Monday, June 16, 2014
2014 French Open: Parting Thoughts
Roland Garros ended with two usual characters holding the winning trophies. Ironically, it will remain as one of the most upset-filled Slams in recent memory. Through all the upsets and the unexpected twists, the men's number one and two seeds kept coming to a collision that all tennis fans expected since the beginning of the tournament. On the women's side, once the top three seeds, Williams, Li Na, and Agnieska Radwanska, lost in the early days of the tournament, Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep were the two names that they predicted for the finals before any other name.
No need to go into details of each match, since most tennis fans have either watched them or read about them. It is worth noting, however, that for the first time in many years of worth of Slams (and yes, it's "Slams" and not "Grand Slams," a whole write-up needed for that mistake that keeps getting repeated over and over), the final weekend of the women's draw witnessed as much excitement as the men's, contained more dramatic matches with extremely tight finishes. The semifinals on Thursday — Sharapova vs. Eugenie Bouchard and Halep vs. Andrea Petkovic — undoubtedly provided more thrills for the spectators than the dull Friday of the men's semifinals in which both matches remained sub-par in quality, and above-par in disappointment in terms expectations.
Ernests Gulbis and Novak Djokovic played mediocre tennis for the most part, piling up the unforced errors. Djokovic's physical condition deteriorated as the match went on and Gulbis could not raise his level of play to take advantage of it. The second match between Nadal and Andy Murray went from start to finish at maximum warp speed as Nadal totally outclassed Murray for a one-man-show that lasted one hour and 38 minutes.
On Saturday, Sharapova and Halep brought their "A" games to Philippe Chatrier and provided the crowd, as well as the millions in front of their TV screens, with a spectacle to be remembered for a long time to come. It made me think back to the last three-set final at Roland Garros, some 13 years before Saturday, when Jennifer Capriati confirmed her comeback year that started at the Australian Open with a thrilling victory, 1-6, 6-4, 12-10, over the young newcomer Kim Clijsters of Belgium. It was a high flying period for the WTA with the Williams sisters in the beginning of their dominance, with Capriati and Martina Hingis challenging them, the Belgian duo Clijsters and Justine Henin joining the race and Sharapova getting in the mix in the mid-2000s.
That match on Chatrier between Capriati and Clijsters was the stamp on the envelope that contained the sealed confirmation that WTA was a highly popular product among tennis fans. Around late 2000s, the product got old and stale, with many of the stars who built it, retiring or losing their skills. Yet the new crop of players never managed to take over the few remaining names that kept dominating most tournaments. Saturday's final match was not only a thrill in terms of quality of tennis played but also the stamp that the WTA desperately needed to confirm that it is on its way back. Sharapova may have lifted the winner's trophy, but the fresh crop of players such as Halep, Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza, Ajla Tomljanovic, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Garcia, and few others are not going anywhere, and will stay around for a long time. WTA has a golden opportunity to capitalize on a new, radiant group of players, and it could not have asked for a better Slam final match to launch their product.
The men's final lacked nothing with regards to hype. The two best players in the world met at the highest stage of clay court tennis. The first two sets matched the expectations in quality and competition. Djokovic and Nadal traded blows, with each attempting to gain control over the other's baseline game through aggressive shots. In the first set, Djokovic managed to stay inside the court and push Nadal around. In the second set, Nadal began going for winners much more often and succeeded in taking the middle of the court away from Djokovic.
With the first two sets split, everyone expected a thrill ride the rest of the way. It never happened, due to two things. First, Nadal completely found his rhythm and remained on high gear for the next hour, only to come land from space down to earth for the last few games of the match. Second, Djokovic's physical state rapidly deteriorated from about 4-3 in the second set to 2-0 in the third set, to the point where he began shaking and stretching his legs and arms between points to relax and recover, stretching for balls to avoid extra steps, and as the usual result of fatigue, increasing the number of unforced errors in abundance.
It was only after the middle of the fourth set, when the clouds came and the wind picked up, that Djokovic found a way to get back into the match — and Rafa had a hand in it, too, with a few unexpected unforced errors. Yet, it was too little too late, as Djokovic did not have enough reserve in the tank to match the quality of his tennis from the first set. Nadal remained the king of clay and the number one player in the world, improving on his record of French Open titles and adding a new one to his expanding resume: he is now the only player in tennis to have one at least one Slam title for ten years in a row.
That being said, the stars of the last weekend of this Slam were the women. It was the first time in many years that women's matches outclassed the men's matches in excitement, thrill, and in quality. Unlike in men's matches, there were no ‘empty moments' in the three women's matches of the last weekend, no one-sided shows, and plenty of quality shot making. Unlike in the men's matches, each of the three women's matches remained hard to predict all the way to the very last few points. Roland Garros 2014 was the recipe that the WTA desperately needed: the injection that rejuvenated a stale product.