June 09, 2012 | 09:01 PM
Before turning to the men's final, it's worth praising the recent tradition of freshness in Paris womens' finals that Sara Errani continued today, playing in her first final weekend in a major. For that matter, though Maria's name recognition is second to nobody's on either tour, this was her first Paris final. As such, it was her first and probably last chance to join an elite club of about a dozen women champions who won a slam on all 4 surfaces (she would have the minimum possible number of majors to her name; though it would have taken more years to achieve it than the last players to do it - Serena, Fed, Rafa and Agassi - she could claim the distinction of having done it as efficiently as possible with just 4 titles in 8 finals).
One piece of history was made today because Maria slammed more balls into corners than Sara could get back (37 winners including 6 aces, offset by 29 errors), winning 6-3, 6-2. Mria won 56% of points on Sara's serve and 61% on her own serve. By the end, Sara was reduced to trying to win a 3rd consecutive point with a drop (the last one fell pitifully in the net, giving way to a celebration worthy of a queen at her Diamond Jubilee, all before Maria got around to the hand shake).
Independent of the outcome, another recent tradition was continued today: because the Williams have not been dominant in Paris, the event has been more wide open than other majors. And because it's the only major event on clay, it favors a different kind of player - and a different kind of winner.
There has been only one multiple Paris title winner in the last 15 years: 4 time winner Justine Henin. The the 12 most recent title holders represented 10 different countries, and has been the site of more recent final round player debuts than the other majors in the women's game during the last few years. Only once in the last 15 years has the #1 seed won the women's title. It has been an only major title for 5 women, and at least a slightly improbable title for 9 other winners (only Henin and Serena would have been expected to win; Graf and Sanchez-Vicario both won the event as their final major, well after they'd been at the very top of their games; some of the other title holders are clearly one shot wonders: Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina, Ana Ivanovic, Schiavone).
Quite a contrast to the men's game in the last 15 years: Rafa plus 7 other champions, all multiple slam or title winners and tennis household everyday names except for Gaston Gaudio (2004, ARG).
Why Will Rafa Continue this Tradition in the Final?
After Joker had gotten into Rafa's head last year, the King of Clay struggled at times in the early rounds. Had Joker reached the final last year, he would have been expected to beat Rafa. Joker hasn't had the kind of year he had last year or the dominant early rounds he had last year, and he's lost twice in straight sets to Rafa on clay in the last month, so of course he's not favored to beat Rafa here this year.
But there are multiple layers to this story, and that's part of what makes it interesting to people in addition to the superlative tennis expected and the fact that there is a clear favorite in what people expect none-the-less to be a very long, close match:
- The legacies at stake for both players, hyped for good reason - history will be made, one way or the other (not just the silly-sounding records that are dragged out to glorify the winner).
- The stats coming into the final, which put Rafa so far into a class by himself that basing opinion on them alone would give no chance to anyone else (for Rafa - no sets lost, a single lost service, a fraction of the unforced errors made, a perfect 13 for 13 points at the net yesterday for Rafa, half the hours on court, losing just 34 games in 6 matches, etc.).
What will keep the match close is the unique ability of both men not just to raise their intensity when necessary, but to play their most aggressive tennis on the biggest points of the sets.
This ability is what Fed used to have but has lacked in the biggest major matches, and it is very much behind his loss yesterday.
Why does Fed lack this ability now?
I found myself wondering this aloud as I watched his match with Joker, asking myself why he didn't save his best efforts for late in the sets when a single outstanding point might be enough to give him a set and keep him in the match. Pete would have done this, right? As would every great Aussie from the Hopman school...
Instead, Rog gave his all in brilliant exchanges early in the sets, and went out later with a relative whimper.
Case in point, as my father would have said:
- On 40-30 on Joker's serve to start the 2nd set, they played a 38 stroke rally in which both hit at 90-plus percent of max. Fed hit 8 BH's and 8 FH's this way, and then hit a BH drop from behind the baseline to Joker's FH, catching him off guard; he closed in and executed a perfect lob volley off his BH, closed in further and put away a routine FH volley into the open court off Joker's tweener down-the-line!
Voila, eh - take that! McEnroe gushed on about how great it was that Fed was showing Joker that he could play with him, blah, blah, blah.
And then it was deuce at 0-0 on Joker's serve. Big deal.
As streaky as both men have been playing, the early break in both sets (two early breaks in the 2nd set, a 3-0 lead on his serve) were worth nothing against Joker. Fed gave the early breaks back at love in both sets, making bad errors and unready to handle a little extra juice on Joker's forehand return of serve.
In the 2nd set, with Joker still struggling at 3-2, Fed held without much trouble and went up double break point on joker's serve at 4-2. This was about the same as double set point, the time to step it up.
How did Fed handle the opportunity to get him back in the match from down a set?
A FH return in the net, a weak BH return - deuce. Another break point: BH in the net, not much on it it. Joker took the long game, courtesy mostly of Fed errors.
More low intensity errors on Fed's part cost him his next service game, and when Joker returned the favor losing his serve without much fight, there was another big opportunity for Fed, serving for the set at 5-4. After an incredible 30 shot exchange to open the game, Fed fell behind 15-40, got back to 30-40, and then erred again.
At 5-5 on Joker's serve they played another important long point at 30-all which Fed lost when his cross court FH went just wide (would have been a winner).
Serving to stay in the set (and the match) at 5-6, how did Fed start?
With a DF and an error. After serving an ace, he then lost the set 5-7 with two more errors. Down two sets to Joker playing on a suspect knee was not the same as being down 2 sets to someone he owns like Delpo on a bad knee. Joker: 6-3 in the 3rd.
Bottom line: going all out when it doesn't matter, and having nothing left when it does, adds up to losing.
So, why is a smart guy like Fed - who used to have an extra gear for the important games in matches - playing like this now?
Since he's 5 years older and no longer as fit as the top two guys, he feels he needs to play his best tennis early to get ahead - his career success came from being a confident front runner and closing out matches before others could play.
But this hasn't worked for Fed against them recently, and while he's not as fit, arguably he's just as good and has the first strike weapons to win any given point against either man.
So why doesn't he put all his effort into holding serve and wait for the end of the set to show them something different on return (if going for big returns hasn't already given him a break), as Pete would have?
Joker and Rafa are brilliant front runners as well, but if Roger doesn't give up his serve, they don't get in front.
Seems simple, on paper. Paul Annacone, where are you?
For Joker, who's play was as almost streaky against Fed as in his other matches, at least he's coming in to the final without having played extra sets. His stats yesterday present a picture of a much more dominant, together performance than he gave, though they were much improved from his previous matches (against Fed, the quality of the play was high, just not often from both players at the same time):
- more winners than errors (27 to 17), 68% first serves in play, 65% of serve points won, 49% of receiving points won, 12 of 16 points at net; 57% of total points
Along with his gutsy, over-the-top abilities from every position with every shot, questions follow Joker into the final. One could hope that he's saved his best tennis for last. There are fewer questions about Rafa before the match.
Should he fail to win, however, no one will be asking more questions than Rafa himself.
Roland Garros Womens' Final; Men's F