The Heart of a Champion
May 27, 2009 -- What's better for Kids' Day at Roland Garros than to watch their countryman -- the wildcard entry Josselin Ouanna -- fight it out on red clay against a two-time Grand Slam champion Marat Safin and pull off the win in five awesome sets 76 (2) 76 (4) 46 36 10-8?
Rien, as the French say. Nothing's better than that!
For a little over four and a half hours these two men exchanged rallies that had the kids on their feet cheering more than they sat in their seats. After the first two sets went to Ouanna, it appeared as if Safin would be off court soon. However in the third set he ramped himself up, which is a particularly gruesome task for the big lumbering Russian, stretching the match to four and then five sets.
Safin went up a break in the fifth, looking as if he'd taken charge of the match. After all he was the elder statesman on this court. He should dominate.
But no one can ever be assured what will transpire with Marat Safin. He has earned multiple match points this year at other tournaments, only to lose his composure and, subsequently, the match. His temperament is famously erratic and, more times than not, explosive. He screams at himself. Breaks racquets by the dozen. And, argues with linesmen and chair umpires. Perhaps Safin will turn to entertainment after his retirement this year from the tour. He does have a dry sense of humor.
Two, not one, breaks in the fifth would have given Safin the ticket for victory. One break wasn't enough of a cushion. It left the Russian too vulnerable to Ouanna's consistently good shots, and too vulnerable to the crowds' raucous reactions.
Ouanna had three match points in the fifth before they tied at six-games-all. And, for every one he had Safin wiped it away with shots that skidded off the baseline. The 23-year-old Ouanna couldn't believe it. He shook his head and sat his hands on his hips, as if to say 'what do I have to do?' In a word: more.
But at 8/9 on Safin's serve, Ouanna went out in from 15/40. Safin saved one match point, but couldn't stave off the force that drove Ouanna... the mystery of how this up-and-comer managed to get by Safin and thrill the fans, his family who sat watching, and France!
Josselin Ouanna showed a rare combination of determination, maturity, and skill, for someone in the midst of the biggest match of his life in front of thousands of French fans -- the toughest audience of all the Grand Slams. Do well for France and they love you. Take a dive and make them look bad, well, you better have some thick skin.
Ouanna struck the ball cleanly and consistently deep in the court. He demonstrated brilliant footwork. He held serve easily throughout most of the match. He was poised for whatever came his way. He persevered. He deserved this win.
Perhaps some strength came from his compatriot and French tennis buddy Gael Monfils who was first spotted in the stands and was later seen courtside amongst a group of smiling people. To see Monfils support Ouanna was heartwarming. What better way to know you are loved and appreciated than to clap, scream 'allez,' and cheer on a man who had to have been tired but surely willing to set aside his misgivings because victory was possible.
Maria Sharapova screamed her way to victory today, too, coming from 2-4 down in the third set to upset #11 seed Nadia Petrova a two-time semifinalist at Roland Garros 62 16 86.
The first two sets were a seesaw affair. Sharapova dominated in the first, then Petrova demonstrated how she could drill her backhand and serve like a champ in the second. In the third, Petrova led 4-2 and looked poised to take the match. However, Maria Sharapova fired up her fierce competitive nature. She clawed her way back to 4-games all -- her penetrating will unleashed at every point along the way.
Sharapova may have served 6 double faults and may not know how to slide gracefully, or otherwise, into a ball. But she has that mysterious quality that Grand Slam champions need -- heart.
Roland Garros is the only major Sharapova hasn't won. If she advances as far as the quarterfinals -- if she advances -- then she could meet up with Venus Williams. But there are a lot of balls to strike before that date is set.
Andy Murray has never made it past the third round at Roland Garros. After today, he has that opportunity staring him in the face after he eliminated a tricky and proficient Potito Starace today 63 26 75 64. These two players had never met before in any tournament, let alone on a Grand Slam stage. Starace is as comfortable on clay as Murray is comfortable on a hard court. Last year in Hamburg, the Italian Starace came a squeak and skip close to sending the king of clay Rafael Nadal home. Starace had the Spaniard's number, or so it seemed. However, in the end he couldn't hold on. And neither could he hold on today, as Murray fought back from 2-5 down in the second set, breaking twice and rattling off five games in a row to swing the momentum of the match to his side of the net.
A despondent Starace slipped farther and farther out of the picture, as Murray (#3 seed) warmed to the clay and the audiences' applaud.
Murray has hired Alex Corretja, a two-time semifinalist at Roland Garros, for the duration of the clay court season. Corretja had worked with the Scot last year, but abandoned the relationship when it was obvious to him that Murray wasn't ready to listen. This year is different, however. Murray is hungry to climb the ranking ladder and has Roger Federer in his sights. Murray has to build his arsenal of tools for all court surfaces if he truly desires the bigger spotlight. Today, he showed that his fighting spirit could shine on the dirt. He will move into the next round with extra a bit of confidence, which he will need against Janko Tipsarevic from Serbia.
Finally, the reigning women's singles champion Anna Ivanovic showed the tennis world how she earned the crown in 2008. It looked as if she finally realized that Roland Garros is her house for the moment. If she fought hard and swung out on her shots, she just might welcome that gift of a 'w,' which she did against veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn 61 62 in just over an hour.
Ivanovic had 32 winners and only 14 unforced errors. She hit three aces and had no double faults, which is something for the player who couldn't quite control her ball toss in the previous round. She converted 5 of 8 break point opportunities, too, which showed improved concentration and confidence -- commodities she will need buckets of if she is to win the title again this year.
Like Sharapova, Ivanovic is a fighter. Self doubt and shaky hands plus a right-knee injury have handed her enough negative momentum, since last year's Roland Garros final, to discourage an otherwise upbeat woman. However, like Sharapova, she must take it one match at a time and concentrate on each point.
Miracles are for those who work, change when they must, and persevere. Ivanovic has what it takes to win another major. It's up to her and her team of coaches to support this champion and help her funnel her talents in the best directions possible without choking off the innate talent Anna alone brings to the courts.
Earlier Columns from this Event:
May 26, 2009 French Open Coverage: American Women in Paris
May 25, 2009 French Open Coverage: Sharapova Fights On, Nadal and Federer Cruise
May 24, 2009 French Open Coverage: Bienvenue au Paris