May 20, 2012

The Round-Up

I know it's been a while since I've posted, but that's no indication that there hasn't been a lot to talk about. The last two big events before the French Open featured eight distinct players battling for the crown, and each one made his or her case loud and clear that any could be real contenders at the year's next Grand Slam.

The biggest story in Madrid had nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the strange color of the court, but all complaints and dramatics aside, two of the strongest women in the field made their way to last week's final. World #1 Victoria Azarenka battled her way through a tough draw -- she faced 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round -- to make her sixth final of the year. Meanwhile Serena Williams, finally toting a single-digit ranking again, looked to extend her win streak -- she'd taken a title in Charleston and swept opponents in her Fed Cup playoffs -- and dismissed potential threats from Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova to play for the title herself.

The final, though, was less dramatic than many hoped. Vika had put in some awe-inspiring battles during the pair's history, even when she ended up losing, and given the way she'd refined her game this year, the match-up promised to be brutal. But Serena built a 4-0 lead before the Belarusian was able to get on the board, and she had no occasion to look back from there. As Azarenka's serve failed her, she double-faulted away the first set after less than an hour of play. She tried to stay within spitting distance in the second but was unable to erase another early break there. With fourteen aces and nearly twice as many winners, Serena was finally the one holding the trophy -- her first on European clay since she won the French in 2002 -- and reminding us why nearly no one is safe when she's on her game.

The men in Madrid were out to make a similar statement. After both of last year's finalists lost before the semis, the remaining men knew the title was up for grabs. Roger Federer, winner here in 2009, had been on a roll recently, claiming three straight titles in February and March, and after surviving an early test from Milos Raonic in his opener, he sailed through his matches to make the final. In the other half, 2010 French semifinalist Tomas Berdych had pulled his game together, taking advantage of a Rafa-less draw and really only facing a challenge from Juan Martin Del Potro in the final four.

The Czech came out swinging in the final -- having won three of their last five, he had the confidence to do so. He got a break early in the first set and didn't squander the lead. But Federer turned the tables in the second -- this time it was his turn to ride a break to a 4-1 lead, and despite failing to serve out the set, he did eventually force the decider. The third set followed a similar pattern -- Roger broke in the eighth game, only to have his opponent even the score again. But with Berdych serving for a tiebreak, the Swiss kept his cool after losing a 0-40 lead and finally converted his fourth championship point, proving there are more than a few players able to win on the dirt.

The drama just intensified by the time everyone made their way over to Rome this week. A couple retirements on the women's side -- including both Madrid finalists -- wreaked a little havoc on the draw, but eventually the strong survived. Last year's champion Maria Sharapova got through some early tests from up-and-comer Christina McHale and resurgent Venus Williams before avenging her Paris loss to Angelique Kerber in the semis. And 2011 French Open champ Na Li, who's been pretty quiet since winning that trophy, benefitted from both Vika's and Serena's withdrawals, making the final without dropping a set.

The pair's head-to-head has been a see-saw of sorts -- MaSha won their first five meetings, but momentum shifted to Li's side for four matches after that, with Maria taking their last battle in Miami. The final was no different -- the Russian got the first break, but quickly gave it back, they stayed on serve for a bit, but Li broke again in the tenth game to take the first set. She built a 4-0 lead in the second, but the three-time Major winner rattled off eight games in a row and was a point away from 5-1 in the decider when Li started to rally again. The two had just fought to a tiebreak -- Sharapova saving a championship point along the way -- when rain halted play, and when the athletes finally took the court again, the 2011 winner was the one who kept her cool. Sharapova concerted her first match point, winning her second clay court title of the year and further turning around a recent losing streak in finals and reasserting her power just in time for the French.

The men's bracket was no less exciting. Defending champion Novak Djokovic rebounded from his quarterfinal loss in Madrid and took out one threat after another, notching his fifth victory over Roger Federer in their last six meetings. More impressive, perhaps, was Rafael Nadal, fresh off his earliest clay court loss since 2004 and a slight dip in his ranking, got right back to work in Rome. He easily made his way through early rounds, took out Madrid finalist Berdych in the quarters, and blanked compatriot David Ferrer to make the final.

So we'll be treated to a rematch of last year's final, though circumstances were slightly different this time around. Nadal had successfully ended his seven-final losing streak to Nole in Monte Carlo, and no one is sporting an astonishingly unblemished record going into the championship match. The head-to-head is more even than it had been, and both have shown they're not indomitable. When they both take the court, whether it's after a long rain delay on Sunday or Monday afternoon, they'll both bring their all to reclaim the crown. And while they've both proven to be great forces on the surface, something tells me this is where the Spaniard will reassert his dominance.

Of course, not all these guys and girls will be able to take the crown at Roland Garros, and experience may favor some over others. But each one of these players reminded the world of what it takes to win on clay. And if they're able to keep it up, they might be able to do some real damage when an even bigger trophy is on the line.


Anonymous said...

Can Sharapova get past Serena Williams?

Kavitha said...

And once the rain stopped, Rafa came out swinging. In a two-hour straight setter, he reclaimed the Rome crown Nole had taken from him last year. That, incidentally, should give him his #2 ranking back, just in time for Paris.