Sunday, June 9, 2024

My French Open top 10

Here are my top 10 French Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. No surprise: The last two juniors standing, 12th seed Tereza Valentova and 3rd seed Laura Samson, are both from the Czech Republic. Of course they are--the Czech Republic may be a small country, but it produces great tennis players. Valentova won the title, defeating Samson 6-3, 7-6 (0). Valentova, with partner Renata Jamrichova (from Slovakia) also won the doubles title.

9. Gone too soon: We lost some notable players in the first round of the tournament. 6th seed (and 2020 finalist) Maria Sakkari was defeated by Varvara Gracheva. The 13th seed, the indefatigable Beatriz Haddad Maia, lost to Elisabetta Cocciaretta. And 2021 champion Barbora Krejcikova lost to Victorija Golubic.

8. Back in the mix: In 2016, Laura Siegemund won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title with Mate Pavic. Eight years later, she is again a major champion. Siegemund and Edouard Roger-Vasselin won the French Open mixed doubles title. Seeded 2nd, Siegemund and Roger-Vasselin defeated Desirae Krawczyk and Neal Skupski in the final.

7. Ajde!: Every major has an under-the-radar star, and at this year's French Open, it was Olga Danilovic. The Serbian player, ranked 125 in the world, had to play three qualifying rounds before she even got to the main draw, but once she got there, she earned everyone's attention. In the opening round, she easily defeated Martina Trevisan, who can be a really tough opponent. In the second round, she upset 11th seed Danielle Collins, arguably the hottest player on the tour right now who isn't named Swiatek. Then, in the third round, Danilovic beat Donna Vekic, despite getting bageled in the first set. She was finally stopped by 5th seed Marketa Vondrousova, in the round of 16, but it was an unforgettable run.

6. You haven't seen Hot Wheels like these: She did it again. Top seed and three-time defending champion Diede de Groot won her fifth French Open singles championship, defeating Zhenzhen Zhu in the final. She and partner Aniek Van Koot, seeded 2nd, also won their sixth French Open doubles title. (Tennis Channel Plus didn't show wheelchair matches this year, and that is unacceptable.)

5. Illness 2, tennis stars 0: Elena Rybankina has been dealing with health problems for a while now. She withdrew from both Indian Wells and Rome, which would have been bad enough, but--to make it much worse--she was the defending champion at both tournaments. I don't know what the ailment is that's affecting the world number 's career, but in addition to it, she also struggles with allergies. And it was announced this past week that she has also developed sleep problems, which may be the most difficult condition of all. In her quarterfinal match against Jasmine Paolini, she appeared listless, though she rallied to win the second set. Fans, of course, have taken this opportunity to criticize her relentlessly. My wish is that she get the medical care that she needs sooner than later.

Also during the quarterfinals, 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka developed a stomach illness, which clearly hampered her, and she lost to Mirra Andreeva.

4. Mamma Mia! I picked Jasmine Paolini as my dark horse for this tournament, and it turned out to be a pretty good pick--she made it all the way to the final. The new generation Fighting Italian, in addition to defeating Rybakina, also defeated the likes of Bianca Andreescu, the in-form Varvara Gracheva, and teen star Mirra Andreeva. 

3. Living dangerously: No one would be surprised to see Naomi Osaka play a very impressive comeback match, but a lot of people would be surprised to see her do it on clay. But that's exactly what the former world number 1 did in the second round. Osaka took top seed Iga Swiatek to the very edge, and I'm still not totally sure how Swiatek survived the ordeal. The match lasted almost three hours, and Swiatek went down 0-3 in the third set. She then found herself down 2-5 and facing a match point. It was at this point that the top seed's mental strength was on magnificent display, and she emerged the winner, 7-6 (1), 1-6, 7-5. It was the match of the tournament.

2. How do you do? Could you help me lift this trophy?: Coco Gauff's doubles partner, Jess Pegula, is still recovering from injury and didn't play in this year's French Open. Katerina Siniakova's doubles partner, Storm Hunter, is out with injury, as is her Rome partner, Taylor Townsend. So, at the last minute, Gauff and Siniakova decided to form a team in Paris. The pair, seeded 5th, dropped only one set the entire tournament, and won the title when they defeated the team of Sara Errani and Jasmine Paolini (there she is again!) 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the final. This is Gauff's first major doubles title. It is Siniakova's eighth major doubles title and her third French Open doubles title. Siniakova won all of her other major titles with former long-time partner Barbora Krejcikova.

1. She loves Paris every moment: The French Open image that will probably stay with most of us is that of Iga Swiatek sobbing with relief and release after just barely escaping a loss to Naomi Osaka in the second round. She had not only escaped an early round loss, she had proven to herself what she can do with her nerves of steel. Osaka threw everything at her, but she survived. And after that, it was a pretty easy ride for the world number 1, culminating with her win over Paolini in the final.

This is Swiatek's third consecutive French Open title, and her fourth French Open title overall; she also won Rome and Madrid. During her two weeks in Paris, Swiatek treated us not only to some spectacular tennis, but also some peak (and charming) nerdiness. When she couldn't recall the name of the place she had visited, she bent down and drew a map in the clay so that the interviewer could identify her destination. A couple of days later, she explained, with gestures, the wind current patterns to the people in the stands. (After all, this is the woman who, once, during a changeover, read Wuthering Heights.) She is an extraordinary athlete. She knows about a lot of different things. She is the Queen of Paris.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Paris's other Iron Lady lifts fourth Coup Suzanne Lenglen

In Paris, La Tour Eiffel is sometimes called La dame de fer, but the famous tower may now have to share its nickname with one Iga Swiatek of Poland, aka four-time French Open champion. Today, the world number 1, who came to Paris as the two-time defending champion, defeated Italy's Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-1 to claim her fourth French Open title.

It wasn't an entirely smooth run for Swiatek, who was taken to the very edge by Naomi Osaka in the second round. Swiatek went down 0-3, then 2-5, in the third set, and had to save a match point. But, aside from that very close call, the world number 1 had a pretty easy time of it. Paolini, who has finally come into her own as a true Fighting Italian, was no match for Swiatek, though--at the start of the match--she showed much of the talent that got her to the final.

Martina Navratilova was asked to present the trophies, but since it was the 50th anniversary of Chris Evert's first victory at Roland Garros, Navratilova asked her dear friend to do the presentation with her. Surely both Swiatek and Paolini felt the power of their presence--I did, just watching the ceremony on television.


Paolini's work isn't done--tomorrow, she and partner Sara Errani (the 2012 singles runner-up) compete for the doubles title.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees

Swiatek's first French Open title (her first WTA title of any kind) came in 2020, when the event was moved to the fall because of Covid issues. That year, 20-year-old Swiatek defeated 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the final. The next year, the Polish star lost to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals. Barbora Krejcikova--the only non-big hitter on the tour (though she has a very good serve) who has been able to beat Swiatek in big matches--defeated Sakkari in the semifinals and went on to win the tournament.

In 2022, Swiatek defeated Coco Gauff in the final, and in 2023, she defeated Karolina Muchova. Muchova, who was unable to compete this year, is the only player to take a set off of Swiatek in a French Open final.

In other French Open news, wheelchair top seed and three-time defending champion Diede de Groot won her fifth French Open singles title today when she defeated Zhenzhen Zhu 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the final. de Groot and partner Aniek Van Koot, the 2nd seeds, won the doubles title when they defeated top seeds Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane 6-7, 7-6, 10-4. This is the team's sixth French Open title.

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Queen of Paris vs. the Fighting Italian (2024 edition)

No one is surprised that world number 1, three-time French Open champion and two-time defending champion Iga Swiatek is once again in the final in Paris. On the other hand, a lot of people are surprised that Italy's Jasmine Paolini will be her opponent. Before the tournament, I chose Paolini as my dark horse, so I'm not one of those people. 

As for the players who were highly likely to wind up in the final--two of them, Elena and Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka--are dealing with physical ailments. Rybakina is dealing with three physical problems, in fact, though that hasn't stopped tennis fans from bashing her mercilessly. Sabalenka had the misfortune to develop a stomach illness during her quarterfinal match.

Paolini defeated a listless Rybakina in the quarterfinals, and Sabalenka fell to teen star Mirra Andreeva. Of course--as I wrote two days ago--we'll never know how those matches would have turned out had the higher-ranked players been healthy.

Swiatek and Paolini have played each other only twice. Swiatek won both of those matches, which were played on hard courts.

Paths to the final:

IGA SWIATEK (1)

round 1--def. Leolia Jeanjean (Q)
round 2--def. Naomi Osaka
round 3--def. Marie Bouzkova
round of 16--def. Anastasia Potapova
quarterfinals--def. Marketa Vondrousova (5)
semifinals--def. Coco Gauff (3)

JASMINE PAOLINI (12)

round 1--def. Daria Saville
round 2--def. Hailey Baptiste
round 3--def. Bianxa Andreescu
round of 16--def. Elina Avanesyan
quarterfinals--def. Elena Rybakina (4)
semifinals--def. MIrra Andreeva

In the meantime, we have some champions. Laura Siegemund and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, the 4th seeds, won the mixed doubles title when they defeated 2nd seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Neal Shupski 6-4, 7-5 in the final. Krawczyk was going for her second French Open title, and her third major title with Shupski. Krawczyk holds four major mixed doubles titles.

Krawczyk, by the way, played her women's doubles semifinal match today, with partner Caroline Dolehide; however they lost to Coco Gauff and Katerina Siniakova. The 5th seeds will play 11th seeds Sara Errani and--a little drum roll here--Jasmine Paolini for the title.

There was also a major upset in wheelchair play. 2nd seed Yui Kamiji was upset by Momoko Ohtani. Defending champion Diede de Groot, who is usually in a final with Kamiji, will face Zhu Zhenzhen for the title. Kamiji, however, will be facing de Groot in the doubles final. She and partner Kgothatso Montjane, the top seeds, will play 2nd seeds de Groot and Aniek Van Koot for the title. Kamiji and Kgothatso are the defending champions.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Fighting Italian and Russian teen win their quarterfinals in Paris

Today, both Jasmine Paolini and 17-year-old Mirra Andreeva did what they "weren't supposed to do"--they upset the 4th and 2nd seeds respectively, to reach the semifinals of the French Open.

Paolini won a brilliant first set against Elena Rybakina, easily defeating her 6-2. In the second set, Paolini's level dropped, and she began to make unforced errors (she made only one in the first set). At the same time--not surprisingly--Rybakina raised her level and won the set, 6-4. The final set was tense, but it was the 4th seed who blinked--during the last few games, she made several unforced errors, while Paolini held her nerve, winning the set 6-4.

In the other quarterfinal, Andreeva held tough against Aryna Sabalenka, forcing a tiebreak set, which Sabalenka won. History informs us that a fairly inexperienced player who loses a very tight first set is likely to collapse. But not Andreeva. She held firm, and tightened her game gradually, taking the second set 6-4, and the third set 6-4. There were fourteen breaks of serve in the match.

Andreeva is the youngest woman to reach the semifinals of a major since Martina Hingis (of course!) did it in 1997. Hingis reached the semifinals of both the French Open and the U.S. Open that year. She was 16.

There is important context to consider about both of today's quarterfinal matches. Rybankina has been ill a lot this season, withdrawing from both Indian Wells and Rome--she was the defending champion at both events. In addition to whatever illness she has, the world number 4 also suffers with allergies, and--according to Tennis Channel's Andrea Petkovic--she's having trouble sleeping (a sleep disorder alone is enough to derail any athlete). 

Sabalenka, for her part, played her quarterfinal while experiencing stomach problems. 

If Rybakina had been healthy, would she have won? We'll never know, especially Paolini is on a real roll. If Sabalenka had been well, would she have won? Probably, but Andreeva is impressive, and upsets do happen, even when no one is sick or injured. Paolini and Andreeva have played each other only once, in Madrid this year; Andreeva won the match.

 Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Coco Guff (3)
Jasmine Paolini (12) vs. Mirra Andreeva

Swiatek is 10-1 against Gauff. They have played four times on clay, and Swiatek won all of those matches. One of those matches, in fact, was the 2022 French Open final.

Paolini also went on, with partner Sara Errani (one of the original Fighting Italians) to defeat the team of Emma Navarro and Diana Shnaider in the doubles quarterfinals. Navarro and Shnaider upset the top seeds, Hsieh and Mertens, in the second round.

And yesterday, Diede de Groot had to face a recent nemesis--Li Xiaohui, who snapped de Groot's 145-match win streak recently in World Team Cup play. Diede the Great prevailed, 6-3, 6-4.

Monday, June 3, 2024

New generaration Fighting Italian reaches her first major quarterfinal

After Jasmine Paolini reached her first major round of 16 at this French Open, she followed up that feat by reaching her first major quarterfinal. The 12th seeded Italian player defeated Elina Avanesyan to make it to the final eight, and she is now set to face 4th seed Elena Rybakina.That is, of course, a huge task, but whatever happens, the 2024 Dubai champion has shown herself to be worthy of her heritage

For her part, Rybakina defeated 15th seed Elina Svitolina. Also, 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka defeated 22nd seed Emma Navarro, and 17-year-old Mirra Andreeva defeated Varvara Gracheva.

There was a very big upset yesterday that received hardly any attention. Top doubles seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Elise Mertens were upset in the second round by the unseeded team of Emma Navarro and Diana Shnaider, two former U.S. university competitors.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Marketa Vondrousova (5)
Coco Gauff (3) vs. Ons Jabeur (8)
Jasmine Paolina (12) vs. Elena Rybakina (4)
Mirra Andreva vs Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Both Vondrousova (2019) and Gauff (2022 have reached the French Open final before. Swiatek, of course, has won the event three times, and is the two-time defending champion. 

Swiatek is 3-0 against Vondrousova, and 1-0 against her on clay--that win was at the 2020 French Open. Gauff is 4-2 against Jabeur, and 2-1 against her on clay. Paolini is 2-2 against Rybakina; they have never competed on a clay court. Sabalenka is 2-0 against Andreeva. Both of their matches were played on clay, and both were played in Madrid.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Upstarts make their way into the round of 16

Six unseeded women and one determined qualifier join some of the tour's most distinguished players in the 2024 French Open round of 16 draw. 

There were three upsets (on paper) in the third round. Elisabetta Cocciaretto defeated Liudmila Samsonova (17), and Emma Navarro (22) defeated Madison Keys (7). Keys was impressive on clay this week, and--not to take anything away from Navarro, but--the 7th seed sustained a hip injury during her third round match, which obviously hampered her somewhat. And then there was Elina Avanesyan, who upset Zheng Qinwen in a thrilling three-set match.

The exciting player of the week, however, was qualifier Olga Davilovic. Davilovic--who has had to deal with some significant injury issues--won three qualifying rounds, then proceeded to take out Martina Trevisan, who can be a pretty tough opponent. She then upset 11th seed Danielle Collins, arguably the hottest player of the season. And in the third round, she defeated Donna Vekic, who had upset 18th seed Marta Kostyuk. 

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Anastasia Potapova
Olga Danilovic (Q) vs. Marketa Vondrousova (5)
Coco Gauff (3) vs. Elisabetta Cocciaretto
Clara Tauson vs. Ons Jabeur (8)
Elina Avanesyan vs. Jasmine Paolini (12)
Elina Svitolina (15) vs. Elena Rybakina (4)
Varvara Gracheva vs. Mirra Andreeva
Emma Navarro (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Iga Swiatek is, of course, the defending champion, and she has won the French Open three times. She also won Rome and Madrid this year, and is therefore going for two triples. Swiatek was put to a mighty test by Naomi Osaka in the second round, and she somehow passed it. Two of her nemeses, Alona Ostapenko (4-0 against Swiatek) and Barbora Krejcikova (2-5 against Swiatek), are out of the tournament, but there are two other players--Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina--who have beaten her. 

Swiatek is 8-3 against Sabalenka, but she is 4-1 against her on clay. The defending champion is 2-4 against Rybakina, and 0-2 against her on clay (however, one of those losses was a retirement). 

Both Gauff (2022) and Vondrousova (2021) have made it to the final at Roland Garros.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Already gone

Upsets at majors are common. And upsets in the first round are sometimes not really unexpected, yet those are often part of a bigger, sadder, story. And some "upsets" are really about seeding--they are just results that are somewhat surprising.

Here are the first round upsets at Roland Garros:

Marie Bouzkova d. Veronika Kudermetova (29)--No one runs more hot and cold than Kudermetova, only lately, the cold tap has been dominant. Kudermetova is good on clay; however, when Bouzkova is on, she can be a handful.

Victorija Golubic d. Barbora Krejcikova (24)--The 2021 French Open champion hasn't had a great couple of years. Plagued by both illness and injury (elbow, wrist, ankle, and back), she has also had to deal with the breakup of one of the WTA's longest-running (and highly successful) doubles partnerships. Despite these significant setbacks, the Czech star won both Dubai and San Diego last year. To see her go out in the opening round of the French is worrisome.

Victoriya Tomova d. Ekaterina Alexandrova (16)--Alexandrova has worked hard to join the top 20, but clay courts are not her favorite.

Elisabetta Cocciaretto d. Beatriz Haddad Maia ((13)--Haddad Maia, known for playing three-set matches, likes to say that the clock is her friend, but the French clock let her down. Her opponent defeated her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Varvara Gracheva d. Maria Sakkari (6)--Gracheva, who now plays for France, is a talented player, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that she would pull a big upset. The story here, however, is about Sakkari. The Greek star went into a slump last year, but then won Guadalajara, which appeared to increase her confidence. She also parted ways with long-time coach Tom Hill, signaling a desire to try something new. But Sakkari's issue is larger than just the disappointment of being in a slump: She has played in ten WTA singles finals, and has won only two of them. It will be interesting to see if her new partnership with David Witt will produce a new mental approach to playing big matches.

There were also a few surprises (for me) among unseeded players. Anhelina Kalinina lost to Camila Osorio. That wasn't a shocking result, but a bit of a surprise, given how ood Kalinina has been on clay lately. Sara Sorribes Tormo lost to Bianca Andreescu, and yes--when she's healthy, Andreescu is fearsome--but she hasn't played much lately, and it's Sorribes Tormo who loves the clay courts. And finally, Angie Kerber lost to Arantxa Rus. The former world number 1 has showed several flashes of her old self lately, and I expected her to win some matches in Paris this year.