The Learning Rollercoaster

Thursday, May 30, 2013 /by


Does sitting through rain delays seem more irritating than it once did? It has felt that way to me the last few years at the French Open and the U.S. Open. If it’s true, we can probably blame the All England Club. Having a roof over Centre Court has made not having a roof over the main stadiums in Paris and Flushing Meadows seem almost irresponsible. Now it’s harder to say c’est la vie when rain stops play; instead, as the players leave the court, we go to Twitter and vent our disgust with the organizers' incompetence. Unfortunately, we'd be better off re-learning to live with it. Neither facility is going to be covered up anytime soon.

There was some play between the rain drops at Roland Garros today—as I right this, at 2:52 Eastern, the showers have returned for, what, the 10th time? Here are a few scrounged-up notes from a less-than-full Thursday.

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Once You Think You're Up, You're Down

The British press has a well-earned reputation for viciousness, and that has generally extended to the tabloid coverage of the country’s best male player, Andy Murray. But what about its highest-ranked woman, Laura Robson? It’s true that she has been called, with perhaps less than the full respect due a professional athlete, a “starlet” in tabloid headlines over the years. But things are different on Twitter. There, even when Robson gets blown out, the tweets from the British journalists in attendance are almost uniformly, even comically, supportive:

“Laura will learn from this."

“It’s another one for the experience bank."

"She almost reached break point in the last game, but alas, she lost 6-2, 6-1.”

"Those 27 unforced errors aside, Robbo showed a lot of promise today."

Part of this is hope, of course: Like sportswriters from any country, those from Great Britain need someone to write about. The result is that Robson is one of the best-covered No. 37s in tennis history—I’m not sure I’ve ever read a word about the woman currently ranked one spot ahead of her, Romina Oprandi of Switzerland. As unbalanced as this coverage might be, I don’t hold it against Robson, who has a terrific personality—she really would make a great star for the sport. Beyond that, I’m happy when any tennis player anywhere can garner significant media attention. Our sport deserves more of it.

Plus, fame is not always what it’s cracked up to be. With it comes pressure, and negative attention. Robson got a little of the latter recently when she split with her coach, Zeljko Krajan. The man universally described as a "taskmaster" told the Times of London that he thought Robson was immature and not willing to work hard enough—if Oprandi’s coach ever said the same of her, I'm guessing only the most devoted of tennis fans would have gotten wind of it.

After breaking out with wins over Kim Clijsters and Li Na at the U.S. Open last fall, Robson has had an up-and-down, learn-to-live-with-the-expectations type of season so far. She’s lost in the first round six times, but she has also continued her giant-killing ways by beating Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams. I would chalk up the Brits’ protectiveness toward their Laura as wishful thinking, if it weren’t for those big wins. Robson, who had back trouble in Paris, went out early and quickly to Caroline Wozniacki, but she has potential. Britain’s journalists, whatever their motivations, are right: She’s still learning.

Speaking of witty tennis starlets, America’s version, Sloane Stephens, is also in Paris, and she’s playing pretty well. She trounced countrywoman Vania King today to move into the third round. Like Robbo, Sloane hasn’t so much been on a learning curve as a learning roller-coaster since her own Grand Slam breakout, in Australia in January. After beating Serena Williams there, Stephens has lost in the first round five times, and has occasionally sounded apathetic about her results and her game. The coverage of her in the U.S. has revolved entirely around Serena—are they friends?; is she her successor?; was Serena her mentor? The biggest news Sloane has made since Australia was when she complained that Serena wasn’t nice to her. 

It has been a public learning process for Stephens, and pretty much everything she has done has been criticized. So it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise that she wasn’t her usual bubbly self after her first-round win at the French Open. Coming out of her press conference, journalists lamented about how “subdued” she was, and it’s true, Sloane wasn't linguistically inspired that day:

“Paris is Paris,” was all she had to say about the City of Light.

“Attention is attention,” was her description of the media crush around her since Australia.

“It is what it is,” was her analysis of her career at the moment. Paris makes some people philosophical; it seems to have made Sloane tautological.

But Stephens also said something else: “I’m only 20 years old, so I have a lot to learn and a long ways to go.” 

That’s simple, but it’s true, and hopefully Sloane can live by those words and not worry about every loss and every negative story that comes along. Stephens, as she says, has things to learn; even today, she was content to cruise to the ball and rally from behind the baseline, rather than pushing forward and building points. But if the Brits can give Robson time, Americans should be able to do the same for Stephens. She’s already in the Top 20, and she has the bigger upside. 

Sloane could play Maria Sharapova in the round of 16 in Paris. If she gets there and pulls off an upset, she’ll almost certainly be granted a new persona in the media: “big-match player.” The embarrassments of the last few months would suddenly be a memory. But even if Sloane loses in the next round, hopefully this week will be one for the experience bank. 

Today, in her presser, Sloane talked about her thinking process during rain delays: 

“You literally have nothing to do. Should I eat? Do cartwheels? You have no idea what to do, so it’s just kind of your lost. But it is what it is.”

OK, that’s another tautology. But it sounded like she had a little of her bubble and wit back.

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Big 6 Update

We’ve been through five days at the French Open. Some players are in the third round, some are stuck back in the second, most are bored and annoyed by the rain. But we have enough evidence to make a few early snap judgments about the top players. A couple stars are facing stern tests in the next round.

Novak Djokovic: He’s righted himself after the losses in Madrid and Rome. Closing out three tight sets against David Goffin should be a confidence-booster. Now he plays the man who beat him in Madrid, Grigor Dimitrov. Djokovic could lose again, but unless the ankle is still secretly bothering him, I think he’s as well prepared as he could hope to be. And he sounded quietly confident in his presser today.

Serena Williams: So far she seems determined to avoid close sets, and has appeared relaxed in general. Paris may feel like a home away from away for her by now. Still, her next opponent, Sorana Cirstea, can play.

Roger Federer: He’s been in total control, but Friday he gets a tough one—Julien Benneteau, who has troubled him lately, in front of the Chatrier crowd. The audience won’t be against Federer, but they should be a help to Benneteau.

Maria Sharapova: The second seed couldn’t finish her match against Genie Bouchard, and she wasn’t too pleased about it. But she only has a couple games to go. Zheng Jie awaits.

Rafael Nadal: Rafa got the short end of the scheduling stick today when he was put on late in Lenglen, even as the top seed in his half, Djokovic, went on early in Chatrier. The upshot is that Djokovic made it safely through, while Nadal, who didn’t begin against Martin Klizan, will have to go back-to-back to catch up. Klizan, a lefty ranked No. 35, isn’t a pushover. In theory, anyway.

Victoria Azarenka: Vika had some trouble against Annika Beck today, but she also caught a break when Bethanie Mattek-Sands took out the other top seed in her quarter, Li Na.

In the age of 32 seeds, the Grand Slams don't really get competitive until the third round.

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