Tuesday, May 29, 2018

RG.3- Familiar Faces in French Places

Well, she's back. And so is she.

The careers of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have run concurrently, for good and bad both on and off the court. Together and apart, they've alternately stirred up excitement as well as far too much childish (or worse) back-biting from the fan bases of both. Once again, the two women stepped onto a big stage on Tuesday in Paris, where both have lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen on multiple occasions. Sharapova was playing at Roland Garros for the first time in three years, while Williams was making her first appearance there in two springs.

After some trial and error, it turned out to be a doubly successful "welcome back" showcase.

Sharapova's match with qualifier Richel Hogenkamp was scheduled to begin earlier on Court Lenglen, while Serena's return to slam action for the first time since giving birth to her daughter was set for Chatrier. For a bit, they both were in action simultaneously. Though, really, they *shouldn't* have been. At least it certainly didn't seem to be the case a set and half into the Russian's match.

In the RG main draw for the first time since her suspension (and the FFT's denial of a WC a year ago), Sharapova was cruising to a win over the #133-ranked Hogenkamp. The 26-year old Dutch woman came armed with just three MD wins at majors in her career, and may be best known of late (buy not by the "informed" commentators on Tennis Channel, apparently) on the court for her tough three-set loss vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (and tight straight sets defeat by Venus Williams) against the U.S. in Fed Cup play this past February, and off it for coming out last year while arguing against Margaret Court's oft-incendiary comments against same-sex marriage.

The Russian led 6-1/3-1, then nearly saw the bottom drop out of her 2018 RG hopes.

Sharapova broke Hogenkamp to lead 4-3, but dropped the final three games of the set to lose it 6-4. When Hogenkamp jumped to a 3-0 lead in the 3rd, having won eight of nine games, she forced Sharapova to call upon the experiences that have earned her the reputation as a fighter en route to completing her Career Slam. Her recent run of good results on the clay surely came in handy here, as after a lack of match play and lingering injuries led her to drop her first four three-set matches of '18, Sharapova won three of four of them while following up her Madrid QF with a SF in Rome. After holding for 3-1, around the time the sun was finally peeking through the clouds on what had been an oft-drizzly, overcast Parisian day, she broke Hogenkamp a game later, then held for 3-3 after escaping a 15/40 hole. With the big shots that had briefly abandoned her earlier now returning to the forefront of her game, Sharapova took total command. She broke her opponent's serve two more times, sweeping the final six games of the match to win 6-1/4-6/6-3.

After her 0-4 start in three-set matches this season, she's now 4-1 in her last five.

The way she finished things, one might be tempted to say that Sharapova maybe wanted to see what Serena's game looked like, not to mention what she was going to be wearing. You know, just like everyone else. After the two matches overlapped for a short while, the floor was fully ceded to the 23-time slam singles champion.

Sixteen years after she debuted the original (Puma-designed) bodysuit/catsuit at the U.S. Open in 2002, Williams was back again with an all-black (Nike-produced) number highlighted by a pink belt that made her appear even more superhero-like than usual. After a short, four-match preview in Indian Wells and Miami in March (she went 2-2 and, understandably, didn't yet look like "right" in her comeback), Serena promised to not return until she was "100%" and, as coach Patrick Mouratoglou recently noted, playing RG "to win it." The unseeded, to the detriment of the player unlucky enough to draw her, Williams showed her much-improved form firsthand to Kristyna Pliskova, the lefty version of the Czech twin pair.

While Pliskova's higher-ranked sister Karolina is the better all-around player -- via her groundstrokes, mentality and even movement -- Kristyna's serve is arguably more lethal. As inconsistent as it can sometimes be, and unreliable in tight, big matches, when the shot is on it may to second to *only* Serena's in fearsomeness. And she surely brought the weapon to the table today, battling Williams for two tight sets largely on the back of her best shot. Pliskova fired fifteen aces on the day, a record for a Serena opponent (topping Nadia Petrova's old mark of 14 from '09). Of course, for the player who also holds the mark for the most aces in *any* WTA match -- 31 vs. Monica Puig in '16 -- it just wasn't nearly enough. Not that that's a new feeling for Kristyna... she lost that match vs. Puig, too.

In the 1st set, Williams held a SP on Pliskova's serve, only to be on the wrong end of the sort of run that Serena usually dishes out. An ace up the "T" saved the SP, the Pliskova fire another ace down the middle. A wicked, wide lefty serve produced an error and she managed to hold for 6-6. The Czech took a 3-0 lead in the tie-break with still more sterling serves that set her up to win points, but then Williams did what she does: win seven of eight points to claim the set.

Pliskova led 2-0 with a break in the 2nd, taking a seven-deuce game on her third BP opportunity after Williams won just one of ten points on her second serve. But it STILL wasn't enough. Playing up to the level of her attire, Serena came to her own rescue the rest of the way. In the end, she won back-to-back second serve points to reach her second MP of the tenth game of the set, which she put away via a Pliskova error. Williams' 7-6(4)/6-4 win is the 317th of her slam career (the all-time women's mark), and her 61st at Roland Garros (good for fifth in the Open era behind the likes of Graf, Sanchez, Evert and C.Martinez). Serena is now 66-1 in the 1st Rounds of majors in her career.

Williams and Sharapova are still on course for a potential Round of 16 meeting at this slam, with names like Barty, Goerges/Van Uytvanck, Vekic and Safarova/Pliskova (the other one) still standing in the way. It'd be their 22nd career meeting. Seventeen matches have been played, and thirteen and a half years have passed, since Sharapova won one. But those are numbers and still more back-and-forth social media sniping a few rounds away, should such things even end up being necessary to talk about in a few days.

For this one day, at least, Serena and Maria both existed and thrived together, one court away fron one another, performing on some of the biggest stages the sport has to offer.

So, let's not quibble or squawk... for it was good day. The sort of which not that long ago we didn't know if we'd ever see the likes of again.

...with the bottom half of the women's draw already assured of producing a first-time Roland Garros finalist, the top half, which had been scheduled to finish off its opening round matches on Tuesday, came into the day sporting six alive-and-well players (S.Williams, Sharapova, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Sam Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova) who'd played for the title at least once during their career. By the end of the day, five of them remained (though one, #1 Simona Halep, will have to wait still ANOTHER day to play), along with another woman (Angelique Kerber) who was the tournament's #1 seed at this time one year ago.

The only former RG finalist/winner to fall on Day 3 lost to a another former champ, as '09 winner/'06 runner-up Kuznetsova same up short once again against '16 titlist Muguruza.

The #3-seeded Spaniard was up a break on two different occasions in a rain/drizzle-marred 1st set, but the Russian managed to prevent her from serving out the set at 5-4. She got the break and took things into a tie-break, only to see Muguruza blitz her by taking it 7-0. Muguruza served up 3-1, 30/love in the 2nd, but was forced to save break points before holding for a 4-1 lead. She carried the momentum through to a 7-6(0)/6-2 victory, defeating Kuznetsova for a sixth straight time in their seven-match head-to-head series. The last two times she defeated the Hordette in a major -- '16 RG 4th Rd., '17 Wimbledon QF -- Muguruza went on to take th title.

I'm just sayin.'

Muguruza was little discussed coming into the slam, but history has shown us that if she gets on an imperious role she can defeat *anyone*, including you-know-who, as she's defeated Serena *twice* in Paris, as well as both of the Williams Sisters in a slam final.

And, of course, after a big win comes...

...in Melbourne, Elise Mertens rumbled through the draw en route to a surprise maiden slam semifinal. Since then, she's climbed into the top 20 and claimed a pair of clay court titles. She was undefeated on the surface in '18 (13-0 singles/5-0 doubles) before losing to Simona Halep in Madrid, then pulling out of Rome to deal with a bacterial infection and, one would hope, finally get a little rest after a heavy early season workload (51 combined matches, not counting five more at the Hopman Cup, through the season's first four months & change).

But upon returning from a two and a half week absence, the #16-seeded Waffle was nearly upended yesterday by Varvara Lepchenko. The Bannerette saved sets points in the 1st, won the set via an 11-9 TB, and served for the match at 5-4 in the 2nd. Mertens staved off defeat there and won a 7-4 breaker to force a deciding set. She led 3-0 in the 3rd when the match was suspended due to darkness. When the two returned on Tuesday the question was whether Lepchenko had gotten a big break by having the overnight put a stop to Mertens' momentum. But, well, that didn't happen. In fact, it seems as if the Belgian never left the court (hmmm, are we sure she didn't grab a blanket and sleep in a cozy corner of Court 6?), sweeping the final three games to win the 3rd at love and advance to the 2nd Round, one year after she reached the 3rd in her debut RG appearance.

...one wondered what impact their 3:35 Strasbourg final on Saturday would have on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Dominika Cibulkova in Paris. We likely got at least one answer in the Slovak's outing today, as she gave #11 Julia Goerges all she could handle in the first two sets, with the German taking the 1st 6-4 while Cibulkova won the 2nd at 7-5. Then in the 3rd, it happened... Cibulkova was bageled.

We never got to see what #30 Pavlyuchenkova might do in three-set situation, as the Russian smartly avoided asking the question of herself by managing to finish off Polona Hercog in straights today. Pavlychenkova opened the match with a break of the Slovenian's serve, then lost her own a game later. One (normal?) version of the Hordette might have drifted away from there, but not this one. Not yet. She held firm, won the 1st and had the chance to serve out the win at 5-4 in the 2nd. She was broken. But after battling back (saving 2 MP) against Cibulkova en route to a title just a few days ago -- perhaps the fumes are still fueling her muscle/mental memory? -- Pavlyuchenkova once again didn't fold, taking the set by hitting the 2nd set TB running, going up 4-0 and winning it 7-1.

...oh, Schmiedy.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova need not go back to the drawing board, but she'll surely lament what happened to her today after all the work she's done to get herself back into the position she found herself on Day 3. The Slovak, who suffered through a long-long-long losing streak *before* Kiki Mladenovic made it a "fashionable," almost personality-maturing rite of passage, found herself in a slam MD match today in Paris because she'd earned it. After falling well outside the Top 200 after having nearly reached the Top 20 a few seasons ago, AKS' work to re-build her confidence on the challenger circuit has paid off handsomely in 2018. She qualified to reach the Australian Open draw, her first MD at a slam since the 2016 U.S. Open, then won her first tour-level singles title in nearly three years this spring in Bogota. Ranked back inside the Top 80, she received an automatic entry into the RG draw, where she was looking for her first MD win at a major since the '15 U.S. Open.

She was so close.

AKS led Irina-Camelia Begu 5-2 in the 3rd, and served for the win at 5-3, only to have her serve broken. Two games later, she went down love/30 and was soon broken again to fall behind 5-6. Begu got within two points of victory in game #12, only to see Schmiedlova get the break to extend the match. The two then battled into the first extended-beyond-the-12th-game final set in the women's competition at this RG. AKS held for 7-6, and was up 40/15 at 7-7, only to squander the lead and give the Romanian another chance to serve for the match. Begu went up triple MP at 40/love, but AKS saved all three, only to see her opponent convert on MP #4 to win 6-4/5-7/9-7 in 3:19. For the match, Begu's W/UE totals were a healthy 47/57, while AKS clocked in at 30/35.

Oh, Schmiedy.

...elsewhere, the trio of top Aussies -- #17 Ash Barty, #14 Dasha Gavrilova and '10 finalist Sam Stosur -- all advanced, while the two remaining Belarusian woman both played today to differing conclusions. Aliaksandra Sasnovich downed Denisa Allertova, while Aryna Sabalenka took just three games off #18 Kiki Bertens.

Back to Stosur. While she didn't back up her Strasbourg title defense last week, her continued success in Paris is looking good on the stat sheet. Since 2009, these are her chronological RG results: SF-RU-3R-SF-3R-4R-3R-SF-4R-??

Also, year after becoming the first RG #1 seed to fall in the 1st Round, #12 Angelique Kerber handled the potentially tough occasion of facing countrywoman Mona Barthel quite well, winning 6-2/6-3.

...two more Pastries joined #32 Alize Cornet and wild card Pauline Parmentier in the 2nd Round today. Wild card Fiona Ferro defeated Carina Witthoeft to record her first career slam MD win (she's only appeared in a major MD in Paris, going 1-3), while #7 Caroline Garcia destroyed Duan Yingying 6-1/6-0 in her first step toward defending her maiden slam QF result of a year ago. Garcia more than doubled Duan in total points (59-26), converted 6/9 BP chances, won 25/33 return points, and dwarfed her Chinese opponent in winners (18-2) over the matches' thirteen games.

...Serena wasn't the only Bannerette making some news with a win today, as Bethanie Mattek-Sands notched the first MD singles win in her comeback (she'd gone 0-4, with her *only* WS win coming in a Madrid qualifying match over Caroline Dolehide) with a 6-4/6-3 triumph over this weekend's Nurnberg champ, Johanna Larsson.

Late in the day, Taylor Townsend, who posted her best career slam result with a 3rd Round at RG in '14, won the all-wild card battle with Frenchwoman Myrtille Georges, making the Bannerette the third of the eight WC in the women's draw to advance to the 2nd Round.


Although, the argument for one side or another is not strengthened by noting that a member of the Trump family chimed in with an opinion on the subject. Just a tip for anyone who chooses to debate the topic.

...WORD CHOICE DOES MATTER ON DAY 3: As I blurted out yesterday when noticing that a local newspaper's daily poll included the question "Do you celebrate Memorial Day?," it'd be more appropriate to use the word "observe" because, you know, a day set aside to honor dead military veterans isn't exactly a celebratory occasion.

"Happy" doesn't really work, either.

Shockingly (not), CoCo wasn't the only one to step on that one yesterday. But at least she wasn't breaking her arm by also patting herself on the back while doing it.

..."OKAY, I'LL ADMIT..." ON DAY 3: ...that while I'm still not a "fan" of the Sunday RG start, I *do* like the process of the 1st Round of a major being spread out over three days.

Of course, since it'll now take FOUR days due to today's early rain delays and long matches -- as a result, Simona Halep's match with Alison Riske will be pushed to first-up on Wednesday's schedule -- that opinion is also quite changeable.

...LIKE ON DAY 3: While the players are away...

...SEQUEL ON DAY 3: Serena & the Slam Bodysuit: The Sequel (16 years in the making)

=2002 U.S. Open=


...and, finally, some awards with the (almost) completion of the 1st Round.

NATION OF POOR SOULS: Latvia. Into each Latvian tennis day a little rain must fall. Last year, the Thunder was good. This year, lightning struck (and not in a good way). With #5/DC Alona Ostapenko and #20 Anastasija Sevastova's 1st Round losses, for the first time in a while, the women's draw at a slam is Latvian-less after just one round of play. The two had combined to put together a streak of ten straight majors in which both posted (at least) one victory. Since Sevastova's initial QF run at the U.S. Open in 2016, one or both had reached at least the 3rd Round in nine of the last eleven slams (W=1, QF=3, 3r=5)).

They both first appeared in the same slam MD at the '16 Australian, with a pair of 1st Round exits at the '16 Wimbledon being the only other time neither reached the 2nd Round. [Note: at the 2015 U.S. Open, Sevastova lost in qualifying, while Ostapenko won a 1st Round match.]

CRASH & BURN: Ostapenko. Sort of goes with the first one. She's the first RG champ to lose in the 1st Round a year later since Anastasia Myskina in 2005. Hopefully, one day she won't make a series of wrong-headed Fed Cup decisions, as well.

REVELATION LADIES: The Romanians. There are four Swarmettes in the 2nd Round, and Simona hasn't even played yet. Mihaela Buzarnescu posted her first career MD win at a major, while qualifier Alexandra Dulgheru won her first MD slam match since the '15 RG, Ana Bogdan got her first career MD win in Paris (def. Marketa Vondrousova today), and Begu outlasted AKS in that 9-7 3rd set. The only nation assured to have more representatives in the Final 64 is the United States (w/ 9, and Riske playing Halep). Additionally, the Spanish are 4-0, Ukrainians 3-1, Belgians 3-1, Kazakhs 2-0 and Croats 2-1.

9...United States (Riske to play 1st Rd.)
5...Czech Republic
4...Romania (Halep to play 1st Rd.)

I'm holding off on the "Upset Queens" honors, as there is no clear-cut winning nation (if Lepchenko had knocked off Mertens, the U.S. may have gotten it, though) while there are several matches with upset potential waiting to be played in the 2nd Round. So, to be continued.

First match ??at #rg18! #happy #pojd #teamsafi @robsteckley @czechie23

A post shared by Lucie Safarova (@lucie.safarova) on

2008 Serena Williams, USA (3rd Rd.)
2009 Elena Dementieva, RUS (3rd Rd.)
2010 Dinara Safina, RUS (1st Rd.)
2011 Kim Clijsters, BEL (2nd Rd.)
2012 Serena Williams, USA (2nd Rd.)
2013 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (2nd Rd.)
2014 Serena Williams, USA (2nd) & Li Na, CHN (1st/AO champ)
2015 Simona Halep, ROU (2nd Rd.)
2016 Angelique Kerber, GER (1st Rd./AO champ)
2017 Angelique Kerber, GER (1st Rd., earliest RG #1 ever)
2018 Alona Ostapenko, LAT (1st Rd., earlier RG DC since '05)

2012 ROU (1-5 in 1st Rd.; Cadantu double-bageled)
2013 CZE (2-8 in 1st Rd.)
2014 CHN (0-4 in 1st; Sh.Zhang "1st Loss" & #2 Li, AO champ)
2015 USA (4-13 in 1st Rd.; most players in draw)
2016 ITA (Quartet 0-3 in 1st Rd.; Pennetta retired)
2017 GER (2-5 1st Rd.; #1 Kerber out)
2018 LAT (both DC Ostapenko & Sevastova out 1st Rd.)

2006 France
2007 Italy
2008 Czech Republic
2009 Australia
2010 Germany
2011 North America
2012 France
2013 North America/Atlantic
2014 Spain
2015 Australia (The New Aussies)
2016 France
2017 Muslim women
2018 Romania

TOP QUALIFIER: Francesca Schiavone/ITA
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Alexandra Dulgheru/ROU d. Tamara Korpatsch/GER 6-1/5-7/7-6(7) (from MP down and 5-2 in the 3rd for final qualifying berth)
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
FIRST VICTORY: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS (def. Zheng Saisai/CHN)
FIRST SEED OUT: #9 Venus Williams/USA (1st Rd/lost to Wang Qiang/CHN)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Latvia (0-2; first slam both DC/#5 Ostapenko and #20 Sevastova out 1st Round after ten consecutive; only second time happened since both first in same slam draw at '16 AO)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: In 2nd Rd.: Dolehide/USA, Dulgheru/ROU, Frech/POL, Garcia Perez/ESP, Peterson/SWE
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: In 2nd Rd.: Ferro/FRA, Parmentier/FRA, Townsend/USA
LAST PASTRY STANDING: In 2nd Rd.: Cornet, Ferro, Garcia, Parmentier
IT "??": xx
CRASH & BURN: #5 Alona Ostapenko/LAT (defending champ; lost 1st Rd. to #66 Kozlova; first RG DC out 1st Rd. since '05)
ZOMBIE QUEEN OF PARIS: Nominee: Bencic (saved 5 MP vs. Chiesa in 1st Rd.)
Légion de Lenglen HONOREE: xx

All for Day 3. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

This French Open design looks really nice, Todd.

Tue May 29, 06:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Do you mean all the dividers, etc. or the image at the end (because that one's this year's official poster). :)

Tue May 29, 08:43:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I recognized the poster :) I meant the dividers--nice

Tue May 29, 09:37:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Haha. I just wanted to be sure since last year I included the artist's name (and year) under the image every day because it wasn't last year's version, but just linked back to the RG site this year. I like this year's, but I really like that Eiffel Tower/racket "roots" one.

Thanks. ;) I actually have too many to use and have been switching in/out a second Lenglen one every other day so I can use them all. :)

Tue May 29, 10:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger colt13 said...

The Ostapenko article is a good read.

Really excited for Svitolina-Buzarnescu. Not predicting an upset, but if Svitolina has one of those days where she throws in that bloop serve, Buzarnescu will have 20 winners off that forehand side alone.

Stat of the Day-11- Years since Romania had every player win their first match in the French Open.

They went 5-1 this year, Cirstea being the culprit, but back in 2007, so long ago that it was the year before Halep's Jr. title, they only had 2 women in the draw, Olaru and Gallovits-Hall. Both did their career best, with Gallovits-Hall reaching the 2nd rd, her best showing in 6 French Opens, while Olaru reached the 3rd rd. Not only was this her best showing out of her 4 singles appearances, it is the only one in which she won a match.

Wed May 30, 08:40:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, it's too bad the article lasted longer than she did in the draw. :(

(Although she's still in the WD and MX, I guess. With Vesnina and Mirnyi, so...)

...and Cirstea was up on Gavrilova (and a 2nd set TB from a win), too.

THIS overall 1st Round performance was why I started calling this group the "Swarmettes" in the first place. Took a while. ;)

Wed May 30, 12:03:00 PM EDT  

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