Sunday June 6th, 2010

Scattered thoughts after a weirdly endearing French Open:

Rafael Nadal exorcises 2009 (and exercises his clay-court peerlessness), winning the men's title yet again. He completes an undefeated clay-court season and -- what must really demoralize the field -- was not at his absolute best in Paris yet was barely tested. Let this discussion begin: Is he now the Wimbledon favorite?

• Again, I suspect there were two reactions to Francesca Schiavone's title. Groans from the marketing types and those invested in the ratings; unremitting smiles from everyone else. What a great display of passion. And let's be clear: she WON that final. For all the nervous performances we've seen lately, here's a 29-year-old veteran who essentially says, "I may never get this chance again, so I'm going to play the match of my life." As one of you noted, we got what we expected: an undersized and gutsy fighter with a one-handed backhand took the French Open title.

Robin Soderling pulls a massive upset (Roger Federer, obviously) and reaches the final for the second straight year. One wishes his game had a few more gears, but is there a more dangerous player on a given day?

• From Venus' outfit to Federer and Serena losing, to the spirited women's final, what a wild event. Pretty much underscores everything endearing, maddening and outré about our sport.

• So you're Sam Stosur. Do you walk away from this thinking a) "I beat Justine Henin on clay. Out-Serena-ed Serena. And tuned favored Jelena Jankovic in the semifinal. There's no reason I can't be a top player." Or b): I was given a tremendous opportunity, the chance to play Francesca Schiavione for a Grand Slam title, and I couldn't close the deal." The amateur sports shrink will be very interested to see how Stosur acquits herself the rest of the year. Stosur had a breakthrough event; let's hope she perceives it as such.

• Every coach of a top-50 player should be armed with a highlight DVD of Schiavone's French Open matches. You fight your way through the draw. You grind out some wins. You catch a bit of luck when your semifinal opponent -- on paper the superior player -- pulls up lame after a set. You play the match of your life in the final. Presto, you are a Grand Slam champion.

• In what's nearly become a ritual, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic took the doubles title, beating Leander Paes and Lukas Dlouhy in the final. Zimonjic goes over the $5 million mark in career prize money. Pretty good for guy most avid fans would be hard-pressed to identify.

• Nice to see Tomas Berdych string together some fine wins and make the semis. Would have been nice to have seen a bit more conviction in the fifth set. But you get the feeling the kid is coming along.

• Realistically, Jurgen Melzer is unlikely to return to the semis of a Slam. But is there not something heartening about results like this, an honorable journeyman who scores a career win (in this case the five-setter over Novak Djokovic), makes a big payday, and can tell his grandkids he was a Grand Slam semifinalist.

• Venus and Serena won still another Grand Slam doubles title. So when do we begin talking about the Williams sisters as the Greatest Doubles Team of All Time? And when does this start having a meaningful impact on their overall legacy?

• Zimonjic was in the winners' circle twice, taking the mixed event with Katarina Srebotnik.

• Your junior results.

• Special commendations to Martina Navratilova, who, we hear, underwent radiation treatment in the morning and broadcasted matches in the afternoon.

• Compare Federer's reaction losing to Nadal in Australia in 2009 to his reaction losing to Soderling in Paris.

• Example 5,452 of Federer's fundamental decency: After losing a dispiriting match to Soderling -- ending his semifinal streak, precluding a title defense, etc. -- he not only kept his commitment to attend the ITF dinner but sent his parents in advance to reassure the organizers he was on his way.

• Aside from the obvious (Stosur, Soderling), here are three other names for the players-to-watch file: Tom Beullucci, Yaroslava Shvedova, Olivia Sanchez, Anastasia Pivovarova and Thiemo de Bakker.

• When was the last time Serena Williams squandered a match point and lost a close encounter? All credit to Stosur for being that rarest of species, a WTA player who stands up to Serena. All the more surprising she couldn't discover a way to come through in the final.

• Is it just me or does Nicolas Almagro strike you as a fun guy to go drinking with?

• Honk if you had Robbie Ginepri in your bracket as the last American male in the singles draw.

• Here's what I don't get about these majors: if you're going to hoard wild cards for your nation's players -- allowing the likes of Laurent Recouderc in the draw while making Gaston Gaudio, a past champion, qualify -- and if you're going to dump the profits back into your own national programs, why not take the leap and let your nation's best players take an extra day off if they're injured or sick? (This is like robbing a bank, but then having the getaway car avoid the handicap space in the parking lot outside.) Specifically, the two best Frenchies, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, both genuinely ailing, should have had their requests for a later start honored. If the French Federation really wanted to appear unbiased, they'd be diverting a portion of their proceeds to Mallorcan tennis. As it stands, Rafael Nadal is essentially underwriting academies from Nice to Nantes.

• Apples and oranges, OK. But again: Roger Federer reached the semfinals -- the equivalent of a top four finish -- of 23 straight majors. Tiger Woods' longest streak of a top four finishes at golf majors? Five.

• Justine Henin turned in one of the more puzzling performances. She was supposed to cement her run to the Aussie Open final by coming to Paris and reclaiming the major she's essentially owned since 2003. Instead she played insecurely and was bounced the middle weekend. Lots of pressure on her slight shoulders heading to Wimbledon, the lone major she's never won. Interested to see how she'll handle it.

• Perhaps the most heartening story of Week 1: Kimiko Date Krumm, born within a few weeks of Andre Agassi, beats Dinara Safina, the world's top player a year ago. I mentioned her feat to a friend who responded, "Kimiko Date? For real? Last time I heard that name, O.J. Simpson was best known as a football star."

• Note to college kids studying for the MCAT (or simply, if inexplicably, fond of Grey's Anatomy). Hang around tennis. You'll never hear more references to sprains, strains, pulls and tears; and, better yet, most every body part is implicated. When do the "leaders" finally say: "You know what? Enough is enough. We've rationalized this for way too long. We need to solve this, even if the measures are drastic. And if it means outlawing Luxilon or reducing sets to four games or encouraging players to practice less, so be it."

• Not to beat a wounded horse currently undergoing a 10-minute medical timeout for treatment, but the WTA sent around a release recently declaring that withdrawals are down 43 percent this year and the Roadmap is working. Really? We all know how statistics can mislead (and insult), so let's just look at this anecdotally. Consider, for instance, the top five drawing cards. Serena Williams wins the Australian Open and then, citing injury, doesn't play again until Rome, roughly 100 straights days of inactivity. Kim Clijsters, a defending Grand Slam champ, pulls out of the French Open -- the major closest to her home -- with an injury. Still plagued by shoulder trouble, Maria Sharapova has been damaged goods for more than two years and her pullouts include Miami and Charleston. Venus Williams, uncharacteristically healthy, still misses Indian Wells by choice. Justine Henin is sporadically injured. Keep going? Caroline Wozniacki, a promising flavor-of-the-month gets to No. 3 in the rankings, but injures her ankle in Charleston and then complains that she continued playing on only because of WTA rules. Elena Dementieva retired midway through a Grand Slam semifinal with tear of the calf muscle and is questionable for Wimbledon. Dinara Safina has many struggles, chronic back pain among them. Viktoria Azarenka has won only two of her last seven matches, in part because of leg injuries.

• The men aren't immune either. Nikolay Davydenko and J.M. Del Potro, were among those MIA in Paris.

• For all the gushing announcements about the prize money increases at the various Slams, are they not often rendered meaningless by the currency markets? When then Euro is trading at $1.50 it's one thing for a European to win the U.S. Open (Or, theoretically, an American to win in Paris.). When, a year later, the Euro is under $1.20 it's quite another.

• If you work in the financial services sector, the automotive industry, media, advertising, law, home construction, public education, state government, academia -- actually pretty much anywhere -- you've probably heard some variation of this speech. "I'm on the right path, and I'm doing lots of things right. I have a plan in place, and I have a really good team around me. I'm very happy with the improvements that have been made." It's a leader attempting to project confidence in the face of some humbling result. Only in this case, the above quote comes from Ana Ivanovic, following her desultory second-round defeat.

• Novak Djokovic will take some heat for his Melz-down (confession: I stole that from a reader), squandering a two-sets leads to Jurgen Melzer in the quarters. Since winning the 2008 Australian Open -- with his mom gloating "the king is dead" with reference to Federer -- Djokovic hasn't so much as made a Slam final. Still, I give the guy credit. He's usually around deep into the second weeks of Slams. And in Paris he fought heroically for five sets, losing because he was outplayed by a zoning lefty, not because of any physical shortcomings.

• Jelena Jankovic plays inspired tennis to reach the quarterfinals. When she arrives there she faces Sam Stosur, a player she soundly defeated mere weeks ago. The other two remaining players are Elena Dementieva and Francesca Schiavone. That, friends, is a golden opportunity smelt to its essence. Then Jankovic goes out and wins three games against Stosur.

• Serbian tennis: putting the "fun" in dysfunctional.

• Reader Stewbop astutely noted that the real voguish fashion in Paris was neither a lace dress nor a half-million dollar watch. It was black strings.

• We've made a big enough deal about Sam Querrey's dismal performance and his admission of tanking. If he's in search of inspiration, he ought to look up -- if only by an inch -- to his jilted doubles partner, John Isner, who soldiered on, won a few matches, took home a fat check, and conducted himself like a pro.

• Fourth round matches we did not expect to see: Jarmila Groth versus Yaroslava Shvedova. What's the opposite of collateral damage? Pleasant by-product? Whatever, one nice feature of a Slam is that these struggling journey-folk can win a few matches, catch a break from the draw gods, and suddenly walk away $100,000 to the good. The 60th-ranked player needs that cash infusion a lot more than Nadal needs an extra million.

• Curious on the over/under here. Now that's it gotten so much publicity -- including a write-up in the New York Times style section -- how many people have actually parted with $525,000 and made the impulse purchase of a Richard Mille timepiece?

• Apart from being politically incorrect, "Cat fight" doesn't really do justice to the squabbles between Ivanovic-Jankovic and Bartoli-Rezai. These are like mini class wars. Somehow this eases the guilt of being a voyeur.

• This feels a bit like an act of both professional and social disloyalty. But someone probably should explain the concept of "no comment" to Jelena Jankovic. Asked about her spat with Ivanovic, she claimed "I don't think it's a right time to comment on this kind of thing." Then she promptly added:

"But for me, as a player, it's -- every player has their way of, you know, motivating themselves and pumping themselves up, you know, if you win a point or you didn't win a point. But I don't think it's nice to put it, you know, the fist in their face. That's what can be a little irritating. That's the only -- but all the players, they do, you know, different kind of gestures, you know, with their hands. But, you know, it's a little bit -- when you do that in the player's face, and especially after not winning a point after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don't think it's -- I don't think that's fair play. That's just my opinion, and that's what I, as a player, don't like to do to other players. If I'm -- if I win a point or something, I do it, but I don't go like that in your face (holds up fist). That was only -- and especially when it comes to maybe me and Ana, we are two girls from the same country, and it's nice to have a nice relationship and play a normal match. Somebody has to win, and that's normal. We're both professionals. We want to do our best on the court, and I think we should play fair. That's just my opinion. I have nothing, you know, against her or fist pumps or whatever. I play my game. I have my personality. I'm myself, and it's none of my business what Ana does or all these other girls on the court. But for me, I prefer to this kind of way like I already explained."

• Sports programming has managed to avoid a lot of the pressures besetting media. Why? Because sports are "appointment viewing." Consumers want it live. No one is satisfied watching Monday Night Football on Tuesday. No one DVRs the World Cup final to watch a few days later when the kids are asleep. No one wants to watch the World Series for the first time on Hulu. To quote Veruca Salt in Willie Wonka: "I want it NOW!" When consumers are forced to wait -- or force-fed tape-delayed broadcasts -- it makes them feel like they're on the wrong side of the velvet rope, missing the party.

• In a tournament that had many to choose from, one of the more surprising results: the early exit of the Bryan Brothers.

• If you're ever bored, consider reading the transcripts of the journeymen players who have won a main draw match or two and are clearly experiencing one of the peak moments not of their careers, but of their lives. Makes you appreciate the sport a bit more, while underscoring just what a brutal and Darwinistic occupation this is. [Note to the French Open: if you're not going to post all the interview transcripts on your site, at least allow asapsports to take them.]

• He was missing from the French Open. James Blake, however, was in the back of my cab recently plugging some sort of GPS ap. Good to know the endorsement faucet hasn't been fully tapped.

Pat McEnroe's new book, Hardcourt Confidential, co-written with Pete Bodo, is in bookstores starting June 8. Or order here.

• Vis-à-vis our discussion last week, we're told that Wayne Odesnik's forfeited winnings from Houston do not revert to the tournament, but, rather, are donated to the ITF to offset the expenses of anti-doping. Fair enough. (Using this same logic, if Major League Baseball had more stringent policy in the mid/late '90s, the urine collectors would have been wearing Richard Mille watches.) . Sticking with baseball, what would Joe West say about Nadal's pace of play?

• Trivia: On the day a perfect game in baseball was marred by an atrocious line call, who was in the chair for the Serena Williams-Sam Stosur match?

• Speaking of officiating: a) I was told last year that Major League Baseball was "very interested" in Paul Hawkins' Hawk-eye technology. Boy, could they have used him the other night. b) while it would impede the cardio workout of the chair umpires, might it be time to install replay technology on clay?

Carolyn Brown of Conway, Arkansas: "Hey, Jon, we just returned from Roland Garros and it is disheartening to see the hundreds of empty seats on the show courts. But as you say, it is not for lack of fans. We had grounds passes and spent five straight hours on an outside court; we knew if we left, we'd never get back in as the lines at each entrance were so long. What is your solution to this problem of empty seats? This is our first Slam but we have been to a number of tournaments in the states and our favorite -- very fan friendly, all the great players up-close and personal -- is, wait for it: Cincinnati!"

• New rule: You cannot agitate for a new facility until you figure out a way to fill the seats of your current facility.

• Kim Clijsters will allegedly be spending time at the Jersey Shore again this summer. Encounters I would pay money to witness: Clijsters and The Situation. (Foreign readers: if you don't get this reference, consider yourself boundlessly lucky.)

Ted Robinson renewed his contract with Tennis Channel, another reason you should be subscribing.

• Finally, from the shameless self promotion (but the do-right-by-the-publisher) department, Strokes of Genius, the Federer-Nadal book is now out in paperback.

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