June 9, 2014

Not Just About the Trophies

I was out of town most of last week and got home just in time really to catch the men's final at the French Open. But though I may have missed some of the particulars, I'm fully aware of how exciting things got as we got down to the wire at Roland Garros. And as impressive as the champions' campaigns were, there were plenty other stand-outs in the second half of the Paris fortnight -- even among those that fell just a little short of taking home the trophies.

On the ladies side, so many of the uber-favorites were knocked out early so we were given early warning that we should expect some new faces hanging out in the later rounds. Croatia's Alja Tomljanovic, who defeated third seed Aga Radwanska, made a fourth round appearance at her first French Open, and Garbine Muguruza rode her defeat of Serena Williams all the way to the quarterfinals. And three of the ladies who reached the semifinals had combined for only one previous Grand Slam Final Four -- Genie Bouchard won her first career title in Nice just days before making the trip to Paris, and backed up her performance in Melbourne by taking out a toughened-up Julia Goerges, world #9 Angelique Kerber and my dark horse pick for the title, Carla Suarez Navarro. And Andrea Petkovic, who'd made the quarters here on her last visit -- three long years ago -- cemented her comeback with a decisive win over 2012 finalist Sara Errani, marking her longest Major run to date.

Simona Halep did them both one better though -- the 2008 Juniors champion at Roland Garros had put together one of the most impressive twelve-month runs on Tour. Since June of last year, the petite Romanian has picked up a field-leading seven titles, the biggest coming in Doha this past February, and this season she'd already notched five wins over top-ten players. She'd climbed all the way up to #4 in the world, and was actually ranked higher than everyone she faced in Paris. Unfortunately, though, she ran into a much more experienced Maria Sharapova, seeded just seventh, but after trophies in Stuttgart and Madrid combined with the exits of Serena and 2011 champ Na Li, a likely favorite for this title.

And Sharapova did not disappoint. Pushed to three sets in every one of her second-week matches, she went the distance again on Saturday's final -- Halep kept things interesting, grabbing the second set in a tiebreak and trading service games in the decider. But after more than three hours on court, the Russian emerged the winner, adding the second Roland Garros trophy to her mantle, and maybe more importantly doubling up the Slam she might never have thought she'd win. Despite injuries and coaching changes over the last several months -- and years, to be sure -- her Grand Slam career now spans a full decade and she's proven her consistency on all surfaces. Adding that fifth Major title to her resum´ is certainly nice, but her ability to endure so long in this sport puts her in a league many cannot achieve.

The performances on the men's side were no less impressive -- while they were blessed, too, with their fair share of early upsets, perhaps the biggest came in Sunday's fourth round when 2009 champion Roger Federer, the only man other than Rafael Nadal to win this title in the past ten years, fell at the hands of often-volatile Ernests Gulbis. The eighteenth seed had made the quarters in Paris way back in 2008, and while he too was a long-shot pick of mine, he hadn't gotten past the third round of any Major since. He followed up his defeat of Federer by taking out Tomas Berdych, becoming the third first-time Slam semifinalist in both brackets.

But while the ladies' draw certainly featured more greenness in the final few days, ultimately it was the more battle-tested men who won out. World #1 and #2 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic made Sunday's final as was widely expected -- their twenty-second match where a title was on the line. Rafa was going, of course, for his ninth Roland Garros crown and had won their last meeting at a Major, but Nole had momentum on his side, taking their last four meetings, most recently on the clay of Rome. And with a return to the top ranking and his own career Grand Slam on the line, he had plenty of motivation to dethrone the King of Clay.

And at the start it sure looked like we were about to see a changing of the guard at the French Open -- Djokovic more than doubled the number of winners Nadal hit in the opening set and never allowed his opponent much of a look on his own serve. But Rafa was able to turn the tables in the second -- though he gave back an early break he held tough to close out the set and dominated the third to gain the lead. Things went back and forth in the fourth, again, but after building a 30-0 lead in the tenth game, the Serb lost four straight points, the last on a double fault, to lose the match and what's been his best shot at making history. Instead, Nadal surpasses his own record -- his nine singles titles here are two more than any other man has won at the same Major -- and matches Pete Sampras for fourteen Slam trophies overall, second to and just three behind Federer's seventeen. Whether he can eventually surpass that number remains a question of course -- like Sharapova he's missed months at a time with injury, and the toll his game takes on his body certainly can't be ignored -- but by rebounding from a less-than-stellar season to dominate an event as big as Roland Garros shows he's not ready to slink off into the sunset any time soon.

While the physical prize at a Grand Slam is ultimately the trophies and checks awarded to the champions, this weekend's winners at Roland Garros -- and even those who fell a little short of the that -- accomplished so much more than their on-paper results suggest. Big upsets, big breakthroughs, big comebacks, big efforts -- these are just some of the stories told by the performances during the latter half of this year's French Open. Win or lose, all these athletes did something great in Paris. And hopefully it's just a sign of so much more to come.


Lisa Jones said...

I have used these guys for the last few years golf trophy and can't see any reason to go elsewhere!!

Faiza Jee said...

Wow, cool post. I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real hard work to make a great article... but I put things off too much and never seem to get started. Thanks though.