnacle of her sport.
After all these years and compared to the surrounding names in the Wimbledon Compendium, Marion Bartoli may still be a “weirdo.” But her fortnight at the All-England Club proved that she was something more.
She’s one of us.
The morning after Wimbledon’s now-infamous “Black Wednesday” was a hazy time for most; fans and pundits were trying to come out from beneath the rubble left by the shocking number of upsets.
It is often said that exercise can help clear the mind and aid in decision-making. However, burning calories (as well as one’s own sense of dignity) with former World No. 2 and two-time Grand Slam finalist Vera Zvonareva did little to restore normalcy to an already-crazy week.
In a partnership with Fila, Zvonareva hosted a racquet sports oriented fitness class with Miami-based trainer Greg Corso in Manhattan, at the Upper East Side’s Sports Club LA. For the former Olympic Bronze medalist (and the group of reporters participating), the forty-five minute class was only a taste of the Russian’s off-court conditioning routine as she works towards a comeback from a shoulder injury.
“During the off-season, we train…probably four hours on the tennis court and at least two-three hours off the court,” Zvonareva remarked in a Q&A session following the class.
The course, held on the Sport Club’s roof, emphasized the importance of the full-body workout required by a professional athlete throughout the year. While most of the exercises were aerobic in nature, Corso and Zvonareva also made use of resistance bands and free-weights as heavy as ten pounds that morphed the burn into a small fire felt by the admittedly unprepared press core.
“To prevent [injuries], we do a full-body workout, but with lighter weights, with [exercise] bands just to keep ourselves conditioned.”
The workout was conceived with the help of videos taken during Zvonareva’s actual workouts with her coach, which adds a stamp of authenticity most fitness classes cannot boast.
“My job was to figure out how to adapt [those sessions] into a group exercise setting, with a big crowd and a limited space,” said Corso, who looked to the resistance bands (strapped to the ankles) as the key to making the class work for racquet-sport athletes who require practice with lateral movement.
Zvonareva agreed. “Using the bands helps a lot, because then you can do two steps, right/left, and you’re getting that movement that you want…you don’t need to run across the whole tennis court!”
The class required constant movement under the Manhattan sun, an essential feature for the athlete who will need to draw on that stamina over the course of a long tennis match.
“The thing about tennis is that you always have to give 100% every point, and it is very difficult because even if you’re tired, you still have to play the point at the professional level…you lose a couple of points, you lose your serve, you lose the game, it can cost you the whole match…[During this class], you have that hour but you have to keep pushing yourself.”
For the exhausted students, Zvonareva reminded us that it wasn’t always as effortless as she made the workout appear. On the exercise called the “Burpee,” she recalled, “I remember when I was 12 years old, my coach would do something like this and we were all dying…as soon as he turns away we’re like ‘stop it!’ It’s a very difficult one, but it helps a lot.”
The former Russian No. 1 has been off the court for nearly a year, last playing at the London Olympics. After getting surgery on her shoulder in February, she returned to school, and received a degree in International Economic Relations. She flew into New York the next day to conduct the class. Though looking in phenomenal shape, she admitted it was difficult to balance fitness with studying.
“I was studying so much that I had no energy to do fitness, it was so difficult for me…I was doing some, but not every day because once you start reading you keep going and going and it’s midnight already…when I’m playing tennis five hours a day, I still have energy to go and do fitness, but studying…it was so difficult!”
Keeping up with the Tour has been difficult for the college graduate, but she tries to keep in touch with friends like Elena Vesnina. For those wondering about that comeback, Zvonareva left the media in no suspense.
“I’m heading to Arizona, that’s where I will start my training. I’m meeting with my physiotherapist there and hopefully he will give me a green light to start training. I don’t know how long it will take but maybe three-four months before I can start playing at 100%.”
Zvonareva was a gracious host and encouraging teacher to her tired and, later, very sore students. The experience was a tremendous insight into the mind and work ethic of one of most disciplined and well-conditioned players on the WTA Tour, illustrating the key difference between “player” and “professional.”
Nearly a year removed from her championship run to the Wimbledon girl’s title, Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard has joined the WTA tour looking every bit the part of junior prodigy turned senior contender. Impeccably packaged, Bouchard is tall, blonde, and obviously styled to have a Sharapova-like serenity on the court.
But her “womanly bearing” can be deceiving, for despite all visual cues pointing to Bouchard’s readiness to play on the woman’s tour, the fact remains: she still plays a girl’s game.
Gone are the days when young talents like Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis can sweep onto the Tour and beguile older opponents with a mature cunning that belied their age. The grinding (but ultimately underpowered) game that works wonders on the contemporary junior circuit is too often in for a rude awakening when it tries to transition to the seniors.
Serving as a stark contrast, the WTA Tour has expanded from one-dimensional “Big Babe Tennis” into early ball striking with laser-like precision. Better technique paired with more forgiving technology has raised the collective margin of error, which allows big hitters to take more risk, and narrows openings for players like Bouchard, who prefer to rely on opponents’ errors.
As much as the women’s game has evolved in the last decade, expert defenders can still make their way through a field of lower-ranked players who beat themselves. At a Wimbledon warm-up in Birmingham, Bouchard drew one such “baseline basher” in Bojana Jovanovski. The Canadian must have liked her chances of causing a minor upset against the Serbian No. 3, who lacks a lengthy grass court resumé.
But Jovanovski had just come off of consecutive victories over former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Despite the Dane’s fall from the top of the rankings (punctuated by a slump that saw her win only one match on red clay), she still plays the kind of game that could be kryptonite for the hyperagressive Serb. Wozniacki’s style of play, even at its worst, is Bouchard’s, only taken to the tenth power. Though similar at its core, Bouchard not only eschews most aggressive inclinations, but also lacks the kind of scrambling defense required to outlast players like Jovanovski.
That kind of perfect storm can have some unintentionally hilarious consequences.
After falling behind a set, Jovanovski began taking more and more advantage of the Canadian’s weak serve. By the end of the match, she was standing mere inches from the service line to crush returns and gain immediate ascendency. Bouchard was able to capitalize on enough Jovanovski errors to make games tight, but the match was always in the Serb’s hands. Though the Canadian had opportunities to level the third set, Jovanovski was able to suddenly end games at will, with winners that seemed to scream “Enough!” to both her young opponent and the crowd, who began to squirm out of sympathy for the overmatched Bouchard.
Jovanovski would end the titanic struggle anticlimactically with a 6-2 final set that was surprising in its efficiency. Far from a notorious closer, Jovanovski may have been allowed to flounder against a more game opponent, but Bouchard was in no position to make her opponent over-think things.
It may only be Bouchard’s first full year on the senior tour, but at 19, she is already older than other aforementioned “well-packaged prodigies.” As the Canadian inches into her twenties, it will only become more difficult for her to revamp her game, to “woman up” in order to compete with the game’s best. Not unlike Wozniacki, Bouchard looks built for aggression, but conversely looks less adept at retrieving compared to her Danish counterpart.
A loss like this may have come early enough to be a lesson, or perhaps an ultimatum: play a big girl’s game, or risk becoming a little girl lost.
(June 7, 2013) It’s the dream final most were expecting: No. 1 seed Serena Williams taking on No. 2 seed and defending champion Maria Sharapova. The American is in her 20th final and holds the head-to-head edge against the Russian, 13-2. The two have met six times alone within the past year on three different surfaces, and it has been a clean sweep for Williams. However, this marks the first time Sharapova has successfully reached the final of a Slam as defending champion, and has reached quarterfinals or better of every tournament she has entered this year.
So, will Williams once again come out the victor, or can Sharapova finally step up to the plate and take out the American? Our panel of Tennis Grandstand writers Chris Skelton, David Kane and Victoria Chiesa tackle the match head on.
Chris Skelton (@ChrisSkelton87): Have we not seen this movie before? It’s like Titanic without the love story. Sharapova’s massive cruise liner of power and will invariably crumbles when it rams into the iceberg of Serena’s serve, first strikes, and natural athleticism. The iceberg never goes anywhere and has shown no sign of melting with time, while the cruise liner just keeps barreling straight into it without trying to steer around it.
Granted, Sharapova looked like she might have turned a corner in this non-rivalry when she won the first set from Serena in the Miami final this spring. She executed a game plan of serving into her opponent’s body and breaking down her forehand with impressive belief. When Serena asserted herself by erasing a small second-set deficit, though, Sharapova quickly collapsed. That match illustrated the fragility of her self-belief against Serena, which often has turned their matches into ugly affairs from the outset. (Think back to the 2007 Australian Open final or the Olympics gold-medal match last year.)
Most recently, the Madrid final showed that Sharapova’s recent dominance on clay does not translate into conquering her nemesis. Serena conceded only five games in that final and should concede no more here in a match without turning points.
Winner: Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-3
David Kane (@ovafanboy): Remember, I predicted Serena Williams would lose before the semifinals. Though Svetlana Kuznetsova was a handful of games from making me look like a genius, the Russian exposed a crack in the American No. 1’s otherwise chipless veneer. If that was a message that the winner of Rome (and Madrid) was vulnerable, her semifinal demolition of Sara Errani let everyone know that she had taken an industrial buffer to that quarterfinal wrinkle in form as she made last year’s finalist look like a journeywoman.
All of this rings like a bad omen to Maria Sharapova. While she took control of a topsy-turvy encounter with Victoria Azarenka in the other semifinal, that match-up, all can agree, was always in the tall Russian’s hands. The match-up against Williams is a different story. The American can match Sharapova for power, and still has miles on her in consistency and athleticism. On paper, this has “blowout” written all over it. Yet, this match may come down to a battle of nerves. Maria has a mental block when it comes to Serena, but Serena still has a block on Paris, if the quarters were any indication. Both come into this final with something to prove, and the winner, she who conquers her demons, will be a worthy champion.
Winner: Maria Sharapova 6-4 5-7 6-3
Victoria Chiesa (@unseededlooming): They say that statistics rarely tell the whole story. Well, sometimes, they do. There’s not much in the ‘tale of the tape’ that looks good for Maria Sharapova; her head-to-head against Serena Williams is 2-13 and she hasn’t beaten her since the WTA Championships in 2004. Before this year’s final in Miami, Sharapova had not even won a set in the pair’s meetings since the quarterfinals of Charleston in 2008. On the other side, this tournament has been all about redemption for Serena Williams; off of a first round loss a year ago, the World No. 1 came into Paris with one goal in mind.
If semifinal form is anything to go by, Williams could very well take the match out of Sharapova’s hands. Williams fired 40 winners in 46 minutes in a clinical victory over Sara Errani, while Sharapova littered the stat sheet in a three-set slog against Victoria Azarenka. As always, the serve will be key for Sharapova; she struck 12 aces against Azarenka, but paired them with 11 double faults. Both players will be feeling different kinds of pressure at the start of the match; Williams is in her first Roland Garros final in 11 years while Sharapova is looking to defend a slam for the first time. It might be close early, but Williams possesses a gear that no one else in women’s tennis has when she’s on a mission. That gear will see her through to a second Roland Garros title.
Winner: Serena Williams, 7-5 6-2
One of my earliest tennis-related memories involves me truncating a fifth-grade journal entry to watch a night match during the 2002 US Open. At the bottom of the page, I wrote “CAPRIATI VS. MATTEK” in purple gel ink before apparently going off to watch then-top American Jennifer Capriati double-bagel a young Bethanie Mattek-Sands under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I don’t recall anything from the match (least of all what the now-infamous fashion rebel was wearing), but looking back over the last decade, it was undoubtedly the last time the American veteran could be described as anything other than “memorable.”
In her early 20s, she turned the large shadow cast by compatriots like the Williams sisters and Davenport into a whacky sideshow act. Over the years, the WTA’s resident couture maven has played matches in leopard print, uneven sleeves, and knee socks (not to mention her signature eye black). Despite failing to rack up big wins in her early years on the Tour, she became a player who commanded attention in other ways, and her honest quirkiness ended up gaining her a cult following. Her showman-like style, however, belies a tidily efficient all-court game, honed by her frequent success in doubles. Where she may lack the wattage of her contemporaries, she nonetheless is more than capable of out-aggressing her peers by taking the ball on the rise and finishing off points at the net.
Looking to join the long roster of her generation’s late bloomers, Mattek-Sands hit her stride in 2011, reaching only her second Slam third-round, but arrived at Wimbledon two weeks later ranked in the top 32 at a major tournament for the first time in her career. Arriving to court in a tennis ball-embellished leather jacket designed by Alex Noble, Mattek-Sands let a three-set heartbreaker to Misaki Doi slip away; from there, the American went on a downward spiral of injuries and early losses. As recently as this January, the American was ranked outside the top 150.
Unbeknownst to many in the tennis world, what seemed like rock bottom for Mattek-Sands was the start of a truly inspiring comeback. Much like current ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic, she discovered a host of food allergies were contributing to the fatigue she had been feeling last fall. Now carrying a trusty “Do Not Eat” list wherever she goes, Mattek-Sands has revolutionized her diet and fitness. The results were not too far behind. After making the finals of an International event in Kuala Lumpur, she turned things up a notch during the clay court season, the site of her triumphs from two years ago. Sporting a blue tint to her blonde hair, she recorded an emphatic victory over Sloane Stephens in Charleston and a dramatic three-set win over Sara Errani (last year’s French Open finalist) en route to the semifinals of Stuttgart, where she lost to Li Na.
Here in Paris, Mattek-Sands has already completed her career renaissance with revenge over 2011 French Open Champion Li and solid wins over competent clay courters in Lourdes Dominguez-Lino and Paula Ormaechea. Twice coming from a set down, the American has shown tremendous resilience and has translated her willingness to overcome adversity off the court to her matches. She will need all of that fight against the relentless Maria Kirilenko if she hopes to keep the run going and make her first major quarterfinal.
I think about my old journal when I think of Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Every entry was written in a different color of (glittery) ink and, lacking any air of pretension in its prose, its voice never took itself too seriously. But that journal was left unfinished. The best part about Mattek-Sands’s story is that, having already made up so much ground, she has the opportunity to go even farther, to rewrite pages that nobody ever thought would be written in the first place. No matter how or when this French Open chapter ends, Mattek-Sands has made it clear that her story is far from over.
Caroline Wozniacki won’t beat you with power.
She doesn’t have a booming serve to guarantee her easy points. She won’t intimidate you with her reckless aggression, nor will she take time away with forays to the net. Through her struggles during this year’s clay court season, it has become readily apparent that the source of the former No.1’s prior successes laid almost exclusively on one concept: belief.
Far from a simple “I think, therefore I am” scenario, the Dane’s belief was two-fold. For one, she believed in herself, in her fitness and consistency. An underrated athlete, Wozniacki could run all day, tracking down what would be a winner against any other player, and force her opponent to hit one extra ball. At her best, she did everything well which, against her more combustible rivals, was good enough to take her through most of the matches she played over the course of 18 months.
This leads to the second, more changeable part of Wozniacki’s sense of belief. She not only believed in her own ability, but she also believed in the inability of others. Though her opponents could hit more winners and endear crowds with their flashier styles, Caroline was consistent, maddeningly so. Even with her back against the wall, she was content to keep grinding until she had worn her opponents down into a pile of frustration over what appeared to be wasted opportunities.
When trying to fend off the criticism she faced as a Slamless No. 1, Wozniacki once quipped, “if I don’t have a weapon, then what do the others have? Since I’m No. 1, I must do something right. I think they’re not actually criticizing me. I think the other players should be offended.”
To a large degree, that was true. More often than not, Wozniacki figuratively (and literally) put the ball in her opponent’s court, seemingly begging them to put away the high ball she would plant in the middle of the court. Time and again, however, the big hitters missed that ball at a match’s most crucial junctures. They would get overexcited, they would get nervous, they would get tentative. Either way, they would hit the ball out and Wozniacki would go on to win the match.
But in the last year, something changed. The big hitters stopped missing. They began to grow in their own belief, chipping away at Caroline’s confidence in the process and causing her game to regress as a result. Now lacking her once unshakable on-court calm, she still goes for as much (or as little) as ever, but the errors have begun to pile up, allowing players like Bojana Jovanovski leverage to borrow against her own blistering groundstrokes.
Against this compromised version of Wozniacki, more risk pays off. Locked in a first set tiebreaker, the young Serb played emphatic tennis, with five of her seven points ending on a winner. Jovanovski parlayed this momentum into a 3-0 lead in the second set, and even had two chances for a double break.
For a moment, though, it still looked like Wozniacki maintained a degree of mental ascendency over her competition. She steadied her game and made Jovanovski think about that which she was on the verge of doing: beating a top 10 player at a major tournament. Even as Jovanovski took the lead again, there were questions about whether the more mentally fragile Serb could close the deal as she served for the match. More surprising than the upset itself, Jovanovski played a calm, drama-free game to serve out the match to 15, ending Wozniacki’s clay court season with an abysmal 3-5 record (including her two wins on Charleston’s green clay).
There will be those who will look to Wozniacki’s shaken confidence as the sole contributor to a loss like this, but attention must be equally paid to the young woman who followed up a nail-biter of a win over Wozniacki in Rome with a decisive victory in Paris. The Dane is not playing with the same ruthless efficiency of two years ago, but the ball was as much in Jovanovski’s court as ever. Perhaps sick and tired of missing when it mattered most, the unseeded Serb got out of her head and bundled the struggling Wozniacki out of the tournament. For Wozniacki, there is an air of tragic irony to lose in this way. After all, it wasn’t about Jovanovski’s ability to hit her opponent off the court.
It was that Jovanovski believed she could.
At the start of every major tournament, a draw of 128 randomly placed names can be daunting to even the most experienced of tennis fans. It helps to know how to separate the melting pot of names into three categories, thereby organizing them by expectation.
The favorites and the also-rans make up the extreme ends of this three-tiered cake gauging Slam success. The favorites, small in number, backload the pressure they might feel if they enter the event with sufficient confidence in the belief that they will have to eventually defeat a co-favorite for the title.
The also-rans make up the majority of the draw, though most will be gone within the first few days of any given event. Free from expectation of any kind, winning seven matches in two weeks is rarely on the menu for this kind of player, but that freedom can catalyze a good story and an even better run if things go right early on.
As in tennis draws as in families, the middle tier is where a tournament experiences most of its angst. Occupying a space just above the also-rans (but significantly below the favorites) the darkhorses arguably have the most pressure from the get-go, as by definition these are the players tagged to do that which often contradicts their ranking or prior results. However, if they can get on a roll, that seemingly insurmountable weight of expectation lifts with each match won, and finds itself more and more on the favorites’ shoulders, whose mettle will finally be tested after a week-long warm-up.
The best part about the early rounds of a Slam, then, is getting to see all three kinds of player compete not only at once, but against one another, and how each deal with the presence (or lack) of expectation.
One potential darkhorse who appeared not ready for primetime in Paris was German sensation Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion, tapped by many as a legitimate contender for the title in 2011, has been struggling with bouts of dizziness and a GI illness, both of which hampered her progress throughout the clay court season. Faced with the opportunity to play an unranked veteran in the first round, Goerges must have liked her chances despite the cloud of misfortune that had followed her into the event.
But Zuzana Kucova had other ideas. Playing Roland Garros as a way of saying goodbye to tennis (the 30-year-old Slovak plans to retire by tournament’s end), Kucova played inspired tennis, first to out-gut Goerges in an extended first set tiebreak, then to bagel the German, who failed to find much of a rhythm on her extreme-gripped forehand. In her last tournament, Kucova finds herself in the second round of a Slam main draw for the first time, and while the win hardly elevates her to “darkhorse,” it makes for a great story, and what makes the Grand Slams so special.
Another player exhibiting few signs of pressure was defending champion and second-favorite to repeat (behind nemesis Serena Williams) was Maria Sharapova. Playing a similar warm-up schedule to last year, the Russian has felt at home on the terre battue in the last few years in a way that feels both shocking and refreshing. Once a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has conquered a surface that once gave her fits. If the draw suddenly lacked Williams, she would be the overwhelming favorite to defend the title that earned her the career Slam a year ago.
The American’s presence in the draw serves two purposes for Sharapova. While it decreases her eventual odds of winning, the accompanying decrease in expectation frees her up to play (dare I say it?) Kucova-like tennis. Against a familiar opponent in Hsieh Su-Wei, Sharapova played a perfect match, holding serve throughout, cracking more winners than errors, and led the star from Chinese Taipei in all stats except double faults; in what was the biggest upset of the day, Sharapova served none.
For all of the “feel good” stories a Slam brings, however, there must always be some element of tragedy. Such was the case for two darkhorses, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep. Both had fantastic results coming into Paris, the former with a run to the finals of Oeiras and the quarterfinals in Rome. By contrast, Halep had saved all of her magic for the Foro Italico where, as a qualifier, she stunned three current and former top 2 players (Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Jankovic) to reach the semifinals. Both were expected to do big things at the second Slam of the year provided, of course, one defeated the other in their first round match.
In what was ultimately the bad luck of the draw, the two darkhorses came out on a non-televised court, played three sets of high quality tennis (both hit more than 20 and less than 30 errors over three sets), only for Halep to find herself on the losing end of the tussle. Suarez Navarro evidently played stunningly perfect clay court tennis, but sympathy must lie with the Romanian who, on Day 2 of Roland Garros, is out of a tournament where she was expected to do well with nothing tangible to show for it.
This dynamic of favorites, darkhorses and also-rans may seem complicated, but how all three forces come together over a two week span is what gives a Grand Slam tournament much of its “epic” qualities. While the field may decrease with each passing day, the three tiers of triumph help serve both dramatic tennis and compelling stories.
(May 25, 2013) With Roland Garros officially kicking off on Sunday, the team at Tennis Grandstand has once again come together to provide you a one-stop comprehensive preview of the women’s draw of the season’s second Slam. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the women’s tour.
In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the WTA draw, with further detailed analysis below by Melissa Boyd, Victoria Chiesa, David Kane, Chris Skelton, and Maud Watson.
Melissa Boyd: (14) Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic has played well this clay court season and appears to be most comfortable on the red dirt. Roland Garros is her best chance to win another Slam and the draw was kind to the Serbian. She avoids the Top 3 until the semifinals and finds herself in the same section as the struggling Agnieszka Radwanska and last year’s finalist, Sara Errani.
Victoria Chiesa: (20) Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard knows what it takes to be successful in Paris, as she reached the quarterfinals in her debut in 2008 as a qualifier. Since then, however, she has not advanced further than the third round. After reaching the final in Oeiras, she also reached the quarterfinals in Rome before losing to Serena Williams. She opens against another potential dark horse in Simona Halep. Should she find a way past the Romanian, the 20th seed is in by far the most open quarter of the draw to make a run at the second week; a potential third round against Nadia Petrova (11) is in the cards, but the Spaniard already scored a clay-court win against the Russian in Rome.
David Kane: Simona Halep. Have you ever seen a player and thought, “why do I know you?” You don’t remember them winning a title or causing a noteworthy upset. Yet when Simona Halep clubbed her way into the semifinals of Rome, few among the tennis cognoscenti were completely left scratching their heads. The young Romanian won the French Open girl’s title at 16, but despite being a mainstay of the top 100 for the last few years, had yet to make a big breakthrough on the senior tour. That all changed at the Foro Italico when, as a qualifier, she upset a host of current and former top 4 players including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic before running out of gas against an inspired Serena Williams. Halep only has one third round appearance on her Grand Slam CV, but should she get past fellow darkhorse Carla Suarz Navarro in the first round, her draw may open up with struggling Nadia Petrova anchoring her section.
Chris Skelton: (14) Ana Ivanovic. The champion here five years ago, she showed glimpses of vintage form by reaching the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. Ivanovic extended world No. 2 Sharapova to three tough sets at the former event and demolished top-eight opponent Angelique Kerber at the latter. Ana remains susceptible to the unforeseen clunker, and always will be, but her first-week draw is filled with players whom she normally handles with ease. None of the top three can meet her until the semifinals.
Maud Watson: Can I just say Serb? I like both (14) Ana Ivanovic and (18) Jelena Jankovic as dark horse candidates. Both have produced some good tennis in 2013, and this season Jankovic in particular has enjoyed her most success on the dirt. Still, I’d give the edge to Ivanovic. She has it easiest in her opening rounds and has actually won a major.
Seeded Player Crashing Out Early
Boyd: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska. It would have been easy to go with Caroline Wozniacki here. The Dane has not won a match on red clay in four tournaments this year and has to play the fast-rising Laura Robson in the first round. Radwanska’s clay court record in 2013 is almost as unflattering as her good friend. She has won just one match and has never made it past the fourth round at Roland Garros.
Chiesa: (8) Angelique Kerber. For her first round match, Kerber was dealt one of the players on the fringe of a seeding in countrywoman Mona Barthel. Neither player comes into the match on a rich vein of form. Despite reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid, Kerber withdrew from Rome citing injury; Barthel also withdrew from the Italian Open, and did not win a match in Stuttgart or Madrid. Barthel is a tricky case, as her form can turn on a dime, and she holds a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against her countrywoman. Even if Kerber does pull through this match, she’ll do well to live up to her seeding and set up a quarterfinal date with Serena on her least-preferred surface.
Kane: (6) Li Na. The veteran Chinesewoman has been trending up in 2013, with a run to the Australian Open finals and recovered well from an ankle injury to reach the Stuttgart finals to start the clay court season. But when last we left Li Na, she put on a terrible show to lose to Jelena Jankovic in Rome. So often in tennis, it is rarely about to whom one loses as much as how one plays during that loss. An upset wasn’t improbable, given Li’s resurgent Serbian opponent. But the ridiculously high number of unforced errors (62 in two sets) looks more like foreshadowing than an aberration. Against a steady claycourter in Anabel Medina Garrigues (against whom Li is 0-3 in completed matches) in round one, the 2011 Champion will have to be on song from the get-go, lest she face another surprising Slam exit.
Skelton: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska. The obvious choice in this category is Caroline Wozniacki (see below), but that’s too easy when someone much more notable has struggled almost as much. A top-four seed at Roland Garros, Radwanska has won just one clay match this year while absorbing overwhelming losses to Laura Robson and Simona Halep. Clay is her worst surface, and she withdrew from her Brussels title defense last week with a shoulder injury. While Radwanska doesn’t have many giant-killers around her, Halep didn’t seem like a giant-killer until she slew her.
Watson: (10) Caroline Wozniacki. A couple of names come to mind here, with one of those names being Caroline Wozniacki. It’s hard to imagine a time when the former No. 1’s confidence and form have been lower than they are right now. Against an up-and-comer like Robson – who has already enjoyed more than a few big wins in her young career – she’s definitely ripe for the upset.
First Round Match to Watch For
Boyd: Eugenie Bouchard vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. After reaching her first WTA semifinal in Strasbourg thanks to some impressive wins, the 19-year-old Canadian arrives in Paris on a roll. Her game on clay has vastly improved and she’s chalking up experience as she goes along. It will be interesting to see how she deals with the former Wimbledon semifinalist. A win for Bouchard and she will likely play her idol Maria Sharapova for the second time in two months in the second round.
Chiesa: (22) Ekaterina Makarova vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. One of the women’s draw’s most dangerous floaters, one of Kuznetsova’s crowning career achievements came in Paris when she lifted the trophy in 2009. She just missed out on a seeding here and Makarova is coming off of a strong quarterfinal showing in Madrid that included a win over Azarenka, the Belarusian’s first true loss of the year. The two have never played on clay, but Kuznetsova holds a 2-1 head-to-head lead after a 6-4, 6-4 win in Miami this year.
Kane: (7) Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai. If you read my article from last week (or follow me on twitter), you’ll know of my penchant for reality television. What first round match looks more likely to be real than Kvitova/Rezai? Both have flashy games, with the ability to crush any ball seemingly at will. Both have the potential to fly horribly off the rails and rack up triple-digit unforced errors. Playing at home, the already-expressive Rezai will draw on the energy of an upset-hungry crowd. Kvitova has been struggling, and seems as far from her top tier, world beating form as ever. The odds of this being a “pretty” match are low, but this has “Trainwreck of the Year” potential written all over it. And damned if I won’t be there for every second.
Skelton: (18) Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova. This match might not produce the best tennis or most meaningful result on the menu, but the first round is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s a rare opportunity to see two former members of the top five and two major semifinalists meet in the first round. Their last five meetings all have come on clay, they have a relatively close head-to-head with multiple thrillers, and each has shown recent signs of life. Colliding for the first time in two years, Jankovic and Hantuchova will showcase a lovely contrast of styles between the down-the-line groundstrokes of the Serb and the cross-court angles of the Slovak.
Watson: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska vs Shahar Peer in the first round isn’t a popcorn match. But the Pole has run a dismal clay court campaign that’s been compounded by shoulder issues. How she looks in her opening match could be a good indicator as to just how likely she is to live up to her No. 4 seeding.
First Round Upset Special
Boyd: Olga Govortsova d. (13) Marion Bartoli. Bartoli has struggled this season amidst her coaching changes and has not had great preparation coming into Paris. Last week in Strasbourg, she won only five games in a first round loss to Camila Giorgi. Add to that the pressure of playing your home Slam and Bartoli is a prime candidate for a first round upset.
Chiesa: Laura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki comes into Roland Garros on a five match losing streak and is winless on red clay so far in 2013. While Robson too has struggled since the early part of the season, Wozniacki’s plight is different. The former World No. 1 seems lost on court and rarely looks to be enjoying her tennis. Barely hanging on to a spot in the top 10, I’d call it a bigger upset if Wozniacki manages to win this match.
Kane: Kimiko Date-Krumm d. (9) Sam Stosur. This pick has little to do with Stosur; though coming off a calf injury that derailed most of her spring, the top Aussie did have a solid run to the quarterfinals of Rome where she pushed nemesis Victoria Azarenka to three sets. This has more to do with her draw, namely her first round opponent, the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm. No stranger to the first round upset, Date-Krumm beat two-time finalist Dinara Safina in Paris three years ago, and began 2013 with a crushing win over Nadia Petrova in Australia. Her unorthodox groundstrokes are hit with a thudding efficiency, and take time away from her opponents. Even at her best, Stosur is a player who needs the extra couple of seconds that clay courts give her to wind up her topspin forehand. Coming in still lacking sufficient match practice, she could be in for a long day against Date-Krumm, who beat her in their only prior encounter in 2010.
Skelton: Laura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Since reaching the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki has fallen off a cliff. She has not won a match on red clay this year, losing five straight overall starting with Charleston. One of her losses came when she squandered a third-set lead against Bojana Jovanovski, who hasn’t beaten anyone else since the Australian Open. Anyone marginally dangerous will have a chance against Wozniacki right now, and Robson is more than marginally dangerous after she upset Radwanska in Madrid.
Watson: Anabel Medina Garrigues d. (6) Li Na. Li Na is another likely prospect for crashing out early, as she takes on Medina Garrigues in her opening match. Medina Garrigues is a crafty veteran who gave Serena all she could handle in Madrid (albeit with some blatant cheating). She’s an especially tough customer on the clay, so unless Li can clean up her game, her stay in Paris won’t be a long one.
Boyd: Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka vs. Maria Sharapova. It’s hard to fathom Williams not navigating her draw rather easily and Errani is in arguably the softest quarter with Radwanska and Ivanovic. Look for last year’s finalist to make another deep run, especially if the weather makes the playing conditions heavy and difficult. The draw was less kind to Azarenka and the defending champion Sharapova, but I still like both of them to make it through to their much-anticipated match up. Azarenka will get a stiff test from Elena Vesnina in the first round and potentially Na Li in the quarters, but she has played well since returning from injury.
Chiesa: It’s hard to see anyone in Serena’s quarter of the draw giving her much trouble, even if Williams comes out struggling with the demons of her early round upset from a season ago. It’s tough to see her losing a set en route to the semifinals. The second quarter is incredibly open with Agnieszka Radwanska as the highest seed. Lurking at the bottom of this quarter is last year’s finalist Sara Errani, and it would be much less surprising to see the Italian at the late stages of the event this time around. Her best chance to beat Serena would be on clay, but even then, it still doesn’t seem likely. Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Sara Errani.
With Victoria Azarenka and Li Na the two seeds in the third quarter of the draw, a potential quarterfinal match between them could go either way. Although Azarenka has turned around the head-to-head between the two, Li’s greater comfort level on the surface can give her the edge here. I expect Sharapova to navigate the minefield that is her quarter of the draw, even if she experiences some bumps along the way. Semifinal: Li Na d. Maria Sharapova
Kane: Kuznetsova/Errani, Azarenka/Sharapova. “But where’s Serena?” Here me out. Given the form exhibited by the undisputed No. 1 in the world this season (no less on clay), there is no reason to think the American won’t bulldoze the field and collect her second French Open title, and her 16th overall.
However. This is at least the fifth time in ten years that Serena has gone into the French Open as the overwhelming favorite, yet has failed to make it past the quarterfinals since her lone victory in 2002. Beyond the loss to Razzano, Williams has seen a 33-Slam match winning streak snapped in 2003, another shocking loss to Katarina Srebotnik in 2008, and premature losses to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Stosur in 2009 and 2010 respectively. All on the terre battue. Serena simply has a history of not getting it done in Paris, and though now looks like as good a time as ever to turn things around, I’ll believe it when she invariably proves me wrong in two weeks.
That said, 2009 Champion Kuznetsova has a history in Paris and likely prefers to be the underdog. The other three have had some of the best Slam results in the last 12 months, and while their draws look tough on paper, resistance may be surprisingly low (at least for a WTA tournament).
Skelton: Serena Williams, Sara Errani, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova. Remember the era of anarchy in the WTA when people who you never saw before suddenly became superstars for a week? Well, it’s over. Only one woman outside the top three of Serena, Azarenka, and Sharapova has reached a final across the six marquee events this year (majors, Premier Mandatory, Premier Five). Roland Garros usually does have one clay-court specialist for its flavor of the year, so Errani should repeat her results from Madrid and Rome in the draw’s weakest quarter.
Watson: In the top half, Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani. Serena’s tennis the last 12 months speaks for itself, and that includes the dominance she’s shown this year on the dirt with her titles in Charleston, Madrid and Rome. Her opponent is less certain, but Errani has been very consistent of late. The Italian also reached the final here last year and has been playing better than No. 4 seed A. Radwanska.
In the bottom half, I’ll stick to the seeds and go with Sharapova vs. Azarenka. Sharapova has looked sharp, and lately, it seems Serena is the only one with her number. Azarenka’s star has shined a little less brightly since her win in Melbourne, but she did just reach the finals in Rome and should be feeling confident.
And the Champion is …
Boyd: (1) Serena Williams. I think one of the most compelling stories of this fortnight will be watching Williams attempt to conquer her French Open demons after her shocking first round exit in 2012. With the win streak she’s on and the level she’s playing at, the only person who can beat Serena, is Serena herself.
Chiesa: (1) Serena Williams. The old saying goes that if you’re going to get them, it’s best to get them early. The World No. 1 is on a mission this year, and if she can navigate her way through the early rounds, it’s hard to see anyone being able to stop her at the business end of the event. While Li has shown she has the game to go toe-to-toe with anyone on tour, it remains to be seen what will happen if she actually gets herself into a winning position. Championship: Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.
Kane: (2) Maria Sharapova. Over the years, the French Open women’s event has become known for its predictable unpredictability, and its wackiness tend to happen in twos. Dinara Safina made two runs to the French finals before Errani’s compatriot Francesca Schiavone made two romps of her own (taking the title in 2010). Errani hasn’t had the drop-off in form many had predicted, and looks as capable as ever for another (slightly less) surprising run to a Slam final. Last year’s champion Sharapova must also feel a sense of déjà vu, coming into Paris with the same number of match wins as the year before. She wouldn’t have to play Serena until the final (or at all if you subscribe to my alternate universe), and has proven she can beat everyone else on clay. As the French say, pouquoi pas? Why not?
Skelton: (1) Serena Williams. She swept the two biggest events on outdoor red clay, moving better than she has on the surface since the last time that she won in Paris. She completely thrashed each of her two leading rivals in the Madrid and Rome finals. She will bring an extraordinary level of motivation to atone for last year’s disappointment, since when she has lost just three matches. Nobody is stopping Serena in Paris unless her body betrays her again.
Watson: (1) Serena Williams. Logically, Serena is the best choice. She’s playing the best tennis of anyone in the field, and she’s in one of the weakest quarters. She’s likely also extra motivated after the humiliation she suffered here last year.
Tennis is a cruel sport.
A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.
With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.
Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?
Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.
Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.
Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.
But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.
It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.
We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.