Fifty parting thoughts from the 2014 French Open
PARIS -- Wiping off the last granules of dust and cleaning out the notebook for 50 parting thoughts after a swell 2014 French Open ...
• What more can be said about Rafael Nadal? Putting the IX in Prix, he wins his ninth French Open singles title and inches ever close to the summit of Mount Roger Federer and his 17 Grand Slam titles.
• All hail Maria Sharapova, clay-court specialist. When Serena Williams and Li Na bowed out in the first week, Sharapova emerged as the favorite. She fulfilled the title, winning ugly. Her final four matches went three sets. It's a cliché. It's maddeningly observational, as opposed to empirical. But her fighting instincts and mental strength and competitive are really quite something.
• It's hard not to feel for Novak Djokovic after this loss. He could quit tennis tomorrow and go down as one of the all-time greats, but the trophy in Paris continues to elude him. He is an unimpeachable player with no discernible weakness, and his naked ambition and desire to improve is admirable. Still, he remains No. 2 and has lost in his last three major finals. He came to Paris fresh off a win over Nadal on clay at the Italian Open. But in one of the biggest matches of his career, everything from his backhand to his digestive system let him down. And once again, he leaves Paris parched.
• Did any player do more to announce themselves -- and validate their seeding -- than Simona Halep? The 22-year-old Romanian dazzled for six rounds, dropping no sets and combining smooth defense with some fierce ballstriking that belies her stature. In the finals, she sloughed off nerves and went ball-for-ball with Sharapova, and she emerges with a shiny No. 3 ranking. And few who wouldn't contend it's not well-deserved.
• If there were a male breakthrough player, it was Ernests Gulbis. For years, we've known about his talent and top-drawer game, and lately it's crystallized. Every bit as impressive as his five-set win over Federer was his ability to back it up and defeat Tomas Berdych with ease. Lots of game. Lots of power. Lots of personality. We're buying.
• On the women's side, Eugenie Bouchard was one of the revelations. The 20-year-old Canadian will be up to No. 12 in Monday's rankings, and she's the only woman to have reached the semifinals at both 2014 Grand Slams. Complete a player as she is, there's also plenty of room for growth. And, recalling Sharapova, at odds with her patrician upbringing -- surely she is the only player to note in her WTA bio that she is neighbors with a former political leader -- she has a real penchant for scrapping. Again, put in a buy order.
• For all the times tennis karma commits an unforced error -- note that Brian Baker is still recovering -- every now and then, it gets it right. Her career pocked by injuries, Andrea Petkovic took advantage of an easy draw to reach the second week. She then took out Sara Errani to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal. Any player who speaks in conferences about her ambitions in media, her social views and her love of David Foster Wallace, will be an instant favorite.
• The No. 11-seeded French tandem of Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin secured their maiden Grand Slam title with a straight-set victory over Spaniards Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez in Saturday's men's doubles final.
• Here's the Su-Wei Hsieh and Shuai Peng news: Chinese teams wins the women's doubles title, beating Errani and Roberta Vinci.
• The good news for Andy Murray: He won a pair of five-setters and reached the semifinals of his least favorite Grand Slam. The bad news: He then managed just six games against Nadal. However, not even an hour before the men's final started Sunday, he announced that he hired Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. This should help build on his momentum with Wimbledon approaching.
• Anna Lena Groenefeld and Jean Julien Rojer won the mixed doubles, beating Julia Goerges and Nenad Zimonjic in the final. The tennis ogre says for an event that draws smaller crowds than some Parisian street performers, the $150,000 payday seems exceedingly generous.
• What an event for Taylor Townsend, who won a pair of matches, including a win over Alize Cornet in one of the more entertaining matches of the tournament. Whether or not she receives a Wimbledon wild card, her game is tailor-made (sorry) for grass.
• The definition of insanity, of course, is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Which is to say, you write off Williams at your peril. She is the queen of bouncing back (especially when going from clay to grass.)
• We all hate clichés and talking points. But before the tournament, here was the received wisdom about Federer:
"He might have another Grand Slam in him, but it's unlikely to come on clay... the combination of age and recent fatherhood could be a distraction... He needs to make sure his backhand doesn't break down... He is susceptible to big, flat hitters." All of which pretty much came to pass.
• The questions and comments about Caroline Wozniacki continue. We've said our bit here.
• Actually, one more thing: We hope she keeps the damn ring.
• Quite apart from the unfortunate aesthetics, seems to me there's something unsporting about playing in attire the exact same color as the ball. Andy Murray, Fernando Verdasco, Marin Cilic and Jack Sock were among the culprits. Easy to see how this could play tricks on the other player trying to hit the ball.
• The annual ITF dinner, held the second Tuesday of the event, was tennis' Tower of Babel writ small. Though he finished second in the rankings and won half as many Grand Slams as the guy ahead of him, Djokovic was somehow honored as the 2013 Player of the Year. (Presumably he edged out Nadal, through some byzantine metric, but who can be sure.)
Except that Djokovic didn't show up, citing the fact that he had just finished his quarterfinal match. Williams, the 2013 female player of the year, was long gone, having sent in her regrets. The honored men's doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan, had lost and skipped town. The honored women's doubles team was Errani and Vinci. Except that Errani, still in the singles draw with a match to play the next day, elected not to attend. And Vinci decided not to go alone. The toast of the evening? The junior champs, Belinda Bencic and Alexander Zverev.
• Here's how to reconcile Sharapova's exceptional fighting with her ghastly head-to-head record against Serena (and, I would add, Justine Henin, against whom she was 3-10): When Sharapova knows that she's mentally superior to the player across the net, she's imbued with great confidence. When she doesn't believe she's better than the player on the other side of the net, her confidence is rocked. Speaking of fight...
• Just how demoralizing is it to play against Nadal? David Ferrer has made a career out of battling fiercely and wringing everything from his game. He'd beaten Nadal on clay just a few weeks ago, but after trailing in their quarterfinal match, Ferrer surrendered. Says who?
"Rafael started playing a lot better, making fewer mistakes, and then it's like I threw in the towel," Ferrer said. "I don't usually do this, but I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to come back into the match.' I thought, 'No, no, not against Rafa. He's such a good player.'" On the other hand...
• At the risk of lapsing into jockspeak, the television situation "is what it is." The same way clay asks a lot of the players, sometimes the TV asks a lot of the fans. To those of you who were, rightfully, upset that NBC again opted not to show live tennis for the men's semis, again I'd encourage you not to confuse unfortunate programming decisions with the quality of the broadcast and production.
• Tip of cap (cockeyed though it might be) to Donald Young, who won two rounds and then distinguished himself in defeat. Down two sets to dirtballin' Guillermo Garcia Lopez, Young showed real guts and fight (not always previously in evidence) before eventually capitulating in five sets. And in his postmortem he admitted that, yes, in the past, he might have packed it in.
This is called perspective and maturity, and it bodes well for the next six years or so. (Yes, Young is only 24 years old.) For as much grief as the guy gets for not fulfilling the "Next American Hope" billing, he's once again closing in on the top 50; he's now played to the middle weekend at still another Grand Slam; and he's nearing $2 million in career earnings. Again, no one -- including Young himself -- denies the disappointments and missteps. But if this is "underachieving," there are hundreds of players happy to underachieve.
• Overall, it was a rough slog for the Americans. No surprise there. Even in the junior draw, seeded players Francis Tiafoe and Tornado Alicia Black didn't get out of the early rounds. We'll see whether the new Orlando facility, purportedly flush with clay courts, improves Americans' collective comfort on the surface.
• Here's a storyline to follow: Garbine Muguruza -- a future star whose win over Williams seemed less of a shocker with each round. She plays for Spain, but was born in Caracas. The Venezuelan Federation would like to enter the bidding for her services, and the price sure went up after this event.
• Tennis irony: For a player best known for his role in the longest match ever, John Isner is singularly ill-suited for best-of-five matches. His game is all serve and no return. In Isner's first 11 sets, he played eight tiebreakers -- that's more than 100 games right there. Not surprisingly, he had little left in the tank against Tomas Berdych and fell in straight sets.
• A few of you wrote about the cringe-inducing exchange between Nicolas Mahut and a reporter. I wasn't there, which is sort of the point. At these events, especially in the first few days, there is so much going on that it's impossible to cover every match or stay abreast of every result. That includes Taylor Townsend.
"Serena lost?" Townsend asked in her press conference after beating Alize Cornet and hours after Sereana's defeat. "She did? Oh. Ummm. Whoa! I thought she won. I saw [6-2, 6-2] and thought, 'That was fast.' Wow. That's interesting. ... Honestly, that's crazy. I'm shocked."
The difference, of course, is that Townsend isn't paid to cover the action, and she didn't ask Serena questions in a public forum. ("Serena, nice win! Big match coming up against Venus in the... wait, really? She lost, too?") But you get the point. I say we cut the unnamed journalist some slack here. And be happy he didn't make the same mistake with (Indiana native, I'll have you know) Gregg Popovich.
• Andy Roddick took a few Twitter digs at Gael Monfils during the latter's quarterfinal match. Roddick may have been harsh but he captured the sentiment in and out of the locker room. Nice, fun guy, Good for the game. But there's a fine line between entertainer and goofball.
With Gulbis settling down, Monfils regains the lead as the most unpredictable player, both micro and macro. At your home Grand Slam, in the late rounds, after having won the previous set, at this stage in your career, how do you lay an oeuf like that in a fifth set?
• Then again, at least Monfils got deep in the tournament. Richard Gasquet offered little in the way of resistance against Fernando Verdasco. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga offered less against Djokovic. And Gilles Simon lost a tough five-setter to Milos Raonic.
• The good news for Sloane Stephens: She reached the round of 16, sustaining her reputation as a Grand Slam player, making it six straight majors without an early loss. The bad news: She didn't make much of a dent against Halep, a similar player in many respects.
• Perhaps we are post-racial society and are not supposed to notice these things, but it's awfully hard to ignore how many American players and juniors are African-American. There are all sorts of reasons. Michael Mmoh, son of a former pro, came to tennis for entirely different reasons than, say, Francis Tiafoe. Madison Keys took up tennis because of a tennis dress; Tornado Black's half-sister was a pro. As we learned from Sloane Stephens, the "Williams effect" applies in some cases and is irrelevant in others. Still, the diversity and the shift is striking to some of us, even if it's not supposed to be.
• If Dominic Thiem -- the ascendant Austrian, who gets bonus points for his one-handed backhand -- doesn't pan out, it won't be for lack of effort. Theim, 20, was eliminated by Nadal in round two. He spent the next week in Paris coming to Court 4 and 5 to practice every day, sometimes for as long as three hours. He is coached by Gunter Bresnik (you could call Bresnik a special Thiem coach), who also works with Ernests Gulbis.
• ICYMI, as the kids say, we caught up with Robin Soderling, who remains the lone man to beat Nadal at Roland Garros.
• They are the best doubles team of all time, but the Bryan brothers are gasping a bit. A year ago, they came thisclose to winning the calendar year Grand Slam. They have now lost at three straight Grand Slams. In France the vanquishers were Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers.
• Angelique Kerber won her third round match against Daniela Hantuchova. But what a bad look this was. A few things:
a) The call was an abomination, as was the chair umpire's stubborn unwillingness to listen to logic.
b) If the supervisor standing courtside isn't empowered to do anything about an obvious error, why is she even there?
c) Context should matter. Hantuchova is a well-liked and well-regarded veteran who doesn't whine and seldom loses her temper on court. If she's this upset, maybe it merits some attention.
d) But Kerber could have obviated all of this with a modicum of sportsmanship: "Let's just replay the point." Five words, and she could have been recalled for her honest brokering. Instead this lapse will not be forgotten any time soon. Here's Kim Clijsters, not exactly a hothead herself, weighing in.
• I heard from an agent about the likelihood of several players "releasing their own fragrance" in the coming months. He was talking about signature perfume lines, but every time this phrase is used, I recall my colleague Steve Rushin's observation of this phenomenon: Baseball players used to do this all the time. In the clubhouse. And often involving a lighter.
• As the Grand Slams become ever more important and (all together now) tennis becomes increasingly physical, the events held the weeks prior really become problematic. Few players with a legitimate chance to win a Major are going to play the preceding week.
Yes, Bouchard winning her first title in Nurenburg the day before the tournament is the exception. Far more common are situations like Monica Puig's, the up-and-coming Puerto Rican. She won her first WTA title in Strasbourg on Saturday, May 24. Two days later, she plays her first round match against Sam Stosur. Clearly compromised physically, she falls 6-1, 6-1. Financially, it just doesn't make sense. If a player wins two rounds at a major, the payday can exceed the winner's check at the preceding tournament.
• Quick note on the college tennis championships, which tends to get overlooked when the tennis nerve center moves to Europe: UCLA won the women's title, while USC won the men's yet again. (USC, by the way, is the new dynastic program, replacing Stanford, which will soon name a former Cardinal and ATP alum as their new coach, we hear.) Meet your 2014 NCAA champions and likely U.S. Open wild card recipeints.
• For two guys who supposedly like each other, there sure seemed to be a lot of friction between Jack Sock and Steve Johnson during their second-round match. Sock won in three sets.
• Sock then lost to Dusan Lajovic, a real player to watch. A Serbian with a complete game and deceptive power—an off-brand Djokovic if you will; and I know you willv--vhe went three matches before dropping a set.
• I heard very different things about the Roland Garros' $500 million expansion plans. There were interactive displays and models and snazzy videos and bold talk, invoking words like "revolutionary" and "daring." If all goes as planned the renovation will be ready in 2018 and include a roof over the show court. Yet, others remain unconvinced these best laid plans will survive French bureaucracy. Said one skeptic who resides across the street from the facility: "You cannot change a doorknob in Paris without getting six permits. They're talking about moving greenhouses and wrapping Roland Garros around a park? I'll believe it when I see it."
• Regardless, we join Darren Cahill, among others, and insist on a petition.
• If you're ever in a good mood and want it to end, imagine this: You're among the top 150 practitioners in the world in your chosen field. You come to compete in an event offering $20 million in prize money. You leave before the big show starts, with barely enough to cover your expenses. Ryan Harrison lost in round two. Dennis Kudla won four games. Marc Gicquel, trying to keep his career alive at age 37, got bounced. Same for Horacio Zeballos, one of the few players to beat Nadal on clay. Melanie Oudin won a round, then lost 6-1, 6-0. Arantxa Rus, who upset Kim Clijsters at Roland Garros in 2011, lost. So did Irina Camelia Begu, who missed the main draw by one slot in the rankings. It's a cruel, cruel sport.
• A rough tournament for Paula Ormaechea, who lost 6-0, 6-0 to Sharapova AND was fined $3,000 for coaching.
• A reader, very reasonably, wonders which is enforced more often: anti-coaching rules, or the rule that when driving, you must be a car-length behind the next driver for every 10 mph you're going?
• Every year we witness these strangely existential exchanges between French reporters and players. This year was no exception:
Q: So is everything collapsing Are you frustrated? Are you sad?
Cornet: Right now? Nothing. I can't feel anything. I'm just like a stone... I love Roland Garros, and now it's over. I'm not going to be sad. Because as Kristina said, life is beautiful.
Who the hell is Kristina, you ask? We have no idea. (Mladenovic? Ricci? Aguilera? Who knows...)
• Thinking perhaps something got lost in translation with Clark Griswold Pauline Parmentier, who fell to Garbine Muguruza in round four and, at least according to the transcript, remarked: "She was playing with a lot of intensity. I didn't find my landmarks."
• Name the only husband and wife duo in the main draw. Answer: Jurgen Melzer and Iveta (nee Benesova) Melzer.
• More family affairs: Anna Schmiedlova knocked out Venus Williams while her sister played well in the junior draw. Yung-Jan Chan played doubles with Hao-Ching Chan.
• Thanks to those who wrote about "Unstrung" Tennis Channel features. Please know that heaps of credit should go to the editors, Sarah Rinaldi, Nick Eisenberg, Angela Evans and Jeremy Hsu.
• A high point of the tournament: seeing some tweets from Matt Cronin. (Read Matt's story here.) Hoping he returns and receives the Comeback Player of the Year award that awaits him. One may suspect that he'd even attend the ITF Dinner to receive it.
On to the grass...