French Open 2013: 8 Lessons Learned at Roland Garros
Each of the four tennis majors starts with plenty of questions and ends with at least tentative answers. Now that the 2013 French Open lies behind us, we can look back at the main lessons learned from the two weeks in Paris.
Some contenders sizzled, others fizzled and a handful of less familiar stars shone. After the chaos of the first week, the second week offered a series of more coherent narratives.
Nobody Can Stop Rafael Nadal on Clay
After he lost the first set in each of his first two matches, Rafael Nadal rebounded to lose just two more sets en route to the title. Both of those came in an epic semifinal against his leading rival, Novak Djokovic. Nadal rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the fifth set to avenge a loss when they met on clay earlier this year and repeat his victory over Djokovic in last year's final.
Nadal extended his dominance over David Ferrer in a routine final to win his eighth title at Roland Garros. He now has won more titles at this major than any other player has won at any major.
Just as impressive is Nadal's undefeated record at Roland Garros against the other members of the ATP Big Four: Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. Even at 27, his stranglehold on clay continues.
Serena Williams Knows How to Solve Her Worst Surface
For most of her career, Serena Williams had played her least effective tennis on red clay.
The 31-year-old American began to reverse that trend last year, and this year she went undefeated on the surface. Serena extended the longest winning streak of her career from titles in Miami, Charleston, Madrid and Rome to Paris.
Losing only one set in the tournament, the world No. 1 surrendered four or fewer games in five of her seven victories. Serena showed more discipline and crisper technique on clay than she ever has, perhaps helped by coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
She erased the memory of a first-round loss at Roland Garros last year and became the only active player to hold two or more titles at every major.
When Serena last won Roland Garros, she built on that momentum surge to record a "Serena Slam" in which she won all four major titles consecutively. Considering her dominance over her leading rivals, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, something similar could happen again if she stays healthy.
David Ferrer Deserves His Elite Status
The forgotten man of men's tennis, David Ferrer made sure that everyone remembered him in Paris. He had lost three semifinals over the previous four majors, but the fourth time proved the charm when he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets to reach the Roland Garros final.
At 31, Ferrer has played the best tennis of his career since the start of 2012. He did not even lose a set until the final, where he could not solve career-long nemesis Rafael Nadal. Defying his small physique, Ferrer used his outstanding court coverage and tenacity to grind down much more powerful players from Tsonga to Kevin Anderson.
Ferrer ends the tournament at world No. 4 (ahead of Nadal, strangely). That position will allow him to build on his recent success by avoiding most elite opponents until at least the semifinals.
Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka May Be the Women's Rivalry to Watch
Before this tournament, defending champion and world No. 2 Maria Sharapova had lost most of her key meetings last year with Australian Open champion and world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka.
But Sharapova snatched the momentum in this key rivalry by defeating Azarenka in a three-set semifinal.
Full of brilliant tennis and head-scratching tennis, their encounter featured plenty of momentum shifts. Sharapova weathered the turmoil more effectively, countering 11 double faults with 12 aces, the last on match point.
Reversing the outcome of their three-set semifinal at the U.S. Open, this match marked Sharapova's first victory over Azarenka at a major and first on an outdoor court since 2009. With two more majors to play in 2013, fans can look forward to more chapters of what could become the most intriguing rivalry in women's tennis.
A Career Grand Slam Lies Within Novak Djokovic's Reach
While he lost a round earlier than he did last year, Novak Djokovic came far closer to defeating his only real obstacle in Paris. He looked much sharper to start the tournament than in 2012 and carried that form to the brink of stopping Rafael Nadal in five sets.
Djokovic, who desperately wants to complete his collection of major titles, had looked overcome by the pressure of the moment when he faced Nadal in last year's Roland Garros final.
This year, he rose to the occasion and responded to adversity with resilience. Djokovic trailed by a set and a break, trailed by two sets to one, and trailed by a break three times in the fourth set, but he swept aside all of those deficits to claim an early lead in the fifth set.
Two service holds from an implausible comeback, nerves undermined Djokovic again and helped a desperate Nadal stay alive. The break of serve that he donated to the end the match also bore the imprint of tension.
With the benefit of hindsight, Djokovic will recognize that he made progress toward his greatest goal.
Rumors of Roger Federer's Decline May Be Accurate
After a vintage burst of form last summer, when he won Wimbledon and earned an Olympics silver medal, Roger Federer's fortunes have declined. The Swiss superstar has defeated just one top-10 opponent this year and reached just one final. Two routs by Rafael Nadal have accompanied more puzzling losses to Julien Benneteau and Kei Nishikori.
Federer thus brought little momentum to Roland Garros, but his draw offered him a comfortable route to the final. He would not have faced either Nadal or Novak Djokovic until then, while he never had lost to projected semifinal opponent David Ferrer.
As it turned out, Federer never had a chance to extend his perfect record against Ferrer. Although he displayed crisp form in the first week against second-rate opponents, he needed five sets to survive Gilles Simon in the fourth round.
That victory preserved Federer's streak of 36 straight major quarterfinals, but he fell meekly to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a round later.
The wasted opportunity fueled growing murmurs of an irreversible decline.
Sara Errani Is Here to Stay
Following in the footsteps of 2010 Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone, fellow Italian Sara Errani stunned the tennis world by reaching the 2012 final. Most observers considered her achievement a fluke, noting her lack of weapons other than a diabolical drop shot.
But that lack of firepower, including a notoriously vulnerable serve, has not stopped Errani from consolidating her status at the top.
She has reached the top five in singles while holding the world No. 1 ranking in doubles, and her semifinal at Roland Garros 2013 marked her third at the last five majors.
Errani also registered her first career victory over a member of the top five at this tournament. She won a tight two-setter from world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, relying on her superior surface skills. With the exception of grass, though, Errani has become a contender for all seasons and seems determined to stay that way.
Bob and Mike Bryan Could Achieve Historic Feat
The most accomplished team in doubles history, Bob and Mike Bryan hold virtually every record worth holding. They have won every major and every Masters 1000 tournament, and they have won more majors and more total tournaments than anyone before them.
That said, the Bryans never have achieved a calendar Grand Slam, the feat of winning all four majors in the same year. Among men's singles players, only Rod Laver has won a calendar Grand Slam, and no doubles team has equaled him.
But the Bryans now have a real chance to carve an even more special place in history. After winning their sixth Australian Open title in January, they secured the most elusive major at Roland Garros last weekend. Their second title there did not come easily, for they needed a final-set tiebreak to outlast a French team of Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut.
Winning the last five points to rally from a 4-2 deficit in that tiebreak, the Bryans positioned themselves for a very intriguing Wimbledon fortnight.