I thought that this column was one of his best. For those of us who have been complaining about the crappy TV coverage, his last few points are great!
Fifty ruminations following a wildly unpredictable '04 French Open
by: Jon Wertheim
Anastasia Myskina and Gaston Gaudio. Just like we all thought. Yawn (he is being sarcastic here
. It would be nice if tennis could furnish us with some unexpected outcomes from time to time. Owing to the surge of the Russians and the Gauchos, the disappearance of the Americans, the outré results and, yes, the substandard television coverage, the Bag overflowed this week. In an attempt to accommodate as many themes as possible, here are 50 assorted ruminations on the year's second Major.
1. After two sets of tennis Sunday, it looked as though Saturday's all-Russia women's final was going to be more compelling than the all-Argentina men's final. Which would have been saying something. In one of the more surreal matches we've seen in years, Gaudio of course stormed back to beat a wounded and psychologically frazzled Guillermo Coria, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6. Gaudio's dramatic run included salvaging two match points. The win capped two weeks of brilliant tennis for the unseeded Gaudio and was a fitting end to an unpredictable-but-ultimately-endearing tournament.
2. Hard not to feel for Coria. Not only was he the first player in 70 years to lose the French final after holding match point, but after the middle weekend the tournament was essentially his to lose. That he did so to a countryman under those circumstances will cause a few sleepless nights. Compounding matters, it comes on the heels of his mentally-vacant performance against underdog Martin Verkerk in last year's semis. That said, as Gaudio gamely pointed out, Coria is a good bet to win next year.
3. Serena Williams-Venus Williams breeds unsightly, emotionally cumbersome tennis. So does Kim Clijsters versus Justine Henin-Hardenne. Now we know that Anastasia Myskina-Elena Dementieva is not exactly the second coming of a Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry either. No matter. Credit Myskina for winning the title. Her first Major was, to be sure, unexpected. But let's not forget, she did come in as a high seed (No. 6); she beat both Venus and Jennifer Capriati; and she kept it together in the final. If this ushers in an era of Russian dominance, Saturday's final will be recalled for much more than an awkward, error-addled match.
4. Gaudio and Coria had barely shaken hands at the net and already the questions came raining in: "Is Gaudio a one-Slam wonder?" In all likelihood, yes. He's 25, came within a point of defeat in the final and has had pretty patchy results outside of clay. But who cares? Given the context, the ebb and flow of the final, and all the back stories, it almost makes it more special. Somehow this had a much different feel than, say, Thomas Johansson winning in Australia a few years ago. This was Villanova in 1985.
5. To embrace understatement, Dementieva did not give a particularly strong accounting of herself in the final. But from speaking to the crowd in French to owning up to her nerves to conceding "I don't know how to serve," she revealed herself to be thoroughly human and likable.
6. Appearing in their ninth (you read right) Grand Slam final, Paola Suarez and Virginia Ruano Pascual won the women's doubles, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Likhovtseva. Don't look now but Suarez and Ruano Pascual, who won the Australian doubles title this year, are halfway to a Slam. If they win Wimbledon, they can lay claim to the doubles version of a "Serena Slam."
7. In keeping with "The French Open from Outer Space" theme, the men's doubles winners were the Belgian team of Xavier Malisse and our man Olivier Rochus. This somewhat unlikely pairing beat the Frenchmen Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra in the final. We understand that a pack of Belgian fans had purchased tickets to the women's final anticipating a Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne rematch. Though they had to suffer through Myskina-Dementieva, they were rewarded when the men's doubles final followed.
8. France's teenage phenom Richard Gasquet has been pegged as a future Grand Slam champion. And he has already proven the soothsayers right, teaming with countrywoman Tatiana Golovin to win the mixed doubles. The pair beat Wayne Black and Cara Black in the final.
9. Top-seeded Sesil Karatancheva of Bulgaria won the junior girls title, beating Madalina Gojnea of Romania in the finals, 6-4, 6-0. One of you asked whether this is "the same Karatancheva who trash-talked Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells?" Our response: Yes. And how many other tennis-playing Sesil Karatanchevas do you suppose there are?
10. In the junior boys singles, France's Gael Monfils, generally regarded as the world's top junior, beat Pennsylvania's Alex Kuznetsov in the final. Some silver lining for American tennis: Kuznetsov looked worthy of the hype. And he beat another American, Brendan Evans, in the semis.
11. How about a round of applause for an ageless women's doubles semifinalist who was once a tour stalwart, took some time off and has delighted crowds with her return? We're talking, of course, about Sandrine Testud, who teamed with Italy's Roberta Vinci to reach the penultimate round.
12. Speaking of inspired comebacks, Martina Navratilova was unsuccessful in her quest for another Major and was a flop in singles. But how about her doubles play? She and Lisa Raymond beat the hottest team on tour -- Nadia Petrova and Meghann Shaughnessy --before falling to Likhovtseva and Kuznetsova, who played with Martina the Elder for much of '03.
13. How about some props for Suarez? Though she still flies under the radar, she reached the semifinals (her best-ever Slam showing), won the doubles and is suddenly ranked a career-high No. 9 in singles. When we talk about the wave of Argentines, we ought to consider that it has a female component, as well. (Thanks to Martin of Houston for the prodding.)
14. Tim Henman, clay-court specialist. Just rolls off the tongue.
15. What if we moved the French to Argentina once every four years? While we're at it: How about we introduce an edict demanding an end to all future plays on Don't Cry for Me Argentina?
16. Wasn't Alicia Molik up a set and a break against Myskina in round one? And didn't Kuznetsova have a match point against Myskina during the middle weekend? Likewise didn't Cyril Saulnier have Henman down two sets to love on day one?
17. Kudos for playing the national anthems during the trophy presentations. Nice touch.
18. Amelie Mauresmo is further proof that in the fun-house-mirror world of tennis, being thoughtful and well-adjusted is as much a curse as a blessing.
19. Back to men's doubles: How about Karsten Braasch, just shy of his 37th birthday, teaming with Armenian Sargis Sargsian to reach the quarters? And they say German tennis is in the doldrums.
20. Remember when David Nalbandian reached the '02 Wimbledon final and said memorably: "Me no want to be one-hit wonder"? Since then, he has come within a point of the U.S. Open final, made the semis of the French and the quarterfinals of Australia twice. Think there might be a Slam in his future?
21. Though he came out as flat as a crepe in his quarterfinal match, it was nice to see Lleyton Hewitt looking like a top-10 player again. Why he's not a better player on clay is an enduring mystery.
22. Unenviable jobs: Picking the members of the Russian women's Olympic tennis team.
23. Selena Roberts wrote a fine column for TheNew York Times waxing rhapsodic about how Martina Hingis and her knack for strategy would have fared in this French Open. Here's more food for thought: Would this event not have been Kim Clijsters' to lose? And as long as we're speculating, too bad Rafael Nadal was M.I.A. -- though his Spanish provenance would have kept him off ESPN.
24. Congrats to Baylor junior Benjamin Becker, who beat Tulane's Michael Kogan 6-4, 7-6 (10-8) in last Monday's NCAA men's singles final at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center. In Dick Gould's final match as the Cardinal coach, Stanford's K.C. Corkery and Sam Warburg captured the NCAA doubles title, beating Georgia's Bo Hodge and John Isner 6-2, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4.
25. Tulsa hosted the NCAA tournament, and if you don't think of eastern Oklahoma as a great tennis citadel, check out these remarks from Baylor coach Matt Knoll: "It has been said so much this week, that it is almost a cliché, but Tulsa was spectacular. I really have to take my hat off to Tulsa. [Baylor player] Benedikt [Dorsch] played in the final last year [in Athens, Ga.]. I haven't seen the numbers, and I don't want to go out on a limb, but there may have been 10 times as many people here today. There was a significant increase in the crowd -- that makes it special for the guys out there playing. Everything about our trip to Tulsa was good. From the restaurants, to the hotel, to the kind of hospitality we got out here and in the community was special. I think [Tulsa coach] Vince Westbrook showed the college tennis world that Tulsa can put on an unbelievable event. There's no question in my mind that this event will be back."
26. Lots of questions about the Williams confidence-slash-arrogance and their, shall we say, stinting praise for their opponents in defeat. On the one hand, yes, it would be nice if they walked off the court after losing, and simply said, "She was better than I was today. All credit to her. I was beaten squarely." End it there and make no references to playing like an amateur, to being 10,000 percent worse than usual, to tummy aches and headaches and gingivitis and scurvy and bagworm. On the other hand, when you've won a mess of Grand Slam titles, been No.1, and basically run roughshod over the field for five years, you're entitled to a little swagger. And when you play measurably worse than usual for reasons having little to do with your opposition, you should be entitled to claim as much.
27. Xavier Malisse, Jim Loehr. Jim Loehr, Xavier Malisse.
28. Am I the only person who couldn't hear the name Yulia Beygelzimer (the first-round opponent who nearly beat Jennifer Capriati) without thinking of Max Bialystock?
29. In response to the many of you who asked: We took no issue with Marat Safin's "moon phase." Taken in context, it was all in good fun. His blisters, however, were obscene and completely inappropriate for public viewing.
30. Maria Kirilenko's inability to close out Serena (maybe you saw it on ESPN one of the four times it aired) was reminiscent of a match between Serena and a then unheard-of Clijsters at the '99 U.S. Open. Not saying Kirilenko is a future No.1, but this won't be the last we hear of her.
31. Was it only a year ago we were writing those "renaissance of American men's tennis columns," featuring Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent, Rob Ginepri, James Blake and Brian Vahaly? Let's put it this way: The Yanks are due for a big Wimbledon.
32. If my math is right, Potito Starace made roughly as much money last week as he earned in his previous seven years as a pro.
33. If Serena Williams (pink), Andy Roddick (St. Patty's Day green) and Carlos Moya (dandelion yellow) stood in the same room, the clashing of their outfits could replicate nuclear fusion.
34. To the surprise of few, the ATP announced that Shanghai will host the Tennis Masters Cup for three years starting in '05. The tournament, which is co-owned by the ATP, ITF and Grand Slams, will be staged at the new state-of-the-art Qi Zhong (pronounced Chi-Jong) Tennis Center. The tennis facility, which will become Asia's biggest, is being built on 80 acres in the Minghang district, nearly 17 miles southwest of the city. The tennis center, due for completion in May '05, will include a dual-purpose indoor-outdoor 15,000-seat center court and 40 indoor and outdoor courts. Check out the ATP's Web site for an architectural sketch of how sweet this place will be.
35. The ATP also announced the official launch of a new global creative campaign today titled, "Hit Me with Your Best Shot." If you're hellbent on lifting from Pat Benatar, wouldn't Love is a Battlefield be a more suitable catch phrase for tennis? That said, inasmuch as this campaign sells the sport of tennis (rather than a collection of "New Balls" who may or may not become bona fide stars), it is to be commended. Well done.
36. Jim May of Brooklyn kindly wrote: "With the exception of Nalbandian, you totally nailed your men's semifinal picks: Coria, Gaudio and a 'total surprise' -- Henman more than applies. Can you recall an instance where you did better than this?" Um, yeah. When my pick as the women's winner (Henin-Hardenne) didn't lose in round two, and one of my semifinal choices (Karolina Sprem) didn't lose her first match. Which goes to this point: Predicting sports is the ultimate "inexact science." When you're right, it doesn't make you the second coming of Stephen Hawking, and when you're wrong, you're not dumber than Fred Durst. (When JH-H went out, one of you asked whether I would "be man enough to admit I am a moron." OK.) Again, the unpredictability and illogic is part of the fun.
37. The "tennis needs rivalries" trope will be amplified again after last weekend, particularly with respect to the women. It would be nice if there were more emotional edge to some of the matchups. But does anyone else have a hard time blaming athletes for showing respect, compassion and even fondness for a colleague?
38. Tickets for the U.S. Open went on sale at 9 a.m. Monday, June 7. The '04 Open will be held Monday, Aug. 30 through Sunday, Sept. 12. Arthur Ashe Kids' Day presented by Hess, a full-day of tennis and a music festival for children and families, will take place Saturday, Aug. 28. Tickets for the '04 US Open and Arthur Ashe Kids' Day can be purchased in four ways:
a) at usopen.org
b) by calling Ticketmaster at 1-866-OPEN-TIX
c) at all Ticketmaster outlets
d) at the USTA National Tennis Center box office
By the way, the USTA ought to be commended for including Roger Federer and Henin-Hardenne on the promotional blitz.
39. Andre Agassi has taken a wild card to play in the Stella Artois Championship at the Queen's Club. Wise move given his scant match play since March. Interestingly, Agassi is also playing doubles in London, partnering with Roddick.
40. Let's do some obligatory bashing of ESPN "coverage," such as it was. We got literally hundreds of letters about the poverty of ESPN's programming choices. Having watched the French Open stateside, I feel your pain. Before we even talk about the execrable selection of matches, how about a little promotion? If the network had half as many promos for tennis as they did for women's college softball, it might actually see some return on its investment.
41. If you're going to replay matches -- a highly dubious decision in this DSL age, especially when the tournament's own Web site has real-time scoring -- at least replay the good ones. The Serena-Capriati dust-up that aired with Zapruder-like frequency was some of the most unsightly tennis we've seen in years.
42. ESPN's rationale for its programming choices -- essentially: "We're going by the ratings" -- rings hollow. If you take pains to hide the foreigners and imply to viewers that they're second-rate players, naturally the ratings will stink when you finally have to put them on the air. Give the "internationals" the coverage they deserve, and they might actually build up a profile.
43. Note to the tennis executives who all but tore their rotator cuffs patting themselves on the back over the U.S. Open Series: If the summer events are going to be covered so shabbily, this television platform ain't doing much to revitalize the sport.
44. We made this point after Australia too: Don't blame the on-air talent. Multiple sources report they're as frustrated as the rest of us. As well they should be. How would you feel divining "Moya-Coria" as the pivotal match of the tournament, only to have it largely ignored in favor of a sloppy women's match on tape delay?
45. Even that vertical score graphic was abysmal. Looked as though it was simultaneously revealing the Centigrade temperature and winning lottery numbers -- not the tally in the match.
46. Dirk Nowitzki is guarding Manu Ginobili? Eek, foreigners with funny names! Wait, let's cue up last Tuesday's tape of Shaq dropping 40 on the Atlanta Hawks. Imagine David Stern's reaction if ESPN were this xenophobic in its NBA coverage.
47. Meanwhile, remember when Richard Williams stirred the pot a few years ago suggesting that his daughters should, in effect, charge their own rights fees since they were promoted and televised so much more than other players? Who's laughing now? As a colleague of mine suggested, Venus and Serena ought to have their own network.
48. ESPN: Everything Stands on Players' Nationalities. ESPN: Eternally Shafting Players Non-American. Come up with a better acronym, and a prize is yours. (You know, like a tape of the Serena-Kirilenko match.)
49. If there's anything you want answered pertaining to Andre, Andy, Venus, Serena, Jennifer, et al., hold off a week. Trying to do our part to place the needle closer to the middle after a Slam's worth of jingoistic coverage. Next week will be a "Non-American" Mailbag. Only questions about foreign players, please.
50. We leave you on an up note: Wimbledon is only two weeks away.
Have a great week everybody!
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.