First Ball In, 6/1: Quelle Horreur

Sunday, June 01, 2014 /by
AP
AP

It was a gloomy day all around for tennis fans in Paris, as clouds rolled in and the French favorites took it on the collective chin. Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Pauline Parmentier, and even the God From Across the Border, Roger Federer, were all sent packing. The crowds may have to switch their allegiance to Eugenie Bouchard; her first name was taken from a British royal, but her last name really is French.

*****

Sunday Review

Ernests Walks the Walk

Ernests Gulbis had done a lot of talking—about how dull the top players are, about opponents who were little princesses, about how the guys ranked ahead of him weren't as good as he was, about how he was going to be No. 1 someday. But before this tournament, he hadn’t done anything to back those words up in the matches and tournaments that mattered. Coming to Paris, Gulbis was 4-23 against Top 5 players, and he hadn’t made it past the third round at a Grand Slam since he reached the quarters here in 2008.

Now Gulbis is back in the quarters at Roland Garros, and he has another win over a very big name, Roger Federer. To say that the Lavian was “due” might be the understatement of the year—he’s been overdue for five years now. Gulbis, 25, claims he’s a new man, and he’s shown progress over the last two seasons. But this win was the confirmation.

“The plan was to play more to his backhand,” Gulbis said, “and then with my backhand down the line to go for down-the-line shots. That was the main plan.”

Simple to say, harder to do. Gulbis beat Federer with that backhand all match, and hit 53 winners on the day. But we always knew he could fire off rockets. What was different today was how complete Gulbis’s game was. He slid and defended. He won the long points. He used his drop shot well. He hit 13 aces. And after breaking Federer in the second game of the fifth set, he held out without a hitch. 

As for Federer, he was up a set and 5-3 in the second, but let Gulbis back in. Federer also struggled to close out the fourth set after being well ahead. He showed a lot of aggressive, positive emotion in this match, yet he couldn’t maintain his confidence at closing time. It’s not a new issue; Federer has talked about his efforts to overcome big-point jitters since at least 2011. But unlike his bad back, this problem doesn’t look it’s going to go away.

Credit Federer for having a short memory. By the time he had reached the interview room, he said he was already focused on the grass-court season. When did he make the switch, as he was shaking Gulbis’ hand at the net?

*****

“Tennis is mental”

Is there a better example of this (very apt and true) cliché than the matchup between Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur? Judging by their games, there’s no reason that one of them should own a 14-2 record over the other. Stosur, who is on the wrong end of that head-to-head, is more than a match for Sharapova when it comes to power and athleticism, and she’s won a Grand Slam title of her own. Yet Sam has more wins over Serena Williams (3) than she does Sharapova.

I used to wonder what caused the disparity, but after their fourth-rounder today, I don’t think I’m going to wonder anymore. Stosur was easily the better player through the first set and a half; she led 6-3, 4-3 and appeared ready to seal the upset. It made sense: Stosur had played the best tennis of any woman in the first week. Then, serving at 4-4, she started making errors and never stopped. The shots that had been going for winners began to go out. By the middle of the third set, they were going out by yards. 

Sharapova doesn’t have more power in her body than Stosur, but she does in her mind. That’s the surest way to dominate an opponent.

*****

Go...North America!

Pretty soon, this may need to become the new chant among tennis fans in the United States. On a day when America's last man standing, John Isner, was dismissed, Canada had two players advance to the quarterfinals in Paris for the first time. Milos Raonic did the expected by straight-setting Marcel Granollers, but Eugenie Bouchard’s 6-1, 6-2 win over No. 8 seed Angelique Kerber was surprisingly one-sided. 

What’s in the water—or in the strings—in Canada? Bouchard and Raonic wouldn’t seem to have a whole lot in common other than their nationality. She’s an upper-crust girl from Montreal, he’s the son of immigrants from Montenegro and grew up near Toronto. They’ve spent time in the Canadian tennis system, but don’t share a coach or a playing style. He lives in Monte Carlo, she trains in Florida.

Yet their rise together is a lot like the out-of-nowhere and often short-lived tennis renaissances we’ve seen in other countries in the past. Canada today reminds me of Germany with Boris Becker and Steffi Graf; Belgium with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin; Switzerland with Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka; and the New York City boroughs with John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis in the 1970s.

There was no reason to expect any of these places would suddenly produce a pair of champions, and the two players were only tenuously connected. Yet there was a spark. We’ll see how long Canada’s lasts, and how far it takes Raonic and Bouchard.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Monday’s Order of Play here.

Simona Halep vs. Sloane Stephens

Sloane says Simona has experience winning “smaller tournaments,” while Sloane herself has experience at the bigger ones. Is that bulletin-board material? Only if Halep cares, which I doubt she will. Stephens did beat Halep 6-1, 6-1 at one of the bigger ones, the Australian Open, last year. But Halep has passed her in the rankings since, and won their only meeting on clay.
Winner: Halep

Gael Monfils vs. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez

Another late-day marathion in Chatrier awaits. Monfils leads their head to head 3-2; GGL won their only meeting in 2014, in Miami. Monfils will be inspired, but Garcia-Lopez has looked sure of himself of late. Winner: Garcia-Lopez

Jelena Jankovic vs. Sara Errani

We’ve getting down to the business end in the bottom half of the women’s draw—who’s ready to walk through the open field there, and who isn’t? Jankovic and Errani each have a decent shot at reaching the final. Errani leads their head to head 2-1 and won their last meeting, two weeks ago in Rome. Winner: Errani

Andy Murray vs. Fernando Verdasco

Murray came back from two sets down to beat Verdasco at Wimbledon last year. He can’t afford that kind of start on clay, in France. Winner: Murray

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