Some scattered thoughts from the 2011 French Open, delivered stateside:
• Rafael Nadal won his sixth French Open title, matching Bjorn Borg's record, while improving to an otherworldly 45-1 lifetime at Roland Garros. Long live the king.
• Li Na could do for tennis what Yao Ming has done for basketball. Every sports organization -- from baseball to the UFC -- wants a beachhead in China. Tennis now has a Grand Slam champion. That's a hell of a head start. One of you joked that she should change her name to Li Williams. For the all examples of players failing to meet the moment, Li peaks at the majors.
• Roger Federer won't be winning a five-set match on clay against Nadal at this stage of his career, but his resurgence over the past fortnight bodes well for the next 10 weeks.
• Francesca Schiavone came a match from replicating last year's feat. But who can recall a player who competes with so much unfiltered joy. Just a delight to have around. And, far as we're concerned, the more prominently she figures in the WTA cast, the better.
• The United States' struggles at Roland Garros are well-documented. Eighteen Americans entered this year's main draw -- nine men and nine women -- and zero made it past the third round. But there's hope for the future in 17-year-old Bjorn Fratangelo, born and raised in Plum, Pa., who won the boys' singles title.
• Because of all the other swirling stories -- and the women's final barely 12 hours away -- Novak Djokovic was deprived of the sendoff he deserved. For six months, he won with grace. And when the streak was finally broken, he lost with grace as well. A shame that his 43 matches only encompassed one major. (Note to self: next time I want to go six months without losing, start the streak in late spring!) But who doubts there aren't a bunch more Slams left for him to win?
• Heading into the tournament, the conventional wisdom was that the women's game is in disarray and as many as a dozen players could win. To some extent this was born out, not the least when the top three seeds lost in Week 1. But we were left with a Chinese champion beating the defending champion, with Maria Sharapova and a quirky player from the host nation the other two semifinalists. That's not so bad.
• We eagerly await the Williams seeding report for Wimbledon. Seems to me the top players should WANT them seeded as high as possible. Otherwise they'll lurk in the early rounds.
• Daniel Nestor bolsters his case for the Hall of Fame (and even GOAT doubles player?) by teaming with Max Mirnyi to win the title.
• Czech mates Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka took the women's title.
• For a self-described "cow in ice," Maria Sharapova did herself proud reaching the Wimbledon semis. But one suspects that when she reflects on her career, this one will be recalled as a Slam that got away. (Same, to a lesser extent, for Svetlana Kuznetsova.)
• He didn't quite replicate the feat of counterpart Na Li, but Aussie Open-losing finalist Andy Murray, is back in business. OK, he didn't have to beat a murderer's row to get to the semis. But his game -- AWOL for months -- has been relocated.
• The criticism of Caroline Woznaicki and her ranking is not only justified but, in a weird way, a triumph for women's tennis. Hear me out. When the top-ranked player -- who's never won a Slam -- not only loses in a major, but falls in Week 1 by the abysmal score of 6-1, 6-3, it warrants discussion. Sorry, that's the rules of sports. When the San Antonio Spurs amass the best record in the NBA and then crash out in the first round of the playoffs, it's duly noted. When an undefeated boxer is knocked out, the validity of his record is questioned. When a golfer other than Tiger Woods leads the PGA money list, it raises eyebrows. If we dismissed Wozniacki's asterisk along the lines of, "Hey, she's trying her best," it would demean the WTA. Bigotry of soft expectations and the like.
• For all the ink and pixels and airtime devoted to the WTA underachievers -- from Ana Ivanovic to Sam Stosur -- how about some props to the achievers. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has been steadily ascending and reached the quarters. Andrea Petkovic is not ready to wins majors but she is a bona fide top tenner. Petra Kvitova looks like the real deal. Gradually we're winnowing pretenders and contenders.
• How's this for a bit of cultural exchange? The French help with some junior development. We help them with fan behavior. There were matches held on Philippe Chartrier for which the stands looked to be about 10 percent of capacity. We're talking rows and rows of empty sears. Surely there is a way to let the patricians in the sponsor tents know how unseemly it is to have these choice tickets and then not use them. We eagerly look forward to the upgrades to the venue. But it's all for rien if the stands are empty. Just disgraceful.
• The shabby treatment tennis receives from the good folks at Comcast/NBC/Kabletown (that joke never gets old) has been well-chronicled. Airing live events on tape delay is the modern-day equivalent of the Flat Earth Society. Three quick points: 1) From a business perspective, I don't get it. If tennis rates so poorly, why even bid on it? And how short-sighted is the French Federation to permit a broadcast "partner" to diminish the property by declining to air some of the most compelling matches live? 2) In anticipation of Wimbledon, can we not come with a coherent plan of attack a bit further in advance? It was, frankly, embarrassing, that, with all the platforms and all the permutations available, the networks were still scrambling and sending out press releases on the eve of the matches. 3) I urge you not to conflate with NBC beancounters with the NBC crew and talent on-site. One of the great shames here: NBC does a terrific job at the events. The Ted Robinson/John McEnroe/ Mary Carillo trio is as good as it gets. The production and direction is first rate. Graphics. Research. You name it. It's the folks in the suites at 30 Rock that are triggering the ill will.
• Speaking of suppressing information that wants to be free....A lot of you complained about the transcript embargo. We'll see how this plays out at Wimbledon. Until that's resolved, I steer you to the player interviews on the French Open site. If the postmatch news conferences contained a fraction of this "quote gold" we'd all be in good shape. A sample:
Q. [Who would you most like to share] a good bottle of wine with?
Gael Monfils: I don't drink, so that puts a damper on things. But if I was to share a Magnum of Fanta, I'd choose Jo (Tsonga).
Q. To take to see your favourite band?
Gael Monfils: Hmmm...I really wouldn't mind going to see some rap with Svetlana (Kutznetsova). She's a great chick, she's fantastic. I love her.
Q. To hit on girls with?
Gael Monfils: Jo, again. He's not the biggest flirt but we have an excellent track record.
• Bless Djokovic and his streak. But this is as good a time as any to highlight Esther Vergeer, whose title pushed her undefeated streak to 17 straight Slams and more than 400 consecutive matches.
• Scott Lipsky of the United States and Target-shopper Casey Dellacqua of Australia won their first Grand slam title Thursday when they beat defending champions Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia and Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia 7-6 (6), 4-6, 10-7 in the mixed doubles final.
• The best tennis player in the NBA? ... Allegedly it's Dirk Nowitzki.
• Marooned in the U.S. last week, it was a pleasure reading the daily dispatches of John Branch and Chris Clarey in the New York Times.
• Gael Monfils is like the Dwight Howard of tennis. He's probably not champion material. But he's fun to have in the cast. And the sport is legitimized by his athleticism.
• One of you brilliantly started to call Wozniacki and Monfils "Arrid Extra Dry" award winners. Get a little closer! "I don't care how fast you are, or how well you defend, you can't win a major singles title from back there. How do you expect to defeat your opponent if you're not close enough to see them? I know the tours want their players to get closer to the fans, but I don't think that's what they had in mind."
• Anyone else about ready to short their shares (David Einhorn style!) of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? Such a fun player to watch when he's on. But the combination -- not unrelated -- of a shaky body and shaky confidence is really conspiring against him.
• Props to Tennis Talk for this update on Roger Federer and a proposed racket change.
• Remember Clijsters' 65 unforced errors against Arantxa Rus? It would have been 66 had she not pulled off the single luckiest winner in recent memory. Check this out.
• Last week I did a radio interview to talk tennis and was asked: How good is that Russian girl who beat Kim Clijsters? Confused, I answered the question generally. ("She's fine. An athletic player who had a strong junior career. But Clijsters has to find a way to win that match.") When we got off the air, I gently noted that the player in question is Dutch.
Host: It says RUS next to her name.
Me: What? Oh wait. Rus? That IS her name.
• No one pegged him win to win. But it was a bit disappointing to see Milos Raonic leave the party so unfashionably early. We expect bigger things come Wimbledon.
• Nice to see two cancer survivors in the doubles draw. Lucas Arnold Ker and Sandra Klemenschits. Speaking of the doubles, the runner-up team of Schwank -Cabal sounded like nothing so much as a trendy putsch. Voguish rebels and all.
• Roger Federer has won at least 50 matches at each of the four majors.
• Hate, hate, hate that players can take an injury timeout for cramping. This rule needs fixing. Cramping is not an injury; it's a manifestation of fatigue. Including this as an injury punishes a player for superior fitness.
• Group A takes Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Amelie Mauresmo. Group B gets its choice of any four active players in the 2011 draw. Who wins the team title?
• More over Anna Smashnova, Sabine Hack, Jack Sock, and even you Tennys Sandgren (who plays for Tennessee). Here's the new best tennis name.
• Surprised at how little mail I received -- good, bad or indifferent -- about ESPN. A few of you have complained that the coverage felt a bit stale. I think that's overstating it, but the loss of Mary Carillo is still conspicuous, the coverage windows were sometimes problematic and the absence of Americans didn't help the cause. I think ESPN is in a tricky spot, too: there are ratings pressures and they need to appeal to a broader audience. It can't be all niche and insider talk. At the same time, the folks watching tennis at noon on a weekday don't need to be told, and retold and re-retold that Nadal is a converted lefty, Kim Clijsters is a mom, Juan Martin del Potro is returning from injury, etc. Maybe the Wimbledon addition of Chris Evert livens things up.
• A couple of you were offended by Brad Gilbert's abuse and neglect of the English language. No sale here. I'm squarely in Gilbert's box. He makes it fun, his analysis is often terrific, he's well-meaning. Do I want him as my SAT tutor? No. Do I want him on TV? Absolutely. And if I'm his agent, I'm negotiating his next ESPN deal to include more than tennis.
• The usual disclosure that I have lack objectivity regarding the Tennis Channel. But the network is simply at its best during the French Open. Strong effort all around. It's the grounds pass of TV coverage; not the luxury suite. But that's how real fans prefer it.
• Nice to see Daniela Hantuchova put it together and play a near-flawless match against Caroline Wozniacki. Was hoping she could ride the surge a bit more.
• Some -- how put this? -- infelicitous remarks from Robert Radwanksa after his daughter lost to Maria Sharapova. "You have to ask the rhetorical question -- can you collapse in a match more than Agnieszka did today -- you cannot. ... She will never win anything big if she plays like that." Asked about a solution, Robert remarked: "A psychiatrist, psychologist ... something like that." Nice.
• Keep an eye on Sabine Lisicki, still another member of the German tennis renaissance. She had Vera Zvonareva on the ropes before wilting on account of cramps/nerves. (Did Martina Navratilova, otherwise so insightful, really call Lisicki a drama queen? Ouch.) Julia Goerges lost to tricky Marion Bartoli. But I like what I see from her game. Watch for her at Wimbledon.
• Another blah effort for the Americans on clay. Some bright spots included Sloane Stephens (clay is her favorite surface), John Isner taking two sets off Nadal, and Mardy Fish and Vania King reaching the middle weekend. Some nice results in doubles. But overall, nothing to Skype home about.
• A keen reader suggests we give major props to Caroline Garcia. Not just for her effort against Sharapova. But after being lauded for her talents, she still played the juniors. She became a de facto favorite there, with very little positive that could happen, and a lot of potential negative or embarassing results. Indeed, she almost lost early on, and did eventually succumb in the semis. Not sure if she made the decision on her own, or was pushed into it by the FFT, but it will probably be good for her in the long run to experience competing in an event as a favorite.
• At a minimum Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova have forfeited their right to complain about spectators' cell phones ringing during play. I love your idea of fans organizing to wear noise-canceling headphones to their matches. Also, one of you gave the WTA some pro bono marketing advice: use this as an opportunity and print up t-shorts festooned with the message: "I'll have what she's having."
• A clap of the racket to Colette Lewis at Zoo Tennis for her reportage on the NCAA tennis event, including the bizarre mid-match retirement.
• Two years ago, Alexa Glatch thumped Flavia Pennetta -- no slouch of an opponent -- 6-1, 6-1 in the first round of the French Open. Last week she was playing in the finals of the $50,000 USTA Challenger in Carson. We can save a discussion about the state of American state for another time. But from Glatch to Brian Baker to Donald Young to Scoville Jenkins to Marcus Fugate, it's remarkable how many young American players have looked like real prospects up through the juniors and then -- for any number of reasons -- struggled to make the transition to the ATP.
• A few days after losing in the singles draw, Patty Schnyder called it a career. It was always nice watching a lefty who won points with funk and spin and shotmaking rather than brute force. And, to traffic in understatement, the WTA "outré factor" goes down in Schnyder's absence.
• Look for the HBO Borg-McEnroe documentary, Fire and Ice to air these next few weeks. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, it's quite good -- especially if you're a sucker, as we are, for Liev Schrieber, HBO's answer to Morgan Freeman/Hary Kallas. But, again, I wish there were a bit more attention paid to the CURRENT crop of players and a bit less to the previous generation. It's nice that tennis honors its elders, but less so when it comes at the expense of the athletes competing today. We'll say it again, four words: Hard Knocks: Novak Djokovic.
• Daniel Koellerer has been banned from tennis for alleged match fixing. A quick YouTube romp will suggest that his absence will not diminish the sport. Nice work by the Integrity Unit. When will the next shoe drop?
• A junior player -- who will go nameless because of his minor status -- was allegedly defaulted from the event after he was caught trying to scalp tickets outside the venue.
• Another reminder that Pete Bodo's Courts of Babylon is available as a Diversion eBook.
• Full disclosure: I crashed and burned in the French Open suicide pool. I can live with Kaia Kanepi letting me down. But how does Nikolay Davydenko not beat Antonio Veic? In any event, if the winners want to contact me, I'll fire off some prizes.
• Only two weeks until another major.
Have a good week everyone!