The red clay of Garros again produced what seems the most watchable tennis of the year. Dry, pleasant weather in the first three days yielded to a full week of cool and damp conditions, slowing the ball speeds both in flight and in bouncing. In decades past, the fast-moving player typically had the advantage in slow conditions over the heavy striker, whose penetrating power would be significantly neutralized. But at the pro level today, all players are amply fast to reach nearly all offerings, and it is the extra time that a slow bounce gives to the big hitter in addressing the ball that has the greater effect on outcomes. Thus in many of the recent matches at Garros, the edge turned away from the speedster and instead to the player having the extreme power in serving and stroking needed to penetrate the slow conditions. An important exception came in the men's singles final.
Warm and dry, i.e. fast, conditions largely returned for the last few days, so that our data from the last four rounds of the men's singles represents a mix of both the slow and the fast dates. Our tally shows that servers had somewhat greater edge over receivers than in the preceding four years at Garros, whether measured in aces, percentage of games won by servers, or percentage of points won by servers. A similar tendency had been seen at the other recent Slams, perhaps reflecting that servers are learning how to exploit the improved strings now available. As usual, Garros lagged far behind Wimbledon in all three indicators just noted, but the new Garros values were generally comparable to those seen at Australian and U.S. Opens, while, surprisingly, aces were more frequent at Garros 10 than at U.S. Open 09.
Essentially all players realized the futility of advancing to net without strong preparation -- i.e., forcing opponent to hit on the run, preferably from well outside the lines. There was plenty of interest in drop-shotting -- bringing opponent forward into an awkward position, then pouncing on his retrieval with passing-shot, lob, or cat-and-mouse tactics. Of course, a high-bouncing neutral offering to opponent usually invited target practice -- i.e., a rocket to the corner. But a softish, short ball could be delivered if it were kept low-bouncing, making it hard for opponent to clear net with power. Thus there was good scope to employ variety, complementing the often-breathtaking, extended power exchanges. It made for magnificent tennis.
As the two weeks unfolded, it became apparent that the primary story of Garros 10 would be that of Rafael Nadal, the four-time champion whose undefeated run at Garros ended last year. Rafa had been the universal choice as the likely 2010 champion, and whether he won or lost each day, inevitably his doings attracted extreme interest. His excellent public persona and his unique style of clay-court greatness made his every appearance compelling.
Meanwhile the Big Three among the women one by one fell by the wayside. Justine Henin and Serena Williams both lost to Aussie Samantha Stosur, and Venus Williams lost to Nadia Petrova. Reaching the Saturday afternoon final with Stosur was an even more improbable candidate, Francesca Schiavone, aged 29. Admittedly, her triumph seems probably a hiccup not a milestone in women's tennis history. But its occurrence was a drama-laden and warming moment in the long saga of the sport.
Here, we single out seven matches worthy of permanent memory.
MEN'S SINGLES -- FIRST WEEK
Play began amid full sunshine and warm temperatures -- scarcely springtime weather in Paris. The balls moved quickly through the dry air and bounced higher and faster than usual for clay, while the dry surface made for slippery footing, adding to the importance of balanced footwork and sliding into shots.
Early upsets were rare. Sam Querrey lost to fellow American Ginepri. Sam with partner Isner then withdrew from the doubles, probably dooming U.S. chances to finish first among the nations in men's matches won at the tournament. Ernests Gulbis fell behind Benneteau and then retired with upper-leg trouble -- a disappointment after Ernests's win over Federer and stretching of Nadal at Rome.
In a fascinating first-round match-up, fourth-seeded Andy Murray fell behind Richard Gasquet by two sets and an early break of serve in set three, amid some good serving and, especially, much blistering hitting by the French star, especially off the backhand side. But Gasquet, who had won the tournament at Nice two days before, beating Verdasco in a long three-setter, wore down in the late going and also developed an upper-leg muscle problem. Second-round action was marked by intermittent rain and generally slow conditions -- ideal for Robin Soderling's penetrating power in crushing the American Dent, whose net-rushing style was doomed by the conditions.
After a warm and dry Friday, spent catching up in the scheduling, First Saturday arrived cold and windy. With the slowed conditions came disaster for the U.S. stars Roddick in singles and the Bryan brothers in doubles, all beaten in straight sets. Another surprise loser was David Ferrer, who was convincingly beaten by the Austrian lefty Jurgen Melzer. But the men's Big Four remained intact, Nadal advancing easily and Federer and Djokovic with only slightly greater difficulty, while Andy Murray was impressive in his third-round match, fending off Baghdatis. Verdasco required five sets to hurdle strong-stroking Kohlschreiber, and Marin Cilic likewise in overcoming an impressive Leonardo Mayer, 23. The Argentine player led in aces 23-12 and in placements but also produced more errors.
1 JUNE 2010: SODERLING d. FEDERER, 36 63 75 64
The Federer-Soderling quarter-final on Second Tuesday was a re-match of last year's final. Roger had not been beaten at Garros since 2005 except by Nadal, and he had beaten Soderling in all twelve of their past career meetings. Their current meeting became an afternoon for tennis history.
In the first set it was Roger at his best -- serving with absolute mastery and attacking well in Soderling's serving games. Robin's heavy artillery and first-strike tactics held up well, but the tall Swede yielded the set's only break of serve before the champion's pressure.
As set two began, Roger's first serve was no longer finding the box consistently, and Robin's aggressiveness produced an early break of serve. As the set unfolded, the cloudy and cool conditions turned even slower amid light rain, and Robin was now stepping up the raw power in his serving and stroking, incredibly even more than before. Robin served out the second set brilliantly, equalizing matters on the scoreboard.
The breathtaking power applied by both men on every point continued, where Soderling's weight of shot was consistently the heavier. Matters reached five-games-all in set three when rain necessitated an hour's delay. Upon resumption, Roger quickly lost his serving game, and Robin closed out the third set, continuing his application of brute force, especially in serving. Plainly the cool and damp conditions were helping Soderling more than Federer, giving Robin time to set up for his rocketry, which penetrated forcefully despite the heaviness. Also, the wind was calm -- an important matter for Soderling, whose very precise serving toss is high.
The drizzle persisted in set four but neither player probably noticed, as both concentrated with quiet fury. The two exchanged early breaks of serve. Roger used all his weapons, including some low, slow offerings designed to hamper his opponent's bombardment and bring him forward. Late trouble came for Federer in game seven when Roger managed to fend off three break points, and again in game nine. On this second occasion Robin -- still serving and stroking with dazzling power and accuracy -- could not be denied.
There was no doubt that on this day and in the unique conditions that prevailed, the better man had won.
The manner of Soderling's stroking merits note. In serving, the Swede's 6-3 frame, powerful and flexible, produces excellent velocities including a forcing second serve consistently delivered with superior velocity, spin, or combination thereof. The ball toss is quite high but very accurate; the strike seems directly overhead. The forehand is applied with nearly straight elbow, racket face turned downward thus helping produce deceptively strong topspin. Robin's inside-out forehands are extremely deadly, often producing winners at the opponent's backhand sideline. On occasions where the shot is missed, it usually lands close to the line. The backhand two-hander is very solid, producing excellent cross-court or down-the-line power when desired. Against Federer, Robin's mental intensity and composure could not have been stronger.
2 JUNE 2010: MELZER d DJOKOVIC, 36 26 62 76 64
The five-set quarter-final between Novak Djokovic and Jurgen Melzer provided good drama. Novak won the first two sets but then showed the familiar signs of his chronic breathing problem. Although the difficulty receded, Novak's velocities may have fallen off, allowing Melzer, who was moving well and playing with excellent resolve, to drive the ball more aggressively than his opponent and gradually equalize matters. None of Novak's four aces came after the second set.
The critical break of Novak's serve at the finish came in an extended game where one of the points was decided in a controversial manner. The chair umpire inspected the ball's mark on the short sideline and ruled that Novak's shot was out. Novak stood close-by across the net and argued strongly. Meanwhile the electronic spotting equipment, used during the tournament only for benefit of tv, said that Novak was right.
In my opinion, the automatic tracking devices surely have some, albeit small, margin of error. In this case, it is hard to believe that, having closely inspected the mark, the umpire could have been mistaken. Would use of the electronic spotter have changed the outcome of the match wrongly? Are we mistaken at the other tournaments in not questioning the electronic rulings?
Overall, it was an uphill effort for Novak. Melzer led in aces, net approaches, maximum serving velocity, average first-serve velocity. He also had a narrow edge in winners excluding aces and in average second-serve velocity. Both broke the opponent's serve four times, but Melzer had 24 break-point opportunities, Djokovic only eight.
4 JUNE 2010: SODERLING d. BERDYCH, 63 36 57 63 63
The two seemed evenly matched -- Soderling at 6-3, age 25, Berdych at 6-5, age 24, both strapping in their body types. Their serving mechanics looked almost identical -- high, over-the-head toss, extreme power on the first serve, Berdych somewhat abler in producing aces. Soderling was much the firmer in the second serve -- the more likely to double-fault but also showing a much better second-serve point-winning percentage. The crushing, right-handed forehand was the prime weapon for both, the Swede with a roundhouse swing, Berdych with a bit more elbow action, seemingly able to produce his severe power with lesser, more-controlled effort. Both used two hands on the backhand, where as matters unfolded the edge in consistency gradually favored Soderling. Neither showed much interest in coming to net or in initiating cat-and-mouse play. It was power-strike tennis, both looking to smash the yellow ball into the sides and corners. At stake was a place in the Sunday final, valuable ranking points, an additional $343,000 U.S. in prize money above that already won for reaching the semis, and a chance at twice that amount more for winning on Sunday. (The prize amounts were the same in the women's draw.)
Berdych, from Czech Republic, had won the last meeting between the two in straight sets, in Miami earlier in the year, though the career-long edge was Robin's. Tomas's raw-power game had pressed Nadal at Indian Wells, and he returned from ankle and hip troubles to finish the recent clay-court tune-ups with three nice wins at Dusseldorf without loss. Now at Garros, he won his five matches to date in straight sets. His victims included Isner, Murray, and Youzhny. Soderling had beaten Cilic and, as described, Federer.
Friday afternoon came warm and dry -- ideal for the unleashing of the power tennis of both men. The first set went to Robin, the second to Tomas. The third set was even until a break of Robin's serve in game eleven and some remarkable first-serving by Tomas in closing out game twelve. Soderling acted negatively momentarily, but he quickly regained his now-accustomed mental strength. The only service break in set four came in game six upon several bad backhand errors by Berdych. It was now two sets all.
There was no outward sign of tiring or discouragement by Berdych in the fifth set, except that Tomas's critical weapon, his first serve, abruptly disintegrated in the seventh game. Not one of the six first serves delivered by Tomas in that game found the service box. The game ended in an unforced and unforcing backhand error by Tomas. With Robin now serving and ahead 4-3, the errors by Tomas continued, and moments later, with Tomas again serving but with his first serve still mostly absent, it was over.
The stage seemed set for a renewal of the historic Nadal-Soderling meeting of 2009.
FINAL ROUND. 6 JUNE 2010. NADAL d. SODERLING. 64 62 64
In advancing through the first six rounds, Rafael Nadal had not lost a set. He had been carried to tiebreakers in three sets -- in the first two against Verdasco's conqueror Nicolas Almagro, whose firm hitting and all-around play gave Rafa plenty of trouble, and in the third set against Jurgen Melzer, when Rafa perhaps relaxed slightly after an early break.
Final-round Sunday afternoon brought playing conditions midway between the extremes of the fortnight. It had rained during the night, and although the Sun had dried things considerably, the bounce was moderately slow, the traction good. The temperature as the match began was 70 degrees, but cloud cover would soon close in, holding down the temperature.
In its pattern of play, the first set largely followed expectations. Soderling unleashed his thunder with every swing, while Nadal answered with his superior defense and strong, heavy-overspin counter-stroking. Outright winners were difficult for Robin in the face of Rafa's defense, and there were many close misses by the Swede, who generally preferred back court to net even when holding the initiative. Robin's errors swung the set to Rafa who overcame three adverse break points.
Robin was now at his powerful best, and Rafa was hard-pressed to hold serve early in set two, doing so with some magnificent rallying that only Nadal can execute. It was the high point of the day for Soderling. The combined defensive and counter-attacking resistance of Rafa now seemed to sap Robin, whose fortunes faltered in the fifth game, when Rafa broke serve at love and then ran out the set comfortably. It seemed that the cooling temperatures were helping Rafa, making it hard for Robin to convert his power hitting into winners. Rafa added some excellent net play, and Soderling seemed a bit unlucky in his many extremely close misses at the baseline.
The third set was more of the same, as Robin, having lost energy and hope of victory, became more error-prone. Having withstood Soderling's early bombardment, Rafa seemed now willing to let his victory happen, playing well within himself.
The Armada easily outdistanced the male contingents of all other nations in the tally of matches won at Garros.
1. Spain, 30.0 match-wins
2. France, 19.0
3. Serbia, 12.5
3. U.S.A., 12.5
Serbia tied for third place thanks to Nenad Zimonjic's 3.0 match-win credits in winning the men's doubles with Dan Nestor and 2.5 match-win credits in winning the mixed with Katarina Srebotnik.
THE 2010 RACE
Nadal's fifth Garros crown now put him one behind the all-time leader in that category, Bjorn Borg, and all but assured Rafa's place as history's greatest clay-courter. He also moved ahead of Federer as #1 in the current official rolling-12-month rankings, and to a strong lead in 2010 year-to-date points. The latter tally, compiled unofficially here, is here listed:
1. Rafael Nadal, 6,230 ranking points
2. Roger Federer, 3,275
3. Robin Soderling, 2,945
Nadal's lead in clay-court points for 2010 to date is now insurmountable. The first three places are held by Spanish players, as are five of the top six:
1. Rafael Nadal, 5,000 clay-court points
2. David Ferrer, 2,220
3. Fernando Verdasco, 1,970
WOMEN'S SINGLES -- FIRST WEEK
Nadia Petrova had never quite reached the top, though over the years there had been occasional single-tournament triumphs. Now at age 27, her best years seemed behind, though a good record in the recent clay events in Rome and Madrid, including a win over Serena Williams, suggested possible success ahead. Indeed, her past record at the French, where she has twice reached the semis, had been better than at any other Slam. Now against Aravane Rezai, recent champion in Madrid and my choice to finish second in the tournament, Petrova's more powerful and more consistent serving produced a large edge for Nadia both in aces and in avoiding double-faults. Aravane had several match points but could not convert, and she then lost quickly when the already-extended third set resumed on Saturday morning.
The mid-tournament weekend brought the seeded players and their several conquerors into match-ups against one another. Justine Henin, my choice to win the tournament, faced Maria Sharapova in Saturday evening wetness and cool. Maria started poorly, and Justine closed out the first set expertly. But gradually Maria's heavier artillery had begun to take effect, overcoming the slow conditions and now seldom misfiring, even as Justine's replies softened. Toward the end of the second set, Justine's offerings were merely inviting rocketry from the tall Russian. But play was stopped when darkness set in as Maria equalized at one set all. It appeared that the stoppage saved Justine from imminent defeat.
Sharapova took the early lead in the resumption on Sunday. But a freshened Justine was now delivering good power of her own and moving about the court at her best. Amid windy conditions, Maria could not dominate as in the previous evening, and Justine won enough of the critical points -- typically off close Sharapova errors in long points -- to claim the third set and the match. Both women had shown the fortitude and other mental strengths for which they had become renown.
31 MAY 2010. STOSUR d. HENIN, 26 61 64
But just as Justine had won the first set against Sharapova and then weakened prior to her escape on Saturday evening, on Monday against Samantha Stosur, Justine won the first set and then weakened before another more powerful opponent. But this time there would be no overnight reprieve for the four-time past Garros champion.
The third set brought a display of the superior power of Stosur, whose attacking shots carried heavy overspin along with superior velocity. Justine fended off the deluge, claiming just enough errors from Samantha to reach score four games all. But toward the finish, the renowed Henin backhand proved again and again unable to claim the initiative, nor indeed sometimes able to keep points alive under the forceful pressure of the Australian. The final point began with a dazzling kicking first serve to the deep backhand by Stosur and ended two shots later with a severe Stosur putaway.
Henin's loss had been preceded by the departure of Venus Williams. Although Venus is among the strongest first-servers in women's tennis today, the powerful deliveries of Petrova were clearly the more potent and consistent on this occasion. Nadia's numbers were better than Venus's in aces, avoiding double-faults, average first- and second-serve velocities, and percentage of first- and second-serve points won. Augmenting Nadia's serving edge over Venus was the superiority of her blistering stroking. But later in the week, almost inexplicably, Nadia won the first set but then could not sustain her top play in her quarter-final match against Elena Dementieva, whose 2010 record had been undistinguished.
2 JUNE 2010. STOSUR d. S. WILLIAMS, 62 67 86
Brisbane-born Samantha Stosur was new to the top echelons of singles but had shown good success in past years in doubles. (She and Lisa Raymond had won the Garros doubles in 2006.) Athletic and determined, she stood currently at #7 in the official rankings, having risen from #13 at the end of 2009. There had not been an Australian female champion at Garros since 1973, when Margaret Court captured the eighth crown in the last twelve years by an Aussie.
First-seeded at Garros 2010, Serena had made her way through her first four matches, showing the superior power in serving and stroking that had brought her twelve past Slam crowns including Australian Open 2010. Having seen little competition since January, Serena seemed rusty amid temporary difficulty against the young Russian Pavlyuchenkova, who won their second set. The rust reappeared against Stosur, who won their first set and carried matters to a second-set tiebreak. But as so often in the past, Serena took better control of her power, fought through the tiebreaker narrowly, and seemed in command as the third set moved toward its climax.
It came down to six-games-all, third set, no-tiebreaker rule in effect. Serena, serving at her best, had swept easily through her last several service games, while Samantha had struggled, having faced an adverse match point in her preceding serving game. But now, in game thirteen, Serena's first serve abruptly departed, and Stosur took advantage to reach score 30-all. The critical service break came upon two magnificent cross-court passing shots, both outright winners, from the racket of Samatha, in both cases after Serena had played strongly to reach likely winning position just before the pass.
Now it was time for the nerves to show themselves. It sometimes seems unfair when in overtime one player is the one who must repeatedly serve under threat of immediate defeat. Is it random bad luck or is it in a player's character when his or her serve misbehaves when victory is close? It can never be said for sure.
But for Samantha on this day, it would be neither. Showing full confidence in taking the service line, Samantha would offer no perceptible weakening, no catastrophic double fault. Her deliveries were accurate and firm, and for Serena, who now saw defeat just ahead, there was desperation and, yes, some bad luck in her close misses. There would be no thirteenth Slam triumph for Serena this date.
The women's semis were anti-climactic, played out amid Thursday-afternoon sunshine and warm temperatures that produced fast conditions. There had been no taint to the quarter-final victory of the Italian 29-year-old Francesca Schiavone over the impressive young player Wozniacki. Francesca then defeated Dementieva in the semis when Elena withdrew with a calf injury after losing the first set. Meanwhile Stosur comfortably defeated Jelena Jankovic in two quick sets. Sam's superior weight of serving and her deadly accurate and potent forehand -- well controlled with plenty of topspin from a minimal backswing -- produced the one-sided result on the scoreboard.
FINAL ROUND, 5 JUNE 2010. SCHIAVONE d. STOSUR, 64 76
The contrasting strengths of the two added to the appeal of the final round. Samantha's serve was certainly among the strongest in women's tennis, featuring placement, power, and, especially, extreme and kicking topspin in delivering the second serve. Her forehand off the ground was comparably potent, characteristically applied to any unforcing serve return from opponent. The Stosur backhand two-hander had improved but, now against Schiavone, invited trouble when Samantha stepped to the sideline in order to use her preferred forehand. Too often, the movement was slightly too slow, her shot unsteady. But Sam's greatest weakness, seen especially toward the end, was in her close-in game -- the volleying, and also in her handling of opponent's drop shots.
Francesca Schiavone was the opposite in several respects. Plainly her bread-and-butter stroke was the backhand, delivered one-handed, which could be devastating in both pace and angle when ripped cross-court. Again and again against Stosur, Francesca turned points by means of stunning backhand deliveries, fending off severe pressure and often reversing the initiative. There was also much excellent sliced-backhand work by the energetic Italian. But also decisive on this day was Schiavone's remarkable skill in net-attacking and volleying. Choosing her forward forays judiciously but seemingly always wisely, Francesca showed quickness in her close-in movement and a rare level of decisiveness in her volleying. She won 14 of her 15 net-approach points.
In the first set the only service break came in game nine, which ended in a double-fault by Samantha. The game had turned earlier, however, amid clear demonstration of the extreme difference in their net-playing skills. A bit stunned at losing the set, favored Samantha recovered well in set two, breaking serve early amid a sagging spell by Francesca. Samantha was ahead after winning four of the first five games, but it looked a little as if the Australian star was beginning to relax slightly, perhaps thinking of the third set ahead.
If so, it was a fatal distraction. Not only did Francesca intensify her own play, equalizing at four-games-all, but the resulting change in momentum appeared to break Samantha's confidence. Henceforth only one of the players would play fearlessly. That would be Francesca, while Samantha seemed tentative, unsure what would happen with her own strokes, in full contrast to her assurance at the finish against Serena. Sam battled her nerves to reach tiebreak game, but at the finish her opponent's resolve and confidence lifted Francesca to her strongest play of the day. The unrestrained joy of the winner and her crew was compelling.
Although the Italian championships have been long regarded the second-most-important clay-court event, before Schiavone no Italian woman had even reached the final of the French singles since the inception of the international event in Paris in 1925. Italy's women also scored well overall at Garros 2010, finishing third behind Russia and U.S.A. in total singles, doubles, and mixed match-wins. It was Italy's best Garros tally since the start of my data in 2001, the fifth consecutive capture of the honor by the Russkayas, and the second straight runner-up finish there by the Americans.
1. Russia, 32.5 match wins
2. U.S.A., 22.5
3. Italy, 16.5
Strong depth in singles accounted for the Russian success. There were nine Russian singles wins in round one and another eight in round two. No other nation totaled more than seven wins in the first two rounds of singles. Lifting the American score were the six points earned by the Williams sisters in winning the doubles. It was the second women's doubles crown at Garros for the sisters, the first having come in 1999 when they defeated Hingis and Kournikova in a three-set final. They lost only one set in this year's event, in their win over Huber-Medina Garrigues. Their final-round victims were Peschke and Srebotnik.
THE 2010 WOMEN'S RACE
Serena Williams continues to hold first place in the rolling-12-month singles rankings, ahead of second-place Venus. The two should therefore obtain the top two seeds at forthcoming Wimbledon. Meanwhile here are the leaders in the 2010 race to date, remarkably closely separated:
1. V. Williams, 3585 ranking points
2. Jankovic, 3437
3. Stosur, 3422
4. S. Williams 3355
5. Schiavone, 3192
By winning Garros, Schiavone takes a close lead over Stosur in the year-to-date clay-court race. With only a few clay-court points yet to be distributed, one or the other should finish year 2010 ahead in that category.
The topsy-turvy results among the women, including the unexpectedly early elimination of the Big Three, made hash of the predictions previously offered here. Of the four predicted to do so, only Jankovic reached the final four. Meanwhile our numerically based forecasts held up moderately well among the men, including, hardly surprisingly, in agreeing with everyone else in the world that Nadal would win the tournament.
Get ready for big-time grass-court tennis.