Posts Tagged ‘French Open’
For much of this year, I’ve been tempted to write a piece titled, “The Big Four No More”. To be clear, this isn’t that piece. But if there’s anything that we’ve learned from the past couple of days at Wimbledon, it’s that the Big Four is in a weakened state from which it might not recover.
Let’s start with Rafa Nadal’s loss to Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16. Actually, let’s go back even further to Paris, and Rafa’s 9th French Open title. It was a great victory over a man, Novak Djokovic, who’d bested him in the last 4 finals they’d contested.
It was also troubling given the continuing back issues that have plagued Rafa since Australia. It affected his serve throughout the tournament, but flared badly late in the fourth set of that final. If not for Novak’s own weakened condition, he might possibly have fought back, forced, then won a deciding set with Rafa powerless to stop him.
I have a strong feeling that this might have been the last time that Rafa bites that trophy. Between his troublesome knees, now-troublesome back, and the ever-present fatigued look of concern, the wear and tear of his grinding style can no longer be denied. Rafa’s body is giving out.
Fast-forward to London, and the workman-like manner in which Rafa was forced to eke out wins in his early round matches. Now that book is out, so to speak, on how to beat Rafa (for those who can successfully execute the game plan), he has to work harder than ever to make it to the later rounds.
By the time he got to Kyrgios, there was no higher gear left in his game. What was on display was all that he had to give. We were all left waiting for a gear shift that Rafa was unable to muster. But let’s be honest: he’s been missing that gear for most of the season. After all, how can you find another gear when you’re maxed out?
Body issues aside, the more troubling aspect of this loss was the stubborn manner in which he refused to change his tactics against Kyrgios. The majority of my tweets from that match were pleas for Rafa to stop hitting to the Kyrgios’ backhand. But they were pleas that fell on deaf ears. With Federer-like resistance, Rafa kept hoping to break down a shot that burned him time and again.
Maybe it’s his age, his body, the fatigue, or maybe the cumulative effect of all with the additional pressure of the top ranking, but I get a sense that it’s hard for him, physically and mentally, to keep tweaking his game for improvements. Unfortunately, if he can’t keep changing to stay ahead of talented young guys like Kyrgios, his time at the top will end; sooner rather than later.
Andy Murray’s descent from the Big Four began long before his sad exit from Wimbledon after a quarterfinal loss to Grigor Dimitrov. (Sad is actually an understatement for a match that was so spectacularly awful from a 2-time Slam winner, defending Gentlemen’s champion, and Olympic gold medalist.)
Andy’s AELTC triumph last year was one of the greatest things to happen to him, but also one of the worst. The great part was immediately obvious. The worst began to manifest almost as soon as he hit the US hard court swing with early losses in Montreal and Cincinnati. It peaked at the US Open with early round struggles leading to a straight sets quarterfinal loss to Stan Wawrinka.
His play throughout was spotty at best, and lacking focus. Though there was an understandable period of transition after winning his Wimbledon dream title, his level of play afterward, and equally poor attitude, were disappointing.
Exploratory surgery and time off for healing in the fall may have helped with back issues, but certainly didn’t with his game and attitude. His game continued to flounder in the early part of the ’14 season, and losses in winnable matches started to mount.
Losses are one thing, but regression to his pre-Champion days was another. Andy behaved poorly whenever his then-coach Ivan Lendl wasn’t around. He’d swear, bark at his box and, once again, endlessly reach for phantom injuries on his leg or back when matches got tight.
Each of the Big Four has played matches without their coach, and none have regressed to earlier stages in their career while doing so.
After his split with Lendl and a disappointing clay season, Andy looked ready for a credible defense of his Wimbledon title with confident victories in his first four matches. Moreover, he finally looked like he remembered what it meant to be a champion. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
He was simply awful in his quarterfinal against Grigor. His reliable groundstrokes, both forehand and backhand, often ended halfway up the net. His incredible defense was “hit or miss”, mostly “miss”. His overheads and volleys were terrible. His focus was lacking, and his overall demeanor was defeatist, at best.
These disappointing displays from Andy are unacceptable. Membership in the “Big Four” requires better than these types of efforts from a player who shouldn’t need to be reminded of his championship credentials. Even Rafa, stubborn as he was in his loss to Kyrgios, remembered to show his championship mettle in defeat. He always does. The same is true of Roger, and generally of Novak as well. Andy needs to do the same.
Some might want to blame Andy’s early-season woes on Lendl’s departure, or his Wimbledon loss on Amelie Mauresmo’s failings as his new coach. Both would be wrong. Ivan surely didn’t give Andy any special tips to win those Slams, nor did Amelie advise him to play as horribly as he did against Grigor. Good coaching is necessary to any player’s success, but a champion’s will to succeed must come from within.
Andy has lost that will, and in so doing has lost his late-entry membership in the Big Four. Can that change for him? Depends on how much he wants to step up and act the part.
For now, Novak and Roger are safe. In spite of recent match focus struggles, Novak is still well in his prime. And as long as Roger’s body cooperates, he’s mentally ready to step up and compete with anyone.
How about Rafa? I’m worried about his body. Then again, I was worried about his body last summer after Cincinnati and he went on to win the US Open. So you never know. As far as Andy is concerned, it’s hard to know. That depends upon Andy, and if he can ever act like the champion that he is. To be honest though, I’m not hopeful.
Rafa Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in the men’s French Open final for a mind-boggling ninth title in ten appearances at Roland Garros.
Even with Rafa’s past dominance at the French Open, nothing was a given this year. A bad back, just one win on clay this spring, and four successive losses to Novak dating back to the ’13 Beijing Masters all made for considerable doubt coming into Paris. (Adding insult to injury, the last loss to Novak was on his beloved clay in Rome.)
Needless to say, there was little evidence to support his incredible triumph in Sunday’s final. But as incredible as this feat might seem under those circumstances, the only takeaway I got from this match was witnessing the MMA-like toll that this rivalry has taken on its’ participants.
Total match time was just over 3 ½ hours. And thankfully, it ended after only four sets. Most were hoping for Novak to take it to a deciding fifth set (aside from the jackass who disrupted Novak’s serve on match point).
But honestly, the last thing I wanted to see by that point was a fifth set between a player who had puked on court, and a player who was on the verge of another Slam final back collapse!
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but their rivalry has taken a turn for the worse. The matches have become such over-the-top battles of technical, physical, and psychological endurance that their dread is palpable from the first serve.
Come to think of it, I do remember when their rivalry took that fateful turn: the rain-delayed ’11 US Open final. At the final Slam of a year, a year in which Novak had beaten Rafa in four Masters 1000’s and the Wimbledon final, the Spaniard decided to make a stand; bad knees and all.
Over 4 hours later, an exhausted Novak would lift the title in what was a prelude for the mother of all battles: a 6-hour marathon final at the ’12 Australian Open. The match was so exhausting that both started to cramp during the trophy ceremony, and were given chairs so they could rest their weary legs.
Both have played tough matches against other players, but not with the same level of physical self-abuse. Rafa’s epic ’08 encounter with Roger for his first Wimbledon win produced great shot-making and drama, but certainly not injury or dread. Even his back-to-back ’09 Australian wins over Fernando Verdasco and Roger, five sets each, weren’t quite as discomforting for spectators.
Novak has also seen his share of taxing Slam matches. Before that 6-hour final with Rafa, he endured a 5-hour semifinal with Andy Murray. He came out on top in the subsequent final, but wasn’t so lucky at ’13 Wimbledon. He lost in the final to Andy after a 5-hour semifinal win over Juan Martin Del Potro. Novak cited fatigue as a factor.
However, these matches are one-offs; not a persistent occurrence like when Novak and Rafa meet. Occasional epics are one thing, consistent beatings are another.
There are limits to what bodies can take, even from guys as fit as these two. Rafa’s physical ailments are well-known (knees/back), as are Novak’s attempts at body management via his gluten-free diet. In the end, these temporary remedies can only do so much to help when the rules of engagement are the underlying problem.
There are also limits to what we can stomach watching before it crosses the line and becomes too much. I have friends who love watching their titanic battles. Personally, I’d much rather see them have longer careers, and fewer cortisone shots after retirement.
By defeating Simona Halep in a thrilling 3-set French Open final, Maria Sharapova won her second title at Roland Garros, and the fifth major title of her career. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this achievement, and some odd facts which underlie this improbable win.
Notably, 2014 marked Maria’s third straight appearance in a French Open final. The last women to appear in three straight finals, no easy task, were 4-time champion Justine Henin, and 3-time champion Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario. Pretty good company, huh?
Not content to settle for merely an appearance, Maria succeeded in winning her second title in that three-year span. Compare that to her rival Serena Williams, who needed 11 years for her second French Open win (2002, 2013). Serena may have more total Slams, but she certainly can’t match Maria’s efficiency at collecting them in Paris.
Moreover, Maria’s win in Paris came in a year when she wasn’t even expected to make it past the quarterfinals, due in large part to the aforementioned Serena. Placed in Serena’s quarter of the draw, she was slated to play the defending champ in the quarterfinals. And since it’s been nearly a decade since Maria has beaten Serena, that expected meeting probably wasn’t going to do anything to change the pattern of this all-too-familiar narrative.
Therein lays the major, pardon the pun, reason why this victory was so improbable. Maria, by some twist of tennis nature after her shoulder surgery, has become a clay court tour de force. She’s capable of beating almost any opponent on this surface; that is, any opponent not named Serena.
Her clay record speaks for itself. Including this year’s win, Maria’s overall record at the French Open is 50-10: a phenomenal 20-1 in the past three years. She’s beaten several quality opponents along the way, but can’t seem to overcome the Serena conundrum. (By contrast, Serena is 8-2 in the same 3-year period.)
Just imagine what could have been if there’d been a “Garbine Muguruza” (or Virginie Razzano, for that matter) to knock out Serena in 2013. We could have potentially seen Maria pull off a hat trick at one of the toughest Slams on the calendar. I hate to repeat this tired quotable, but that’s pretty remarkable for a self-described “cow on ice”.
Like the rest of her matches in the second week, the final wasn’t pretty. Maria racked up 12 double faults, 52 unforced errors, 7 breaks of serve, and won only 39% of her second serves. These are fairly atrocious numbers for any match, let alone a Slam final.
But Maria did what she does best, steadying her nerves when it mattered most in the third set. She found a way to win, then willed herself to do so in spite of Halep. If only she could do that when Serena is on the other side of the net, who knows what might have been in addition to a French Open hat trick?
This win tied Maria with Martina Hingis for # of Slam titles in the Open era, though I’m fairly certain she could care less about the specific number right now. Maria’s too busy relishing the fruits of a hard-fought win, and rightly so. Maybe on a subconscious level, she’s even secretly thanking the Spanish woman who made this all possible.
Garbine should expect something VERY nice for Christmas.
Rafael Nadal (ESP)  vs Novak Djokovic (SRB) 
H2H: Nadal leads 22-19
Original Picks: Rafael Nadal*, Novak Djokovic
As expected, the men’s French Open final pits No. 1 Rafa Nadal against No. 2 Novak Djokovic, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
For Novak, a win would finally give him the one Slam that’s eluded him since his rise to the top of the game. It would also give him a coveted “Career Slam Club”, an exclusive group that includes the likes of Laver, Agassi, Federer and, yes, Nadal.
For Rafa, a win would further cement his status as the “King of Clay”, and a man who’s achieved such a level of clay greatness that it’s almost hard to fathom. In nine years at Roland Garros, Rafa’s amassed 8 titles and a staggering 59-1 record. That one loss does little to mar a legacy that won’t be surpassed for many generations to come.
Given their history of epic finals, the stage is set for a test of physical and mental endurance.
I usually focus on the intangibles that determine the difference between winning and losing for these two. However, this match is different. At the tail end of a clay season that now sees them both playing well AND with confidence, the X’s and O’s matter. Let’s start with the things that Novak will need to do in order to beat Rafa in “his house” on Chatrier.
- Concentration! Novak must maintain concentration from start to finish. That may sound like a no-brainer, but one only needs to look at the third set of his match with Ernests Gulbis to see what happens when he goes walkabout. Rafa is not Ernests, and will gladly take the lapse and run away with a set or maybe even the match.
- Attack! In a pre-final interview, Novak showed clearly what must be done to beat Rafa. “I’m going to try to be aggressive, because that is the only way I can win against him.” Bingo! He must attack Rafa early and often. When does correctly (assuming good execution), Rafa becomes uncomfortable and tight: rushing his shots, missing long, or landing them in an attackable position at the service line.
- Short angle forehands! Novak possesses a great short angle crosscourt and inside-out forehand. Both are helpful when playing Rafa. The crosscourt forehand forces Rafa into a defensive posture on his backhand, with momentum carrying him away from the court. The inside-out is a trickier because of Rafa’s ability to redirect down the line. But a good attacking shot doesn’t leave him enough time for options other than a high crosscourt shot. If prepared on both counts, Novak has options to end the point in his favor.
- Backhand down the line! This is the shot that best allows Novak to triumph over Rafa’s pattern of lefty forehand to righty backhand. While Roger Federer suffers with his one-hander, Novak’s two-hander can sustain the rally pattern, pin Rafa into the corner, then go in for the kill by driving his backhand down the line when the time is right.
- Defend the second serve! Sun issues notwithstanding, Novak is a solid server. But he’ll need to do a better job of defending his second serve than he did against Gulbis. He only won 43% of his second serve points against the Latvian, which won’t be nearly good enough against Rafa.
- Take the net! In Miami, Novak did a great job of unsettling Rafa by driving him into corners, then working his way to the net in order to put away volleys of Rafa’s airy defensive shots. If he can succeed in making Rafa uncomfortable, the same result might come to pass.
Rafa’s challenges are less about what he does to Novak, and much more about what he needs to do for himself to play his best tennis.
- Stay up on the baseline! Rafa’s natural tendency is to drift back from the baseline; sometimes even as far back as the line umpires. Against Novak, this opens up way too much court, and is a recipe for disaster. He’s got to stand his ground and dictate play. This leads me to…
- Dictate play with the forehand! Rafa does best in matches when he can dictate play with his forehand, and not just the lefty forehand into the righty backhand. Certainly that is part of the pattern, but the inside-out shot tends to be the “kill” shot. This is especially true against Novak. He can rip it with tremendous pace yet still get it to drop on or inside the baseline, leaving Novak flat-footed in response. A rare thing.
- Vary serve pattern! Rafa is a creature of habit and plays according to patterns. This hurts him on serve because players know where the ball is coming and, if good enough, can make him pay for his predictability. Since he’s not going to be hitting Isner-like pace, he’s got to keep Novak guessing.
- Watch the short ball! One of the hardest things to watch when Rafa was struggling at the start of the clay season was how badly he would miss short balls; often sending them to the back wall. When Novak gives him short balls, he’s got to do something with them by either putting them away or preparing for the next shot volley.
- Step up on the backhand! Rafa’s backhand is clearly his weaker side, but it’s not what one would generally consider a weakness. When confident and holding his position in the court, Rafa can rip backhand crosscourt winners with the best of them. He generally can’t rip a winner against Novak, but he can definitely keep himself from getting bullied on that wing.
The biggest intangible of this match will be the weather conditions. If the conditions are bright, sunny, and warm, advantage to Rafa because of his ability to spin the heck out of the ball and make it jump. If the conditions are heavier, advantage to Novak. If Rafa can’t get the ball jumping up on his opponent, Novak can attack from a much easier strike point. The weather in Paris for Sunday is supposed to be warm, with a chance of rain. So this could go either way.
However, all things being what they are, my gut tells me that Rafa will win this match. Best of three favors Novak on clay. Best of five belongs to Rafa.
Pick: Rafa Nadal in five sets for his 9th French Open title.
Maria Sharapova (RUS)  vs Simona Halep (ROU) 
H2H: Sharapova leads 3-0
On this final Saturday, who would ever have predicted this unlikely pair to vie for the women’s title?
After all, Simona Halep had only won a single main draw match (against Alla Kudryavtseva) during her career at the French Open: an inexplicable truism even as she tore through the ranks of the WTA’s second tier. The trend continued of disappointments for the Romanian in 2013 with a 3-set first-round loss to Carla Suarez Navarro.
Halep won a total of five titles in 2013, second only to Serena Williams for the year. She also managed the rare feat of winning titles on grass, clay, hard, and indoor courts. By the time she lifted the trophy in Sofia, Simona had proven herself as a dangerous player of note on all surfaces; just not the red clay of Roland Garros.
Her opponent, the fortune-kissed Maria Sharapova, is also an unlikely participant in Saturday’s final. Given her positioning in Serena Williams’ quarter of the draw, Maria should, by all rights, already be on holiday in the south of France before the start of her grass season.
Enter Garbine Muguruza. One upset victory of the defending champion later, and Maria sees a clear path that had been previously blocked by a decade of defeats. And so, plucked from the jaws of a certain quarterfinal defeat, Maria now has an opportunity to win an unlikely second French Open title.
This is not just hypothetical. In fact, I think it’s fairly probable. That’s not to say that Simona isn’t up to the task of a final, because she is. But when you look beyond the X’s and O’s, the one intangible that’s most likely to give Maria her second title is “nerves”, and who can handle them best.
Maria has shown, once again, that she’s one of the steeliest competitors on the tour; fighting back from a one-set deficit in each of her last three matches (Stosur, Muguruza, and Bouchard). Many would look at these types of come-from-behind victories as a sign of vulnerability. Not Maria. These kinds of matches simply serve to bolster her belief that she always has a chance to pull off the win, even when the chips are down.
After her win over Bouchard in the semifinals, Maria had this to say about that particular aspect of her game. “I’m not sure if that’s something you can work on, but I think when you’re forced to be in those situations when you’re either not playing good or you find yourself in a losing position, I just don’t want to give up, because I work too hard to just let something go and let a match go.”
By contrast, Halep faltered badly in the latter stages in Melbourne. Her 6-3 6-0 loss to Dominika Cibulkova was a direct result of her nerves. Simona admitted as much in her post-match.
“I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn’t manage this. Before the match I was very nervous and I didn’t feel the ball at all. I couldn’t move my body and I couldn’t play.”
So far she’s managed to keep any nerves at bay, torching her way to the final without dropping a set. But facing Sharapova, a former champion, in her first Slam final is a far cry from facing someone like Sloane Stephens; the highest seed she faced en route to the final.
A look at her two previous matches can give us a glimpse into just how nerves can affect her performance. Against Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, she faltered with three double faults while trying to serve out the match. Against Petkovic in the semifinals, she was broken at the start of the second set and ultimately forced into a tiebreaker to secure the straight sets win.
Halep is generally a pretty cool customer, and has appeared completely unruffled and happy in pre-final interviews. But I can’t imagine she’ll be able to disregard the magnitude of the moment.
As far as X’s and O’s go, a look at their Madrid final may give us clues as to how this French Open final might play out if “nerves” don’t come into play. Sharapova won that match, 1-6 6-2 6-3. It wasn’t a particularly clean affair when you look at the statistics. Her first serve percentage was slightly better, and she won a higher percentage of Halep’s second serve points. The one stat that stands out most, however, is break points saved. Halep saved 1 of 6. Maria saved 6 of 10.
While neither served well enough to stave off break opportunities, Maria was slightly than Halep while also capitalizing on her chances to break the Halep serve. These are small margins, but ones that make a big difference in the final score.
Based on their play up to this point, we could see a similar match on Saturday. The outcome could (and probably will) be decided by the intangibles. For me, that means Halep’s nerves vs Maria’s experience and steely resolve. I’ll put my money on experience and steely resolve.
Serena Williams*, Li Na
Revised Pick: Maria Sharapova in three sets.
(* – original pick for French Open champion)
Ernests Gulbis (LAT)  vs Novak Djokovic (SRB) 
H2H: Djokovic leads 4-1
Original Picks: Novak Djokovic*, Roger Federer
Gulbis did a couple of things really well the other day in his quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych. The first, and most important, was the excellent way that he managed himself. That’s no small task given his volatile on-court persona. The second was how well he managed his game against Berdych. Though Berdych was clearly “off” his game, Gulbis was very effective in keeping him off-balance with the same type of shot variety that kept Federer similarly off-balance in their R16.
The problem for Gulbis in this particular match is that Djokovic is a cut above Berdych. He possesses better movement, better defense, more varied offense, and is the “best on tour” in his ability to turn defense into offense at a moment’s notice. Gulbis’ dropshots won’t bother him, his pace won’t bother him, and Djokovic’s return game is the best around.
Simply put, there’s nothing Gulbis can do that will cause sufficient stress to Djokovic’s game. Conversely, there’s a ton that Djokovic can and will do to stress Gulbis’ game. For example, he’s probably going to stretch him wide to the forehand like Berdych tried, but will better be able to handle any ensuing squash shots or short balls.
I could go on but you get the gist of it. This match is Novak’s to win. BUT I do expect at least one broken Gulbis racquet.
Revised Pick: Novak Djokovic in four sets.
Rafael Nadal (ESP)  vs Andy Murray (GBR) 
H2H: Nadal leads 14-5
Original Picks: Rafael Nadal*, Stan Wawrinka
Andy has NEVER beaten Rafa on clay. Unfortunately, that trend will continue in their French Open semifinal match when Rafa beats Andy to reach his ninth final in ten attempts.
Andy might take a set off of Rafa because of his incredible defense, and I do mean incredible, but it won’t be more than that. And admittedly, I’m only giving him that set because Rafa isn’t at his imperious best these days. The outcome of this match, however, will never be in doubt.
The situation might be slightly different if Ivan Lendl were still in the picture. One of the things he pushed Andy to do was be more aggressive with his forehand when he plays Rafa, and to also not be afraid to rip that backhand down the line. Both of those strategies have been shown to be highly effective against Nadal, and would certainly enhance his chances in this match.
Sadly, in the absence of Lendl’s aggressive coaching, Murray has digressed to his earlier defense-oriented game. Defense isn’t enough to beat Nadal. The only way you can beat Nadal with defense is if you can turn defense into offense as effectively as Djokovic. Murray doesn’t have that ability, and will have a hard time attempting to do so.
Apart from the match-up difficulties, Murray also comes into this match with suspect discipline. He cruised early against Monfils but then struggled badly as the Frenchman found his game (to put it mildly). He completely reverted to “Pre-Slam Andy” in sets 3 and 4, and only got the win after Monfils imploded. Champions raise their game at crunch time. They don’t grab at body parts while complaining to anyone courtside who will listen.
That’s not to say that Nadal is at the top of his game, because he’s not. But as one would expect from the 8-time champion, he’s raised his level as the tournament has progressed. If you expect to beat him in these latter rounds, you’re going to have to play at a high level for a very long time.
Ferrer found this out the hard way. He came out swinging, and took the first set. Once Nadal got his teeth into the match after taking the second set, Ferrer’s game quickly unraveled. He couldn’t sustain his initial level of play over the long haul, and received a bagel and breadstick for his efforts in sets 3 and 4.
Nadal’s cleaned up the more troubling parts of his game from earlier in the clay season i.e. the mistimed forehands from the baseline, no penetration on his backhand, weak serving, and badly-missed short balls. His back still bothers him, and he’s not able to serve with quite as much pace as would be preferable, but he’s playing ‘well enough’.
That should be more than good enough for a 4-set win over the regressing Murray.
Revised Pick: Rafael Nadal in four sets.