Sunday, June 8, 2008

The French Open--my top 10

Sculpture in the Stravinsky Fountain near Centre Georges Pompidou

The good, the notable and the devastating occurrences in my favorite (it's played on clay and it's in Paris!) Grand Slam tournament, in ascending order:

10. Allez, Alize!: The continued rise of Frenchwoman Alize Cornet, who made it to the third round, and almost made it to the round of 16. She lost a high-quality match against Agnieszka Radwanska, but is obviously France's great hope on clay, if not all surfaces.

9. Carla Who?: Carla Suarez Navarro gets a chance to show the world what a good clay competitor she is by going all the way to the quarterfinals.

8. Kaia Who?: Real tennis fans probably were not surprised to see the affable, big-hitting Kaia Kanepi reach the quarterfinals, after upsetting clay specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues in a barn-burner of a match.

7. Topspin rules!: Katarina Srebotnik's new-found glory was cut short by clay expert Patty Schnyder, who played one of those almost-perfect clay matches that was a joy to watch.

6. But where's her racquet?: In a bizarre turn, recently retired French Open multiple champion Justine Henin presented the trophies to the champion and the finalist. If the word "surreal" were not obscenely overused, I would employ it to describe this moment. Henin had a fever blister, perhaps a sign that stress does not immediately drop away. Commentator John McEnroe wondered if she had on tennis clothes under her street clothes. "I feel," he said "that she should play the winner."

5. One more time!: Virginia Ruano Pascual may have thought she had won her last major; if she did, she was delightfully wrong. The former doubles world number 1 and her partner, Anabel Medina Garrigues, won the title, giving Ruano Pascual her fourth French Open trophy.

4. Not this time: In Charleston, Katarina Srebotnik pushed Serena Williams to three tight sets. In Paris, she finally defeated her, removing who many thought was the presumptive champion out of the tournament. It was one of the great wins of Srebotnik's career, and a blow to Williams, who had her eye on a second French Open trophy.

3. A new champion: Ana Ivanovic, looking sharp, confident and considerably quicker than before, took over what could have been a more competitive final, and won her first major. The new world number 1 cruised through most of the tournament with a look of inevitability in almost every shot she made.

2. Domination: Jelena Jankovic was up a break--not once, but twice--in the third set of her semifinal against Ana Ivanovic. It looked as though she would finally get the win she needed over her countrywoman, but Ivanovic simply did not let it happen. This was, to me, Ivanovic's most impressive showing at the tournament.

1. "She's a roller, runs in the family...": After she won Berlin, I had a strong feeling that Dinara Safina was going to be a top contender at Roland Garros. It was the way she did it, taking out Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva, and always coming from behind. She served extremely well, hit stinging groundstrokes, used other players' power against them, won at the net, and kept a very cool head. We have always known that Safina had talent, but we did not know whether she could get her head together and make that talent pay off. In Berlin, she did, and then it was on to Roland Garros. I cannot remember a major tournament in which one player created so many thrills: Safina came from a set and 2-5 down when she defeated Maria Sharapova, and then did exactly the same thing when she defeated Elena Dementieva, saving match points in both contests. She cruised through her semifinal win over Svetlana Kuznetsova, then had (probably unfortunately) a day off, and was all but played out by the time she reached the final. The lesson for Safina is to provide fewer thrills and put less stress on her mind and body. But for fans--wow! Stay tuned...

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