Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: 2012 French Open

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 /by

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Grand Slam editions of this regular TennisWorld feature are maddening, simply because so much happens during the momentous two weeks of a major. As always, I'm not even going to try to cover all the bases, and hope I can come up with one or two surprises for you as well as hit on some of the obvious choices.

ThumbsupRafael Nadal managed the pressure of his situation in the French Open final beautifully, despite a number of curve balls thrown at him, starting with the suspicion that his outstanding scores throughout the tournament were due mainly to a "soft" draw—which, it should be said, included clay-court experts Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer.

Although it was hard to imagine that Nadal wouldn't bag an unprecedented seventh French Open title (this year, or next, or sometime before 2025), the stakes going into the final with Novak Djokovic were huge. A loss would have not only enabled Djokovic to accomplish something neither Nadal nor Roger Federer managed (four consecutive Grand Slam titles); it would also have given Nadal a, ahem, unique place in the record books, as Djokovic's victim in each of those finals. And lastly, while the rain was a bummer for both players, Djokovic seemed the one who would most benefit from a fresh start on Monday. The rest you know.

ThumbsupMaria Sharapova capped her evolution into a clay-court player to be reckoned with at this tournament, and along with the trophy and winner's prize-money she earned a career Grand Slam—and a return to the No. 1 ranking she hasn't held since this time in 2008. In the interim, she underwent career-threatening surgery on her right shoulder, which left many thinking she would never contend at majors again. That she was able to come back and return all the way to the top again is impressive. That she's also become a far, far better player than she was back in those days is even more astonishing. Who ever imagined that this formidable "brand" and fashion icon would be such a tough, resilient, humble, determined athlete?

ThumbsdownThe French Tennis Federation turned down 34-year-old Tommy Haas' request for a wild card, so the German went out and won six matches—the equivalent of making the semis at Roland Garros. Of course, three of those matches were in the qualifying event (and thus, three-setters), which Haas was forced to enter when the French organizers showed little sympathy for the comeback hopes of this former world No. 2, who's on the short list of "best players never to win a major."

Haas sucked it up, though, and had a great tournament. He even took the high road on the FFT's decision: “I think my fans are probably thinking it’s ridiculous, but at the end of the day I did obviously ask for a wild card into the French Open. But I knew it was going to be tough to get one, there are a lot of good French players right between [Nos.] 100 and 200.” Incidentally, the only French players to go deeper than Haas were Richard Gasquet, who beat Haas in the third round, and quarterfinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

ThumbsupSara Errani was the runner-up in singles and the champion (with partner Roberta Vinci) in the doubles. How much more could you ask from this determined, level-headed, game player, given her natural handicaps, which include stature (5'4") and a serve that barely sends the speed-gun needle into the 90 M.P.H. range on her best days. In past years, a "surprise" finalist at Roland Garros often foretold a terrible, 55-minute blow-out. But Errani held her own against an inspired and on-target Sharapova to add further credence to the idea that the WTA game is improving by leaps and bounds, right before our eyes.

ThumbsupJo-Wilfried Tsonga put a lot of noses in France (and elsewhere) out of joint by telling the French press, in no uncertain terms, that no Frenchman had a chance to win Roland Garros. Not only was he proven right, but Tsonga was the only one of France's Big Four (Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, and Gasquet) to equal or surpass expectations at his native major.

Monfils, who was out with injury, gets a pass. But Simon and Gasquet once again had very little impact on the tournament. Tsonga, by contrast, played one of the best matches of the French Open, even though he failed to convert any of four match points in his quarterfinal battle with Djokovic. Tsonga didn't choke on any of those points; all of them were against Djokovic's serve, and Tsonga had a decent chance to win just one of those points. He's our French male MVP of the tournament.

ThumbsdownVictoria Azarenka, then-world No. 1 and top-seeded, lost to No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round. It wasn't so much that Vika lost; after all, the mighty mite Cibulkova came within a hair's breath of scoring the big upset over Azarenka back in March, at the Miami combined event. It was more the poor sportsmanship and sour, negative attitude that sometimes still seems to grip Azarenka when things don't go her way.

Azarenka smashed one racquet during the match (incurring a warning from the chair umpire), and when a reporter, trying to be discreet, asked what she would do to "recover" from the loss, the Australian Open champ went sarcastic: "I'm going to kill myself. . ." She added, "The tournament is over for me. What's to recover from?"

Actually, that final rhetorical question is pretty funny—but it doesn't make up for the fact that Azarenka just isn't behaving like a champion. End of story.

ThumbsupNicolas Mahut, the lesser half of the 70-68 twins, surpassed expectations, as did a number of his fellow French journeymen and veterans. The 30-year old ATP No. 65 upset Andy Roddick in the first round and lasted until round three, at which point he met Roger Federer.

Mahut joked before the match that he wasn't sure which player guest box his wife (a big fan of Federer's) would choose to sit in, and the simple pride and pleasure Mahut took out of playing on the historic Court Suzanne Lenglen against perhaps the greatest player of all time was obvious before and also throughout the match. And hey, Mahut even got a set off Federer. In spite of that, Federer gave Mahut a warm handshake and left the court smiling—no doubt feeling the same sense of appreciation the rest of us enjoy when we're present at such wonderful if not exactly historic moments. 

PicThumbsupVirginie Razzano and the rest of the WTA "have-nots." Just look at the contenders and big names who bit the dust before fulfilling their seeding: Victoria Azarenka (No. 1), Agniezska Radwanska (No. 3), Serena Williams (No. 5) Li Na (No. 7), Marion Bartoli (No. 8), Caroline Wozniacki (No. 9), Sabine Lisicki (No. 12), Ana Ivanovic (No. 13), Francesca Schiavone (No. 14) and Jelena Jankovic (No. 19).

Furthermore, while Razzano was unable to capitalize on her first-round shocker over Serena Williams, her performance provided her French countrymen with much joy and pride. And many of the other women who accounted for some of those high-value scalps continued to play well—which is always the sign that an upset was no mere fluke. Kaia Kanepi, Varvara Lepchenko, Petra Martic.  . . they all built upon the upsets they crafted and deserve thumbs up.

ThumbsdownMikhail Youzhny had a terrible day against Ferrer, a player who specializes in making guys like Youzhny have bad days. He lost the first set at love, and was barely doing better in the second when he used his foot to scrawl the word "Sorri" in the clay. After he lost the match, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2, Youzhny explained, "There was a lot of people (on Court Lenglen), that's why I write, 'sorry.' Because I can't show them a nice game." I guess it was a nice gesture, but it's still a little weak, as far as excuses go. 

ThumbsupLucky Loser David Goffin of Belgium was a pleasant surprise, and it seemed somehow fitting that he ended up having to play Federer after recording three unlikely upsets over, respectively, veterans Radek Stepanek, Arnaud Clement, and Lukasz Kubot. After all, Federer handles "feel good" moments awfully well, as he already showed in that Mahut match. And it seems that such moments put Federer in a particularly generous mood because, like Mahut before him, Goffin, a beanpole of 21 who looks 15, got a little carried away and actually won a set. But teacher again restored order and Goffin left Roland Garros as a player with a future, able to tell his buddies that he got a set off Roger Federer on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

ThumbsupNovak Djokovic undoubtedly left Paris a disappointed man, his dreams of a "Nole Slam" lying in pieces in the red dirt. It's a shame, in a way, because Nadal's historic accomplishment (his seventh title at Roland Garros) was almost pre-ordained to happen sooner or later. But it's unlikely that Nole will get another chance at holding all four Grand Slam titles at once. It's just too big an ask, although we'd be crazy to rule it out. But that's one of the reasons the feat ranks right behind a calendar year Grand Slam in tennis accomplishments. That we never had a "Roger Slam" or a "Rafa Slam" ought to tell you just how difficult it is to get over that fourth-Slam hump.

Credit Djokovic with giving it a superb effort, even though the pressure clearly weighed heavily on him. He fought to the bitter end, even if his weapons were gummed up and given to jamming more often than they had during his three previous, successful Grand Slam outings. Getting to the final was not just a great effort, it also fulfilled the implicit contract players have with fans—the one in which the players agree to do their part to meet or exceed the expectations and demands of the tennis-hungry public and pundits. It's no small feat, that. So a special thanks to Nadal and Djokovic seems like a nice way to close this post.

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