The Shifting Clay of Roland Garros
May 28, 2009 - American Alexa Glatch had two chances to even the match in the second set. Once at 5-2. Once at 5-4. She didn't do it, thus losing to clay-court specialist Lourdes Dominguez Lino, 76 (0) 75.
It was difficult to watch the talented Californian struggle on a surface she doesn't feel comfortable on, having been raised on hard courts at home. She dug deep into her tactical tennis bag, though, to right herself after blowing the tiebreak in the first set. She changed up her serve, her biggest weapon. She moved Lino around the court, hoping to get her off balance enough to then hit a winner. She served and volleyed, too. But, she could not conquer the conditions of the terre battue.
Cool temperatures and a misty rain made for a heavy court. The ball bounced low; Glatch is close to six-feet tall and prefers to hit above her waist given the severe western grip she uses. As balls hit the clay and flew back and forth from player to player, they collected moisture. Clay clung to the ball, the way snow clings to a snowball rolling down a hill. Clean winners are few and far between when Roland Garros hands players an atmosphere like they faced today. And Glatch couldn't learn fast enough how to hit a drop shot without sending it long, or stay in long rallies until she had the optimal chance to pressure Lino.
Had the day been warmer and drier, her chances of advancing to the third round would have doubled. The clay would have been fluffier, slicker. The ball would have bounced right into her hitting zone.
However, 'what ifs' and 'could have beens' aren't tennis at Roland Garros, or any other tournament for that matter. Players learn through experience to adjust, use alternate strategies and tactics, and win when those personally ideal conditions do not prevail. Lino pushed the right buttons. She executed well. She stayed in the rally. Waited for an error. Waited for Glatch to come to the net. Only then did the Spaniard whack a winner. Textbook stuff.
Alexa Glatch looks forward to the grass season. Her serve will penetrate the court. Her underspin backhand will bite better. She will remain upbeat. Glatch knows how to win matches, but she needs more experience like her Fed Cup wins that propelled the USA to the finals.
Argentine Jose Acasuso knows slow red clay, too. It's natural for him. He's seen it and played on it since he first took to a tennis court. Then why couldn't he knock Roger Federer out of the draw?
Acasuso had 4 set points in the first set tiebreak. It didn't matter because he didn't convert one. Any one. And, if you leave the door open for the Swiss maestro he will tune up his stick and play you a finale, which he did by winning the tiebreak 10-8. Acasuso took the second set 7/5. Two high-quality sets were behind the men. The misty rain soaked their shirts.
Federer created a nightmare for himself in the third. On the brink of going down two sets to one at 1-5, he pulled the proverbial rabbit out of his hat and reeled off five games in a row. The tiebreak was imminent. Acasuso had another chance. But he had crawled inside his head, camping out in negative thoughts that wasted his talent while donating the needed confidence Federer was a hair from grasping on his own. The momentum had shifted. Federer put the Argentine out of his misery in thirty short minutes in the fourth set, winning a berth in the third round 76 (8) 57 76 (2) 62.
After watching Roger Federer pound his way past his nemesis Rafael Nodal in the final in Madrid, many would think that the #2 seed would fare better in warmer, drier conditions... like Alexa Glatch. But that's not true. Roger Federer remains the second best clay court player on the men's tour. He's the one who has been beaten up by the Spaniard in three finals here at Roland Garros. He's the one who makes it to semifinals. Make no mistake about it. Roger Federer is as keen on clay as he is on grass as he is on a hard court. Too bad for Roger that Rafa has spoiled his pursuit of that 14th Grand Slam title, but the history book isn't closed yet.
For a second round match, the quality of play between Acasuso and Federer was fantastic, or fantastique as the French say. Winners to unforced errors landed in the plus column for both men. Roger with 72 winners compared to 45 unforced errors. Acasuso's first-serve percentage was 62%. Federer's was 71%. Outrageously good. They were dead even on break point conversions: 50%. And one percentage point apart on points won on second services, a telling stat because it reveals a player's confidence, aggressive nature, and willingness to step up and take a risk at an opportune moment.
Two seeded French women lost today, succumbing to what has been named The Roland Garros Effect by tennis pundits. Marion Bartoli seeded thirteenth went down to Tathiana Garbin 63 75; and, Alize Cornet, the 21st seed lost to 19-year-old Sorana Cirstea, ranked 41 on the Sony Ericsson, tour 63 62.
Bartoli, in her press conference, blamed everything and everyone but herself for the loss. The balls were heavy, she said. She was a 'bit sick.' It was cold. "There was a lot of clay under my feet. It was heavy. 15 degrees. It's not the best conditions," Bartoli went on.
When she was asked to expand on her meaning of Garbin's strange attitude, Bartoli said, "Well, it's her clan. When I made unforced errors, her team would shout. It's not sportslike. They're Italians."
The journalist pointed out to Bartoli that she herself was Italian. However, Bartoli came back and said, "I'm from Corsica."
Marion Bartoli admitted to being nervous a couple days ago in her opening round win over another Frenchwoman Pauline Parmentier. She explained that the French Open has a culture of its own. French tennis players dream about winning the title from the time they are small children. Also, she told Matt Cronin of tennisreporters.net in an interview, "'First, we are in France. Second, we are in the French Open. Third, my results in the French Open haven't been great. Then I also played against a French player, and also, it's clay.'"
What all this means to non-French players is somewhat of a mystery. However, the swirl inside Bartoli's head gives fans an insight into why she's out of the competition.
Alize Cornet lifted French hearts last year at Roland Garros, giving them hope. However, she, too, sunk in the dampish red clay today. She attempted a number of strategies against Cirstea, but none worked well. Her serve was off and at the end of the first set, her unforced errors climbed. Cornet admitted later that she needs to work on her fitness and that Cirstea played well.
A couple of times the predominantly French crowd booed their Alize. She stopped and looked to the stands, wondering what they were doing.
"That really boosted me," Alize admitted. But, apparently, not enough.
Jo Wilfred Tsonga didn't succumb to any mentally taxing metaphysical effect in his match today. Tsonga thrilled his audience in a four-set tour-de-force against Juan Monaco. The athletic Tsonga squeaked by the Argentine 75 26 61 76 (8), showing off his shot-making talents while Monaco went about business displaying brilliant serves, steady groundstroke replies, and only 21 unforced errors. It would have been either player's match, had the encounter been extended to a fifth and deciding set.
The most heartening moment of this match was captured at the net, where both men paused, looked thoughtfully at each other, and exchanged a few sentences of good will. The smiles on their faces and the sincerity of their gestures demonstrated excellence in sportsmanship.
They fought hard. They endured the ups and down of battle. Tsonga goes on to the third round; Monaco transitions to grass. Their tennis match ended on a high, a noteworthy cap to a day of battles on the shifting clay of Roland Garros.
Earlier Columns from this Event:
May 27, 2009 French Open Coverage: The Heart of a Champion
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