Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The 2012 French Open

by Savannah

Grand Slams are supposed to be, well, grand. Or should I say grandiose? Tennis is asking it's top players to prove to the world that they have mastered the surface the Slam is being played on. There are two hard court Slams, both taking place in their respective nations summer heat. The two natural surface Slams take place during their countries spring. Spring is, as those of us who live in temperate climates know, an iffy proposition at best. You can have searing heat, damp chilly days that may or may not come with wind, or sunny cool days that can also bring windy conditions. Each event requires a different skill set from the players no matter their ranking. The players that achieve mastery, who survive whatever it is Mother Nature throws at them get the right to hoist the winners trophy and have their name engraved on the trophy for future generations to admire and aspire to the level of play that got that player's name engraved there for posterity.

Of all the Slams the French Open stands alone. It's about patience, mental and physical stamina, shot construction and body control. You can't fake it on the terre battue - the red clay of Roland Garros. In fact you can't fake it on any red clay surface. I feel I have to be specific here because this was the year promoter Ion Tiriac decided to throw a wrench into the run up to the French by staging his tournament on what was called "blue clay". As player complaints mounted there were revelations that the surface, originally said to be no different from it's red counterpart had never been tested by a live player. It was said, or admitted, that the surface had never been tested by a living breathing player and that the assurances had come from the lab techs that created it. Those who won the event on that surface said that those complaining were "weenies" or whiners who didn't want to adjust to change. It bears mentioning that neither champion, mens or women's, figured in the outcome of the French Open. If Tiriac wants to continue using this gimmick to promote his tournament maybe it should be moved to after the spring clay court season to take place after Wimbledon and lead into the US summer hard court season. Maybe Hamburg, so rudely treated after upgrading it's stadiums, should be put back in the place it used to occupy. The heavy slow clay would make a better warm up than the blue surface that plays more like a hard court than a crushed brick one.

Yeah I know I digress but I think this needs to be said. The debacle that was the women's draw in Paris wouldn't have happened if the hype machine hadn't picked a favorite based on results on two "clay" surfaces that in reality bear no resemblance to it.

My other sore point, in fact the one that really made me angry, was the coverage viewers in the United States were subjected to. My anger has nothing to do with the fact that my cable provider refuses to settle with Tennis Channel so that I had to rely on streams when coverage moved from ESPN2. It had to do with two veteran players who at best were abysmal in their knowledge not only of the players but of what was going on on the court. I'm a fan. I can root for anyone I want from my living room sofa. If I'm getting paid to provide insightful and informative coverage of a match it's my job to put my inner fan girl away and report on tactics, technique, the effect of the weather, the surface, grips and mental processes taking place on the court. None of this was provided by Chris Evert or John McEnroe.

I know that both are busy people, that they're both running academies and make appearances in exhibitions and/or senior tour events and can't devote a lot of time to watching tennis.

BUT they know when they're going to be broadcasting and I don't know whether the blame lies with ESPN2 or the two people I named above but to have Evert live on the air saying she'd never heard of a player who every tennis head knew had had a pretty good clay season or McEnroe not knowing that Venus Williams had been diagnosed with an auto immune disease that effects her energy level and can cause lack of feeling in her hands. And that's before Evert tweeted that she felt "nauseous" about Roger Federer's play in an early round. This is why despite their fanboy tendencies at some times Rob Koenig and Jason Goodall are constantly rated as the best in the business by knowledgeable fans, fans who watch a lot of tennis, something that is apparently not required of JMac and Chrissie. In my opinion if the announcers due to outside factors come in a little hazy about what's been going on in the tennis world briefing sheets or sessions should be held. What's wrong with cheat sheets giving the won/lost records, rankings and results leading into the Slam being provided? If pertinent medical histories can be provided as well. Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is.

As for the United States our performance was once again horrid. The top rated US Junior girl Taylor Townsend snagged the number one ranking over Anna Schmiedlova who had been having a wonderful summer and came into the French on fire. This caused a lot of jaws to get tight in the junior tennis world but I figured they'd all had their haterade and that Taylor had to have improved her fitness since she was last seen on a major stage.

Unfortunately I was wrong. It's inexcusable for a young woman wanting to be considered a top contender to show up for a tournament, any tournament, in the above condition. Taylor is not alone in the lack of fitness department though. None of the American girls I saw with the possible exception of Lauren Davis, were fit. I exclude Davis because the only time I saw her she was sitting down. I'm not saying the young girls should go on a starvation diet but I mean even Christina McHale had a bit of a paunch. I'm old enough to remember Lindsay Davenport before she got fit and was the target of many snickers and asides by the American male tennis establishment, many of whom considered women players to be nothing more that pretenders because so many weren't fit.

The girl pictured above won the Junior girls championship by the way.

So what about the state of American tennis, male and female, going into Wimbledon? I think Patrick McEnroe has accepted that "winter is here" for the US and that it may be a long one. Ryan Harrison is the top hope for the US but like Victoria Azarenka will have to get himself under better control to compete with the big boys who are not impressed by histrionics and smashed racquets or as in Azarenka's case objects thrown at court officials and verbal abuse.

Andy Roddicks's mind is clearly on other things right now and he's barely been worth a footnote during the spring clay season. John Isner defeated Roger Federer during Davis Cup play but that said more about Federer than Isner whose game doesn't translate well to clay at all. The Bryan twins are aging and you have to wonder how much longer they'll be top competitors.

There is Sloan Stephens on the women's side though. Sloan has made the gutsy move to go to Barcelona to learn how to play on red clay, a sad commentary of the level of clay court instruction available in the United States. Let's not forget that Maria Sharapova's transformation into a decent if not spectacular clay court player took close to three years of work on her part. She didn't wake up one day and suddenly play better. Yet once more exhibiting ignorance of the sport he's paid to be an expert on John McEnroe asked, on the air, if Russian national Maria Sharapova was going to play the Olympics for the United States. That was the "Facepalm of the Tournament" award winner for me. Still it wasn't a surprise. I mentioned during my post on the WTA finalists that the US tennis establishment was going to try and claim Sharapova's success as it's own since she's done so much training here. That the USTA has to bask in the reflected glow of a US trained woman playing for Russia hoping that American's will forget her nationality is pretty sad. It's also pretty sad that the American's are once again "waiting for Wimbledon" where the hope of good draws and a faster surface can possibly improve our showing.

Enough of the pathetic state of American tennis. Let's look at both tours starting with the WTA. The Italian women seem to be staking a claim to the French. For the third year in a row an Italian woman made the Final. Tiny Sara Errani showed how to make her height less of a disadvantage playing bigger women by moving around the ball to get a good angle and frustrate her taller opponents. Her style could be a prototype for the smaller women trying to make it in the States but I doubt that this will happen. I thought that Nikolay Davydenko's style would be a good one for Donald Young to study but what do I know? I'm just a fan. God forbid some foreigner would be worthy of emulation.

But back to the WTA. The only woman who seemed to have an idea about how to play Sharapova on clay was defending champion Li Na but she seems to have forgotten how to play tennis longer than a set and a half. If you make Sharapova move her shots lose their effectiveness but no one seemed able to do that for more than a few games. Perhaps it's a testament to Sharapova's will that she didn't allow her opponents to be able to do that for any length of time during a match. Perhaps it's a testament to the lack of mental toughness outside of Sharapova and Serena Williams in the women's game. I was slack jawed when I read that Victoria Azarenka had added Amelie Mauresmo to her team to prepare for the French. What did Amelie do in Paris to warrant being a consultant to the then WTA #1?

That great tennis sage Marion Bartoli said that it's a big difference between being the hunter and the hunted. I think Ms Azarenka found this out. I said from the beginning of her ascension that Azarenka was not temperamentally suited to be a number one. She may redeem herself at Wimbledon and the US Open but I have a feeling two women named Williams and Sharapova will have other ideas about her reclaiming the top spot. Neither Serena nor Maria give a rats ass about being the hunted. They care about winning and don't care who they have to destroy on their way to doing that. Serena believed the hype about her being a contender for Paris and didn't play a tournament on the red dirt coming into Paris. Sharapova did. I think Serena will leave the pretty at home and come out ready to take names at Wimbledon.

So what about the ATP tour? Does it have the depth most feel is lacking in the women's tour? I think the answer is a definite maybe. One of the things I saw on a lot of fan boards during the French was that aside from the top four or five (isn't it time to include David Ferrer in the conversation?) the last few majors and Master's events have been boring. Players like Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon have shown the skills but not the necessary will to do damage against the top three players. Milos Raonic has the weight of Canada on his shoulders every time he steps on court. I also feel his game hasn't matured the way it could have if they left him alone to develop. I don't know what to say about Fernando Verdasco. Feliciano Lopez seems to have been slowed down by age but he is better on hard courts than clay. David Nalbandian is best during the indoor season but if he pulls himself together can definitely ruin your day. I refuse to discuss Janko Tipsarevic.

Then there's this quote from Newsweek has to have jaws tight.

The storylines for global tennis only get better as Nadal and Djokovic continue their back-and-forth. Who will conquer at Wimbledon? And again at the grounds of the All England Club a month later at the London Olympics? Can supporting cast members such as Federer, Murray, and the electric Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or the big hitters like Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro push aside the Tremendous Two for a title?

That's not from me folks. I wrote the other stuff before seeing this quote. Great minds and all that I guess.

Still notice the lack of an American even being mentioned? US commentators can continue to pretend that our players have more than a fluke chance of going deep in a Slam or a Masters 1000. They can not read up on the European's and ignore the European and to a lesser extent the South Americans - Juan Monaco until he was injured was having a very good year - but it's not going to change reality.
Winter is here, and it's going to be a very long one.

End Note

Those of you have have read this blog from the beginning know that I used to hear quite a bit from MV about her Captain Wasabi. Well as luck, or something, would have it I got an email from her the other day. She's worried about her Captain, worried enough to not be able to text as much as she would like to her friends during his matches. The day she sent me the email she said he'd locked himself in the man cave wing of the house muttering something about "two and a half". Not even the twins - yes they've had children since she last communicated with me - could lure him out. He's also been screaming about the Kid as he still calls his rival being five majors away and that sixteen was supposed to be sacred. I know MV loves her Captain and as a woman I sympathize. I'm not sure how I should answer her.


Matt said...

Another great post Savannah! Love your insights and perspectives on the tennis establishment and also the critique of the American commentators. Some of the commentary is simply horrific at best!

Am hoping Sloane can mature into a great player (I watched her live at Indian Wells this year in her choke against Kerber). Has amazing potential and a killer inside-out forehand. Let's hope she can stay disciplined and focused. My bet is that she's America's next big hope! I personally can't stand Ryan Harrison and his bratty temperament.

Karen said...

Savannah, you lost me when you said that Serena did not play any tournaments on the red clay and that she believed the hype that she was a contender for the French Open. Serena played Rome and withdrew from her quarter final match with a back problem. You are doing what the commentators that you complain about do, not digging into the whys and wherefores of the issue surrounding Serena. For what it is worth, it took Sharapova 4 years to win a 4th major. Why does everyone think that Serena should win a Major less than a year after her return from a life threatening illness?

I don't think Serena has anything to prove to anyone regarding whether she wins another Major, despite what Martina has said.

Savannah said...

Karen I know Serena played a minute at Rome. I know she withdrew with a back injury. I know she had a hard fall in Madrid that could've hurt her back. That doesn't change the fact that for all intents and purposes she really didn't play a complete tournament on red clay. The hype machine was working overtime and I think Serena, being human, thought that maybe she didn't need to play on the red dirt. I think that hurt her in Paris. I'm not saying she wasn't hurt. I'm not saying that maybe she didn't want the wear and tear required to play on clay. I am saying that for whatever reason Serena was not prepared for Paris.

As for Sharapova you know I'm not a fan. As was pointed out by many tennis heads Sharapova has never defended a Slam title and as you point out she's had a long drought.

What I do give her is the determination to get better on her worst surface. It was a two to three year process and ended in her winning the French Open after all of her potential opponents went down to injury or mental weakness.

Serena doesn't have anything to prove to anyone. She's been fighting back from life threatening illness. I just think she miscalculated by not playing at least one tournament, win or lose, on red dirt.

lynney62 said...

Great writeup, Savannah!
My sympathies to MV! ROTFLMAO!!!

cp said...

Ryan Harrison and his bratty temperament---

Ryan loves Roddick and you can see that he's picked up a few of his rude mannerisms. I hope he grows up soon.

Karen said...

But Savannah she did play. She played a tough 3 set match against Petrova. She struggled mightily in Rome. I cannot recall Serena saying anything in her press conference either before or after her lone match as to why she did not perform well in Paris. Methinks it was as it was ... she faced an opponent who performed for her home crowd and that was it.

As for whether Federer is thinking that he may not win another Major, that is the thing about records ... they are meant to be broken. Does not take away what one person has accomplished. Just enhances it in my view

Savannah said...

Yes she played Petrova, won that, and then she was gone. I would've liked to see her play a couple more matches just to get her feet used to the real dirt but if I recall correctly she said her back wes bothering her. Maybe that's what was eating at her in Paris. I don't think she made any excuses about how she played but to this observer she was off, she couldn't force herself into the match against Razzano emotionally. Intellectually I think she was fine but sometimes you need more than that. I kept expecting her to say "not today" and that didn't happen.

I don't know if you were reading my blog when MV used to talk to me all the time. She's said more to me than she did this go around. :)

Some have asked me to publish her comments again and for some reason it worked here. I don't mean any harm or to disparage anyone's victories. It's all good clean fun. At least that's how I mean it to come across.