Bill Simons and Michael Mewshaw
SERENA WILLIAMS – THE GREATEST ESCAPE ARTIST SINCE HARRY HOUDINI?: Not unlike the University of Kentucky, which recruits blue-chip high school hoops prospects, Kazakhstan recruits Russians. The initiative has made the landlocked, oil-rich Asian land tennis-rich. Arguably, the faraway country is the snappiest overachiever in tennis since Serbia.
Their latest high-profile import, Yulia Putintseva, has a world-class pout, fine fist-pumps and a glorious, waist-length ponytail suggestive of another Moscow native – Anna Kournikova.
She’s short (5′ 4″), spunky, feisty, gritty and all that – a younger Dominika Cibulkova. But here in Paris, she was in her first Slam quarterfinal. She’s only No. 58, and the only thing she was able to do today was put a mighty scare into the mighty Serena.
Williams thought she would lose. Before now, Putintseva hasn’t gotten beyond the third round of a Slam. Today she almost seemed possessed.
She had a ferocious look in her eye. According to the Guardian, Putintseva, who is no relation to the Russian boss, “played with the cold-eyed steel of the macho president.”
Never mind she’d lost to Serena in both matches they’d played. Each time she was close to winning a set. Could the fact that she was once coached by Serena’s mentor, Patrick Mouratoglou, have anything to do with her giving Serena fits?
She certainly did today. Putintseva shocked Paris when she used her wheels, her will and her considerable forehand to capture the first set 7-5. “Do we have a massive boil-over in the cards?” asked Matt Brown. Later, Serena said she kept on misfiring and didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But who since Houdini has given us more “escape” performances than Serena? She did so again today – shouting, grimacing, hitting big and serving with Serena-esque power to prevail 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.
Now she’ll go Dutch. Translation: on Friday Serena will face the suddenly streaking six-foot Dutch woman Kiki Bertens in her ongoing quest to tie Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Slams.
RAFA UPDATE: A reliable source very close to Rafa Nadal told Inside Tennis that Rafa playing at Wimbledon was very unlikely. We then asked, “What about the Olympics?” The source replied, “That’s the plan.”
QUESTION OF THE DAY: An Italian writer asked Novak Djokovic whether the tennis stroke the drop shot was named after the rain.
HUMAN BEINGS ARE GOOD FOLKS: When asked if she felt Kiki Bertens took a medical timeout to throw her off her rhythm, Timea Bacsinzky said, “I’m not believing human beings are doing things on purpose to bother the other one.”
MEDIA SHY? Venus Williams skipped out of her press conference at last year’s French Open and again at the Aussie Open. Fines were imposed. Serena took 2:45 to go into her presser Thursday and then, after six questions, cut it off. Why? – media fatigue, a bigger-than-the game mindset, a sense of entitlement, or just the knowledge that they could get away with it?
SO CAREFUL, YET SO INCREDIBLY RECKLESS: Novak Djokovic is such a professional. But he came close to being tossed out of the tournament when he ferociously spiked his racket into the ground and it bounced and nearly hit a line judge. A similar incident occurred during the Italian Open final when his racket bounced into the stands and almost hit a woman. Novak said in both cases he was lucky not to have suffered dire consequences.
NOVAK DON’T NEED NO DUMB TIPS – OR DOES HE?: Is it just us or, in recent months, does Novak Djokovic seem edgier and more uptight? Maybe Novak should listen to Swiss Timea Bacsinzky who said, “I don’t feel the pressure, I drink it.” Or maybe Spain’s Alex Corretja was on to something when he said, “Novak has to realize he doesn’t have to be perfect.” One more thing: he has to realize that he’s got to hold onto his racket.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: Semi-finalist Dominic Thiem is the last singles player wearing an Adidas zebra outfit.
WHO COULD HAVE PREDICTED THIS? A woman’s semifinal lineup, with Serena playing unseeded Kiki Bertens, and the No. 4 seed Garbine Muguruza facing the former French Open finalist and US Open champion Sam Stosur, the No. 21 seed?
GO FIGURE: Dominic Thiem could reach the finals without playing once on Philippe Chatrier Stadium. The young Austrian star-in-the-making, who just had a nice win in Nice, is on a nine-match winning streak…Stan Wawrinka has reached at least the quarterfinals in 9 of his last 12 Slams.
THAT EXPLAINS IT: Kiki Bertens said stopping eating carbs between tournaments was a big reason for her recent success. She came through the qualifying in the Nuremburg tournament, then won the title in singles, also prevailed in doubles, and now has reached the semis. That’s 12 straight singles wins. Her victories here have been impressive. She prevailed in the first round over Aussie Open titleist Angelique Kerber and then beat Camila Giorgi, No. 29 seed Daria Kasatkina, No. 15 seed Madison Keys and No. 8 seed Timea Bacsinsky. Gigi Salmon quipped, “That’s not a draw opening up – Kiki steamrolled to the semis.”
“It sounds like a donkey going through an uncomfortable situation.” – Courtney Nguyen on Marcel Granollers’ grunting
“That would have been a disaster.” – Eurosport on Djokovic almost facing an automatic ejection if his free-floating racket had actually hit a linesman
“It’s crazy.” – Kiki Bertens on reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal
“I’m never setting goals, so I’m never disappointed.” – Timea Bacsinszky, who lost to Kiki Bertens in the quarterfinals today
“He’a a bit Wawrinka-esque.” – Mats Wilander on Dominic Thiem
“Berdych would like to have this match stopped and never continue.” – Radio Roland Garros when the Czech was struggling mightily against Djokovic
“One of the worst calls I’ve ever seen.” – Berdych, on his match not being suspended due to rain
IT ALMOST FEELS LIKE A PLAGUE (OR SEATTLE): The rain in Paris has, except for a few nasty thunder storms, been modest but incessant – an almost constant drizzle or mist that barely calls for an umbrella, but is maddening and almost winter-cold. Outside of Wimbledon, one asks, “has there ever been a more steel gray, more moist Slam?”
THE ID OF OZ – COOL ON-COURT, HOT OFF-COURT: Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki is out of the top 30 and out of Roland Garros with an injury, and she may not be able to play the Olympics due to Federation rules. But earlier this year she was seen (wearing only body paint) in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Now she’s being featured at length in Esquire in some snappy pictures.