by Michael Lemort
After his success in Rome and Monte-Carlo a month ago, two of the three clay-court Masters 1000 of the season, Novak Djokovic has confirmed that he was the favorite for the French Open coming up next week and that he was invincible in the big events since last fall.
He started the 2015 season with a success at the Australian Open, first major of the year, against Andy Murray. It was his fifth crown in Melbourne and his eighth victory in a Grand Slam tournament. Then he won back to back Indian Wells and Miami, the first two Masters 1000 of the season (achieving the double for the third time), beating Roger Federer and Andy Murray in the final.
After his success in Monte-Carlo last April, he became the first player to win the opening three Masters 1000 of the year and also the first one to win the first four big events of the season. Even though he had to withdraw from Madrid’s Masters 1000 two weeks ago, he came back in Rome last week and extended his winning streak to 22 matches after his victory over Federer in the final. That was his 24th success in a Masters 1000 tournament, one more than Roger Federer and only three behind the leader Rafael Nadal (27).
With a 147th week at the top, he has now passed Nadal (141) and only Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have done better in the tennis history. Novak Djokovic is more than ever the number one at the ATP rankings with 13845 points (a new record). Roger Federer, the number two, is 4610 points behind.
This year, he only lost against Ivo Karlovic in Doha (an ATP 250) and against Roger Federer in Dubai (an ATP 500) which leads him to a 35 wins/2 losses record so far in 2015. Knowing that he also won the ATP World Tour Finals in London and the Paris Masters 1000 last November, his last defeat in a big event (Grand Slams and Masters 1000) took place last October against Roger Federer in the semi-final of Shanghai (Masters 1000).
With all those records and that confidence, no wonder that he will be the favorite for the French Open next week, the only Grand Slam missing in his already huge career.
Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens. But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.
Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.
The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.
Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.
Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.
Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.
Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.
Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.
John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.
Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.
Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.
Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.
Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.
Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.
Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.
Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.
Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.
Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.
Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.
Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.
Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.
Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.
Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.
Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.
Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.
Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.
Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.
Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.
Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.
David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.
Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.
Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.
Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.
Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.
Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.
Rafael Nadal may have lost his first set at Roland Garros 2013, but he won his last set. The King of Clay burnished his legend on the surface even further by securing an eighth Roland Garros title at the expense of fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. Here are some key things to know about the final and Nadal’s achievement more generally.
The superior Spaniard: Ferrer ends the tournament ranked higher than Nadal, but no human agrees with the computers on that opinion. He looked very much David to the Goliath across the net, understandable considering that he contested his first major final today against a career-long nemesis. A few exceptions like Francesca Schiavone aside, even weathered veterans do not excel in that situation.
Calm after the storm: After the dramatic sweep of the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal, the final’s relatively routine narrative came as the anticlimax that most envisioned. The match contained few turning points or real momentum shifts, not surprising for a rivalry in which one man had won 16 straight meetings on this surface.
Look out, Sampras: Nadal moves within two major titles of tying the American for second place on the all-time list. Surely he will bring his peak clay form to Paris at least two or three more times, which means that, with any luck at all, he ultimately should pass Sampras and perhaps even edge within range of a certain someone else.
Be jealous , Monte Carlo: You’re not alone anymore at the top of Rafa’s list. Nadal now has won as many titles at Roland Garros as he has at his Mediterranean fortress—or anywhere else. In fact, his eight titles here are the most that any man has won at any major.
21-1: That is Nadal’s record against top-ten opponents since losing to Roger Federer at Indian Wells last year. Djokovic predictably notched the “1,” handing the Spaniard his only defeat on European clay this season in Monte Carlo.
26-1: That is Nadal’s record in clay finals against opponents other than Federer and Djokovic. He also improves to 4-0 in major finals against opponents other than those two, Roland Garros hosting three of those wins. Horacio Zeballos recorded the “1” in the first tournament of Nadal’s comeback this year.
Uprooting top seeds: Only once in the last ten years (Nadal in 2011) and twice in the last twenty (Gustavo Kuerten in 2001) has the top seed won the Roland Garros men’s singles title. Nadal has held a seed lower than No. 1 seven times and won the tournament every time. Six times out of seven, he defeated the top seed en route to the title.
A breath of fresh air: Today was the first men’s major final since Wimbledon 2010 that featured someone from outside the Big Four. But Roland Garros 2013 became the 14th consecutive major won by one of them, and 32nd of the last 33.
The minimalist major: Only once since 2000 has the Roland Garros men’s final reached a fifth set. All of the other three majors have featured multiple five-set men’s finals during that span.
London calling: Is Nadal the favorite at Wimbledon? He’s certainly not the prohibitive favorite, as he was at Roland Garros, but once again Djokovic might be the only member of the Big Four who can stop him there. Nadal has dominated Murray on grass and crushed Federer twice this year, albeit on slower surfaces. Even Djokovic might have trouble bouncing back from Friday to reverse that result in a month. Nadal’s greatest challenge might come in the early rounds there, as it often has.
Au revoir, Paris: The bad news is that this article concludes the series of Rewinds and Fast Forwards from Roland Garros next year. The good news is that I have one last Roland Garros article appearing tomorrow on my favorite memories from the tournament overall. The best news is that Wimbledon Fast Forward starts two weeks from today.
Question of the day: How many Roland Garros titles will Nadal win in his career? I’m setting the over-under at 10.5.
The latest meeting between the top two women in the world reached the usual conclusion. Read about the last women’s match of 2013 on red clay.
That was…expected: After two victories over Maria Sharapova in finals earlier this spring, including a comprehensive triumph on clay, Serena Williams came into the Roland Garros as an overwhelming favorite. She extended her winning streak against Sharapova to twelve and her combined record against leading rivals Sharapova and Azarenka to 26-4. Rivals? She has none at the moment.
But also unexpected: Sharapova gave Serena something to ponder in both sets rather than just folding meekly from the outset, as it seemed that she had in Madrid. A first-serve percentage under 50% undermined her cause, but this final did not become the truncated rout that many expected.
Virginie who? Not many players lose in the first round of a major one year and win it the next year, but the turnaround shows what an extraordinary competitor holds the No. 1 ranking. Serena used that three-set collapse against Virginie Razzano in 2012 for motivation in 2013, when she lost just one set in the tournament.
Meet the new boss: Same as an old boss. In the last seven years, seven different women have won Roland Garros. Serena became the first former champion to win there since Justine Henin’s last title in 2007. But she had not won here—or even reached the final—since her first title here ignited the Serena Slam of 2002-03. If not for the injury that hampered her so severely in Australia, Serena probably would have had another of those wrap-around achievements.
Sweet sixteen: Serena’s sixteenth major marked her third since a prolonged, career-threatening injury absence. She becomes the only active player on either Tour to win multiple titles at every major and closes within one of tying Roger Federer for the most major titles overall among active players.
Best of the rest: If not for Serena, Sharapova probably would have defended her Roland Garros title, finished a second straight clay season undefeated, and swept all three of the WTA Premier Mandatory tournaments this spring. Her season so far recalls Nadal’s campaign in 2011: relentlessly dominant against everyone but a single opponent whom she simply cannot solve. Sharapova has not lost before the final since February, has lost before the semifinals only once since Wimbledon last year, and has lost only one match to someone other than Serena since last October.
Vika the Vulture: Although Sharapova defeated her in a ferocious semifinal, Azarenka passes her for the No. 2 ranking on Monday when the Russian failed to defend the title. That jump could prove crucial at Wimbledon, where the No. 2 seed cannot face heavy favorite Serena until the final. (Of course, the No. 3 seed might not either.) Wimbledon does reserve the right to depart from rankings in its seedings, but they have little reason to adjust this time. While Azarenka has reached consecutive semifinals at the All England Club, 2004 champion Sharapova survived the fourth round only once in 2007-12.
Pick your poison: Even on clay, no woman can stay with Serena when she settles into her shot-making zone. Matches crumble into routs or at best foregone conclusions. That’s not ideal from a viewer’s perspective, but the experience of watching the best player in the world play her best tennis offers a special sort of entertainment. It’s not unlike watching Nadal on clay, at least against anyone but Djokovic. Perfection without competition, or competition without perfection: a difficult choice.
What are the odds? Sharapova is 0-3 in major finals during odd-numbered years, 4-1 in major finals during even-numbered years.
Question(s) of the day: How many majors will Serena win before she retires? Can she pass Evert and Navratilova (18 each) for second place? Should all-time leader Steffi Graf (22) start worrying?
Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.
Shot of the Day: Despite losing to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, Novak Djokovic played some inspired and acrobatic tennis as the match went on.
Bryan Brothers ready to capture French Open crown: David Cox of the New York Times writes that the “French Open has been a tough tournament for the otherwise all-conquering Bryan brothers as they last won the title in 2003.” The Bryans will surely not have the home crowd behind them as they face off against Frenchman Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut. Despite not being able to capture the title for over a decade, the Bryans remain confident in their chances to take down Roland Garros.
“It feels great to be back in the final. Obviously, this has been a sticky one over the last 10 years. We’ve come very close and haven’t got over the hump, but we’re coming in with a lot of confidence.”
Plane Cam: Those of you who watched Ryan Harrison take on John Isner last week may remember Harrison becoming irritated by the model airplane that makes constant trips between “a towering crane outside the Roland Garros grounds and a tower at Suzanne Lenglen” as Peter Bodo of Tennis.com reports. He goes on and describes the plane as being a “sky cam that has become a standard feature at most sporting events.” Bodo goes on to describe origination of the plane came but admits that “your kid would like it a lot more than Harrison did.”
Novak Djokovic frustrated over officiating: Following his five set semifinal defeat at the hands of Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros semifinals, as Sport 360 tells us, Novak Djokovic was less than happy with what he thought was confusing and disorganized officiating. Djokovic was extremely displeased that the court was becoming too dry.
“Off the court I was told that it’s the groundstaff who make the final decision on watering the court. The supervisor said it was him who decides. It takes 30 seconds to one minute to water the court. It was too difficult to change direction. I think it was wrong what they did.”
Djokovic was also mad about being stripped a point at 4-3 40-40 in the fifth set where he touched the net after seemingly putting away an overhead for a winner.
“My argument was that the ball was already out of the court when I touched the net.”
Road to Roland Garros with David Ferrer: David Ferrer produced a thorough and comprehensive beat down of Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their semifinal clash Friday. Ferrer’s reward for his victory is a date with Rafael Nadal Sunday in what is his inaugural grand slam final. The Spaniard took a ride to the French Open grounds in this edition of Road to Roland Garros and talked about his on court mentality, who he would be if he was an actor, his adoration of Novak Djokovic’s humor, and who his friends are on the tour.
Maria Sharapova on upcoming final: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are just hours away from squaring off in the French Open final. Sports Illustrated has an extensive preview of the match including insight from Sharapova as she attempts to overcome Serena for the first time since 2005.
“I have never really thought about going out on the court and just trying to be consistent, not playing my game and just getting the ball back. That hasn’t ever been my philosophy, because the way that I win matches is by being aggressive, by moving my power, by looking to move forward and playing that aggressive game.”
“Despite all those statistics, despite my unsuccessful record against her, it doesn’t matter because you’re at the French Open final. No matter how good she’s playing, you also have to give yourself a bit of credit for getting to that point and doing a few things right to be at that stage and giving yourself an opportunity.”
Venus Williams says Serena Williams is greatest she’s ever faced: In a question and answer session with Yes Network, Venus Williams talks about her most influential fashion designer, her favorite New York meal, her favorite city, her most memorable grand slam victory, her favorite career moment and more. Venus also talks about how Serena is undoubtedly the greatest player she has ever faced.
“Clearly Serena. No doubt. I’ve played most of the greats and she is definitely the best” Venus said in response to being asked who the best player she as ever seen or played against.
(June 7, 2013) It was a blockbuster Roland Garros semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic that many would agree was more fitting for a Slam final. After all, Nadal and Djokovic met in last year’s final and have been the two best players in the world on clay for several years now. But Nadal’s time missed on tour last year left things up to chance and the draw had other ideas.
In his post-match press conference, Nadal reflected on what this match meant to him: “It was a really emotional match. … These kinds of matches make the sport big. I lost a similar one in Australia. Today was for me. I’m happy at the way that I played, and more than happy at the way I fighted (sic) at the fifth set after losing a big chance in the fourth.
This was expected to be a highly-physical, hard-fought match and it did not disappoint. However, neither player was at his absolute best for long periods of time, and there were far more unforced errors from both players than many would have thought possible, 119 in total. It’s not completely fair to criticize the players for this though. Neither one played poorly; the wind was wreaking havoc on both players all day, affecting all aspects of their games.
That didn’t stop this match from being exciting though. Nadal broke midway through the first set and held from there to take it 6-4. At one point, Djokovic reached for his hamstring and looked a little uncomfortable, but it didn’t really seem to affect his movement. When Nadal broke in the second set, though, it looked like it was over. Djokovic responded as only Djokovic can, taking the next 4 games to level the match at one set a piece.
Things looked like they were over in the third set as Djokovic was clearly hampered by a groin or hamstring injury of some sort. Nadal took the set 6-1 and it was only inevitable that the fourth set would go the same way. And when Nadal broke to go up, it looked like things were done for the Serb.
“I really tried to come back,” stated Djokovic in his press conference of losing the third set and nearly the fourth. “The third set wasn’t great at all. I just dropped physically, but I managed to come back and start playing really really well as the match was going on.”
Digging deep, though, Djokovic once again found a way to fight, twice getting back a break in the fourth set before finally taking it in a tiebreaker.
The fifth set was one for the ages and lasted a grueling 82 minutes. Both players fought each other and the wind, mixing incredible winners with incomprehensible errors. Djokovic broke in the opening game of the set but couldn’t hold all the way to the finish, getting broken back for 4-all. The level of tennis then picked up tremendously and we were treated to an epic half set. Ultimately, though, Djokovic blinked and couldn’t keep it together the fourth time serving for the match. Three errors and a mental collapse meant a break at love to end the match.
Djokovic gave credit to his opponent’s level of play and reign in Paris.
“I congratulate my opponent because he showed courage in the right moments and went for his shots,” stated the Serb. “And when he was a break down in the fifth, he made some incredible shots from the baseline. … That’s why he’s a champion, ruling Roland Garros for many years.”
It’s hard to be disappointed by a match that lasted over four-and-a-half hours with two of the best clay court players tennis has seen. It was their 35th time playing each other in their professional careers, and they each seem to know the other’s game inside and out. And the match had everything: wind, drama, tweeners, complaints for both players and, of course, immense tennis.
Nadal now must leave all this behind, recover and be ready to take on a compatriot has is all too familiar with, David Ferrer, and vie for his record eighth title at a single Slam on Sunday, while Djokovic will be ruing his missed chances and moving on to Wimbledon.
By Josh Meiseles, Special for Tennis Grandstand
Having grown up in a tennis-centric household just an hour’s drive from the USTA National Tennis Center in New York, ritual U.S. Open day trips were akin to my peers’ summer outings at the beach. Every August we’d make the mini-trek to Queens and marvel at Agassi’s baseline power, Kafelnikov’s precision, Chang’s agility and the serve-and-volley prowess of Sampras and Rafter.
My dad was a huge fan of Pistol Pete, so when he advanced to the final of the 2001 Hamlet Cup, a U.S. Open tune-up event now known as the Winston-Salem Open, we pounced at the prospect of seeing the 14-time Grand Slam champion on a more intimate stage than the cavernous bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Standing across the net from Sampras that day was a spry 23-year-old German named Tommy Haas. Ranked just outside the top-10 at the time, Haas was less than a year from vaulting to a career-high number two in the world, while Sampras was embarking on his farewell lap around the ATP Tour. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, but I was nonetheless impressed by Haas’s attacking presence and crisp strokes from both wings, as he ousted Sampras in three sets for his third career ATP title.
Twelve years later and Haas is still a force on the Tour, perhaps playing the best tennis of his life. His stunning upset of Novak Djokovic in Miami, and subsequent run to the semifinals, set the stage for his title in Munich one month later and a remarkable quarterfinal finish at Roland Garros this past week.
Rewriting the record books seemingly every week, from becoming the oldest player to beat a world number one in 30 years to becoming the oldest French Open quarterfinalist since 1971, Haas is once again on the cusp of the top ten. Did I mention he recently turned 35?
Among all his astounding achievements over the past year, which also includes an upset of Roger Federer in the 2012 Halle final, the most impressive came in the third round of the French Open last week, when, after being denied twelve match points against John Isner, he maintained his composure and somehow prevailed in five sets. A presumably spent Haas went on to destroy Mikhail Youzhny two days later, dropping just five games. That’s a feat most 25-year-olds would struggle to accomplish after a grueling four-and-a-half hour match.
A top 20 player for the majority of his career, boasting a high of number two in the world in 2002, Haas implements an exceptional all-around all-court game, anchored by a beautiful one-handed backhand. Having reached his first Wimbledon semifinal in 2009, after a 2008 season riddled with abdominal, shoulder and elbow issues, the German was primed for a late-career push at the age of 31. Then, less than a year later, it was revealed that he would need hip surgery and the German would not be seen on court again until mid-2011. He has since reached five ATP finals, winning two, and just achieved his best result at Roland Garros in twelve appearances. Words cannot describe the significance of his resurgence with his career on life support less than two years ago.
Considering the growing physical nature of the game over the past decade, the fact that no player has enjoyed consistent success in their mid-30s since Andre Agassi is understandable.
Haas’s longevity is a testament to not only his work ethic and conditioning, but to his ability to adjust to the modern game and find new ways to be aggressive without employing a physically taxing style of play. The same can be said for Tommy Robredo, who, at age 32, reached the quarterfinals this week after being absent from the ATP Tour with a leg injury. A year ago, Robredo was ranked 470 in the world and playing a Challenger event in Italy and Haas was outside the top-100 battling through the Roland Garros qualifying tournament.
While I am in no way refuting the claims that advancements in tennis (i.e. string technology and more rigorous physiotherapy methods) are potentially detrimental to players’ health in the long term, there is no doubt that such developments in nutrition and conditioning contribute to prolonging careers as well.
We are seeing more and more players, such as the two Tommys, in the top 30 at the age of 30. A late-career injury should no longer be considered a career death sentence; rather it’s an opportunity for a fresh start. There is no denying that the collective accomplishments of both Haas and Robredo at Roland Garros are a sign of inspiration as well. They may lack an intimidating weapon like a Nadal topspin-laced forehand, Djokovic’s penetrating groundstrokes or Isner’s bazooka serve, yet they are proving that grit and determination are powerful tools to have in your arsenal.
A short-fuse has long been Haas’s Achilles heel throughout his career, but with age comes maturity, and for the 35-year-old, a new lease on his career has yielded a newfound lucid attitude towards his game. He seems more passionate now than he ever was and his fiery competitive spirit is unwavering. Attribute that to his 3-year-old daughter, Valentina. When asked if retirement was a viable option during his hip surgery rehab, Haas stated, “It is too early for me to come back, but I assure you my daughter will see her dad play tennis.” Whenever you have something, or someone for that matter, to play for other than yourself, it provides a fresh source of motivation to continue fighting. At his 2011 U.S. Open press conference Haas mentioned, “It gives me another reason to work hard and try to achieve some things.”
For athletes of all sports, the stronger and more personal the motivating factor is, the more driven they are. It may seem rather obvious, but it couldn’t be more relevant to Haas’s success. And if you think he is inspired, imagine how his fellow 30-Year Club members are feeling, particularly David Nalbandian, who is recovering from injury while recently welcoming his first children as well. Haas’s resurgence could even potentially be a game-changer for younger players who are looking to model their playing styles after someone with his durability. The trend toward the physical grinding game is a slippery slope and one that is not associated with career longevity.
Haas will look to defend his Halle title next week while Robredo isn’t currently on an entry list for a Wimbledon tune-up event. Despite their mediocre career results at the All England Club, with no points to defend both men will be playing with house money and should be considered dark horses to make the second week.
(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
By Maud Watson
Vying for No. 2
On Saturday, the top two women’s seeds will be battling each other to try and claim a second title at Roland Garros. Serena’s first title came over ten years ago in 2002, while Sharapova tasted sweet success last year. Serena has a lot more going for her heading into this final. She’s yet to lose on the clay this season, and with the exception of her quarterfinal match against Kuznetsova, she’s reached the final with minimal fuss. Then there’s that dominating head-to-head record she owns against Sharapova. That record alone makes Saturday’s match an uphill battle for Sharapova. But the Russian is a fierce competitor who lets very little faze her, as evidenced by the way she fought through both her quarterfinal and semifinal matches. Sharapova has also been the second best player on the dirt in 2013, so she shouldn’t be too far behind Serena in the confidence department as far as her clay-court game goes. In short, the blatant favorite in this final is Serena, but she can’t psyche herself out like she very nearly did during a brilliant patch of play from Kuznetsova in the quarters. For her own part, Sharapova has to believe and work hard to keep things close early if she’s to stand a prayer. It’s a big match for both, and it will ultimately come down to who’s stronger mentally.
Two intriguing men’s semifinals are set to be contested, and the blockbuster matchup in the eyes of many will pit Novak Djokovic against Rafael Nadal. It’s another classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and a win in Paris for either one would be of great historical significance. Nadal is going for an astonishing record eighth title in the French capital. He has managed to overcome a rocky start to the tournament but now appears to be firing on all cylinders. His form has been stellar virtually all season, making the finals of every tournament he has entered and winning all but two of them. He went on his usual tear through the clay court season, and capping off his comeback with yet another French Open title looks almost inevitable. But one of the men to have defeated Nadal this season is Novak Djokovic. Djokovic’s victory put a blemish on Nadal’s clay court season as he earned a key victory over the Spaniard in Monte-Carlo. Many feel he’s the one guy who has the necessary tools to defeat Nadal at his best, but Djokovic will have to work hard to keep the nerves in check. He’s never won the French, but if he were to do so, he would complete the career Grand Slam. He’s also likely to want it more for his first coach, Jelena Gencic, who passed away earlier this week. It’s a match that has instant classic written all over it and will likely be decided by only a few points, but edge to the Spaniard.
Though it isn’t receiving nearly the same amount of promotion, the other men’s semi is intriguing in its own right. It features two players who couldn’t be more opposite. On one side there is Ferrer. He’s tennis’ ultimate warrior. Nobody works harder. He’s not flashy, but he’s a dogged competitor who is as steady as they come. He might just feel that Lady Luck is sitting in his corner as he’ll find Tsonga, not Federer, on the other side of the net as he competes to book his first major final berth. Of course, Tsonga has plenty of reason to feel good about his own chances of going all the way, too. He’s a flashy, charismatic competitor embraced by the French crowd. Like Ferrer, he has moved through the tournament without the loss of a set, which includes blitzing Federer in the quarters. He’s been to a major final before, and he’ll have an entire nation behind him as he aims to become the first native son since Yannick Noah to lift the trophy. The fact that he’s playing a guy who has admitted he doesn’t think he can win a slam could also work in his favor. If it were on any other clay court, or even earlier in this event, Ferrer’s consistency might edge out Tsonga. But in the semis with virtually all of France behind him, you have to like Tsonga’s chances to reach his second major final.
Ups and Downs
It’s never too soon to be looking forward to the grass court season, which kicks off with Queen’s next week. The Brits will be happy that Andy Murray, who pulled out of Roland Garros with a bad back, is planning to test the waters at the Wimbledon tune-up. He’s always enjoyed plenty of the success there, so hopefully he’ll be able to get his grass court season off on a good note. Unfortunately, that’s not a possibility for Mardy Fish. The American is suffering from the flu and has already announced he won’t be in Queen’s. He’s also doubtful for Wimbledon and will be making a decision on his participation in that event next week. At least Brian Baker, who won’t be competing at all on the grass this year, has set a return date of July 22. With the results he was pulling last year, he deserves another crack at it.
When the Roland Garros draw first appeared, all of us felt virtually certain that we would see Roger Federer on the second Sunday. His greatest obstacle, fourth-seeded David Ferrer, never had defeated him in 14 attempts, while Federer’s early rounds looked especially forgiving. Things did not turn out that way when an especially unforgiving Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hammered the Swiss star into straight-sets submission to reach his first Roland Garros semifinal.
As ecstatic as he must have felt to achieve that breakthrough, Tsonga cannot bask in its glow too long. He may have reached the semifinals without losing a set, but so has his opponent. Handed less daunting opposition than Tsonga, Ferrer has shown even greater efficiency in hurling four breadsticks at his last two opponents. At age 31, he will not see many more opportunities to reach his first major final without defeating any of his elite nemeses. That pressure on Ferrer may counterbalance the pressure on Tsonga as he aims to move onto the threshold of becoming the first French champion at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah thirty years ago.
While this match lacks star power compared to the other semifinal, it will present a more intriguing contrast of styles and greater uncertainty about how the matchup will unfold. Tsonga certainly will need to impose himself behind an excellent first-serve percentage, an area where he always has shone at his best. Looking to pin Ferrer behind the baseline, he will seek to capitalize on short balls by showing off his crisp forecourt skills. Directly pitted against the Frenchman’s greatest weapons are the Spaniard’s sharpest tools, however. For every massive serve that Tsonga strikes, Ferrer can reply with a pinpoint return. For every delicately carved drop volley that delights the French crowd, a scorching passing shot can silence them.
These two semifinalists from opposite sides of the Pyrenees have met only once on clay, three years ago in Rome. Ferrer won routinely, as he did again last fall in Paris, while Tsonga won their only meeting at a major. The Spaniard has gained repeated success in their matches by pounding his inside-out forehand into Tsonga’s vulnerable backhand, but that weakness has held firm so far this tournament. During the course of five sets, the home hope should produce just enough bursts of explosive shot-making to preserve his dream at the cost of another.
That dream could turn into a nightmare, though, against the man who has annexed this tournament for nearly a decade with the exception of a brief insurrection in 2009. Or against the man who defeated Tsonga in his only major final to date, at the 2008 Australian Open. Pick your poison.
Starkly divergent from the other semifinal, whose protagonists have met only three times, is the latest collision between two men on track to meet more than any other pair of champions in history. Djokovic and Nadal already have shared the court a staggering 34 times, 11 of those in a 15-month span from Indian Wells 2011 to Roland Garros 2012. But they have not met before a final since 2009, the year-end championships aside, so Rafole XXXV will end without the usual fanfare of a championship celebration and a dual trip to the podium.
Not that it could end much more limply than the 2012 Roland Garros final, the latest notch in Nadal’s perfect record here against both of his archrivals. With a double fault down championship point, Djokovic showed his unreadiness to handle the pressure of the circumstances. At stake was only a first title in Paris but a career Grand Slam and the rare feat of holding all four major titles simultaneously. All of that history created a burden too onerous even for the valiant Serb when combined with Nadal’s career-long mastery over this surface.
Hearkening back to his 2011 clay success, Djokovic snapped his archrival’s winning streak earlier this year in Monte Carlo. Nadal had grasped that tournament in a record-breaking stranglehold even more oppressive than his dominance in Paris. A runner-up to Rafa there last year, Djokovic avenged that loss by controlling this year’s final nearly from start to finish. When Nadal threatened to turn the match around, the world No. 1 responded vigorously to adversity. He will need to bring that attitude from Monte Carlo to Paris, where he should know that he will face repeated spans of adversity. After his first-week struggles, Nadal has rounded into his usual impressive Roland Garros form during the last two rounds. Djokovic can expect to face a more confident version of his rival than he did in Monte Carlo, for the Spaniard’s confidence has mounted following subsequent titles in Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome.
The two men hold no secrets from each other, their games having crystallized into essentially fixed cores. As he usually does, Djokovic will look to drive his two-handed backhand toward Nadal’s forehand corner before pouncing on opportunities to rip his signature shot up the line. Nadal will look to neutralize his rival’s dangerous return by varying the placement on his serve and directing it into the body at times, while he will try to keep Djokovic honest by mixing flat down-the-line forehands with his usual topspin cross-court forehand. The unprecedented and unparalleled levels of fitness and mobility on both sides will encourage the two men to settle into long, grinding rallies rather than pulling the trigger early. Whoever does find the courage to seize opportunity when it knocks, however, will strike the latest blow in the game’s greatest rivalry.