First Ball In, 6/5: Semi-Tough

Thursday, June 05, 2014 /by

The women continued their fine run in Paris—Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard by putting on a competitive, if less than perfectly played, semifinal; and Simona Halep by showing us again how easy the sport should be, but so rarely is. 

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Thursday Review

You don’t really need to be told that “Maria Sharapova is a fighter” again, do you? Most of us get the picture by now. The problem is, what else is there to say after a match like this, and a week like this? Sharapova’s 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 win over Bouchard marked her third straight comeback from a set down, and the third straight match she won without playing her best.

“I’m proud of that,” Sharapova said in her press conference later.

Today Sharapova double-faulted nine times and was six of 20 on break points. In the commentator’s booth, Chris Evert said she had “never seen Maria this nervous,” and it was hard to disagree. Chrissie also pointed out, from her own experience facing Tracy Austin, that playing your Mini-Me is an especially difficult psychological experience. 

The crucial moments were quintessentially Sharapova-esque. At 2-1 in both the second and third sets, she came back from 40-0 down on Bouchard’s serve to break. Holding off your opponent’s game points and then breaking—is there a better measure of cussedness, of the ability to play each point with the same unfazed tenacity, as that?

As for Bouchard, she held her own in the cussedness department, saving four set points in the second set and four match points in the third. But when she had the lead, there was just the slightest note of hesitation from the 20-year-old Canadian. Not only did she lose those two service games from 40-0 up, she missed a series of easy putaway shots down the stretch. Genie says she wants it all now, but I don’t think she quite believed it could happen today.

And maybe that's the way it should be. As far as Bouchard's long-term success goes, I don't think losing today, and putting off the Slam-champ spotlight a little longer, was the worst thing that could have happened to her.

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The Tao of Simona

Andrea Petkovic says she likes philosophy, especially her fellow Germans Goethe and Nietzsche. Today she got a lesson from the teachings of a Romanian named Halep.

First piece of instruction: How to make the game look easy. Halep made it look (mostly) effortless again, as she beat Petkovic 6-2, 7-6 (4) and won her sixth straight match in Paris without dropping a set. Halep was her typically efficient self, making 73 percent of first serves and hitting 25 winners against 20 errors.

I had wondered how Halep would hold up if and when she was pushed. She hadn’t faced a pressure moment in this tournament, and when she does, she has a Kim Clijsters-like tendency to rush, rather than a Rafael Nadal-like tendency to slow down. Halep faced that moment late in the second set, and when it came, she showed more frustration than we had seen from her here so far. Who knows, she may have started to expect perfection from herself. But she came through anyway. That brush with adversity should only help her in the final.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Friday’s Order of Play here.

Novak Djokovic vs. Ernests Gulbis

The Serb and the Latvian trained and hung out together at an academy in Germany when they were teenagers. As pros, they’ve played five times, and Djokovic has won four of them. He won their only meeting on clay, at Roland Garros in 2008, in three close sets, and he won their last meeting, at Indian Wells in 2011, 6-0, 6-1. 

As we’ve seen in Paris, Gulbis is a different player now. But is he different enough? On the plus side for Ernests, he isn’t overly respectful of the Big 4, and he won’t fear Djokovic. He also has the bigger serve—he’s been exceedingly tough to break in Paris—and has as much or more native power from the ground. Gulbis will get a chance to take his cuts. On the minus side for Ernests, Djokovic is one guy who can break his serve. More important, until proven otherwise, he’s still the better player. Winner: Djokovic

Rafael Nadal vs. Andy Murray

Despite Nadal’s 14-5 career record against him, Murray has always been able to throw a scare into Rafa, even on clay. Murray pushed him to the limit on the surface in Rome three weeks ago, and while Nadal won in straight sets when they played in Paris in 2011, Murray earned 18 break points.

I would expect Murray to push Rafa again on Friday. The Scot has many of the characteristics of a classic Rafa killer: He’s tall, he has an excellent two-handed backhand, and he's one of the very few players who is as fast and consistent as Nadal. The question I have is whether Murray is overly respectful of him—whether, when it comes down to it, he’ll have the confidence and killer drive to make Rafa's fears come true. Winner: Nadal

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On This Day: The June 5th Incident

We've had our fair share of 25th-anniversary remembrances of Chang's French Open win, including one by Pete Bodo here at Tennis.com and one by Chris Clarey for the New York Times. Five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of Chang's run, I wrote another entitled "The June 5th Incident." It was a reference to the "June 4th Incident," a Chinese name for the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place that day. On June 5th, 1989, a man stood down a tank on a street in Beijing. On the same date in Paris, 17-year-old Michael Chang, who had been glued to the events from China that week, upset Ivan Lendl at Roland Garros.

I can't find a version of the piece online at the moment, but you can see half an hour of that classic match, from a German telecast, here.

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