The 2015 French Open figured to be crazy… and it was.
Let’s review the past two weeks, shall we?
10 – WOZNIACKI’S WOES — NOT TO BE OVERSTATED, BUT NOT TO BE IGNORED, EITHER
The (lack of) fortunes of Caroline Wozniacki in 2015 should not be given too much play after Roland Garros — after all, clay has never been a surface that has given Wozniacki a unique competitive opening relative to other high-profile performers on the WTA Tour. With that having been said, a second-round exit against Julie Goerges was a bit premature.
Serena Williams won this tournament, but there surely has to be a part of Wozniacki which is thinking, “Geez — I could have been in the quarterfinals against Serena instead of Sara Errani.”
At any rate, Wozniacki’s “money season” — like Andy Roddick after the French Open — is coming up. The player who made such a large impression on the WTA Tour in the summer and autumn of 2014 is still waiting for a prolonged stretch of great tennis in 2015.
9 – DIMITROV IN THE DUMPS: GRIGORIAN FACE-PLANT
This isn’t a top-5 story right now, because Dimitrov doesn’t merit top-5-level attention or top-5-level anything. His early flameout in Paris underscores the extent to which his career has tumbled.
The one small bit of solace for Dimitrov is that this downward trajectory has not continued for multiple years. This is an 11-month fall. He still has time to repair the damage… but he better get his toolkit out and order a fresh new spine. The lack of backbone Dimitrov has displayed over the past several months is noticeable.
Some heat should also be applied to head coach Roger Rasheed.
Look at what Magnus Norman once did for Robin Soderling (two major finals) and is now doing with newly-minuted champion Stan Wawrinka, creating two major championships. Dimitrov is a mold of clay (word choice not intentional in relationship to Roland Garros’s playing surface) with the substance of a major champion, but not the heart or the mental game. Rasheed has to give his pupil a way to unlock his considerable talents the way Wawrinka has.
Stan The Man is 30. Dimitrov is only 24. Grigorian chants of praise can still ring through the corridors of tennis in due time, but if the next 11 months are as bad as the past 11 months, this career could careen out of control and land in the desolate French village of Gasquet.
8 – SCHIAVONE AND KUZNETSOVA WALK INTO A BAR… AND ARE THE LAST ONES TO LEAVE… AGAIN
2011 Australian Open: Francesca Schiavone d. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14, in 4 hours and 44 minutes.
2015 French Open: Francesca Schiavone d. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7 (11), 7-5, 10-8, in 3 hours and 49 minutes.
Damn straight you’re going to celebrate if, in a battle of former French Open champions, you win yet another marathon:
Heh, Fran. 🙂 pic.twitter.com/EuTHGg0lvU
— René Denfeld (@Renestance) May 28, 2015
7 – AZARENKA’S ASCENT: DELAYED, BUT LIKELY TO EMERGE
The good news for Victoria Azarenka: She still competes with Serena Williams on even terms, more so than most on the WTA Tour.
The bad news: Failing to win this tournament’s third-round match — which felt like a semifinal and lived up to the advance hype — will prevent Azarenka from making a much bigger climb up the rankings list. Azarenka’s game should enable her to rise in the second half of the 2015 season, but for now, she needs some kind draws and some quarterfinal or semifinal results to push her into the top 10.
6 – FEDERER, NADAL, MURRAY: LIMINAL SPACE
The biggest names in men’s tennis usually represent bigger stories at the majors, but this time, it just doesn’t seem reasonable to put these guys in the top five — not even Nadal, whose straight-set loss in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic was conspicuous in its predictability.
None of these players — Nadal, Roger Federer, or Andy Murray — had a French Open that would be considered bad or great. Federer’s loss to Wawrinka felt particularly disappointing… until Wawrinka won the whole damn thing. Nadal lost to the best player in 2015, Mr. Djokovic. Murray did as well.
Wimbledon is a big, fat reset button for all three men. They have a lot to play for in the second half of the season, and how they fare in the coming months will define 2015 for them.
About Nadal, who does merit an extra word: Can we more fully appreciate his 9-out-of-10-year run at Roland Garros in light of his loss. He’s still 70-2 at the French. It cannot be praised enough, or in sufficiently lavish terms.
5 – TIMEA’S TIME
Switzerland has You Know Who, sitting there with 17 majors. The nation now has another multiple-major winner in Stan Wawrinka. However, this tournament will also be remembered as the one in which the Swiss might have found a WTA star.
Timea Bacsinszky showed at Roland Garros that her 15-match winning streak earlier in the year (snapped by — guess who? — Serena Williams) was no fluke. She’s for real, and a lot more tennis fans realize that now after a spirited run to the semifinals plus a bold effort against Serena last Thursday.
Bacsinszky’s defense — especially her coverage of the ad side against Petra Kvitova’s lefty forehand — left a major impression on (and at) this tournament. Anyone who can defend the way she can is going to be a factor on tour.
Her matches against Serena have shown her what it takes to be the very best. At 26, there’s enough time for her to apply those lessons and rent out a room in the top 10 of the rankings.
4 – MISSED OPPORTUNTIES, WTA-STYLE
The wide-open nature of the women’s bracket in Paris will leave a lot of players lamenting a missed chance to go deep in — or win — the tournament.
Ana Ivanovic had a 5-2 lead in the semifinals. She wasn’t playing Maria Sharapova or Simona Halep, but a No. 13 seed in Lucie Safarova. This was her chance to make it to the biggest of stages once again, seven years after her 2008 Roland Garros title. Even with a semifinal result, Ivanovic’s mental demons remained very much intact.
Kvitova, who lost to Bacsinszky as mentioned above, could have been the player who stared down Serena in the semifinals. Since Kvitova clocked Serena in Madrid, she has to be lamenting her fourth-round exit.
Halep, Carla Suarez-Navarro, Ekaterina Makarova — they all missed out in the bottom half of the draw, with Maria Sharapova losing in round four to Safarova.
These kinds of openings don’t come around all the time. We’ll see how each of these players react to a Parisian springtime that failed to blossom.
3 – SAFAROVA AND STAN: CONQUERORS OF THE INNER GAME
For many years, Lucie Safarova has owned the shots and skill sets of a top-10 player. Now, she’s No. 7 in the new WTA rankings.
How did Safarova get there, the result of a runner-up showing in Paris? As is the case with men’s champion Stan Wawrinka, Safarova won a tennis player’s most important battle: the battle within. Coach Rob Steckley said of the Czech lefty’s run, “It was nothing to do with me. It was just her tackling her own fears.”
Steckley is being modest, but the ultimate truth about tennis is that as good as many coaches might be, it is up to the player and the player alone to translate good advice into results. Safarova’s done that, and she’s instructively made her 2014 Wimbledon semifinal appearance a much less aberrational event.
Similarly, Wawrinka — empowered and emboldened by coach Magnus Norman — is no longer a one-hit wonder at the majors, but someone who has backed up his 2014 Australian Open crown with this Roland Garros trophy.
Our piece on Wawrinka’s win appears here, and you’ll read more about his win later this week at Bloguin. Watch for that story.
2 – SERENA WILLIAMS: HER WEAKNESS MAGNIFIES HER STRENGTH
Serena Williams struggled en route to this major title in Paris… which makes it so much more revealing of how great she is. A look at a remarkable tennis player and all-time athlete appears here at Bloguin and Attacking The Net.
1 – NOVAK DJOKOVIC’S HEARTBREAK AND THE ANTI-ANALYTICS FRENCH OPEN
It’s rare when a player’s defeat — not one (or both) of the champions in each singles tournament — rates as the top story, but how can you not put Djokovic in this spot? He had finally beaten Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros — the toughest thing to do in 21st-century men’s tennis, short of the calendar Grand Slam — and he had the chance to play a Roland Garros final against a non-Nadal opponent for the first time.
It just didn’t work out, and more specifically, the wave of bailout drop shots he attempted in the match pointed to a certain degree of mental fatigue, something that dogged Djokovic in past Roland Garros finals and French Open appearances. The emergence of wind — long an enemy (though you wouldn’t think so, with his letter-perfect groundstroke technique) — did not help him in set two, but this was the match he had waited many years to finally win.
As great as Wawrinka truly was in sets three and four — he soared and won the match, far more than Djokovic lost it — that second set, when Djokovic failed to build on an authoritative first set, will always remain a head-scratcher.
This brings us to a story as big as Djokovic’s heartbreak, one inherently connected to the Serbian’s moment of exquisite agony in Paris.
This was, simply put, a tournament which reminded us of the limits of analytics and hard data. History and the odds did not tell us that a WTA player would lose five total sets or face four one-set deficits and still win the tournament as Serena did. History and the odds did not tell us that Wawrinka would break through, or that a convincing Djokovic win over Nadal would not lead to a title.
It is fascinating that Serena and Djokovic experienced inverted journeys at this tournament: They both made the final, but the former one struggled all the way while the latter one mostly cruised. They both won first sets in their finals, then wobbled in the second, then fell behind in the third. Serena, though, rescued herself. Djokovic didn’t. Logic and history would have told you that both players should have pulled through, but Djokovic’s inability to regain control against Wawrinka has stood against the entirety of his 2015 season to date and his post-2010 history of being the second-hardest ATP player to kill (after Nadal).
As a sportswriter for many sports (all here at Bloguin, but also in freelance gigs elsewhere), I have been consistent in encouraging readers to hold two competing tensions, keeping them together and not insisting that only one of them is right to the exclusion of the other:
1) Analytics are great — they’ve been such a considerable and broadly-applied boon to sports analysis.
2) Analytics — as wonderful has they are and have proved to be — don’t tell the whole story, and can’t always tell the whole story.
By all means, we need more data and analysis in tennis from sites such as Tennis Abstract, by Jeff Sackmann. We need to see match scorecards and be able to access reams of additional data, but tennis — as a loosely-governed sport — has not moved to make all this data instantly accessible, and that’s a real deficit for the whole tennis community.
Many in the analytics community say that sportswriters’ references to “mental toughness” and the psychological character of sporting competitions represent lazy and reflexive habits. Certainly, if you watch a match with the volume on and John McEnroe commenting, you know this happens a lot, and that the critique of the analytics crowd is reinforced by a lot of evidence.
However, this French Open affirmed why “mental toughness” is a real, living, breathing thing. The Inner Game of Tennis, written in 1974 by Timothy Gallwey, is a book used by countless sports psychologists and coaches to create peak performance in athletes. We can see why “The Inner Game” matters after watching Serena fight her way through trouble; Djokovic take the foot off the gas in set two of the men’s final; and Wawrinka power his way through pressure, just 2.5 weeks after dumping an ATP 250 quarterfinal in Geneva.
Tennis demands tactical acuity and supreme physical fitness, but it is most inherently that battle between the flowing, natural human body and the inner voice of the mind which so often gets in the way. “Mental toughness” can be a slapped-on label and little more than psychobabble.
At the 2015 French Open, it was the very key to two championship matches, and dozens of matches in the prior rounds.