The French Open 2011, the culmination to this year’s clay season, has finally come to an end. What ought we to make of the last fortnight?
Its been a wild and groundbreaking week in the world of tennis—the powerhouses shocked, challenged, or even dethroned. Streaks have been made, improbable runs come to fruition, while others have been snapped or brought to a surprising close.
As has been the trend in Paris in the last few years, the usual suspects did their usual thing, while the real shockers and stunners came in the earlier rounds. But it is about the greats, and those who lead the way in this fine sport, that we came to learn much.
So then—what exactly did this French Open teach us? Here are 10.
Call it bad luck, or simply the consequence of facing someone who is just that much better than you, but Juan Martin Del Potro’s defeat in the third round revealed something of his prospects for the rest of this year.
He had done well at this tournament in the past, coming close to reaching the final in 2009. But against Novak Djokovic in the third round, he found himself outmatched, consigned ultimately to becoming just another anonymous victim along the Serb’s forty-something match winning streak.
The score, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 wouldnt have been all that disappointing, but only suggested much room for expansion for the Argentine for the rest of 2011.
These words are true for the most part when the Belgian, and current world number two, is playing her finest tennis, but they also proved true in another dismal defeat in the early rounds of a grand slam.
Whether her 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 defeat to Arantxa Rus was worse than her 6-0, 6-1 bailing out to Petrova at the Australian Open last year is debatable. Perhaps it isn’t. But squandering two match points that could have seen her in the third round is an unusual way for a player of her calibre to have lost so early in a slam.
Tennis, after all, is a mysterious sport. So is Kim Clijsters.
Roland Garros has always been the hotbed for French tennis stars—this awesome, blood-red proving ground for the nation’s next greatest tennis thing. It proved so in 1984, when Yannick Noah raced to the title as the last French winner.
This year, the local favourites got closer—there were three French men in the fourth round (Gasquet, Monfils, Simon), while Marion Bartoli, that 21st century Monica Seles, made her way to the women’s semifinals.
But there their runs ended, with Monfils stopped by Roger Federer, and Bartoli by the wily Francesca Schiavone. It was an improvement in recent years for the French, but some way they have yet to go before they find a champion.
Big questions always surround the slams, and this one was always going to be one of the biggest.
Many had surmised that Wozniacki, who for very long has sought to legitimise her position atop the rankings, would finally clinch that maiden, silencing her title at Roland Garros, where the slow clay suits her counterpunching style.
Instead, she was bounded out by Daniela Hantuchova—no small talent herself—in straight sets, 6-1 6-3. A mere four games for the world number one? It would have been a thrashing by any other standards.
Wozniacki’s trials at the slams continue, and her performance here would certainly have left more intrigued than disappointed.
What do you do when you face the same guy at the same tournament for a third time in a row? Hope that that 1-1 record in the last two years bodes something good for you.
For Robin Soderling, two-time former finalist at Roland Garros, it didn’t.
There have scarcely been multiple losing finalists here at Paris (Roger Federer kept that record alive), and Soderling was hoping that he might yet uphold that reputation, as he sought to avenge his losses in the finals in 2009 and 2010.
This year, however, he bumped into Rafael Nadal, a guy he had stunned in victory in 2009, but lost to in straights in last year’s final.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he found himself very much on the losing end of that encounter, a 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 whipping by Nadal.
Will the Swede ever become the first since Borg and Wilander to lift the Court des Mousquetaires? Perhaps, but it wasn’t ever going to happen this year.
An 11 match winning streak, put together in the right order, would sometimes mean a grand slam victory is involved. Unfortunately for Maria Sharapova, it only saw her lose in straight sets in a French Open semi.
She was seeking to reach her first final, and in many ways this week had seemed destined as her time come. She was playing great, serving great, and overall having that greatness of posture we had become accustomed to seeing.
Her loss to Li Na, off a double fault at match point, will be a moment for much thought; but her run to the semis, as improbable as it was, shouldn’t be.
For the first time in a long time, she played freely and naturally, exhibiting that sort of Sharapova self-confidence over much of the tournament, having come in off a maiden clay court title at Rome.
This will have been a disappointment, no doubt—but Maria Sharapova is back.
Coming in off a 38 match winning streak, the biggest question on the men’s side entering the French Open concerned Novak Djokovic: Will he ever lose this year?
It seemed unlikely, as the Serb progressed smoothly through the first four rounds, and, just within reach of John McEnroe’s record 42 season-starting consecutive wins, he was given a walkover against Fabio Fognini, only to face Roger Federer in the semifinals.
Djokovic was invincible up to this point in 2011; but by that dubious gift of extra rest the tennis gods inadvertently spelled the end to the Serb’s seeming spectacular run.
So it turned out, as Roger Federer unleashed one of his all-time greatest performances to down the Serb in four sets, 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. The mighty Swiss, who had long been invincible himself, for a day lived up to that bygone reputation, and brought the Serb back to earth.
The streak is over, and it stops at 43 – 41 for 2011. It is by far the greatest run of recent years, but has been tinged, all too painfully, by that odious thing, mortality.
You are nearing thirty, and yet find yourself in a grand slam semifinal without having dropped so much as a set, and proceed that night to pull off one of your career-best wins against the man of the moment, the world no. 2 Novak Djokovic.
Who else could you be? None but Roger Federer, of course.
While losing in the final to Rafael Nadal, Federer only revealed yet another twist to his already extraordinary career.
His was not the exhausting run to a slam final—rather, it was a return to his days of glory, when sets were lost were as rare as shanked forehands. Roger Federer, most improbably, turned time on its head.
His gruelling, vicious struggle in the final, too, which saw Nadal pushed to his limits, to earn a 7-5, 7-6, 5-7 6-1 should say more than the obvious. Yes, he lost another final to Nadal here at Paris—that's the old news.
The real news, is that Federer might just be back here to do it again next year.
Surprises often come in the biggest moments, and Li Na proved our wild card dark horse champion at this year French Open.
A finalist at this year’s Australian Open, few would have believed that her hard hitting, albeit never too spectacular baseline game would have proved French Open-winning. It nonetheless did, as she fairly routed Francesca Shiavone to win her maiden major, 6-4, 7-6 (0).
Whatever this might say about the relative stasis within the women’s game nowadays, it spoke volumes about the world. China, the West’s long upcoming rival, had finally made that decisive inroad in the sport of tennis.
Asia, at last, after years of hard work, has finally earned its first grand slam champion. The world now awaits the next few years, to see if anyone comparable to Li appears on the ATP circuit.
Sometimes, things just don’t ever change in tennis, and what we seek to find of an instructive or particularly illuminating nature in a Grand Slam tournament is often that which we have already come to know so often in the past.
The same thing happened this year. Rafael Nadal clinched a record equalling sixth French Open title, and sealed his name, in probably the books of many, as the greatest clay court player who ever lived.
A sixth only equals Borg, some may say—but it isn’t just the numbers that count this time. This year, Nadal faced genuine threats at his most successful grand slam, having to fend off an impetuous John Isner in the first round, and a spate of anxious errors over the next few rounds.
Then, he arrived in Paris. He stormed past Robin Soderling, his nemesis here, and drowned Andy Murray, before playing some of his best tennis against, in his own estimation, the ‘best player in history’, Roger Federer.
It was an incredible four-set encounter, that left himself, by the end of it, untouchable. Federer threw just about everything at him, and still came out second best. Nadal, the greatest player in history on clay, faced off against the greatest player in history, and fairly outclassed him in the end.
This sixth win will be one for him to savour for the rest of his career. It was his most difficult, and for it, most memorable and glorious victory yet.