PARIS – Five thoughts from semifinal Friday at the French Open.
• No sport does irony quite the way tennis does. And we got a vivid example of this during this event. This French Open has been an exercise in chaos. Relentless rain, so severe that the Seine has nearly breached its banks. The withdrawals of Roger Federer before the tournament and Rafa Nadal during it. Power outrages. Refund controversies. A transit strike that undermined attendance. And what are we left with? Serena Williams and Garbine Muguruza will play in the final many predicted before the tournament. And No. 1 Novak Djokovic will go for his (cut-and-paste) elusive first French Open title against No. 2 Andy Murray. You know what Nietzsche said.
• In the fourth round, Serena crushed Elina Svitolina in what was perhaps her best match this year. In the quarters and semis, her level fell and she simply survived. Which is all that matters. On Friday Serena struggled with the conditions, but played better on the big points and took advantage her opponent’s compromised movement to beat Kiki Bertens. Credit to Serena for keeping her bid for 22 majors alive. But what a week for Bertens, the revelation of the tournament, who was disappointed by Friday’s result, but must leave here swollen with confidence.
• The conventional wisdom is that the emergence of Spain’s Garbine Muguruza is a when-not-if proposition. For the second time in four majors, she gets a date against Williams in a major final. Looking thoroughly comfortable on the wet clay, Muguruza dispatched former finalist Sam Stosur in straight sets. One of the moldiest sports cliches: “It will come down to nerves.” But Saturday’s women’s final will be less about ball-striking than about which player handles the moment. Muguruza is a match from her anticipated breakthrough. Serena is a match from 22 majors.
• Dominic Thiem will be a star one day soon. But a day after a dazzling win in the quarters—which enables him to enter the top 10—Thiem offered little resistance against Novak Djokovic. The top seed controlled the match on every dimension—that beam you see illuminating the grey Paris skies? Djokovic’s smile as he reads these match stats—and rolled in three easy, breezy sets. This was Djokovic’s fourth straight day on court, but he now gets a day to rest and suddenly looks to be in good shape to win his first Roland Garros title.
• Andy Murray was lucky to survive his first two matches, one against the oldest player in the draw (Radek Stepanek) and the other against a wild card ranked outside the top 100 (Mathias Bourgue). On Friday, Murray looked like an entirely different player, using a combination of defense, angles and judiciously-deployed power to unseat defending champ Stan Wawrinka. Murray's best match of the tournament (if not the year?) sets up the Dream Final against Djokovic, the player, of course, whom he beat in their previous showdown.
Hey Jon. How come no one is pestering Djokovic with questions about achieving four in a row, a Novak Slam? Serena got that constantly in both Paris and Wimbledon in addition to dealing with the question of reaching 22. Essentially she spent the entire tennis season being asked about a Grand Slam. All Novak gets are questions about completing a career slam. It seems unfair.
• Interesting point. Devil’s advocate: artificial or not, there is a huge distinction between winning the calendar Slam and the wraparound Slam. Especially when the calendar Slam concludes in your home country. And the New York media needs to reach the casual fan. And you are an A-list star. And you’d tie Steffi Graf’s majors tally. And it’s the same year there was a Triple Crown winner in horseracing. And you are the defending champ…..
But Tennisearl rightly notes that it does seem as though the framing is different. For Djokovic it's become this noble quest, all upside. For Serena it was almost framed as “our fingers our crossed you don’t shortchange history by losing.”
Re: the throwing of the racquet that narrowly missed the umpire and if it had made contact would have resulted in a disqualification from the tournament, again, no real press about it. And again, I'm reminded of countless other champs who've made the 9 o'clock news for even the tiniest on court misbehavior. You made a fascinating argument about Djokovic's nationality being the reason there's no narrative around him (he's not the Spanish Bull, he's not the Swiss Watch etc.), but I think he's just that he is totally charisma-free and despite his undeniable playing skills, the personality is just not there. The fun impersonations of early days are gone, replaced with some Becker-bot that wins tournaments and yet somehow makes no impression on the imagination. Thoughts?
• I think that’s entirely too harsh. Djokovic emotes and schmoozes with the crowd and tutors ballkids in his new postmatch gesture. If you want to say he’s an acquired taste, fine. But in no way is he is devoid of charisma. And overall I would contend he wears the No. 1 mantle quite well.
Having said that, it was strange how little attention he got for the near-default on Thursday. See for yourself. In the quarterfinals against Tomas Berdych, Djokovic feigned throwing his racket. It slipped out anyway. Had it clipped an official, it might well have triggered a disqualification. Yet it was barely replayed on French television. Here’s Djokovic’s reponse:
“I’m trying not to worry about it at all. I am aware that I have been lucky, and I apologized to people that have been in this particular situation with me and that could have been hurt by my racket. But it was never the intention. It was just some unfortunate bounce.”
For all that can go wrong in a major—and all that must go right—this would have been excruciating, self-imposed adversity.
Jon, please give Kiki Bertens her due. Tough task against Serena, however, how often do we see someone pull off an upset against a top seed early only to fold a round or two later? In this case not only did she knock off No. 3 Kerber, she is also taking her place in the semifinal slot four matches later!
• Totally. I started to write this before her match against Serena, but she has now beaten three top 10 players in a row. (Two here and Roberta Vinci in Nurnberg.) We see this on the men’s side even more so: players reel off a big upset—that is, beat a Big Four member—and then fail to back it up. (One example among many: Fernando Verdasco beats Rafa Nadal in Australia and then loses to….Dudi Sela?) So good on Bertens, for sustaining her level of play.
Bertens has a nice mix of offense and defense. And it’s not as though you watch her and think her skills are accentuated by clay. Look for her in the top 20 by year’s end.
One other thing Djoker has in his favor: Uniqlo never dresses him in funny shirts.
• Leverage. Suffice to say that Djokovic surely has considerably more say in his apparel than, say, the run-of-the-mill adidas player. Several years ago I brought this up with Federer. An agent told me, “Roger is being asked what to wear on court, not told.”
Your response: “Stosur, I should add, maxed out the ‘good citizen in the tennis community’ criteria. The next person to speak ill of her will be the first. I just don’t see how you can enshrine someone with one major and a career-high ranking of No. 4.”
However, Michael Chang: career high ranking of No. 2. Won French Open and was a finalist at Australian Open and U.S. Open, with a best showing of quarterfinals at Wimbledon and no doubles titles to speak of. Yet, he is in the Hall of Fame.
Gabriela Sabatini: career high ranking of No. 3. Won U.S. Open, a finalist at Wimbledon, and a best semifinal at Australian Open and French Open. Won Wimbledon doubles and a Silver medal. She, too, is in the Hall of Fame. I get that HOF is supposed to enshrine greatness, but hasn’t the bar been lowered significantly thanks to the “Chang Line”?
• We probably got a dozen responses on Stosur, pro and con. Here’s the other side via Aaron from Illinois: “Here's a quick way to look at the Sam Stosur situation... If Mary Pierce can't get in, than Sam Stosur shouldn't get in.” I hear what you’re saying about Chang, but I think at some point we have to change the precedent. One-time Slam champions are simply untenable.