First Ball In, 5/28: The Kids Have a Day

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

There are a couple of Kids' Days each year at Roland Garros. This Wednesday will go down as Kids' Day on the court as well. Anna Schmiedlova, 19, set the tone by upending Venus Williams in the first match on Chatrier; Garbine Muguruza, 20, and Taylor Townsend, 18, followed with career-highlight upsets of their own on Lenglen. Here’s a look at those and other developments on a relatively rain-free day in Paris.

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Wednesday Review

Before we go over to France, though, I want to take a look at how the tournament was viewed—or not viewed—for a little under half an hour on Tennis Channel here in the States this morning. A timeline from the network's sometimes-live telecast:

10:33 A.M. Eastern time: Roger Federer wins his second-round match over Diego Sebastian Schwartzman. They shake hands, and Federer waves to the crowd and says hello to Fabrice Santoro at court side. A replay of the final point is shown.

10:35: Commercials for investment companies and a line of watches.

10:38: Return to see Federer signing autographs. “He’ll make as many people happy as he can,” Paul Annacone says.

10:39: Commercial for a stroke-prevention medicine.

10:41: Return to a promo by Bill Macatee for this evening’s French Open Tonight highlight show.

10:42: Back to Lenglen, where Federer is still signing autographs. “He goes at a rate that you just don’t see at this level,” commentator Ian Eagle says of Federer’s Sharpie skills.

10:43: Federer interviewed court side by Rennae Stubbs.

10:45: We’re alerted that after the next round of commercials, we’ll shift to the Raymond James Sports Desk to hear from Mary Carillo.

10:46: Commercial for French Open Tonight highlight show.

10:47: Sam Stosur is shown on tape, talking about her favorite French Open memory.

10:48: Taped clip describing how clay—or, as the promo dramatically refers to it, “this beaten earth”—is made.

10:49: Federer is shown signing autographs on Lenglen again. It appears to be a tape from earlier, but at the Raymond James Sports Desk, Carillo says that Federer is still signing away. “We know he loves kids,” she says.

10:53: Taped clips from press conferences with Venus and Serena Williams from earlier in the day.

10:55: Taped highlights of Eugenie Bouchard’s win from earlier in the day.

10:57: Commercial for Emirates Airlines. A crooner, possibly Frank Sinatra, sings “Moments Like These” while two men play backgammon and Sofia Vergara pops an olive into her mouth in first class.

10:59: First live tennis point in 26 minutes, between Taylor Townsend and Alizé Cornet.

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Assessing Serena

“I have a couple of words to describe it, but I think that would be really inappropriate, so I’m going to leave it at that.”

That's what Serena Williams said when she was asked to talk about her 2014 season so far. I could hazard a guess at what those “couple of words” might have been, but that would probably also be really inappropriate.

Serena, while she gave due credit to Muguruza for playing “great” and “smart,” was virtually in tears by the end of the presser, which she ended herself. It was pretty clear from her reaction that the game is still all about the majors for her. Serena has hardly had a bad overall season by anyone else’s standards. She defended her titles in Miami and Rome, won in Brisbane, and currently holds a staggering 4,000-point lead in the rankings—though that will obviously shrink when the French is over.

But Serena focused on the fact that she hadn’t reached the second week of a major in 2014, and the thought seemed to make her want to vomit. Perhaps just as appalling was the fact that she was out-hit by both Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne and Muguruza today. Neither woman had ever beaten her before, and Muguruza is just 20 years old. 

They also did it in similar fashion. Both were ultra aggressive from the first ball, and even had success going big on Serena’s first serve. From what I know, there’s never been a blueprint for playing Serena, other than getting everything back and hoping she has an off day. But Muguruza showed how effective the seemingly rudimentary tactic of belting the ball deep and down the middle can be against her. It keeps Serena from using her legs and creating the angles that have always been a specialty of hers. The trick, of course, is redlining your game the way Muguruza did for two full sets. Still, for Serena’s opponents, a tape of this match should be must-see TV.

Yet we shouldn't read too much into Serena’s defeat, as one-sided as it was. The last time she lost at the French Open, in 2012, she went 31-1 the rest of the year, and won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and an Olympic gold medal. But just as we’ve said about her fellow 32-year-old, Roger Federer, over the last few seasons, each time there’s a dip in her results, it’s a little less likely she’ll come back to dominate so thoroughly again as she moves deeper into her 30s.

Serena says she’s “going to practice five times as hard so I never lose again.” I’m looking forward to watching that, just as I’m looking forward to seeing more women try to replicate what Muguruza did today.

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Touting Taylor

Just as we shouldn’t hear the word “decline” after Serena’s result, we shouldn’t hear anything about a “changing of the guard” in U.S. women’s tennis after 18-year-old Taylor Townsend held on to upset Alizé Cornet. After all, we just had a changing of the guard, which hasn’t quite changed yet, when Sloane Stephens beat Serena in Australia last year.

It’s possible that the lefty Townsend, who thinks of herself as a cross between Serena and Martina Navratilova, has even more all-around game than Stephens. She can hit winners from both sides at will; she has a natural service motion and can hit it flat, with slice, or with kick; and she has serious hands. Townsend can make a drop shot or a volley die in the clay, and she was 21 of 30 at the net today. 

Taylor can also, as we saw, get nervous—she gave away a 4-1 lead in the second set and nearly gave away a 5-1 lead in the third. When she’s bad, she goes for too much too fast and loses her footwork—by the end of the third, she was leading with her back foot on her backhands. But she held her nerve when it counted. With the “whole crowd roaring” against her, as she said, Townsend held serve at 5-4 in the third; and she won the match despite winning four fewer points than Cornet. 

For this week, I'd say U.S. fans should enjoy the smile and hope we see a lot more of it in the future.

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OOP Analysis

See Thursday’s Order of Play here.

This is when we begin to understand the downside of a Sunday start; with two rounds spread over five days, there’s not a ton left for Thursday. Here’s a look at what is:

Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem

This will be the first meeting between the world’s best player and its hottest prospect on the men’s side. One thing we know: The 20-year-old Thiem will give the ball a rip, and he’ll almost certainly do some damage for some length of time. One thing we don’t know: How will his one-handed backhand hold up against Nadal’s topspin? Not many have lived to tell the tale on clay. Winner: Nadal

Ana Ivanovic vs. Elina Svitolina

Now that both sides of the women’s draw are wide open, what will be the reaction of a player like Ivanovic, a dark horse who just a got a little bit darker? She's 3-0 against Svitolina, but their last match, in Indian Wells, went to a third-set tiebreaker. Winner: Ivanovic

Camila Giorgi vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova

Your guess is a good as mine, or theirs, as how to how this one will go. If it goes well, it could be fun. Kuznetsova, the 2009 winner, is now a contender for French title No. 2. Winner: Kuznetsova

Donald Young vs. Feliciano Lopez

The Donald owns one win over Feli in three meetings. He’d love to get another here, because these two are in the wide-open quarter formerly known as Stan Wawrinka’s. Winner: Young

Jelena Jankovic vs. Kurumi Nara

JJ beat Nara in a tough two-setter in Melbourne. With Li’s exit, the Serb is the highest seed left in the bottom quarter. Winner: Jankovic

Andy Murray vs. Marinko Matosevic

Notable mainly for the Wimbledon champion’s appearance in the intimate confines of the Bullring. Winner: Murray

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For Further Reading

In honor of the up-and-comers we praised today, here’s an interesting article by Reem Abulleil of Sport 360 about the pleasures and pains of being a teen on tour.

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