As Garros 2013 began, the prime male candidates for the top crown were three members of the sport's long-standing Big Four -- Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. (The fourth member, Andy Murray, had withdrawn from the tournament.) Djokovic was the current #1 in the ATP world rankings, while Nadal led in our pre-tournament composite of indicators, having won the recent tournaments at Madrid and Rome. Meanwhile Serena Williams was #1 in the WTA rankings and was tops in our composite, having also won at Madrid and Rome. Joining Serena in the female high nobility were the defending Garros champion, Maria Sharapova, and the winner of Australian Open 2013, Victoria Azarenka.
That someone outside these dominant superstars would capture one of the singles crowns seemed unlikely, though in our composite of indicators, Tomas Berdych penetrated the men's Big Four, surpassing Federer, and Sara Errani was fourth among the women.
But if it is the superstars who sell out the arenas, there is high drama too in the aspirations and achievements of hundreds of lesser-known aspirants -- those in the qualifying tournaments, the unseeded in the main draw, the lower seeds, the doubles artists. Many achievements of these men and women, the non-superstars, also merit our recognition here.
There was little to criticize at Garros 2013. The galleries were magnificent -- knowledgeable, highly engaged, appreciative, essentially fair-minded. The stadia were impressive, and despite a few rain interruptions the absence of a convertible-roofed arena hardly mattered. The clay courts too seemed just right, producing superb tennis and few complaints. Automatic line-spotting was not officially used but the bounce marks sufficed nicely. When on two occasions the unofficial automatic spot disagreed with the bounce mark, it was hard to disagree with the latter. The television video here in America via Tennis Channel, ESPN, and NBC was marvelous, the commentary often remarkably good. Player behavior was impressive.
The weather was cool and damp the first week, more temperate and often windy thereafter, wet again at the finish. Court dryness often changed noticeably during matches, challenging player adaptability. When to wet down the surface during breaks in play could be controversial, as wetting slowed and raised the bounce and altered the footing, conceivably to the advantage of one of the players.
A foremost flaw, one whose continuing existence now defies understanding, was the denial of tiebreakers to decide fifth sets (third sets among the women). Still, examples during the tournament argued both ways -- extreme exhaustion of players in very long fifth sets on the one hand and interesting traditional finishes lasting only a few extra games on the other.
The percentage of points and games won by servers, and also the frequency of net approaches, were both slightly higher than the average of the last few years. Meanwhile the frequency of aces was distinctly lower. These data, taken from the last four rounds, thus gave mixed evidence as to the speed of playing conditions. It was generally deemed (and welcomed) that the conditions are faster nowadays than decades ago. As always, the new Garros data indicated slower conditions than at the other Slams.
Nearly 200 men and women competed in the four days of qualifying action through Friday, May 25. Most were members of the Second Hundred in the ATP or WTA ranking schemes. One of every eight entrants succeeded in winning three consecutive matches, thereby advancing to the main draw. (For those who lost, in many cases it was off to the next men's Challenger event or the next ITF Pro Circuit conclave.)
Of the sixteen males who advanced, the median age was 24 The youngest was Jiri Vesely, 19, of Czech Republic. Of the female winners, the median age was 23, and the youngest were Grace Min of U.S.A. and Anna Schmiedlova of Slovak Republic, both 18. For many of the participants in the qualifying matches, the experience provided a thrilling focal point in a budding tennis career.
For most of those emerging successfully, the immediate aftermath was disappointment, as nearly all the male qualifiers lost their first main-draw match. The women did better, as a slight majority won their first main-draw match. Two of those won again, thus reaching the tournament's final 32. Both were young risers -- Paula Ormaechea of Argentina, 20, and Dinah Pfizenmaier of Germany, 21.
Main-draw action began on Sunday, 26 May, under cool but dry skies. Among the unseeded males, few managed to win twice and thus penetrate the final 32. But there were some wonderful bids.
As the second day began, Daniel Brands, 25, Germany, playing firmly and aggressively, captured the first set and took a service-break advantage over the tournament's strong favorite, Rafael Nadal. Tall and powerful, Daniel maintained his forceful play, and only Rafa's unveiling of his best defensive-offensive game allowed Rafa to prevail.
Gael Monfils, now 26, had long been a crowd-pleaser on the world circuit. Blessed with blinding speed and agility about the court along with a capacity for extreme power in serving and stroking, Gael had nevertheless fallen short of the sport's top prizes. It seemed that Gael found greater satisfaction in dazzling audiences with his marvelous skills in deep court than in winning championships.
Amid knee trouble, Gael had slipped downward from the world's top ten. But he won a recent Challenger tournament in Bordeaux and then finished second at the main-tour event in Nice. And now on center stage in the first round at Garros, it was a new Gael before the world. The sparkling movement and power were still there, but they were now those of a focused and determined competitor, unwilling to descend again.
His unfortunate opponent was Tomas Berdych, a tall and powerful star from Czech Republic, officially #6 in the world and predicted in an earlier column here to reach the tournament's final round. Tomas played well, but the pressure from Gael seldom weakened. Late in the fifth set, both men tiring, Gael serving, Gael fell behind Love-Forty. But Gael recovered, saved the game, and soon afterwards broke Tomas for only the second time in the long affair. It was a stunning upset, the signature moment of the tournament's first few days, a stunning example of the vast talent owned by Monfils but often unexploited. Monfils d. Berdych 76 64 67 67 75.
Then on Wednesday, the fourth day of the main draw. Gael faced Ernests Gulbis, also unseeded but like Gael a recent strong riser moving upward toward a past level of glory. Ernests brought a talent almost as large as Berdych's, and for several hours there was little difference on the scoreboard. But after Gael squeezed through their third-set tiebreaker, the separation widened, as Gael's renowed movement and defensive ability finally was rewarded with errors from the tall Latvian.
Monfils was one of only five unseeded intruders into the tournament's third round. It was the lowest number of male penetrators into the final 32 seen at any Slam since my tracking began with year 2001.
Among the women, the early surprises were more numerous but milder than the men's. A total of thirteen unseeded women replaced seeded stars in the surviving 32. Gone were sixth-seeded Li Na (beaten by Mattek-Sands), tenth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki (beaten by Jovanovski), and eleventh-seeded Nadia Petrova (beaten by Puig).
Rounds Three and Four
Among those exceeding their seeded places by reaching the final sixteen were three American women. Jamie Hampton, 23, stunned seventh-seeded Kvitova behind impressive power, consistency, and determination. Bethanie Mattek-Sands accelerated her comeback of 2013, stopping the run of riser Ormaechea, and Sloane Stephens, 20, seventeenth-seeded, closely defeated Erakovic. With Serena leading the Yank females, it appeared that the American women were positioned to lead all other contingents in matches won.
In men's third-round action, Nadal defeated Fognini in straight sets. Rafa still seemed out of sorts, reluctant to apply forcing tactics relentlessly, content to rely on his defenses while allowing his opponent to contribute errors. Meanwhile Novak Djokovic faced off against Grigor Dimitri, 22 -- the rising star who had outplayed and defeated Novak in Madrid a few weeks earlier. Things went differently on the new stage, at lower elevation and amid cool and damp conditions. Now, Dimitrov's potent rocketry was more easily contained by Novak, and as the young Bulgarian stepped up his pressure, so too mounted his errors. Djokovic won in straight sets.
Emerging during rounds three and four were surprising successes by several veterans. Unseeded former Slam winners Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova both battled their way into the tournament's final sixteen, both defeating three tough opponents enroute. Then in the fourth round, Kuznetsova would knock out eighth-seeded Kerber, while Schiavone's run would end against superstar Azarenka.
On the men's side, the elder heros were Europeans Tommy Haas and Tommy Robredo. Haas, who is surely the world's best player past age 35, outlasted big-serving John Isner in an extended fifth set, while Robredo stopped the run of Gael Monfils and then squeezed out a win over Nicolas Almagro. For Robredo, it was the third consecutive five-set win after losing the first two sets.
Joining Haas and Robredo in penetrating the final eight from below was Swiss star Stan Wawrinka, who in a grueling five-set thriller displaced seventh-seeded Richard Gasquet. Both Wawrinka and Gasquet wielded trademark one-handed backhands of much power and accuracy, and many points became extended duels to the corners and sides. As the match grew toward four hours, it became a test of the nerves of Wawrinka against the cramping legs of Gasquet. Wawrinka won, narrowly, as Stan found his best in the final moments before a frenzied gallery.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, 28, had often been a difficult opponent for Serena Williams, able at her best to match Serena in power, control, and athletic movement. She had won French Open four years before, defeating Serena in the semis. The Russian star had missed much of 2012 with knee injury but was now healthy.
Serena now moved quickly ahead in their quarter-final meeting, Second Tuesday, 4 June, the American winning the first set amid many errors by Svetlana. But following treatment for an abdominal injury, Svetlana in the second set raised her weight of stroking and her avoidance of error. Svetlana became generally the stronger player, answering Serena's heaviest blows with equal power and clipping the lines more than occasionally with deep or angled deliveries. Even as Serena struggled to regain her confidence, Svetlana maintained her edge, equalizing matters at one set all.
Kuznetsova won the first two games of set three and almost broke Serena's serve in game three. But the familiar late-match surge sometimes seen from Serena now once again ensued. Some of the games were closely fought. But Serena, now calm and again comfortable in her proper role as the aggressor, would not be denied. S. Williams d. Kuznetsva, 61 36 63.
Not long after Serena's close win, Roger Federer took court against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, always a problematic opponent for Roger. Powerful in serving and stroking, capable of excellent variety and movement on court. Tsonga was bigger, stronger, and three years younger than Roger. Roger had won their five-setter at Australian Open 2013, but Roger's difficulty in subduing his opponent in the previous round, Gilles Simon, suggested that an upset was possible.
It was not a demolition, but after moving ahead in the first set Jo-Wilfried seemed always the likely winner. Roger tried to be aggressive, striking early and often with full power, but Jo-Wilfried's mobility and answering power blunted that strategy. Roger's moves to net were often foiled by Jo-Wilfried's passing-shot and lobbing precision. Tsonga also regularly proved superior in close-in, cat-and-mouse exchanges at net. The affair ended fairly quickly, in three straight sets.
Also advancing to the tournament semis without loss of a set was David Ferrer. In his fifth win, David stopped the amazing run of Tommy Robredo, whose reserve seemed low after his three magnificent marathons. Also gaining the tournament semis were Nadal and Djokovic, who knocked out Haas and Wawrinka, respectively, both of whom, like Robredo, had expended vast energy in draining matches earlier.
Meanwhile elites Azarenka and Sharapova fairly routinely advanced to join Serena in the semi-finals, though Sharapova had a wildly erratic spell in losing her first set to Jankovic. Completing the card for the Thursday semis was fifth-seeded Sara Errani, who defeated fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in two close sets. Thus on both the men's and women's side, the tournament had produced a final four closely resembling pre-tournament expectations.
Maria Sharapova's blistering shot-making dominated the first set, as Victoria Azarenka proved unable to resist Maria's near-perfection. But Vika began absorbing Maria's powerful blows better in the second set, even as Maria's errors began to increase. In losing two serving games Maria ended the second set with a double-fault as raindrops fell.
Upon resumption at the start of set three, Vika continued taking fewer risks than Maria, willing to accept long rallies out of confidence in her own topspin-moderated ground strokes. But Maria's play improved, the tall Russian now returning Vika's second serves with deadly authority and again clipping the lines often during rallies. Vika answered by stepping up her forcefulness. Vika's heavier game along with some horrible double-faulting by Maria made things closer. But as long as Maria persisted in her aggressive and accurate stroking, the combination of Vika's improved shot-making and Maria's seven double-faults in the third set were not enough. At the finish, Maria ran out what had seemed likely to be a tense final game by unleashing her serving and stroking thunder at its very best. Sharapova d. Azarenka 61 26 64.
The second women's semi-final followed immediately. It was a mismatch throughout, Sara Errani unable to answer Serena's heavy artillery.
Semi-final: Nadal vs. Djokovic
As the match unfolded, all understood that this magnificent match was becoming among the timeless in tennis history. It now reached into its fifth hour -- the fifth set, the sixteenth game, Novak Djokovic next to serve and needing to hold serve to equalize and go on.
But where was Novak's mind? His opponent, Rafael Nadal, waited during the changeover, summoning his concentration and will. But Novak spent the precious interval venting to chair umpire Maria over whether the court should have been wetted. It was a horrible diversion for Novak -- a mistake that forfeited all the marvelous tennis, the countless bold and brilliant sequences by Novak that had gone before.
The match ended about two minutes after the changeover. Four points were played, all four gifted away by Novak. Novak missed a routine overhead, let go a Rafa passing-shot looper that dropped on the baseline, and sailed out two ground strokes. Following all the brilliance and drama, the finish was abrupt, indeed eerie, the gallery disbelieving. It seemed not a collapse of nerves but rather a fatigue of mentality.
Rafa didn't care. He had battled evenly and bested the world's #1 at his absolute best. Often playing from deep court, Rafa had administered that heavy ground game that usually wore down opponents, occasionally delivering a powerful and accurate strike for an unexpected winner. Especially deadly had been Rafa's forehand down-the-liner, seemingly delivered when a point meant most.
Throughout the affair Djokovik had played more aggressively than usual, taking dominance in points by forceful placement and stroking. His movement to the ball was never more brilliant. Routinely hitting hard with good topspin, he occasionally unleashed flattish rockets with surpassing accuracy and velocity that rivaled any in tennis. He often answered Rafa's high-bouncers by leaving the ground by twelve inches or more, meeting the ball head-high with forceful forehand. It could scarcely have been closer. Nadal d. Djokovic 64 36 61 67 97.
Semi-final: Tsonga vs. Ferrer
Both David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had marched through six matches without losing a set. Tsonga had just stunned the world in defeating Federer. But on this day, although Jo-Wilfried's striking power was still evident, only in flashes were there glimpses of the French star's recent brilliance.
It was hard to remember ever seeing Ferrer play at this level of quickness and agility. Again and again, David blunted Tsonga's rockets with replies that not only extended but often reversed matters. In neutral rallies David generally, indeed relentlessly avoided Jo-Wilfried's mighty forehand, encouraging Jo-Wilfried to work himself closer to the backhand side. With his opponent's court positioning thus compromised, David with good disguise sometimes exploited the weakly guarded forehand side, or perhaps dropped over a short ball. Many of these became outright winners. David was also very good in close-in exchanges, often outdueling Jo-Wilfried with severely angled shots. David's package seemed exactly suited to overcome this opponent and the conditions. Ferrer d. Tsonga 61 76 62.
Final: Sharapova vs. Serena Williams
It was slightly ragged at the beginning, both superstars gradually calibrating their power. Both of them, especially Sharapova, fired away boldly, not willing to back off to reduce errors. Late in the first set, Serena found one of her best playing modes, where she pumped forceful shots laced with good topspin but placed well inside the lines for safety. Maria responded to the threat by stepping up her own aggressive, albeit risky, shot-making.
Serena won the first set, closely, and broke Maria's serve in the third game of set two. A pattern was now becoming evident. Maria, knowing that her best chance was to play with relentless aggression, regularly applied her fullest power, fearlessly and with little restraint. Serena found herself often on the defensive, struggling to keep points alive, which she did remarkably well. Maria dared not soften up even slightly, for whenever she did Serena replied with a quick step forward and a blistering rocket of her own, beyond Maria's stretching reach. Maria attacked well, crushing every ball with strikes that would have been winners against most opponents, managing to hold her remaining serving games and keep the score close. It was spectacular tennis.
But the main story was happening when it was Serena's turn to serve. Having broken Maria to lead in games 2-1, it remained for Serena to claim her next four serving games. It was a stunning example of what is surely among tennis history's greatest weapons, the Serena Williams first serve. Scarcely missing a first serve, Serena delivered six aces during the set and lost only three points while serving. In the final game, ahead at score 5-4 and serving for the match, Serena found the edges on all five first serves, three of them aces. Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova 64 64.
It was Serena's sixteenth Slam crown in singles, her second at Garros. The latter came eleven years after the first.
Final: Nadal vs. Ferrer
For the fourth time in just over two decades, two Spanish stars met in a Garros final. Rafael Nadal had won his last eight meetings with David Ferrer. All had been straight-setters except the last two, at Madrid and Rome 2013. At age 31, David was four years older than Rafa, three inches lesser in height, lighter in weight by thirty pounds, mainly bone and muscle. Still, David had shown plenty of physicality in marching through the six rounds just completed without loss of a set. It was David who had broken the game of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, conqueror of Federer.
The air was damp and cool, favoring defensive tactics and perhaps reducing Rafa's superiority in weight of shot. At the start both men seemed nervous, error prone, insecure in striking out. David's wonderful court coverage and racket control kept things close until mid-set, when Rafa stepped up the power and direction, taking control and winning the set by margin of two breaks of serve.
But it was still tough going. David's mobility, power, and court craft seemed equal to Rafa's under the light rain now descending. Still, Rafa broke ahead in set two, delivering extreme power to the extreme corners again and again, his artillery seemingly more accurate because of the extra preparation time afforded by the slow conditions, which became even slower as the rain added moisture directly to the balls. David answered as well as he could, sometimes ripping outright winners if Rafa allowed too soft an offering. What David could not answer was Rafa's extreme topspin, which helped Rafa's margin of safety in his all-out strikes and added relentless momentum of spin for David to overcome in the exchanges.
Talk of perhaps suspending play and an interruption by an on-court intruder set back both players briefly. With Rafa two sets ahead, David surged to reach three-games-all in the third set. But Rafa closed solidly at the finish behind his heavier serving and incomparable forehand. Nadal d. Ferrer 63 62 63.
Nadal thus captured his eighth Garros crown, his twelfth Slam. Rafa's dominance in clay season 2013 rewarded his determination in his return from injury and his ever-improving tennis skills.
The American brothers Bryan captured the men's doubles crown, forced to a third set only once -- by their French opponents in the final round, Llodra-Mahut. The Russian pair Makarova-Vesnina won the women's doubles, and the Czech pair Hradecka-Cermak won the mixed.
The tournament's top singles overachiever was Svetlana Kuznetsova who, although unseeded, penetrated the rounds of 32, 16, and 8 -- i.e., three levels of overachievement. Six women recorded two levels of overachievement, including Pfizenmaier and Ormaechea, each of whom scored one level by winning the qualifiers and another by penetrating the final 32. Three men also achieved two levels -- Tommy Robredo, Viktor Troicki, and Rafael Nadal.
Only a handful of women, none since Margaret Smith Court, have achieved the triple crown at Garros by winning the singles, doubles, and mixed in a single year. Eighteen match wins are needed to sweep the three events. This year two women were closest by being on the winning side in ten matches. Sara Errani scored five in reaching the singles semis and five in reaching the doubles final. Meanwhile Lucie Hradecka achieved four in reaching the doubles semi and six in winning the mixed.
No male has ever scored the triple at Garros. Nadal's seven wins in singles made him the closest this year. Six other males each scored six wins, including the doubles champs, Mike and Bob Bryan.
Spain's men achieved more match wins in singles, doubles, and mixed than any other male national contingent. Spain led with 35 wins, France followed with 31. The Armada had won this unofficial honor seven straight times until surpassed by France in 2012. Meanwhile the women's tally was led by U.S.A., showing 30 wins, followed by Russia with 26.5. The Americans, led in scoring by Serena Williams and a host of early-round singles winners, broke a run of nine years by the Russkayas.
History was made at Garros 2013 in the superb triumphs of Nadal and Serena. But there was high drama too in the surprising achievements of many others -- Monfils, the Tommys, Kuznetsova, others -- as well as in the many disappointments of equal number.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia