A: 

Nadal:  Carrying a 22-match winning streak into the grass season, Nadal unsurprisingly awakened on the surface where he first burst onto the tennis stage.  His emphatic win over Soderling in the final should have dramatically boosted his confidence for the coming weeks, where he will be considered the Wimbledon co-favorite with Federer.  After months of awkwardly searching for himself, Rafa once again approaches key moments with the calm purposefulness and unflinching resolve that have won him seven majors.  We expect him to start reversing his recent struggles against top-10 opponents as the summer unfolds and to retain the #1 ranking at least until the fall.

Schiavone:  Recently serving heaping helpings of agony, the WTA delivered a sudden jolt of ecstasy with Schiavone’s delirious writhe on the clay after her last three victories.  Unlike the vast majority of first-time Slam finalists, the charismatic Italian rose spectacularly to the occasion with one of the finest performances in her storied career.  Her title probably represents more of an ending than a beginning, more of a dome than a foundation, as far as she is concerned; nevertheless, her implausible fortnight might infuse other unsung heroines with the belief that they could follow in her footsteps.  Contemplating her win, our thoughts turned towards the epithet “one-Slam wonder” often applied with contempt to these lightning-in-a-bottle champions.  Schiavone almost certainly will head into history as a one-Slam wonder, but this feisty overachiever won’t care a bit.  Neither should anyone else.

Stosur:  Until the final Sunday, the Australian’s tournament couldn’t have been much more spectacular, built as it was upon the bones of Henin, Serena, and Jankovic—the three leading contenders entering Roland Garros.  Sam alternately outdueled her competition in tense thrillers (Henin, Serena) and pulverized it in overwhelming fashion (Jankovic), demonstrating excellent focus, composure, and intelligence throughout the fortnight.  Even under extreme pressure against Serena after temporarily snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, she displayed trademark Aussie fortitude by refusing to fold as would so many of her peers.  Stosur should remember this French Open for what she did rather than what she didn’t do, for one senses that she’ll find herself in position to win Slams on multiple occasions in the future.

Soderling:  For the second consecutive year, he toppled the defending champion and world #1 at the French Open, a feat that merits top marks itself.  Just as stunning as his brutal forehand was his bulletproof self-belief in that quarterfinal, after which he celebrated his win with the calm demeanor of someone who expected to win from the beginning.  Perhaps we should dub him the “king-maker” for transferring the top ranking from Federer to Nadal as he did from Nadal to Federer a year ago; the Swede now joins Del Potro as the only active player to defeat both of the top two at majors.  Weary from a rollercoaster five-set semi against Berdych, Soderling couldn’t produce his finest tennis in the championship match, but nobody wants to see him in their section of any draw.  We highly doubt that he’ll ever gain the #1 ranking, as his compatriot Borg suggested, but he’ll continue to electrify spectators and terrify opponents with inspired surges when one least expects them.

Berdych:  Although the relentless Swede battered him into submission towards the end of their semifinal, Berdych consolidated his hard-court breakthrough with his first career Slam semifinal.  Winning his first five encounters without dropping a set, the Czech ball-bruiser obliterated Isner, Murray, and Youzhny on the surface that least suits his style.  Combined with the familiarly crushing serve and explosive forehand was his infinitely improved focus and increasingly positive body language.  (Berdych seems to be learning that one needs to look like a winner in order to be a winner.)   If he can capitalize upon this momentum during the summer, he’ll be an extremely dangerous dark horse on the fast hard courts in New York.

A-:

Melzer:  Schiavone wasn’t the only 29-year-old to create headlines here.  After 11 third-round losses in majors, this Austrian broke the curse against Ferrer before rallying from a two-set deficit against Djokovic in the quarters.  Similar to Schiavone’s run, Melzer’s charge to the final four probably doesn’t portend his sudden emergence as a contender.  But props to him for refusing to surrender against the Serb and for finding his high-stakes game at crucial stages in his matches, creating moments that will warm his memories through many Austrian winters.

Dementieva:  Including a fourth round with a South African qualifier, her draw wasn’t especially intimidating.  Nevertheless, we tip our cap to the Russian for overcoming a serious leg injury to grind her way into the semis.  After three second-round losses in her last four majors, this run should enhance Dementieva’s confidence for the next tournaments after she recovers.

Petrova:  Before an injury crippled her against Dementieva in the quarters, the former Roland Garros semifinalist finally found a way to win a close match against a talented player in her third-round marathon victory over Rezai.  Moreover, she summoned her best tennis when it mattered most in her minor upset of Venus a round later.  Combined with her Australian Open quarterfinal, this fortnight suggests a Petrova revival in 2010.

Sharapova vs. Henin:  It seemed an open-and-shut case after the routine first set, but Maria scratched and clawed her way to snapping the Belgian’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her match winning streak in serious jeopardy a day later, it was Justine’s turn to scratch and claw to one of the most impressive wins of her comeback.  Like the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid last year, the encounter’s exhausting intensity effectively eliminated both of its participants, for an emotionally spent Henin ran out of fuel against Stosur less than 24 hours later.  During the second and third sets of Henin-Sharapova, though, spectators were treated to exhilarating shotmaking, improbable retrieving, and a Nadal-like level of competitive determination.  Here’s hoping for a sequel…but later in the draw.

B+:

Number 1s :  Downed in the quarterfinals within a day of each other, Federer and Serena didn’t crash out spectacularly yet faltered at their first serious opposition.   We weren’t convinced that either would move halfway to the calendar Slam here when the tournament started.  Nevertheless, Serena put herself in excellent position to close out Stosur, while Federer brought a 12-0 record into his clash with Soderling.  We expect both Wimbledon defending champions to rebound resoundingly when they return to the grass, but this week was certainly not their finest hour. On the other hand, neither of their nemeses was exactly unheralded.

Shvedova:  Like Dementieva, she exploited a friendly section of the draw that included nobody more intimidating than Radwanska.  We give her modest props, however, for upsetting the Pole as well as the resilient Kleybanova en route to her first career Slam quarterfinal.  It might not be the last time that the hard-hitting Kazakh reaches the final eight at a major.

Almagro:  Extending his momentum surge from a Madrid semifinal run, he narrowly escaped a first-round five-setter but found his game in time to thump a fatigued Verdasco in the fourth round.  More impressive than any of his wins was his highly competitive loss to Nadal, during which he came closer than anyone in the tournament to winning a set from Rafa.  Even after losing the first-set tiebreak, he doggedly nipped at his more famous compatriot’s heels until a second-set tiebreak.  Even after losing that tiebreak, he played with conviction deep into the third set, demonstrating much greater belief that we’re accustomed to seeing from him.

Wozniacki:  Although one might not think a quarterfinal drubbing by Schiavone worthy of a B+, we appreciated the third seed’s gritty three-hour win over the clay-loving Pennetta in the preceding round despite a major ankle injury.  When she returns to full strength, the iron-willed Wozniacki will start threatening for Slams again.

B:

Djokovic:  The good news was that he overcame his breathing issues to reach the quarterfinals, a little better than we anticipated.  The bad news was that he squandered a two-set-and-break lead against Melzer after having firmly controlled that match.  Can one imagine Federer or Nadal doing the same?  And his previous opponents were much less than formidable, ranging from the sluggish Hanescu to the fading Ginepri.  In order to preserve his position among the top four, Djokovic needs to find the motivation that he has lacked for most of 2010; it probably won’t happen until the hard courts, though.

Jankovic:  Gifted with a superb opportunity to grab that elusive first Slam before her window of opportunity closes, JJ did exactly as we had predicted in our French Open preview and found a dismal way to waste her chance.  En route to the semis, she defeated nobody more fearsome than Hantuchova, so she should have entered her match with Stosur rested and eager to capitalize on her good fortune.  Without any visible physical injury, her performance there was unacceptable for an elite contender:  nine winners, 22 unforced errors, three total games won.  Why can’t the steely competitor who outdueled Serena in a Rome semifinal bring that intensity to Slams?

Venus:  We didn’t mind the outfit as much as some other observers did; in the fashion world, one needs to take chances sometimes.  In the distinctly weaker half of the draw, however, she failed to exploit the momentum boost from reaching the Madrid final and offered little resistance to Petrova.  The elder Williams oscillates wildly between excellent and ghastly in the latter stages of her career and seems unable to escape a bad day against any reasonably capable adversary.

Verdasco:  After slogging through an erratic five-setter against Kohlschreiber, Verdasco gulped down two breadsticks courtesy of Almagro.  The result wasn’t overly surprising considering his overloaded pre-Roland Garros schedule, and hopefully he’ll learn a valuable lesson from the fatigue that he felt in Paris.

Murray:  Never a leading contender on clay, the Scot still landed in a remarkably comfortable section of the draw and plausibly could have reached the semis.  A fourth-round showing was far from a disaster considering his recent debacles, but it was somewhat disappointing to see him find no more answers for Berdych than he did for Cilic in a similar situation at last year’s US Open.

B-:

Ivanovic:  She escapes a C because she was unseeded and because of her past struggles against Kleybanova, who always will prove a difficult opponent for Ana.  All the same, the stylish Serb needs a strong result soon before Rome fades too far into the rear-view mirror.  Only her forehand is clicking for her at the moment, and rarely can a player win with just one great shot.  Over the summer hard-court season, we should gain a better sense of whether Ivanovic can rediscover her serve or reinvent her backhand, either of which would lift her back to respectability. 

Safina / Kuznetsova:  Even allowing for a comeback from a debilitating injury, last year’s finalist shouldn’t have coughed up a double-break lead in the first set against a 39-year-old who could barely move at times, nor should she have donated four quick, ugly unforced errors in the final game.  Spared only temporarily by a rare choke from Petkovic, the defending champion continued her dismal 2010 with a ninth consecutive pre-quarterfinal defeat.  We don’t expect anything inspired from either player on the grass but will be curious to see whether they can rebound by the US Open.

Roddick:  Admittedly, he’s no contender for the title and normally would have been fortunate to reach the second week.  Yet the irritable, defeatist attitude with which he approached a match against a Russian qualifier ranked outside the top 100 was unworthy of the sterling competitor who tested Federer so forcefully at Wimbledon last year.  That said, we’d be surprised to see him lose before the semis at the All England Club.

Isner:  When you serve from the top of the Eiffel Tower, there’s no reason to be broken in more than half of your service games, regardless of the surface.  On the other hand, he didn’t embarrass himself in the press conference as did his erstwhile doubles partner Querrey.  Like Roddick, Isner should rebound on the grass and become a dangerous sleeper in the Wimbledon draw.

C:

The French:  With Murray all but on the Eurostar to London, Gasquet relinquished a two-sets-and-break lead for the second time against the Scot.  Monfils continued the trend in the next round by flinging away an equally substantial lead against Fognini.  A round later, Madrid champion Rezai let three match points slip away against Petrova.  The final seaman on this sinking ship, Tsonga fell prey to an injury in his fourth round against Youzhny, providing a fitting anticlimax to his nation’s rather predictable train wreck in its home Slam.

Ferrer:  You lose only to Nadal and Federer at the three Masters 1000 events, and then you lose in straight sets to a player who had been 0-11 in Slam third rounds?  Including a second-set bagel? 

Azarenka:  We were planning to write off her listless 1-and-2 opening loss to Dulko as the product of a lingering hamstring injury…until her coach mentioned that the injury wasn’t bothering her.  Oops.

***

In addition to the triumphs, tragedies, and tragicomedies, there were a pair of notable unfinished narratives.  After their twin breakthroughs in Rome, Gulbis and Martinez Sanchez suffered leg and neck injuries in the first round that prevented them from capitalizing upon their recent momentum.  We send best wishes to both of them for a speedy recovery. 

Beginning just a day after the French Open final, the brief grass season contains many intriguing plotlines to ponder.  We’ll return to discuss five of them later this week as well as composing a Stosur player profile, but now it’s time to wave a fond farewell to the clay season…

Advertisements