Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The wonderful mystery of the French Open

Outside a Paris shop
More than any other major, the French Open can create sudden, unexpected stardom. Except during the reigns of Chris Evert and Justine Henin, there has always been a bit of mystery surrounding who will grind it out for two weeks, play seven matches and win the championship.

The surprises have come in different packages. In 1997, Iva Majoli upset top seed Martina Hingis in the final. In 2004, Anastasia Myskina defeated Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati, and became the first of the "Russian wave" to win a major when she defeated countrywoman Elena Dementieva in the final. 17th-seeded Francesca Schiavone surprised many when she won the French Open in 2010. And Maria Sharapova, who so many said could "never win" at Roland Garros, completed her Career Slam in Paris in 2012.

Of  particular interest is Schiavone, who reached several finals in her career before she won a tournament. The Italian star went to Paris in 2010 with a clear physical, strategic and mental/emotional plan, much like Marion Bartoli did last year when she won Wimbledon. Schiavone was already in the latter part (I think!) of her career, and it was as if everything she had ever learned suddenly spun out (pun intended) in a trajectory that left her competitors in a whirl of red dust.

To win the French Open, a player must engage in grueling baseline hitting and endure many breaks of serve. Her physical and mental fitness must be at a high level. And even though we know we can be surprised by a French Open champion, reality informs us that there are only a few women on the tour who can be called true contenders. They are (in alphabetical order because I don't even want to think about any other kind of order):

Simona Halep

Not many weeks ago, I know I wasn't alone in thinking, "If Halep could just raise her serve to another level, she'll be a top, top contender at Roland Garros." The good news is that she did just that. While we were discussing the one gap in the Romanian's game, she was fixing it. Halep's serve is now spot-on, with lots of nice pop and variation. Her movement is, of course, unparalleled, and her mental game is first class.

But there's a problem: Halep had to withdraw from Rome after the second round because of an abdominal injury. Not good, especially since she has had other big withdrawals this year because of problems with her heels and other parts of her feet. So I'll say that if Halep is healthy, she is indeed a serious candidate to win the French Open.

Li Na

We know Li can win in Paris; she's already done it. The 2011 champion has everything it takes to win the title again--superb physical fitness, a deadly backhand and the ability to move around the court--and move an opponent around the court--without breaking much of a sweat.

The problem with Li? We all know that--it's her head. She can go "off" just like that. She has gone "off" during this clay season. She could lose in the first round at the French Open, or she could win the whole thing. My suspicion is that she'll be around during the second week, and then we all just have to wait and see.

Maria Sharapova

Sharapova recently said about clay: "I like winning on it better than I like playing on it." This is probably going to turn into one of my all-time favorite 'Pova quotations. She was discounted as a clay court player long ago because of the deficiency of her movement, but that didn't stop Sharapova. She practiced, then practiced some more. And in 2012, she won the French Open.

Can she do it again? Sharapova's major "repeat" record stands at 0. She's won each of the big ones once, but the French may be more in her reach as a repeat because it's a relatively new milestone in her career and doesn't involve years of frustration. She just won Stuttgart (for the third year in a row) and Madrid. She's a contender.

Serena Williams

After making a first round exit in 2012, Williams wasted no time getting the help she thought she needed to make her more competitive on clay. She had won at Roland Garros, but that was a decade before, and the title just kept eluding her after that. No worries. Williams won her second French Open championship in 2013.

Things didn't look too good for the world number 1 at the start of the 2014 clay season. The defending champion, she went out in the first round in Charleston, then told the media that she felt very tired and needed to take some time off. She had to withdraw from Madrid because of injury, and there was speculation that she would withdraw from the Italian Open. She didn't. Instead, she won it.

Well, what can you say other than "That's Serena." No one can manage Serena Williams' career better than Serena Williams, and I expect her to be healthy and in good form when the French Open begins on Sunday.

There isn't another player that I can call a true contender, but in the tradition of naming the "dark horse," I have to bring up the subject of that pesky (I mean this in a good way) Sara Errani. After Errani had the run of a lifetime at the 2012 French Open (taking out two former French Open champions, a French Open finalist and Angelique Kerber), she lost the final to Sharapova. The Italian also went into a real funk for a while, and was quite candid in talking about how hard it was to climb to the top part of the rankings, only to realize that everyone was going for her, trying to knock her down again.

But Errani is back. Her run at the Italian Open was inspired, and included victories over both Li Na and an in-form Jelena Jankovic. The Italian was stopped, of course, by Serena Williams, but also by a nasty left hip injury that took away her movement and which also led to an early retirement in the doubles final. Will Errani's hip be healed by next week? If it is, and it stays that way, she can do some damage in Paris. She's even improved her serve, which was a badly needed move on her part, and which will help her if she's willing to commit to the new form.

Errani is my true "dark horse," but she certainly isn't the only one who can spoil the party for big-time contenders. Ana Ivanovic, on a given day, can wipe out almost anyone on clay. On a given day. Jelena Jankovic is also dangerous on a clay court. And, as we saw in the first two rounds of the Italian Open, so is Francesca Schiavone--still.

And then there's Caroline Garcia, who has the potential to make a really good run at Roland Garros. The Frenchwoman has gained mental strength, and I suspect she's ready to handle the pressure of appearing at the French Open. Her countrywoman Alize Cornet--maybe not so much. But if Cornet can get her head together, she, too, can be a threat.

Carla Suarez Navarro, Lucie Safarova and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are all capable of pulling off upsets on clay, as is the hopelessly unpredictable Sorana Cirstea.

Since Justine Henin retired, the French Open has pretty much been up for grabs. Is someone about to win a second or third French Open title, or will we see another "first"?


Anonymous said...

There's a name that we should not mention, because of superstition.

Overhead Spin said...

Hi All. I made a video of my WTA French Open Preview. Hope you guys like it

Diane said...

Karen, for some reason, I had it in my head that you had stopped publishing any blogs at all. My bad, and sorry--link restore.

And thanks for the video!

Overhead Spin said...

Hi Diane. Thanks for that. I had stopped for awhile as life got in the way, but I am forcing myself (which is not hard) to start blogging again. I changed the name of the site to OverheadSpin and I kind of make sure that I blog a lot more these days. I find that the more people there are out there who really focus on women in tennis, it is the more fans that the sport seems to draw. We are in a real Golden Age of women's tennis and I for one could not be happier for the future.

Diane said...

Always a pleasure to read yout take on the tour, Karen.

And Anon, I'm afraid it's more than superstition at this point. I don't see her as a contender.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis, although, if I may,
would actually put Jankovic on top of Errani as the dark horse.

She's an elegant mover with enough power to contend against the biggest of hitters on tour (when her game is on), not to mention that she's one of the very few players that actually relishes playing against Serena. She has a losing record, but I can't help but feel that she's not intimidated by Serena, at least not as much as most players are.

Just my two cents :)

Diane said...

I agree with you completely, in theory. But something about the French Open brings out the best in Errani. Call it more of a gut thing.