This article first appeared in Languedoc Living, June 2017
So, the clay court season has finished, culminating, as always, in Roland Garros, the French Open. I’m always rather sad when the French finishes. Gruelling rallies on the dusty clay, in the heat, over the best of five sets are exciting to watch. Wimbledon seems almost dainty in comparison.
The men’s singles produced a couple of real crackers, Andy Murray vs Juan del Potro in the quarters and Murray, again, vs Stan Wawrinka in the semis. The Scot had his chances to get to the final but ‘Stan the Man’ wore him down with ferocious ground strokes – the man is built like a barrel. Murray had beaten the other thumper in the previous round and must have been exhausted by the barrage to which the two men had subjected him. To say Del Potro hits the ball hard is an understatement. His forehand is so heavy it sounds like a rifle crack every time the ball leaves his racket, and to see a match with one of the best attackers against an incredible defender was a tasty spectacle. It’s so unfortunate for ‘Delpo’ that he’s been plagued by injury throughout his career, needing three surgeries on one wrist alone. He would have been a wonderful role model as a serial Grand Slam champion.
But, other than those two matches, I can’t say I was really gripped by the men’s singles. The final was a pretty sad and one-sided affair, Wawrinka clearly exhausted after his semi, and just the thought of attempting to get anywhere against the Nadal machine must have made his heart sink.
As is so frequently the case, the French men didn’t go particularly deep in the tournament. Lucas Pouille, the relative newcomer and no 17 seed, was injured against Albert Ramos and lost in five sets early on in the tournament. I love Pouille . He has the same twinkle in his eye as Del Potro. I hope he goes far in his career.
Monfils, though, got to the fourth round, thanks to Gasquet pulling out injured in their third round encounter and, although his next match against Wawrinka was initially close, the Frenchman got nervous and double-faulted at a crucial point, giving away the first set. The second set was also tight but Wawrinka came through and then ran away with the third. As for Tsonga, although he lost in a five-setter against Verdasco, he looked a lot more positive than at last year’s event. But I can’t see him ever winning a Grand Slam.
Rafael Nadal breezed through the tournament, winning for an extraordinary tenth time, slaughtering everyone on the way. There were hopes that Dominic Thiem would have a chance (he beat Nadal in a three-setter on the clay recently), but no way. There is a huge difference between beating the Spaniard on the Roman clay over the best of three sets and having any hope at Roland Garros. Best of five at Rafa’s favourite event proved to be an impossible task.
The women players – big news
But the big news for the French was the performance of their women players. For the first time since 1994, they had three into the round of sixteen: Kristina Mladenovic, Caroline Garcia and Alizé Cornet.
Mladenovic beat Garbiñe Muguruza, last year’s champion, to get to the quarters. You had to feel sorry for Muguruza. The French crowd, often so brutal, were baying for blood – she left the court at the end waggling her fingers at them (for which she was booed again) and ended up in tears at the press conference, which was probably more to do with the way she was treated than with losing the match. Muguruza, who sports a heart-shaped string dampener in her racket, was herself, clearly heart-broken.
Mladenovic went on to play Timea Bacsinszky in the quarters in a rain-delayed and incredibly windy match with both players frequently rubbing the clay dust from their eyes, endlessly catching service ball tosses. At least the umpire was sensible enough not to call them out on time delays. The Frenchwoman had her chances but lost her serve from 40-0 up at 2-2 and lost a crucial game at 4-4 in the first set. She was also 3-1 up in the second but the pressure seemed to get to her, on the verge of tears and seemingly emotionally exhausted in the last couple of games. She was probably also physically exhausted by marathon previous rounds. She was 0-3 down in the deciding set against the American, Jennifer Brady, and managed to claw the match back to win 9-7. In the third round, she was 2-5 down in the final set to Shelby Rogers and won 8-6. Pretty amazing achievements.
Caroline Garcia and Alizé Cornet met in a fourth round encounter and things were by now getting juicy on the gossip front. Commentator Chris Evert declared Cornet to be a bit of a drama queen, known to cry on court. As for Garcia, well it seemed that none of her compatriots liked or trusted her much. Apart from dumping Mladenovic, her doubles partner, in apparently brutal fashion, she pulled out of the Federation Cup team event, citing injury, which resulted in some pretty unpleasant and disbelieving tweets from the other teammates. “LOL” they each wrote. Short and to the point. So much for team spirit. But when Cornet lost, she was surprisingly warm at the end, shaking hands, kissing on both cheeks, smiling and laughing. They had clearly made up. If the crowd had wanted a fisticuffs they were disappointed.
Garcia lost to the second seeded Czech player, Karolina Pliskova, in the following round.
Without the presence of Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, the women’s event was wide open. Not a single quarterfinalist had been a Grand Slam Champion. Williams was pregnant and Sharapova was refused a wild card which, thankfully, meant we didn’t have to put up with her screaming every time she played a shot. The French Federation’s stance was that if ‘Shriekapova’ had been out through injury they would have considered giving her one but she has been absent due to a drug offence, which they viewed differently. It was a brave decision. I suspect the sponsors weren’t happy.
The big news of the Women’s tournament was, of course, Jelena Ostapenko (pictured) bleating Simona Halep in three close sets in the final, the first Latvian to win a Grand Slam singles title. In her junior days, Ostapenko had to make the choice between ballroom dancing and tennis. I expect she was pleased she chose the latter. She belts it. Apparently, her forehand is faster than Andy Murray’s (I wonder how he feels about that) and she appears to be fearless. She had turned 20 just a couple of days prior to the final and, incredibly, this was her first tour-level singles title. She is seen to be the face of the future by many of the experts. We’ll see if she remains fearless.
One thing that’s been the talk of the clay court season is the lack of Hawkeye, the electronic device used for determining close calls at other major tournaments. Some say it’s because the clay dust would interfere with its workings, others that the organisers think it too expensive to operate (which sounds a bit odd, considering the status of this event). Umpires are expected to leave their chairs without looking down so they don’t lose sight of the mark, a bit like keeping one’s eye on a man overboard. One umpire did indeed fall over while attempting this feat. When replays are shown on the t.v. (where, strangely, Hawkeye does operate) it transpires that they frequently get the wrong mark, much to the fury of the players making the challenge. One of the umpires even had to call a linesman over to show him the right mark, not exactly confidence-inspiring.
So, farewell to the clay courts and onto the grass court season.
The women’s event at Wimbledon, again without Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, promises to be fascinating. Sharapova decided not to request a wild card, saying she would be happy to play qualifying. In the event, she pulled out with an injury. It would have been interesting to see her at the qualifying event at Roehampton, in an intimate atmosphere, spectators sitting in deckchairs or on the grass banks, chomping on their picnics. As Andy Murray said, would such a small event have been able to cope with the pressure of all the people desperate to see her play? Incidentally, the qualifying tournament is tremendous. A mere £5.00 entrance fee will get you in to see great players close up, desperate to win three rounds to get into the main draw. Those precious ranking points, prize money (considerable, even for first round losers) and all the privileges of playing in the Championship proper are gold dust to those who grind their way round the minor circuit the rest of the year. It makes for an exciting atmosphere.
As for the French at Wimbledon, it should be interesting. Let’s see if they’ve been inspired by their Roland Garros performances.
Katrina Allen is a former Junior Wimbledon and senior tournament player. She also played real tennis, the original form of the game, at top level.