Fifty parting thoughts from the 2015 French Open
PARIS – Fifty parting thoughts from the 2015 French Open, where No. 1 Serena Williams won her third title in Paris and her 20th major overall and No. 8 Stan Wawrinka took down No. 1 Novak Djokovic to win his first French Open title and second major overall.
At the halfway turn to the season, cleaning out the notebook (and MS Word file) from the 2015 French Open:
• On the day American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, Serena Williams moved closer to tennis’ Quadruple Crown, taking the winner’s title. It’s axiomatic (that is, cliché) to say that “the player most capable most capable beating Serena is Serena,” but that’s one of the takeaways from the event. Playing on her poorest surface, suffering from the flu, unable to summon anything close to her best tennis, she was still good enough to win her 20th Slam. Now to the grass…
• Novak Djokovic will not win the Grand Slam this year. Because after thrashing Rafael Nadal and outlasting Andy Murray, he ran into Stan Wawrinka. In a tremendous performance, Stan punished a tennis ball for four sets, winning 4–6, 6–4, 6–3, 6–4. His 60th winner on match point was this performance writ small. “Stanimal” is a ridiculous, reductive nickname. But it fits here. What a display of muscular, beastly tennis.
• Djokovic was gracious in defeat. But for all the build-up, the undisputed No. 1 still lacks a French Open title. But he will get it one day.
• Lucie Safarova played the finest Slam of her long career, reaching the final. And she was rewarded for her bold play in the second set. She then partnered with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to win the doubles title. That’s a solid two weeks of work.
• An awful lot of ink, pixels and airtime have been devoted to the decline of Nadal, who, of course, relinquished his grasp on Roland Garros when he lost Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Here’s a video essay we did for Tennis Channel after the loss.
Let’s look on the bright side of the net here: he’s defending a modest result at Wimbledon and then virtually nothing for the rest of the year. Barring injury, he’s still in good shape for the ATP Finals. His decline over the last year is unmistakable. But let’s hold off on the career obit.
• Andy Murray has now lost eight straight matches to Novak Djokovic. But you have the sense he’s getting closer to solving a riddle he had mastered a few years ago. For his sake—as well as for the sake of unpredictability over the next few years—you hope this goes back to being a rivalry.
• Take a bow Timea Bacsinszky, a semifinalist who’s in full bloom in her “second” career. She took a set off of Serena Williams (who didn’t?) and while she couldn't close the match and faded in the third, she is rewarded with a career-high ranking. Here’s her story in her words.
• In a modest upset, Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo won the doubles title—their first major—beating top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan. The Bryans are still the gold standard for doubles, but have now won only one of their last seven Slams. Long as we’re here, reader Ana Mitric correctly notes that this is why doubles should attract more of our attention:
• Tommy Paul of New Jersey won the first all-American boys' final with a defeat of second-seeded California’s Taylor Harry Fritz, 7–6 (4), 2–6, 6–2. (Though if agents pursuing a player is an indication of future success, Fritz is next Rod Laver.)
• Paula Badosa Gibert, the 12th-seeded Spaniard defeated No. 16 Anna Kalinskaya of Russia 6–3, 6–3 to win the girls' title.
• Mike Bryan and Bethanie Mattek-Sands won the mixed doubles, beating Lucie Hradecka and Marcin Matkowski. Mattek-Sands now has three major titles this year.
• Credit to Ana Ivanovic for reaching her first major semi since 2008. But what a hollow performance against Safarova, conforming to the old scouting report. That is, she surges to an early lead. And when the opponent gets in the match, Ivanovic retreats, failing to adjust tactically or leaven her flat shots with some spin, expanding her Epilady-thin margin for error.
• Surprisingly underreported story: the Paris city council voting against the expansion of the Roland Garros facility. This is the smallest Slam in terms of acreage. It has the least prize money. (“Thanks. Fading Euro!”) By unofficial counts, it leads the Slam in outré incidents—see: falling scorecard panels this year. The grounds were plastered with snazzy architectural renderings of the new site, replete with a hashtag cooked up by the boys in marketing department (#ilovenewrg). But, at least for now, it looks as if the event needs to figure out how to grow and evolve in its current space. (Though one positive from all this: The Bullring, the best tennis theater in the world, lasts at least another year.)
• For as much abuse as the USTA takes out there in TennisWorld, here’s some grounds for optimism, albeit the guarded variety. Four of the eight boys quarterfinalists were Americans. And CiCi Bellis, the top girls player for 2014, reached the semis. The predictive value here is minimal. The tennis mausoleum is littered with the remains of players who were successful juniors and couldn’t make the transition. But this was a very strong showing and there are some real prospects to follow. Over to you, Martin Blackman.
• My dealings with her have been thoroughly pleasant. (That she had a recent boyfriend from Indiana wins her big points, as far as I am concerned.) Still, I was struck by the gushing praise thrown Lucie Safarova’s way. (Why, it was almost Clijsters-ian.) I was told that players crowded around the TVs in the locker when Safarova was playing Sharapova and cheering like crazy. Not out of schadenfreude or happiness at seeing a lesser player beat a star. But out of genuine pleasure for Safarova, watching a popular colleague succeed in such a big match.
• We like Camila Giorgi, the young and flashy Italian. (Watch her play. Not since Justine Henin has such a physically slight player generated this kind of offensive tennis.) But this is a bit of a rough patch. She was bounced by Garbine Muguruza in round two.We’ve also learned that during the Miami Open, she was served with a civil suit, this one from Todd Andrews, who claims that Giorgi and her father still owe him more than $30,000 in unpaid loans.
• Though he lost quietly to Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, this marked the 62nd straight Grand Slam appearance for Roger Federer, tying him with Ai Sugiyama who didn't miss a start between Wimbledon in 1994 and the U.S. Open in 2009. Provided Federer plays Wimbledon, he’ll take over the all-time record. Which is good. Because it’s about time Federer claimed a record or two.
• Here’s a new trend to watch for: players hiring specialty coaches. That is, a coach who works only on returns. A coach who works only on preparation against lefties. A volleying coach. Almost like hitting instructors on baseball teams. As prize money goes up and players have more dispensable income, they will find ways to reinvest it in performance.
• To Hades with the rankings. If Victoria Azarenka isn’t a top five player, my name is Benedict Cumberbatch.
• Speaking of Azarenka, after getting the business end of a call against Serena, she off-handedly said that tennis should expand replay. She is right. It’s nuts that fans watching the match at home a continent away know what really happened, while the chair umpire and the two players are left to speculate. Don’t blame Kader Nouni for missing a call on a bang-bang play; blame infrastructure for not giving him the means to get it right. And while we’re at it, it’s time to rethink Hawk-eye on clay. Too often the technology and the ballmarks were at odds.
• There is always the half-empty/half-full balance for players in this situation. But you hope Sloane Stephens’ positive instincts trump the negative. Specifically, that she leaves happy to have played into the guts of still another Slam—not that she was three points from knocking off Serena and couldn’t close.
• On its face, Spain appears to be a leading tennis nation. Without the benefit of wild cards, there were 13 Spaniards in the main draw. But dig deeper and maybe it’s time to sell this stock. The average age of the hombres hovered around 30. And no Spaniards reached the main draw via qualies. Pablo Carreño-Busta is cited as one of the few prospects. And he turns 24 in a few weeks.
• Nine of the players in the top 10 before the 2014 French Open were still in the top ten when the 2015 tournament started. The lone swap? With plenty of symmetry, Marin Cilic supplanted Juan Martin del Potro. Seven of the top eight ATP seeds reached the quarters. The lone swap? Jo-Wilfried Tsonga “upsetting” Tomas Berdych.
• The good news for Sweden? For the first time since 2008, there were multiple representatives in the men’s draw. The bad news (or maybe not): both players had to qualify and were knocked out by the first Sunday, Elias (Red Rooster) Ymer and Christian Lindell, who managed only five games in his opener against Tsonga. The good news: Robin Soderling may not be done just yet…
• I feel like this issue has been discussed enough already, but a few thoughts on the Carlos Bernardes and Rafael Nadal situation.
1) Still puzzling over the origins of this mishegas. You’re at a small ATP event in Rio. A veteran player—never mind a star—puts on his shorts backwards and asks to change. You’re the chair umpire, imbued with discretion. You’re not letting him leave the court to change? Really?
2) Nadal’s unwillingness to speed up his play is maddening in the extreme. The guy does so much right and is so sporting in so many other respects. Why not adjust your behavior to comply with the rules? Why even let this become the issue it has?
3) When there’s a dispute between an official and players, it’s thoroughly reasonable for the ATP and/or ITF to give them a “vacation” from one another. We do this all the time in other contexts. Siblings fight and we parents separate them. Attorneys feud with judges and efforts are sometimes made to keep them apart from the next trial. I would go further and suggest that it would be lousy judgment for the ATP/ITF had they NOT separated the feuding parties for a while.
4) But the issue here is the formalization of the policy. When Nadal admitted making the request and the ITF supervisor admitted that the request was granted, precedent has been set. The next player to have a beef will cite this case and we will have embarked on everyone’s favorite amusement park ride, the slippery slope.
• In the wake of the controversy, here’s an email an anonymous official sent me: “I found it interesting that it has gotten so much attention as this situation is relatively common through all levels of tennis. All chair umpires, from college through the futures, challengers and ATP/WTA have a “no list” of players whose matches they don’t want to officiate, generally due to an issue that arose in a recent match. Most of the time umpires will only put a player on the list for a few weeks to give tensions time to defuse—in rare circumstances, perhaps after repeated issues, it might be permanent. This happens all the time, and most of the time the player doesn’t even know about it.
A player making the request, like Nadal did, is much less common, but is usually honored just like if the umpire had made the request. So much of being an effective chair umpire depends on having the confidence and respect of the players, and if a recent incident is in the back of a player’s mind, it can cause there to be a lack of confidence in the official before the match even starts. Our goal as officials is to give players a fair match without unnecessarily becoming part of the match, and you never want something from a past match to affect a future one—from either the player's or official's side. There are many qualified officials at all of these tournaments, so keeping one player away from a specific official, doesn't burden the officiating assignments too much and generally makes for a smoother match for all involved.”
• After losing a first round match to Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams declined to attend a press conference, earning a $3,000 fine. This rarely happens. Venus was criticized for this perceived breach of professionalism. But viewed strictly as a transactional matter, maybe it’s not so irrational. Hmm. I’m worth millions of dollars in tennis. I can go into the interview room and dissect my defeat, get asked for the millionth time about my retirement plans and an opponent with whom my family has shared an uneasy history. Or I can pay $3,000 to a tennis development fund—that’s probably tax deductible anyway—and go to dinner.
• Early in the tournament, I consulted with the good folks at both IBM and Hawk-eye and—mostly doing some back-of-the-drawsheet math—we concluded that players would be better off hitting all first serves. Or at least n. Maria Sharapova is the prime example. She hits her second serve within 5% of her first serve and while she is regularly at the top of the double fault list, she is second on tour in second serve points won. Some of you wrote in saying we underestimated how successful players would be. Some of you asserted that we overestimated. Here, for instance, is Daniel: “The decision the player faces is when the first serve has already gone out, so in other words we need to consider the probability that a first serve will go wide only once (37%), as opposed to twice (14%). Therefore the player has to decide whether to hit a 'first' serve that gives him/her a 17/19% advantage, versus a probability of 37% of the ball going wide. Furthermore, you can't compare it to 17/19% straight up. This advantage applies only when the serve is in. Against these overwhelming odds, I'd say a player will almost always go for the normal second serve. Of course, you'd still need to adjust the probability that a player would hit a second serve wide, but I suspect that hitting a regular second serve would still win out after adjusting for that.”
Bottom line: I am happy to try to provide data. Who wants to undertake a more vigorous/rigorous analysis?
• We often talk about tennis’ greatest underachiever and what that term even means. Is it the junior champion who never grasps the transition to the pros? Is it the player with No. 1 talent who settles for the charmed life of No. 12? Is it a player with any obvious deficiency they never seek to improve? Sad as it is to say, I think the discussion has to include Gael Monfils. You hate to knock his colorful character, his acknowledgement of the entertainment factor, his willingness to play doubles, his general joie de vivre. But it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that it’s come at the expense of his career. He might well be the best pure athlete ever to play the sport. It’s exceedingly hard to hit the ball past him, so good is his defense. He has weapons. He has a decent set of hands. He has (cliché alert) all the tools. And yet….
• It wouldn’t be the first week of the French Open without Monfils playing a thoroughly unnecessary and thoroughly entertaining five-setter. We got two this year. But watching the choke job by Pablo Cuevas—who was up 4–1 in the fourth set—was less an act of fandom than rubbernecking.
• Mary Carillo received the ITF’s highest accolade, the Philippe Chatrier Award, at the annual banquet last week. Good for Mary. But good, too, for the ITF. At a time when International sporting federations (maybe you’ve heard?) have been in the news for acting as rogue states, bravo to the ITF for a willingness to honor a journalist who speaks openly and is hardly a house p.r. organ.
• Not only did Alison Van Uytvanck reach the quarterfinals, she had one of the best exchanges of the tournament:
Q: How did you deal with this situation? I mean, you played against French player. Of course fans are behind your opponent. How did you manage?
ALISON VAN UYTVANCK: I'm scared. There is a spider on the mic.
• For the men, we nominate Ernests Gulbis, a second-round loser to Nicolas Mahut:
Q. Specifically what would you do before meeting Nicolas?
ERNESTS GULBIS: I will sleep and I will eat specifically.
• Back to AVU, as she will hereafter be called, she had won $107,580 so far this year heading into the event. She won more than $250,000 for the reaching the round of eight.
• One of the revelations of the tournament was Jack Sock, the young American who, finally healthy, played into round four and took a set off of Nadal. There’s a lot to like here and he seems to have settled in with a coach, Troy Hahn.
• Big sources of chatter in the players’ lounge: the recruitment of Frances Tiafoe, the talented American teenager who played in the main draw. Declining offers from the traditional management agencies, Tiafoe chose Jay-Z and his company, Roc Nation. Was this a case of paradigm shift? Or a teenager getting seduced (understandably) by celebrity and social currency? Now Tiafoe’s agent is no longer with Roc Nation. (Rendering unclear Tiafoe’s status with the agency.) There are a lot of elements to this: race, class, culture. You just hope this all works out and, put crassly, Tiafoe and his family don’t leave money on the table.
• We say this every tournament. But every match tells a story that goes so far beyond the line score that flits across the ticker. First round. Sunday, Court 3. Steve Johnson plays Guillermo Garcia Lopez. Johnson wins the first two sets. At 5–5, 30-30, Johnson misses a floater that he makes 99 times out of 100. He’s then broken. He could easily have obsessed over the shot for the next half hour. But he recovers and breaks serve when Lopez gives up on a ball that clips the line. Now it’s Lopez who could have packed it in. But Lopez recovers and wins the set in a tiebreaker. And then the fourth set. And then goes ahead a break in the fifth set, only to see Johnson break back, grab hold of the match and close in five. We often glance ay the line scores and move on. But, to appropriate Rod Stewart, every match tells a story, don’t it?
• Careers are not straight line progressions. And sophomore slumps are the norm, not the exception. But, boy, is Genie Bouchard a superfund site right now. A first round loser, she has now dropped eight of nine matches and, by her own admission, is lost. Over the last six months, she has switched coached, agents and physical trainers. There’s a lot going on here and lot of external pressures. But we sure hope she figures this out.
• Likewise, Grigor Dimitrov continues to struggle, barely showing up for his first round match against Jack Sock. This is Exhibit A in the perils of switching rackets. To the young kids out there: don’t mess with your equipment. The financial difference between the racket you like and the racket you’re being paid to use? You can make that up with two decent Slam performances.
• This is the old cut-and-paste on television from previous years. I’m too conflicted to speak objectively here. I understand and empathize with the frustration with “coverage windows” and multiple networks on site. And tape delay is simply a relic from another time, as anachronistic as the Palm Pilot. But I would urge you not to conflate this with the quality of broadcasts. Among Tennis Channel, ESPN and NBC, I would put tennis up against any sport in terms of the quality of broadcast, color commentary and analysis.
• I’ve thought this before about Brad Gilbert and have forgotten to mention it. Now I’m remembering. You what I really like and respect? He won 20 titles and got to No. 4 in the rankings. Yet rarely, if ever, does he reference his playing career. So he anchors himself instead in the present, a tacit (and correct) assumption that it’s about the current players and rehashing moments from the 80s and 90s is not especially relevant.
• Karolina Pliskova came in under the proverbial radar. And she shall remain there. The 12th seed is an ascendant player (a “rising star” as the WTA would say) but she was bounced in the second round, blowing a lead against 100th ranked Andreea Mitu of Romania. Same for Dominic Thiem, an analog of sorts on the men’s side.
• Pity the folks in Newport at the Hall of Fame. Amelie Mauresmo was the only player to be inducted this summer. But Mauresmo is pregnant and not traveling—and will take a break from coaching Andy Murray after Wimbledon. She’s asked to be inducted in 2016.
• One of the stranger matches on the men’s side had to be Pablo Andujar against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Andujar won the first two sets. Kohlschreiber won the next two. He sprinted to a 4-2 lead in the third before the match was called on account of darkness, possessing all the momentum. The two return the next day and Andujar reels off four games and takes the match. O-kay.
• Prior to the women's semis, Jana Novotna—on-hand competing in the legends—walked into the locker room, saw Serena in clear discomfort and reported her observation to a journalist before the match. I think the players who viewed this as a breach of the sanctity of the locker room are correct. Players should be entitled to a "safe place." (While we're here, if the tennis gods have any sense of justice, Serena will draw Tara Moore in the first round of Wimbledon.)
• Nice event for Irina Falconi who reached the middle Saturday. But what a strange third round match. She took a 4-2 lead over Julia Goerges. And then she lost 10 of 11 games, falling 6–4, 6–1.
• On one of the monitors in the TV area, the graphics permit only the first two letters of players’ names. So both Federer and Ferrer are abbreviated “FE,” fitting designations for the Iron Men of the men’s game.
• In last year’s women’s doubles final Hsieh Su-wei and Peng Shuai defeated Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. On account of what might charitably be called irreconcilable differences, neither team competed in 2015.
• Another “inside baseball” story to follow: Novak Djokovic never committed to a grasscourt tournament before Wimbledon. He is unlikely to play the week after the French Open. He is unlikely to play the week before Wimbledon. The middle weekend offers Queen’s Club and Halle. The LTA has been holding a wild card for Djokovic at Queen’s Club, but he’s going to have to commit soon. Or risk playing qualies—which would surely be an ATP first for the top-ranked player. More tune-ups news: Maria Sharapova, still trying to kick that cold, won’t play a grass tune-up. Milos Raonic, on the other hand, the highest ranked player not to play in Paris, had foot surgery and expects to be 100% for Queen’s Club.
• Doug Robson nailed this piece on Nick Imison, tennis’ workaholic diplomat.
Final note: You guys were great with questions, comments and tweets. We’ll do it again at Wimbledon. I didn't respond individually, but thanks, folks, for your kind words about the Tennis Channel coverage. Big tip of the beret to the editors on the “Unstrung” pieces: Loy Maxon and his team. And if you enjoyed the SI.com tennis coverage, thank Jamie Lisanti, who made it all happen in the wee hours back home.