Category Archives: French Open

FRENCH OPEN: Old Lady Sharapova, Erases Generation, Becomes Queen of Clay

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In the end, this French Open will be remembered for the Old Lady, I guess. If that’s what we can call Maria Sharapova. She’s just 27, but she single-handedly wiped out a moment that was all about the emergence of Generation Next.

When Serena Williams and Li Na lost early, the tournament was suddenly defined by Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens. It wasn’t the best moment for marketers and TV networks, but women’s tennis needs a refresh. And all four of those young women are compelling and thrilling.

They feel like the right ones. It turned out, Stephens wasn’t ready, isn’t at that level. And then, the marketing dream, Sharapova, wrecked the whole thing, beating Serena-killer Muguruza in the quarters, then Bouchard in the semis, and then Halep 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-4 in the final.

There were just too many backward things going on. Sharapova cannot exactly wreck a moment in a sport with so few faces the general sports public wants to see. She cannot possibly be seen as fearless at the same time that she’s afraid to hit her serve. And more importantly: Sharapova, who once described herself on clay as a cow on ice, is now. . .

The best claycourt player on tour. That’s two French Open titles in the past three years for her, and three finals in a row.

We can celebrate Sharapova’s incredible stick-to-itiveness, as always. But she won this match, this tournament because of her years of experience. That was her advantage.

You can see it as veteran street knowledge, so to speak, or possibly just as gamesmanship. Either way, the woman who has been here a million times knew how to get through this match, and the one here for the first time – first of many – did not.

Sharapova was in an all-out stall. Halep likes to rush, and Sharapova knew how to throw her off. Setting and re-setting before her first serve, and then doing it all again before the second. And all those tosses on her serve that she caught and said, “Sorry’’ as if they were just bad tosses?

I’m not buying. It’s true she has struggled with her toss over the years, but so many of those seemed intentional. Toss and catch. . .and. . .toss. . .again. That was more stalling to get Halep out of her rhythm and give her a whole lot of time to think about what it was she was trying to do. If that was enough time for nervousness to creep into a newcomer’s brain, which has never had to deal with these thoughts before?

Well, so be it.

Halep will be back. We’ve seen some pretend stars emerge, or place-setters the past year or two while Williams starts to lose a little more often. Not sure what happened to Sabine Lisicki. Marion Bartoli was never going to be the real deal, even after she won Wimbledon.

Halep is the next longterm star for tennis. Bouchard is right behind her. Muguruza is not as sure of a thing, but odds are with her. Stephens is going to have to learn to fight, and determine whether there is the needed killer inside of her.

The amazing thing about Sharapova is that she’s doing it on clay. We figured when she emerged as a teenager at Wimbledon, crushing the ball, that the fast courts would be best for her. Now, Roland Garros is her place.

A learning curve? That would be a nice thing to point to. Really, she just seems to be moving better and holding her nerve.

Except on her serve. It’s amazing how she can just blank out flaws, just partition them out of her brain while she keeps fighting. Can’t serve? OK, I’ll be ruthless at all non-serving moments.

She was nervous against Bouchard. You could see it. Bouchard is tall, ruthless, powerful and blonde, and it was almost as if she was a replacement.

Yet despite nerves, despite seeing your replacement, despite a bad serve and iffy moves, Sharapova somehow found a way to be mentally relentless.

The only mental block she hasn’t overcome is Williams. So Sharapova, with five majors, will not go down as the best player ever. I don’t think she’s going to figure that one out.

But if a cow on ice can figure out how to become the Queen of Clay, I wouldn’t bet against her, either.


FRENCH OPEN: Federer Modernizes Racquet, Not Game. Needs New Math to Become Roger WhyNot

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Roger Federer Loses to Ernests Gulbis

 

It took years to talk Roger Federer into switching to a modern racquet, even though the need for it was so obvious. Now, it’s apparently going to take a while to talk him into modernizing his game.

Even though the need is so obvious.

Federer lost to Ernests Gulbis 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 Saturday in the fourth round of the French Open, ending a run of nine straight years advancing at least to the quarters. Let’s start with this up front: I predicted that Federer would win this match, go on to beat Novak Djokovic and then lose to Rafael Nadal in the final.

In other words. . .way off.

But that pick was based on Federer finally – finally! – dropping the stubbornness and using the new, powerful racquet. He also had been using it to play more aggressively, attacking more. You do less of that on the red clay at Roland Garros, with the ball moving slower. But that doesn’t mean Federer needed to try to drop back five years.

He just can’t keep painting by numbers. Federer still cannot talk himself into taking a low-percentage shot. What is the smart play here? What is the most efficient move?

Look, guys such as Gulbis, younger, strong and talented, are going to take big-time chances. Think of it this way: Without the power that comes from the technology of the past four or five years, Gulbis would lose easily to Federer. So with the power? Why not go for big shots and see what happens?

Gulbis, always known as a super-talented flake, was great for most of the match. Sometimes, you just can’t do anything about it. But at least you can try. And all Federer did was drop back to 2009 and hope Gulbis would fall apart.

Heaven forbid, Federer is going to have to take high-risk, big-time chances, too sometimes.

The truth is, in the modern game, more modern than Federer, the math has changed. It might not even exist. But if it does, Federer’s math is wrong.

He finally has the racquet in his hand to do it, rather than the smaller, more-flexible, weaker stick he’d been carrying around for years. He was so talented that he was still good enough to use it to beat almost everyone, other than Nadal and the big, powerful flat-hitters who used the technology against him.

Watching the match on Tennis Channel Saturday, you got a great look into Federer’s stubbornness.

Jim Courier, an excellent analyst, was doing the match with Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone.

“How difficult is it to get Roger to play something. . .away from his standard game?’’ Courier asked.

“One of the thing he told me at the beginning when we started working together,’’ Annacone said, “he goes, `When I was a kid, they used to call me Roger Why?’ Because every time you’d tell him to do something, (he’d) always want to know why. So if you tell him why and he’s pretty objective, generally he is, then he’ll do it. But you better be able to prove your point.’’

Next game, late in the fifth set with Federer in trouble, Tennis Channel had a graphic that showed Federer standing in the same place for 85% of his returns of serve. Courier said Federer needed to change things up, move to a different spot, give Gulbis a different target and get him out of his rhythm.

Annacone said he agreed, but, “Roger really likes to be stable on return of serve.’’

During the tournament in Rome two weeks ago, Annacone said, “One of the bigger challenges I feel – not singling Roger out, but just every great player — is they are comfortable doing certain things, and one certain way so often that its very difficult to make major adjustments or significant adjustments.’’

After the fourth set, Federer got way too conservative, relying far too much on the percentages of five years ago. He hit nearly every ball to Gulbis’ backhand and didn’t go for winners. It allowed Gulbis to know what was coming and get even more aggressive than he had been.

It allowed Gulbis to take control.

Federer’s new racquet can do so much more. His body can, too. His mind just won’t have it.

I don’t think Federer, at 32, is too old. He’s not as fast as he was, but he still moves better than nearly everyone on tour. He has plenty of power if he’s willing to use it. And he’s still more talented than almost everyone, too. He can still win majors.

But he’s just going to have to take dumb chances at times, even if the laws of probability say not to. He has to become Roger WhyNot?

 


FRENCH OPEN Dominance Done: Serena Williams Loses More than a Match

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This one mattered. You try not to make too much out of one tennis match, but Serena Williams’ blowout loss to Garbine Muguruza in the second round of the French Open really seemed to have a lasting meaning.

To me, it meant this: Williams is never going to dominate women’s tennis again.

You expect your champions to be at their best in the biggest moments when they can be. That’s what Williams had done for years, playing great in majors and trying only intermittently the rest of the time.

But Wednesday’s blowout loss was something new. In the big moment, Williams won just four games, the fewest she had ever won in a major.

A 20-year old top prospect is still supposed to be intimidated by Williams, by the moment, the surroundings, the power. Instead, Muguruza, who is ranked No. 35, won 6-2, 6-2, while hitting the ball harder than Williams. She also never showed any fear or intimidation. At the Australian Open in January, it was Ana Ivanovic – who I believe will win this French Open – outhitting Williams. Ivanovic, who had gone a few years without having shown one bit of mental fortitude, never showed fear at facing Williams.

Is there anyone left who is still scared of Serena Williams, other than Maria Sharapova?

Williams is still the best player in the world, and still has the highest ceiling on any given day. She will win more majors. But I don’t see her winning five more to catch Steffi Graf.

Other players are hitting it just as hard as Williams now, and they aren’t scared. And in this match, Williams wasn’t moving fast enough to plant her feet or get in position. Muguruza won by throwing the bigger punches, and by hitting right at Williams, who wasn’t quick enough or agile enough to get out of the way.

You see something similar on the men’s tour, too, where mid level players are figuring out that the way to beat Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer is to grip it and rip it. It forces both of them to play at their best or lose.

And after the match Wednesday reporters kept trying to get Williams to explain what had happened, and she just said “I don’t know.’’

“I don’t know.’’

The talk was about the historical aspects of both Williams sisters losing on the same day early in the tournament. It’s true, that rarely happens. But a little honesty here: That’s only because Serena rarely loses early in a major.

Venus, who lost to another prospect, actually cannot be upset anymore. At 34, she can lose to anyone. She still can beat anyone on a good day, too. But with her Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that steals her energy, her body just doesn’t do what she wants it to do anymore. Maybe age is playing in now, too. And when she can’t count on her body, that beats up on her mind.

What’s newly evident at this French Open is with Serena. She isn’t invincible anymore.

“I’m going to go home and work five times as hard,’’ she said, “to make sure I never lose again.’’

Not long ago, that would have been enough.

There’s a case to be made that I’m wrong. The slow clay at Roland Garros has always been Serena’s worst surface. On Wednesday, with the sun gone, the clay played even slower. That took away some of Williams’ power.

And she lost easily and early in 2012, too, and then won four of the next six majors. So what makes me think that won’t happen again?

It’s possible. But she has lost her bully-factor. She said her loss was “just one of those days.’’ It’s true that sometimes, especially as you get older, your body just might not feel right one day here or there. But there have been too many of “those days’’ for Williams lately – including last year when Sabine Lisicki outmuscled her at Wimbledon – to count this as fluke.

It seems strange to say this, but the bully-factor matters just as much in tennis as it does in, say, boxing. Maybe even more in some ways. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. The only place Williams might still have it will be on the grass at Wimbledon. We’ll see.

From here, it’ll still be impossible to go into majors other than the French without predicting a Serena victory. On any given day, she’ll still be the favorite. But there will be fewer and fewer freebies for her, when an opponent lies down before the first point. That means more work, more grinding for Williams, who’s 32. It means fewer wins when you’re having “one of those days.’’

Well, she says she’s going to work five times as hard. That surely sounded scary to Sharapova, anyway.

 


FRENCH OPEN: Massive Reporting Blunder Dominates…Uh, Little Mistake Goes Viral

 

This was embarrassing. The big early story at the French Open, the thing that had gotten attention in the U.S. more than Venus or Serena or Rafa or Roger or Novak, was this:

“Reporter makes absolute worst mistake ever.’’

Wow. That was the headline that rotated on the main billboards at AOL on Tuesday. I could only imagine. I had to click on it. It came with a video of that mistake, and another video of someone analyzing the video of the mistake. That’s a lot of clicks.

And here’s what it was all about: Nicolas Mahut lost to Mikhail Kukushkin in four sets in the first round. Longtime U.S. tennis reporter Bill Simons, in an interview room, started talking to Mahut by saying – get ready for this and believe it or not — “Congratulations.’’

“Congratulations?’’ Mahut said. “I lost.’’

“You lost?’’ the reporter said. “Oh, OK.’’

That was it. Absolute worst mistake ever? It went viral, not just on AOL, but also on other sites. It surely embarrassed Simons, who became a bigger story than the people he was there to write about. So let’s look at it.

Yes, it was a reflection of media today, but not of Simons. The coverage of the story was far more embarrassing than the story itself.

Look, this wasn’t about a mistake. It was about something done on purpose. A reporter made one of those little embarrassing mistakes that anyone can make. It was dumb. Fine. Also, it was irrelevant.

This tiny thing was just barely enough, with video, to produce a massively overblown headline that was unquestionably untrue in nature and in fact.

Is that really what we’re about? The worst mistake in American journalism history was that a writer did not write that Mahut had won, did not publish it. He asked a question, found out, embarrassingly, that the premise of his story was wrong and apologized.

Worst mistake ever.

Worse than “Dewey defeats Truman.’’ I once covered a college basketball game and wrote that it was thrilling for the final 3 minutes, but boring for the first 57.

College games last only 40 minutes. Worst mathematical mistake ever!

On the video that ran with the AOL story, in Huffington Post, the analyst pointed out that Mahut was the same guy who played the marathon match a few years ago at Wimbledon against John Isner. Only, he said it this way:

“Eye-sner.’’

Sorry, but it’s Is-ner.

And that was the worst fumbled pronunciation of all time, after John Travolta trying to introduce Idina Menzel at the Oscars, of course.

I am not in Paris this year, but I have a pretty good guess as to what happened. I can guarantee you that Simons was not writing a column about a match as irrelevant as Nicolas Mahut vs. Mikhail Kukushkin.

The winner was scheduled to play Isner next. That was the peg. Best guess is that French Open officials announced that Mahut was in the interview room. The reporter asked someone if Mahut had won. He was told that yes, he had won. And Simons then ran to get some comments about how the Isner marathon affected Mahut’s life.

When he found out that Mahut had lost, he still had the floor, but didn’t have anything to ask or write.

Yes, he should have looked it up somewhere first. Big deal. But other media outlets jumped all over him. One called it a “particular brand of stunning laziness.’’

If you want to put up that video because it’s funny, then fine. It is kind of a funny little slip-up. But at least be honest.

I am as much of a sucker for these click-magnet things, too. (No cat videos, though). At the Australian Open a few years ago, I wrote a quick thing after player Donald Young told me his match had been delayed when a ballboy peed on the court. The kid ran off and they had to bring out blowers to dry the court.

Just silly. It was not the biggest accident in history.

I should point out one more thing: For nearly two years, I wrote for AOL. It was a great job, actually. In fact, it was the greatest job in the history of the world!

 


FRENCH OPEN: 10 Predictions Come with Money Back Guarantee

Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams

FOXSports.com national columnist Greg Couch digs into 10 questions that get to the heart of the French Open, which starts Sunday at Roland Garros in France. 

Q. It’s Nadal, Djokovic and … ummm … can anyone else on the men’s side win this thing?

A. Only Federer. And even he doesn’t have much of a shot, especially with his back and knee problems. The thing is, with Nadal out so long last year and into this year with worn-out knees, his ranking has dropped. Also, he and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw and may have to play each other before the final. It is the perfect storm of a draw for Federer. That’s sort of the equivalent of the SEC Championship Game — with the two best teams — deciding who gets to play in the BCS title game. Then, the rest of the country, basically the minor leagues, gets to fill the other spot. Federer is able to beat Djokovic on the right day, and Nadal’s knees might blow up at any time.

Please read the rest of the column here at FoxSports.com


FRENCH OPEN: Rafael Nadal on Red Clay, Greatest Force in Sports Ever

(June 12, 2012) Three minutes before he took the court at Roland Garros on Monday, Rafael Nadal wasn’t ready. It had been a rough night, he said. A day earlier, he was putting Novak Djokovic away in the French Open final, and then Djokovic started rolling over him the way he had done all last year.

The match was stopped for the night because of rain. But think of what Nadal went through after that: Djokovic had beaten him in the finals of the past three majors. Djokovic had gotten inside Nadal’s head. Djokovic, for the past year, had been the immovable force in tennis.

Well, forget all that, because in those final three minutes before taking the court Monday, Nadal felt the comfort of home. His home: Roland Garros. Nadal won his record seventh French Open, 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. Djokovic is not the immovable force of tennis, after all. Nadal on red clay is.

In fact, Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is the greatest, most dominant individual force in sports today, maybe ever.

Tiger Woods at the Masters? No. Mike Tyson? No. Maybe Usain Bolt. Maybe Michael Phelps, but that was a one-time thing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We’ll see how they do this summer in London.

Please read the rest of my column on FoxSports.com


FRENCH OPEN: Greed Costs Nadal, Djokovic, Tennis Great Moment in History

 

You can’t force history to happen. But you sure can stop it with greed, stupidity, recklessness. Tennis ruined a great moment Sunday, just sold it out to broadcasters, to NBC.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, two all-time greats, were both going for historic heights in the French Open final. It was a dream buildup in a great, new rivalry for a sport that needs as many big moments as it can find. But it rained the whole match, and officials, trying to keep broadcasters happy, kept letting the match go on and on, anyway.

What happened? Not historic greatness, that’s for sure. The showcase was ruined. Everyone lost. Fans saw a crummy match, and it never even finished. Nadal led two sets to one, and trailed 2-1 in the fourth when the match was finally stopped because, well, it’s hard to say why it was stopped, really.

Nothing had changed over the final hour of the match. It just kept drizzling. Maybe officials realized that their greed over TV money, their desperation to make broadcasters happy, had stolen Nadal’s magic and was turning their party into a disaster.

Well, the match is supposed to start up again at 7 a.m. (ET) Monday. But the forecast in Paris calls for more rain. This could drag on for a while.

It comes down to this: They never should have played that match Sunday.

Please read the rest of the column on FoxSports.com


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