First Ball In, 6/3: The Parvenus of Paris

Tuesday, June 03, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

It was put-up or shut-up day for the French Open’s arrivistes. Garbine Muguruza, Eugenie Bouchard, Ernests Gulbis, and Milos Raonic ended up doing a little of each in their quarterfinals. As I wrote over the weekend, the women again gave us more than an equal share of the entertainment.

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Tuesday Review

Brain over beauty: That was the sub-theme of Eugenie Bouchard’s 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-5 win over Carla Suarez Navarro today. Suarez Navarro has the beautiful, flowing, hooking, diving, one-handed backhand. Bouchard has the mind like a steel trap. As usual in tennis, shaky beauty did not prevail.

This is a sport that can make you wonder whether having natural shot-making talent is really a good thing at all. Suarez Navarro hits and moves more smoothly on clay than Bouchard; by contrast, Bouchard’s strokes look rigid and taught. But as with, say, Maria Sharapova, it’s the rigid and taught shots that are more consistently repeatable under pressure, and less prone to breakdown because of nerves.

You have to respect Bouchard’s persistence and fearlessness; even after bad misses, she keeps pounding away. But this one was more about Suarez Navarro’s inability to close than it was Bouchard’s ability to hang on. The Spaniard, who has played 21 majors without reaching a semifinal, was up a break in the first set, and 4-1 in the third—at that point, she had won 10 of the last 13 games. Then, suddenly, Suarez Navarro couldn’t get a ball in the court; she lost 12 straight points. That’s how you don’t make a Slam semi despite having one of the most beautiful shots in the game.

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The Upside of Being Ernests

I guess there really is a first for everything: An image of Ernests Gulbis holding up the Coupe des Mousquetaires—the French Open winner’s trophy to you and me—entered my brain for the first time today. 

With Djokovic his opponent in the semis and Nadal his likely opponent in the final, this is obviously a long shot—Gulbis is 1-4 against Nole, and 0-7 against Rafa. But Ernests had also never been to a Slam semi before this week.

Even more surprising, there was a moment in his easy win over Tomas Berdych today that I mistaked Gulbis for Djokovic. Part of it was the clothes; they were wearing the same combination of dark shirt and white shorts. But part of it was the way they slid to defend on their backhand sides; both do it by leading with their left foot and hitting with a wide open stance. They trained together as juniors at the Pilic Academy in Germany, but I think this is the first time I noticed any real similarities in their games. That can’t be a bad sign for Ernie.

In a way, Gulbis’ biggest asset isn’t his seagull-like forehand, or his bullet serve, or his improved all-around play. Ernie’s weapon against the top players is his “I don’t care” attitude—it's his downfall and his salvation. Gulbis is the rare player who can perform without fear of anyone. While he courts distraction, and can let his emotions boil over, he doesn’t get tend to get tight in the traditional, concrete elbow sense. 

Gulbis had no trouble holding serve three straight times to beat Roger Federer in a fifth set. When he saw the finish line against Berdych today, Gulbis began to get agitated; he repeatedly asked chair umpire Cedric Mourier to come down and check marks, some of which weren’t close. But he never played tentatively. That’s a trade-off most players will take.

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Close...But Not Quite Yet

That's the phrase that came to mind while watching Garbine Muguruza and Milos Raonic in their losses to Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic today. Against two of the best players of this generation, they came up a shot short.

For Muguruza, that shot was her forehand. She hits it very flat and without much margin, which is great for penetration, but not for reliability. As she said in her presser later, she wasn't quite as good with it at the biggest moments. One of those moments came with her up 6-1, 5-4; another came in the long, crucial fourth game of the third set. Both times, a slightly impatient Muguruza lost some of the shape—the spin and net clearance—on her forehand. 

As for Raonic, he came up one shot short in the all-important second-set tiebreaker with Djokovic. At 2-2, Raonic ran around for a hanging mid-court forehand, but he didn't hit it with conviction, and it caught the tape and bounced wide. At 3-3, Djokovic had a similar opportunity with his backhand down the line, and he did hit it with conviction to earn the first mini-break.

After both of those crucial passages, Sharapova and Djokovic shut the door. That's what players with 10 Grand Slam titles between them will do. Someday it might be Raonic and Muguruza doing the shutting.

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OOP Analysis

See Wednesday’s Order of Play here.

Is it time for Lenglen-Gate II? The rematch of last year’s men's final, between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, has been scheduled for the second stadium. It’s understandable, though, when you have Gael Monfils and Andy Murray in Chatrier. Monfils is the last French player standing, and Murray has yet to play on that court at this year’s event. 

Sara Errani vs. Andrea Petkovic

They’ve split their two meetings, though Errani won last month on clay in Madrid in straight sets. Petkovic has been walking a cliff’s edge in her matches here; you have to think the 2012 French finalist will push her off. Winner: Errani

Simona Halep vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova

The world No. 4 versus a two-time Slam champ: This is a tough call. They’ve also split their four previous meetings; Kuznetsova won the last won, this spring in Stuttgart. This will be on Kuzzie’s racquet as well. Winner: Halep

Andy Murray vs. Gael Monfils

If it goes five sets, they might run a marathon against each other. In a way, it’s good they’re in Chatrier—the more space these enthusiastic retrievers have to roam, the better. Murray leads their head to head 3-2, but they haven’t faced each other since 2010. This time it will be Murray’s superior overall skills vs. Monfils and the crowd. Winner: Murray

Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer

As I said above, the rematch of last year’s final has been relegated to second billing on Wednesday—chalk it up to the power of La Monf. Nadal is 21-6 against Ferrer, but Ferrer won their last match, in Monte Carlo, and has taken two of their last three. Both guys have mostly shredded the competition in their first four rounds in Paris. I’ll take Nadal, not just because of how good he has been here in the past, but because of how unusually bad he was in that Monte Carlo loss. He’s a different player now. Winner: Nadal

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Quote of the Day

You start to understand: OK, first make one step. Don’t miss five days of practice. Just miss three days of practice, and then two days, and then one, and then nothing. So it’s a process.”—Ernests Gulbis, on his highly idiosyncratic evolution as a tennis player.

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Photos of the Day 

Maria Sharapova and Genie Bouchard look pleased to get a chance to catch up on Thursday.

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