From the beginning of the fifteen days (which, by the way, why the other majors don’t do this is crazy… it’s an excellent way for fans to get to see some of their favorite players play during a weekend and the organizers get a extra day of ticket receipts), the world was simply awaiting the inevitable. Yes, some people were thinking that Rafael Nadal might be able to summon his young bull persona and storm his way to a nearly-inconceivable tenth title on the red clay, but for the vast majority, the two weeks were simply a waiting game for Novak Djokovic to complete the career slam. And on Sunday at the start of the match, it certainly felt like this was a coronation for the Serb. But things didn’t go that way as Stan Wawrinka blasted every stroke with ruthless efficiency and brutal power. Djokovic has certainly seen this before in Melbourne, but his tactics on this day felt like he assumed Wawrinka would either flare out in a barrage of unforced errors or that Novak’s own excellent defense would be able to blunt the Swiss’s power strokes. Instead, Djokovic gave up way too much space on the court, allowing Wawrinka to craft angles as points wore on and failing to put any pressure on Wawrinka with Djokovic’s own power. Instead, Novak decided the best strategy was to employ the dropshot repeatedly, which worked to mixed results. Whatever it was, it seemed that Djokovic came into the final with a flawed gameplan and seemed to refuse to budge from it as he looked more like 2015 Nadal than 2015 Djokovic.
Really though, credit goes to Wawrinka, who pulled off 60 winners in taking home his second major title. He’s now up to 4 in the world and looks to have the kind of brash playstyle that is honestly not seen on the men’s tour but can actually be found more prevalent on the WTA. Stan and his coach Magnus Norman knew that Wawrinka couldn’t be lulled into long rallies, as Djokovic’s defense this year has simply been on another level in defending the kind of homogenized play that has pervaded the ATP tour. Instead, the Swiss took it to Djokovic and made sure he was the one dictating play and ending points, either with a winner or an error. I’m sure not much was expected of Wawrinka at the French Open given his unspectacular season and turmoil in his personal life, but he rose to a different level during the French Open and got rewarded for his go-for-broke game in the final.
Everyone expected the Djokovic-Nadal quarterfinal to be a clash of titans or the “Match of the Century” (of the Year). Instead, we should have seen it coming that it would turn out to be a dud. Sure, people were hyping up that Nadal had regained his form and found the salve that fixed his broken-down game during the first week in Paris, but if you look back at his draw, he didn’t play anyone of note. A wildcard in the first round. A still-recovering Almagro in the second. Journeyman Russian in the third. In the fourth round, Nadal finally met someone who might be considered difficult, facing the 37th-ranked Jack Sock, and Nadal dropped a tight set to him. It’s awful to say, but Nadal’s great form was a mirage as he got demolished by Djokovic in straight sets, even looking resigned and defeated in the final set. Rafa isn’t done—he’s got all summer to rebound—but now at number 10 in the world, he’s never looked more vulnerable.
Never mind the fact he fell to the eventual champion, but you get the sense that the days of Roger Federer winning majors by virtue of his own play are over. His game always had blips of subpar play, but when he was the dominant force on the tour, he’d quickly right the ship and win the match, but in the last few years, those blips have turned into prolonged periods during a match where he appears to be incapable of turning it around. Against Wawrinka he looked helpless as he watched some shots zoom past, and those he could get a racquet on, he couldn’t control with the same precision we’ve seen before from him. Big hitting is starting to overwhelm him in these best-of-five matches. He can still win majors—when you’re the world number two, it means you can win a lot of matches after all—but a startling fact: it’s now been 11 majors since Roger Federer lifted the winner’s trophy at a major.
Can we please stop the following? Questioning Amelie Mauresmo as Andy Murray’s coach. It’s 2015 for crying out loud. Mauresmo is a two-time major champion and has helped Murray’s game since her hire. To act as though Amelie can’t help Andy’s game is not only daft but quite sexist. Mauresmo’s game when she was on the WTA tour was a combination of jockish and graceful skills with abilities to fly around the court, slice the ball from both sides, and serve and volley. With the men’s tour being played ever-more with a cookie-cutter style, those kinds of tweaks to Andy Murray’s game can go along way. Let’s also stop expecting anything from the current generation of American men. No offense to John Isner and Sam Querrey, who are nice people, but they simply lack what it takes to win on the tour these days. Isner’s got one of the biggest serves on the tour… but that’s about it. His return game fails to put fear in opponents, and his contentment to prolong matches gives other players rhythm. Querrey has a prototypical American game with a huge forehand and serve, but in recent years his demeanor on court looks like someone who’s simply showing up.
However, it’s fair to get somewhat excited about the next generation of Americans on both tours. We’ve already seen the women show up with players like Madison Keys earlier this year and Sloane Stephens probably being the closest to knocking off Serena Williams at this event. Jack Sock broke through and reached the second week of a major for the first time and looks like a confident player with a wicked forehand and excellent touch. But the juniors featured a number of successful Americans, including three in the boys’ semifinals (with an all-American final, the second time in the last four majors that’s happened), two girls in the quarterfinals of the singles, and all-American doubles teams reaching the finals of both the boys and girls events. Yes, the juniors are not the same as the regular tour as there are stories of top juniors failing to accomplish anything on the pro circuit. And yes, we shouldn’t expect anything from these players for years as they still need to mature to handle the body blows they’re going to experience on the main circuit. But the last couple years have shown that the next decade could be littered with top talent from the United States.
Over the course of the fifteen days, we watched time and time again as the world’s best female player got put on upset alert. In her seven matches, she only won two of them in straight sets, and she dropped the first set in four of those five three-set matches. Some of the difficulty was unexplainable—normally Serena would have no difficulty against a player like Anna-Lena Friedsam—but in other matches she was playing quality competition. Victoria Azarenka (third round) and Sloane Stephens (fourth round) were taking it to Serena. Credit Williams for digging her heels in and refusing to lose, somewhat similar to how Maria Sharapova did en route to last year’s French Open title (one big difference in how those two ‘struggle-win’: Serena at some point imposes her will and seizes command, Maria still finds herself slugging it out with her opponent more often than not). Serena worked it out herself, wondering through her personal desert to find the dominant game we all know she has, and hanging on for long enough before she could summon the strength to push herself past her opposition. She took home her twentieth major title in singles and kept alive the opportunity for a second “Serena Slam”, a mind-boggling twelve years after she did it the first time, and an even rarer calendar slam.
Perhaps the oddest thing that happened to Serena during her two weeks came in the final to Lucie Safarova. Up a set and with points to go up 5-1 in the second set, Serena inexplicably… choked. It might be the first time I’ve ever seen that happen (maybe the Wimbledon final against Radwanska, but even then Agnieszka was hanging around in the second set), and especially for such a long period of time. Serena simply couldn’t serve or move her feet. Credit Lucie for picking up on it and seizing control of the second set and even grabbing a break at the start of the third set, but you never felt that Safarova was going to win. Indeed, Serena cleared her airways from that point forward and won the last six games to take her third French Open title. If we can be totally honest: if Serena doesn’t choke for a half an hour there, there is no way that final even goes to three sets. Serena was simply unbeatable for that first hour, and Lucie couldn’t keep the ball inside the lines with nerves getting the better of her. But, as if somehow the roles got reversed, Serena tensed up and simply donated the second set to Safarova.
Extremely disappointing results for so many of the top players on the women’s side. Eugene Bouchard is giving new meaning to the term “sophomore slump”. Agnieszka Radwanska continues to wonder aimlessly in 2015. But for the other top women, there was optimism entering into Paris. Maria Sharapova was the defending champion and probably could have done better if she hadn’t caught a cold or the flu, which hampered her game (and even her screeches turned into squeaks). Simona Halep bafflingly put up little resistance in her upset loss. Wozniacki, though she’s never done well in Paris, thought that this year might be different after having a good clay-court season, but she crashed out prematurely. And while Ana Ivanovic might be able to look on the bright side with the fact she reached the semifinals of a major for the first time since she won her only major title (at the 2008(!!!) French Open), she simply blew a good chance to reach the final by refusing to go to any sort of backup plan once her match with Lucie Safarova got tight.
Now, of course, I would be remiss if I were to forget to mention the best match of the tournament (and possibly the year). Playing on the Bullring, a stadium that somehow manages to produce drama, two former Roland Garros champions squared off in Francesca Schiavone (2009) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (2010). Both of them are past their prime—Schiavone more so as her ranking is closer to 100 than 1—but it seems whenever these two face off, they produce magic. There were spectacular shots and riveting rallies for hours. Both players fought and clawed for each point with the tenacity we’ve seen from them for years. Each one took advantage of lulls in the other’s game… only to choke once they seized the lead. Francesca hung on for dear life during a tense back-and-forth first set tiebreak, erasing set point after set point. She finally succumbed to Kuznetsova’s potent forehand to lose the first set. In the third set, Schiavone failed repeatedly to hold onto her serve in the deciding set. But each time Svetlana served for the match, the Italian would conjure up some of that tennis that had everyone falling in love with her game six years ago and got the break back. After nearly four hours on court, the 2009 champion stood victorious with a 6-7(11), 7-5, 10-8 victory. It wasn’t always the best tennis—there were 18 breaks of serve in the match—but it was certainly exhilarating to watch. And to think, that was just for a spot in the third round!