Paris and its environs have been part of tennis history ever since the early 1500's when Francis I and Henry VIII, avid players both, rivaled in expanding The Royal Game of Tennis within their respective kingdoms. Surviving drawings from the times show playing courts at estates of the nobility and in towns over much of Europe. Some courts were indoors, resembling those still used today in real tennis. Others were outside, surrounded by low rectangular walls, with nets draped across the middle. The agreed dimensions were about 90 feet in overall length, 30 feet in width. Some 250 courts are thought to have been built in Paris by year 1700.
The modern version of the sport of Francis I convened at Stade Roland Garros, May 22-June 11, 2012. Two superb champions emerged -- Rafael Nadal, who captured his seventh Garros crown, and Maria Sharapova, who completed her career Grand Slam, joining the nine other women in tennis history to have done so. This year's French Open again showcased the modern clay-court game played at ever-higher levels of skill and ferocity. Years of training and dedication stood behind not only the newest achievements of Nadal and Sharapova but also countless exciting performances by hundreds of other superb players from all parts of the world.
The setting and facilities, the crowds and ceremony were of the sporting world's best. The weather was good for the first week, whereupon drizzle and clouds covered Paris. The ensuing heavier playing conditions slowed ball speed through the air and in the bounce, and was reflected in data from the men's singles, where the ratio of aces per point played was 6.0% in the first week (first three rounds) but declined to 4.5% in the slower conditions from the fourth round on. (Past values average 5.9% at Garros, 7.7% at U.S. and Australian Opens, 10.3% at Wimbledon.)
The cold and dampness of the second week sometimes benefited the player better able to penetrate the conditions with easier, sustained power, thereby maintaining dominance during points. But things sometimes worked differently, where the heavy conditions, by sapping the energy from the stronger player's blows, reduced his or her ability to strike quick winners.
There were relatively few surprises in the men's singles, where six of the eight quarter-finalists had been seeded to that level. Although all members of the long-standing Big Four were severely tested enroute, only one failed to reach the semis. Upsets were more frequent among the women, where only three players seeded to reach the final eight actually did so.
Here, we sketch the grand panorama of the tournament in an unusual way. We review the individual successes of many notable performers, awarding each player a letter grade accordingly. The final grade represents the higher of (1) the player's performance in the tournament or (2) the player's performance compared with pre-tournament expectations.
Competing in the qualifying rounds were a total of 128 male players, All were fairly close in ability, most of them ranked in the second hundred of the pro list. Sixteen succeeded in winning three qualifying matches, thereby advancing to the first round of the main draw. One other player, who lost his third qualifying match, was also admitted to the main draw as a "lucky loser" replacement.
Of the seventeen reaching the main draw, a surprisingly high number, eight, would win their first match therein. The one who would go the farthest thereafter was the lucky loser -- David Goffin, age 21, from Belgium, who is already known to inveterate readers of Tennis Server from his membership on our most recent watch list of risers. David would win three main-draw matches at Garros, defeating Stepanek, Clement, and Kubot, thus reaching the tournament's final sixteen. Then against Federer, he won the first set before departing. Goffin's remarkable success above expectations earns him our letter grade of A Minus.
Three other qualifiers would reach the final 32. Tommy Haas, a former world #2 and trying a come-back at age 34, won twice before losing to Richard Gasquet in four sets. Tommy thus earns our letter grade of B Minus, the same as Nicolas Devilder of Germany and Eduardo Schwank of Argentina, who lost in the third round to Djokovic and Nadal, respectively.
Eighty other unseeded players (including several "wild cards") were admitted directly into the main draw. Each would have to supplant a seeded player in order to reach the third round. Only five succeeded, joining the aforementioned four qualifiers who attained that level.
Most remarkable was the run of Paul-Henri Mathieu, 32, once a rising star at rank #12. Paul-Henri in the second round faced tall American John Isner, seeded #10, who had scored some eye-catching wins on clay earlier in the year. Their marathon became a highlight of the first week. As the hours lengthened in their 34-game fifth set, it was Paul-Henri who appeared the fresher, by far the more positive in his manner. Helped by home-nation support from the gallery and his own good fortitude, the French veteran indeed prevailed at the finish. The affair stirred recollections of Isner's long match against Mahut at Wimbledon two years before. Paul-Henri went on to lose his next match, a five-setter, against seeded Marcel Granollers. For his fine run through the first week Mathieu receives our letter grade B.
The script could scarcely have been stranger. It was Nicolas Mahut -- Isner's opponent at the Wimbledon classic -- whose first-week's upset of Andy Roddick now rivaled Mathieu's achievement. Mahut also defeated rising Klizan in four sets before losing in four close sets to Federer. Mahut's strong performance thus also earns our letter grade B.
Other unseeded players reaching the third round by upsetting seeded stars were Fabio Fognini (defeated Troicki), Lorenzo Mayer (d. Kohlschreiber), and Santiago Giraldo (d. Tomic). All three receive our letter grade B Minus.
The Lower and Middle Seeds
Three players seeded in the range #17-#32 also exceeded their seed by reaching the final sixteen. None of the three would go higher. The one whose run was most remarkable was Italian Andreas Seppi, age 28, seeded #22.
Andreas had won attention two weeks before by winning three matches at Italian Open, beating Istomin, Isner, and Wawrinka before frenzied home-nation crowd support. Now in Paris, he defeated veteran Davydenko, then won a five-setter against rising Russian Kukushkin, and finally upset 13th-seeded Verdasco, also in five sets. There was more. Before a stunned Garros gallery he next took a two-set lead against an off-form world #1, Djokovic. The latter managed to reverse the momentum, and although the play remained closely contested, Djokovic was now producing the heavier rocketry with the fewer errors. We award Seppi letter-grade B Plus.
Similarly reaching the round of sixteen were Marcel Granollers and Richard Gasquet. Neither faced a seeded player enroute and neither produced drama comparable with Seppi's, and both receive our letter grade B.
Two mid-level seeds -- Nicolas Almagro, seeded #12, and Juan Martin del Potro, seeded #9 -- would both surpass their seeded level by attaining the quarter-finals. Both would defeat the player whose place they captured -- Almagro beat Tipsarevic in three sets, del Potro defeated Berdych in four.
As to Tipsarevic, Berdych, and those many other players who finished at or below their seeded level, letter grades can be surmised as follows:
--those finishing in the first 16 = B Minus
--those finishing in the first 32 = C Plus
--those finishing in the first 64 = C Minus
--those losing in the first round = D
--those losing in the qualifying rounds = D Minus
Note that no player earning entry into a Slam deserves F.
The Final Eight
Staged simultaneously on Tuesday on Courts Chatrier and Lenglen were two quarter-final matches. Second-seeded Novak Djokovic faced Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and third-seeded Roger Federer faced Juan Martin del Potro. Point after point in both matches produced breathtaking tennis, thrilling the packed galleries who could hear the frenzied sounds from the opposite arenas. Both matches would be five-setters.
Del Potro took the first two sets from Federer but then faded, his movement hindered by a troublesome knee that had been heavily wrapped at the outset. Many points were highly contested, but Roger lost only five games in winning the last three sets. Meanwhile Tsonga started poorly against Djokovic under sunshine, losing the first set. After that the air abruptly chilled and a few raindrops appeared, creating heavier conditions seemingly helping Jo-Wilfried in his easier and heavier weight of shot. Jo-Wilfried won sets two and three and attained four match points in the tiebreak game ending set four. But Jo-Wilfried lost all of them.
Both men showed tiredness in the fifth set. During the intervals between points it was Djokovic who seemed the more tired. But it was Tsonga whose game most declined, his fatigue doubtlessly accentuated by the opportunities lost a few minutes earlier. Thus Djokovic, the tournament's top seed, survived narrowly.
The wet and cool conditions of Wednesday fit well the strengths of Rafael Nadal, who most of the time was content to play defense against his quarter-final opponent, Nicolas Almagro. As a result Nicolas's shots carried by far the greater depth and penetration. But Rafa's confidence in his own defensive skills proved justified, running down long sequences of Almagro's blows and allowing Almagro's occasional errors to do Rafa's work. Meanwhile when in trouble in his own serving games, Rafa was able to step up his own serving power and accuracy, thereby keeping the scoreboard in his favor.
The last quarter-final seemed tame, the heavy conditions denying Andy Murray the full effect of his heftier blows. David Ferrer had beaten Andy in their last three clay-court matches, and events this day would produce the same result. Andy unleashed the heavier artillery but missed too many shots, especially at important junctures.
Both of the men's semis on Friday ended in straight sets, both outcomes having become unmistakable well before the finish. Strong winds and a one-hour rain delay were annoyances, but there was little doubt that both winners fully deserved their victories. Rafael Nadal had beaten David Ferrer in their last twelve clay-court meetings, and there would be no close sets on this day, as Rafa's heavy artillery and court movement were at their best.
The other semi-final repeated a match-up of one year earlier, when Roger Federer defeated Novak Djokovic in the Garros semis. Novak had reversed that clay-court result at Italian Open 2012. Both men had difficult matches in the earlier rounds of the current tournament. (Besides his close call against del Potro, Roger had been carried to four sets by three other opponents. Novak had been taken to five by both Tsonga and Seppi.)
Roger scored the first break of serve in each of the first two sets. But with the swirling wind keeping both men from their shot-making best, it was Novak who took a two-set lead. From then on, with Novak now defending the corners and sides of his court superbly, making fruitless Roger's bids to step up his attacking, it seemed that Roger too gradually became resigned to the obvious. With the wind and the dampness making attack difficult, it was not a day for Roger's forceful play.
Our letter grades follow the scoreboards. Ferrer and Federer each earn A Minus. (Of the two, Federer's semi-final performance was the stronger, but Ferrer deserves the same grade for having risen above his seeded place in beating Murray.) Quarter-finalist losers Tsonga and del Potro also receive A Minuses, having seriously extended Djokovic and Federer, respectively, in the quarters, del Potro having surpassed his seeded level. Quarter-finalist Almagro, who also exceeded his seeded level and was the only player prior to the final round to carry Rafa to tiebreak, receives B Plus. Andy Murray, who place inside the Big Four is now in jeopardy, receives letter-grade B.
Final: Nadal vs. Djokovic
Thus it became the fourth consecutive Slam final pitting Nadal and Djokovic. Whatever the outcome, implications would be large for the place in history of both men. Still a constant presence were the cool and damp conditions of the past week. Marking play throughout were long and sizzling rallies from back court.
The more aggressive in working the sides and corners was Djokovic, while Nadal usually allowed himself larger margins for error in employing his heavy spins. The deeper, more penetrating blows of Djokovic typically kept Rafa on the defensive, even as Novak's superb court movement fairly easily denied all but the most severe thrusts of Rafa. Still, Rafa was able to capture the first set and, after some superb inside-out forehand winners by Rafa, take a 5-3 lead in the second. Rain stopped play at this critical point.
Upon resumption, just as he had in the first game of the match, Djokovic played poorly and lost the first game, serving. Thus Rafa took a two-set lead, even though in the play the two men had seemed almost exactly even. Then early in set three, Novak would launch a run of eight straight games, where many points were settled by Novak's incredible athleticism and accuracy in striking. No longer were there easy points for Rafa in serving. Nor could Rafa break Novak's lockdown defense. Novak had found his top game. But a second rain interruption came, with Novak up a service-break in set four.
Play resumed on Monday. Again, Novak would begin poorly, yielding his service-break edge. The earlier patterns then resumed, Novak dominating most rallies, Rafa staying even on the scoreboard by winning short points when serving, from occasional errors by his opponent, and by his own forehand rockets whenever Novak offered something weak. The rain returned briefly, probably hurting Djokovic. The end came with little warning when Novak lost three straight serving points in the twelfth game.
Rafa had been supremely tested, but it became the former wunderkind's seventh Garros crown. Djokovic, who lost his chance for a Non-calendar-year Grand Slam and also his Career Grand Slam, scarcely deserved to lose. Assuredly, Nadal earned our A Plus, Djokovic the runner-up's A.
No male player has ever won the Garros triple crown -- the singles, doubles, and mixed. This year only one player scored at least one victory in all three -- Eduardo Schwank of Argentina. The player achieving the most wins in all three events was Max Mirnyi, who counted eight match wins -- six in capturing the men's doubles crown with Dan Nestor plus two in mixed doubles with Liezel Huber.
Another player achieved only one fewer match wins than Max. The issue between the two leaders was decided when Mirnyi-Nestor defeated the Bryans in the final of the men's doubles. If that result had been reversed, then Mike Bryan would have been the honoree here instead of Max.
The tally of match-wins by nation produced an unexpected result. The Spanish Armada had led in the tally at every Garros since 2005. This year the male contingent from France scored broad success in the first week, especially in singles. Thus although no French male reached the quarter-finals of either singles, doubles, or mixed, the home nation's final count was well ahead of second-place Spain's and third-place Argentina's. The outcome merits a salute to France's national player-development effort.
THE WOMEN'S SINGLES
Unquestionably, the higher drama at Garros 2012 happened on the female side. Much of it involved relatively unfamiliar players with names like Shvedova, Razzano, and Errani.
Twelve aspiring women each scored three qualifying-round victories, thereby advancing to the main draw. Among those qualifying were several young and rising players, among them Kiki Bertens of Netherlands, Heather Watson of Britain, Lauren Davis of U.S., and Arruabarrena-Vecino of Spain. A surprisingly high number of the winning qualifiers -- six of the twelve -- went on to win first-round matches in the main draw. All but one would lose their next match, however, thereby earning letter grade of C.
But by far the most successful graduate of the qualifying rounds would be Yaroslava Shvedova, age 24 at height 5-11, born in Moscow and now representing Kazakhstan. Twice a Slam champion in doubles, Yaroslava had been a top-hundred singles player for several years before injuries, surgery, and illness intervened in 2011.
Now, Yaroslava found the Garros main draw just as comfortable as the qualifiers, as she scored main-draw wins over three established stars without loss of a set. Her next opponent would be last year's Garros champion, Li Na. Yaroslava would lose the first set to Li but would go on to win the next two, thus advancing to the tournament's final eight. There she would win the first set but then lose to Kvitova, last year's Wimbledon champ. For her almost unprecedented success out of the qualifiers, Shvedova receives our letter grade A.
The most widely noted happening in the first week was the defeat of Serena Williams by unseeded Virginie Razzano.
Slender and tallish at 5-9, Virginie at age 29 and now ranked outside the first hundred, seemed an unlikely first-round threat to the player widely favored to win the tournament. But Virginie brought potent, relatively flat groundstrokes that penetrated well and kept Serena from dominating and occasionally pushed the American into trouble. Razzano's serve, which began from an awkward posture but was hitch-free during the swing, carried excellent placement and power, producing four aces during the match to Serena's six. Serena, herself stroking and moving well, won the first set but could not pull ahead in the second despite some critical help from Virginie, who contributed unforced errors from apparent winning positions.
Serena led in the second-set tiebreak, 5 points to 1, seemingly ready to collect her victory. But Serena's margin now melted away as the gallery's home-nation support for Virginie became extreme. Serena lost one point after stopping play in the wrong belief that Virginie's shot was out. Another point was replayed after a mistaken call by a linesperson when Serena was in winning position. Amid all this, the last six points went to Razzano and the match was even, one set all.
Distraught at these events and her own errors, Serena became unable to stop Virginie's swift winning of the first five games of the third set. Serena's serenity was not helped by two strange rulings by the umpire, who twice awarded points to Serena after Virginie made sounds upon returning shots. Serena fought back to reach 5-3 on the third-set scoreboard, and it then became Virginie who was the nervous player. In a dramatic and controversy-filled ninth game, Razzano serving, the crowd frenzied after every point, after more than ten deuces the verdict finally went to the steadier Virginie. Serena spoiled her own chances by wacking outside the lines several bids for serve-return winners.
Razzano would lose in the next round, but her victory over Serena was surely a career high point. For that stunning achievement, we award her the grade of B.
Besides Shvedova, five other unseeded players would break into the top sixteen, replacing the same number of seeded stars. Letter grade B goes to Arantxa Rus, 18, 5-11, from Netherlands, who knocked out Razzano and seeded Goerges. Two other players receive the same grade -- Petra Martic, also 18 and 5-11, from Croatia, who defeated seeded Bartoli, and veteran Klara Zakopalova, who was the only player to win a set from Maria Sharapova in the tournament. Americans Sloane Stephens and Varvara Lepchenko both receive B Minus. Meanwhile unseeded Christina McHale failed in her bid for the final sixteen but only after winning the first set against defending champion Li Na. The American thus earned our C Plus.
The Lower and Middle Seeds
Four players seeded in the range #9-#32 made their way into the final eight. Probably the biggest surprise was the win of Dominka Cibulkova, 23 at height just 5-3, over Victoria Azarenka, the tournament's top-seeded player. Another reversal was the win of Kaia Kanepi over Caroline Wozniacki, who had finished both 2010 and 2011 as world #1. Kanepi was the larger and more powerful player and took control of the match early. But with defeat looming, Caroline fell back on the little-girl style that had marked her brilliance in years past. For the next six games, it was the Danish princess once again who absolutely refused to miss a shot, even as Kaia's nerves abruptly faltered. Caroline captured the tiebreaker ending the second set. But after that Kanepi regained her supremacy, winning set three at love.
The affair was marked by a disagreement between the umpire and an infuriated Wozniacki over a close line call. It appeared that the umpire explained to Caroline that the ball had just clipped the baseline tape judging by the shape of the mark. The automatic ball-tracker seen by tv viewers showed the ball just long, however. Such contradictions happened on other close calls during the tournament. For myself, in these cases it was hard to see how an umpire-inspected mark could be wrong.
Also exceeding seeded expectations in reaching the round of eight were Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber. Sara's fourth-round victim was Svetlana Kuznetsova, who herself surpassed her seeding by defeating #3 Agnieszka Radwanska by one-sided scores. Svetlana's letter grade is B Minus.
The Final Eight
In the last of the quarter-final matches, Petra Kvitova and Yaroslava Shvedova -- heavy hitters both -- took turns in front. Shvedova was the more athletic, the better mover and also the less error prone. But Kvitova could be devastating when her rockets found the corners.
The score stayed close, but dampness in the third set slowed matters and seemed to help Kvitova overcome a recent barrage of unforced errors. The Czech star closed out the final games, though her victory was not auspicious for her coming date with Sharapova. Indeed, two days later in the semis Sharapova would comfortably outhit the more error-prone Kvitova, dismissing last year's Wimbledon champion.
The other semi-final pitted Sam Stosur and Sara Errani. Stosur had won their meeting in Rome three weeks earlier, but Errani had scored important successes on clay earlier in the year and had been strong in the current tournament, defeating former Garros champions Ivanovic and Kuznetsova along with rising star Kerber.
To answer the severe serving and stroking power of Stosur, Errani -- age 25 and height 5-4 or 5-5 -- brought better quickness and court movement, excellent accuracy and disguise in stroking, and a feisty competitiveness. Early-on, Stosur's serving and her blistering returns of Errani's second serves seemed overwhelming. But fairly quickly it became evident that if Sara could extend points beyond two or three strikes, Sara was assuredly the better player. The Italian star's dazzling movement and her remarkable accuracy in counterpunching turned the first set to Sara. But the second set went easily to Stosur, as Errani, after slipping behind, seemed to step down her resistance. Was she perhaps luring her opponent to overconfidence in using her heaviest weapons too rashly?
If so, it seemed to work, as Stosur began set three with a horrible run of errors. The Australian star managed to right herself, equalizing at three games all. But the final verdict came soon thereafter, as it was Sara who produced the solid counterpunching tactics seen in winning the first set and Samantha who could not find her strong game without excessive errors. It seemed clear that Sara's superior mental strength had made the difference.
Maria Sharapova had emerged at mid-tournament as the most likely champion following the departures of Serena, Azarenka, and Li. In the quality of her play in her last three matches Maria fully lived up to this expectation. In turn defeating Kanepi, Kvitova, and Errani, the tall Russian megastar served and stroked with full power, full confidence, and full success. None of these three opponents won more than three games in any set.
Even more impressive than Maria's striking was her vast improvement over several years ago in court quickness and movement -- an obvious product of long practice and training. Her ability to reach easily an opponent's attacking shots was excellent, her footwork in positioning for her own forcing blows likewise. Never wavering was her absolute confidence in her all-out tactics, nor her relentless mental focus between points. In the Saturday afternoon final, Errani's best countering skills proved badly inadequate whenever a sequence of Maria's rockets found their targets.
In Maria's completing her Career Grand Slam in convincing manner, there is no question that Sharapova's letter grade for the tournament is an untainted A Plus.
Nor are there doubts in awarding the grade of A to the tournament runner-up, Sara Errani. (Shvedova received the same grade, reflecting the magnitude of her overachievement.) The losing semi-finalists Kvitova and Stosur receive A Minuses. Losing quarter-finalists Kanepi, Kerber, and Cibulkova, all of whom surpassed their seeded level, receive B Pluses.
Far ahead as the woman closest to achieving a Garros triple was Sara Errani. Sara captured the women's doubles with partner Vinci, winning six matches, and was second in the singles, winning six more for a total of twelve. She was also listed in the original draw for the mixed doubles as partner for Fabio Fognini, but the pair was scratched prior to the first round. About a dozen women entered all three events.
The Russian women led in the count of matches won by nation for the seventh consecutive year. The leading contributors were Sharapova in singles and Kirilenko-Petrova, the runner-up doubles pair. U.S.A. was second in the final tally behind surprisingly broad success in the first round of singles. Czech Republic was closely third.
Although a few more clay-court events lie ahead, Nadal and Sharapova have become the unquestioned champions of clay for 2012. The immediate future brings the grass-court season including the year's third Slam at Wimbledon and the Olympics at the end of July, also on the Wimbledon grass. Will the Olympics confirm the appeal of a fifth Slam, a world championships, to be held in non-Olympic years?
It was as always a magnificent Slam.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX -- ORDER OF MERIT BY LETTER GRADE
Nadal -- A Plus
Djokovic -- A
Federer, Ferrer, Goffin, Tsonga, del Potro -- A Minus
Almagro, Seppi -- B Plus
Mathieu, Mahut, Murray, Gasquet, Granollers -- B
Berdych, Tipsarevic, Wawrinka, Haas, Devilder, Schwank, Fognini, L. Mayer, Giraldo -- B Minus
Sharapova -- A Plus
Errani, Shvedova -- A
Stosur, Kvitova -- A Minus
Kanepi, Cibulkova, Kerber -- B Plus
Rus, Martic, Zakopalova, Razzano -- B
Kuznetsova, Stephens, Lepchenko, Li, Azarenka -- B Minus