PARIS – Five thoughts from the women’s semifinals on Day 12, where No. 13 Lucie Safarova downed No. 7 Ana Ivanovic and No. 1 Serena Williams mustered a comeback to beat No. 23 Timea Bacsinszky. Safarova and Serena will play in the 2015 French Open final on Saturday.
• We were told that Serena Williams was sluggish in the locker room before the match. This was no scuttlebutt. Coughing, heaving and barely mobile, Serena looked fit for the infirmary. After half an hour of tennis, she wasn’t merely losing; it looked as though she was in danger of withdrawing. As one commentator said off air, “If this were a fight, the referee would go the corner between rounds and ask if she wanted to continue.” Serena chose to continue. Down 4–6, 2–3, she reeled off 10 straight games, finding her footing and going to her default mode of slugging away. She prevailed 4–6, 6–3, 6–0 in a strange match. But one that counts all the same. With a day to rest, she is an overwhelming favorite to win the title.
• Lucie Safarova is one of those workaday veteran pros, whose nerves have sometimes intruded on her success. Playing in her second Grand Slam semifinal, she looked shaky early, struggling to find the court and trailing 3–5. She steadied though and stole the first set 7–5. Sensing that it was now Ivanovic’s turn to get nervy, Safarova sprinted to a second-set lead. Though she struggled to serve out the match at 5–4 (double faulting three times) she calmed herself and recorded the biggest win of her career 7–5, 7–5.
• Timea Bacsinszky was—as you have no doubt read by now—working at a hotel two years ago. Today, she played the biggest match of her career. For a chance at a Grand Slam final. At the Slam closest to her home. Against Serena Williams. Who was visibly sick and perhaps ripe for defeat. That’s a lot for any player to process. Bacsinszky did her best. Drilling her shots—especially her precise backhand—she made Serena move and won the first set. She went up a break in the second. And then she wilted and Serena, not coincidentally, found her form. Bacsinszky won no more games. Congratulate her for winning 5.5 matches. But it’s a shame she disappeared after that.
• Credit to Ana Ivanovic for getting to the semifinals of a major for the first time since she won this event seven (gulp) years ago. Credit to her, too, for sticking with tennis and remaining in the top 20 for these years. But what a disappointing performance today. After an inspired start to the match, she served for the second set. She faltered. She never really regrouped. Pounding balls with no apparent plan—giving herself little margin when it was unnecessary—she saw an opportunity slip by like cigarillo smoke. She gets to this point in a major, faces a lower seed and can't find her game? This one will sting.
• Here’s a quick defense of Serena Williams: she enters these tournaments knowing the best she can do is hold serve. Either she wins and stays at the top. Or she is upset. For all other 127 players, there is the possibility of upward mobility. No one should feel sorry for her. But she faces a unique pressure. And more often than not, she meets it. Say what you will about melodrama and injuries and ailments. Ultimately she wins. She is now 24–3 in Grand Slam semis. She is a match away from her 20th career Major. That should be the story.
Q/A with a few more thoughts on Djokovic-Nadal
As a Djokovic fan, I’m very proud of him for beating Nadal. However, don’t you think he should have already won the French in 2013 when he was up a break on Rafa in the final set of their semi, but then ran into the net when trying to go up a double break? He seemed to let doubt creep in after that and act like fate had it in for him. I’m glad he didn’t show the same doubt on Wednesday. And he only would have had to beat Ferrer for the title, whom he practically owns. It makes me wonder how the rest of his 2013 would have gone if he had won, if he would have beat Murray at Wimbledon that year. I think his confidence must have taken a hit after that heartbreaking loss.
—Evan, Albany, N.Y.
• Little good comes of playing the “what if” game in sports. We could do this for all sorts of matches. (Nadal hits a few more lasers and he wins Australia in 2012—and what might that have done?) But when Djokovic reflects on his career, that 2013 match will likely stick in his craw. Just a bizarre topsy-turvey, Lombard St. affair. (It was Djokovic’s overhead that let him down most that day.) And yes, it's hard to resist playing this out and envisioning how different the tennis narrative would have been if Djokovic won that match (and career Slam) in 2013.
Even though I'm sure Nadal is crushed to finally relinquish his stranglehold on the Coupe de Mousquetaires, one is tempted to see the silver linings from Wednesday’s loss. Nadal now has way more time to prepare for grass (also benefitting from the calendar change), where he was rather impressive from 2006-11 before that Rosol guy came along. With the lower seed, fewer expectations and Djokovic/Murray/Federer most likely getting the lion's share of the attention at Wimbledon, I could see Nadal making a deep run. He was also pretty good (undefeated if I recall) the last time he played the North American hardcourt events. It'll be interesting to see how he does this summer—was this clay season a blip as he returns to top form for the umpteenth time, or does it signal more of a true decline? What are your thoughts?
—Willie T., Brooklyn
• Agree. And look on the bright side: Nadal may be knocked from the top ten by time this event ends. But he is defending minimal points (including zero at the U.S. Open) the rest of the year. There’s no denying the decline. But the rush to write the Nadal obituary is more than a little hasty.
Today is the end of an era we were all lucky to witness. I became a Rafael Nadal fan when I watched him win his first French Open the day after his 19th birthday. He was fun to watch and his desire to win Wimbledon and the fact he traveled with his soccer kit in case someone asked him to play were both endearing. His behavior, win or lose, was exemplary and a credit to the sport. And then there was the rivalry with Roger Federer that developed and grew into something that held us all riveted in match after match. The gentlemanly behavior of both men, the difference in their games, their technique and their desire to win delighted us all. How fortunate we have been. Now the more interesting parts of the tournaments on the men's side are the quarters and semis as we wait to see who Roger and Rafa will play and if they might play one another one more time. The one thing I never understood was the animosity Roger's and Rafa's fans seem to feel for one another. I just felt lucky that their birthdays were close enough to allow that unrivaled rivalry to develop and grow for us, the tennis fans. Bereft is an appropriate word today, I think.
—Margaret in Philadelphia
• Thanks. Very well said. I never got the animosity between the Fed fans and Nadal fans, not when Federer and Nadal never had that animosity toward each other. I agree that Nadal’s boyish wonder was part of the original appeal; that his rivalries with Federer and then Djokovic are/were engrossing; that fans feel “bereft” by his recent defeats.
We were talking the other day about what happens after the Big Four. Are these big stadiums really going to be filled for Rublev-Coric in a few years? The good news about sports: there are cycles and there are always winners. Fifteen years ago, there was plenty of handwringing over what would happen to tennis in the post-Agassi/Sampras era. Then new champions came along. But say this: there’s an inevitable downturn coming. That’s just a function of how much capital the Big Four have amassed and how much winning they did.
In the pantheon of crushing defeats, this is still waaaay better than a second round loss to George Bastl on Court Two. And let's not forget that Sampras followed up by winning the next Slam.
—Helen of Philadelphia
• Let’s make this point about Nadal. He is 29, he is in reasonable health. He defending few points the rest of the year. Without sugarcoating the descent in these last 12 months, let’s hold off on the career obits.
Maybe next time, Cedric Mourier can wait for five entire sets and then call a time violation, at 5–5 in the fifth? Why jump the gun right?
• This has become a mess. The players continue to play at a leisurely pace. The rule isn’t enforced with consistency. When it IS enforced, it’s done so at critical points in the match. Whether it’s a strike zone or a foul call, athletes just want consistency. That doesn’t happen here.
• Tennis bingo.