ICYMI

Friday, June 06, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

A Grand Slam is a busy time; there are 256 stories to follow over the course of two weeks, and that’s just in singles. So it wouldn’t be surprising if a few slipped through the cracks or vanished before we had a chance to thoroughly dissect—and possibly overreact—to them. Here are five that, as far as I could see, could have received more attention.

*****

Ana Doesn’t Take the Next Step

It's easy to forget now, but coming into Roland Garros two weeks ago, Ana Ivanovic was one of the hot topics of the draw. The 2008 French champ was finally, six years later, ready to challenge again for the title, or at least the semifinals. She had reached the Stuttgart final, beaten Maria Sharapova in Rome, and mostly overcome the service yips that had plagued her for so long. 

But she didn’t challenge for the title in Paris, or even reach the quarterfinals. Instead, she was beaten in routine fashion in the third round by Lucie Safarova, 6-3, 6-3. Safarova, it turned out, had also beaten Ivanovic the previous four times they had played. From what I saw of the match, the lefty Czech was able, with her flat backhand especially, to hammer the ball into Ivanovic’s weaker backhand side, and Ana couldn't find an answer.

“She was playing very aggressive,” the 26-year-old Ivanovic said later. “She wasn’t giving many free points. I really struggled to come in and to finish off points. I think overall, my level wasn’t there.”

I suppose the takeaway is that while Ivanovic has shown us in 2014 that she can beat anyone, including Sharapova and Serena Williams, her game has vulnerabilities beyond just an occasionally errant service toss. Now all we can do is wait for her to get our hopes up again.

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Grigor Doesn’t Take the Next Step

The slick photos had been taken, the glossy-magazine articles had been written, the questions about his celebrity girlfriend had been asked—Grigor Dimitrov, the man of many nicknames, was ready for his Paris close-up. Except that he wasn’t.

Dimitrov, beaten by 35-year-old Ivo Karlovic in the first round, didn’t win a set at the French Open. That may have escaped the notice of some, in part because it was overshadowed by Stan Wawrinka’s own opening-round loss, and in part because Karlovic isn’t run-of-the-mill -first-round fodder—on the wrong day, pretty much anyone can lose to Dr. Ace.

But the match was still a lesson in how much the 23-year-old Dimitrov, despite having a career season so far in 2014, has to learn. In this case, he committed the cardinal sin of refusing to change a losing game. The Bulgarian tried to return Karlovic’s serve from near the baseline; even after it was clear he couldn’t do it, he never stopped trying. Dimitrov’s ascension continues, and continues to be a slow one.

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The Two-Handers Strike Back

Among the game’s experts, the big story from last year’s French Open was the revenge of the one-handed backhand. For years the shot had been written off as a relic of the wood-racquet, serve-and-volley past, an artistic but inefficient flourish that had no place in the power-first modern game. Like vinyl records and telephone booths, the one-hander seemed destined to become nothing more than a cult fetish. But there it was in 2013, hanging tough on dirt, being used by fully half of the French Open’s final 16 men.

This year only three of the last 16 men used a one-hander, and Carla Suarez Navarro was the only player in either draw to reach the quarters using the shot. What changed? Aside from the random nature of any tournament, most of the one-handed players who had success last year were on the older side—Haas, Youzhny, Kohlschreiber, Robredo, Federer, even Wawrinka are all 28 and above. And this year, on the women’s side, the youth brigade that announced itself—Muguruza, Bouchard, Townsend, Tomljanovic, Halep, Schmiedlova, Stephens—all keep two hands on the racquet.

In a way, Dimitrov’s loss to Karlovic is a good example of one of the uphill battles that single-handers face today. You simply can’t return serve as well as you can using two hands. 

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Hawk-Eye and Clay Agree to Disagree

The French Open and its clay satellite events claim that the Hawk-Eye replay technology isn’t accurate enough for them to use. That’s possible—there’s a 3-mm margin for error with the system—though it’s probably not coincidental that not using it saves them a few hundred thousand dollars that other events must spend to install it.

I’ve come around to the idea of using Hawk-Eye on clay; I’ll take its margin of error over the human error involved when chair umpires try to interpret dusty ball marks. Anyone who has ever played on clay knows that, other than on hard-hit serves, it’s not easy to say precisely where a ball landed. 

In the quarterfinal between Eugenie Bouchard and Carla Suarez Navarro, it was hard to tell who was off, the umpire or the computer—but one of them clearly was. Three times in the course of a set, the umpire walked down and claimed a ball had caught the line when Hawk-Eye said it had landed out. On one occasion, at least six inches out.

Who was wrong? That may depend on the biases you bring to the dispute. Most people that I heard from believed that Hawk-Eye wasn’t working, but to my (admittedly very far away) eye, it had been the umpire who had erred on all three calls.

Either way, this situation may illustrate the biggest potential problem with using replay on clay—what happens when the mark and the computer disagree? Will it start more arguments than it ends? If there are a lot of discrepancies, will players and fans start to lose faith in Hawk-Eye on other surfaces? To me, it may show us that finding the right ball mark on clay has never been the sure thing we like to think it is.

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The Last of the Serve and Volleyers Leaves Roland Garros

Thirty-four-year-old Michael Llodra, who will retire at the end of the season, played his last singles match at the French Open. He hadn't exactly risen to the occasion at home over the years; Llodra lost in the first round in nine of his 15 appearances at Roland Garros. He was a lot more at home crosstown, at the indoor event in Bercy. Twice in his 30s he thrilled the crowds there with surprise runs to the semifinals.

There will be reasons to miss the lanky lefty, and reasons not to miss him. He was a locker-room prankster with a typically French appreciation of the game’s history. He also once referred to a group fans at Indian Wells as “f---ing Chinese.”

Llodra’s retirement is most significant because of the style of play he used. We’ve been hearing about the death of serve and volley for two decades, but he may have been the last highly-ranked singles player to succeed as a pure, old-fashioned net-rusher. Watch him when you can for the rest of the year.

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