Persistents Pay Off

by: Steve Tignor | June 13, 2012

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MsNOT PARIS—That would be Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal, of course. Twice this spring, after their wins in Stuttgart and Barcelona and Rome, I referred to the two world No. 2s and Australian Open finalists as the Persistents, and all of their plugging on clay was worth it, as each finished with an historic win at Roland Garros. Sharapova even managed to leave the second spot behind and retake the No. 1 ranking for the first time since May 2008. That’s pluck.

But there was more to this French Open than Rafa and Maria. There was an epic first-round women’s upset, an epically long men’s fifth set, and short-lived American heroes of both genders. There were heckles and boos, match points saved and blown, and an exciting, and exceedingly young-looking, new face on the men’s side. Before all of those people and happenings get left in the giant dustbin of tennis history, here’s a look back at who measured up, and who was lacking, at the 2012 French Open.


Rafael Nadal
Q: If I could ask you to brag a little bit, what would you point to as an explanation for why you have been so successful on clay, and particularly here, so much better than everyone else?

RAFAEL NADAL: My mental part probably on clay is one of the most important things, especially on clay, more than in the rest of the surfaces, because you have to run, you have to suffer sometimes, you have to play with more tactics, because you have more time to think, to do things.

Probably the reason is because I always was scared to lose. That’s why I go on court every day against other opponent with the full respect, knowing that you can lose and you can win.

Then I think I was very focused for the last eight years, because winning as much as I did in this surface the last eight years is not because I played great every time. Is impossible to play great every time.  Because when I played so so, I was there mentally.  The mental part was there 100%, so probably that’s why the reason.

He played great six times at this tournament, but in his last match, Nadal was scared to lose and scared to win. It would have been a devastating defeat. During the final I wondered how long Rafa could continue to chase after Djokovic if he blew this one, on clay, at Roland Garros. Fortunately for him, we won’t have to find out. He seemed prepared to, as he likes to say, suffer those defeats for as long as it took to get a win.

What kind of six-time champ has to battle through extreme anxiety (the greatest clay-courter ever was too nervous to play until three minutes before the final) to win one more? The kind who can be “very focused" on something for eight straight years. The kind who makes every one of his French Open titles feel like his first. A+

Maria Sharapova
I could have said, I don't need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams.  But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world, and you seem so small. But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things.A+

Novak Djokovic
He lost the Djoker Slam, but this was a step forward for Novak, and I think he took it that way. He made his first French final, and won his first set from Nadal at Roland Garros. He also gave us the most dramatic moments of the tournament with his tightrope walk of a win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. What sticks with me, though, were the eight straight games Djokovic took from Rafa in the final. Nobody had done that before against Nadal here, at least that anyone could remember. And I’ve seen few players—maybe Sampras, maybe Federer—who have looked as unbeatable, by anyone, ever, for an extended period. He’ll be back, and next time he’ll believe. A

Sara Errani
I liked her attitude: There’s no reason not to try whatever you can to win, even when you’re not supposed to win. In the final, she was closer than you might think to driving Sharapova around the bend. When Errani was asked if she thought her life would change now, she said she hoped not, because she likes her life. Nobody does good-humored fearlessness like Italian women tennis players at Roland Garros. A

David Ferrer
One of the best tournaments of his career ended in typical fashion, with him as a decided second-fiddle to his more talented countryman. Ferrer was also typically honest and concise in defeat: “He played better than me,” he said of Nadal after their semifinal. Still, Ferrer did break the Top 4’s stranglehold on the Grand Slam semis. A-

David Goffin
For shot-making thrills and surprises, Goffin’s four-set loss to Roger Federer was the match of the tournament. He’s 21, but maybe 21 is the new 18 when it comes to tennis prodigies. Federer wants to see him in the Top 20, and I doubt any fan would disagree. A-

Brian Baker
“Contrasts in style” are more subtle these days than they once were. But the 27-year-old Baker offered one: He takes the ball early, and has a backhand worth the price of admission. He also, as a good Nashville type, didn’t make a big deal out of the whole thing. But he could be a big deal for American tennis going forward. A-

The Nadals vs. the Djokovics
The duel of the stand-and-scream families in the last set of the men’s final was almost as good as the match itself. Family Feud is still on, right? I want to see Srdjan and Toni face each other at the buzzers. A-

Sloane Stephens
We knew she makes good copy, as she proved again when she called her mother “spoiled rotten” and said that her French prize money would probably be used to fly mom home first class. Now we’re getting the idea that Sloane can play with anyone, at least on her favorite surface. If she can keep her focus and cut the streaks of passivity out, she has the game to do… anything? B+

Petra Kvitova
She made it farther than she has before at Roland Garros, but she let a bad call get to her in the semis, and tried to fight it by playing with anger. Hopefully it’s a learning experience—she doesn't appear to be a rage-aholic. B+

RnNicolas Mahut
A win over Roddick, a set from Federer, a vaguely familiar way of playing. B+

Varvara Lepchenko
The 26-year-old Pennsylvania resident's brutal third-round win over Francesca Schiavone was worthy of the Bullring. Her loss in front of a hundred people to Kvitova in that arena wasn’t. A good story that hopefully will have a few more chapters. B+

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
The backhand pass at match point against Djokovic wasn’t as easy as it looked; the ball was low and he didn’t have a great angle. Worse, though, was the way Jo played when he had a lead in the fourth-set breaker. He moved back and waited for Nole to miss. Still, Tsonga played a great match and gave us a memorable moment of theater as he sat with a towel over his head in defeat, the French crowd chanting his name. B

Roger Federer
He showed a cussed spirit in his comeback win over Juan Martin del Potro, but not in his final, capitulatory set against Djokovic in the semis—I was surprised by the lack of belief. Granted, the dismal way he squandered the second wouldn’t leave anyone feeling confident. B

Juan Martin del Potro
He began his quarter with Federer brilliantly, but ended it by getting blown out in three mysterious sets. Was he hurt? He said no. If not, that's really bad. For him, though, against Federer, this is progress. B

Juan Monaco
My favorite celebration of the tournament was his Borg imitation after he beat Raonic on a packed Court 2. Never mind that Pico actually began to fall before the point was over. Then he played Nadal. B

Dominika Cibulkova
My second favorite celebration was her face-palm/fall down, followed by high fives all around, after she finally finished Azarenka. B

Sam Stosur
Even Grand Slam titles can’t change some players’ psyches in the big moments. For the second time in three years on Chatrier, an upstart Italian stole a match that was supposed to be hers. B-

Tomas Berdych
He’d been building to what looked like a breakthrough, but when the moment came against del Potro, Berdych was clearly second best. B-

Andy Murray
Lenglen tends to bring out Murray the Monologuist. While that can be entertaining in a twisted way, his loss to Ferrer provided a stark contrast in how these two players go about their business. Upped a notch for his late-match brilliance against Gasquet; docked one for holding his back after so many lost points. B-

Virginie Razzano
How do you follow up an all-time show of guts, and an all-time upset? Not by losing to Arantxa Rus in straights. B-

Richard Gasquet
He showed off some of his magic against Dimitrov and Haas in Lenglen, then looked scared by his own fans in Chatrier against Murray. B-

Serena Williams
A victim of her own clay-court success, she let her expectations make her unaccountably nervous against Razzano. Imagine how different the tournament would have been if she had just played her normal game from 5-1 up in the second-set tiebreaker. That’s the beauty of the knockout system. This time Serena knocked herself flat. Upped half a point for making a dull day at Roland Garros very exciting for the rest of us. C+

Eva Asderaki
Downside: One of the hindrances she called on Razzano was unfair, and she was too involved in that match. Upside: If she sticks with this as her standard, she could solve the shrieking issue single-handedly. C+

Victoria Azarenka
She had borne up well under the pressure of being No. 1, until this event. In the past, Vika has started her seasons like gangbusters only to burn out early. Is she heading that way again? C

Grigor Dimitrov
I know that was a long point, and the first two sets against Gasquet were fun and tiring, but you can’t really end up crawling around on the court before the second set is over, can you? C

Caroline Wozniacki
Bad loss, meltdown . . . underwear launch? Even in defeat, Caro knows how to get attention. C

John Isner
He didn’t look happy in his latest epic, and afterward he admitted that he wasn’t. Once again, the European spring campaign is where American clay-court hopes go to die. C

Louise Engzell
For the second straight year, this chair umpire chose the wrong mark on a crucial point in a big women’s match. If you think Hawk-Eye should be used on clay, you should want to see her out there more often. Like Isner with the fifth-set tiebreaker, she’s a one-woman case for going to replay on dirt. C-

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