French Open semis showcase basic truth: tennis a battle of nerves

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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 her nerve -- in the final, it was hailed as a mental progress. Today was regress, "a crap day," as she called it after the match. Errani broke Stosur and then held and kept her composure to serve out a 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 upset.

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?

Mail call

A soggy baguette on a rainy Thursday...

Funny, but with all the inconsistency and surprises, we have seeds 1, 2, 3, 6 in men's semis and seeds 2, 4, 6 and 21 in women's. At least visually doesn't look that different! I think the argument is always used to put women down: when Graf/Seles/Martinez-Sanchez would routinely fill the semifinal spots at every major, it was considered boring, whereas the men "had depth." The situation has reversed and what do we hear? Men's game is in "golden age," women are in chaos. Double standard anyone? -- Aleksei, Brussels

? 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.

For all the talk about the women's draw being wide open/unpredictable (especially after Serena went down) -- and acknowledging that hindsight is always 20/20 -- I'd say the semifinals turned out pretty nicely: the reigning Wimbledon champ, the reigning U.S. Open champ, a trendy darkhorse pick, and the #2 player and hottest (in more ways than one?) woman in tennis. It could have been a lot worse, no? -- Jason, Kent, Ohio

? 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.

Who are your top five best men and woman never to have won a major currently playing. -- Bob Diepold, Charlotte, N.C.

? 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?

Hi Jon! I was working during the quarterfinal matches of Federer and Djokovic, so I couldn't see it. Instead, I tracked the live score. At some point, Federer and Tsonga had match points at the same point! It was crazy! How in the world were those matches scheduled at the same time? -- Joel Castro, San Juan, P.R.

? 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.

Jon, Biggest upset of them all? Mark Edmondson ranked No. 212 beating three-time Wimbledon champion John Newcombe in the Australian Open final in 1976 (I was there). Mark is the lowest-ranked winner of a grand slam ever!! -- Michael Hersch of Sydney:

? Note to my friends at the Tennis Channel. Keep it coming with the "Greatest Upsets" shows. Fans love this discussion!

Okay, I don't want to play the third world country card, but here it is. Roger Federer is in no hurry to play an exhibition match anytime soon here. And similarly, I won't be flying to London or New York anytime this year. Or the next. I would be more than content to hold a racket in hand, when I buy one of course. So like millions of people that only get to enjoy tennis through the satellite experience, I feel like one of the invisible, non-existent netizens of the tennis universe. So yes, I am asking you to feel sorry for me. And once you do, you won't deny me. You won't deny my mail box submission. My only hope is to feel part of this. My only chance at being touched by magic, that is tennis. To feel included. And by the way, it may sound like I've had a bit too much to drink. Not true. -- Charith Bangalore, India

? Okay, what's the question?

Jon, I now realize that the only readers that make it to your mail box are the ones that take the trouble of calling you an unprofessional-caveman or whatever other nasty names it is that they are calling you these days. If it's not that, then it definitely has to be one of those infinitely intelligent questions like the one about Novak being 'lucky' in saving all those match-points. Well, for me personally, not that anybody should care, it does not matter male or female, famous or random, American or Estonian, my favorite players are always the ones that go on to save match-points. Regardless of what happens after that. A win. A loss. Does not matter. -- Charith Bangalore, India:

? Agree. What's the question?

Hi Jon, really enjoy the mailbag. Wanted to pass along a comment from my 2 1/2-year-old son who is completely unaware of the shrieking controversy gripping women's tennis. He found me watching some early morning coverage of the FO online and asked, "Why are the they yelling at each other? Are they mad?!" Hmmm... -- Sanjeev, San Francisco

? Mad as in irate? Or mad as in crazy?

Shots, miscellany

? 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.