Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Mother Nature teams with Timea, and the last Kiki has left the building

It was tennis's sweetheart pitted against tennis's--shall we say, not-sweetheart. Timea Bacsinszky--the player who decided to drop out of tennis in favor of having a career in the hotel industry, but was lured back in when she gave it a whirl at the French Open four years ago--has become a beloved figure on the tour. She still has to deal with injuries, and has seen her ranking slip during the past year, but her thankful attitude has made her a special kind of star. She can also play some kickass tennis.

Today, with hours of waiting for continuing thunderstorms to come and go, and with swirling wind wreaking havoc on the court, it was Bacsinszky who literally weathered the storm to take out France's great hope (and rightly so), Kiki Mladenovic. The incredibly speedy Bacsinszky looked, at times, to be a cartoon figure, dashing across the court to get back balls that other players would have missed. When she play with the wind, she took care; when she played against it, she hit with might.

Mladenovic did not play badly, though eventually, a lot of errors did appear. She just wasn't up to managing the brutal conditions on Philippe-Chatrier Court. The Frenchwoman had to do some fancy escaping throughout the first week's matches, and there may have been some mental fatigue, especially since an entire country was counting on her to win the event. I certainly considered her a contender, and thought that she would defeat Bacsinszky, but it wasn't to be. The Swiss star took the match 6-4, 6-4.

I was reminded of 2010, when the rain was relentless. What Mladenovic and Bacsinszky had to go through was a bit tame compared to what Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin had to go through seven years ago. They played in the rain--in red mud--in the dark. Officials would not stop play, so they swatted at what they thought was the ball while they sank into the muck that was once a tennis court. It was riveting. Henin won in three sets. In that same event, Nadia Petrova and Aravane Rezai were also forced to play in the rain and in the dark until officials finally stopped play. Petrova won the very close and thrilling match the next morning.

While Mladenovic and Bacsinszky were playing, waiting, playing, waiting, there was another pair also forced to deal with the continuous delays. Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko, meeting on clay for the third time, went to three sets. Wozniacki dominated the first set, and led 5-1, but Ostapenko made a comeback, winning three straight games. It wasn't enough, though, and Wozniacki took the set, 6-4.

That was all Ostapenko was going to stand for. She went up 5-2 in the second set, but then the rain forced the players to leave the court. Upon their return, Ostapenko completed the job and took the set 6-2. This was the Ostapenko we saw play against Wozniacki in Charleston--mugging, muttering, smiling, and smacking winners like she'd been hired to put on a hitting clinic. The Latvian player somehow manages to be businesslike and silly at the same time, and this combination seems to keep her at an even mental keel. All that ballroom dance experience probably helps, too. If you're nimble and rhythmic and have good balance, you can take a lot of physical risks.

Ostapenko won the match, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Playing "Kvitova style," she made 50 unforced errors, but also hit 38 winners. Wozniacki, by contrast, made 25 unforced errors and hit six winners.

Now it gets strange. Bacsinszky and Ostapenko--who have never played one another before--will face off in the semifinals on June 8. Bacsinszky has been to the French Open semifinals before; Ostapenko has never even won a WTA title. Also, June 8 is Bacsinszky's birthday. It is also Ostapenko's birthday. I don't know what the deejay will be up to, but no one is going to want to hear "Too Bad on Your Birthday."

Tomorrow, Simona Halep will play Elina Svitolina, a match that feels like it should be a final. I expect it to go to three sets. Also, Caroline Garcia, the last Frenchwoman standing (taking a moment here to spare a thought for Kiki, who may have melted from the heat in her head by now), will play Karolina "what's she still doing here?" Pliskova. The crowd is going to go crazy without having to be orchestrated by anyone on the court. This is Garcia's opportunity to let the Amelie Mauresmo in her head take over.

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