Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams entered Madrid and Rome as the favorites and exited both locales with the same tag headed into Roland Garros: they won the Italian Open titles on Sunday by identical scores: 6-1 6-3, Williams beginning the day by zoning on Victoria Azarenka, and Nadal ending the day by doing much the same against Roger Federer.
However, while Nadal is more or less a substantial favorite to win his eight crown at Roland Garros, Serena is not to win her second: the Spaniard has proven time and time again that he can handle anyone (including No. 1 Novak Djokovic last year, who is the only man of the planet who looks capable of stopping him) and anything that is thrown his way, including the enigmatic crowds in Paris, but Serena has not since she won the title in 2002.
Williams has had some impressive wins there, but since her extremely emotional three-set defeat to Ms. Henin in the Hand of Justine match in 2003, she’s been all over the map in Paris. She has taken three other close three sets losses that at other Slams may not have occurred: to Jennifer Capriati, to Svetlana Kuznetsova and to Sam Stosur. And then there were the two odd and unexpected shockers to lesser players such as Katarina Srebotnik and then last year, her first round loss ever at a major to Virginia Razzano, which she admitted was a total choke.
As she showed against Azarenka on similar red clay to that of Paris, Serena clearly has the game to win the French again. Over the past year, she’s clearly been the best player on tour when healthy, and to some degree, even when she wasn’t. Her serve is clicking, she is reflexing returns winners to all angles of the court, moving very well and for the most part staying steady and eventually lethal off the ground. But she has said time and time again that she doesn’t understand why the French crowds don’t take to her, especially because she has owned an apartment in Paris for at least three years.
But this time around she have a not so secret weapon in her corner: coach Patrick Mouratoglou, a Frenchman who has done terrific work with her over the past year and should be able to help her mentally negotiate why the Parisian fans act in certain ways. This is Mouratoglou’s biggest test to date as he started coaching her right after her loss to Razzano last year and this is the first time Serena has played in Paris under his watch.
Azarenka actually played fairly well on Sunday, but her serve let her down and as good as she is on hard courts and as impressive as she was in Rome overall, she is just not as effective sliding into her groundstrokes as she is when planting her feet. But at the very least, she made herself a top 5 contender in Paris with Serena, Maria Sharapova, Li Na and Sara Errani. In my book, Ana Ivanovic has now dropped down to the No. 6 contender.
“She is playing incredible tennis and is playing at her best level for a year and a half and next week, I don’t know and today she played better than me in some moments but I am excited about the next matches.” Azarenka said of Serena.
When it comes to playing fairly well in a defeat, the same could not be said of Federer except for maybe five games of his defeat. Nadal once again overwhelmed him outdoors on a slower surface, hammering forehands into Federer’s one-handed backhand, serving accurately (and not just at the Swiss’ backhand, which allows him to be more effective with his twisting lefty serve) and taking big cuts with his groundstrokes, which resulted in high hopping balls that are very difficult to punish. He’s now 20-10 against Federer, a statistic that could eventually weight very heavily as to who the greatest player ever is. For now that man is Federer with his 17 Slams, but Nadal and his 11 Slams plus his impressive resume against his rival could eventually be the guy, should his chronically sore knees hold up.
“I didn’t play offensive and then he puts me far back with the ball and so you have to use your opportunities and he does an incredible job returning from the back of the court,” Federer said. “It is hard to do because he covers the court so well and you need to serve accurate and then he battles on the baseline. This is when Rafa is at his best and so he created opportunities within the rally.”
The USTA and ESPN struck a massive deal that will give the cable giant 11 years of TV rights to the US Open. CBS is out. Here’s my piece. Rafael Nadal and Ernest Gulbis exchanged some words. Aga Radwanska’s shoulder hurts and she pulled out of Brussels. She’s worried about RG and Wimbledon too. Juan Martin Del Potro has flown back to Argentina to try and get physically right prior to the French but may not be able to. In the upcoming issue of Tennis-Journal, Sharapova’s former coach Michael Joyce discusses why she can’t beat Serena. Maria also talks to me about the affect that off-court relationships can have on court. I also break down Nadal and Djokovic stroke for stroke on clay and how one can beat the other.