Tag Archives: French Open

Grand Slam tennis – I love it! The organisation….less so.

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The view which greeted first-comers on Monday morning

 

It is funny what absence occasionally does – the two year gap between my last fleeting visit to Roland Garros and the present day has allowed it to become one of my favourite getaways; the Slam where most people who attend actually care about tennis in the 50 weeks of the year when it isn’t going on. As so often is the case, I leave a tennis major knowing that tennis was the winner despite, and not owing to, the organisers. I’m sure you would have seen a theme develop in my review of the good and bad of my French Open 2016 without that small precursor to what is to come in my summary of what I experienced in my three days at Roland Garros.

Radek Stepanek used every last drop of the wiliness he has gained over the years to push Andy Murray to the brink of his first opening round defeat since the 2008 Australian Open on Monday night. True, Murray was out-of-sorts but this mustn’t detract from a tremendous showing from the 37-year-old Czech (it is now obligatory to use his age as an adjective at all times when mentioning Stepanek). His persistent use of the dropshot was well-documented but I am glad that Murray acknowledged how well Stepanek volleyed too. I had chickened out and left with the Scot trailing two sets to nil on Monday night so was over-the-moon at getting the chance to see Part 2 on Tuesday. The man from Dunblane (or Glasgow according to the scoreboard) needed every inch of his fight to prevail. The five sets will do him well (the later five sets today against French qualifier Mathias Bourgue less so) but he has big work ahead over the next ten days if he is to trouble Djokovic.

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Lower decks of Chatrier sparsely populated as per usual

 

That match was the only one I chose to watch on Court Philippe Chatrier throughout Monday and Tuesday and the swathes of empty seats do not implore you to come in and join the fun. Whilst the ‘cheap seats’ had filled up towards the end of a titanic tussle, it has to be said that pricing structures continue to make tennis look under-attended on TV. The true tennis fans are pushed to the top but once there it really is difficult to feel a part of things, therefore I frequently sought comfort on the outer courts. It is of course essential to have VIP sections and those people have paid enough to choose when to have their lunch. But Wimbledon has it right (not often you see me write that) with a standard price for the rest of the tickets. How much longer this will be the case remains to be seen now that the Australian Open has joined its French and US counterparts in introducing category pricing.

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Dimitrov needs to find a way to stop his downward spiral

 

The expansion of seedings to 32 rather than 16 15 years ago (thanks Wimbledon!) was a disappointing move; it took away an unpredictability around Grand Slams that will never be fully recaptured. Nowadays, we must wait for a dip in form or an injury to get the first round matches we crave. Grigor Dimitrov’s fall from ‘Baby Federer’ to ‘next big hope’ to ‘also-ran’ appears to be now complete on the surface (and this surface). His five-set defeat to 22nd seed Viktor Troicki was always probable and the latter was simply the more patient of the two. Dimitrov has a tendency to rush points (taking his comparison to Federer to the extreme) and from the moment Troicki levelled at the end of the fourth set having trailed 1-4, he was to be the winner. It wasn’t a classic but it kept the interest of everybody who had stayed on Court 2 for the match duration of three and a half hours, plus a lovely rain delay beforehand.

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Donna Vekic wasn’t best pleased at any point during her defeat to Madison Keys

 

If we are talking about fallen future stars, it’s logical to mention a star that hasn’t quite managed to ascend thus far. Donna Vekic was once hot property on the junior circuit but her on-court petulance and sulkiness appear to be blocking her progress. She was disappointing in her heavy defeat to Madison Keys out on Court 6, her game taken apart extremely effectively by the amiable American. A word on the watching Stan Wawrinka: as sullen as his rumoured girlfriend was petulant. The defending champion arrived flanked by two security guys and refused a polite request for a photo by the guys sat in front of him (they had waited until the changeover). Wawrinka struggled to even be monosyllabic in his response and nobody was upset to see him leave after the first set. I saw different reactions from the likes of Dominika Cibulkova and Elina Svitolina, the latter running across the court to a group of fans desperate for a selfie at the end of her match which finished after 8pm. The defending champions’ behaviour is even more disappointing in comparison. For what my opinion is worth, the young Ukrainian Svitolina looks a Top 10 player, maybe even a Top 5er. Her forehand is matched by her tactical nous, both very evident in her dismantling of Sorana Cirstea 6-1 6-3.

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Rising star Elina Svitolina defending big points here but off to a majestic start

 

Another fine men’s match was Philipp Kohlschreiber’s encounter with Nicolas Almagro, the latter being unseeded after a poor last 15 months. His temper is still burning brightly though! Despite beating the 28th seed, Almagro was involved in a heated five-minute conversation/rant at umpire Carlos Bernardes AFTER the match. I arrived a set and a half into his four-set win so I must have missed what he was complaining about because everything looked spot-on to me. Good to see Mr Aggro living up to his (almost) name. There was plenty of other good tennis on show; a small cameo from my outside tip Svetlana Kuznetsova before rain halted play on Sunday afternoon; Julia Goerges was imperious in her same-dress derby destruction of 28th seed Jo Konta (yes I saw both Number 28s lose); Alison Riske continues to lose every time I go anywhere near her, doubly upsetting as she is my favourite; and Heather Watson and Dominika Cibulkova had solid if unspectacular victories. A fine three days of tennis.

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Nicolas Alm-Aggro!

 

The final word must sadly go on Roland Garros as an organised event. Firstly, ‘all exits are definitive, no re-entry is permitted’. Why? Having paid upwards of 60 Euros for a ticket, I see no reason why I should have to remain in uncovered grounds during periods of prolonged rainfall on a sporting day which can last for ten hours. It is unnecessary and frankly cheapens the event into a money-making exercise for the in-grounds vendors. You can leave every other Slam so why is it not the case at Roland Garros? I often wonder whether the four majors associations ever get their heads together at all! And then we have the security checks. I hoped, and expected, that the security would have been ramped up (Is security the only thing to ever get ‘ramped up’?) in the aftermath of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in the last seven months. In my past visits to Roland Garros, it has been a rather inadequate bag check. On first inspection, it has improved. However, I fear it is actually no safer and has soured the whole event. Here goes: Step 1 – open your jackets half-way between metro station and front gates (a walk that in the past took 7 minutes). Step 2 – a body scan, done by a human waving a scanner. Step 3 – Bag search and pat down at the gates. All okay in theory, but when you have tens of thousands of people arriving between 10-11am, it is impossible to manage. Next year, Roland Garros must open their gates earlier if they are to properly secure their event. Decent people do not mind vigorous checks if they get into an event or onto their planes on time. What happened on Tuesday was that those who arrived at 10am (the time the gates open) missed the start of play, play they had paid for. Additionally, after the body scan had been conducted by just four people for these thousands of fans, the crowd then bottlenecked into a huge throng that had no order awaiting the next stage of the security check a further 200 metres down the road. It is testament to the people in that crowd and nothing to do with the organisers that they remained polite and calm. It was truly shambolic. I felt the bag search on Tuesday was no more thorough than in previous years due to the staff rushing; faced with huge crowds there is an inclination to speed up the process. To do it better next year, they have to open the gates at 9am. By doing this, the early birds will arrive between 9 and 10, thus easing the rush-hour period significantly. Simple, effective and secure. So overall, security and organisation gets a 5/10 but the tennis gets a whopping 9.5/10! Can’t wait for my next taste of Grand Slam tennis!

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How not to do a security check

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French Open wrap – things I learned from Roland Garros

Third  time unlucky - the career Grand Slam still eludes Djokovic

Third time unlucky – the career Grand Slam still eludes Djokovic

The Golden Oldies show no sign of slowing down

Not the usual suspects that get spoken of all the time, but the veterans that rarely get a mention. Two former Roland Garros champs put on one of the matches of the tournament; Francesca Schiavone’s defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round had the fans out of their seats on so many occasions. Errors were scarce as each point turned into a mini-classic. Eventually it was the 2010 champion who overcame her 2009 counterpart, just as she had done in the 2011 Australian Open in their 4hour 45 minutes record-breaking encounter. It’s worth noting that this was Schiavone’s 59th consecutive Grand Slam, an absolutely incredible achievement which is great testament to the way the Italian, who turns 35 in a fortnight, has looked after her body over the years. In addition, the titles were won by champions who are both in their fourth decade. On top of all of this, you have the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Lucie Safarova and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who are playing as well as, if not better, than at any other time in their careers.

Schiavone and Kuznetsova always produce instant classics

Schiavone and Kuznetsova always produce instant classics

There is no Big 3 or Big 4

The golden age of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all at their peaks is history. Will Federer win another major? Possibly, though you would say that his best chance will come within the next five weeks. Will Nadal will another French Open? Probably. Will Novak Djokovic win more majors? Certainly. But the days of only this triumvirate sharing out the majors are gone for good. Djokovic is deservedly the best in the world right now, his consistency is second to none and if there’s any justice he will win that elusive French Open title – more on that to follow. Andy Murray believes he is back to playing his best tennis and ready to win more majors. His improved clay court performance points to brighter things beyond the 2015 Parisian horizon; he is well-placed to mount serious challenges for that title in the next couple of years and will be one of the two favourites going into the London summer later this month. As much as Djokovic is the most consistent and consistently best player in the world right now, Stanislas Wawrinka’s best tennis is better than anybody else’s best tennis. The way his backhand stood up to scrutiny and pressure during the final on Sunday was immense. His big shot won him a second Grand Slam, and you cannot rule out further titles for the Swiss. Much like Petra Kvitova on the women’s side, when Stan is hot nobody can touch him.

The future’s looking bright too

I believe that tennis is in rude health at this moment in time. The changing of the guard is not so much a dramatic process in the men’s game, rather an evolutionary one. And whilst Serena Williams remains the dominant force on the women’s side, there is plenty of healthy competition underneath her.  As well as the aforementioned ‘veterans’, of which runner-up Lucie Safarova deserves special mention for her magnificent run this past fortnight and her refusal to go away in the final, the new guard are all jockeying for position. You would have got big money if you had predicted that Sloane Stephens, Andrea Mitu, Elina Svitlolina and Alison van Uytvanck would all reach the Last 16 in Paris, but that they did. Stephens had eventual champion Serena on the ropes at 6-1 5-5 before slipping to a three-set defeat and Svitolina hinted at great sporadic things in her future by reaching the quarter-finals. Van Uytvanck is the wild card here; her flat-hitting may see her become a part of the establishment for years to come if she can hit so hard and consistently over the coming years. Of course it’s always a big if when a new name comes through but she definitely has the power to play a big part. On the men’s side, the likes of Jack Sock and Borna Coric are starting to win matches at Grand Slam level, which will hopefully be the next step in their transition into big deals. Sock in particular has done ever so well to overcome years of niggling injuries and it was great to see his name still in the draw as the event entered its second week. With Milos Raonic missing through injury but starting to regularly reach quarters and Kei Nishikori getting closer on a more-regular basis, the men’s game has enough depth to suggest competitive Slams lie ahead of us. The next few years promises to showcase some classic struggles as the likes of Nadal, Federer and eventually Djokovic go out fighting against the best of the rest.

Belgium's next big thing? Van Uytvanck can be proud of her ten days' work

Belgium’s next big thing? Van Uytvanck can be proud of her ten days’ work

Obsession is dangerous

Novak Djokovic must have thought his French Open time had come when he swatted aside the challenge of nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals and the ovation he received after losing his third final will live with him for a long time. It went on and on and on and the Serb did well to hold off his tears – so after all this time, like so often with tennis, the way you get people to like you more is by losing. Tennis fans love the guys who are chasing their own personal holy grail; Borg with Roland Garros and Goran Ivanisevic and Jana Novotna in their pursuit of a Wimbledon crown are the three that spring straight to mind. Unfortunately for Djokovic, you sense that he himself feels his career will be defined by his Roland Garros pursuit now; win it, complete the career Grand Slam and forever be immortalised but fail to do so and forever be remembered as the guy that chased the dream which was always just out of his grasp. As good as Wawrinka was in the final, you did get an overriding sense that the undisputed best player in the world felt the weight of history that was on his shoulders was just too much. I really hope for his sake that he can channel his excitement and eagerness to make history in the coming years or the career Grand Slam he deserves will pass him by.

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The King is on the ropes – could it happen? French Open preview

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Grand Slam tennis rolls back into the City of Love later today and, whilst my attention is uncharacteristically elsewhere for at least the first 30 hours of the tournament (Championship Play-off Final!),  I have nevertheless tried to make some sense of the draws for the second major of 2015. The reigning women’s champion Maria Sharapova comes in as one of the hot favourites but on the men’s side, the nine-time champ Rafael Nadal arrives finding himself in the unfamiliar territory of not being favourite, in fact being far from it. The French Open has thrown up some surprise finalists on both sides in the 21st century and you can never completely rule out it happening again in spite of the superstar era we find ourselves watching. So who will be standing tall in Porte d’Auteuil after fifteen days of high-class tennis?

King of Spain, King of France, King of Clay, The King.

King of Spain, King of France, King of Clay, The King.

The women’s competition promises to be a fabulous celebration of in-form tennis. The top four seeds Serena Williams, Sharapova, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova have all had very good clay-court results recently, and the underdogs section looks pretty competitive too; Andrea Petkovic, Carla Suarez-Navarro, former world number one Victoria Azarenka and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are all capable of going deep into the Parisian fortnight. In addition to that, you’ve got Grand Slam pedigree in 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard who always saves her A-Game for the majors. It’s a difficult task to pick a winner and made even harder when you struggle to be objective sometimes – we all have our favourites. However, I will try.

For all the talk of how dominant Serena Williams is and how she brings her best form to the majors when she has a difficult draw, I do believe she will bow out of the French Open in the first week. There’s no doubt that the younger Williams sister is the dominant player of this era, and the era before it for that matter. She has been at the very top since the dawn of the new millennium BUT……her tussles with Victoria Azarenka are always titanic encounters – who can forget their consecutive US Open Finals in 2012 and 2013? Azarenka’s ranking is now down to 27 after the year she lost to injury, but Serena will not have wanted to see her name so early on. Azarenka recently double-faulted on three consecutive match points against the world number one, perfectly illustrating how close these two are. I take her to finally get over the line in a big match against Williams and go deep into the tournament.

From the top half of that draw, I actually think that Andrea Petkovic and Petra Kvitova will fill the semi-final spots. Petkovic would have to come past the likes of Azarenka and former finalist Sara Errani, but the German would be a popular returnee to the semi-final circle she reached last year. I watched Petra Kvitova take apart Svetlana Kuznetsova’s fine clay-court game so resoundingly in the Madrid final recently, a performance the Russian described as the best she’d ever played against. I’ve said it before but it really is time that the Croatian takes her Wimbledon form into other slams, and she looks well set to do that in Paris.

It’s hard to look beyond a Halep-Sharapova semi-final in the bottom half of the draw; a repeat of last year’s final looks certain due to them both being in fine form. The Romanian would need to come past the likes of home favourite Alize Cornet, out-of-form Agnieszka Radwanska and her Australian Open conqueror Ekaterina Makarova but her spellbinding progress is sure to see her right. The two-time champion Sharapova has an easier route to the semis but will need to avoid complacency if she comes up against former finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round. Their semi-final will be every bit as good as last year’s final, and then better. You can never rule out the Russian but I have got to believe that if Halep is to get over the line against her anywhere, it would still be on clay. Sharapova’s a clay-court expert these days of course, but Halep is as close to Justine Henin that we’ve had since the diminutive Belgian retired.

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

A Kvitova-Halep final would be great for tennis, a final not involving any of the typical old-guard. A classic of punch-counterpunch tennis, of that tall swinging left forehand of Kvitova’s with the chess-style game of Halep. You can never be sure in women’s finals but I’d love it to go three sets. I’d tip Halep to edge the final and become the newest member of the Grand Slam club.

In the men’s draw, eyes immediately go to the quarter which houses both nine-time champion Rafael Nadal and the world number one and in-form Novak Djokovic. Does a 128-man, 15-day tournament really boil down to just one match on Day 11? You would hope not, but then as long as it’s as titanic a struggle as we expect it would be we could deal with that. Both of these men arrive in Paris in unchartered territory; Rafa as an underdog for the first time in a decade and Nole as THE favourite. How will they cope with their new tags? I’d be absolutely amazed if they didn’t both reach the quarter-finals. Djokovic may come up against Bernard Tomic and Richard Gasquet but if either of them takes a set from him, they will have done well. Rafa is coming into this tournament at his most vulnerable since he first stepped foot on Court Philippe Chatrier for the first time in 2005 but then this is Roland Garros, this is Court Philippe Chatrier, this is his house. Nobody will take him out in a best-of-five sets match in the first week. Despite all of the form books pointing to a comfortable win for Djokovic, I think it will be an extremely tight match between the two gladiators but, if pushed into a corner, I’m backing the Serb to prevail.

Whatever happens, it’ll take a lot out of the victor, which will be ideal for their semi-final opponent, with the sensible money predicting that to be Andy Murray. Murray has won two clay court titles this year and finally feels at home on the surface. I’ve always thought the Brit is capable of winning the French Open but his best chance may lie in the future when Djokovic is not so hot. That said, the two-time slam champion would have a good shot if Djokovic is underpar following a huge quarter-final with Rafa. His counter-punching style is actually a really good fit for the Roland Garros orange and he now appears to have the belief that this is indeed the case. Once again, it could be a cigarette paper to separate that semi-final – one thing is for sure though, it would not be pretty.

The bottom half of the draw can be summed up in one word: Opportunity. 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer will look at the names before him and fancy his chances of his first final appearance in Paris since 2011. However, there’s a name there that may well just take him out and that name is Gael Monfils. The exuberant Frenchman has come close to beating the great Swiss at Roland Garros before and this time I expect him to get the job done. That would completely blow open the whole half, and it would be Kei Nishikori that would be left licking his lips. I see shocks all throughout the fortnight in the bottom half and names like Monfils, Ernests Gulbis, Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista-Agut could all have parts to play at the quarter-final stage. Nevertheless, it is the Japanese Nishikori who I think has what it takes to take advantage of a kind draw and reach his second major final. He will hope to give a better impression of himself than he did in New York last September and I anticipate that he’d provide stiffer opposition this time around but ultimately fall short again.

Djokovic wants to complete the Career Grand Slam - this could be his year

Djokovic wants to complete the Career Grand Slam – this could be his year

In short, I predict two new champions for Roland Garros to add to its exquisite roll of honour: Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic.  But if they slip up against the two reigning champions, those champions will continue to reign supreme……

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The Queen of Clay joins long-reigning King – French Open finals review

Well I love to say I told you so…. A strange French Open was lit up by two absorbing finals this past weekend, and whilst there is no end in sight to Rafael Nadal’s dominance of Paris, it was pleasing to also see Maria Sharapova excelling on the surface on which she once felt like a cow on ice. The finals were both full of drama, but one far outweighed the other in terms of consistent quality.

King of Spain, King of France, King of Clay, The King.

King of Spain, King of France, King of Clay, The King.

Rafael Nadal won his ninth French Open crown. Did anybody ever seriously doubt it? I joked watching the presentations that Bjorn Borg must feel like a chump stood next to him, but seriously Borg must never have imagined that one day somebody would better his Roland Garros tally by 50%! The final was not a classic for the ages, in terms of quality it did not come close to some of their previous encounters. For a set and a half it did, but then for some reason both men’s level fell off and Novak’s level went down a notch or two further. What it didn’t do was take away any of the intrigue. The men’s draw at the French Open has now simply become a spellbinding subplot centring on who can dethrone King Rafa. His run now is up there with the greatest runs in the history of sport. He has won that thing nine times for goodness sake. Over ten years, he has amassed 66 victories and suffered a solitary defeat. This has not been a period of dominance in an era without great players. He’s beaten Roger Federer in four of the finals and now Novak Djokovic in a further two, players with 23 Grand Slam titles between them. I’m so happy for Federer that he capitalised on Nadal’s one slip in Paris to capture the career grand slam because it now looks like it will elude Djokovic.

The post-match tears from Djokovic were real – this is a man who has his place in tennis history, but he wants more. He wants to be one of those men who win majors on all four surfaces; the career grand slam list is a lot shorter when you take out the men who won it when majors were all played on the same surface. He wants desperately to win the French Open for this very reason, but he sees his chances slipping. If we’re brutally honest, he is no closer to beating Nadal in Paris than he has ever been – in fact, he is getting further away. I’ve written before how there is no reason why Rafa can’t go on to ten Roland Garros; it seems absurd right now to see him stopping there.

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

“A satisfied customer – we should have him stuffed” – a classic line from the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers, and it’s what sprung to my mind when watching the women’s final. A classic Roland Garros women’s final, we should have it stuffed. The first time a ladies’ singles final has gone the distance at Roland Garros since 2001. 12 disappointing finals were quickly forgotten as Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep delivered a classic. We’ve sat through one-sided all-Russian, all-Belgian, all-Williams finals, we’ve winced as the then-number one Dinara Safina disintegrated into the red dust and we’ve seen nerves get the better of the likes of Sam Stosur and Sara Errani. This was different, a fitting end to a terrific women’s draw. I never doubted that Sharapova would being her A-game but what a pleasing surprise it was to see the young Romanian live with her at every stage of the three-set tussle, and tussle is the word for it.

I’ve followed Halep’s rise in the rankings from a distance, having not seen her play much recently. Other commitments meant I missed most of her Roland Garros run but boy was I impressed with what I did see. She has developed her game in so many areas over the past 18 months and her mental strength means she stands a chance to win majors – I predicted she would crumble under the weight of pre-tournament expectation, having seen it so many times before, but she delivered in spectacular fashion. Look for her to go close in New York later in the summer.

What is left to say about Maria Sharapova? Well, quite a lot I think. So much has been said in the past about her fighting qualities, her maximising of her talent. However, I think it’s time to recognise just how good that talent is. Her victory here was her finest Grand Slam final performance since she lifted the Wimbledon title in 2004 as a 17-year-old. Yes, that was ten years ago. She has been at the top of the game ever since. Not number one, but pretty much top 5 consistently, save for injury absences. In that time, she had major shoulder surgery and reconstructed her service action (admittedly still her bête noire). Ask other champions how difficult it is to play a full schedule at the top of the modern game for a decade. Ask Justine Henin how difficult it is, ask Kim Clijsters, ask Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport. All great champions who couldn’t do it for ten consecutive years. It’s tough, and yet she does all this amongst a volley of cat-calls, bitchiness and mockery. “She takes way too long between points”. “Her shrieks are intolerable”. Twitter bordered on bullying during the final. These statements flew her as accusations of cheating. Like these things were suddenly new. Who calls Djokovic out on his time-wasting? Who has a go at the ridiculous noises Sara Errani or Francesca Schiavone have always made? It’s 2014 but targeting the pretty blonde girl who is successful is still one of the easiest things to do in sport and in life. As for Maria, she’ll carry on shrieking (yes it’s annoying) and she’ll carry on taking an eternity to prepare for points (not the only one – blame the umpires) but she’ll smile every night as she looks at each one of her five major titles. Not bad for “the new Kournikova”.

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Lazy Sunday Afternoon – One Day in Paris

Stepanek still a winner

I went to the French Open for the first time since 2011 at the weekend, but was only there for a total of six hours, way down on my usual length of stay at a Slam. What can be achieved in such a short space? A hell of a lot, even if it’s not made easy by poor organisation 😉 How does a ground pass in Paris match up to my other Slam experiences? Let’s see

First of all, the positives of which there are plenty. The logistical proximity of this Slam meant that I could commute from my own home and come back in the same day, no need to intrude upon friends or homestay accommodation. A dream realised! Roland Garros has excellent transport links with the centre of Paris and you can get from Gare du Nord to the tennis club in 35 minutes by any means of transport.

An admittedly underwhelming order of play was soon forgotten about. It’s great having favourites and when none of them line up on your one day that you’re there it can lead to a feeling of emptiness. But what I found was it freed me up. I wasn’t tied to a particular court, sitting through a match I didn’t want to see waiting for a later one. I went where the smell of good tennis led me. This can lead to disjointed affairs, coming into match halfway. But you ask Radek Stepanek if he likes the idea of me arriving at his match. The Czech veteran was two sets to love down when I arrived at his match. He came through in five, no doubt inspired by my ringing endorsement from my 2013 Player awards. That said, I think another veteran Mikhail Youzhny was happy to see me go. He came back to win after I left his match with him losing and ranting and raving in very-audible Russian.

The good thing about moving around and not being tied to your favourites is you can watch matches more clearly with no strong affinity to either player, thus allowing you to recognise newer players on the block. Neither Facundo Arguello nor Pablo Carreno-Busta were included in my tennis knowledge prior to Sunday, but I’ll be sure to follow their careers with a little interest from hereon due to their stellar efforts against seasoned pros.
On a pure indulgent note, eating an ice-cream watching tennis on a warm sunny Parisian day with one of my best friends has to be one of the best feelings in the world. Not even the presence of Conchita Martinez (her Wimbledon win put me off tennis as a child, dull dull dull) can spoil that sensation.

She's no flaming galah!

She’s no flaming galah!

However, Roland Garros has its drawbacks. Firstly, the signage is poor. They tell you that you can enter one place with your ticket, but then when you arrive there, you are redirected, thus wasting time. In addition to this, I waited 45 minutes in a queue of seven people for two coffees. Yeah yeah, I know I should have quit earlier but it becomes a matter of principle and anyway I enjoyed complaining with the others in the queue, chance to practice my cantankerous French skills! As we got closer to the front of the queue, the reason for the delay became apparent. At certain of the catering facilities, you have to scan your ticket, like you do in duty-free at the airport! Why? I mean, if I manage to skip past security into a tennis event, the first place I’m going to head to is the coffee stand! As well as this, the price lists didn’t include the additional 1Euro charge for an Eco Cup so the sales assistant was having to FULLY explain the system to each customer. Cracking stuff, especially for those that don’t speak French or English. A single line on the price list would have changed this.

Also, there’s no communication between the stewards working on the ‘smaller show courts’. Thus you have confusion leading to the man at the bottom of the chain thinking the stand is full because the woman at the top of the chain isn’t communicating with him at all due to distance between the two of them. Walkie-talkies have not yet reached Courts 2 and 3 at Roland Garros. This can lead to a quick toilet dash taking an hour.

Three-day first-rounds do nothing for tennis, I’m afraid. I’ve been of this opinion for a while but when a show court has Amandine Hesse v Yvonne Meusburger on Day 1 of Grand Slam, they have to take a long hard look at the idea behind it. Yes, money is important, but that is short-selling anybody who paid big money in advance for that court. It’s wrong. And it can turn the causal punter away from tennis. I hope that the Australian Open and Wimbledon look at that and vow never to change their winning formulas.

So, there were resounding pluses to my six hours at the French Open, and a few minor niggles from a Slam veteran which could seriously put off a less-experienced person. My personal highlight came after exiting though, when we randomly bumped into one of my favourite players, Jarka Gajdosova in an adjoining street. And no, there is no suggestion of stalking here – she doesn’t look the type! Chatty and happy to pose for a photo, it’s good to have her back on the tour after almost a year missed through illness. Looking forward to seeing her at her home slam, the Australian Open, next year: on the court, not off it!

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No French Revolutions here; two irresistible forces to triumph in Paris

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There are two stunning statistics in the world of women’s tennis at the moment, both of which I find equally incredible.  The first is that Maria Sharapova, consistently the second best player in the world over the last seven or eight years, has failed to beat the best, Serena Williams, since 2004. Nine long years and twelve big matches with a lot of those defeats having been thrashings. The other is that the dominant force that is Serena has only emerged victorious on one occasion in Paris, a full 11 years ago in 2002. That is almost unbelievable. No player has been able to get close to Serena consistently in that time –  yet for some reason or another, there has always been somebody ready to played inspired stuff on the red clay of Roland Garros to knock out the Queen Bee. Remember Sam Stosur in 2010, dominating Serena in forehand rallies. And I’m sure no French supporter will ever forget Virginie Razzano’s miraculous display there 12 months ago, when she inflicted on Serena a first ever first round defeat at a Grand Slam. Yes, her first ever first-round defeat in her 47th Grand Slam tournament.

So, one could argue that Serena’s record at Roland Garros is extremely disappointing. In fact, by her superb standards, it is actually woeful. Other than her 2002 triumph, she has actually only reached the last four on one other occasion, the following year. This has to be the year she puts this right. She is out to avenge the shocking defeat in Round 1 last year, which jolted her into action for the rest of the season (Wimbledon and US Open titles to go with an Olympic Gold medal), stunning form which she has now carried well into 2013. Last year’s anomaly will mean she is ready for business from Day 1 here and I’m afraid I see nobody ready to challenge her this year. She has blown away all comers on the clay surface so far this season and lost only a couple of handful of games on her way to the Rome title this past week, comfortably beating Vika Azarenka and Sharapova on the way. Sharapova will be the likely opponent in the final, but I’m afraid her shocking head-to-head record with Williams will mean she is beaten before she even steps onto the court. And that is the biggest testimony you could pay Serena; the fact that the women’s game’s biggest fighter can’t even find a chink in the World Number One’s armour. So, put your life savings on Serena winning her second Paris title to move to within two of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s total of 18 major titles. I tip former champions Na Li and Ana Ivanovic to do well here, but all eyes will rightly be on Serena in my opinion from Day 1 right through to Day 14.

The men’s tournament is less cut and dried, but only slightly so in my opinion. Who to discount? Andy Murray is missing through injury, whilst Roger Federer cannot be classed as a genuine title contender in my eyes. Murray really needed to prioritise Wimbledon because he has a real shot of winning his home major, and Federer looks like time has finally caught up with him. That is not to say he won’t reach quarters and semi-finals (and having seen the draw, he has a good shot of reaching the final now), but I simply don’t think he can slug it out with the winner of Nadal and Djokovic  on this surface now. When he hits the relative comforts of SW19, things may swing in his favour ever so slightly, but here in Paris he can’t live with them.

Expect strong showings from Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka at the Slam and during the rest of the summer. Berdych is a player who has flattered to deceive during his career really. I group him with the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, to a lesser extent (due to injuries), Juan-Martin Del Potro as somebody who should have done better consistently at majors, with only his Wimbledon final appearance of 2010 to show for thus far. But his form is solid and he could surprise by reaching a semi-final or even be there on the very last day, if he can first navigate an awful first round match-up with Gael Monfils. Likewise, Stan Wawrinka looks poised to leap out from Roger Federer’s shadow for a dalliance in the spotlight this summer. I tip him for a last eight spot here( and he is unfortunate to be due to meet Nadal at that stage and to be coming in with a slight injury problem or I would rate his chances even higher); he is hitting the ball superbly and his backhand is as good as anything in the game right now. I expect him to be a serious challenger in six weeks’ time at Wimbledon, but an appearance in the second week in Paris is attainable for, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys on tour.

The two with the biggest chance of getting their hands on the trophy on June 9th however are, once again, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic looks uneasy with fitness concerns, but then again, when are injury concerns ever that far away from the Serb’s mind? He has suffered some surprise losses on the clay courts this spring, notably to rising star Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid several weeks ago. Watch out for Dimitrov and the Renaissance man Tommy Haas to feature into the second week at Porte D’Auteuil, by the way. But it is Rafael Nadal that is the favourite again, certainly in my eyes. He has reached eight consecutive finals since coming back from his eight month lay-off, and has won six of those finals. Stunning. And his demolition of Roger Federer in Rome last week bodes well for the Spaniard. He is almost unbeatable on that Parisian site, with only one defeat in the eight times he has played this tournament. I think Rafa is confident going in here; he knows the other big hitters are struggling with form and/or fitness and he must be licking his lips in anticipation. His durability, stamina, and will-to-win will see him through here and once again Rafael Nadal will stand on top of the clay court tennis world as the King of Roland Garros.

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