Saturday, June 3, 2017

The last time I saw Paris

Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha: Amen.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Much has been made lately of how "open" the women's draw is at Roland Garros. This is because neither three-time champion Serena Williams nor two-time champion Maria Sharapova is there, and also because three major contenders--Simona Halep, Kiki Mladenovic and Garbine Muguruza--sustained injuries shortly before the event began.

And while these facts do add interest to the competition, it's my opinion that at least one of them belongs more in the "illusion" column than in the realm of reality. If Serena and Maria were there, would one of them win the French Open?

I say "probably not." 'Pova would have done well (and yes, she would have been a contender; I had her listed as one before the French Federation declined to "invite" her). But could she have done well enough to go seven matches? My best guess is no--but she would certainly have wreaked havoc on the draw. 

How about Serena? She, too, would have been a contender (she always is), and she, too, would have done a lot of damage to the draw. Yet, as Serena (slowly) winds down, others have found their mojo, and some of those "others" are especially adept at clay court tennis. My gut feeling is that someone not named Maria or Serena was going to win, anyway. 

As for the injuries: So far, that problem seems to have worked itself out. Halep, Mladenovic and Muguruza are making their way through the draw. I say "so far" because, as the grind gets tougher, any (or all) of these women could have problems with their injuries.

Muguruza may be at the safer end of the spectrum, in that a neck injury is probably harder to tweak than other injuries. Halep has a good chance of staying healthy because there is so much preventive attention that can be given an ankle. Of course, she does have a torn tendon, so she's still vulnerable. I think Mladenovic is a bit more vulnerable, though, because her problem is with her back, and if her back goes out, there goes her serve.

If you were to rise in one of those beautiful French hot air balloons, you would be be able to see the big picture: that the French Open is always less predictable than the other majors because the "power" players get their serves, and even their groundstrokes, neutralized by the heavy clay and the considerable spin and lob skills of very experienced clay court players.

Rise a little higher to get a really breathtaking view of Paris, and you would see both a new and a not-quite-new (talking to you, Simona) generation put on quite a show at Roland Garros. This is not to count the veterans out--Sam Stosur, Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova are having very good runs n Paris right now. It's just to point out that there is a lot of competition right now, as the younger stars pull together the mental strength to match their tennis skills.

We all have a tendency to miss what came before. I miss Chris and Martina, Yvonne Goolagong, and Hana Mandlikova. I miss wooden rackets. I wish that Amelie Mauresmo, Patty Schnyder, Marion Bartoli, Li Na, and Flavia Pennetta were still on the tour. But everything changes all the time, and even the greatest players (well, except Martina Hingis) eventually leave us. Some go abruptly, others just let nature take its course and slowly roll down the rankings until one day, they say "enough." Some even come back, but they, too, finally leave us.

The revered veterans on the tour are certainly not through. Serena, Venus and Sveta are still elite players, and Serena, in particular, is very dominant. We can also expect Vika Azarenka to make a nice ascent when she returns to the tour. But the landscape is changing, and things that once seemed clear are now a bit faded--unless you choose to look through the lens of illusion. That change is expected and organic, and one of the highlights of the current WTA tour is the competitive energy that has been established between the veterans and the new (and somewhat-new) guard.

Bon voyage!

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