French Open 2011: Victory for Sharapova, defeat for Clijsters
The wind swirled in Paris, and so did the fortunes of two favourites for the women's French title
It was always going to be a tough ask for everyone’s favourite tennis mum, Kim Clijsters.
She came into Paris with a 15-match winning streak in Grand Slams having won the last US and Australian Opens, but despite reaching the finals twice -in 2001 and 2003 -Clijsters had never won the French Open.
Unfortunately, the No2 seed arrived this year bearing the scars of assorted injuries. Having recovered from shoulder and wrist problems in early spring, she was then sidelined at the start of April by an ankle injury sustained at a wedding party.
So Clijsters was hampered by a heavily strapped ankle and from not having played on clay all year. Indeed, since losing to Henin in the 2006 French Open semi-finals, Clijsters’ clay-court matches totalled just four, two of them losses.
The Belgian had a comfortable first-round win and looked on course to sweep past her second-round opponent, the 20-year-old Arantxa Rus.
She took a 6-3 5-2 lead and held a match point, but failed to convert. She lost six of the next seven points to give Rus a break back but again, at 5-4, she failed to take a match point and her tennis slid from sharp to shaky.
The young Dutch woman, in contrast, settled her early nerves and upped her game to earn herself the second set, 7-5.
Again Clijsters had a chance to take control as she went 15-40 on the Rus serve, but the world No114 held, the Clijsters game went to pieces and she lost every remaining game to go out, 6-1.
The Belgian’s movement -one of her great assets -seemed compromised but she insisted afterwards that her ankle felt fine: “It had nothing to do with it. If I wasn’t able to play tough matches I wouldn’t have made the decision to come here.”
She did, though, go on to make a very unusual admission: “I started doubting myself a bit and that’s the wrong attitude to have, especially on clay.” One thing’s for sure, it’s a rare day that Clijsters produces 65 errors in a single match.
So any chance Clijsters had to take the No1 ranking has gone with her earliest ever exit from Roland Garros since her debut in 2000. Caroline Wozniacki will remain at the top regardless of how many more matches she wins in Paris.
For the Dutch woman, this was the biggest win in her career thus far, though she promised much in taking Maria Sharapova to three sets in Madrid. And the Russian’s campaign to complete her career Grand Slam almost came to a premature end in Paris as well.
Sharapova, the highest remaining seed in her quarter, has been one of the hot tips for the title since she made such an impression against a below-par Sam Stosur to win on the clay of Rome.
That Premier title a fortnight ago was only her third title on clay: Like Clijsters, this is not her favourite surface. But with the courts and balls playing fast, the conditions in Paris suit her big-hitting game. What didn’t suit her, however, was the swirling wind and she seemed unable, in the early stages of her second-round match, to gauge her timing or her shot-length.
She faced, however, a young woman who adapted to the difficult conditions very quickly. The 17-year-old wild card, Caroline Garcia, showed herself to be a remarkable new talent and, to add a little drama to the proceedings, the youngster is French.
The Roland Garros crowd took her to their hearts as she rushed out to a 5-1 lead, thumping her huge forehand for winners a la Sharapova.
The Russian’s forehand, though, missed the lines as often as they found them and she looked the slower and more awkward of the two. Despite pulling back one break, Sharapova lost the opener, 6-3.
She then tried to take matters into her own hands by serving big and attacking the net, but her movement and flexibility are a weakness and Garcia wrong-footed her opponent time and again to break straight away.
The French woman continued to attack with energy, apparently unfazed by the tricky wind and the big occasion, and went up 4-1 and by a big margin in points: 50-35.
It was at this point that even Andy Murray, back in the locker room after an uninspiring though straightforward win over Simone Bolelli, started paying attention: “The girl Sharapova is playing is going to be number one in the world one day -Caroline Garcia, what a player -u heard it here first,” he posted on Twitter.
One day, perhaps, but not on this occasion. The teenager clearly began to feel the pressure and Sharapova -exuding a champion’s mentality -applied the pressure in equal measure. The Russian went on a spree to take the set 6-4 and it felt like the sea change that it was.
Sharapova, with the wind now apparently at her command, found all the power in her right arm and rushed away with the deciding set, 6-0. But it was the striking, spirited and talented French woman -despite 13 unforced errors in the final set -who drew the applause.
One can only hope that the Roland Garros website quickly found a picture of their new pin-up to replace the ‘photo not available’ notice on her profile.
Another woman with a habit of making the crowds smile is Na Li, progressing nicely in a hard-earned straight sets win. Her mantra for the day clearly helped her through the conditions better than most: “You have to be friends with the wind.”
However, Roland Garros ceased to be friends with the remaining British women. Elena Baltacha, apparently wrestling with dust in her contacts, went down in three sets to Vania King while Heather Watson put up a gutsy fight against one of the big threats for the title, Kaia Kanepi.
Watson has got further than in any Major before and will find herself in the top 100 for the time once the French is over. She can now turn her attention to preparations for the grass season -and she seems well able to cope with the expectations that that will bring.