It was another magnificent Slam, staged amid warm temperatures and dry skies, superbly attended, marred only by persistent and severe winds that challenged the skills and tempers of the principals. The Big Four male superstars all reached the singles semi-finals, assuring that the late outcomes would be historic, while the women's field, depleted at the outset, produced an unexpected match-up of two veterans at the finish, where the new champion was the first-ever from her country.
The dry conditions along with a newly introduced brand of balls made for fast tennis. The server's edge, however, was smaller than has been usual at Garros, as servers in the second week won 61% of the points and 74% of the games -- both slightly lower than the averages in the previous five renditions. Aces were especially rare, at 4.8% of total points, in contrast to an average of 6.1% previously. As usual, however, there were substantially fewer aces and more breaks of serve than at the other three Slams customarily.
My strongest impressions grew from the incredible abilities of the athletes. In match after match, I found myself writing superlatives in my notebook on how well the opponents attacked each other with deception, variety, and, especially, power to the corners. But even more memorable were the defensive abilities of all players -- their quickness of reaction, their court speed, their ability to go deep in the corners and rip back forcefully. The superstars of decades ago are true legends. But those of today are incomparably stronger.
JOURNEY TO THE MEN'S FINAL FOUR
Four great players -- Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray -- have occupied the top four positions in the ATP rankings for 2008, 2009, and 2010, as well as in the latest rolling-12-month standings. Thus the Big Four were awarded the four high-seeded positions at Roland Garros 11. All four high seeds indeed advanced to the tournament's semi-finals.
Roger Federer's advance to the Final Four seemed not entirely certain. Since winning an early-January event in Doha, Roger had played in and failed to win seven tournaments, having lost three times to Djokovic and twice to Nadal.
But Federer's travel to the semis at Garros became the smoothest of the four. Roger won all his matches enroute without loss of a set, and in the two cases where an opponent carried Roger to a tiebreak game, Roger was already ahead by two sets. His first victim was Feliciano Lopez, who had taken a set from Roger in Madrid recently. Then Roger's Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka helped by taking out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five brutal sets.
Meanwhile in the opposite half of Roger's quarter, the fourth-round match-up of David Ferrer and Gael Monfils provided supreme tennis entertainment, starting on Sunday evening and finishing on Monday. The full gallery noisily supported home-nation-player Monfils, seemingly lifting his efforts when it counted most. Ferrer answered with his customary determination, quickness, and variety, again and again equalizing matters after falling behind. It ended in an extended fifth set, the crowd once again carrying Gael to his triumph. Both men probably deserved to reach at least the quarters.
Thus Roger faced a Monfils seemingly at his career-best. But hard and swirling winds spoiled the quality of the tennis through most of their meeting, Roger occasionally showing displeasure with the conditions, Gael more dramatically doing so. The third set produced spells of the glorious quality that these two should provide, where Gael showed the brilliance seen in recent days. But the French star fell short in the tiebreak game as Roger finished with his most determined tennis of the affair.
Continuing his run of superb tennis and a consecutive match-winning streak that began months ago, Novak Djokovic emerged during the tournament's first week as the widespread favorite to win the tournament. Lurking in his quarter, however, was a dangerous possible spoiler -- the tall Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, who had won U.S. Open in 2009 but had been sidelined thereafter for surgery on the right wrist.
Del Potro had returned to brief action in late 2010. He won the tournament at Del Ray Beach in February 2011 and then scored a fine W-L record of 9-2 in the important events at Indian Wells and Miami in March. He captured Estoril on clay in April, defeating Soderling and Verdasco, but then withdrew with hip trouble from Madrid. Now, seeded in the second sixteen at Garros, he advanced to his third-round meeting with Djokovic.
Many of the points were stunning in their ferocity, as both men drove with blistering power to the corners and sides even as both retrieved with incredible range and counterforce. Del Potro's serve had the greater velocity, but Djokovic's was the more precise in placement, so that the count of aces was about even. Darkness interrupted the affair on Friday evening at one-set-all. Upon the resumption on Saturday, the fury and quality of play were as breathtaking as before. But it was Novak who soon found the higher tennis, and Novak's narrow superiority in the exchanges steadily increased as he collected sets three and four.
Richard Gasquet had beaten Federer at Rome and now continued his fine play through three rounds at Garros. But Djokovic defeated Richard comfortably, and Nole next collected his berth in the semis by benefit of a walkover.
Rafael Nadal, five times a Garros champion, ran into trouble in his first match, Tuesday, May 24, against John Isner, age 26, height 6-9. The American's weapons were well known -- a devastating serve, very good net coverage and volleying ability, and an improving heavy game from back court. But John's results had declined, and his ranking slipped backward out of the second ten to #39 now. Rafa won the first set and led by a service break in set two. But Rafa's confidence gradually vanished under pressure from Isner's first-strike attacking and more-than-occasional serve-and-volley play. John showed his knack for winning tiebreakers, capturing the second and third sets. Rafa restored matters thereafter, though still under pressure from the tall American, whose net sorties numbered 66, at two-thirds success rate.
Nadal, who had been my pick to win the tournament, also had trouble in his second match, against countryman Pablo Anduhar, 25. Pablo was one the seven male stars identified here in late April as the game's prime current risers. Anduhar's heavy hitting made matters close in all three sets, but Rafa won all of them, recovering from double-break down in set three.
In his interviews afterwards, Rafa spoke with little confidence, unhappy with his perfomance to date. But matters soon turned upward for Rafa, as he swept his next three matches in straight sets, with wins over Ljubicic and Soderling. The latter was the only player ever to have beaten Rafa at Garros and had been runner-up there the last two years. With good reason, Rafa's confidence had returned.
The tournament produced many examples of comebacks. Andy Murray recovered from two sets down to equalize matters against Viktor Troicki, a competitive and athletic Serbian star, 25. Darkness stopped play on Monday evening, but upon resumption Viktor again moved ahead by score 53 in games, serving at 30-love -- i.e, two points from victory. But Viktor now contributed a run of horrible, unforced errors, yielding the service-break edge. Viktor's mistakes then continued, enabling Andy, behind patience and occasional attack, to win the last few games, although at the very finish his own nerves faltered. Winning required a last passing-shot miracle by Andy. Murray then defeated Argentinian Chela to complete his advance.
The winds were again strong and tricky for the men's semi-final Friday. In the first semi, Rafael Nadal won all three sets from Andy Murray, staying ahead in each of them most of the way. Andy fought back well and made matters close at the finish of each. But especially in the second set, it was the Rafa of an earlier time -- relentless, extreme overspin from both sides, the physicality of Rafa's blows tending to beat down his opponent. Murray stood up well against the barrage, answering with his own excellent court movement and easy power from both sides, keeping matters close. Nadal handled Murray's superior power in serving by returning from deep while seeking consistency over immediate attack. Rafa's victory celebrated his reaching age 25 on this day. Nadal d. Murray, 64 75 64.
In an electrifying first set of the second semi-final, both men came out slugging. Early-on, a contrast became evident in their court movement. Roger Federer seemed to glide about easily and with little effort, while Djokovic -- usually a superb mover -- had trouble with his footing, his shoes often slipping on the court surface when Novak changed direction. Nevertheless, Nole gradually established himself as the more-dominant striker, forcing Roger often to long stretches of defensive play, where Roger performed magnificently. Nole reached several set points but could not convert, and matters went on to a tiebreaker. The tiebreak score reached five points all, but then two quick errors by Nole ended the set.
That disappointment perhaps explained Nole's decline in set two, Roger accepting Nole's many errors with gratitude. But in set three, Nole found his strong game, taking an early lead and holding it throughout, Roger perhaps conserving energy. Nole's dominating play continued into the fourth set, darkness approaching. Whether from his own tiredness, by design, or forced by Nole's power, Federer was now often playing "role-a-dope" -- in extreme defense, where Roger stretched and lunged wide and deep, slicing back returns of Nole's relentless rocketry. But Nole's errors came often enough, and Roger was able to apply his own attacking often enough to carry Roger to a fourth-set tiebreaker. There, thanks to several magnificently timely service aces, victory was Roger's. Federer's stunning triumph thus ended Djokovic's perfect year. Federer d. Djokovic, 76 63 36 76.
The first set of yet another Federer-Nadal final was an immediate classic -- in its importance, inherent drama, and quality of play. Federer began with all-out attack -- something lacking in many of their earlier meetings. Rafa gradually raised his play to match Roger's, answering Roger's early service break by breaking back in game nine when Roger served into a difficult Sun. (Because of the Sun's afternoon high position, right-handed Federer was disadvantaged in serving from the north end, while lefty Nadal was not bothered.) Rafa broke again in an extended and drama-filled game eleven marked by several forehand passes by Rafa and many close calls. Rafa then closed out game twelve and the set, finishing with a fine forehand cross-court winner.
With nothing to show for his superb early play, Roger then fell behind early in set two. It seemed that Rafa was now unstoppable, having found his own top game, with a five-year edge in youth, and playing on his best surface at the site of his greatest past triumphs. But great champions do not roll over at big moments. Federer's racket continued to produce more errors than Roger liked, but there was also much fine attacking play by Roger along with -- increasingly as the match proceeded -- some fine defensive work by Roger as Rafa too stepped up his attacking.
Federer fought back to equalize set two at four games all, then returned after a short rain break to turn back a Rafa set point and force tiebreak. Rafa won the tiebreaker comfortably, giving Rafa a two-set lead. Roger thereafter continued to compete well, winning set three and, with Rafa serving, winning the first three points of set four. But Nadal answered with two forehand winners and a serving ace to reach deuce and save the game. There were more stunning offensive and defensive displays by both men, but with Rafa at his best the final outcome could no longer be doubted. Nadal d. Federer, 75 76 57 61.
It was Rafa's tenth Slam triumph, his sixth at Garros. His credentials as history's greatest clay-courter now seemed unchallengeable.
We owe recognition to all the players who did not reach the final four. Here, we identify the foremost overachievers -- the players whose achievement most surpassed their seeded (i.e, expected) level. Not surprisingly, players grown on clay courts tended to excel using this formula. The three leaders tied, each with three credits:
-- Juan Ignacio Chela -- Unseeded, reached round of eight = 3 credits. The tall Argentinian, 31, attained his highest year-end ranking of #20 in 2007 prior to back trouble. At Garros 2011 he won four matches, including two five-setters. His victims included Kevin Anderson, who had been named one of our seven prime risers recently, and Alejandro Falla, a determined Colombian. Chela is apt at the classic clay-court style from well behind baseline but is more inclined to use his excellent serving and stroking power in forceful play. Chela's Garros run ended in a quarter-finals loss to Andy Murray in three well-contested sets.
-- Fabio Fognini -- Unseeded, reached round of eight = 3 credits. A majority of Fognini's activity and his better winning percentage have been on clay. At age 24, he has been inside the world's top hundred for several years. This year he has shown propensity for winning sets against higher-ranked players but with few match victories. He won four matches at Garros 11, including a four-set win over seeded Garcia-Lopez. In the fourth round he faced fellow clay artist Albert Montanes, hopeful of reversing Albert's split-set win over Fabio in Buenos Aires earlier this year. The affair reached six-games-all in the fifth set, where by rule play continued without tiebreak. Late-on, Fabio injured his thigh and could barely summon strength to move or serve. After several prolonged treatment periods, Fabio won the match after Montanes, inexplicably, failed to convert five match points. Fabio afterwards withdrew from the tournament because of his injury.
-- Alejandro Falla, Won Qualifiers for one credit and then reached round of sixteen for two more = 3 credits. This determined Colombian lefty, age 27, won three qualifying-round and three main-draw matches, including a four-set win over Lukasz Kubot, who had eliminated high-seeded Almagro. Alejandro's exit came in his five-set loss to Chela, noted above. His reaching the fourth round at Garros 11 was his best-ever Slam finish. A relentless heavy hitter, he has hovered inside and outside the world's top hundred for several years. His Garros success places him firmly inside that group. He has played in the Washington tournament here regularly, always delivering entertaining matches.
Spain's males again won more matches than any other nation's contingent. Spain and France shared the early lead, both winning ten matches in first-round singles. But the Armada, led by Nadal, moved ahead thereafter, despite a small edge for France in doubles. Six different nations scored at least ten match wins.
1. Spain, 26 match wins
2. France, 23
3. Serbia, 15
RACE FOR THE 2011 CROWN
Nadal and Djokovic are the leaders in the official ATP rankings, showing rolling-12-month achievement. The two divided the four Slams during the ranking period, Nadal winning Wimbledon 10 and Garros 11, Djokovic winning U.S. Open 10 and Australia 11. The narrow edge in ranking points is Nadal's.
But the positions are reversed in the 2011 year-to-date race, which depicts progress toward the year's ultimate crown. Here are the year-to-date leaders, compiled unofficially here:
1. Novak Djokovic, 7470 ranking points
2. Rafael Nadal, 5590
3. Roger Federer, 3820
Note also that Nadal is the 2011 leader in clay-court points. With nearly all clay-court points now awarded, his lead appears insurmountable. Djokovic and Federer are second and third, respectively.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES: TESTING THE RISERS
The retirements of Henin and Dementieva and the absence of the Williams sisters plainly weakened the women's field. The new landscape suggested that women's tennis was at a turning point -- that the time had arrived for the cohort of rising players, aged 23 and under, to claim their inheritance. Indeed, most of the tournament's early drama was in the testing of this hypothesis and its gradual derailment.
Sabine Lisicki, age 21, height 5-10. Lisicki, whose ranking briefly attained the top 30 in 2009, successfully advanced through the qualifying rounds at Garros 11. In the second round of the main draw, Sabine faced third-seeded Vera Zvonareva. The young German's serving and stroking matched Vera's, and Sabine attained a match point. But Lisicki's tiredness and cramping turned the momentum to the veteran Russian star, and Vera closed out strongly at the finish.
Aranxa Rus, 19, 5-11. A windy and cool Wednesday, May 25, brought the doom of second-seeded Kim Clijsters, who won the first set against the slender Netherlander Aranxa Rus and held match point to win the second. But the steady pressure from the younger opponent along with Kim's own dismal error-making produced the shocker. Kim's inconsistent play probably reflected her recent inactivity, caused by an off-court foot injury. Rus held up well under the pressure and claimed her victory with two rocket forehands at the finish. Aranxa would lose in the tournament's next round.
Caroline Garcia, 17. Later the same afternoon, it looked as if Maria Sharapova would share Kim's fate. The wind handicapped Maria's high serving toss, and Maria's opponent, youthful French player Caroline Garcia, replied to Maria's power with comparable rocketry. The underdog took the first set and led 42 in the second before Maria finally toned down her hitting and reasserted normalcy, the wind having abated somewhat. Later Caroline would win four matches before losing in the semis of the Garros juniors.
Caroline Wozniacki, 20, 5-10. Assuredly the leader of the youth brigade has been Caroline Wozniacki, whose remarkable success mainly in non-Slam tournaments placed her atop both the rolling-12-month and the year-to-date women's standings. Her third-round opponent at Garros 11 was veteran Daniela Hantuchova, 28, whose rocketry on this day was at its sizzling best. Caroline's softish offerings seemed only to feed Daniela's lightning strikes to the corners and sides. Quickly, Daniela reeled in the first set and the first four games of the second. Caroline fought back to some avail, but in the tense moments that followed it would be Caroline who faltered and Daniela who again found her best. The early departure of Wozniacki was an upset of stunning proportion.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19, 5-10. With Wozniacki and Clijsters now gone, the #3 seed, Vera Zvonareva, was next to depart. The agent of her dismissal was Russian riser Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, tall and strong, whose balanced game was built on accuracy, with an excellent reserve of power available for use when called for. Zvonareva was the firmer server of the two and more inclined to hit hard during routine exchanges. But it was Vera who faded in set three, and the teenager, now regularly striking for the corners, advanced, impressively.
A windy Tuesday then found Pavlyuchenkova ahead of last year's Garros champion, Francesca Schiavone, by a set and two service breaks. But Francesca then recovered her best game, neutralizing Anastasia's heavy strokes with her own high mobility and variety in stroking, occasionally taking the attack when opportunity arose. The teenager maintained her form, but it had become difficult -- almost impossible -- for her to win points from backcourt given Francseca's strong defenses. Francesca's play declined slightly toward the finish, and Anastasia made a good late run, but the veteran recovered barely in time.
Petra Kvitova, 21, 6-0. My choice to win the tournament, Petra Kvitova, recent champion at Madrid, seemed in command against the strong Chinese player Li Na, amid fine playing conditions on second Monday. The two split the first two sets, and Kvitova won the first three games of the third. Then came an astonishing meltdown, as Petra's bigger game suddenly came apart. Petra's power lefty forehands now regularly failed to find the court even as Petra's first serve deserted the scene. Na meanwhile persisted in her solid hitting, yielding almost no unforced errors yet offering nothing attackable. Na remained always composed and intent on her business, but when Petra sent yet another rocket beyond the lines Petra would frown or grimace, bewailing her fate. For six consecutive games the younger player's severe hitting earned her a fair number of points. But Na won all six games, playing almost without error and with plenty of positive conviction.
Julia Goerges, 22, 5-11. Julia of the superior serve won the clay event at Stuttgart in April, beating Wozniacki. She missed Rome with back injury but then won two matches at Garros before losing in split sets to eventual semi-finalist Bartoli.
Andrea Petkovic, 23, 5-11. Andrea, seeded #15 at Garros, continued her strong play, winning four matches before a quarter-final match-up with Sharapova. Maria's superior all-out hitting made the outcome clear from the start.
Victoria Azarenka, 21, 5-10. Seeded #4 following her runner-up finish at Rome, Victoria was favored by many to win Garros 11. But the relentless stroking of Li Na prevailed from the outset of this quarter-final match-up on windy Wednesday, producing a straight-set win for the Chinese star.
The rising group had achieved some fine successes during the fortnight, above, but none of the under-24's made the tournament's final four. Sharapova at 24 and Bartoli at 26 were in the middle age range, but the other two semi-finalists -- the two that would reach the final -- were from the veteran cohort supposedly depleted at the outset.
Semi-final Thursday came with bright sunshine but again high winds. Li Na, playing with the firmness and steadiness already seen, denied Sharapova opportunities for easy winners from inside the baseline, even as Li's determined court movement removed much of the sting from Maria's bigger blows. The wind was a major factor in spoiling Maria's expected edge in serving, especially toward the end of the close second set when Maria's high ball toss, coupled with Maria's determination to maintain her forcefulness, led to critical double faults by Maria. Li's more compact stroking, too, seemed less affected by the gusts than Maria's more sweeping forehand and backhand deliveries. Li d. Sharapova, 64 75.
The wind created woes for Marion Bartoli in the second semi-final, reinforcing the effects of Francesca Schiavone's tactics in preventing Marion from finding her top form. Schiavone was the more athletic of the two, stronger and more flexible, quick and varied in her shot-making. There were long doses of sliced backhands from Francesca, struck firmly and low over the net, nearly always directed to a place that would require movement by her opponent. Mixed into Francesca's medicine were looped forehands, sharp angles, well-controlled drop shots and plop shots, along with readiness to take the attack when opportunity or inclination arose. Bartoli anwered with heavy hitting and good resolve, and the French player's hopping and swishing between points helped keep the gallery on her side. But as the finish loomed, tiredness set in for Marion, and the all-around superiority of the defending champion became complete. Schiavone d. Bartoli, 63 63.
Championship Saturday was warm, the winds only moderate, the flags atop Court Chatrier wafting. The first set belonged to Li Na, who at 5-7 was two inches taller and at 29 one year younger than her opponent -- and also possessor of the heavier strokes. Francesca Schiavone seemed unready for Na's pace, while Li -- who had just defeated three of the tour's heaviest hitters -- was unfazed by Schiavone's slices. Any softish offerings by Francesca became rockets to the corners by Li. Na's winners in the first set outnumbered Francesca's, 15-3.
Set two began with another service break by Na, who narrowly missed a second break soon afterwards, meanwhile continuing to administer her groundstroke depth and power. But Francesca was now gradually improving, her play beginning to resemble that seen in last year's Garros final. Na abruptly surrendered four errors to yield her service-break advantage. As the set approached tiebreak, Francesca emotionally disagreed with a close line call. The umpire's decision stood, but Francesca would not win another point. Indeed Na, again playing brilliantly, would win all seven points in the closing tiebreak game. Li d. Schiavone, 64 76.
The new champion, Li Na, broke into the world's first hundred in 2004 and has remained there ever since, having finished 2010 at #11. Superstardom came in January 2011, when she beat Wozniacki to reach the final against Clijsters at Australian Open. (Na won the first set of the final but then lost to Kim.) Few successes followed, but she reached the final four on clay at both Madrid and Rome.
Li did not lead in any of our indicators predicting success at Garros. She scored fifth in our Indicator measuring improvement pattern by comparing current with best past performance. (Her best pre-2011 WTA ranking was #9, compared with her 2011-to-date ranking of #4, giving her a ratio of 2.25, fifth-best where the leader was Kvitova at ratio 4.83.)
The leader in both the rolling-12-month and the 2011 year-to-date standings is Wozniacki. Li now moves to #2 in the year-to-date race, as follows:
1. Caroline Wozniacki, 5216 ranking points
2. Li Na, 4787
3. Victoria Azarenka, 3482
The leader in 2011 clay-court points is Li Na, followed by Schiavone and Wozniacki.
For the eighth consecutive year, the Russians led in the tally of match-wins by women at Garros. The Russkayas scored eight wins in the first round of singles and were never headed thereafter. Czech Republic was second, showing good strength in doubles, won by the Czech pair Hlavackova-Hradecka. Eight different nations scored at least ten wins.
1. Russia, 34.5 match wins
2. Czech Republic, 18.5
3. Australia, 15
It's time for grass-court tennis, where for the last three years the just-crowned men's champion at Garros became the Wimbledon champion as well. Wimbledon is also where every women's champion of the last four years has been named Williams.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.