First Ball In, 5/23: Tune-Up Time
Patience is a virtue, but defiance was vital to Silvia Soler-Espinosa's comeback in Strasbourg today.
The stubborn Spanish qualifier saved a match point in the a second-set tiebreaker before winning four of the final five games of her 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-3 victory over American Christina McHale. The match spanned two hours and 46 minutes, and sent Soler-Espinosa to her first career WTA final.
It was the seventh straight win for the world No. 118, who earned three victories in qualifying and scored her third straight three-set decision.
It was an agonizing loss for McHale, who will rue a series of missed opportunities: She converted just two of 12 break points in the second set. The 59th-ranked New Jersey native won four straight games to serve for a spot in the final at 5-3, only to play with reticence surrendering serve at 15. McHale then built a 5-1 lead in the tiebreaker, but faltered near the finish line again. Holding match point at 6-5 in the breaker, McHale spun a double fault long. Soler-Espinosa pounced, sliding a wide serve followed by a forehand winner for her second set point, then smacked a forehand winner down the line to snatch the set and level the match.
An angled forehand drop-volley winner gave the Spaniard a break point. When McHale buried a backhand into the bottom of the net, Soler-Espinosa had the crucial break for 5-3 in the decider, while McHale, who held a 4-1 third-set lead over Maria Sharapova in Madrid earlier this month only to see it slip away, failed to find answers down the stretch.
"I have no idea [how I came back]" said Soler-Espinosa, who will face Monica Puig in the final. "I keep fighting every ball and finally I won the second set. It's tough because I'm seven days in a row playing matches every day, but I'm in the final and I'm gonna enjoy the final."
The Grand Slam starting gate is a stumbling block for Ernests Gulbis, who has failed to survive the second round in 15 of his last 16 major appearances, including 10 opening-round exits.
Yet the 2010 Roland Garros quarterfinalist typically plays his most finely tuned tennis at closing time: Gulbis is 5-0 lifetime in ATP finals. Today, the 19th-ranked Latvian won 26 of 27 points played on his first serve in deconstructing defending champion Albert Montanes, 6-0, 6-3, to advance to his sixth career final in Nice.
Gulbis, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 17 earlier this month, will face Federico Delbonis in the final. The seventh-seeded Argentine beat fourth-seeded Frenchman Gilles Simon a day after edging top-seeded John Isner, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6). The left-handed Delbonis is playing for his second clay-court title of the season; 34 of his 36 career ATP victories have come on dirt.
“The final will be very similar to the match against Isner," said Delbonis of his first meeting with Gulbis. "Ernests has a strong service. If I am focused, I will always have a chance.”
Son Rise, Son Set
A couple of years ago, Miloslav Mecir, Jr. was taking college courses considering giving up the tennis dream. Today, the son of 1988 Olympic gold medalist Miloslav Mecir graduated to his first Grand Slam main draw.
Mecir defeated No. 7 seed Tim Smyczek to qualify for Roland Garros. Slowed by an elbow injury as a teenager, Mecir, 26, is now the same age his dad was when a chronic back injury forced the "Big Cat" to retire in July, 1990.
"It’s true that we look alike and play alike. I take the ball early, I hit flat…Yet my dad has never been my coach," the 208th-ranked Mecir, Jr. told the Roland Garros website. "Well, not exactly…seeing as I don’t have a coach right now, he is obviously the one looking after me!”
Miloslav Mecir, the last man to contest a Grand Slam singles final with a wood racquet when he lost to world No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the 1986 U.S. Open final, is a sometime spectator at Grand Slams and was on hand to see his son qualify.
“In everything I’ve done in life, my family has always been there to support me. So I’m very proud to be a Mecir," the younger Mecir said.
Mecir wasn't the only offspring of a former champion in the field. Ecuador's Emilio Gomez, son of 1990 Roland Garros champion Andres Gomez, lost to world No. 242 Andres Molteni in the second round of qualifying.
Roger Federer has prepared for his Roland Garros return practicing with Swiss Davis Cup teammate Stan Wawrinka and world No. 12 Grigor Dimitrov. The father of two sets of twins knows a bit about multi-tasking—watch his feet dance as if moving to music in the video below—and says clarity is key while tuning up for Paris.
“It's an important stretch now for me, and I don't want to come into this tournament uninspired or tired," Federer told the media. "That will be the worst thing. It's really about being fresh mentally more than anything at this point."
Reigning Roland Garros champions Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal joined forces during a busy day in Paris. The pair helped conduct the French Open draw, hit the Eiffel Tower for a photo-op with their title trophies, and spent time in a converted swimming pool shooting an ad for a sponsor.
World No. 1 Williams, who owns an apartment in Paris and speaks French, looks motivated to successfully defend a French Open title for the first time.
“I don't remember the last time I was defending champ, so it feels really good," said Williams, who won her first French Open title in 2002. "I like being seeded No. 1. The favorite part is definitely more pressure, but as Billie Jean King tells me, pressure is a privilege. For me, the French Open is extremely important because it's a Grand Slam I won only twice and I want to win more and more."
Nadal, who opens his French Open title defense against American wild card Robby Ginepri, says he feels less stress after his run to the Madrid title and Rome final.
"Last week in Rome, it was tough physically. I played a lot of time, but in the end sometimes you need these things," Nadal said. "I was not that happy about what I did in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but that's sport. The dynamic is positive, so that's always important for confidence. I felt that in Rome I was able to play without the nerves, the anxiety that I had in the first two tournaments and at some moments in Madrid, too. So that's always a positive thing.”
Monica Puig vs. (Q) Silvia Soler-Espinosa (Strasbourg): A match of first-time finalists is a rematch of the 2013 Wimbledon second round, which Puig won 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. Soler-Espinosa is more experienced on clay, but could face fatigue contesting her eighth match of the tournament (including qualifying). Puig's penetrating return and skill changing direction has served her well in successive wins over fourth-seeded Andrea Petkovic and Madison Keys. Both women have played with plenty of passion this week; holding nerve with a first title at stake is essential.
(2) Eugenie Bouchard vs. Karolina Pliskova (Nurnberg): If this match is as tight as their last meeting—Bouchard beat Pliskova, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 at the 2013 U.S. Open—it could be a thriller. The Australian Open semifinalist is the second-highest ranked woman yet to win a WTA title (behind Sloane Stephens). The 22-year-old Pliskova, who scored her first Top 10 win in beating No. 1 seed Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals, will try to pull off a double title sweep. Pliskova and doubles partner Michaella Krajicek beat top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond in the semifinals; they will face Raluca Olaru and Shahar Peer in the final.
(1) Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. Ivo Karlovic (Dusseldorf): It's typically a tiebreak test when these two get together: Six of the eight sets they've played have been decided in breakers. Karlovic, contesting his second final of the year, is 15-12 in tiebreakers, while Kohlschreiber is 4-6 this season. Three of the German's four career titles have come on home soil, and Kohlschreiber should be highly motivated trying to win his first title since Munich in 2012.