Some Things Endure
May 23, 2010 -- Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have sat at the top and bottom of French Open draws for five years running. This year, the obvious favorite to win the title is the Spaniard. He's torn up the clay this spring, winning an unheralded sweep of Barcelona, Rome and Madrid. If his knees hold out and his draw doesn't throw him a curve ball, Rafael should make the final. Their rivalry is this generation's Agassi-Sampras rivalry.
Predictions are an integral and essential part of all tournaments, especially of a Grand Slam. Pundits look at the draws and take their best shots at probable winners or, at least, the players who could make it to the second week of competition... when the real competition begins, they say.
And, as always, some predictions crash and burn the first day, such as today Sunday, May 23, 2010 -- opening day in Paris.
Take Ernests Gulbis. Seeded for the first time in a major (#23), the young Latvian was slated as a lion killer. He, too, had a great spring on the clay courts of Europe, most memorably defeating Roger Federer in the quarterfinals at Rome. They could have met in the quarterfinals in Paris, as well. But Gulbis pulled his right hamstring against Julien Benneteau in their first round and retired at the beginning of the third set, a dreadful end to his season in the dirt.
But three cheers for the happy French fans that basked in the warm spring sun on Court Suzanne Lenglen. They watched Frenchman Benneteau advance while their hearts quietly hoped 2010 would be the year for a French champion, the last being Yannick Noah in 1983 and Mary Pierce, who is about as French as a hot dog, in 2000.
A total of 30 French players made up the main draw at the beginning of the day, from wildcards to qualifiers to direct entries. The French players seem the most nervous on their home terre bateaux. Their pride messes with their head while French fans freely and loudly express delight as well as disappointment. It is a difficult two weeks, if you manage to last that long.
Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga got past a giant German -- he literally towered over Tsonga -- Daniel Brands in a tough five-setter. The #8 seed was grateful for the fan praise afterward, and relieved that his first round was over.
Too bad for him, though. In the second round he'll play compatriot and qualifier Josselin Ouanna. The crowd will be split, but we all know that the underdog, which is Ouanna, gets a big dose of sympathy from fans. Could be a nightmare of a match for both men.
Three Frenchmen lost in their initial matches. Robin Soderling, the 2009 finalist, defeated wildcard Laurent Recouderc. Tobias Kamke defeated Frenchman Stephane Robert. Finally, Thiemo De Bakker, a dangerous floater at the bottom of the top half, took out qualifier and Frenchman Olivier Patience. On the women's side, Nadia Petrova (#19) sent Stephanie Foretz home.
The Spring weather, topping out at 77 degrees, could have been the wiggiest part of today's opening matches. Paris in Spring is about as stable as that volcanic up in Iceland. Icy rain could fall on the Bou de Belongia or blistering temperatures well above 77 could cause the well-dressed French to remain at home in an attempt to stave off any unsightly perspiration marks on their clothes.
This is definitely the best-looking major, by far.
Julien Benneteau looked downright Gatsby like as he walked on court. His hair was coiffed, his Lacoste shirt fresh, and his smile sly yet distantly indifferent. The chair-umpires wore cheerful green Lacoste polos, too. And the linesmen were equally dressed in tasteful uniforms, which sounds so crass but they are of a uniform appeal.
Venus Williams was greeted with catcalls, after removing her black jacket cover-up. You have to ask yourself where French tennis viewers have been. Williams has worn a version of this designer dress -- from Venus's company EleVen (pronounced '11') -- since its spring debut at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami where it was candy-apple red with black piping.
The black version Venus rolled out for the French is a tone-on-tone affair. Venus looked mighty serious against the backdrop of red clay. And she should be serious. The elder Williams' sister hasnŐt played a final at Roland Garros since 2002 when young Serena won her first Major title, grabbing the spotlight all too soon. That should be enough to make a sibling spitting mad. But these women share a genuine love for each other, relying on that rather than domination to pull each other along their career paths.
If Venus wants her first French Open title, she must perform better match after match over the next two weeks. Her record this year is the best on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. She's 26-4 in singles, and 10-0 in doubles. She's earned two singles titles and two doubles titles, including The Australian Open.
However, she has shown damp results in finals. In Miami, she lost to Kim Clijsters in less than an hour. In Madrid, Aravane Rezai shocked her in that final. But it should be noted that Frenchwoman Rezai shocked the whole tournament with her power game plus relentless confidence and consistency. If both Rezai (#15 seed) and Venus (#2 seed) advance and make their seed, they will meet once again in the round of sixteen.
If Rezai rides her wave in top form, she might be the women's tournament spoiler.
Venus advanced over Patty Schnyder 63 63 today. Funny, Patty has never defeated Venus in their ten head-to-head encounters. Patty has, though, defeated Serena in four of their twelve matches. Thanks to big sister Venus, Serena won't have to worry this year about this Swiss player.
Upsets on the first day are not an enduring pattern at The French Open. However expectations of failure here are high, given the variables. Just look at Ernest Gulbis.
On the women's side, injury problems continue for Victoria Azarenka (#10 seed). First she was plagued with a left thigh injury at the Andalucia Tennis Experience, then a shoulder injury caused her to retire at The Family Circle Cup in April, and in Madrid she retired in the first round with a groin muscle injury. Today, Azarenka lost to a healthy Gisela Dulko, a petite Argentine who can score big over top ten players. In the first round at Indian Wells, this year, she upset Justine Henin.
Dulko's mastery in doubles has been the high-test fuel for her recent confidence. She and partner Flavia Pennetta won titles in Miami, Stuttgart and Rome this spring.
Aravane Rezai and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez were unseeded players who won career WTA tour titles in Madrid and Rome, respectively, this spring. We know Rezai still has her chances in Paris. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Spaniard Martinez Sanchez. She was knocked out of the singles draw today by #98 ranked Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan 62 64.
Martinez Sanchez and doubles partner Llagostera Vives are seeded second at The French Open to the Williams sisters. All is not lost for Martinez Sanchez. Her strength in doubles has endured beyond her hopes for a shot at the title in singles.