Aces and Faults: Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams primed for French Open
Aces and Faults recaps the week in tennis. Last week, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams tuned up for the French Open with titles at the Italian Open.
Novak Djokovic: For the second time this season, Djokovic looked in complete control in beating Rafael Nadal. Even after the Serb fell behind, it felt as though Djokovic lost the first set not because of anything Nadal did, but because of his own mistakes. He tightened things up quickly and pulled away for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory, which followed his 6-3, 6-3 win over Nadal at the Sony Open on March 30. This was the week that Djokovic needed after a wrist injury kept him out of the Madrid Open. He battled through four consecutive three-setters and defeated his chief rival for the fourth straight time, putting himself in position to reclaim the No. 1 ranking after the French Open.
Djokovic dedicated the victory to those in his home country, Serbia, who are coping with devastating flooding. He donated his prize money, more than $750,000, to relief efforts. Brava, Nole.
Serena Williams: When Williams withdrew from Madrid before the quarterfinals with a left leg injury, I did not think she would actually play a match in Rome. Then she took the court four days later without any tape and mowed down the competition. Aside from the set she lost to Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals, Williams didn't drop more than three games in a set last week. By the middle of the week the world No. 1 told reporters that she was shocked by her movement, given she still was not 100 percent. Was this all one big mind game for Williams to relieve pressure? Possibly. Regardless, she has repositioned herself as the favorite to defend her title in Paris.
Rafael Nadal: Nadal says he lacked the energy he needed to execute on Sunday. That's understandable: The Spaniard played three marathon three-setters before the final. But the way Djokovic was hitting through Nadal with ease made one sit up and take notice. Nadal can win with his B-game against nearly every other player. But his assessment of his matchups against Djokovic has always been dead on: He has to play his best to have a chance.
Andy Murray: His three-set thriller against Nadal in the quarterfinals wasn't just the best match he's played since his back surgery last September; it was the best match he's played since winning Wimbledon last July. He played with panache en route to winning the first set 6-1 and building a 4-2 lead in the third. The first Nadal-Murray match in nearly three years served provided a nice reminder that theirs is an intriguing rivalry. Nadal may lead by a healthy margin (14-5), but their matches are often tight ones -- the last four at tour events have gone the full three sets.
Jeremy Chardy: The Frenchman pulled off the upset of the week, dismissing Roger Federer in the second round. He also hit the most clutch shot, saving match point with this incredible passing shot:
Video: Upset! The #Chardy cross-court hot shot that swung the tie break his way to beat #Federer #tennis http://t.co/XvVTvRcEKa
— TennisTV (@TennisTV) May 14, 2014
Milos Raonic: Another strong ATP Masters 1000 for Raonic, who has made the quarterfinals of four of five this year. Even more impressive was his performance against Djokovic in the semifinals. That was the best I've seen Raonic return on clay, and he made Djokovic elevate his game to scrape out a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-3 win. The Canadian had his chances: The turning point was Raonic's missed down-the-line forehand while up a minibreak in the second-set tiebreaker.
The Italian women: They enlivened the tournament for the home crowd. Sara Errani led the way, becoming the first Italian to make the Rome final since 1985. The Italian No. 1's run included victories over Li Na and Jelena Jankovic, and she also was a doubles finalist with Roberta Vinci. In addition, Flavia Pennetta (who reached the third round), Francesca Schiavone (who beat No. 17 Eugenie Bouchard on her way to the third round) and Camila Giorgi (who upset Dominika Cibulkova in the first round) also had good wins. It was fun to see the packed stands at Court Pietrangeli rocking for the women.
Ana Ivanovic: The Serb moved up one spot, to No. 12, after advancing to the semifinals in Rome, where she handed Maria Sharapova her first clay loss to anyone other than Williams since 2011. In reality, though, Ivanovic is playing top-five tennis right now. After upsetting Sharapova and testing Williams in the semifinals, Ivanovic is on my short list of French Open favorites.
Jelena Jankovic: On paper, Jankovic has had a good clay season, making two semifinals and a final. But she's suffered some puzzling losses for such a fine player on the surface, including a stinker of a performance against Errani in the semifinals last week.
Fabio Fognini: While the Italian women put their heart and passion on full display, Fognini was ... Fognini. He gave the home crowd a sarcastic thumbs up as he was whistled off the court after a 6-3, 6-2 loss to Lukas Rosol in the first round. That sarcasm continued in the press room when Italian reporters questioned his effort.
41: Career meetings for Djokovic and Nadal, an Open Era record. Nadal leads 22-19.
10: Consecutive Italian Open titles for Djokovic (three) and Nadal (seven) combined.
1: Loss by Djokovic at an ATP Masters 1000 since losing to John Isner at the Western & Southern Open last August. He has won five of the last six he's played.
4: Games won by Errani in her last two matches against Williams.
Photo of the Week
In case you missed it ...
• Li told reporters that she became ill ahead of her quarterfinal match against Errani. She ate some pasta in the player cafeteria and vomited 15 minutes before her match. Discussion of her illness made up more than 80 percent of her post-match news conference. So, when the tournament's official transcript was released, you could imagine my surprise when no questions or answers about Li's possibly getting sick from tournament food was included. Oh, Italy.
• Notable retirements: Tommy Haas retired from the quarterfinals with a right shoulder injury. He is defending quarterfinal points at Roland Garros. Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has been playing solid tennis on clay, retired from the second round with a left hip injury.
• One of my favorite visuals of the tournament: Belinda Bencic, 17, sitting on a changeover in the third set of her match against Pennetta. As the Italian crowd at Pietrangeli chanted and cheered like crazy, Bencic just looked around, took it all in and smiled.
• Sloane Stephens absolutely eviscerated a racket during her second-round loss to Varvara Lepchenko. Two hearty strikes and it was toast. It was good to see some fire from the 21-year-old American.
• Top eight ATP seeds for the French Open: 1. Nadal, 2. Djokovic, 3. Wawrinka, 4. Federer, 5. Ferrer, 6. Berdych, 7. Murray, 8. Raonic.
• Top eight WTA seeds from the French Open: 1. Williams, 2. Li, 3. Radwanska, 4. Halep, 5. Kvitova, 6. Jankovic, 7. Sharapova, 8. Kerber.
• This is the most wide-open French Open since ...
• Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov: Who wins a Slam first?
• If Murray could consistently play the way he did against Nadal in the first set, he would become one of the most entertaining guys to watch on tour. Show more of that, Andy.
• Djokovic finally won a title with Boris Becker in his box. But Marian Vajda was also there. So is the Curse of Boris over, or did Vajda cancel it out? This post has been updated to correct statistics about Masters 1000 tournaments this year.