French Open semis showcase basic truth: tennis a battle of nerves
Comb through a tennis media guide or check out a player's online bio and you'll get all sorts of information. Height. Weight. Birth date. Parents' occupations. Of Thursday's four women's semifinalists we learn that Maria Sharapova is the most followed female athlete on Facebook; Petra Kvitova's brother, Jiri, is an engineer while her other brother, Libor, is a teacher; Sara Errani's father sells fruits and vegetables; Sam Stosur donated money to the Queensland Relief Fund.
There is, though, no metric or discussion of nerve. Which is unfortunate because -- unquantifiable as it may be -- it tells us much more about a player than any grip size or results from the Acapulco event. Some players have nerve. Others, inexplicably, don't. Some are born with it. Others gain it as their careers progress. Some have an on-again, off-again relationship with it.
Once the showers finally passed and began this afternoon, nerve was the theme in the French Open women's semis on Thursday. In the first match, Sara Errani, a petite Italian, faced Sam Stosur who was not only ranked 15 seeding slots higher, but seemed superior on every measurable dimension. Errani, though, had far more poise. And that's despite playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, even if her game didn't suggest it. Playing composed, defensive tennis, she won the first set. When Stosur leveled the match, winning the second to force a third set, it seemed all but inevitable nerves would come into play.
In decisive sets, courage and calm are just as important as shotmaking. Errani kept her head while Stosur lost hers. The higher seed double-faulted at inopportune times. She shanked balls full meters beyond the court's parameters. Her decision making deserted her. When Stosur won the 2011 U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams -- who lost
In the other semifinal, Maria Sharapova was, at once, nervy and free of nerves. When they played Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon final last year, Sharapova was unaccustomedly tight and lost in straight sets. Since then, she has regained her edge.
Betraying full self-belief against a player she beat on clay last month, Sharapova romped today. She broke Kvitova early in both sets. She struck her groundstrokes cleanly and boldly. She never got the yips on her serve. In a businesslike and thoroughly unflustered performance, she advanced to the final -- re-acquiring the WTA's top ranking in the process -- winning 6-3, 6-3.
Attempting to close out a Career Slam (swiping a title at each of the four majors before hanging up the racket) Sharapova will enter Saturday's final as an overwhelming favorite. She is more accomplished than Errani. She's ranked higher, she's bigger, more potent, more experienced playing high-stakes matches. If we know anything from watching tennis -- women's in particular -- in recent years, it's this: A superior nerve can trump an inferior serve. Gallant can overcome talent. Until we know which player meets the moment, is there any sense divining who will win?
? I'm with you to a point. When Steffi Graf is running roughshod or when Graf and Seles are clearly the alpha and beta or when the Williams sisters are ruling roost, women's tennis -- at least in the eyes of some -- is "boring" and "predictable" and wanting for competition. Meanwhile men's tennis has exciting depth and parity. When Federer/Nadal/Djokovic are a loooong elevator ride up from the rest of the field, the men's game is riveting and we're in a golden effort. Meanwhile the wide-open women's field is "chaotic" and "predictably unpredictable" and "filled with chokers." I understand the frustration of some WTA fans and I think to some extent there IS a double standard.
Yet I think, ultimately, that's too simplistic. If we do a deeper dig -- and if we trust our eyes -- I think the current characterizations become more accurate. Watch the Big Three play it's clear that it's not as though the rest of the field is weak; rather, The Troika is exceptional. It wasn't as though Jo-Wilfried Tsonga choked the other day. Djokovic simply elevated his game, as champions do.
Compare that to the first semifinal today. Sam Stosur, the higher seed and defending U.S. Open champ, played a horrific third set against Sara Errani, a completely vacant mental performance. Tournament after tournament, we see the same scenario: the higher-ranked struggle in the big moments. When you see seeds disappear, committing scads of unforced errors, when you see players winning a Slam and then losing in round one, it's clearly less a function of depth than of shaky nerves.
Me? I rather enjoy these WTA battles, even if the tennis isn't always pretty, even if accomplished players lack self-belief and implode before our eyes. But you're not a de facto hypocrite or sexist if you prefer the men's game right now.
? Right on. And ten years ago, it was almost a given that some of the top men would crash early and that at least one of the men's finalists would be a Nicolas Almagro type player.
? Good one. For men I would say: Andy Murray, Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and, maybe, Robin Soderling (despite his lengthy bout with mono). For women it's obvious: I'd go with Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli -- now I'm really struggling -- maybe Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic? Is Dinara Safina still considered active?
? Good trivia. Obviously one of them converted and one didn't. (And the tension was slightly higher for Tsonga, I'd say.) But again, these matches just can't be played simultaneously. Just can't.
? Note to my friends at the Tennis Channel. Keep it coming with the "Greatest Upsets" shows. Fans love this discussion!
? Okay, what's the question?
? Agree. What's the question?
? Mad as in irate? Or mad as in crazy?
? Raj of Austin, TX: "This is in response to the question from Guy Rabner regarding crowd cheering for the French. Two years back, John Isner was playing Mikhail Youzhny at the U.S. Open. The crowd cheered for first serve faults. Crowd does cheer for their own everywhere. It is not just in Paris."
? Buy former WTA'er Laura Granville a scoop at Halo Pub.
? Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.: "Valerie Harper, the legendary television actress who deserves a place in her own Hall of Fame, the Television Hall of Fame, but does not have one yet, mentions the Billie Jean King scandal in this interesting clip. I just thought that I would share it."
? Press releasing: "World No. 8 Marion Bartoli, World No. 10 Angelique Kerber, World No. 13 Sabine Lisicki, World No. 16 Dominika Cibulkova and former World No. 1 Jelena Jankovic lead the player field for the Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical Center, a Premier WTA tennis tournament which is also part of the summer's Emirates Airline US Open Series to be held July 14 -- 22, 2012 at La Costa Resort and Spa."
? Brandon of Chicago congratulates Pulitzer Prize winner, Roger Federer I mean Jeffrey Gettleman.