veterans

The Three Tiers of Triumph at Roland Garros

At the start of every major tournament, a draw of 128 randomly placed names can be daunting to even the most experienced of tennis fans. It helps to know how to separate the melting pot of names into three categories, thereby organizing them by expectation.

The favorites and the also-rans make up the extreme ends of this three-tiered cake gauging Slam success. The favorites, small in number, backload the pressure they might feel if they enter the event with sufficient confidence in the belief that they will have to eventually defeat a co-favorite for the title.

The also-rans make up the majority of the draw, though most will be gone within the first few days of any given event. Free from expectation of any kind, winning seven matches in two weeks is rarely on the menu for this kind of player, but that freedom can catalyze a good story and an even better run if things go right early on.

As in tennis draws as in families, the middle tier is where a tournament experiences most of its angst. Occupying a space just above the also-rans (but significantly below the favorites) the darkhorses arguably have the most pressure from the get-go, as by definition these are the players tagged to do that which often contradicts their ranking or prior results. However, if they can get on a roll, that seemingly insurmountable weight of expectation lifts with each match won, and finds itself more and more on the favorites’ shoulders, whose mettle will finally be tested after a week-long warm-up.

The best part about the early rounds of a Slam, then, is getting to see all three kinds of player compete not only at once, but against one another, and how each deal with the presence (or lack) of expectation.

One potential darkhorse who appeared not ready for primetime in Paris was German sensation Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion, tapped by many as a legitimate contender for the title in 2011, has been struggling with bouts of dizziness and a GI illness, both of which hampered her progress throughout the clay court season. Faced with the opportunity to play an unranked veteran in the first round, Goerges must have liked her chances despite the cloud of misfortune that had followed her into the event.

But Zuzana Kucova had other ideas. Playing Roland Garros as a way of saying goodbye to tennis (the 30-year-old Slovak plans to retire by tournament’s end), Kucova played inspired tennis, first to out-gut Goerges in an extended first set tiebreak, then to bagel the German, who failed to find much of a rhythm on her extreme-gripped forehand. In her last tournament, Kucova finds herself in the second round of a Slam main draw for the first time, and while the win hardly elevates her to “darkhorse,” it makes for a great story, and what makes the Grand Slams so special.

Another player exhibiting few signs of pressure was defending champion and second-favorite to repeat (behind nemesis Serena Williams) was Maria Sharapova. Playing a similar warm-up schedule to last year, the Russian has felt at home on the terre battue in the last few years in a way that feels both shocking and refreshing. Once a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has conquered a surface that once gave her fits. If the draw suddenly lacked Williams, she would be the overwhelming favorite to defend the title that earned her the career Slam a year ago.

The American’s presence in the draw serves two purposes for Sharapova. While it decreases her eventual odds of winning, the accompanying decrease in expectation frees her up to play (dare I say it?) Kucova-like tennis. Against a familiar opponent in Hsieh Su-Wei, Sharapova played a perfect match, holding serve throughout, cracking more winners than errors, and led the star from Chinese Taipei in all stats except double faults; in what was the biggest upset of the day, Sharapova served none.

For all of the “feel good” stories a Slam brings, however, there must always be some element of tragedy. Such was the case for two darkhorses, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep. Both had fantastic results coming into Paris, the former with a run to the finals of Oeiras and the quarterfinals in Rome. By contrast, Halep had saved all of her magic for the Foro Italico where, as a qualifier, she stunned three current and former top 2 players (Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Jankovic) to reach the semifinals. Both were expected to do big things at the second Slam of the year provided, of course, one defeated the other in their first round match.

In what was ultimately the bad luck of the draw, the two darkhorses came out on a non-televised court, played three sets of high quality tennis (both hit more than 20 and less than 30 errors over three sets), only for Halep to find herself on the losing end of the tussle. Suarez Navarro evidently played stunningly perfect clay court tennis, but sympathy must lie with the Romanian who, on Day 2 of Roland Garros, is out of a tournament where she was expected to do well with nothing tangible to show for it.

This dynamic of favorites, darkhorses and also-rans may seem complicated, but how all three forces come together over a two week span is what gives a Grand Slam tournament much of its “epic” qualities. While the field may decrease with each passing day, the three tiers of triumph help serve both dramatic tennis and compelling stories.

Dust in the Wind: Schiavone and Kuznetsova Continue Their Downward Slides

Tennis is a cruel sport.

A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.

With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.

Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?

Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.

Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU

Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.

But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.

It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.

We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.