Tag Archives: Roland Garros

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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Raining on Rafa’s parade

Sunday night in Paris – a damp end to Day 1 of ‘The Dream Final’

Rafael Nadal continues to reign supreme in Paris and his triumph this year could well be his best yet.  The loss of just one set in the 16 days was a strong message to the rest of the tour that he is not going to step aside and let Novak Djokovic be the undisputed king of tennis.  Rafa is now up to seven wins on the famous orange courts of Roland Garros and I would not rule out him blowing the history books away by making it into double figures.  Imagine that, winning the same Slam ten times in an era which includes Roger Federer and Djokovic.  A record of 53 wins to one defeat in the French Open shows that he is virtually untouchable on the clay.  Robin Soderling must still pinch himself when remembering his Quarter-Final defeat of the Spaniard in 2009.  Djokovic will come back for more next year and will still strongly fancy his chances of winning slams during the rest of the summer but for now Rafa remains the undisputed King of Porte d’Auteuil.

What was the real shame about this triumph was that it was not witnessed by a full stadium.  Time and time again, some of the best players to have ever played our sport are being failed by the powers that be.  Roland Garros’ decision to finally put a roof on Court Philippe Chatrier is a decade too late.  Furthermore, a roof was not needed to avoid the continuation of this tournament into a working Monday.  What was needed was for the organisers not to dance to the tune of US television companies.  Who are more important to this sport; US television or the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic who continue to carry the sport to new heights?  The latter could certainly be excused for feeling he had Rafa on the ropes on Sunday evening as the drizzle began to fall.  A 1pm start would have put paid to any argument. Everybody knew that the late afternoon weather forecast was awful, but still the start was delayed until 3pm. Heaven forbid we play a Grand Slam final in good conditions whilst the American audiences are still sleeping. Why don’t we go the full hog and play all Slams in the States, at least that way we can guarantee that all majors finish on schedule.  After all, it’s not like the US Open has had no problems with their scheduling in the recent past; three Monday finals in the last four years.  There is something more than a little embarrassing how Wimbledon manages to complete its tournament on time despite a later daily start time than Roland Garros and New York, as well as it having a rest day thrown in for good measure.

I am not done with criticising Roland Garros just yet. The decision whether or not to have a “People’s Monday” must be a difficult one to take at such short notice. But to not even give people the option to hand in their tickets for resale meant that the stadium was nowhere near full for what many commentators were describing as “the most anticipated final in the Open era”.  Is this what the Top 2 in their sport deserve?  Their Wimbledon preparations delayed by a day to play out a second day of a Final that should have finished 20 hours previously, but also to have to do it in front of a half-full stadium. Shame on you Roland Garros and shame on you  ATP.  Let’s start looking after your prized assets a hell of a lot more because we will all miss this era when they are gone.  And maybe the next era will be so dull in comparison that the US television companies will not be interested enough to even bother dictating the schedule.

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How to solve a problem with Maria

A Dream realised

That it was Maria Sharapova who stood with the Suzanne Lenglen trophy aloft at the end of the fortnight should come as no surprise; A relief as there have been a few too many surprises in the women’s game over the last 14 days, something which serves as a big problem to the game’s marketing machines. For all of the complaints about the almost-decade-long monopolisation from the Williams sisters, it was good for the sport. Ask people for the name of a top women’s tennis player or a Slam winner and they would invariably opt for one of the Compton girls. Behind them came the good looks of Maria which meant that for a long time the sport did not need to try with marketing and appeal. As the sisters head over the hill to retirement and new careers, where does the women’s game go now and, more importantly, who can it pin its hopes on to appeal to a larger audience?

Even the most devoted tennis fan would hesitate to name the winners of the last 8 slams before this year’s French Open. For what it is worth….Francesca Schiavone, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters x2, Na Li, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka. Are any of them equipped to carry the sport forward with mass appeal?

I think it is safe to suggest that Schiavone’s year in the Roland Garros sun is now firmly in the past. She did marvellously to reach the 2011 final in her title defence but now appears to have rediscovered what was her previous career level; a safe bet for the last 16 but not likely to trouble the second week too much. Her fall to Italian number 2 after Sara Errani’s terrific run seems to confirm that Schiavone’s star is descending.

Kim Clijsters recently announced that she will retire for a second time after this year’s US Open. Her return to the sport brought her three Grand Slams, a damning indictment of the women’s game as her heart never seemed fully in it.  Her dream is to win on the grass of the All England Club – this summer presents her with a double dose of opportunity but the smart money would be on the hectic schedule proving too demanding of the working mum.  The loss of her smile and on-court attitude will be another blow to the Tour.

Na Li’s victory at Porte d’Auteuil 12 months ago was heralded as a major breakthrough for Asian tennis. The first Slam winner from the world’s biggest continent won the hearts of tennis fans with her adventurous play and fun bickering with her husband, and her form in the first six months of last season suggested more was to come. Sadly, it hasn’t materialised with Li struggling to stay in the Top 10 and whilst one would not rule out another slam, major domination is unlikely.

There is more hope attached to the winners of the last three Slams.  Petra Kvitova heads into her Wimbledon defence with as good a chance as any of lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish. As she powered her way to victory last July, I was convinced that here was a young woman who could dominate at SW19 for years. I have not changed that opinion. Her game is perfectly suited to the slower grass courts and her power is breath-taking.  An improved showing at Roland Garros this year is good preparation for another assault, this time as defending champion. Can the game use her as a marketing tool? Unlikely.   Her sometimes sullen, sluggish movements are akin to Lindsay Davenport and whilst both have many admirers amongst tennis fans, you need more to lure outsiders; on-court grace, stunning beauty, bubbly personality or continued success in all slams. As harsh as it sounds, none of these are yet true of Petra.

Samantha Stosur’s forehand threatened to blow the women’s game away in the autumn of last year. Her straight sets destruction of Serena in the US Open Final demonstrated great play, as well as the ability to keep calm under pressure as Serena disgracefully lost her cool for a second successive year under the Flushing Meadows floodlights. The spotlight was firmly on Stosur in her home slam in January but she stuttered, she stuttered badly. Call it Mauresmo Syndrome if you wish, but Sam just could not cope with the sudden weight of national expectation on her shoulders, not helped by Lleyton Hewitt’s ageing legs shifting that expectation across the draws.  Her performance in Paris was more assured, less nervous.  After what is likely to be usually early exits on the grass courts of South-West London, Stosur will be a favourite to retain her title in New York. Her modest, shy attitude and her age, as well as the fact that she consistently struggles in two of the four Slams, mean that she is not the face the game needs to take it forward.

Victoria Azarenka’s all-encompassing start to 2012 was something expected, if a couple of years later than envisaged. Her three-month unbeaten streak laid down a marker that she was ready to dominate but her early defeat in Paris showed her frailties are still there.  Her off-court persona makes her a likeable character, but too often her on-court shrieks are open to ridicule. Her looks, tenacity, charm and good play give her a decent chance of being a major marketing force if the audience can get beyond the peacock-esque noise.

The WTA must be disappointed that Caroline Wozniacki lost her way when adapting her game in an attempt to become a major winner.  This was a young lady who had almost everything they wanted in a Number 1 – looks, charm, grace, star appeal, a willingness to fulfil a hectic schedule – but ultimately her game was found to be lacking and it now looks likely that she will never win a Slam as she slips down the rankings.   You sense with Caroline that there will always be somebody just too good for her in each tournament.

So it is to Maria Sharapova that we look once more.  The 17 year old who called home on her mobile phone from Wimbledon centre court to tell her mum she had won is now a 25 year old veteran whose constant will-to-win suggests that she is again ready to lead the sport in this period of transition.  Modelling contracts and sponsorship commitments have never been too far away for Maria, but she has managed to combine them with constantly improving her game like nobody else has managed in the past. The reconstruction of her game following the reconstruction of her shoulder has been a slow, but oh-so-sure one.  She, more than anybody, will know that with the sport being wide-open, she has the ability to add more majors to her collection. The fact that she is now only the sixth woman in the Open era to have won all four majors will only add to her confidence.  Her willingness to scrap until the very last point of every match belie her sweet demeanour and, deep down, that is why most tennis fans have at least begrudging respect for her. Yes, it is over to you Maria – the autumn of your career is charged with carrying the WTA through a period of transition. Your legend is secured, you can only add to it from here. I will be watching with close interest, but admittedly with the volume turned down.

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