Sunday, June 7, 2009

Finally, Tears of Joy as Federer Secures 14th Slam

If Rafa Nadal is the King of Clay, then Roger Federer is the King of Tennis.

On an overcast, blustery day in Paris, Federer's light was shining brightly throughout, as the greatest tennis legend of his era, and perhaps all others as well, coolly dismissed Swede Robin Soderling in straight sets, 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-4.

All French Open finals are special, but this years version went above and beyond. The French crowd was abuzz prior to the match, with celebrities, dignitaries, and tennis legends all perched on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the Swiss Maestro's quest for tennis immortality.

They got what they wanted and then some.

Unlike many of his matches at Roland Garros this year, Federer took control of the affair from the onset. Using a variety of power, precision, and concise drop volleys to keep the nervous Soderling off balance, Federer raced quickly to a commanding lead and in the process seized the psychological advantage over the 6'4" Soderling.

The Swede seemed unable to access the strokes that had enabled him to overwhelm the rest of his opponents en route to his first Grand-Slam final appearance, and much of this had to do with Federer's convincing play.

Federer broke the Swede's serve in each of his first two service games, using stultifying drop shots and deep service returns to confuse the suddenly innefectual Soderling. After the players traded holds to go to 5-1, Federer secured his third break in four games (and the set) with Soderling parked helplessly at the net as a backhand passing shot whizzed by him.

In addition to securing the three breaks, Federer's serve was working for him as well, as he did not face a break point, and only lost one point on his serve during the lopsided twenty-three minute first set.

But Soderling seemed to shake the nerves as play continued, and suddenly suspense began to build as a light rain started to fall midway through the second set.

With Soderling serving to force a second set tiebreaker, Federer managed to bring him to deuce, but the brawny Swede gutted out the hold.

Prior to the onset of the second set tiebreak, there was a sense that the match could go either way. But as it got underway, it quickly became apparent that this was to be Federer's day.

A Federer ace started the tiebreak, and was met with boisterous approval from the crowd. Then Soderling reminded the crowd that he was still on the court with an ace of his own.

But his Soderling's presence, like so many of Federer's opponents on these grand stages, was quickly forgotten again.

In a remarkable display of clutch tennis and a champions poise and sense of timing, Federer reeled off six consecutive points, including four aces on his only four serves of the tiebreak. With the crowd on its feet, relishing in the moment and fully resonating with the significance of this historic match, Federer had all but slayed the mighty dragon known as Soderling.

The clinical precision with which Federer deployed his strokes in this tiebreaker, under such heavy pressure and expectations from both himself and all of the tennis world, was truly surreal. It was beyond clutch. Remarkably, while we have all been so busy taking Federer to task for his diminished skills and his need for a full-time coach, the elegant and imposing (and stubborn) legend was busy ignoring our uneducated opinions and in the process preparing the most electric display of tennis of his whole career for this moment.

At two sets to none, it was all over but the coronation.

As the third set progressed with Federer up a break and Soderling just trying to stay close, Federer's face wore a look of indescribable emotional depth. It seemed as if he was a fan of himself, as if he were able to stand both outside and within the moment, both appreciating and basking in the glory of the greatness that he was in the process of achieving and also blocking it out (albeit barely) to go about the business at hand.

As he served for the match, there was a thrilling sense of heaviness in the air. The unique sense that this was the moment the crowd had been waiting for permeated the rafters of Stade Philippe Chatrier, and worked it's way through everyone in attendance. What had seemed so impossible at the start of this French Open was now moments from fruition.

Federer missing a swinging volley long to give Soderling a break point opportunity only served to heighten the intense drama, the anticipation, and the enduring love and appreciation for a man who has meant everything to tennis for so many years.

Mercifully, Soderling shanked a forehand and wasted his break point opportunity.

"I was very nervous at the beginning of the third set because I knew how close I was," said a jubilant Federer. "The last game, obviously you can imagine how difficult that game was. It was almost unplayable for me, because I was just hoping to serve some good serves and hoping that he was going to make four errors. It was that bad."

Two points later it was over. The ever-elusive 14th Grand-Slam title ties Federer with Pete Sampras for best all time, and his first French Open title makes Federer only the sixth male player to have ever achieved the career Grand-Slam in the history of tennis.

As Federer sank to the clay when soderling netted his match point return, there was a sense of relief amongst the jubilation. This is a man who carried the sting of four consecutive thrashings at the hands of Rafael Nadal with him to Paris this year. This is a man that never hesitated when given the chance to try again. When the opportunity presented himself, Federer searched inside himself for the perfect match to answer the call.

Predictably, he found it.

They used to say it with a lack of confidence. Now they are saying it with conviction: Roger Federer, THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Safina Upended by Cooler Kuznetsova

Unfortunately for Dinara Safina they don't play French Open finals on paper.  

Safina, the consensus favorite coming in, seemed to be bogged down by her own expectations en route to a heartbreaking 6-4, 6-2 loss at the hands of her compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova. 

The straight set win is the second Grand-Slam title for Kuznetsova, the first coming in the 2004 U.S. Open.  

For Safina, who remains without a Grand-Slam title, it is back to the drawing board.  She has now lost three Grand-Slam finals in the last year.  While she has been undeniably the most improved player on tour during that span, she proved today that she still possesses a level of belief that leaves her prone to doubt and anxiety when the pressure is on.  

During a topsy-turvy first set that featured five service breaks in ten games, Safina scored her second break of the set to get back on serve at 4-5.  But the opportunity was squandered as Kuznetsova responded with a quick break to steal the set.  

A frustrated Safina, casting angry glares at her coaching box more regularly as the match wore on, was able to stay on serve for nearly half of the second set, but break point chances were not forthcoming.

While the French crowd seemed to be in her corner, Safina seemed stuck in a mental rut - each strong point that she played was inevitably followed by a poor one, until finally, Kuznetsova grabbed the first break of the second set to go ahead 4-2.  

Instead of mounting a surge, only frustration seemed to mount for Safina.  

Angst and fear, rather than determination and belief, were the dominant characteristics drawn on Safina's face.  Her coach, Zeljko Krajan, credited with so much of Safina's improvement of late, seemed morose and in his box as well, the two of them poster children for how to improperly alleviate world-class pressure.  

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova, sensing the trepidation of her long time rival, and relishing in the slow playing conditions of the damp clay court, continued to attack. Additionally, she played extremely well defensively, limiting errors and forcing Safina to go for more with each successive shot. 

Finally, at Kuznetsova's first Championship point, Safina bounced a second-serve off the tape - as it landed harmlessly in the doubles alley for her seventh double fault of the match, it was all over but the crying.  

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova was stoic in her celebration, showing an impressive level of sportsmanship as she waited for Safina at net, then planted a few heartfelt kisses on her cheeks as they shook hands.  

As twenty-two-time Slam chamion Steffi Graf handed the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen to the victorious Kuznetsova while a visibly disappointed Safina stood nearby, Kuznetsova thanked the crowd and stated that she didn't expect to win this year.  She just wanted to show up and play her heart out, she said.  

Hopefully, Dinara was listening closely.  If she can find a way to win her mind-boggling struggle with expectations, anxiety, and doubt, it just might be her holding that trophy next year.  

Friday, June 5, 2009

Women's Final Preview: Safina Going For the One

Who:  No. 1 Dinara Safina vs. No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova
What:  French Open Final, 2009
Where: Court Philipe Chatrier at Roland Garros
When:  3 PM Paris time
* 2nd All-Russian final in history
* The 2nd French Open champion from Russia will be awarded the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen
* Safina is 8-5 all-time vs. Kuznetsova, but they have split the last two on clay this spring. 
* Safina defeated Kuznetsova in last year's French Open semi-finals, 6-3, 6-2, while Kuznetsova defeated Safina in the 2006 French Open Quarters, 7-6 (5), 6-0

Safina vs. Kuznetsova

If desire was a guarantee of Grand-Slam success, Dinara Safina wouldn't have anything to worry about. You'd be hard-pressed to find another woman on the tour that wants to win a Slam as bad as Safina - she's made it clear repeatedly that she covets that elusive Grand-Slam title more than anything else in the world.  

That sentiment is commendable in a day and age where many elite athletes are too busy racking up endorsements to really resonate with that bare-bones Rocky Balboa-type yearning for titles.  Safina is a throwback and her growing legion of fans is touched by her genuine persona.  

But desire doesn't hit clutch serves, or erase break points.  There is an inner calm that must be present in a champion, one that can transform a fire into a focus.  We already know Safina has the ability to win a Slam- but has she eliminated the doubt that can sometimes sabotage her big matches?  Tomorrow, the tennis world will find out.

Saturday afternoon's Woman's final will be an all-Russian affair for the first time since 2004.  And it promises to be a very entertaining match as well, judging from the type of tennis that each participant is playing thus far in the tournament.  

Svetlana Kuznetsova, a 2006 French Open finalist, and a semi-finalist last year, is fresh off of two very hard-fought three set wins.  The 5' 8" 160 lb. Russian has shown remarkable mental toughness in surviving emotional matches against No. 2 seed Serena Williams in the quarter finals, and upset minded Samantha Stosur in the semis.  

In both matches Kuznetsova relied on her experience and on her level-headedness, even after she blew opportunities to win each match in straight sets.  Rather than getting upset about letting Serena and Stosur back in the match, Kuznetsova stayed calm and scored huge victories after fighting through some very tight situations in the final sets of each match.  

Safina, on the other hand, has only been tested once at Roland Garros.  She was dominated for a set (and parts of another) by Feisty Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in the quarter finals, but the No. 1 ranked Russian passed that test with flying colors as she quickly found her focus and was able to take over and win convincingly.  

But even in her semi-final match with Dominika Cibulkova, Safina had her moments of shakiness.  She gifted the first two games to Cibulkova, and even though she was quick to win the next four, these lapses may be more devastating against an experienced opponent like Kuznetsova.  

Saturday's all-Russian tilt is a rubber match in two different ways:  

First it is the third of three matches on clay this spring between the two rivals.  Kuznetsova won their first meeting in Stuttgart 6-4, 6-3.  It was her first title since 2007 and the confidence gained from it has definitely boosted her play of late.  Safina took the pairs second match of the spring in the Rome finals, 6-3, 6-2.

The two have also met twice at Roland Garros, with Kuznetsova taking Safina in the 2006 quarters, and Safina avenging the loss in last years semis. 

If history is any indication, this could be a short match.  The last five matches played between Safina and Kuznetsova have been finished in straight sets, with Safina taking four of the five.  

Safina, the favorite at Roland Garros from day 1, has to remember that she must play like she has nothing to lose.  Grace under pressure, not nerves, should be the main factor in this sure-to be-exciting final. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Day 13: Soderling-Gonzalez Preview

Talk about your heavy metal thunder.  

In what is shaping up to be some very Swashbuckling clay-court tennis, dark horse Robin Soderling of Sweden is set to take on Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in tomorrow's first semi-final match on the red clay of Philippe Chatrier.  

The two bashers have met seven times previously, with Gonzalez winning the last four.  Additionally, Gonzalez has won both clay affairs against 6'4" Swede.  

But you can throw those stats out the window because they haven't met since 2007, and we all know that the current Robin Soderling didn't exist until last Sunday.  That was when the Swede orchestrated perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the French Open, stunning four-time defending champ Rafael Nadal in four dominant sets.  

Since then Soderling has gone on to roll over diminutive Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters, while Gonzalez was victorious (also in upset fashion) over No. 3 seed Andy Murray in his quarter final match.  

What makes this match particularly compelling is that both players are sort of the antithesis of clay-court tennis, with each hitting heavy and relatively flat, i.e. flatter ground strokes than most typically effective or quintessential clay courters.  

But this years version of the clay, according to players and journalists, seems to be a tad faster than years past, lending a new found legitimacy to the style of play that both players employ.  

Because of their electric games, and the fact that both Soderling and Gonzalez are on improbable runs to the semis, this figures to be a memorable match, and should keep the demanding French fans on the edges of their seats.  

Soderlings previous best run at Roland Garros was 2008, where he lost to Frenchman Julian Benneteau in the round-of-32.  He has never been past the round-of-32 in any major until now. 

Gonzalez has twice been to the quarter finals at Roland Garros, including a loss last year to Roger Federer in which he took one set.  

Day 12: Relentless Russians Safina, Kuznetsova, Set for Rubber Match

The only player to defeat No. 1 Seed Dinara Safina on clay this season will get another chance to do it again on Saturday.  

Svetlana Kuznetsova survived a three set thriller against upset-minded Australian Samantha Stosur on Court Philippe Chatrier, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.  

The two hour and twenty-five-minute pressure cooker is the second grueling three setter that Kuznetsova has found a way to win in two days.  Yesterday she outlasted Serena Williams in a two hour and forty-eight-minute battle of wills.  

Oddly, both matches followed similar patterns, with Kuznetsova taking the first set and going up a break in the second set.  But just like Serena Williams yesterday, Stosur fought valiantly to push Kuznetsova to a third set.  

After forcing a second set tiebreaker with a late break, Stosur quickly fell behind in the tiebreaker.  She double faulted to start the tiebreak, then lost the point of the match in a rapid volley duel at the net to fall behind 4-1.  But the feisty Australian refused to quit.  After hitting a daring inside out forehand to get to 5-3, she reeled off 4 more points consecutively to level the match at a set apiece.  

As the third set began it appeared that Stosur was the fresher of the two players.  But her first chance to take the upper hand was wasted, as Kuznetsova nullified a break point opportunity and went on to hold to stay on serve at 3-2.  

Kuznetsova, drawing from her wealth of experience in big matches, quickly earned two break points in the ensuing game.  Stosur's generosity in the form of an unforced error was accepted by the Russian, with the break giving her the advantage she would never relinquish.  

In the end Kuznetsova's experience in the late round of Slams appeared to outweigh her fatigue from having played so much grueling tennis in the last twenty-four hours.  She hit eleven winners in the final set, while Stosur only managed two.  

Safina Takes Care Of Business

In a match that featured some truly stellar baseline hitting, Dinara Safina overcame an early 2-0 deficit to dark horse Dominika Cibulkova to win easily, 6-3, 6-3.  

Safina, who is questing for the first Grand-Slam title of her career after losing in two of the last four Grand-Slam finals, appeared calm and purposeful, in spite of spotting the spritely Slovakian a break early in the first set.  

While Safina's seven double faults and 24 unforced errors left a little bit to be desired, the fact that she maintained her calm and was still able to win easily while not playing perfect tennis bodes well for her as she prepares to play her compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova in the French Open Women's final on Saturday.  

Even with the straight set victory, Safina sees room for improvement in her game.  "Obviously it gives you much more confidence when you know that you can do much better, even without playing your best," she said.  "It just shows that if I level up myself it can be much better."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Federer: Why He Can't Miss

Some will say he backed into this one. Others will say that he's not even the best player of his generation, let alone all-time. But when the clay settles on the Terre Batteau this Sunday, Roger Federer might very well have said all he needs to say about the matter.

At that point it'll be up to us to decide. With 14 Grand-Slams and at least one on every surface, the choice won't be difficult. Perhaps one, maybe two men will have been as good as Federer, but none will have been better.

It is hard to imagine Federer, even as un-Federer-like as he has played in 2009, passing up on an opportunity such as this. This years French Open offers the lowest hanging fruit that the Swiss Maestro will ever see again. No ladder is necessary and the fruit is succulent on the vine.

The virtuosic Federer, whose elegant playing style and aesthetic grace is revered by so many adoring fans and peers, will be playing in his twentieth consecutive Grand-Slam semi-final on Friday - that's nineteen more than his opponent, Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro. When you do the math you almost have to laugh, thinking about just how difficult it's going to be for the Argentine to level the playing field against the vastly superior and more experienced Federer.

Just ask Gael Monfils, who was cleverly dismantled by Federer today on Philippe Chatrier (not physically, but tactically, and psychologically) how hard it can be.

Federer knows the territory, and he's run the gamut when it comes to Grand-Slam tennis. He's conquered the emotions, faced the pressure time and time again, and he's made the clutch shots on countless occasions. And to make matters worse for his relatively green opponents (he's 26-1 combined against the other three semi-finalists), he smells blood now. He's got a full tank of gas and the finish line is in sight.

You can rest assured that Federer will draw upon everything special left inside him and offer one one last sacrifice to the gods of tennis. He of the meticulously crafted ground strokes. He of the artful pinpoint serve. He of the fast-twitch overhead, and the lightning-quick volley reflex. Is there anything this man can't do? There was, until this week.

As human as Federer has appeared at times this year, he still capable of of the type of tennis that made him who he is, and he'll prove that this week. His wisdom won't let his hunger wane, now that the time is ripe. The opportunity is presenting itself and Federer is too intuitive not to capitalize. Now he can draw on his past experience and combine it with this new desire - the yearning for this one last golden opportunity to conquer the Parisian clay, and claim the missing trophy in his collection.

The chasm has opened wide in front of him. It's his to walk through. When the red dust settles on Sunday, the final chapter of the book of Federer will most likely have it's most moving verse.

It's hard to imagine it going any other way.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Day 10: Safina Finally Tested; Sharapova Finally Bested

Dinara Safina's biggest weakness now appears to be her biggest strength. 

The 23-year-old Russian was treated rudely in the first set by Victoria Azarenka today on Court Philippe Chatrier, as the feisty Belarusian served 93% for the first set and also scored three service breaks against the previously untouchable No. 1 seed.  

But Safina kept her calm and weathered the storm.  

In the second set Safina stabilized herself, something she may not have been able to do a year ago, and moved out to a 4-1 lead on Azarenka.  

But it wasn't over yet.  The fearless and dynamic Azarenka scored two service breaks to level the set at four games each.  Safina was only two games away from being bounced from the tournament that she had been dominating so thoroughly up until today.  But again, her sense of calm in these difficult situations provided her with the edge she would need to survive.  

While the 19-year-old Azarenka was routinely bouncing her racquet on the court (and hearing it from the ultra-contemptuous Parisian crowd), Safina was gathering herself together and devoting every ounce of her energy to staying focused and executing her game.  

In a match that was played at a very high level from the onset, the difference between winning and losing came down to maturity.  

Safina has worked hard in this last year to gain it, and she used it to her advantage today.  

Azarenka, meanwhile, clearly has a thing or two to learn from this match.  She looked to be her own worst enemy at times, berating herself instead of remaining calm.  

Safina secured her third break of the second set to go up 5-4, and even as she went down 0-30 while trying to serve it out, she gathered herself again, and closed the set out with four  straight points.  

In the third set Safina never trailed.  Azarenka hung close until the middle of the set but Safina was too strong, too determined, and too hungry.  

She closed it out going away, and has now reached her third straight Grand-Slam semi-final.  

In the 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory for Safina, she lost more than twice as many games (12) than she had lost in her four previous matches.   She will move forward to face Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova, buoyed by the belief that she can win the tough matches - if she can just stay focused.  

Sharapova Finally Sent Packing

Maria Sharapova's return to the court for this years French Open was definitely a shot in the arm for the woman's game.  After a ten month layoff and only three matches prior to last week, Sharapova stepped onto the clay displaying a fighters mentality.  

After three grueling matches, all of which went the distance, the Sharapova express was finally derailed today.  

Dominika Cibulkova may have benefitted from the fact that Sharapova had to be both mentally and physically fatigued, but the 5'3" fireplug played a brilliant match and deserves all the credit for her one-sided victory against the three-time Grand-Slam champion today.  

The recently turned 20 Cibulkova committed only 9 errors in her straight set destruction of Sharapova.  Furthermore, she showed wisdom beyond her years by keeping the pedal to the metal against Sharapova.  Cibulkova's body language and energy never faltered throughout the one hour and 15-minute affair, and when Sharapova finally awoke from her match-long slumber, there was too much ground for her to make up.  

The 6-0, 6-2 upset by Cibulkova was very nearly a double bagel - only Maria's determination kept it from being so.  

It was dicey at the conclusion with Sharapova storming back to win two games and threatening for more, and Cibulkova expressed her thoughts on the matter openly in her post-match press conference.  

"And the crowd, you know, I was a little bit surprised, because this never happened to me, that so many people were like - they were maybe not against me, but they wanted Maria to beat the beginning I got a little bit pissed.  You know, like why against me?  They don't like me or what's happening?  But then I realized I cannot think of these things."

Cibulkova will face Dinara Safina in the semi-finals on Thursday.  Cibulkova's previous best Grand-Slam result was her round-of-16 loss to Elena Dementieva in the 2009 Australian Open.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Nadal's Early Exit: Surviving the After-Shock, and Learning the Lesson

Rafael Nadal's unexpected departure from the Roland Garros draw yesterday says more about the human spirit than I first realized. At first, I didn't want to hear about it - like many fans of tennis I was truly stunned, and yes, for a brief period, heartbroken and confused.

In four years Nadal's legend has grown exponentially, as has his game. Just about to turn 23, the dominant Spaniard seemed to be almost invincible - there was a palpable belief that Nadal's chances of securing the coveted calendar year grand-slam were not slim at all. After all, Roland Garros was in the bag - nobody can beat Nadal on clay (or so we thought) - so he would be half way there with only two to go.

Just yesterday, before and during his match with husky Swede Robin Soderling, Nadal was referred to as "the greatest clay-court player of all time," by several commentators.

But today, Bjorn Borg's name is back in the conversation, right there next to Rafa's - together they are the only two players to win four consecutive French Open championships.

But when it comes to Nadal, we couldn't help but want more. That is why there is disappointment in virtually everyone I've spoken to about the match today. After all, in sports, we truly believe that records are made to be broken. It is one of the golden rules. In Nadal we had our hero - the player that showed us, as tennis players and fans, that it was possible - you could be invincible, you could rewrite the record books and turn the rest of the gifted field of professional tennis players into pawns in your own high-stakes game.

As the records piled up for Rafa (31-0 at Roland Garros, 81 consecutive wins on clay, never lost a best-of-five set match on clay) their was no doubt that in Nadal, we were witnessing the perfect combination of power, focus, and desire. Here was the model that we could all emulate, that we could embrace as the best that man can achieve in this fickle sport of ours.

There is a t-shirt that I've seen Dinara Safina wearing many times: It reads "impossible is nothing." Rafa was the realization of this ideal. He made the impossible look easy, and in our own ways, I think we've all gained by watching him do it.

But yesterday taught us all that sometimes impossible is impossible. If you asked me right now if I thought any one would ever win four consecutive French Opens again, I'd laugh in your face. Never!  Impossible!

But a strange feeling overtook me when I watched this match for the fourth time yesterday and tried again to fully comprehend its immensity. The feeling overtook me that Rafa's defeat might actually be better for tennis than Rafa's domination.

Robin Soderling may have played the best match in the history of the French Open yesterday. From a relatively obscure position in the tennis world, this man burst onto the scene and proved to us that you never know how much brilliance is inside you unless you strive to let it out.  If we can get more players on tour to feel and to play this way, our sport might be that much more compelling when it is all said and done.  

Whether it was for Sweden (deep down couldn't you tell that Soderling was fueled by a Nationalistic furor?) or just for the heck of it, what Soderling showed the rest of the tennis world is what they had failed to see for the better part of four years when it comes to Nadal: If you believe you can win, you can! Go out there and be an engine of belief and strive to execute your vision from the very first point, and you just may pull off the biggest upset in the history of a certain highly-regarded Grand-Slam.

So many players have been beaten before they have ever stepped on the court against Rafa, Roger Federer being probably the most obvious example of this, and each of those players has failed miserably against Nadal in Roland Garros.

But for some reason, Robin Soderling boldly said "enough is enough." You could see it in his eyes and you could see it in his mighty forehand.  He ran Rafa around the court in a way that none of us ever thought we'd witness. It was amazing. Breathtaking. Miraculous.  The perfect dream hashed out in reality. 

Soderling has shown us all a little something about courage and belief.  In doing so he has eased the heartbreak that we all feel when when one of our truly deserving heroes temporarily falls from grace.

Day 9: Fed Escapes; Monfils Elates

Roger Federer snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat against Tommy Haas today, rallying from two sets down to secure a spot in the quarter finals with a 6-7(4), 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 triumph.

Federer has emerged as the most likely to benefit from the wide open Nadal-less draw.

But it looked as if he was going to be the next to crash and burn until he turned things around late in the match against the veteran Haas.

Alarmingly, Federer has yet to play his best tennis, and as he prepares to face surging Frenchman Gael Monfils, questions remain about his ability to capitalize on Rafa's early exit from the draw.

Still, the Swiss maestro remains upbeat about his chances. "It was a great battle for me, and I'm thrilled to be through and given another chance here."

Thrilled indeed, but is he ready to face a Monfils that is riding high on emotion and, as the last French man in the draw, will surely have the crowd in his corner?

Monfils ends the American Hope

Gael Monfils ran roughshod over Andy Roddick today, winning easily in straight sets and bringing the French faithful to a frenzied state as the sun went down over Court Suzanne Lenglen.

A beleaguered Roddick was initially frustrated by the remarkable play of Monfils, who was scattering winners all over the court. As the match progressed Roddick let the waning daylight make matters even worse, as his pleas for a suspension were ignored by tournament officials.

The temperamental American basically fell apart for the first half of the third set, letting his frustration with the situation mount, and letting the bombastic Monfils and his throngs of Parisian supporters get under his skin.

By the time Roddick found his calm, it was too late for him to get back in the match.

Monfils clinched this one-sided affair in the waning daylight, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and he will get a full day's rest in front of his upcoming battle with Roger Federer.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Day 8: Dethroned!

While Woman's No. 1 seed Dinara Safina continues to serve up more bagels than a New York City coffee shop, Men's No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal was unceremoniously bounced from the French Open today by the suddenly calm and able Swede, Robin Soderling.

Nadal Dethroned!

In what may go down as the biggest upset to ever take place on the fabled clay of Roland Garros, the four-time defending champion was dominated pretty much throughout - and even when he mustered some of his best tennis (which certainly was not always the case).

The 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6(2) stunner leaves a crater-sized hole in the men's draw that will be filled by someone other than the brilliant Spaniard for the first time since 2004.

As always, Nadal was humble in defeat. "I have to accept with the same calm when I win than when I lose. After four years I lose here, and the season continues."

"If I lost today - well, the preparation, mentally, it wasn't perfect, no? So I have to work harder to be ready for the next big events."

Soderling didn't give the Spaniard much chance to regain a focus that was knocked out of balance after a first set thrashing of 6-2. And when he did, by playing poorly in the second set tiebreaker, Nadal wasn't able to build on the momentum.

As the capacity crowd at Philippe Chatrier waited for Nadal to finally put the overachieving Soderling out of his misery, the exact opposite scenario occurred on the clay.

Nadal seemed to get right back into a hole as the third set began.

He was obviously off of his top form, as he drubbed an ugly double fault into the bottom of the net in the third game of the set, and later stumbled and fell in a very uncharacteristically clumsy manner when trying to recover on the baseline at a later stage.

Finally, Soderling broke Nadal in the seventh game of the set, and at the 2 hour and 17-minute mark of the match, the determined Swede had the lead that he would never relinquish.

But Nadal wouldn't go easily. Even as he struggled and never did find his form, Nadal did manage to go up a break at 2-0 in the first two games of the fourth set.

But that lead, due primarily to poor serving by the Spaniard, rapidly dissolved. Nadal's first serve was clocking at an average of less than 100 m.p.h, and Soderling was hammering away, keeping Nadal under pressure throughout the majority of his service games.

As the fourth set progressed, Soderling (whose 61 winners - including a whopping 30 from the forehand side - were nearly twice as much as Nadal's 33) would not relent. He wielded his racquet as if it were his sword, and he swung effortlessly as if he were guided by a confidence, an almost eery calm that has rarely been on display in the career of the 24-year-old.

As the fourth set tiebreaker began, the crowd seemed to side with Soderling, and the Swede's courage seemed to grow as they cheered his powerful ground strokes. Quickly, and with the same attacking style that he employed all match, Soderling earned himself five match points, and Nadal was done before he even had time to realize what had hit him.

Rafa's reign of terror is over at the French Open. His streak of 32 straight sets falls short of Borg's streak of 41. His streak of four straight titles fails to outdo the man whose legend will forever be compared to Nadal's. With all the talk of Nadal being THE best clay player of all time, this loss has vaulted Borg back into that discussion. Borg's six French Open titles remain the most by a male player at Roland Garros, and Nadal, after the most disappointing loss of his career will have win more or risk being downplayed in the greatest of all time discussion.

So Borg's record is saved by a Swede. Is that mere coincidence or is there something about Borg's legacy and heritage that inspired the underdog Swede?

Soderling beat the king of clay by playing his hard court game - big serves (regularly in the 140's), big groundies (demolishing short balls at will), and short points.

It is a recipe, like every other, that had never worked before against Nadal at Roland Garros. But now that it has, expect to see it next year as well.

Safina On a Roll

Dinara Safina won't be searching for her first Grand-Slam title very much longer if she can maintain her current super-human level of play.

She's won eight straight sets thus far at Roland Garros and in the process she's only lost five games.

Today against France's Aravane Rezai, she gave the partisan French crowd absolutely nothing to cheer about. After granting her opponent two break point opportunities in the third game of the first set, the fiery Russian abruptly slammed the door shut on her bewildered opponent.

Safina's exceptional Power from the baseline and power on the serve overwhelmed Rezai, and she looked lost for virtually every second of the fifty-three minute affair.

Ivanovic Falls to Azarenka

Ana Ivanovic's bid to repeat as French Open champion came to a grinding halt as 19-year-old Belarusian sensation Victoria Azarenka steamrolled her in two one-sided sets, 6-2, 6-3.

Only seven unforced errors, along with an 81% 1st serve percentage, and six out of ten on break point opportunities were the perfect recipe to push Azarenka to her best results of her career in a Grand-Slam event.

If the feisty No. 9 seed can continue the trend she might be the first woman to take more than two games from the indomitable Safina in a set.

Sharapova Wins Another in Three Sets

Maria Sharapova's remarkable comeback bid stayed on track today, as she survived a horrible stretch of tennis and rebounded for a dramatic 6-4, 0-6, 6-4 win over No. 25 seed, Na Li of China.

After getting blanked in the second set, Sharapova appeared to be in dire straits as she fell behind a break at 4-2 in the third.

But the three-time Grand-Slam champion rose to the occasion and stormed back to win the set and the match going away.

While Sharapova's error count was high, and her serve numbers were bad, the one thing that has remained consistent for her throughout the tournament has been her mental toughness and desire. After missing ten months due to shoulder surgery, Sharapova has become match tough in a very short period of time, as she has successfully faced a deciding set in each of her four matches thus far.

Sharapova, unseeded, will face the lowest remaining seed in her half of the draw, Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova, on Tuesday.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Day 7: Djokovic and Dementieva Eliminated

Stunned would be a good word, but what-the-hell? seems even better.

Novak Djokovic was so steady during the clay court swing, it was hard to see this one coming. But the mercurial Serb was routinely ousted by upset-minded German, Philip Kolschreiber in straight sets on Saturday, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.  

This is an abrupt ending to a great clay court season for Djokovic, who some considered among the handful of players with a remote (if unlikely) chance at beating four-time defending French Open champion Rafael Nadal.  

Kolschreiber, who also victimized Andy Roddick in the 2008 Australian Open, was in control of the match throughout.  The No. 29 seed committed only 22 unforced errors and cashed in on five of his ten break point opportunities.  

Meanwhile, Djokovic, a semi-finalist for the last two years at Roland Garros, was unable to find a rhythm against the German. 

"I was trying not to be frustrated with a lot of unforced errors," he said. "I played too passive and he really played solid from all the strokes, so congratulations to him of course."

Kolschreiber's bracket-busting upset sets him up for a round-of-16 clash with Tommy Robredo. 

Dementieva Downed

Former Roland Garros finalist (2004 loss to Myskina) Elena Dementieva saw her hopes dashed on Court Phillipe Chatrier today at the hands of Australian Samantha Stosur, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1.

The highest woman seed to be knocked out of the draw, Dementieva committed 33 unforced errors and surrendered seven breaks to Stosur.  
Dementieva fought valiantly to force a third set, but was dominated by Stosur in the decider, 6-1.  

"It's really difficult to play against someone who is so fit," said Dementieva, "and her serve is very unusual for the women's game; lots of speed and very difficult to return.  She has a very powerful game."

Stosur, the last Australian left in the French Open draw, avenged her third round loss at the hands of Dementieva at this year's Australian Open, and will next face France's Virgine Razzano in the round-of-16. 

Federer Ousts Mathieu

Roger Federer spotted Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu a set, but quickly recovered to draw one stop closer to his third consecutive French Open final, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.  

The No. 32 seed from Strasbourg, France played a very solid match, but Federer's power game was dialed up a notch from what he showed in his shaky second round match against Argentine Jose Acasuso.  

The Swiss maestro converted on 81% of his first serve points, and also managed sixteen break point opportunities (converting on five).

The French Connections

The hopes of the French men now rest squarely on the capable shoulders of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils.  

Both were up to their usual tricks - playing a dynamic and incredibly entertaining brand of tennis that brought the French fans to their feet, and kept them there.  

Tsonga, who had never won a match on the Roland Garros clay, thrashed Belgian Christophe Rochus, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.  Tsonga's forty-three winners left the Belgian on the outside looking in from the onset of this affair.  

Monfils was forced to work a little harder, but in the end he achieved the same results.  He committed only seventeen unforced errors and also notched twelve aces in a decisive win over Austrian Jurgen Melzer.  

The victory lands him in the round-of-sixteen against overachieving American Andy Roddick.  

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Day 6 Preview: Nadal, Safina, Murray On Tap

The third round at Roland Garros kicks off with a bang on Friday, as singles matches on six courts will feature Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal on Philippe Chatrier, plus Dinara Safina, the womans No. 1 seed, on Court No.1.

Suzanne Lenglen will feature the likes of last years returning champ Ana Ivanovic, plus Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, and Gilles Simon.

And lets not forget the French Knight who vanquished Marat Safin:

Josselin Ouanna, who has come through the draw in two dramatic five-setters, has a flashy game that blends together nicely into an uptempo yet versatile power game. The hype on Ouanna will be feverish if he can get by (go through is more like it with this kid) No. 12 seed Fernando Gonzalez.

The 6'4" 200 pounder has just turned 23, and is currently ranked No. 134 in the world. He's clearly seeing this years French Open as the chance of a lifetime and running with it, so the sky is the limit if he can get by Gonzo (he'll face the winner of the Simon v. Hanescu match if he does).

Here's some more on specific matches:


Nadal is .500 against Hewitt, at 4-4, but he's won all three on clay, including a straight set win at Roland Garros in 2007. Hewitt did manage to take a set off Nadal in the round-of-16 of the French Open in 2006, so the Aussie knows how to do something that not very many players have done. In fact only Hewitt, Paul-Henri Mathieu, and Roger Federer are the only ones to have accomplished this Herculean it since 2006.

But each win breaks a new record now for Rafa, and today will be No. 31 in a row for the impeccable Spaniard. It's hard to imagine any other outcome... Go ahead, bet the house.


These two have split four matches, none of them having been played on clay.

This is as far as Murray's ever gotten at Roland Garros, and while a win won't be monumental against the enigmatic Serb, it'd be a milestone nonetheless for the 22-year-old Scot.

Tipsarevic is also trying to surpass his best results with a win. He's come through the draw to the chagrin of two Spaniards, Albert Montanes and Feliciano Lopez.


This could should be a spirited affair between two experienced clay court players. Surprisingly the lower ranked Almagro has been the victor in two previous matches between the two Spaniards.

Azarenka-Suarez Navarro

Aficionados are drooling over this one, because they know Suarez Navarro has a great game on the dirt. But will it be great enough to defend against what is sure to be an all out assault from Azarenka?

Azarenka gave Carla a pretty good beating in Stuttgart (6-1, 6-4), but Suarez Navarro played some big matches in the 2009 Australian Open (think Venus Williams upset and quarter final run), so she's no stranger to coming up with the goods at times.


Skeptics keep waiting for Ana play improbably bad like she has done quite regularly in 2009, but so far in Paris she's gotten the job done. One things for sure, she'll either win this match or lose it, and the Czech Iveta Benesova will be on the receiving end of whatever Ana decides to bring to the match.

Ivanovic has won all four of their previous battles, including a straight-setter on clay at the 2005 French Open.


There is something about Maria, and nobody can seriously deny this fact. This will undoubtedly be the most-watched match of the day.

Maria has looked incredibly ready for prime-time after a ten month layoff, and the qualifier Shvedova is going to have the time of her life. Whether or not she'll make it a match is another story.

Click here for the Official Roland Garros Order of Play.

Thanks for reading!

Day 5: Tsonga Feeds the French Heart

In what very well may have been the emotional high of this years French Open, charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gave the partisan crowd something to chant about.

And chant they did, as the electric Frenchmen with the can't-miss smile stormed back in a fourth set tiebreaker to advance to the third round over Argentine Juan Monaco, 7-5, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8).

Excitement was at a fever pitch in the deciding moments of the fourth set as Tsonga, trailing 5-1 in the tiebreak, bravely stormed back to even the score at 5-5. Chants of Tsonga! Tsonga! reverberated through the rafters at Court Suzanne Lenglen, and as hard as Monaco tried to stem the tide, he finally wilted on Tsonga's third match point.

As Tsonga executed a series of volleys for his final put-away, he fell to the court in complete and utter joy and the adoring French crowd erupted in unison.

It was a truly surreal moment, with the fans resonating with one of their great hopes for this years event, and showering him with boisterous cheers. A beautiful and heartfelt exchange between the two players at the net ensued, with Monaco displaying a keen sense of understanding of the moment that served to further enhance the giddiness in the air.

Tsonga, who had never won at Roland Garros until the first round this year, will next face Belgian Christophe Rochus in the third round.

The No. 9 seed from Le Mans, France will no doubt benefit from the support of the partisan crowd, as Rochus, who has defeated French players Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement in rounds one and two respectively, will more than likely be forced to face the ire of the French crowd on Phillipe Chatrier.

Monfils Also a Winner

Gael Monfils, a semi-finalist in last years French Open, invigorated the French crowds even further, as he was an easy straight set winner over Victor Crivoi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Mark Gicquel, Jeremy Chardy, Josselin Ouanna, and Gilles Simon are the other French players who have gone through to the third round.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Day 4: Murray Settles Down, Advances

For a while today it looked like Potito Starace of Italy was going to vanquish the heavily favored British prodigy.

Then he was sent tumbling back down to earth.

After a horrendous cluster of games in which Starace looked like the rising star and Murray looked like the one looking at the top-100 from the outside in, Murray gathered his loose parts together and roared to the finish, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.

A seemingly despondent Murray, down a set point at 1-5 in the third set and facing a long and terribly disappointing afternoon on Phillipe Chatrier, made a stunning surge that eventually netted him a spot in the third round, where he will next face Serbian Janko Tipsarevic.

This was classic Murray mental toughness (backed by spirited guttural howls after many crucial points), and as the 22-year-old Scot mounted his improbable comeback the match took on the feel of a world class boxing bout in which the favored boxer, beaten and bloody, crawled off the canvas, worked his way to his feet, and proceeded to rain merciless blows on his opponent.

The lively yet sparse crowd at Phillipe Chatrier had a glimpse of both sides of the No. 3 seed.

First they saw his vulnerability on the surface that is least familiar to him - he was outclassed by the confident Italian on the clay for the majority of sets two and three.

But just when it seemed like the Scot was headed for certain defeat the fans were witness to the incredible grit of Murray, the mental focus that is becoming his trademark - a combination of poise and courage that led him from a deep hole to a commanding advantage before a stunned and frustrated Starace could mount any resistance.

This was a Jeckyll and Hyde match if there ever was one, and while the fact that Murray was in such grave danger in the third set might be disconcerting to some, the fact that he was able to get off the canvas and play absolutely breathtaking tennis from that point on may provide him with enough belief to make a serious (and somewhat unexpected) run here at Roland Garros.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Day 4 Preview: Murray Up First On Chatrier

There is truly too much good stuff to fit into a preview of Day four of the 2009 French Open, so we will start with the first match on the No. 1 show court, Phillipe Chatrier, and go from there.

Murray up First

To kick off the second round, Andy Murray will face Italian Potito Starace at 11 A.M. Though the 28-year-old from Benevento Italy sports a lowly 9-13 record for 2009, he's actually had more promising results during the European clay swing.

Still, his best results of the year were a quarter final loss in Munich in early May. Murray should chew him up and spit him out and if he doesn't it will likely say more about the type of player that Andy Murray is on clay, and less about Starace's legitimacy. Currently ranked 104, Starace has never won a singles title on tour.

Tomorrows tilt will be the first meeting between Murray and Starace.

Both No. 1 Seeds Will Be In Action

Rafael Nadal and Dinara Safina will also be among tomorrows headline acts. Safina will face her country mate Vitalia Diatchenko, a qualifier. Diatchenko, a 19-year-old from Moscow, is making her first-ever appearance in a Grand-Slam. She is most likely comforted by the fact that she can do no worse than Safina's first victim, Anne Kheotovang of Great Britian, who was brutally bageled by Safina in a sixty-one minute laugher in the first round.

(Safina's dear brother Marat Safin will also be in action on Chatrier, facing Frenchman Josselin Ouannan in the fourth match of the day.)

With each successive win for Rafael Nadal, his kingdom on clay expands. With a victory over Russian Teimuraz Gabashvili in the final match of five on Court Suzanne Lenglen, Rafa will take over the all-time record for consecutive wins at Roland Garros with 30. He will eclipse the legendary Chris Evert, possibly the greatest female clay-courter of all-time, who saw her streak of 29 end in 1981.

Nadal was victorious over Gabashvili in Miami, 6-2, 6-2, and is now 29-0 on the fabled Roland Garros clay for his career.

Sharapova set to clash with Petrova

After losing the first set on Monday to Bulgarian Anastasiya Yakimova, Sharapova quickly found her rhythm and basically pulverized Yakimova into submission. But tomorrows test could prove more difficult.

Nadia Petrova, seeded 11th, is a two-time Roland Garros semi-finalist. In six previous matches against Petrova, Sharapova has won five. If Sharapova maintains the form enabled her to easily dismiss Yakimova, she might score an easy win. If she's bothered by the effects of her recent shoulder surgery, it could be another story entirely.

The intriguing and sure to be entertaining match will be the 4th match of the afternoon on Suzanne Lenglen.

Good-bye Fabrice? Good-bye Marat?

The magician, local favorite and Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, was granted a reprieve yesterday. After breaking serve in the 8th game of the fourth set to stay alive in the match, darkness intervened. The match was suspended with Santoro to serve, down 3-5 in the fourth set, and down two sets to one against Belgian Christopher Rochus.

The fortunate ticket holders at Suzanne Lenglen will get the conclusion of this match, sure to be high on emotional content regardless of the outcome, after Safina and Diatchenko's match.

Santoro (along with Marat Safin) could see the end of his brilliant Roland Garros career tomorrow. While he has no titles at Roland Garros, the atavistic Santoro has been a pillar of consistency, missing only one French Open since 1989 (20 appearances).

Meanwhile, in 11 appearances, Safin has visited the quarter finals once, and the semi finals in 2002.

French Open Day 3: Serena Wins Ugly, Other Top Seeds Cruise

After two hours and twenty-five minutes of suspenseful (if sloppy) tennis, one thing is for certain: There are more questions about Serena Williams chances here at Roland Garros than there were at the start of the match.

While other top seeds (think Dementieva, Jankovic, and Kuznetsova) had the pedal to the metal (they each won easily, in straight sets) , Serena was stuck in neutral against unseeded and No. 100-ranked Klara Zakopalova. It took nine match points to finally get the job done, five of which went wasted in a sixty-seven minute 2nd set that was particularly frustrating for Serena, given that she had the spectre of an impending doubles match on Court 2 later in the afternoon.

But the feisty Zakopalova, to her credit, stayed in the match by keeping the ball in play, and keeping Serena on the move. After leveling the match by securing her fourth set point in the tiebreaker, the 27-year-old Czech went ahead a break in the third set.

Serena promptly won the next four games and was able to close it out, but only after burning through three more match points, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4.

Serena has never lost in 38 first-round Grand-Slam matches, but the bigger question is, how much gas will she have in the tank for future matches (on grueling clay, her worst surface) after spending far too much time on the court with Zakopalova today?

She'll face Spaniard Virginia Ruano Pascal in the next round. Ruano Pascal has been past the second round only once in her last eight appearances at Roland Garros.

After her victory, Serena got together with her sister Venus on the doubles side. Results were mixed there as well - play was suspended at 4-3 on serve in the 3rd set in their match with the Czech doubles team of Hlavackova and Hradecka.

Monday, May 25, 2009

French Open Day 2: Nadal Struggles but Still Wins Easily

The colors were garish, and the error count was uncharacteristically high, but the results were the same as they've always been.

Rafael Nadal, wearing a color combination that seemed more suited for an Easter parade, was a straight set winner on Court Phillipe Chatrier today against qualifier Marcos Daniel of Brazil - 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.

The 29th consecutive win for Nadal at Roland Garros was a tricky affair, as the wind was antagonistic at times, and the play of 30-year-old Daniel exceeded everyone's expectations. The Brazilian was in the match mentally for the duration, and at times it appeared that he may be able to actually break through and take a set off the reigning four-time French Open champion.

Predictably, he did not. When it mattered most Nadal was able to find his range, and as the match progressed, Rafa was able to dial in his nasty topspin groundstrokes more regularly, leaving the Brazilian with nothing more than a cluster of missed opportunities.

It wasn't the most convincing effort for the Spaniard, but it was good enough for his 29th French Open victory without a blemish.

Federer Keeps Pace

Looking to build on his surprising title in Madrid, Federer quickly dispatched Spaniard Alberto Martin in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

The most impressive part of Federer's game was his serve, as he was able to win 56 of 75 points on his serve, including 16 of 24 on the second serve.

"I served well, that's true. It's a good thing for me because my serve is good to start the tournament, which is what I like. Now the rounds are going to be tougher and tougher, so I hope I can play better and better as well."

Roddick Finally Wins at Roland Garros

2005 was Andy Roddick's last win at the French Open. But the svelte Nebraskan played like he was in Arthur Ashe Stadium today, turning in a dominating performance against French wildcard Romain Jouan.

As usual, Roddick was candid about his past failures.

"I'm just glad I finally won a match out here...I'd like to make the second week here. I feel that's a feasible goal and something that I'm surprised that I haven't done to this point in my career."

Using his kick serve to tie up the bewildered qualifier, Roddick did not surrender a single break point in the 1-hour 44-minute affair.

French Open Day 2: American Glatch Stuns Pennetta

Mary Joe Fernandez might want to tell one of the Williams sisters to take a back seat to Alexa Glatch when the American's Fed Cup final against Italy rolls around in November.

High on confidence from saving the Americans bacon in Brno, Czech Republic , Glatch has struck again, this time on the clay of Roland Garros against No. 14 ranked Italian Flavia Pennetta, 6-1, 6-1.

The 19-year-old heavy hitter from Newport Beach, California is quickly developing a reputation for calmly (and easily) pulling upsets in some very big situations. While she was orchestrating the biggest upset of the tournament, you wouldn't have been able to tell by looking at Glatch's face - she was poised throughout, displaying the same stoic yet purposeful glare whether she had just shanked a forehand or hit a blistering backhand passing shot.

The 61 minute affair was never contested, as Glatch burst out to a 3-0 lead, then used strong serving (69%) and heavy ground strokes to keep Pennetta pinned behind the baseline. Glatch was 6-11 on break point opportunities, and by the end of the match, a disconcerted Pennetta looked like she was contemplating digging a hole in the clay to hide rather than digging in and trying to fight back against the determined American.

Glatch will face the winner of the Barbora Zahlavova Strycova v. Lourdes Dominguez Lino match on Wednesday. In her career, Glatch has split two matches with Zahlavova Strycova. She has never played Dominguez Lino.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

French Open Day 1 Review: Murray Sails

Lingering doubts about Andy Murray's clay court capabilities have receded quite a bit, as the 22-year-old Scot, dressed in all black, put on a confident display on Court Suzanne Lenglen today against Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela.

The 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory lasted only 1 hour and 43 minutes, and featured 55 winners for Murray against only 14 for Chela.

The No. 3 seed was 8 for 16 in break point opportunities, and basically applied a choke hold to Chela from the moment he broke back to even the first set at one game apiece.

Murray has never been past the round-of-32 at Roland Garros but has higher hopes as this years event gets underway. For that reason, Murray isn't taking his possible second round opponents lightly. At the post match press conference, he was realistic about his prospects.

"I just focus on each match, and especially on this surface. It's not like I can take anybody for granted, because my results don't really merit me doing that."

55 Aces For Karlovic in a 5-set Loss

Croatian Ivo karlovic obliterated Andy Roddick's French Open record for aces with 55 today, but it still wasn't enough to keep him from dropping the final 3 sets against the cagey aging veteran Lleyton Hewitt, 6-7(1), 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-3.

In spite of Karlovic's remarkable effort, Hewitt got the better of the breaks, securing 4 on 8 opportunities, while Karlovic was only able to manage one break in the 3 hour and 56 minute affair.

Safin Not Ready to Say Goodbye

In what will be his last appearance at Roland Garros, Marat Safin advanced over Frenchman Alexander Sidorenko 6-4, 6-4,. 6-4. Next up in round two for Safin will be another Frenchman, Wildcard Josselin Ouanna.

Impressive Day for Top Seeds

No 7 seed Gilles Simon survived a five set scare from Wayne Odesnik, but for the most part it was easy street for seeded players, as David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Radek Stepanek, Nicolas Almagro, and Marin Cilic all won in straight sets.

Click here for all the scores.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Safina in the Drivers Seat, But it's a Long Race

French Open Women's Preview:

Before the clay court season got underway in April, the only thing that was certain in woman's tennis was that nothing was certain. But after attaining the No. 1 Ranking, and devouring the rest of the woman's field on the European clay, it isn't hard to tell who's in the drivers seat as the French Open begins.

Last years Roland Garros runner-up, Dinara Safina, would like nothing more than to put an end to the current state of chaos that has been permeating women's tennis.

While there are more than a handful of legitimate contenders for the title, when handicapping the mercurial field at Roland Garros, you have to start with Safina and work your way down the list. Anything else would be an injustice to the remarkable strides Marat's 'Lil sister has made over the course of the last year.

The 23-year-old Russian is 28-6 on the year with 2 WTA titles and 5 finals appearances for 2009. More importantly, she appears to have gained a sense of belief from her recent ascension to the top spot of the WTA rankings. While it still remains to be seen, that confidence could be the thing that eventually sets her apart from the field at Roland Garros and enables her to claim her first Grand-Slam title of her career.

But Safina is far from being the only player with a good chance to win this thing. As has been the case on clay since the premature retirement of Justine Henin (4 time champion in 5 years), there is a level of parity that gives hope to everyone.

Safina, as good as she has been, and as good as she can be, is definitely always in danger of a meltdown. These days she seems to be able to squirm out of her death defying scenarios, but one slip from her and the field will be blown wide open yet again.

In the Mix:

Serena Williams: Claiming to be the real No. 1, quite frankly, is a very different thing than playing like it. Serena has done the latter but not the former. And with an ailing leg that forced her retirement in Madrid a return to her 2002 Championship form seems more like wishful thinking. But you never know with Serena, and when she gets hungry for blood, she can quickly get her game into overdrive:

She's had five trips to the quarter finals or beyond at Roland Garros, so she definitely isn't a clay dunce (like most American players).

Chances: Pretty good but not great.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: Fresh off her first title of 2009, Kuznetsova, a semi-finalist in Paris last year, is likely headed for a quarter final match with Serena. Her achilles heel is consistency, but if she can get hot and stay hot, she'll be a real threat.

Chances: Decent but don't get your hopes up.

Venus Williams: At 35-12 over her French Open career, Venus is not a total underachiever on La Terre Batteau, but there is something about her game that just doesn't seem to work on clay. She's had mixed results on the dirt this spring, with a semi-final appearance in Rome followed by an early loss to Alisa Kleybanova in Madrid.

Chances: Decent but don't bet your life savings.

Jelena Jankovic: She has come back from the dead of late, but her draw seems somewhat favorable. Jelly is headed for a possible 4th round match with Great Dane Caroline Wozniacki. If she gets by that one and into the quarters, she could be on the roll that she has been yearning to be on since losing her No. 1 ranking.

As horrific as her play has been at times in '09, she is still 23-8 on the year with a title. Additionally, she has been to the semi's at Roland Garros in each of the last two years - perhaps that experience will guide her back to her comfort zone.

Chances: Very slim, but her big match experience and clay preference could really help her if she gets on a roll.

Elena Dementieva: Will she ever break through and just do the deal? The '04 French Open finalist is so long on potential, but sadly, as short as you can get on Grand-Slam titles.

Chances: Slimmer than a pack of yips and a cluster of nerves, but you never know.

Ana Ivanovic: last years champ is hoping for a return to past glory. But her confidence isn't with her, and it hasn't been for some time. You can't win the French Open without confidence, and I'm not sure if you can get confidence just from being last years champion.

Chances: She's done it before, so ruling her out completely would be a mistake.
Dark Horses:

Something tells me that a dark horse might come from out of nowhere (or at least at the bottom of the top 10) and ride a wave of emotion all the way to her first Slam. Here's a list of potential candidates, and why they deserve to be one.

Victoria Azarenka: The feisty Belarusian is hell-bent on climbing up the rankings, but her clay results this spring have not enabled her to springboard successfully off of her first Masters title in Miami. It'll be a challenge for Azarenka, who lost in the round-of-16 last year to Kuznetsova in straight sets, but a quarter final battle with Safina might be in the cards if she finds that extra gear that 19-year-olds sometimes find in events like this.

Caroline Wozniacki: With a game better suited for clay, and a hunger just as mighty, Wozniacki might be a faster dark horse than Azarenka. She has never been to the quarters of a slam, but the 18-year-old has reached three finals on clay this spring.
Darker Horses:

Here is a list of some players who may not win the big prize, but definitely could play the role of spoiler for a few rounds.

Carla Suarez Navarro: If the clay court specialist can make the quarters of the Australian open, the sky has to be the limit on La Terre Batteau.

Amelie Mauresmo: Losing the expectations and dropping the pressure might give Amelie an edge that she's never had in Paris.

Sabine Lisicki: 2nd round match with Venus is possible. Look out, Venus.

Jie Zheng: The top-ranked Chinese can punch from the baseline.

Maria Sharapova: 3 matches in 6 months? Is she ready for this? We'll know by the 2nd round, where she'll likely face Nadia Petrova.

Flavia Pennetta: 9-6 career record at Roland Garros, but seems to be getting better with age.

Stay tuned, as all the bracket busting goodness gets underway Sunday May, 24th.