The Final Eight
May 31, 2010 -- Samantha Stosur got her revenge against Justine Henin today when the Aussie #7 seed upset the four-time French Open women's singles champion in three sets to advance to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.
Ravaged in the first set by an aggressive Henin, Stosur appeared stunned from the sideline as she sat waiting for the next set to start. She mentioned in a press conference two days ago that in order to stay competitive with Henin she would have to remain close. Stosur couldn't let her come out ablaze, gain momentum, and run away with the match.
But that's exactly what had happened.
Shahar Peer lost her first set to Serena Williams, too. But unlike her WTA counterpart Stosur, Peer did not change her strategy or tactics and was quickly blasted off court, and out of the championship, by #1 seed Serena Williams: 62 62.
Stosur tacked. The two-minute break between sets apparently gave her enough time to stoke her engine, come out firing, and go for broke. It's not that Henin played badly in the second set. Stosur played brilliantly. She clobbered Henin 6/1 in twenty-eight minutes.
"She [Stosur] took control over the rallies in the second and third sets," Henin said honestly. "She really hurt me."
Stosur's form and concentration paralleled what Charleston, South Carolina, fans witnessed in the final at The Family Circle Cup in April. Stosur swept that title, and Vera Zvonareva off her feet, in fifty-three minutes making it the shortest final ever recorded in that tournament's history.
Stosur has won 18 matches on clay this season, the best record of any WTA tour player. Her victory also ends Henin's 24-match winning streak at Roland Garros, and her dreams of yet another French Open title.
"My nerves were simply not strong enough today." Henin said, looking forlorn. "I felt very nervous, very upset, which is normally not the way I am. Maybe that nervous fatigue prevented me from seeing things in a calmer way."
Staying calm and in control of her emotions is a work in progress for Stosur. In 2009 she advanced to the semifinals in Paris, losing to the eventual champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. Stosur wore her emotions on her sleeves in that match, swiping away at the terre battue with her racquet when errors piled up and her concentration faltered.
"I guess that's the goal," Stosur said today after her win over Henin. "To try to stay calm and not get frustrated or too emotional at any point in time in the match. Today I thought I handled the situation well. I was fighting, but I was able to stay in control. I think that's what definitely helped me win the match."
Serena Williams is Stosur's next opponent. They have big serves, steady ground games, and plenty of power. At this level in a grand slam, though, players should begin to pull on strengths and strategies that fall outside the visible realm. Stosur's serve, both first and second, are the foundation of her tennis. She can kick a serve up and off to the left, wide to a receiver's backhand (in most cases, unless she's a lefty), provoking a weak return and a chance for Stosur to control the point, or go for a clean winner with her class-A forehand.
However, Stosur will have to be willing, and believe in herself enough, to rely on her net play, change the pace and spin, and quickly erase errors from her mind.
"I have my moments when I get more frustrated or angry on the court. It's something I try to keep a handle on. It's something I've definitely been working hard at to do. It only helps me."
Williams and Stosur have never met on red clay. All of their four previous meetings have been on hard courts, Williams maintaining a three-to-one head-to-head advantage.
"Going into a quarterfinal, I couldn't probably hope to be in a better position, I don't think," Stosur said. "Beating Justine is going to give me lots of confidence for the next match, but it's not over yet. I'm just in the quarters and going to play the number one player in the world."
Last year at The French Open, Rafael Nadal landed in the same spot as Henin did today. He lost for the first time in Paris. It had been four years of victories. Court Philippe Chatrier was his, as much as Centre Court at Wimbledon belonged to Roger Federer.
Nadal, though, is not the type of man who projects, expects, or expounds his virtues until the last ball is struck. He tries to maintain his work ethic and his concentration. He is not a complicated player. He is, though, a fierce competitor. That is his fuel.
Nadal defeated lefty Brazilian Thomas Bellucci today in straight sets. It was Rafael's 200th win on clay.
"What I'm thinking about is practicing tomorrow morning, and of course today's match, and then the following matches. All these statistical data, as I've said before, as I'd like to repeat, are quite valid when you've finished your career, but not before."
Make no mistake, the victory was important for Nadal because he believed he had played better than in his previous matches. He saw progress, which for Nadal is the most promising step he could have taken into the quarterfinals.
"It's an important victory if you look at the points. I succeeded well because I managed to play even better. I could shoot into the balls the way I wanted to, mainly the backhand shots but also my forehand. I think I served better today than any other day. I'm very satisfied because I think I've improved."
Nadal is focused on keeping his shots deep in the court. Short balls invite his opponents to approach the net and dominate. In the finals at Madrid last year, Nadal's shots landed short. His opponent, Roger Federer, took full advantage and approached the net, forcing Nadal to pass, which isn't easy. This year in Madrid, Nadal's balls landed twice as deeply in the court, which pinned Federer to the baseline and cut down on his chances to dominate.
"My shots were a bit too short [today]. I wanted to have longer and deeper shots. I wanted to improve this. Sometimes, you know, these details are such that the opponent could take this opportunity so as to dominate the game. It's better to have deeper balls so as to dominate the game."
Nadal faces compatriot Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. Almagro was the only player in Madrid, this year, to win a set off Nadal. Almagro played with such verve and intensity that he crashed physically and probably mentally and lost the match in three.
"My objectives are still very high and very demanding. All matches are complicated. All players are difficult to play against. It's very important for me, you know, considering what's happened to me in the past months. I couldn't win last year, so it was very difficult. I wanted to tell you this because for 11 months I've not really won that many matches. I know what it means to win a tournament."
As does Justine Henin, who will gather herself and move on and take what she learned to heart. After an 18-month hiatus, capturing her favorite grand slam title has slipped through her fingers. However, she is a champion and she will persevere.
"I just wanted so much that the adventure could keep going," Justine began. "Like I said, I took this year as a year of transition, so of course it's hard. But in another way, it seems a bit normal. I'll just try to keep a lot of positive things and get focused on the future now."
Jurgen Melzer (#22 seed) defeated the last-standing qualifier in the men's singles draw, Teimuraz Gabashvili, to reach his first-ever quarterfinal at a major. Novak Djokovic (#3 seed) took out the last American, Robby Ginepri, in four sets, holding the Atlanta native to two games in the final two sets. Jelena Jankovic (#4 seed) was spotless as she defeated the tall, thin Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova (#23 seed) 64 62. Unseeded Yaroslava Shvedova (ranked #36) defeated a young and eager Aussie wildcard Jarmila Groth to advance to her first-ever quarterfinal.