By Bill Simons
The greatest player in the history of the game was said to be lucky.
Never mind his resume—17 slams, a record 302 weeks at No. 1—critics noted that the one time Roger Federer won the French Open, a fellow named Nadal was knocked out of the tourney by a zoning Swede.
A clear path before him, Federer then sailed to the title.
And this year, though he is a seemingly ancient 34 years old and hasn’t won a Slam in almost three years, he was blessed with the dreamiest of draws. His nemeses—Nadal, Djokovic and Murray—were all bunched together on the top half, well out of harm’s way.
Sweet! And when he did face a truly challenging foe—Gael Monfils, who had beaten him twice in a row on clay—luck again tapped him on the shoulder. Just when the streaky Frenchman got hot and won the second set of their fourth-round match, dusk descended. Play was suspended, and Monfils never seemed to wake up the next day. “The Rog” streaked to an easy victory and an inviting matchup in the quarterfinals against “brother” Stan Wawrinka, who he has owned.
Though Federer is from the German section of Switzerland and Wawrinka is from the French section, the two are fast friends, and as doubles partners they won the 2008 Olympic gold.
They have known each other since they were teens, they’ve shared a coach, and they practiced together just a couple of days ago.
As you would expect in a nice Swiss relationship, much has been orderly.
Yes, Wawrinka got upset about some testy words from Federer’s wife Mirka during the heat of battle at the ATP finals championships. No worries—Stan and Fed had a brotherly chat, patched up their differences and went out to play the Davis Cup final in front of 27,000 howling Frenchmen. The Swiss duo prevailed.
Similarly, Federer has long prevailed as the alpha man of Alpine tennis. These days, it’s a challenge being a Spanish player in the Nadal era. Similarly, it has rarely been easy for Stan as a Swiss playing in Roger’s shadow. Older, world-renowned and a natural leader, Federer didn’t hesitate to call out Wawrinka for poor singles and doubles play after a bad 2012 Davis Cup loss. Okay, the dynamic here was not the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Wawrinka finally broke out and won the 2014 Aussie Open, and he’s the No. 8 seed at Roland Garros.
Still, Federer went into their quarterfinal with a whopping 16-2 head-to-head advantage. Plus, he had just imposed a bruising, straight-set win over Stan in Rome.
But today, it may have been Federer’s ego that was bruised when his match was relegated to Courte Suzanne Lenglen. There, the French wind blew strong, as if to say, “Good Roger, the tennis gods have been kind with you ’til now, but this is not going to be easy.”
On fire from the start, Wawrinka powered his forehand through the wind. He put his well-admired backhand on considerable display and served with unflinching authority.
He broke Roger’s serve early, and went on to win the first set, 6-4.
Amidst a flurry of imposing shots, he captured the second set, 6-3.
The scoreboard had disintegrated on Court Centrale, and now the scoreline was crashing on Lenglen. The sky was falling.
A dream final of Roger vs. Rafa or Novak was suddenly in jeopardy. Stats folks quickly tried to calm jangled nerves. Not to worry, they reminded us. Roger, though aging, was still No. 2. The guy can play.
But Stan didn’t care.
Federer had just won in Istanbul. But Roland Garros is no Turkey.
Roger had battled back to victory nine times when down two sets to none. Just ask Tommy Haas or Alejandro Falla.
But Stan didn’t ask.
It had been 291 Grand Slam matches since Federer, with his adept return game, hadn’t broken his foe’s serve. But Stan was holding with the focused ease of a confident climber ascending an Alpine peak.
Roger was in combat in his 64th straight Slam. But recent Slam losses to Andreas Seppi in Melbourne, Marin Cilic in New York, Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon and last year to Ernests Gulbis in Paris were recalled. Roger still moved with ease, but his dominant confidence had wavered. For all his lilting grace, for all his mind-boggling wins, the days of time have been catching up. The sport’s greatest legend is now in an astounding, seemingly unending, twilight. All of tennis realized that he could be taken down. And so did Roger.
The icon was worried. He scowled, blasted wild backhands and offered frustrated expletives. (Even gleaming ambassadors get to swear.)
All the while, Wawrinka—patient and playing within himself—bent low on volleys and lifted his game high. In the third-set tiebreak, he did what he had been doing all day. He got off to a considerable lead and would not relent. Soon after Federer confronted the ump on a controversial line call, Wawrinka hit a confident volley winner to secure a memorable 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory.
The winds of fate seemed to have spoken. On a fateful Tuesday, the scoreboard tumbled, and so did a legend.
IMAGINE: Before Rafa Nadal prevailed over Jack Sock, Jim Courier said, “This might be a tad bit premature, but if Sock wins the title going through Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer it would be a Hall of Fame-type performance … Back up the Brinks truck.”
SUPERMAN BLINKED: Rafa Nadal‘s forehand faltered repeatedly against Jack Sock. Ted Robinson called it “a rare humanity.” At times, Sock actually dictated to the King of Clay, who was predictable on his serves, often tentative during rallies and didn’t convert break points. Ultimately, it was Justin Gimelstob who noted, “As great as [Rafa] is physically, mentally that may be his greatest strength.” Today, Sock—like John Isner before him—won a set off Nadal in Paris before falling to the claymeister. (Isner took Rafa to five sets in 2011.) For many American men who’ve lost in Paris, the soothing mantra has always been, “There’s always Wimbledon.” But for Sock, the Wimbledon doubles champ, it’s on to the doubles. And his performance on the clay here in Paris suggests great things may be on the horizon. Might Sock be the new top-flight men’s player American tennis fans have been looking for?
WHY JACK SOCK IS BETTER: Improved first serve, backhand, fitness and confidence.
NO DIRTY SOCK: Jack Sock said he wasn’t going to buy one of those souvenir packages of French Open clay that are sold at Roland Garros souvenir stands.
GO FIGURE: A quarterfinal match—Nadal vs. Djokovic—is unquestionably the match of the year. After a struggle with Jack Sock, observers wonder whether Nadal will come to the match with significantly reduced confidence … Kei Nishikori is the first Japanese player to reach the French Open quarterfinals in 82 years … For the first time since 2011, Maria Sharapova failed to reach the French Open final … Alison Van Uytvanck went into the French Open ranked No. 93 in the world, and only the third-ranked Belgian player. Now she’s the new Belgian No. 1 and by far the lowest-ranked player to reach a Slam quarterfinal this year.
CHOOSE YOUR ICON: Early on in his career, people said Jo-Willy Tsonga looked like Muhammad Ali. Now Chris Bowers has said the Frenchman looks like the young Nelson Mandela.
SERENA, THE COMEBACK QUEEN: Once, back in the heyday of the NBA, coach Red Auerbach would regularly light up a cigar when his dominant Boston Celtics team had a win under its belt.
It’s not quite the same thing with Serena Williams, but in tight matches, when she’s struggling, time and again, all you have to do is look for her to offer a fist pump after a winner or yell “C’mon!” and you know the match has turned.
Thirty-one times in Grand Slam matches—far more than anyone else, including heroic battlers such as Francesca Schiavone—Serena has come from a set down to win. At this year’s French Open, she’s done it three times in a row: against Anna-Lena Friedsam, Vika Azarenka, and now Sloane Stephens. As a teen she did it in the US Open against Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez and Monica Seles. In the 2011 US Open final, as Serena was unleashing a mighty comeback against Sam Stosur, she yelled out “C’mon!” when a seeming winner was still in play. She was called for hindrance, lost the point and her surge fizzled. Stosur won the Open.
Today, after being walloped 6-1 in the first set by the suddenly resurgent Stephens, Serena found herself down 2-3, 15-30 in the second. When she came out on top of a long, decisive rally, she yelled her loudest “C’mon! of the match. Ted Robinson noted, “You could just feel [the match change] at that moment.” Gone was Serena’s lethargic play—her slow feet, errant forehand and questionable decision-making. As she’s done so many times, she turned on a switch. The charge was on. An improved Sloane hung tough, but it wasn’t enough—Serena claimed a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory.
TIMEA, THE COMEBACK PRINCESS: There are countless stories of abuse in tennis. So often, fathers want to live their lives through their daughters, and understandably, often the abused victims—say Jelena Dokic, for example—work hard to not even talk about it.
But not Timea Bacszinsky. Engagingly quirky and talkative—it’s no accident that her coach has compared her to a “big book”—the rising Swiss player has been forthcoming about her fight to establish true independence from her controlling dad, a struggle that almost led her to quit the sport at the age of 22. (Bacszinsky pulled out of the 2012 Olympics for personal reasons.)
A year-ago, Bacsinszky first shared her story with the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg, and at a memorable press conference at Indian Wells this spring, she expounded on it for an inquisitive Mary Carillo. Today, during Bacsinszky’s 2-6, 6-0, 6-3 upset of No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova—like many of her big wins this year, a come-from-behind victory—Carillo relayed the details: Bacsinszky severed all ties with her father, underwent years of therapy, and overcame injuries. For a brief spell, the onetime child phenom even left the game entirely to work in restaurants and bars and pursue hotel management.
Now Bacszinsky is in the quarterfinals of the French Open, and she may be set for a possible semifinal date with comeback queen Serena, who praised her “never give up” on-court tenacity earlier this year.
LUCIE’S LONG ROAD TO THE TOP: For years, Lucie Safarova has had a rep as perhaps the most talented current WTA player to never reach the top 10. Her career has been a bridesmaid’s tale defined by nervy near-misses such as an inches-out shot that would have given her a win over eventual champion Li Na at the 2013 Australian Open. Referred to by some as the nicest player on tour since Kim Clijsters‘ retirement, sporting Safarova has notoriously had trouble pulling the trigger. That changed today as she used her lethal lefty forehand to decisively out-winner sniffly defending champ Maria Sharapova on the way to a 7-6, 6-4 fourth-round upset. You’d have to go back to 2007 for the last time Safarova straight-setted a defending champ—Amelie Mauresmo at the Aussie Open—at a Slam. Her victory today likely brings the 28-year-old into the elusive top 10—and knocks Genie Bouchard out of it. A pair of Americans—coach Rob Steckley and doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, with whom she won this year’s Aussie Open women’s doubles title—have had a role in Safarova’s steady climb.
SAY WHAT? Timea Bacsinszky said spontaneity was one of her greatest strengths.
JUST A LITTLE OVERKILL: When a fan ran out on court after Federer‘s first-round win and asked for a selfie, Roger was not pleased. The next time we saw Fed in public, he had 13 security guards.
BOOMER MARKER—THE BORG DIVIDE: While talking about athleticism in tennis, Nick Lester said, “I most confess I wasn’t around when Bjorn Borg was [playing].” Lester’s broadcast partner Chris Bowers then replied, “I most confess that I was.”
“If Roger says it’s dark, then off the court they go.”—Pat McEnroe, on the dominant role the Swiss plays in the game.
By Bill Simons
We expected more, much more from La Monf—Gael Monfils. Then again, maybe we didn’t. After all, there is no predicting his play.
One example comes to mind: Gael was up over Roger Federer in a riveting US Open match, but could not convert two match points. Our conclusion was simple enough: “Monfils is nonchalantly brilliant one moment, absent-minded the next.” Since that September match, Monfils beat Federer in Davis Cup play, and again in Monte Carlo. Plus, he delivered thrilling five-set performances early in this year’s French Open, and dramatically came from behind last night to even his match with “The Rog” at a set apiece.
The crowd roared and then groaned when it was announced that the Sunday evening match would be finished Monday. And Monday is Monday.
When Monfils and Federer came to Courte Centrale, the crowd was out to lunch, and so was Monfils. After all, more than anyone (even Serena Willliams), LaMonf is an “emotion player.” Defiant and charismatic, he needs noise and a mission.
But Monday’s match was polite, the mission muddled. Often we heard the sound of silence—polite French applause for a skilled foreigner, icon Federer.
To be blunt, it seemed like LaMonf had not yet gotten out of bed. Passive and far from explosive, he lost the first game of the third set and never flashed sufficient magic to ignite the crowd or himself. There would never be a sizzling comeback. The sprawling, brawling man who has often amazed us proved meek. Blowing his nose and one slim chance after another against the relentlessly focused Federer, Monfils left the court after his forgetable 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 loss a beaten man, drained of inspiration or fight.
So would things have been different if—last night as the light was fading—he had insisted on playing on, when the crowd was howling, Roger was reeling, and Gael-force winds briefly ruled the court?
This we will never know.
By Bill Simons
Roland Garros has limitations.
It’s jammed Times Square-tight. Sometimes you can barely move. There are no lights, and certainly no gleaming roof protects the terre battue. Figuring out when Paris’ gorgeous dusk will descend to end matches is a minor art form. And, as we learned during Vika Azarenka’s justified snitfit yesterday, there is no Hawk-Eye line-calling system. Tempers do flare.
But Roland Garros has style, beauty and history. So many great matches. Emotion lives here.
And the fourth round match-up of grace incarnate, the beloved Roger Federer, and the angular “La Monf,” Gael Monfils, promised to be delicious. Could there be a more splendid way to bid farewell to a spring weekend in Paris?
Yet, something was wrong. Yes, in a feel-good mid-day mini-marathon, Jo-Willy Tsonga downed Tomas (“Will he ever win a Slam?”) Berdych, and then offered the most athletic moment of the day. His post-match celebration was a wondrous outburst: three leaping twirls, an almost unending howl of ecstasy, and a no-nonsense fist pump. His marks from the court-side judges were good: 9.6 for technical merit and a 10 for artistic impression.
Historians recall how, after his wins, Andre Agassi would bow deep; how Andrea Petkovic once did her post-match jig, “the Petko dance”; and how Rafa Nadal bites trophies after he prevails. Still, most feel Jo-Willy has the best celebration ritual in tennis history.
But forget Tsonga. And forget that former French champ Ana Ivanovic, former Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka and Japan’s rising son Kei Nishikori all advanced tidily. For today was all about the most appealing match-up of a rather ordinary French Open. At last we would have a dazzling encounter: Mr. Cool, Roger (the oh-so-splendid poet) Federer, versus that free spirit, Gael Monfils, tennis’ “Best in Show” entertainer. How wonderful!
But wait, this Sunday was off, Euro grim.
Dull steel skies, cool temperatures and assorted drizzles drained the spirit. Paris, dare we note, loses a measure of its celebrated charm when it goes gray.
So it was hardly surprising that as evening approached and Federer and Monfils at last began, the usually-animated La Monf seemed as flat as a three-day baguette. Sinatra was out of tune. Astaire was stumbling. Picasso was making a muddle of it all. Gone were all of Gael’s Gallic bolts that thrilled us on Friday. “He looks like he’s just not at the races,” noted broadcaster Gigi Salmon.
Instead, amidst fierce winds and a tame throng, Roger raced with his usual no-nonsense professionalism to a 6-3 first-set win.
The pundits scowled. This could get ugly—Fed could run away with this.
But La Monf is nothing if not unpredictable. With him, there is a simple imperative: wretched play so often morphs into brilliance; indifference gives way to inspiration. If you don’t like his play, just wait a minute. The man craves crisis and adores drama.
So, in the second set, Monfils—who lost to Federer the first five times they met, but beat him in Davis Cup play last fall and in Monte Carlo this spring—sprung into action. Improvisation is his brand. As he began to crank out forehand winners, the crowd awoke. He dished out aces. His lobs kissed the backcourt and deflated Fed. He offered a way-too-cool, fake-out, nonchalant drop shot that someone should really ban.
La Monf may have been blowing his nose incessantly on the sideline, but on court, he broke Federer and raced to a 5-2 second-set lead. Then it seemed he might blow it, as Roger cranked up pinpoint forehands to break back and draw up to 5-4.
The moment was dark for both Monfils and the unkind skies. While Roger focused, Monfils chatted with the ump and asked a tennis poobah in the front row for a blanket.
It appeared La Monf could very well lose the second set. But after those two dreary games, he roared back, blasting massive forehands and an nifty backhand passing shot to even the match at 3-6, 6-4. Monfils seemed to say, “I may live dangerously on the edge, but I am not going to blow it.”
The man who blew it was the scheduler. Never mind that today every baker and busman in Paris knew that knew wet weather was coming—the most appealing match of the week was put “third on”—a guaranteed late start. Not surprisingly, it was suspended due to darkness.
So what promised to be an inspired duel for thousands in Paris and millions of viewers was merely a tease: bliss interrupted.
Roland Garros—the proud retro tennis palace with no lights and no roof—today frustrated us with just an aperitif. This was the Kentucky Derby without the backstretch, golf’s Masters without the final nine, Michael Jordan without a dunk.
We can only imagine brilliant Federer crosscourt backhand flicks, or leaping volleys by La Monf. Weekend drama was now relegated to that most dreary of all days—Monday.
By Bill Simons
Serena Williams is said to be the best player in this world.
But on this Paris evening, Serena, for an agonizingly long time, was not the best player on court in her third round match against Victoria (“Don’t call me Vicky”) Azarenka.
Serena Williams‘s serve is said to be the best in tennis history. It has, said commentator Nick Lester, “a kinetic flow.” Today it had pace, but early on, its direction was errant, its impact modest.
Serena is said to be the toughest mentally in tennis. But, at least in the first set, it hardly seemed as if she could still be the favorite to defend her title and win the 2015 French Open.
She seemed just a tad flat—rather impassive.
Just weeks earlier, she and Vika had met in a memorable final in Madrid. Azarenka was up 5-1 in the first set tie-break, but faltered. Worse yet, she suffered a devastating implosion, double-faulting three times when she had match points. Devastating!
But here in Paris, Vika’s play was explosive. Her past implosion forgotten, the 27th-rankdcBelarussian who now lives in LA, returned brilliantly, often attacked, and played with unblinking purpose as she raced, in 41 shocking minutes, to a 6-3 first set win. And Vika didn’t let up.
Deep into the second set, she saved a break point to sprint to a 4-2 lead. This was the form of a power athlete who had twice won the Aussie Open and had been No. 1. Maybe Vika was doing so well because Serena’s former hitting partner Sascha Bajin is now one of her coaches. Mary Carillo asked, “Can you imagine him telling Vika exactly what [Serena] likes [to do] and doesn’t like? … It’s major intel.”
But something else also counted as major intelligence: Vika using her own significant smarts to address her Madrid mistakes with a cold reality, to try and get beyond the fact that she hadn’t won a tourney in almost two years, and Serena had beaten her in 15 of her 18 meetings; and that this could have been a match being played on the last Saturday of Roland Garros, not the first.
Just two games from a Herculean upset, Vika could breathe, the finish line was in sight. But with Serena, there’s no breathing, there’s no safety net, there’s no angst-free zone. Time and again Williams toys with disaster—a player on a precipice. Then something happens. Is it that red flags suddenly wave or that wake-up alarms suddenly blast loud? Who knows?
Whatever the reason, almost on cue, Serena broke Vika’s serve to win four straight games and take the second set 6-4. Azarenka then took a bathroom break and bravely re-asserted herself to go up 2-0 early in the third. Carillo noted, “This is an amazing reset by Azarenka.” Even more amazing was that Serena again stepped up—as she has done so often. The battler has scored a record 30 comebacks after losing the first set. Incredibly aggressive, focused and full of will, she hit the lines and powered her way through six straight games to win 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 and reach the fourth round—where she will meet fellow American Sloane Stephens.
Still, this dramatic battle will not be remembered because Serena became the first WTA player ever to win 50 matches in all four majors, but rather because Serena, almost on cue today, became enbroilled in yet another controversy. Yes, Serena was right when she said after the match, “You don’t win Grand Slams by being unethical.” Still, when Williams was up 5-4 in the second set and she had her fourth set point, Vika hit a critical forehand winner on the line that was wrongly called out. Clearly Serena’s play wasn’t hindered by the late “out” call, but both the umpire and Serena refused to give Vika the point. Words were exchanged, baffled glances were traded.
Later Azarenka would say, “That call was bullshit, and everybody knows it. But it’s part of the game … It wasn’t a fair call.” The controversy brought to mind Serena’s US Open match against Jennifer Capriati, when a series of wretched calls against Williams led to apologies from the USTA and the long-awaited installation of the Hawk-Eye line-calling system.
Today, Azarenka said she didn’t expect any apologies. But she and Serena both called for the creation of some kind of electronic review system to recall such bad calls. “Sometimes we need to have a review,” said Vika. “You know, to have a damn review, because it was so clear … that was so damn clear. You cannot make these mistakes at this level. I’m not saying … [that] because of that point I lost the match … [But] the ball was touching the net and [then] he says it’s not a late call … It’s definitely not easy on the player when you get screwed like that … I think the review, a little TV screen … and [you could] just look it over.”
But now the match is over. Vika is going home. Serena is going on. And we are thinking that, over and over, Serena has found a way. Well, then again, that is why Serena Williams is Serena Williams.
WILL IT PROVE TO BE THE MOST TELLING COMMENTARY OF THE WEEK? Broadcaster Chris Bowers said, “Talk of Nadal‘s being underprepared and vulnerable on certain shots, including his forehand, has looked ridiculous in his first three matches … [only] six games lost against Andrey Kuznetsov, this is good … But he’s human, [and] you have to have seven good days.”
MUSINGS ON MONSIEUR MONFILS:
Years ago, when Gael Monfils was first doing his over-the-top, showboat thing on Suzanne Lenglen Court, the proud American veteran Andy Roddick told the Frenchman he wasn’t good enough to indulge in those antics. But all that has changed.
Now, yet another startling Monfils comeback is fresh in our minds, and with a probably fabulous Monfils vs. Federer match on the horizon, here is a little refresher course on “La Monf,” who arguably is the most charismatic player in tennis since the days of Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase.
• Monfils once said, “In tennis, sometimes it’s too stiff—some guys want to keep [their] emotions [inside]. Me, I’m not like this … My culture is to be very fun and enjoy the life.”
• After one, now-forgotten first-round match at the US Open, Courtney Nguyen wrote, “Infuriating, awe-inspiring, underachieving. These are the words that come to mind whenever I watch Monsieur Monfils. He flies around the court with complete disregard for life and limb, he tries to hit, literally, the dumbest of shots in the book, and he hobbles around and calls the trainer one minute, only to chase down the most ridiculous of balls the next. It’s enough to make the most die-hard of tennis fans swear him off and wonder why we should care when he clearly doesn’t. But we don’t swear him off and we keep tuning in because we know that in any given match, in any given point, we might see something we have never seen before.”
• After struggling against Marcos Baghdatis in front of a hostile crowd, Monfils said, “I was thinking this was like the film Troy. The story of a guy all alone against an army.”
• After losing his fifth match in a row to Roger Federer, Monfils said, “Roger has this way of disguising his shots. Especially, if it’s a big point, with his little short-angle [backhand] chip. It’s sort of a ball-buster, and I’m really up the creek. I think I’ve got him, then he pulls that kind of garbage on me. It’s frustrating. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
SOCK DRAWS ON HIS POWER: Jack Sock, ranked No. 37, beat Croatian teen Borna Coric today, and is the last American man in the French Open. The 22-year-old Nebraska native, who has one of the most imposing topspin forehands this side of Rafa Nadal, will face the Spaniard in the fourth round. Sock is the youngest American to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros since Pete Sampras in ’93.
EVER-CHANGING GAEL-FORCE WINDS: All together now, Gael Monfils (aka La Monf) is the best entertainer in tennis. Broadcaster Eleanor Preston said, “It’s hard keeping up with the Monfils way of doing things. With all the double faults and aces, you have no idea what’s coming next … The shots look amazing in Monfils’s head … but when it comes to executing them, they’re not quite there.” Last year at Roland Garros, after scoring a bizarre five-set win over Italian drama prince Fabio Fognini, Monfils was less than poetic and said, “You know, for me, it’s not about ups and downs. It’s more about saving my ass.” Today, after being down 1-4 in the fourth-set to Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas, Monfils roared back to win 6-4, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, tying Harold Solomon‘s record of ten five-set wins at the French Open. Monfils will now play Federer. Fasten your seatbelts. The last time they met in a Slam, Roger scored an astonishing five-set win at the US Open. But Monfils has beaten the Swiss star twice in a row on clay.
A BACKHANDED FEDERERIAN COMPLIMENT: Roger Federer, the apostle of the one-handed backhand, used a two-handed backhand to win a point in the second round.
ANIMAL HOUSE: A bird got stuck in the cable of the webcam on Suzanne Lenglen Court … German Andrea Petkovic said, “I’m still not putting my expectations too high. I feel like a horse in [the starting gate] that wants to run out but I can’t because the stall is blocking me. I feel like I’m playing really, really well, but it’s just too dangerous yet to say anything.”
X-RATED EXPLANATION: After a Serena Williams expletive was picked up by an international radio broadcast, commentator Courtney Nguyen said, “That was Serena Williams expressing her dissatisfaction with her level of play.”
Of course, all hasn’t been grim for Serena at Roland Garros. When she ran back for a lob in the first round against Andrea Hlavackova and the ball clunked awkwardly against her body, the proud veteran broke down in howls of laughter. But after needing three sets to be world No.105 beating Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany, she said, “My level is 100 times better than I played today … if I [continue to] play like I did today, I definitely won’t win.” BTW: On Friday, three German women—Sabine Lisicki, Angelique Kerber and Annika Beck—all lost.
OPEN TERRITORY: With notable losses by top threats Simona Halep, Aga Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, and Angelique Kerber and longshots Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic, the women’s draw is far more open than the men’s.
REFLECTIONS ON THE LEVELS OF GULBIS’S HAPPINESS: Ernests Gulbis, who has been struggling mightily, contended, “I’m always in a decent mood. But the level of happiness I wish was bigger. This I can get through winning. How I can get wins is just basically putting my base work in … Practice is the only answer.”
GENIE’S MIXED SIGNALS: She looked miserable when she was knocked out of singles early in the week, but Genie Bouchard stuck around a few days longer in Paris to play mixed doubles. The Canadian It Girl suffered another loss, but reporter Stephanie Myles noted her demeanor was “California chill,” with “big smiles” at the beginning and end of the match. “The very notion of walking onto a tennis court and enjoying herself may have been just the tonic the 21-year-old from Montreal needed,” Myles wrote.
“I honestly believe that Venus Williams can win Wimbledon one more time.”—Mary Carillo
“Once this guy gets his forehand in play, he’s devastating.” Nick Lester, on Jack Sock.
“With Svetlana [Kuznetsova], we can play for hours and hours … we know each other’s games exactly … every time I play against her I ask, What can happen?”—Francesca Schiavone
“This is an EPIC meltdown even by Gulbisian standards.”—Ricky Dimon on Ernests Gulbis‘ loss to Nicolas Mahut.
GO FIGURE: Christopher Clarey noted that umpires choose the players they want to officiate more than players choose the umps.
WISE WORLD: There was a lot of experience out on court Thursday when Italian Francesca Schiavone, 34, who won the French Open in 2010, played Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 29-year-old Russian, who captured the title in 2009. After the Italian prevailed 6-7, 7-5, 10-8, she reflected on just what it took for her to win. “I don’t know how much magic [it was] and how much work and … [how much] belief it was in something that looks so far away, but is so close. I’m very happy to be here in the third round at Roland Garros.” BTW: There were 19 WTA players over 30 at this year’s Roland Garros, but there aren’t any players under 25 who have won a Slam.
TENNIS CHANNEL SHIFTS ITS FOCUS: Since 2008, Tennis Channel has shared US Open cable rights with ESPN2, broadcasting from the outer courts and airing some morning and middle-weekend night matches from Arthur Ashe Stadium. But Sport Video Group’s Mike Reynolds reports that the network has opted out of paying a sublicense fee for live coverage at this year’s Open. Instead, Tennis Channel will broadcast nightly wrap-ups and highlights of matches that have already aired elsewhere. Tennis Channel chairman/CEO Ken Solomon plans to redirect the funds towards coverage of Indian Wells, Miami and other calendar tournaments, and additional network features such as the streaming service Tennis Channel Plus.
THE FIX IS OUT? After a routine third-round win, nine-time Roland Garros champ Rafa Nadal was asked about recent match-fixing FIFA scandals by a reporter who assumed “there are no such things [corruption]” in tennis. “In the world of sport, the world of football, the world of tennis, politics … we need people who are fair and ready to work in a good way, being honest,” Rafa answered. “And if there [are] some people [who] are not being honest … then they don’t deserve to be where they are.”
By Michael Mewshaw
All this spring, the hype around Frances Tiafoe continued at hurricane velocity. First it was the news that his first name had previously been misspelled. It’s –es, not –is. Then he turned pro, and rather than sign with one of the traditional agents, joined ROC Nation Sports. He parted company with a coach he’d been with since childhood and joined the ranks of USTA-trained players. But far more important was what transpired on court. Starting in January he went on a tear at Futures tournaments, winning four qualifying matches in his first event, then reaching the semifinals of the main draw. By mid-March he had taken his first Futures title and in April began playing Challenger events. Again he had to qualify, and did so with wins over fellow Americans Alex Kuznetsov and Rhyne Williams. In less than a month he had reached his first Challenger final and gained entry as a wild card at the French Open.
So expectations were at dizzying heights when Tiafoe made his debut in Paris against the Slovakian veteran Martin Klizan. After all, at his age, 17, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Michael Chang had all won this Grand Slam on red clay. Why couldn’t the US wonder boy do the same?
Well, it didn’t go according to the script that many an American fan hoped for. He suffered a swift beatdown in the first round, losing 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Indeed, for certain stretches of the match he looked utterly at sea and sulked around the back court like the adolescent he is. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the crowd who wondered whether Tiafoe was riding a tide of frothy publicity and nothing more. But then I had a talk with Damon Austin, a man well placed to offer an objective analysis of Tiafoe’s performance and his prospects. Austin lives in Maryland, not far from the Junior Tennis Champion’s Center in College Park, where Tiafoe, the son of the maintenance man, started playing at the age of 5. In Paris coaching Frank Moser and Florian Mayer in the doubles main draw, Austin knows tennis from both ends of the spectrum, the pros as well as the juniors. He coaches Tiafoe’s twin brother Franklin, a highly-ranked junior at DeMatha High School.
For Austin, Tiafoe’s defeat was hardly a surprise. With an ATP ranking of 291, Frances was always unlikely to challenge Klizan, who’s ranked in the 30’s, has a win over Nadal, and took a clay court title in Casablanca this spring. “Sure,” Austin agreed, “Borg, Wilander and Chang made a big splash here as teenagers, but those days are gone. Professional sports economics have significantly changed the game. With so much more money on the line, players are staying around a lot longer, and to do that, they’re training harder and getting stronger. The guys are much bigger these days and the competition is much tighter. Frances is still growing and still learning.”
Among the many things Tiafoe and any young player has to master is timing. Austin made it clear that he didn’t just mean timing strokes. There’s the matter of adjusting to life on the tour, making reasonable choices about scheduling, coping with waiting, and adapting emotionally to the inevitable ups and downs. Austin stressed that there’s also the question of timing during matches, setting one’s own rhythm, refusing to let an opponent knock you off balance or force you to play at his speed.
“These and a thousand other details are things Frances has to learn,” Austin said. “But just look at his results for the last 15 months and you’ll see that he has the ability to adapt. He’s shown this at each level, going all the way back to 2014 when he was ranked 1,400 in the world and had to qualify for junior events. He’s consistently stepped up the level of his game, and if you look at his wins you’ll see a lot of three-set matches that show his determination and mental toughness. I think he’ll keep developing. It’ll get tougher. He won’t keep making meteoric and exponential strides, but I predict he’ll keep going.
“Of course, nothing’s guaranteed. He’ll need to improve his movement on court and his executions in the corners. His forehand used to be his Achilles heel, but he’s worked that out. He still needs to add variation to his backhand. He hits it fine when he’s standing still, but needs to do better with it when he’s on the run. But he’s a very focused young man and hopefully he’ll get coaching that’ll allow him to maximize his talent on court and at the same time develop life skills off court.”
Damon Austin takes an equally pragmatic and realistic look at Tiafoe’s decision to join with ROC Nation Sports rather than one of the well-known agencies. “For decades we’ve seen promising talent managed by big agencies with very mixed results. For a few it’s a dream. For others it’s a nightmare. Perhaps the ROC Nation Sports option will serve Tiafoe as others could not. Only time will tell.”
For Frances Tiafoe and his fans, it’s on to Wimbledon, where he’ll play the qualies. As Austin emphasizes, both fans and players need to be patient.
AGAINST THE ODDS: After defeating Marcos Baghdatis to set up a third-round match against his hero Roger Federer, Bosnia’s Damir Dzhumur was asked if it’s harder for someone from his home country to reach the top of the game. “I think it is,” the 23-year-old, currently ranked No. 88, answered. “Actually, it is definitely. No support from anybody. You have to be everything [on] your own. You have to go through everything alone. I mean, I can say alone, but with my parents, of course. They did everything for me. But no support from federation, no sponsors. So all the financial things you have to do, [there's] nobody behind you … to [help you]. But fortunately I did manage to go through all that.”
ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: At last year’s US Open, then-32-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni scored one of the biggest upsets of the tournament when she defeated No. 2 seed Simona Halep in straight sets in the third round. History repeated itself—shall we call it a case of deja vu?—in Paris, with Lucic-Baroni using powerful, bullet-fast groundstrokes to knock out Halep, last year’s finalist, in the second round, 7-5, 6-1. Lucic-Baroni’s comeback reemergence in New York last falls was arguably the most emotional story of the tournament, arriving deep into a decades-spanning career marred by familial abuse and injury. Since then, she won a tournament in Canada and reached No. 70 in the world, but her victory still counts as the most decisive upset so far at this year’s French Open.
“I take a lot of pride in what I went through in my life, the difficulties,” Lucic-Baroni said after the match, when asked about her turbulent past. “And I know—I think I know for a fact that a lot of people couldn’t do it, what I went through, and come back and fight the way I did and [still] do. So I take a lot of pride in that. That I was stubborn, that I believed in myself enough and I was strong enough to be here today, because it’s really pretty nice.”
KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE: Speaking of Canada, when the French Open draw was announced, all signs showed that No. 6 seed and famous Canadian Eugenie Bouchard was in danger. She’d lost six of her last seven matches going into Roland Garros, and her opponent, world No. 44 Kristina Mladenovic, took out Li Na in the first round here last year. It was one-way traffic for Mladenovic as she used strong serving and canny drop shots to race to 6-4, 5-0 lead against the struggling Bouchard. But then nerves crept into the Swiss-French player’s game, and things grew increasingly tense before Mladenovic aimed one last service winner directly at her opponent to score a 6-4, 6-4 victory. Now both Bouchard and Simona Halep—a finalist and semifinalist at last year’s Wimbledon, respectively—head into grass court season surrounded by question marks and under growing pressure to shore up their results from 2014.
KIKI AND MIKI: Only one letter separates the nicknames of the two top seed-topplers on the women’s side at this year’s French Open: Mirjana “Miki” Lucic-Baroni and Kristina “Kiki” Mladenovic.
ROGER—THE AFTERMATH OF SELFIE-GATE: Following his relatively straightforward second-round win, Roger Federer was asked about security at the French Open—a hot topic because he was approached on court by a fan for a selfie after the first round. “I think everybody is a little bit more alert,” said Federer, who’d previously made clear he was “not happy” about the incident. “That was the only wish I had. It’s just that the security is more alert. They don’t need to change anything that we need to have fences and all that stuff, not at all. Tennis is one of the most accessible sports out there, and we are unbelievably close with our fans. That’s what I love about it. So for me it was just more important that everybody was doing their job.”
As for Rafa Nadal‘s recent request that umpire Carlos Bernardes not officiate his matches, and whether he’s ever asked for similar treatment, Roger was an artful dodger, steering clear of a yes or a no.
FLAVOR FLAVIO? The Roland Garros website has attracted no shortage of criticism this year, from fans complaining about the impracticality of its design to Stan Wawrinka voicing anger about a sensationalist piece the site posted. The latest bits of rancor range from the comical—Fabio Fognini being mislabeled as “Flavio” (a slip-up perhaps influenced by the fact that Fognini’s girlfriend is Flavia Pennetta) in a photo montage—to more serious matters: the site isn’t making press conference transcripts, even edited ones, available to the general public.
VENUS OUT OF ORBIT: After her first-round loss to Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams skipped out on a post-match press conference, incurring a $3,000 fine from the ITF. In the aftermath of the non-event, opinions ranged, with some saying Venus has earned the right to skip out, some saying the move is disappointingly out of character considering her elder stateswoman status, and others wondering if the matchup had a role in her decision not to speak.
THAT’S UNDERHANDED: A two-time WTA title winner perhaps best-known for her mammoth win over Serena Williams at Roland Garros in 2012, Virginie Razzano is no stranger to drama on the red dirt. Last week, the 32-year-old veteran angered opponent Elena Vesnina during a match in Strasbourg. “Didn’t expect such a bad behavior from Razzano,” Vesnina tweeted after she’d lost and delivered a frosty handshake, adding, “I should be ready for this next time.” Here in Paris, Razzano attracted attention for serving underhanded twice during a first-round win. One of her attempts, on a match point, resulted in a double-fault.
IN AND OUT OF THE GAME: In the most high-profile doping news since Wayne Odesnik‘s career censure earlier this year, the ITF announced that Kateryna Kozlova, a 21-year-old Ukrainian player currently ranked No. 102 in the world, is serving a six-month ban for an Anti-Doping Rule Violation. The ban prevents Kozlova from competing at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Another player who has served a ban in the past, qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva, is into the second round after scoring a straight-set win over No. 25 seed Jelena Jankovic. In 2005, Karatancheva, then a teenager, was issued a two-year suspension shortly after reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open.
JOHNSON MARCHES ON: The subject of a recent SoCal Inside Tennis cover story, Steve Johnson is progressing in Paris—he’s into the third round after defeating Sergiy Stakhovsky in four sets. Next, Johnson has his work cut out for him: he’s facing No. 8 seed Stan Wawrinka.
Jack Sock looks like a typical jock. But he’s not.
He was a high school tennis wiz, going 80-0 at Blue Valley North High School. But Overland Park, Kansas is hardly a traditional tennis breeding ground.
Few would choose a last name like Sock’s. How many times has he been teased—”sock it to me”?
Although Sock is an All-American type (his crew cut is never askew) he holds a most un-American preference. Clay is actually his favorite surface.
Then there’s the matter of his suspect backhand: it’s rather modest. Jim Courier said if Sock succeeds big time, it would be in spite of his technique, not because of it. Many have wondered how the guy could possibly excel with such a weak stroke.
Well, one way to excel when you have a weak backhand is to play doubles. He teamed with his fellow teen Melanie Oudin to win the 2011 US Open mixed doubles. Then, last summer he joined with Canadian Vasek Pospisil to reach the Wimbledon finals, where they faced the Bryan brothers. The well-seasoned, top-ranked American legends would presumably dismiss the upstarts with ease. But in the London dusk, Sock crushed a monster forehand return of serve into the doubles alley to score a stunning win. Soon he and Pospisil were up in the Royal Box lifting the Wimbledon trophy: such a nice moment, a startling upset, something to tell the grandkids about. Well done.
Now, presumably, Sock would just return to the brutal trenches of the ATP tour: below-50 rankings and under-the-radar media. But soon his then-girlfriend, Sloane Stephens, brought him to the forefront again. When Elle Magazine asked her what kind of presents she got from Sock, Stephens quipped, “Pretty much anything I want.”
But, on court, Sock wasn’t exactly getting all he wanted. Last fall he scored a shock victory in Shanghai over No. 6 Kei Nishikori, but in December he had to endure surgery for a torn pelvis which sidelined him for three months. Worse yet, his beloved older brother Eric got a sore throat that morphed into a rare bacterial infection—Lemierre’s Syndrome—which nearly took his life; he came within a day of passing.
Eric’s brush with mortality changed things for Jack. “When you’re out there and you get frustrated missing a ball,” he said, “you can think [what] he’s been through, almost not making it, to a…miraculous recovery. [It] kind of puts things in perspective. Just go out there and enjoy it, and you can play a little more free.”
And free he’s been.
Upon his return to the circuit he scored wins over Giles Muller and Fabio Fognini and reached the doubles final in Miami. Then at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in River Oaks, Texas, he beat No. 15-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 16-ranked Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey to claim his first ATP singles title.
And today in Paris, just like he did at Blue Valley North High, he won. Not over some long-forgotten high school rival, but over a considerable Bulgarian—the No. 10 seed, Grigor Dimitrov. Sock, relaxed and confident, used his punishing forehand, fine serve, good wheels and considerable touch to win a first-set tiebreaker before he pulled away. His tidy 7-6 (7), 6-2, 6-3 triumph in 1:55 was the first win by an American over a top 10 player since 2008.
But this ain’t Kansas, Jack.
Sock is slated to play a trio of increasingly renowned Spaniards: Pablo Carreno Busta, Tommy Robredo and a southpaw, who God knows never played high school tennis—Rafa Nadal.
JUST WHO IS RUNNING THE SHOW: The controversy over umpire Carlos Bernades continues, In Rio, Rafa Nadal, who is usually an obsessive control freak, discovered that after a mid-match break, he’d come out wearing his shorts inside-out. He asked Bernades whether he could change them on court. Bernades said sure, but that it would cost him a time violation.
Nadal was livid and before the French Open, requested that Bernades not work any of his matches. Incredibly, the ATP granted Rafa’s wish. Recently, they told writer Simon Briggs that it was a non-issue. But many howled in protest. How could a player be bigger than the game itself? What kind of sport is this, in which a player determines who the ref is?
Rafa said he didn’t have anything against Bernades personally, that he liked him. But, “We had some problems … He was not enough respectful with me … when I put my shorts the other way. He wants to put me warnings four times, that’s fine. But if … I ask him if I can change my shorts, I can put my shorts the right way, and his answer is, Yes, but you will receive a time warning. For me, that’s not fair … [It] shows not respect, because I cannot play a full game with the shorts the other way. So … It’s better to be away for a while. That’s all. No personal problem with him, no?”
VILASGATE: Despite an extensive effort, the ATP declined the request of the long-ago retired Guillermo Vilas to be honored with the No. 1 ranking. The Argentine legend contended that a arithmetic effort had cost him the important distinction.
SWAGGER ON—THE ADVENTURES OF SLOANE STEPHENS: There’s something about Sloane Stephens.
Call it swagger or ‘tude, the 22-year old has no shortage of self-worth. LA proud, she likes to see her picture on billboards and magazine covers. She sizzles on runways. As a teen newbie in Australia in 2013, she took on Serena Williams verbally in Australia and beat her on court en route to a heady No. 13 ranking.
The Californian was said to be the future of American tennis. She told IT it would be absurd if she didn’t win the French Open within a decade. Later she didn’t hesitate to throw her former coach, Paul Annacone, under the techno bus, saying he didn’t “know what he was doing … It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t know how to put on wi-fi or anything. So in Australia he had like a $2,000 phone bill…I’m like, that is not ideal…He’s old, so it’s tough…He’s like ‘What’s the password?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, help him.’”
Then there was the time she blasted Vika Azarenka in the groin with a shot, which prompted one writer to say, “Jimmy Connors would call that a bullseye.”
But it was none other than Connors’s son Brett who expressed some unsparing conventional wisdom: “She has the the arrogance and whininess of a highly touted ‘Next American Great.’ Now all she has to do is win something.”
Yes, Sloane likes the big stage and consistently goes deep into majors. Six times she’s reached at least the fourth round at Slams. But at boring old circuit matches, far from the spotlight, she’s often faltered. Not once has she reached the final of a WTA tourney. And recently, even at majors, she’s stumbled. In the last three Slams she won just one match. To make matters worse, she suffered a wrist injury after last year’s US Open.
But all was not bleak. She reconnected with one of the best coaches in the game, Nick Saviano, and reached the quarters in Miami, the semis in Strasbourg, and, in the first round of the French Open drew sister Venus Williams instead of Serena, whom she’s already lost to twice this year. Venus is not only the oldest player on the WTA Tour, she’s averse to clay and hasn’t reached the third round in Paris in five years.
So today, Sloane forgot her recent struggles, her lowly No. 41 ranking, and the fact that Venus has won seven Slams and was seeded No. 15. Instead, Stephens listened to her coach’s advice and focused on the fun of tennis and flashed much of the quick-twitch power and athleticism that dazzled us years ago. There was her marvelous first step, her lightning speed, her whiplash forehand and some impressive come-from-behind confidence. Venus suffered 30 unforced errors and swiftly fell 7-5, 6-1.
Now, is Sloane ready to rise again?
Again there are whispers of her being the next great thing. But not so fast. Even if she wins a couple more matches in Paris, Ms. Stephens could well face another Williams: one named Serena who, the last time we checked, is a pretty good player.
‘TIS FUN TO BLOW THINGS OUT OF PROPORTION: Broadcaster Paul Annacone said, “it is much more fun to blow things out of proportion.” But Frances Tiafoe, the most hyped American in years, didn’t follow the script. The first 17-year-old American man in Roland Garros since Michael Chang won the title in 1989 fell to Slovokia’s 36th-ranked Martin Klizan on a tiny back court. Tiafoe, who is now coached by the no-nonsense Jose Higueras, drew much comment. Annnacone said, “At this point he is going from adolescent tennis to pro tennis.” Martina Navratilova asserted that “the physical follows the mental,” that Tiafoe must first work on his mental game, that he needs to play junior tennis. “He has absolutely nothing to lose,” she noted.
Tiafoe said the experience was “definitely different, walking around, seeing the greats in the locker room.” The product of Maryland’s Junior Tennis Champions Center added, “It’s great. Definitely fun. I think I deserve to be there.”
Tiafoe’s foe Klizan said the kid had talent, but wasn’t sure whether he would be a top ten or a top 100 player. Tiafoe simply said, “I need to get a lot better.”
TOUGH TIMES FOR CIVILITY: Weeks ago Genie Bouchard refused to shake hands with her Fed Cup foe in Montreal. Then Jurgen Melzer suffered a bad sportsmanship lapse in Geneva. Yesterday, a fan spinted all the way across Courte Centrale to ask Federer for a selfie. Then today, after her loss, Venus Williams refused to do her required press conference, and after her win, Maria Sharapova declined to do an on-court interview. When the courtside announcer told the crowd that the Russian would not be talking to them because she wanted to change, the throng jeered. Later, Sharapova said their reaction was “completely understandable.”
A year ago Maria was sick before the French Open. This year the defending champion is fighting a cold. Writer Ben Rothenberg suggested that Maria sounds “odd today. Yelpier than usual, like a Bichon Frise when the postman comes.” Maria confided, “Unless I’m really in my coffin, I’m going to be out there.”
BETTING TIP OF THE DAY: When asked to comment on the winning streak of the recently wed Andy Murray, Jim Courier said, “I put it all down to marriage.” If that’s the case, folks, put your money on David Ferrer next December. In November, the Spaniard will be marrying his long-time girlfriend Marta Tornel.
SHOCKING COMMENTARY: After the young powerhouse Nick Kyrgios and Croatian teen Borna Coric both advanced, the New York Times’ Christopher Claredy tweeted, “Am thinking the best next-generation matchup is going to be Kyrgios vs Coric. Shock and awe vs. Shock absorbed.”
SAY IT ISN’T SO: Americans have lost nine of their first ten matches … Former Wimbledon finalist Aga Radwanska lost to Annika Beck 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 after defeating Beck 6-0, 6-0 in their previous match. Commentator Nick Lester suggested, “This sport is so much about confidence. Radwanska is too good a player not to be in the top ten.”
THE DEBATE CONTINUES: Many still wonder how come Rafa Nadal was seeded No. 6. The nine-time French Open champ is 66-1 at Roland Garros, a master in five-set matches, and would be heavily favored if he faced No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych.