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RG18

STEPHENS PLAYED A GREAT ROLLY G, BUT NEEDED PLAN B

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

In a waning era of giants and superheroes on the WTA Tour, Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens can come across as inconspicuous. Both have the finely tuned physiques of a professional athlete, yet we could place Stephens in a swimming pool like her mother, or Halep on a soccer field or handball court, and no one would take a second glance. If one does not watch closely, you would think the matchup we saw under the Parisian sky on Saturday — the final one at the 2018 Roland Garros women’s tournament — was nothing more than a track meet. The subtleties of their games that make Halep and Stephens so successful can often be overshadowed by their deficiencies which become glaring when exposed, or when their intensity dips. Both players work extremely hard to diffuse their opponents’ strengths — usually for the better, but not always.

For a set and 2-0, Sloane Stephens did just that. She immediately came out with a plan to target Halep’s forehand and sustained it through the first 11 games of the match. She placed backhands down the line perfectly before continuing to stretch Simona to her backhand side so she could finish with her deadly forehand. Stephens seemed fully in control, while Halep was searching and not able to find viable solutions. She tried to outhit Stephens. She tried to rally with Stephens. She tried drop shots and coming to net, but Stephens was ready for everything that came her way.

2018 Roland Garros - 7 Jun

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

 

Until she blinked. Up 2-0 in the second set Sloane Stephens may have had an inkling of what was beginning to look very much like a formality. Halep broke her at love, and the Romanian was never again the player who looked defeated — not after that juncture. Halep employed one last tactic in order to diffuse Stephens’s fiery forehand… and it worked. From 2-0 down, Halep amped up the aggression on her forehand while aiming higher balls to Sloane’s backhand, which she was unable to return with interest. Stephens failed to create any headway against the added topspin from the other side of the court. Halep kept getting Stephens further and further behind the baseline and Stephens ended the second set in a defensive hole.

In the third set, the momentum had clearly tipped in Halep’s favor. Stephens had been showing signs of weariness since her blink after going up 2-0 in the second set. Whoever could put their foot down first would have the highest hopes of crossing the finish line first. But both women continued to fight for every point in the third. Halep was fueled by the goal of escaping the demons of past blown leads. Meanwhile, Stephens was holding on, intent on testing the refined toughness Halep has shown this fortnight.

Ultimately, Halep remained firm, wedded to her strategy of avoiding Stephens’s forehand. She stayed steady in a 6-1 final-set scoreline that doesn’t do the ball-striking of either player any justice. Realize this: 6 of the 7 service games played in the third set had pivotal 30-all points. Once again two women tried to outmaneuver each other while sliding on clay… and skating on the finest, thinnest margins.

After the match Sloane wouldn’t admit to fatigue, but she did say in an on-court interview with NBC’s Mary Carillo that she regretted not changing her game when Simona came at her with new tactics. Halep has long been derided as lacking a “plan B,” but tonight she can rest easy knowing that she left plans A, B, C, and D out on the court against a version of Stephens who made that a requirement and not merely a choice.

It is unfair to think that Halep’s career needed a major title to be worthy of a number one ranking, but that is the landscape she had to navigate in this era of completion and GOAT-dom.

Stephens, on the other hand, can take confidence from knowing that her level of tennis firmly places her within the top five of the rankings… and that last summer was not a fluke. Both players showed why they have reached five combined major finals in the last 12 months. Opportunity awaits those for whom clarity breeds calmness… and if needed, plan B.

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RG18

NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.

At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)

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RG18

WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.

“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.

Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.

Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.

We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.

Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.

The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.

More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.

Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.

Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.

2018 Roland Garros - 24 May

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.

In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.

The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.

The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.

In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.

We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.

 

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RG18

Testigos de la grandeza

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.

Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)

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