Sara Errani

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The Anatomy of an Upset: Vania King vs. Sara Errani on New Year’s Day From Shenzhen Open in China

Vania King

by Terence Leong

Shenzhen, China - What happens when two top doubles players meet up against each other in singles? It happened in the second round of Shenzhen Open in China when Vania King, ranked No. 85 in singles and the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open doubles champion, faced Sara Errani, ranked No. 7 in singles and No. 1 in doubles, in a New Year’s Day confrontation.

King prevailed in a grueling 2 hour 41 minute match 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-3 which started in the afternoon sun of southern China and ended in a chilly evening under the lights. King provided the first upset of a Top 10 player in 2014 on the first day of the New Year.

I caught up with her the morning after the match and got her insights into the flow of the match, some of its key moments and the various momentum swings she weathered to put the match away with a nice margin in the third set.

King disclosed that even seasoned Grand Slam champions can be anxious when it is time to step on the court. “I felt like I went into the match quite nervous, partly because I was playing on center court for the first time in a while,” she said. “I hadn’t played a tournament in a couple of months so it was getting back and getting used to the mental aspect of being on a big court and playing a top player.”

In spite of the nervousness, King came out swinging in the first game and immediately pressured Errani’s serve having a breakpoint which wasn’t converted.  Unfortunately, King was broken in her first two service games while Errani, though pressured, held. The fact that she wasn’t holding serve and Errani was, got the first set to 4-0 for Errani, but one felt King was still in it bringing Errani to deuce in games one and three on Errani’s serve.

The action was more competitive than the score indicated, but with the set slipping away in a best of three-set match, and yet to get on the board, what would King do to respond?  “She (Errani) also started quite well, like solid. She didn’t miss much.  My tactic that I was trying, wasn’t really working, possibly because I was nervous.  I wasn’t executing as well as I wanted to in the beginning. So around the end of the first/beginning of the second set, I started to think. I tried to be more aggressive because I was trying to do some more tactics in the beginning, like play a little bit high to her backhand, try and open the court, but for various reasons it wasn’t working as well as I hoped.  So I simplified it for myself, and focused each point on being aggressive and not worrying if I was going to miss or not and slowly I started to be more consistent.”

We’ve all heard this numerous times from pros commentating on televised matches over the years and here was a tour champion reiterating that simple wisdom.  When things aren’t going right, return to the fundamentals. Focus on each point not the score.  Stay aggressive and play each shot one at a time fearlessly. Simple but not easy.  With the adjustment, King started to change the results on the court. The first game King won in the match was a break of Errani’s serve for 4-1, and she held the next game as well for 4-2. She pressured Errani’s next service game with more unconverted breakpoints but the diminutive “Sarretta” from Italy held for 5-2.  King double faulted to be broken and give the set to Errani 6-2.

The second set, started out with Errani holding.  Also while Errani’s drop shots seemed to have worked against King early in the first set, King was now ready to track those down and was drop shotting Errani as well. King staying aggressive and more loose, broke Errani twice and raced out to a 4-1 lead, but Errani clawed back and took the lead 4-5 and King called for her coach again. Both players called for their coaches several times throughout the match.  King met with her coach, Alejandro Dulko, during each set, she admitted with a sparkling self-deprecating laugh that the conference with him during the first set “didn’t really help” and “it doesn’t always help” her make meaningful adjustments to what’s happening on court.  This time Dulko advised her to attack Errani’s forehand more since Errani’s backhand was proving solid thus far.  After that King says, “I shifted my tactic a little bit and for the rest of the match I tried to attack her forehand a little more because she was giving me time there.”

At one point Errani, who is part of the loud grunting school, seemed minorly irritated by the crowd’s reaction to her expressive gasps when she saw a drop shot off of King’s racquet.  The Chinese audience, perhaps the first live tour level tennis tournament for many in attendance, responded with some bemused laughter at the emotive surprise audible from Errani, but in a pure reaction to the sound, not meant to be disrespectful of Errani. In fact, when the appreciative crowd did venture a cheer, there was a lone voice in timid English urging “Come on Miss King” politely a few times endearingly between points.

The second set went to a tie break and King fell behind and held off two match points.  I asked her what she was thinking after getting a nice lead, losing that momentum, and then being down match point not once but twice.  Again, a return to solid proven basics was her response, “I wasn’t thinking about the score,” she said. “You shouldn’t play differently for the score.  You should play the way that you want to play.”

So the classic playing one point at a time?

“It works,” Vania confirmed.

Especially with the match at risk, allowing King to rally to win the tiebreak 9-7.  The crowd roared (that is sooo cliché, but how else do you describe it?) it’s approval for a third set of action.

The third set unfolded quickly and had some unique twists.  Vania broke first and got to 3-1, but it isn’t a break until you hold and Errani broke back the next game for 3-2.  Each held to get to 4-3 King up. At this point, the trainer was called and King had to take a medical timeout.

“In the beginning of the third, I felt a little bit of pain in my leg and was hoping it would go away,” she said. “I waited a few games to see if it would but it didn’t and I had to take the time out.”

The right upper thigh injury forced King to “try to finish off the points quicker. Try to be even more aggressive so she couldn’t move me wide.”

In spite of the injury, King came out and executed well in the colder night air, now over two and a half hours into the match.  She broke Errani and would serve for the match. Errani was growing visibly and audibly more frustrated, and after losing a point to bring the game to 30-all, she screamed in anger and slammed her racquet into the court, probably cracking the frame.

Then from the deuce court which was furthest from her chair, Errani slowly worked her way over to her chair to get a replacement racquet and noticeably slowly walked back to get on court to receive.  The chair umpire called a time violation against her as she sauntered back into position.

King stayed calm and coolly turned her back towards the suddenly slow motion Errani and seemed unfazed by the entire episode. Bouncing the ball and getting ready for her next serve.  I admired how calm and focused King stayed and I think the crowd appreciated it as well, perhaps with some added empathy since we all knew she was now injured and playing a long match in the chillier and chiller evening.

Play resumed. On the second match point for King, Errani’s shot was called long, but Errani challenged the call. So the players lingered near the net, stuck in a different kind of no-man’s land for tennis, instead of the usual immediate clasp of hands cross net as is tennis’s hallmark of sportsmanship. The call was confirmed and Vania King had defeated Sara Errani with her mastery of simple tennis wisdom. Calm your nerves by going back to basics.  Play one point at a time.  Ignore the score and go for your shots. Stay aggressive. Don’t be afraid of making errors.

This may have only been a second round match at the Shenzhen Open, but was certainly the most exciting tennis of the tournament and an example of how a focused mind, constantly recalibrating and relying on her training prevails in the mental and physical battle against another champion.

 

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Palermo and Budapest Draw Previews

Sara Errani heads home to her favorite surface.

 

The sunny island of Sicily hosts the more notable of the two small women’s tournaments in the week after Wimbledon.  Palermo will host both of the leading Italian stars, who eye one more chance to capitalize on their best surface.

Palermo:

Top half:  Bounced from Wimbledon in the first round, Sara Errani returns gratefully to clay after a one-match grass season.  The world No. 6 took a wildcard into one of her home tournaments, where she has won two titles.  In search of her second 2013 title defense, Errani can look ahead to a second-round meeting with fiery Czech Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.  Two other clay specialists join her in a section filled with hyphenated names.  Mariana Duque-Marino impressed with her shot-making during a tight loss to Marion Bartoli at Roland Garros, while Silvia Soler-Espinosa has become a fixture of Spain’s Fed Cup team.

Neither of the most intriguing players in the second quarter has a seed next to her name.  Two of the Italians in this section emerged from irrelevance at Wimbledon and will hope to dazzle their compatriots.  Both Flavia Pennetta and Karin Knapp reached the second week on grass, their least effective surface, despite rankings outside the top 100.  The evergreen Anabel Medina Garrigues, who bageled Serena Williams in Madrid, could meet Pennetta or Knapp in the quarterfinals.  Much less intriguing are the two Czech seeds, Klara Zakopalova and Karolina Pliskova.  Still, Zakopalova reached the second week at Roland Garros last year, for the slow conditions suited her counterpunching style.

Bottom half:  Unfortunate to draw Maria Sharapova in her Wimbledon opener, Kristina Mladenovic gained some consolation by winning the mixed doubles title with Daniel Nestor.  Almost overnight, she travels to Palermo as the third seed.  Mladenovic will have some breathing room as she adjusts from one surface to another, situated in an especially forgiving section.  Young French star Caroline Garcia might face Irina-Camelia Begu in a second-round contrast of styles.  A quarterfinal between Garcia and Mladenovic could offer some insight onto the future of women’s tennis in France after Bartoli.

Second seed Roberta Vinci joined Pennetta and Knapp in the second week of Wimbledon but struggled in the first week and fell heavily to Li Na.  All the same, Vinci remains within striking distance of the top 10 at the age of 31 while continuing to shine in doubles with Errani.  This Italian veteran could meet Wimbledon surprise Eva Birnerova, who almost reached the second week as well.  The canny Lourdes Dominguez Lino then would confront Vinci in a battle of traditional clay specialists.

Final:  Errani vs. Vinci

Budapest:

Top half:  The Hungarian Grand Prix does not look particularly grand this year with not a single entrant from the top 25.  Leading the pack is Lucie Safarova, whose 2013 campaign has lurched from signs of hope to unmitigated disasters.  Safarova has defeated Samantha Stosur twice this year and reached a clay semifinal in Nurnberg, but she won one total match at three more important clay events in Stuttgart, Madrid, and Paris.  Ripe for an upset, she might fall victim to the promising Petra Martic.  Despite a horrific start to 2013, Martic recaptured some of her form at the challenger level and reached the third round of Wimbledon, where she won a set from Tsvetana Pironkova.  South African No. 1 Chanelle Scheepers holds the other seed in this section.

Doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka will look to bomb her way through a section that includes young German star Annika Beck.  The fourth seed in Budapest, Beck reached a quarterfinal and a semifinal at International events on clay earlier this year.  Perhaps she will have gained inspiration from her compatriot Lisicki’s breakthrough at Wimbledon.  Lara Arruabarrena won a challenger earlier this year and gained attention for reaching the fourth round of Indian Wells, where she upset Vinci.  The 80th-ranked Spaniard will hope to outlast erratic fifth seed Johanna Larsson with her consistency.

Bottom half:  Probably the favorite for the title, third seed Simona Halep seeks to extend a ten-match winning streak at non-majors.  Even before that romp through Nurnberg and s’Hertogenbosch, Halep reached the semifinals at the Premier Five event in Rome.  That quality passage of play should have primed her for a deep run in Budapest, although the heavy serve of home hope Timea Babos could pose an intriguing threat.  Seventh seed Maria Teresa Torro-Flor would meet Babos before Halep, hoping to build on clay victories over Francesca Schiavone and Daniela Hantuchova this spring.

Finishing the clay season in style, Alize Cornet won a title in Strasbourg and took a set from Victoria Azarenka in Paris.  She will look to rebound from a massive collapse against Pennetta at Wimbledon against Hradecka’s doubles partner, Andrea Hlavackova.  The faded Shahar Peer joins an alumnus of the Chris Evert Tennis Academy, Anna Tatishvili, elsewhere in the section.

Final:  Unseeded player vs. Halep

 

When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

We have reached the end of the red brick road for another year.

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.

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on the Women’s Semifinals

Might we have a real WTA rivalry on our hands?

After contrasting semifinals, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams will meet in a major final for just the third time and the first time since 2007.  Here are some thoughts on how they got to Saturday.

Vengeance was hers:  At two majors last year, Maria Sharapova had fallen short against Victoria Azarenka.  A rout in the Australian Open final and a tight three-setter in the US Open semifinal had handed the momentum to Azarenka in their rivalry.  Flipping the script in a three-set thriller, Sharapova has snatched the momentum back with her first victory over the younger blonde at a major and first (excluding retirements) on an outdoor court since 2009.

30 at age 31:  Top seed Serena Williams cruised past world No.5 Sara Errani for the loss of just a single game.  This second semifinal marked Serena’s 30th straight victory and the fourth time in six matches here that she has lost three or fewer games.  She will enter the final as an overwhelming favorite.

Defense does not rest:  For the first time, Sharapova carries a title defense at a major to a second straight final.  She has not excelled at title defenses throughout her career, but notable exceptions have come during the clay season with Rome in 2011-12 and Stuttgart in 2012-13.

That was…steely:  Whenever adversity struck today, Sharapova responded without hesitation.  Dropping her serve with two double faults to start the match, she reeled off six straight games for the first set.  Losing four straight games at the end of the second set, with another double fault down set point, she broke early in the third.  Broken straight back, she broke again—twice.  Unable to convert four match points when she first served for the match, she closed it out at love on her second opportunity.

That was…quick:  While the first semifinal produced the drama that one associates with a major semifinal, Serena cruised through her match in 46 minutes.  Sara Errani should not hang her head, however.  When Serena takes it into her mind to hit an average of three winners per game, and three winners for every unforced error, nobody has an answer for that sort of display.

Fitting finish:  Relentless with her vicious ball-bludgeoning, Sharapova climbed into double digits for both aces (12) and double faults (11).  The final ace sealed her most memorable victory of 2013, just as an ace sealed her return to No. 1 in last year’s Roland Garros semifinal.  She now has reached as many major finals since shoulder surgery as she did before it, and the serve that so many have questioned has played a critical role.

Italian streak ends:  For the first time since 2009, no Italian woman reaches the Roland Garros final.  Instead, the top two seeds will meet in the women’s final for the first time since 1995 (when No. 2 Steffi Graf defeated No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario).

Question of the day:  Serena leads her head-to-head with Sharapova 13-2 and typically plays her best tennis against her.  But she struggled for long stretches in both of her major finals last year against opponents whom she historically dominates.  Which trend prevails?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing the Women’s Semifinals

Will either, both, or neither make it back to the podium on Saturday?

Judging by recent history, Maria Sharapova might want to bring  a portable roof with her when she faces Victoria Azarenka.   With the exception of a retirement in Rome, Azarenka has won their last six matches outdoors while losing one total set, whereas Sharapova has both of their meetings indoors.  One would hand Maria the edge on clay, but Vika won the first set in that Rome encounter before retiring down a break in the second.  And Serena Williams proved in Madrid that Sharapova’s dominance on this surface does not trump her futility in a certain rivalry.  Although Azarenka plays a notably different game, she shares Serena’s ability to relentlessly threaten the Russian’s serve, building pressure that takes a toll on the rest of her game.

Beyond their relative rankings, however, the Madrid runner-up has reason to believe that she can overcome the Rome runner-up.  Roland Garros tests mental and emotional endurance more than any other major, especially late in the fortnight, and Sharapova always has claimed an edge in that department over this rival.  Furthermore, she has shed the playfully self-imposed label of “cow on ice” that described her early forays onto the terre battue.  Sharapova now moves more naturally on the surface than many women, including Azarenka, and she transitions most comfortably from defense to offense on this surface.  A key to Vika’s success against her, catching the statuesque Russian out of position with tangled feet has proved more difficult on clay.

Some uncertainty clouds the recent form of both women, neither of whom has faced a notable opponent here.  Sharapova and Azarenka each have looked solid but not sensational in four of their five matches while submitting a clunker in the fifth.  While Sharapova’s best tennis surpasses the best that Azarenka can produce, a match played at a more modest level would seem to favor the younger woman.  The semifinal should come down to how consistently the defending champion can balance shot-making aggression with patient point construction.  Sharapova knows that she will reach the final if she strikes that balance with immaculate precision.

On the dirt of Roland Garros, though, staying immaculate is easier said than done.

***

The quarterfinals regularly have marked the end of the line for Serena Williams at Roland Garros, whether against Justine Henin, Samantha Stosur, or Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Now that she has survived that stage in a match narrower than she might have anticipated, Serena may feel ever more secure in her determination to win this title for the second time.  Her first Roland Garros semifinal in a decade pits her against Sara Errani, whom she defeated in a Madrid semifinal last month.  Serena looked vulnerable in the quarterfinals of that tournament as well, nearly succumbing to Anabel Medina Garrigues, but she regrouped to find a higher level of form in her last two matches.

While Errani clung tightly to the world No. 1 in the first set, the disparity between the best serve in the WTA and the worst serve in the WTA top 20 proved too great to overcome, even on a slow surface.  Granted, the Roland Garros clay should play more slowly than the Madrid clay, quickened by that city’s altitude.  And Serena’s rout of Errani  in another semifinal two majors ago should not dictate our anticipation of this semifinal, for the US Open hard court showcases the American’s offense much more effectively than the terre battue.  Last year’s finalist also has displayed crisp form in all but one of her matches this tournament, much as Serena has.  Errani finally cracked her career-long drought against top-five opponents by edging Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, so she may believe more than ever before that she can challenge the elite.

But the question remains whether she can stay in the point long enough to challenge a truly elite shot-maker, who poses a completely different threat from Radwanska.  The Italian must work much harder than Serena to win points, so her only hope lies in her opponent producing pedestrian tennis (by her standards) for a second straight match.  That prospect looks far from likely with the world No. 1 playing some of her most focused, thoughtful tennis ever during the last three months.   If Serena preserves her patience amid Errani’s flashes of artistry, we can expect to see her again on Saturday.

 

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on Tuesday’s Quarterfinal Action

Gracious in victory, gracious in defeat.  No more than what one expects from either.

Plenty of fascinating events unfolded on the first day of quarterfinal action in Paris.  Here are my thoughts on what happened.

ATP:

Major breakthrough:  Not since 2011 had Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeated a member of the ATP top eight, much less one of the Big Four.  He had lost a five-set heartbreaker in the same round here last year to Novak Djokovic, and he had lost a five-setter in the same round at the Australian Open to the man whom he faced today.  When Tsonga fell behind early in the first set, the narrative looked all too familiar.  But the flamboyant French shot-maker has shown far more resilience this fortnight than he has in years, and he stormed back from early adversity to dominate Roger Federer as few men ever have at a major.  Give the Paris crowd credit for abandoning their usual adulation of Federer and relentlessly exhorting their home hero to knock him off.

Pumpkin time for Cinderella Tommy:  All of those grueling comebacks finally caught up with Tommy Robredo, who won just four games from David Ferrer in a listless quarterfinal.  When he looks back at this tournament, though, Robredo will remember it as one of the highlights of his career.  Normally a reserved, unassuming character, he stole the spotlight for several days on a grand stage for the first time.  Nobody would have expected it of him a few months ago.

Crossroads for Federer:  Despite the 36-quarterfinal streak at majors, one would have to rate the first half of 2013 a serious disappointment for the Swiss.  Federer has no titles, one final, and one victory over a top-eight opponent (Tsonga at the Australian Open).  Now, Federer must seek to defend his Wimbledon title or possibly face the prospect of dropping outside the top four.  His occasional flickers of brilliance this spring simply will not suffice unless the draw implodes, which rarely happens at a major.

When David becomes Goliath:  The fourth seed reached his second straight Roland Garros semifinal and fourth semifinal in five majors by losing just nine games in his last six sets.  Tsonga cannot overlook the small Spaniard on the eve of a possible final against Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.  Granted a fine  draw that placed him in the opposite half from both of those nemeses, Ferrer has made the most of it.  He could reach his first major final without facing any of the Big Four, a golden opportunity.

All eyes on the top half:  With Federer gone, the winner of the projected Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal semifinal blockbuster will be heavily favored against whomever he faces in the final.  That match looms larger than ever, assuming that both men can take care of business tomorrow.

No time like the first time:  Neither Tsonga nor Ferrer ever has reached the final here.  Neither man even has lost a set in reaching this stage, a first for both.  Who will handle the pressure better on Friday?

WTA:

Forza Italia:  For the fourth straight year, an Italian woman reaches the Roland Garros semifinals.  Sara Errani hit neither an ace nor a double fault in a characteristically gritty win over Agnieszka Radwanska, concluding with a 67-minute second set.  Defeating Radwanska in a WTA main-draw match for the first time, she exploited her much greater comfort on the surface but also beat the world No. 4 at her own game.  A leisurely 11-break contest with long points and relatively few winners normally plays into Radwanska’s hands.  Not this time.

No déjà vu, thank you:  Facing Svetlana Kuznetsova on the same court where she lost to her in this round four years ago, Serena Williams seized control with an emphatic first set that extended her usual pattern this tournament.  History then threatened to repeat itself when Kuznetsova rallied to take the second set and claimed an early break in the third.  Struggling with both her serve and her groundstroke technique, Serena looked much less like the dominant contender of the early rounds than the woman who had not reached a Roland Garros semifinal for a decade.  Sheer willpower finally ended that drought and a four-match losing streak in quarterfinals here as the world No. 1 forced herself to find her range in an unexpectedly hard-fought victory.

Crossroads for Radwanska:  In some respects, the newly blonde world No. 4 has enjoyed a strong year, matching her best result ever at the Australian Open (quarterfinal) and achieving a new best result at Roland Garros (also quarterfinal).  A few other results have impressed as well, including a Miami semifinal.  But Radwanska has shown little real evolution this year that would encourage one to believe in her as anything more than a serial quarterfinalist at majors.  She will defend finals points at Wimbledon, the only major where she has gone past that round.  Like Federer, her top-four status might crumble if she falls well short there.

No eyes on the bottom half:  With Serena still in the draw, the matches down there offer an entertaining diversion but lack real title implications.  The top seed has bageled or breadsticked all four of the bottom-half quarterfinalists on clay this year and holds a 32-4 career record against the three not named Jelena Jankovic.  When JJ holds your best hope for a competitive final, avert your eyes.

Rewind to Madrid:  Nudged within two points of defeat by Anabel Medina Garrigues in a quarterfinal there, Serena escaped and then rocketed past her last two opponents to the title.  She will face Errani in the semifinals here, as she did there.  Will the parallels continue?

 

 

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Radwanska, Serena, Ferrer Highlight Tuesday’s Quarterfinals

The road to the title goes through me.

The first four Roland Garros quarterfinals unfold on Tuesday, featuring Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Serena Williams, and Agnieszka Radwanska.  Colleague Yeshayahu Ginsburg will break down Federer’s marquee bout with home hope Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in plenty of detail.  You can find succinct previews of the other three quarterfinals here.

Tommy Robredo vs. David Ferrer:  Classic clay specialist Robredo radiated with elation after he rallied from multiple deficits to upset compatriot Nicolas Almagro for his first quarterfinal here in four years.  Two days later, he will need all of the energy that remains in his legs to defeat the second-ranked Spaniard.  The clay specialist par excellence in the ATP, Ferrer has cruised through five matches without dropping a set and befuddled a wide range of opponents.  Robredo does nothing that the fourth seed cannot do, and do better, so the matchup presents serious problems unless the favorite’s forum tumbles down an elevator shaft.

To leave any impact on the match at all, the underdog must start more effectively than he has in previous matches.  Masked by the heroism of his record-setting comeback trilogy was the uninspired play that required the heroism.  Ferrer is no Almagro or Gael Monfils, instead an excellent front-runner against lower-ranked opponents who rarely lets an advantage slip away once he sinks his teeth into a match.  Robredo last defeated him in 2008, when they stood much closer in the rankings, and Ferrer has won six of seven overall since losing their first meeting.  An all-Spanish quarterfinal at Roland Garros always produces a welcome display of vintage clay tennis.  But this quarterfinal should not produce much drama.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sara Errani:  The only quarterfinal in either draw between two top-five players features two women who prefer the counterpuncher’s role.  The winner can count on occupying that role in the semifinals, no matter who she faces there, but it will be intriguing to see whether Radwanska or Errani steps out of her comfort zone to take the initiative. Both have displayed sparkling form here, suggesting that a high-quality match should lie ahead.  Radwanska faced the single most challenging test of their eight opponents in Ana Ivanovic, while Errani’s victories came against a higher level of opponent on average.  The Italian labored through a difficult three-setter against Carla Suarez Navarro, a heavier burden than any placed on Radwanska this fortnight.  She overcame breathing issues in that match too, showing her underrated toughness.

Neither of these stubborn women relaxes her focus when at her best, so we can expect an absorbing battle waged in all areas of the court.  We also can expect plenty of service breaks from these antitheses of Serena’s first-strike power.  Radwanska wins more free points on her serve than she did earlier in her career, but she remains a competitor who makes her living with excellent consistency and inspired finesse.  Those two traits define the core of Errani’s success as well, pitting strength against strength here.  Their history extends back to several meetings in challengers and qualifying draws, which the Pole has dominated in addition to claiming their three WTA main-draw encounters.

Serena Williams vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova:  Other than a few games here or there, the top seed’s opponents have offered little more than glorified batting practice.  Which Kuznetsova decides to show up on Tuesday will decide whether the batting practice continues, or whether the level of competition spikes.  After all, the Russian has won as many Roland Garros titles as Serena has, and hers came more recently.  In the same round here four years ago, she outlasted an edgy, error-prone Serena in three pulsating sets before proceeding more smoothly to her second major title.  Kuznetsova also served for the match when they met at the Australian Open that year, a tournament that the latter eventually won.  Overall, she has won at least one set in five of their eight meetings and taken Serena to a tiebreak in two others.  Few women can boast such a fine record against the greatest player of their generation.

An area in which Kuznetsova can come closer to Serena than most women is her natural athleticism, which enables her to transition smoothly from defense to offense.  Years of training in Spain have honed her clay skills, moreover, leaving her a more natural mover on the surface than even this sensational version of Serena.  An area in which Kuznetsova remains more vulnerable than many women to the world No. 1, meanwhile, is her serve.  This shot contributed to her downward spiral in 2011-12, partly because of shoulder trouble and partly because of a general lack of confidence that emerged through double faults.  To plant a flicker of doubt in Serena’s mind, an opponent cannot sustain relentless pressure on her own serve.  Kuznetsova will bring belief from her three-set upset over world No. 8 Angelique Kerber, but belief alone cannot revive her 2009 form.

Roland Garros Day 8: Links Roundup with Williams, Robredo, Nadal, Errani and more

Viktor Troicki and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga switch sides during their fourth round match.

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

Shot of the Day: No. 6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeats Viktor Troicki in the most routine match on the men’s side, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. The Frenchman next takes on Roger Federer who escaped a five-set battle against another Frenchman, Gilles Simon.

Roger Federer avoids monumental upset: After falling behind two sets to one to Frenchman Gilles Simon, Roger Federer’s 2013 French Open campaign and his quarterfinal streak at majors (35) were in imminent jeopardy of being shot down. After breaking for 4-2 in the fourth set, Federer was able to pick up the momentum Simon had seized in the second and third sets to ultimately win in five sets. Federer reveled in his victory following the match as EuroSport.com reports.

Juniors take the court: The burgeoning stars of the future began their quest for a Roland Garros crown Sunday as the French Open Junior Championships kicked off. If you’re looking for more info on the junior competition, Collette Lewis of Zoo Tennis has you covered with a preview of the Boys and Girls singles draw.

Svetlana Kuznetsova triumphs Angelique Kerber: In case you missed the 11am match, fourth round match between Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova and German Angelique Keber, Peter Bodo of Tennis.com wrote an extremely detailed account of Kuznetsova’s three set victory. Kuznetsova’s reward for defeating Kerber is a date with Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Bodo advises Kuznetsova to “return to Hogwarts and see what else Dumbledore can cook up before that meeting takes place” after earlier commenting that Kuznetsova’s outfit was “an outfit designed by Albus Dumbledore” as it was “dark blue with a pattern suggesting clouds in the moonlight lacking only a wand as an accessory.”

Serena Williams talks on court emotions: In her post-match press conference, Serena Williams talked about the emotions she exhibited in her straight sets victory over Italian Roberta Vinci. Williams was asked, among other things, about her displays of anger in the early stages of the second set. One member of the media went as far as to say that Serena “looked like she was frustrated and was going to cry.” Serena appeared to be thrown off by the question and responded saying, “I’m fine, I’m totally fine, I’m really intense, I don’t remember that.”

Robin Soderling discusses absence: Having been absent for almost two years after being inflicted with the Epstein-Barr virus which leads into mononucleosis, Robin Soderling is still attempting to stage a comeback as LZ Granderson of ESPN reports. Soderling told ESPN, “There’s not much the doctors can do and I’ve been to quite a few of them. They all tell me that my body has to work through it, to do what I can. Now, if I train too much it takes me two days to recover.” Interestingly and surprisingly enough, Soderling told Granderson that he was “more satisfied with the win against Roger [at the 2010 French Open]” than he was with his victory over Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open.

Video analysis becoming critical tool: Christopher Clarey of the New York Times describes how video analysis is becoming an increasingly important tool in tennis using Gilles Simon as a case study.

“Tennis has long been slow to embrace the game-film culture pervasive in other professional sports. But that is changing.”

“Simon will have multiple weapons at his disposal against Federer including his speed, backhand, and ability to absorb pace. He will also have, if he so chooses, the benefit of extensive video analysis of Federer’s tactical patterns and tendencies.”

Tommy Robredo Rallies: For the third consecutive match, Spaniard Tommy Robredo erased a two sets to love deficit to win in five sets, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1927. Greg Garber of ESPN calls Robredo “one of tennis’ most tenacious survivors.” Following the match, Robredo was overcome with emotion stating, “And today, again, my emotions were so strong they were overpowering.  There was a lot of tension before the match, and then at the end of the match I wanted to find a way out from my emotions.”

Rafael Nadal acknowledges early round struggles: Rafael Nadal’s form in this year’s French Open has certainly been of lower quality than in years past. The Spaniard has acknowledged this fact in anticipation of his fourth round match with Kei Nishikori of Japan.

“I have to play better. If I want to have any chance, I really need to play better. But it is always the same story. When you without playing your best, you have the chances to play better. If you don’t fight when you have tough or negative days, then you don’t have all the chances for the future.”

Sara Errani overcomes injury, Carla Suarez Navarro: After battling through what she called “a stabbing pain under her ribs” that prevented her from breathing at 5-5 in the first set, Sara Errani rallied from a set down to beat Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain in three sets. Errani was extremely satisfied with the outcome and commended Suarez Navarro stating, “For me to be in quarterfinals is unbelievable. She’s an amazing player and it’s always tough to play against her. I’m very happy to have won.”

Roland Garros Rewind: Serena, Ferrer, Radwanska Thrive; Federer, Errani, Kuznetsova Survive

Don't worry, I'm still here.

The schedule of play in singles has shrunk to two courts as the second week starts at Roland Garros.  Categories have started to shrink as well in the latter stages of these recaps.

ATP:

Match of the day:  That pesky Gilles Simon just won’t do the decent thing and retreat respectfully from Roger Federer, bowing every two steps.  Simon has defeated Federer twice and now taken him to a fifth set in both of their major meetings.  Reeling off 10 of 13 games in one stretch, the Frenchman even led the former champion by two sets to one until Federer compiled a seven-game surge of his own and eased through the final set without drama.

Comeback of the day:  Maybe we should rename this category the “Tommy Robredo Comeback of the Day.”  The Spanish veteran became the first man in the Open era to win three consecutive matches at a major after losing the first two sets.  At least Robredo did not need to save match points this time, as he did against Gael Monfils, but he trailed Nicolas Almagro by a break in both the fourth and fifth sets.  Of course, this was Nicolas Almagro.

Gold star:  Assigned the tallest man in the draw, David Ferrer trimmed him down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes.  Serena Williams also would have appreciated Ferrer’s demolition of Kevin Anderson and his massive serve, which ended with consecutive breadsticks.  Alone among the men in his half, he has not dropped a set or played a tiebreak through four matches.

Silver star:  Like Ferrer, Tsonga has not lost a set en route to a second straight quarterfinal here.  His victory over Viktor Troicki produced a routine scoreline like those before it, a departure from his usual trends but good news for his future here.

Stat of the day:  By rallying against Simon, Federer extended his streak of consecutive quarterfinals at majors to 36.  That’s nine years, reaching back to Wimbledon 2004.

Question of the day:  Tsonga threw quite a scare into world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the quarterfinal stage here last year, holding four match points in the fourth set.  He took Federer to a fifth set in the same round at the Australian Open this year.  Does another heart-stopping epic lie in store?

WTA:

Match of the day:  A 48-winner barrage from Svetlana Kuznetsova avenged a loss in Madrid to world No. 8 Angelique Kerber.  Kuznetsova has reached the quarterfinals at both majors this year, something that at least half of the WTA top ten cannot say pending tomorrow’s results.  Unseeded former champions plowing deep into the draw always adds an extra layer of interest to the second week of a major.

Comeback of the day:  Her first three matches had tumbled into the win column almost too easily.  Like Federer, Sara Errani encountered her first serious test of the tournament today against Carla Suarez Navarro and nearly flunked it.  She regrouped to secure her tenth win at Roland Garros in the last two years, having won one match in four previous appearances.  Predictably, neither woman hit an ace.

Gold star:  Never at her best on clay, Agnieszka Radwanska seemed ripe for an early upset when she lost early at the key clay non-majors and withdrew from Brussels last week with a shoulder injury.  Radwanska thus has surprised by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set, comfortably knocking off 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic to set up an intriguing clash with Errani.  All of the top four women are still in the draw.

Silver star:  To Roberta Vinci’s credit, she gave Serena Williams something to ponder in the second set as she stayed level until 3-3 and made inroads toward a break in the seventh game.  Unwilling to throw her opponent a lifeline, Serena snuffed out the threat, broke, and then served out her 28th straight win.  Four matches, ten games lost.

Stat of the day:  In five years and 20 majors since she won her in 2008, Ana Ivanovic has reached one major quarterfinal.

Question of the day:  Four years ago, Serena and Kuznetsova combined on a quarterfinal thriller that the Russian snatched late in the third set.  Could we see a worthy sequel in the same round on Tuesday, or is Serena simply too bulletproof at present?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Tsonga, Federer, Ferrer, Serena, Ivanovic-Radwanska and More on Sunday

No Nadal in my half?  Yum!

Now that the second week has arrived, you can find previews of every match on this site.  This article covers all eight on Sunday.

ATP:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Viktor Troicki:  While their head-to-head stands more evenly balanced than you might think, Tsonga has won both of their clay meetings convincingly.  Troicki has sandwiched a tortuous five-set win over a clay specialist between two straight-sets victories, the latter an upset of Marin Cilic.  For a man with a losing record this season headed into the tournament, an appearance in the second week marks an excellent step forward.  The bad news for Troicki is that Tsonga has not lost a set through three matches, showing uncommon discipline and purpose.  With the French crowd behind him on the biggest tennis stadium in his nation, he should make short work of a man who often gets rattled in hostile or tense environments.

Gilles Simon vs. Roger Federer:  When they first started to collide in the second half of 2008, Simon seemed to have Federer’s number.  He rallied from losing the first set to grind past him twice that year on the hard courts of the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships.  Surely chagrined that his stylistic flights of fancy could not trump a mechanical counterpuncher, Federer labored to finish him off at the 2011 Australian Open after squandering a two-set lead.  Rome this month marked the first time that he finally seemed to solve his “Simon problem.”  Displaying his superior clay skills, Federer yielded just three games to a Frenchman who lost his first two sets at his home major and needed to come from behind in the third round as well.  Simon lost 23 games in his last match.  Federer has lost 23 games in the tournament.  Not even the crowd, which adores Federer, will give him a meaningful edge.

Kevin Anderson vs. David Ferrer:  The tallest man in the draw faces the shortest man in the draw.  On clay, though, David Ferrer looms much larger than does Kevin Anderson despite the South African’s appearance in the Casablanca final this spring.  Ferrer has dominated all of his first three opponents without dropping a set, pouncing on a weak draw after Madrid and Rome assigned him quarterfinals against Nadal.  The Spanish veteran has made a living out of defanging huge servers like Anderson, using his deft reflexes and compact swings to blunt their single overwhelming weapon before outmaneuvering them along the baseline. Anderson bounced Ferrer from the second round of Indian Wells in March, but that victory may have owed something to Ferrer’s busy South American clay schedule just before and the deflating loss to Nadal that ended it.

Tommy Robredo vs. Nicolas Almagro:  This all-Spanish battle should feature plenty of traditional clay tennis with extended rallies from behind the baseline.  A former member of the top ten, Robredo launched an impressive comeback from injury this spring by winning the Casablanca title and upsetting Tomas Berdych in Barcelona.  He has emerged from one of the draw’s most star-studded nuggets, which included not only Berdych but Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis.  Saving match points against Monfils in the last round, Robredo has rallied from losing the first two sets in each of his last two matches.  By contrast, Almagro has grown famous for choking away huge leads.  But he has won all five of his meetings with Robredo, all on clay, while losing one total set.  Look for him to control the rallies as Robredo slips into retrieving mode.

WTA:

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Angelique Kerber:  Two of their three previous meetings have gone deep into a final set and ended with almost identical scores, the most recent in Madrid this spring.  Kerber’s burst from anonymity into the top 10 occurred near the same time that Kuznetsova plummeted from trendy dark horse to forgotten woman.  True to those trends, the German lefty has won both of their matches this year.  Kuznetsova should hold a clear surface edge, however, and she showed by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals that she still can bring her best tennis to the biggest tournaments.  An upset of Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that Kerber has plenty to fear, although she will bring momentum from gritting through a hard-fought contest with dirt devil Varvara Lepchenko.  This match may hinge on whose forehand does the dictating.

Serena Williams vs. Roberta Vinci:  Headlines would ripple through the tennis world if somebody merely stands up to Serena, much less defeats her.  A canny veteran with plenty of clay skills, Vinci will resist more tenaciously than most of her previous victims.  Serena will deny her the time to construct her artful combinations, though, and handled her doubles partner Sara Errani with ease.  This match could develop some intrigue if the world No. 1 struggles with her timing on her return, which can happen on clay.  But otherwise Serena should break serve too consistently and land too many punishing punches with her own serve to feel any serious pressure.

Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Sara Errani:  The answer to Robredo vs. Almagro in the men’s draw features a contest between two clay specialists of the sort rarely witnessed in the WTA these days.  Errani routed Suarez Navarro in the Acapulco final, which makes sense.  In no area of her game is the tiny Spaniard better than the small Italian, who even aced her in Acapulco.  On the other hand, Suarez Navarro scored a stunning upset over Errani in the first round of the last major, signaling an appropriate start to the best year of her career.  The two women combined for just a handful of service holds in that match, a pattern that could resurface.  Having conceded only nine games through three matches, barely more than Serena, Errani has looked as dominant as a woman without weapons other than drop shots ever will.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Ana Ivanovic:  To state the obvious, the most important shots of a point are the first and the last.  (If you’re Serena Williams, it’s often the same thing.)  In the language of the WTA, that means penetrating first serves, aggressive returns, and the ability to finish points with clean winners.  Ivanovic has struggled in both of those categories during her current six-match losing streak to Radwanska over the last three years.  Earlier in her career, she controlled her matches with the Pole by excelling in both of them, but the tide turned in 2009 when the Serb let a 4-0 lead slip away in a third set.  The pace of her serve and forehand has dwindled since she won Roland Garros five years ago, although Ivanovic has grown more comfortable in the forecourt with time.  Beyond tactics and technique, though, her main challenge lies in believing that she can defeat a top-five woman at a major.  The last time that Ivanovic did?  Two days before she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

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