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Several decades ago, it became fashionable among Parisians to refer to the springtime tennis extravaganza in their city as simply “Roland.”
That’s what you see here at the top in a week when the Italian Open is underway, the final tournament for most of the big-name players before the French Open begins on May 25.
Every year, tennis followers try to read the tea leaves at the tournaments heading into Roland Garros to see if it helps predicting what will happen in Paris. On the men’s side, that has usually been pretty easy with Rafael Nadal dominating the three main lead-ins – Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome.
He has won seven of the last nine Italian Opens and is the favourite again this year.
Mutua Madrid Open
What to make of his 1-6, 6-4, 3-0 ret. win over Kei Nishikori on Sunday in the Madrid final – a match that the 24-year-old Japanese dominated until he aggravated a back problem serving at 4-3 in the second set?
No question Nishikori was impressive, really impressive, with his aggressive hitting – hitting that was so good it seriously rattled the King of Clay. But Nadal, who was not playing his best, did have a strong game to get back to 4-3 when he trailed 4-2 in the second set and it’s no certainty that Nishikori would have then managed to serve out the two games he needed to win against a reviving Nadal, and under the pressure of upsetting the greatest clay-court player in history.
Mutua Madrid Open
Somewhat forgotten in all the drama of the final was Nishikori’s superb performance the previous day in the semi-finals when he beat the redoubtable David Ferrer on his 10th match point by a 7-6(5), 5-7, 6-3 score.
Looking ahead, Roland Garros matches are best-of-five sets. So, let’s say Nishikori is up a set and 4-2 at Roland Garros. Even if he manages to finish off the second set…fast forward to the third. Can he maintain and win another set or will he be ground down as so many players have been by Nadal’s heavily top-spun forehand and ferocious will?
atpworldtour.com – Getty Images
Rome will be more interesting than Madrid with the returns of Novak Djokovic (from a wrist injury) and Roger Federer (from a second double-dose of fatherhood).
Add Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer and some other challengers to the list, and there could be some compelling tennis for the passionate, excitable fandom at the famed Foro Italico.
From the Canadian perspective, there’s the prospect of a possible round-of-16 match-up between Milos Raonic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Unfortunately Vasek Pospisil has already been eliminated – beaten 7-5, 7-6(4) by Kevin Anderson on Tuesday.
On the women’s side – in the absence, for the moment, of Victoria Azarenka, it seems to be all about Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
It’s the same old story with Williams, if she’s healthy she’s the pick to defend her French Open title. But a thigh injury forced her to pull out of a Madrid quarter-final last week and the injury seems to have been hanging around since the WTA event in Charleston, S.C., over a month ago.
Mutua Madrid Open – Getty Images
As for Sharapova, she has now won Stuttgart and Madrid on clay in 2014 and her remarkable clay-court record dating back to 2012 is 47-3 – with all three losses coming to Williams. After a poor first set in the Madrid final on Sunday against the game but outgunned Simona Halep, Sharapova was immaculate – belting winners almost at will to prevail 1-6, 6-2, 6-3. She could have hardly asked for anything better – but maintaining that form in Rome will be a tall order.
Still, she and Serena are clearly the Roland Garros favourites unless the young breed of Halep, Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys etc. or the old guard of Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic etc. can get hot on the day and rattle their nerves.
A final word: the on-court coaching on the women’s tour seems to divide into two camps, and is especially easy to observe if you subscribe to TennisTV.com and are able to watch during the change-over time given over commercials on regular television.
The worst coaches are the “yammer-yammer” types. Caroline Wozniacki’s father/coach has best exemplified that group in the past. Surely it makes sense that the first thing the coach should do is ask the player how she feels since she’s the one out there battling on the court. But no, the Piotr Wozniacki types come out and – start to finish – bombard (and bamboozle?) the player with instructions, advice, exhortations, criticism etc. The player usually sits there staring blanking into space – a bad optic for women’s tennis.
Here are a few of the coaches that get it right:
Myles Maclagan actually has an eminently civil conversation with his player Samantha Stosur. He’s not afraid to say her opponent is playing well, to respond to what she says and then to offer a bit of advice.
David Kotyza is Petra Kvitova’s coach and they also engage in two-way dialogue when he makes his visits to the court. Kvitova even smiles sometimes, which seems like an adult approach to player–coach interactions.
Sven Groenefeld, now with Maria Sharapova, is an experienced coach who has worked with Mary Pierce, Greg Rusedski, Ana Ivanovic and Wozniacki. His appearances on court usually occur when things aren’t going well for Sharapova. She is not very forthcoming – possibly because she’s aware fans watching at home can hear everything that’s said. So she usually remains silent, and stoic, but Groenefeld doesn’t overdo it. He just concentrates on the basics – reassuring her, boosting her spirits and offering specific bits of tactical or technical advice.
All three stand in stark opposition to the “yammer-yammer” coaches who tend to work with younger players. But younger players should also be allowed to express their thoughts and feelings before the coach commences a one-way diatribe.
On-court coaching gives tennis fans insights – if they understand the language being used – but it remains against the self-reliant essence of a player working things out for herself on the court. And, it seems out-of-place – something of a side-show – because it is not allowed at the Grand Slam tournaments.
On Monday, it didn’t help Eugenie Bouchard when she lost to a red-hot Francesca Schiavone in the first round at the Italian Open. Her hitting partner, Keith Patrick Crowley, visited her after she lost the first set 6-4. Among his words to her, “focus on the ball as well as the target…recognize the short one and stay aggressive… compete your ass off every single point.”
It didn’t seem to have a positive effect – Bouchard lost the second set 6-2.
She’s not playing near her best at the moment but will get a chance to do better next week when she’ll be one of the top four seeds at the $235,000 (US) WTA tournament in Nuremberg, Germany.
NESTOR/ZIMONJIC WIN A BIG ONE
Mutua Madrid Open
Last November and December, after 12 years of finishing with a top-10 ATP doubles ranking, Daniel Nestor was languishing at an unflattering No. 25.
There were obvious doubts, two months past his 41st birthday, that the years might have caught up with the doubles maestro…that his days of winning Grand Slam and Masters 1000 titles might be well in the past.
On Sunday at the Mutua Madrid Open Masters 1000 event, not only did Nestor, alongside partner Nenad Zimonjic, win the title with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over top seeds and longtime rivals Bob and Mike Bryan in the final, he also returned to the top-10 and is currently ranked a more Nestor-like No. 7.
Nestor and Zimonjic jumped off to a great start – breaking Mike Bryan to lead 3-2 in the opening set – and just poured it on from there. Zimonjic was returning big and serving big, Nestor was also returning well and was his usual magical self at the net. The Bryans really didn’t have a chance. Two more breaks of the Mike Bryan serve – to 2-1 and 5-2 – in the second set and Nestor/Zimonjic wrapped up their 26th title as a team in just 59 minutes. The win extended their record in finals against the Bryans to a noteworthy 9-6.
“We got ahead early against them today, that is the key,” Nestor said. “They’re such great front runners. It’s important to lead or at least stay close. We had some tough situations (but no break points until the penultimate point) but we fought through them. We’ve been resilient all year. It’s nice to play our best match in the final.”
Nestor and Zimonjic are seeded No. 6 in Rome this week and would meet the top-seeded Bryans in the semi-finals if both teams advanced that far.
“This is the best situation possible going into a Grand Slam (Roland Garros starts May 25),” Nestor said. “We have huge confidence. We really put it together this week with four really good matches. It’s a good sign going forward.”
The French Open has been Nestor’s most successful Grand Slam, winning it four times – 2007 (Mark Knowles), 2010 (Zimonjic) and 2011-2012 (Max Mirnyi).
He has also now won five titles in Madrid – 2002-04-05 with Knowles and 2009 and 2014 with Zimonjic.
The victory at the Caja Majica in Madrid brings Nestor’s career tournament title total to 84 – breaking a tie with Australian legend Todd Woodbridge.
Here’s how the current top-four stand:
Mike Bryan 100
Bob Bryan 98
Daniel Nestor 84
Todd Woodbridge 83
*Mike Bryan won 2002 titles with Knowles in Nottingham and Mahesh Bhupathi in Long Island, which explains the discrepancy between the totals of the two brothers.
Nestor and Zimonjic have at times had a rocky relationship. Here’s a quote from Nestor in October, 2010, when he split with Zimonjic despite them having racked up five titles earlier that year and winning two Wimbledons (2008-2009) and one French Open (2010) together: “I think it’s a good move,” Nestor said at the time. “It came from him (Zimonjic) but it’s something I’ve definitely thought about too. Unfortunately, I never acted on it because I didn’t see better options.”
Probably neither should have even considered breaking up, especially because Zimonjic (mainly with Michael Llodra) did not win any Grand Slam titles after the split – while Nestor shared two French Opens with Mirnyi.
Financially, the reunited pairing certainly makes a lot of sense. In all of 2013, Nestor earned a total of $270,557 (U.S.) in official prize money. In less than five months in 2014, he’s up to $365,888.
Tennis TV commentator and former world No. 28 (2003) doubles player, Robbie Koenig, jokingly likes to call Nestor “recession-proof” for his consistency and longevity.
It’s hard to argue with that description.
FICHMAN FORMIDABLE IN FRANCE
Sharon Fichman won the biggest title of her career last Sunday, defeating Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland in the final of the $100,000 (US) Cagnes-sur-Mer Challenger on red clay.
Picturesque Cagnes-sur-Mer is located between Nice and Antibes on the Mediterranean in southeastern France.
Unseeded and struggling through three-set wins in her first two matches, Fichman got better as she went along, beating No. 179 Tamira Paszek of Austria 6-2, 6-0 in the quarter-finals and No. 151 Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-3, 6-1 in the semi-finals before scoring a 6-2, 6-2 victory over No. 142 Bacsinszky in the final.
The 23-year-old Fichman earned $15,200 for the win and 140 ranking points – taking her to a career high No. 79.
She finished 2013 at No. 106 and her rise up the rankings means she will get direct entry into the main draws at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in the coming months.
This week, Fichman is entered in the $50,000 Challenger in Saint-Gaudens, France. She is the No. 1 seed and will face Alberta Brianti of Italy in her opening match.
There was another Canadian success on the women’s circuit on Sunday as Heidi el Tabakh won the $25,000 ITF tournament in Raleigh, N.C. El Tabakh was seeded fifth and lost only one set in her five matches – capping off the week with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 8 seed Maria Sanchez of the U.S. in the final.
The victory should move the 27-year-old from Toronto into the top-200 when her winner’s points go onto the WTA rankings. Her career-high was No. 146 in 2012.
TWEETS THIS WEEK
Roger Federer posted this picture of himself with a painting of guess who? Agree or disagree, there’s something appealing about the informality of the portrait.
— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) May 10, 2014
Promising 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios of Australia practiced with Federer recently and posted this picture of him with the great Swiss.
On the subject of Federer, congrats to him and wife Mirka on the birth of a second set of identical twins – a one in 70,000 shot – named Leo and Lenny.
Here’s an amusing website post last week in reaction to the choice of names:
“Leo and Lenny? Those are honestly the names of my elderly Jewish great-uncles. They also sound like the names of a Borscht-belt comedy team…”
— Carol Zhao (@CarolZhao95) May 10, 2014
Carol Zhao is an 18-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., who is currently in her first year at Stanford University on a tennis scholarship.
This shows that Zhao’s instrument of choice isn’t always a tennis racquet.
The Toronto Raptors season ended nine days ago, but Milos Raonic wanted to pay tribute to hometown team by posting this picture last week.
— Frank (@myjomo) May 12, 2014
For Ana Ivanovic fans – enough said.
— Tennis Stats (@TennisStatistic) May 9, 2014
Bagel, shutout, whitewash…call them whatever you like. Here are the most memorable streaks of dominance/futility in the modern era of tennis.
Le 3e tour des qualifs de RG “vaudra” 13 000 Euros. Le différentiel entre battus du dernier tour et les 24 000 E du main draw. Ca va saigner
— Eric Salliot (@ericsalliot) May 7, 2014
French radio reporter Eric Salliot tweeted the above last week about the prize money for the 2014 French Open qualifying.
Translated it reads, “The third round qualies will be worth 13,000 Euros. The difference between being beaten in the last round of the qualies and the 24,000 Euros for the main draw. Blood will be spilled”
Converted into US dollars, 13,000 Euros is $17,888 and 24,000 Euros is $33,024.
Here’s the qualifying breakdown: players get 2,750 Euros ($3,780) for the first round, 5,500 ($7,560) for the second and 11,000 ($15,120) for the third.