Overruling Sexism: Is It Unstated in Tennis Officiating?

While sexism in tennis is an oft-debated topic, so rarely does the conversation delve into its role in the sport’s officiating. Great Britain’s Georgina Clark became the first woman to chair a Wimbledon women’s final just 30 years ago, but the number of female umpires at the highest level still pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Currently, the number of active men who hold a gold badge, the highest certification an official can hold in tennis, outnumber their female counterparts by a nearly 3:1 margin.

Alison Hughes (née Lang) of Great Britain has chaired 14 Grand Slam singles finals in her career. The recently-retired Lynn Welch worked a total of 15 Grand Slam finals in hers. Neither woman, possibly the two most decorated female officials of the past decade, has a men’s singles final on their resume. In fact, only one woman in tennis history has done so – Frenchwoman Sandra de Jenken chaired the men’s singles final at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2007. Since then, Eva Asderaki chaired back-to-back men’s doubles finals at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012 and became the first woman to chair a men’s final of any kind at the All-England Club. No other woman since de Jenken has been tasked with a singles final.

These issues are not exclusive to tennis, as women have struggled to break into the officiating ranks in all of the major American sports for decades. Since the inaugural National Football League (NFL) season in 1920, there has never been a permanent female official. Shannon Eastin was hired as a temporary non-union official during the controversial 2012 NFL referee lockout. In 1972, Bernice Gera sued to become the first female umpire in Major League Baseball (MLB). Pam Postema umpired a MLB spring training game in 1988, but no woman has ever featured on the diamond in a true MLB game. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were trailblazers in the National Basketball Association (NBA), as the two became the first female officials hired by the league in 1997. Kantner left the league in 2002, but Palmer became first woman to officiate an NBA playoff game on April 25, 2006 and worked as a referee in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.

Those select few and female umpires in tennis differ in their numbers…but it sends a strong message when you can still only count the latter on two hands. While no woman since de Jenken has chaired a men’s singles final, women do often chair men’s matches on both the ATP Tour and in Grand Slams. The reaction to their presence has been mixed. When Marija Cicak spoke with The Changeover’s Ana Mitric at the Citi Open last year, she said that she’s “personally…never felt discriminated against in any case.” At the 2008 US Open, David Ferrer told Kerrilyn Cramer  that “girls can’t do anything.” At the Monte Carlo Masters in 2011, Ernests Gulbis had a heated exchange with Mariana Alves over a double-bounce call, in which he asked if they could go out together afterwards. When Asderaki penalized Rafael Nadal with two time violations in his Australian Open match against Kei Nishikori earlier this year, Toni Nadal commented prior to the final that “they had a problem with a girl” and hoped that the umpire for the final would be “a bit better prepared.”

At Roland Garros on Friday, a female chair umpire found herself amidst controversy in a third round match between Daniela Hantuchova and Angelique Kerber. With Kerber leading 7-5, 3-1 and Hantuchova serving, the German hit a return that was called out on the baseline. Hantuchova returned the ball in play, and began walking towards her chair; chair umpire Louise Engzell came down to inspect the mark, and correctly overruled the ball as good. However, instead of ordering a replay, she instead incorrectly awarded the point to Kerber. Hantuchova, incensed, began to argue and call the supervisor to court. As the ruling was a matter of fact, not a matter of tennis law, the supervisor was forced to stick with Engzell’s decision.

A fixture in the chair, Engzell has had her share of dubious moments in recent memory; in the grand scheme of things, however, those moments have made up a small percentage of the matches in her career. Contracted by the ITF, she’s a regular at Grand Slams and in Fed and Davis Cup, while only working the occasional WTA event. As a result, the times she’s come under fire have all been on the biggest stages, perhaps none bigger than the 2011 Roland Garros final featuring Li Na and Francesca Schiavone.

Hantuchova went on to hold serve, but the entire exchange in itself proved inconsequential as Kerber still managed to win the match, 7-5, 6-3. By no means is this an attempt to defend, or explain away, the poor call Engzell made. The point should’ve been replayed without question; for whatever reason, she missed the fact that Hantuchova returned the overruled ball back into play. However, the personal vitriol Engzell received as a result of it is certainly misplaced.

A cursory Twitter and forum search of her name in the hours and days that followed Friday’s controversy  revealed not only customary phrases like “incompetence” and “unacceptable,” but also a whole host of derogatory names for women. Multiple comments also suggested that she should “go back to raising her child,” in reference to the maternity leave she took from the tour in 2013.

Despite the firestorm, tournament officials put her back in the chair early Saturday for the men’s third round match between Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. What began as a fairly straightforward affair turned into a five-set struggle, and late in the fifth, Engzell came down from her chair to check a close call. She hesitated for a moment in finding the mark, and immediately, her competence again was called into question by many of the same voices.

She found the right mark, and got the call right.

On Monday, she was in the chair again for the fourth round match between Kiki Bertens and Andrea Petkovic on Court Philippe Chatrier. With the controversy of Friday having somewhat died down, chatter started again about her qualifications when the official tournament website made note of the fact that she recently married tournament referee Remy Azemar, calling it “anecdote-tastic.”

Late in the third set, at a critical juncture no less, Engzell overruled a linesman on the far sideline on a Bertens winner, despite Petkovic’s insistence to the contrary. Engzell was right. In the next Bertens service game, Petkovic questioned a serve from the Dutchwoman that was called an ace; Engzell insisted that it was well inside the line, and denied Petkovic’s request to look at the mark. She was right again.

Was it redemption? Probably not. But, was Engzell’s personal life responsible for her excellent officiating performance on Monday? Certainly not. Does it then become “anecdotal” because she’s a woman? Take it another way: Would any of us had known if Mohamed El Jennati, the Moroccan umpire at the center of a similar controversy and social media firestorm earlier this year at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, was married to a female USTA referee? Would it have been deemed of consequence if he was?

Most would say that de Jenken broke the glass ceiling for women in tennis officiating nearly a decade ago. The harsh truth is, she barely cracked it.

In Defense of Ball Marks: Why Hawkeye on Clay is Unnecessary

Since Hawkeye was introduced in tennis in 2006, it has taken on an air on invincibility. How many times has a commentator erroneously proclaimed that a player should challenge, emphatically convinced from their position in the booth that the call is incorrect? As much as John McEnroe would hate to hear it, officials are more accurate than the punditry give them credit for. The technology? Not so much.

ITF rules state that any review system must be able to judge a ball in or out within a five millimeter margin of error (0.20 inches). Incorrect calls are fine, so long as they are not wrong by more than 10 millimeters (0.40 inches). Paul Hawkins, the godfather of Hawkeye technology, said that its margin of error of the current system averages about 3.6 millimeters (0.14 inches). The standard diameter of an ITF approved tennis ball is 67 millimeters; mathematically, Hawkeye has a 5% margin of error as it relates to the ball.

Hawkeye is not a live picture, nor is it accurate representation of the ball hitting the court. At its core, Hawkeye is an “officiating aid”; it is not meant to completely replace the role of on-court officials. It is nothing more than a digitally-generated representation of court conditions and where the ball landed based on its trajectory off the racket. It’s no coincidence that the marks on Hawkeye replays look very similar to each other, regardless of what type of shot is being challenged. On clay, the mark is an actual representation of the ball hitting the court. Each ball mark will look different based on what kind of shot was hit, whether it be a lob, overhead, etc. Occasionally, there is an argument about a ball mark or reading from the chair umpire, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t happen very often at all. One misinterpretation might be beaten to death, but it doesn’t actually mean it’s an epidemic. Even though the occasional ball mark will be misread by the umpire, the risk of that is statistically far lower than a margin of error of +/- 3.6 millimeters on every ball.

In a sense, implementing Hawkeye on clay would be ‘put up or shut up’ time for the technology and its manufacturers. The mark never lies and players, officials and fans can finally see for themselves how many calls were upheld or overturned when they really shouldn’t have been. Set the scene for the worst case scenario, and a very plausible one. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are playing in a Roland Garros final, late in the fifth set. Nadal’s shot is called out on a break point for Djokovic, and Nadal challenges. The technology rules the ball in, but there’s a clear mark showing that it is in fact out. There’s no evidence to suggest that the technology is more accurate than the mark, so what’s right? That might be an extreme example but a valid, and very real, concern. The chair umpire’s hands are tied and control over the match is more or less taken out of his or her hands. On the other side of the coin, the credibility of the technology as a whole take a hit. What happens then?

So why has Hawkeye passed the test for accuracy on hard and grass courts and not clay? Briefly, the ball does not leave a discernable mark that can be read on either of these surfaces. On a hard court, Hawkeye cuts down on arguments because players recognize that the mark there is not always the full representation of the ball. In addition, the lines are painted on both these surfaces; they’re flat, and allow for Hawkeye to gauge a more accurate reading. The lines on clay are not even. This is another one of the biggest reasons why Hawkeye on clay can’t work.

“We decided not to use Hawk-Eye on clay because it might not agree with the mark the umpire is pointing at,” now-retired chair umpire Lars Graff said in 2009. “Most clay courts now have embedded concrete lines that sit a millimetre above the surface. This means that a ball that nicks the line, and therefore is in, does not show up on the clay but would show up as ‘in’ on Hawk-Eye. That would cause a problem.”

The same goes for “Hawkeye” that’s in place for television replays. It’s not an official review and used for nothing more than the entertainment of the television viewing audience. If the technology hasn’t been authorized for official use on the surface, and its accuracy on the surface called into question, it’s irresponsible to even be showing these kind of replays.

An example: In a match between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Monaco at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2011, Tsonga hit a serve that was wide of the center service line which was called out by the line umpire. The chair umpire came down and inspected the mark and agreed the serve was out. Tsonga agreed with the ruling. A view of the mark on the clay was then shown, and it was clearly out.

They then showed the unofficial Hawkeye image, which was just touching the line.

If some kind of electronic review is to be implemented on clay, an entirely new system would need to be developed. While Hawkeye is a great tool, it has its flaws and has no place on clay in its current form. Reading ball marks on clay has nothing to do with the ‘purity of the game’ or ‘being stuck in the past.’ No one should be convinced that a Hawkeye replay is actually more accurate than reading a ball mark. Until the day comes that Hawkeye has zero margin of error, it won’t be. It’s simple math.

“As a player, you love Hawkeye,” Mike Bryan said earlier this week at Roland Garros. “You know that it’s right on.”

But is it?

Real Talk: McEnroe Opens His Mouth, Talks Nadal at the French

Rafael Nadal has been back on the ATP for three months, and it’s like he never left. Nadal is 21-2 on the year with three titles including decimations of the fields in Sao Paulo and Acapulco and a run to his third Indian Wells title on his “least favorite surface.”

Nonetheless, Nadal currently sits at No. 5 in the ATP rankings with little opportunity to make a dent in the list due to massive numbers of points to defend from 2012. Even prior to Nadal’s defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo, snapping his streak of eight consecutive titles, the discussion about whether or not Roland Garros should bump Nadal up to a higher seeding has run rampant.

Guy Forget, a member of the Roland Garros seeding committee, first stated to Reuters that it would be a shame to see Nadal and Djokovic potentially square off in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

“The rules state the grand slam events have the right to change the seeding regarding the situation of the players. Wimbledon has done that in the past,” Forget said, as reported by Matt Cronin of tennis.com. “I would not find it illogical to change the seeds.”

As if the continuing speculation wasn’t enough, John McEnroe threw his opinion into the bullring on Tuesday. In an interview with Richard Pagliaro of tennis.com, McEnroe made his feelings known on the subject in a way that only he can.

“Let me put it to you this way: I guarantee you that none of those four guys, as great as they are, want to see him in the quarters,” McEnroe said. “Quite honestly, I would seed him number one. I’d seed him number one, actually, because I think he deserves that. I think the other players deserve it.”

“Certainly, you can’t even possibly question if he should be [seeded] ahead of David Ferrer, as much as I respect him, or for that matter even Murray on clay,” McEnroe said. “Djokovic is the only one, given his accomplishments on clay, that you could possibly make an argument deserves to be seeded ahead of [Nadal]…I don’t know that they [the Roland Garros seeding committee] are willing to change the seedings at their event.”

Personally, the whole idea of changing seedings at slams has always been ridiculous. Wimbledon has a track record of this, notably bumping Maria Sharapova to the 24th seed at the 2009 event; Sharapova was on the comeback from shoulder surgery at the time and was ranked 59th in the world. There’s no doubt that Nadal and Djokovic are the prohibitive co-favorites to lift the trophy at Roland Garros; however, in a sport where ranking and the benefits that come with a certain number are so critical for 99% of its players, altering of seedings just seems to trivialize the others’ accomplishments.

Take McEnroe’s example of Murray and Ferrer. If the argument is to seed Nadal above them both due to the gulf in clay court prowess and accomplishments, then the same argument could be used to seed Ferrer above Murray. Murray hasn’t reached a semifinal on clay since Roland Garros in 2011, and many do not consider him one of the four best players in the world on clay. If Roland Garros is going to change the seedings to “show respect” for Nadal’s accomplishments, then where do they draw the line? Do his accomplishments matter more because he’s won 11 major titles? Does that not show him preferential treatment?

If Nadal wants to win his eighth Roland Garros title, the odds are great that he’s still going to have to defeat two of Murray, Federer and Djokovic to get there. Considering his combined head-to-head record against them on clay is 28-5, does it honestly matter the order in which he does it? Considering the history of unpredictability in Paris, it’s almost as likely that he’ll instead need to navigate a draw Wawrinka, Monaco and Amagro to reach the final. On the other hand, if Djokovic wants to win Roland Garros and complete the career Grand Slam, it’s almost a sure bet that he’ll have to beat Nadal to do it. If he loses to Nadal, and it doesn’t matter when, the entire point is moot anyway.

It’s up to the draw to decide, and no one or nothing else.

that’s a wrap! Roland Garros 2012

Women’s Singles – (2) Maria Sharapova d. (21) Sara Errani 63 62

Maria Sharapova cemented her place among the all-time greats by winning her first Roland Garros title, and completing the career Grand Slam. She is the only woman to complete the career Grand Slam by winning her fourth major title.

“It’s a wonderful moment in my career. I’m really speechless. It’s been such a journey for me to get to this stage. ‘I could have said, ‘I don’t need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams.’ But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it’s freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn’t there from the outside world, and you seem so small,” said Sharapova. “But you can achieve great things when you don’t listen to all those things.”

Sharapova raced out to a *40 lead in the first set, overwhelming the first time finalist with a barrage of powerful and accurate groundstrokes. However, Errani found her footing in the match, and began to play the style of game that had brought her so much success on clay in 2012. The Italian pulled to within one service break, but Sharapova allowed her to get no closer, finishing strong to take the set. While the Italian began to play better in the second set, Sharapova proved too strong, again getting out to a *41 lead. Errani managed to break Sharapova in a marathon game, but surrendered her serve again soon after. Despite saving two championship points with perfectly executed forehand drop shots, Errani could not save a third as her backhand drop shot attempt failed to reach the net. In perhaps the most amusing moment of the match, the two shared a laugh when the stadium public address announcer incorrectly called for Sharapova to come forward as the runner-up, and Errani raised her arms in mock triumph. By virtue of reaching the final, Sharapova also claimed the #1 ranking for the first time since 2008.

Sara Errani didn’t go home without a champion’s trophy, however. She and fellow Italian Roberta Vinci took home their first Grand Slam title, defeating the Russian pairing of Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova 46 64 62.

Men’s Singles – (2) Rafael Nadal d. (1) Novak Djokovic 64 63 26 75

In a rain delayed two-day final, Rafael Nadal won his seventh career title at Roland Garros, surpassing Bjorn Borg’s record for all-time career titles on the red clay of Paris. He denied Novak Djokovic both the career Grand Slam, and the chance to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major titles at once. Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to a near-spotless 52-1.

”This tournament is, for me, the most special tournament of the world,” Nadal said. ”It was a very difficult match against the best player in the world. ‘I lost three Grand Slam finals – Wimbledon, the U.S. Open last year, and the Australian Open this year. I’m very happy, very emotional.”

Nadal jumped out to an early *30 lead in the first set, courtesy of some erratic play from the World #1. While Djokovic hit back, winning three straight games, Nadal regained his advantage in the seventh game, breaking Djokovic’s serve off of a double fault. After closing out the first set in just under an hour, Nadal gained an early advantage in the second set, and after holding serve for 53*, play was suspended the first time due to rain. When the players returned to court just over a half an hour later, Nadal broke Djokovic easily to wrap up a two set advantage. It looked as though Nadal would run away with the match when he gained an early break advantage in the third set, as conditions worsened due to rain. Djokovic went on an unprecedented run, winning eight straight games to take the set and claim an early break in the fourth. The match was suspended again, and Nadal was displeased with tournament officials for allowing play to continue as long as it had. When they returned to the courts Monday, Nadal broke back immediately, and the match went with serve until *56, when Djokovic double faulted to hand Nadal the title.

Top seeds Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor took home the men’s doubles crown, defeating second seeds Bob and Mike Bryan 64 64. The Bryan brothers were looking to break Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde’s record for all-time career Grand Slam titles. Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupati took home the mixed doubles title, defeating surprise finalists Klaudia Jans-Ignacik and Santiago Gonzalez, 76(3) 61.

Five Things to Take Away from Roland Garros 2012

1. The Big Four? Try the Top Two. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal once again proved their superiority over the rest of the field this fortnight. The two, along with Roger Federer and Andy Murray, have been dubbed “The Big Four” on the ATP Tour. It’s becoming more apparent that “The Big Four” is a myth; Murray is rapidly falling back to the pack, and as evidenced by his semifinal performance against Djokovic, Federer is having more difficulty keeping up with the top two even when they aren’t at their best. Federer hasn’t won a major title since the 2010 Australian Open.

2. “MARIA SHARAPOVA IS BACK!!!!111oneone!” No, Maria Sharapova never left. When Maria Sharapova returned from shoulder surgery in 2009, few expected her to be the same player. Sharapova’s fighting qualities were never in doubt, and it was always a matter of her game coming back together. Through all the double faults, unforced errors and shocking losses, she never stopped fighting. Sharapova’s game, and perhaps more crucially her confidence, stem from her serve, and it finally appears that it has returned to her. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Russian’s serve desert her in the crucial moments, but not anymore. Sharapova won an average of 70% of her first serve points for the tournament, and her confidence in her serve was evident in both her semifinal against Petra Kvitova, where she served a second serve ace on match point, and in the final, where she served three aces in the final game to secure the title.

3. Hold up on that obituary for American women’s tennis. It’s long been asserted that once the Williams sisters retired, the future of American women’s tennis looked bleak. No one told these ladies. Christina McHale, ranked 29th, is the second highest ranked American behind Serena Williams and there is no one younger ranked above her. She played Li Na tough in the third round before falling in three sets. Teenagers Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis made the fourth round and second round after qualifying, respectively. Veteran and newly minted citizen Varvara Lepchenko also made the fourth round, upsetting Francesca Schiavone and Jelena Jankovic, and cementing her status on the Olympic team. Only one American woman lost in a completed first round match, and that was Serena Williams.

4. You can’t keep a good (wo)man down. Let’s show some love to qualifiers Tommy Haas and Yaroslava Shvedova who both conjured up their vintage best during the fortnight. Haas, a four-time major semifinalist and former World No. 2, has been slowed by age and injury the past few seasons but deserves full credit for trying to fight his way back. After coming through qualifying, Haas downed Filippo Volandri and Sergiy Stakhovsky before falling to Richard Gasquet in four sets. Shvedova, who reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2010, repeated the feat this year – taking out Mandy Minella, Sofia Arvidsson, Carla Suarez Navarro and defending champion Li Na before falling to Petra Kvitova in three tough sets.

5. Unlike a fine wine, stars sour with age. Multiple WTA tour veterans are approaching a career crossroads with the Olympics on the horizon. Vera Zvonareva, who withdrew from Roland Garros prior to her first match, is facing a career-threatening shoulder injury. Russian Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev says she will forgo surgery for the moment and try alternative therapy; Tarpischev says it’s likely she will not play at all until the Olympics. Jelena Jankovic, who dropped out of the top 20 for the first time since 2006, won ONE Tour-level match on the clay. Francesca Schiavone, who has been in poor form for the large part of the season, plummeted 15 spots in the rankings after failing to defend a finals showing at Roland Garros.

Roland Garros Final Preview: The King of Clay and The King of the Moment Chase History

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l to r: Novak Djokovic, in pursuit of the career Grand Slam, will be looking to put a stop to Rafael Nadal’s career domination at Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet in their fourth straight Grand Slam final and each has a chance to make tennis history. Djokovic, who has defeated Nadal in three successive Grand Slam finals, has never defeated the Spaniard in Paris; Nadal defeated him in three successive years from 2006-2008. Expanding it further, Djokovic had won seven straight matches against Nadal until the Spaniard triumphed in the finals of both Monte Carlo and Rome.

“I have the chance to break the Borg record because I have already won six. The pressure is the same every year. I am here because I try my best every day and because I have a lot of motivation, the desire to try to win the tournament, not because it’s the seventh, because it’s Roland Garros. It’s one of my top tournaments of the year, if not the most important.So seriously, the extra pressure for me is zero. In the end, if it finally happens, it’s going to be another thing that maybe is important, maybe not that important. For me, the important thing is Roland Garros.”

Nadal, in pursuit of his seventh title at Roland Garros, looks to pass Bjorn Borg’s all-time record at the event. The Spaniard has been in sizzling form, dropping his serve only once in the tournament – in his first match. He has lost only 35 games en route to the final, the fewest he has ever lost en route to a finals appearance in Paris. Borg holds the Open Era record, having dropped 32 games en route the title in 1978. Nadal will also be looking to raise his eleventh Grand Slam trophy, and his first since his four-set win over Roger Federer at last year’s event. Federer, after falling to Djokovic in the semifinals, described Nadal as the “overwhelming favorite” to win the title. Despite his dominant 51-1 record at the event, Nadal refuses to view himself as the favorite:

“I don’t feel I’m the great favourite, as he said, because I’m going to play against the number one.”

Nadal’s Road to the Final:

R1: d. Simone Bolelli (ITA) 62 62 61

R2: d. Denis Istomin (UZB) 60 62 62

R3: d. (Q) Eduardo Schwank (ARG) 61 63 64

R4: d. (13) Juan Monaco (ARG) 62 60 60

QF: (12) Nicolas Almagro (ESP) 76(4) 63 62

SF: d. (6) David Ferrer (ESP) 62 62 61

“I haven’t won a set against him in this court. All the facts are on his side,” Djokovic said. “But, look, I feel different nowadays. I believe I’m at the peak of my career. I’m playing the best tennis of my life in last year and a half, and I should use that. I should use that as a confidence (boost) and try to get my hands on a title.”

As the Spaniard cruised through his half of the draw, Djokovic had a considerably tougher road to his first French Open final. First, he was forced to rally from two sets down against Italian Andreas Seppi in the fourth round, and saved four match points against Frenchman Jo-Wilifred Tsonga in the quarterfinals. Djokovic will be looking to complete the career Grand Slam, as well as be the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major titles at once. Despite his struggles early in the event, the Serbian hit his stride late in his semifinal against Federer, striking 27 winners and making only 17 unforced errors in windy conditions.

Djokovic’s Road to the Final:

R1: d. Potitio Starace (ITA) 76(4) 63 61

R2: d. Blaz Kavcic (SLO) 60 64 64

R3: d. (WC) Nicolas Devilder (FRA) 61 62 62

R4: d. (22) Andreas Seppi (ITA) 46 67(5) 63 75 63

QF: d. (5) Jo-Wilifred Tsonga (FRA) 61 57 57 76(6) 61

SF: d. (3) Roger Federer (SUI) 64 75 63

Djokovic and Nadal rank first and second for break points converted in the event; Djokovic leads all competitors with 39 break points converted and Nadal is right on his heels having converted 37. As we’ve come to expect, this match will be dominated by long, grinding rallies. Nadal and Djokovic both appear three times on the “Longest Rally Count Leaders” list. Nadal played a 34 shot rally against Almagro, a 32 shot rally against Ferrer and a 31 shot rally against Istomin; he won two of the three points. Djokovic, to his credit, also came out on top in two of the three longest rallies of the tournament; he and Federer had both a 36 and 28 shot rally in the semifinals, and he also played a 30 shot rally against Devilder.

The two have played 32 times in their career, with Nadal leading 18-14. Djokovic leads the head-to-head in Grand Slam finals 3-1, after triumphs in 2011 at Wimbledon and the US Open, and earlier this year in a six-hour epic at the Australian Open. The final will mark the fourteenth time the two have met on clay, where Nadal leads Djokovic 11-2.

Roland Garros Final Preview: Cinderella Sara to Spoil Maria’s Date with Destiny?

l to r: First-time major finalist Sara Errani will be looking to spoil the party as Maria Sharapova looks to complete the career Grand Slam. 

July 3rd, 2004. Maria Sharapova, then just 17, stunned the tennis world by winning Wimbledon. The Russian stepped out, on the biggest stage in the sport, and announced to the world that she had arrived. She took home $888,211.

Who knows if Sara Errani, then also 17, was aware of Sharapova’s triumph. While fairly close to the lawns of the All-England Club geographically, she could not have been further away. The Italian had just been defeated by Goulnara Fattakhetdinova in the second round of qualifying at an ITF event in Cuneo, Italy. She pocketed $147.

Their careers have taken opposite paths since but exactly seven years, eleven months and six days later, they will play for a Grand Slam championship.

“I was in a position a few years ago where I didn’t quite know if I would ever be here again on this stage, playing professionally. And not just at that, but at a level to get to No. 1 in the world and a first Roland Garros final for me,” Sharapova said. “So a very special day, no doubt.”

Maria Sharapova came into Roland Garros on a high, having triumphed at two of the four major clay court warmup events in Stuttgart (d. Azarenka) and Rome (d. Li). The lone Grand Slam jewel missing from her resume, The stars have seemed to align this fortnight for Sharapova – with Williams’ shocking exit in the first round to Virginie Razzano, Sharapova was instantly anointed the favorite for the title. She’s played like it too. In the first three rounds, Sharapova dropped a total of five games, and her opponents hit a combined nine winners against her. In total, Sharapova was pushed to three sets just once, but came out on top in a gritty, error-strewn fourth round match against Klara Zakopalova. Sharapova will also return to the #1 ranking for the first time since 2008 on Monday, having needed to reach the final to do so. 2012 marks the first time Sharapova has reached the finals at Roland Garros, having previously made the semifinals in 2007 and 2011.

Sharapova’s Road to the Final:

R1: d. Alexandra Cadantu (ROU) 60 60

R2: d. Ayumi Morita (JPN) 61 61

R3: d. (28) Peng Shuai (CHN) 62 61

R4: d. Klara Zakopalova (CZE) 64 67(5) 62

QF: d. (23) Kaia Kanepi (EST) 62 63

SF: d. (4) Petra Kvitova (CZE) 63 63

“It’s not a question of believing or not believing,” Errani said. “I don’t think about that. I just think about playing. I just think about going on court and giving my all. And whatever happens, happens. I’ve never thought, ‘I can’t beat someone in the top 10.””

While Sharapova coasted through the bottom half, Errani was making waves on top. After making the Australian Open quarterfinals, Errani, like Sharapova, found her footing on clay early. The Italian picked up three titles in Acapulco (d. Pennetta), Barcelona (d. Cibulkova) and Budapest (d. Vesnina). Prior to this year, Errani had won a grand total of one match at Roland Garros. That win came last year, in a memorable first round match against American Christina McHale; the American led *50 in the final set before Errani rallied to win, 67(4) 62 97. Errani took advantage of a wide open top half, following the early exits of World #3 Agnieszka Radwanska, who lost in the third round to Svetlana Kuznetsova and World #1 Victoria Azarenka, who fell in the fourth round to Dominika Cibulkova.  She had previously been 0-28 against top 10 opponents before scoring back-to-back wins against #10 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and #6 Samantha Stosur in the semifinals. Errani will debut in the top 10 herself on Monday, finishing no lower than #10 regardless of the result. She is also the first player since Kim Clijsters in 2003 to reach both the singles and doubles finals at Roland Garros; she and countrywoman Roberta Vinci will face Russians Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova on Friday.

Errani’s Road to the Final:

R1: d. Casey Dellacqua (AUS) 46 62 62

R2: d. Melanie Oudin (USA) 62 63

R3: d. (13) Ana Ivanovic (SRB) 16 75 63

R4: d. (26) Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) 60 75

QF: d. (10) Angelique Kerber (GER) 63 76(2)

SF: d. (6) Samantha Stosur (AUS) 75 16 63

The final presents a contrast in styles; while Errani lacks Sharapova’s brute strength and power, she makes up for it in court craft and guile. The Russian will be looking to impose her will on Errani early, while the Italian will be looking to outmaneuver and draw out longer rallies with Sharapova. Both women will be looking to break serve often; Sharapova leads all competitors with 40 break points converted, with Errani close behind having converted 38. Sharapova has the clear edge in the serve department, having served 13 aces and her serve has topped out at 113 MPH. Errani, to her credit, has landed 79% of her first serves in six matches.

There is no head-to-head history between the two, as they have never faced. Sharapova will be looking to be the third Russian to triumph at Roland Garros, after Myskina in 2004 and Kuznetsova in 2009; Errani will be looking to repeat the 2010 triumph of countrywoman Francesca Schiavone.

Circus Chatrier: starring Serena, Virginie, Some Pigeons and More Hindrance

Virginie Razzano’s stunning 46 76(5) 63 upset of Serena Williams in the opening round of Roland Garros on Tuesday handed the American her first loss in the first round of a Grand Slam. Razzano, who reached a career high ranking of #16 in 2009, has suffered through numerous personal and physical setbacks in her tennis career. Shortly after she reached her career high ranking, she was plagued by multiple injuries, and plummeted back down the rankings. Prior to the start of the 2011 French Open, Razzano’s fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, passed away due to a brain tumor. Coming into Roland Garros, Razzano was ranked #111, exactly 106 spots under Williams. Williams, undefeated on clay in 2012 and the champion in Charleston and Madrid, was considered the favorite by many to win the title.  Why do we love tennis? No one gave the Frenchwoman a chance, and she proved everyone wrong.

The match has reignited a debate regarding the rules of tennis and how clear they actually are. Once again, the hindrance rule takes center stage at a Grand Slam. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki penalized Razzano three time in the match citing the rule. I’ve read and heard some of the most ridiculous things in regards to the rule over the past two days, and it doesn’t help that most of the former players commentating, especially for major American TV networks…I’m looking at you McEnroe and Carillo, are completely unaware of what the hindrance rule actually means. The ITF and WTA hindrance rules read as follows:

ITF rule:

26. HINDRANCE
If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.
However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).

WTA rule:

H. HINDRANCE RULE
If a player hinders her opponent, it can be ruled as either involuntary or deliberate.
1. Involuntary Hindrance
A let should be called the first time a player has created an involuntary hindrance (e.g., ball falling out of pocket, hat falling off, etc.), and the player should be told that any such hindrance thereafter will be ruled deliberate.
2. Deliberate Hindrance
Any hindrance caused by a player that is ruled deliberate will result in the loss of a point.

In both instances, the first involuntary hindrance is regarded as a let, while any subsequent involuntary hindrance is ruled intentional, and penalized accordingly.

“Well if Razzano is going to get penalized for that, than Azarenka, Sharapova, etc, who are louder, should all be defaulted in the first game. Can’t wait to see her umpire them.”

First off, it’s laughable that a decent amount of people think Asderaki has never umpired Azarenka, Sharapova, Schiavone or your other favorite noise maker before. She’s experienced and one of the best in the game, and has chaired all of them. Secondly, Razzano WAS NOT penalized for grunting. I cannot stress this clearly enough. Razzano was penalized for a verbal utterance of pain, which is an entirely different issue according to the rules. Also, the volume of the hindrance is irrelevant in determining whether a act of hindrance has taken place.

Razzano’s first verbal utterance is considered involuntary or out of her control, as it was the exact moment that her cramp/injury/ailment occurred. Asderaki, in correct procedure, asked her if she needed the trainer, she said no, and then warned her if it happened again it would be a point penalty. It happened twice more, and you know the rest. There is literally nothing here outside the letter of the rules. The clarity of hindrance rule has long been hotly debated in tennis circles; however, the language of the rule is clear. Those intent on crucifying Asderaki should know she is just an umpire; she doesn’t make the rules, she and the others just enforce them as instructed.

Those who have an issue with grunting as it relates to “deliberate and unintentional,” should realize that if the umpires were stricter in the 80’s and 90’s regarding it, there would be no issue today. Grunting is covered in a different section in the rules, and is also amended for 2012 in the notes and comments section of the 2012 USTA Friend at Court.

USTA Comment 26.1: What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who hits a short lob in doubles and loudly shouts “back” just before an opponent hits the overhead. (See The Code § 34.) Unintentional refers to an act over which a player has no control, such as a hat blowing off or a scream after a wasp sting.

Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of an official. Grunting and the making of loud noises that affect the outcome of a point are hindrances. Only an official may rule that these actions are hindrances and order that a let be played or a loss of point, depending on whether an official had previously warned the offending player.
Keep in mind, and I STRESS THIS GREATLY: This rule was rewritten by the USTA for 2012 in an attempt to provide further clarity on this issue. The rules, while they may vary slightly from federation to federation, are by-in-large consistent across the board, and with ATP, WTA and ITF rules. The point remains that officials are supposed to distinguish between grunts and shrieks of pain in regards to hindrance. The bolded portion of the grunting amendment is where this distinction happens; how are officials to rule if grunting affects the outcome of the point if no player seems to take issue during the match? As the rule stands, grunting is only considered a hindrance in VERY specific circumstances. Razzano’s shrieks of pain came as Williams was preparing for her shot, and fall clearly under the hindrance category.

“Why was Serena penalized right away but they replayed the point on the first hindrance?”

The hindrance ruling at the US Open was 100% correct because it falls under the category of deliberate. The word deliberate in this context covers BOTH the deliberate action performed with the intent to hinder AND a deliberate action which causes a hindrance anyway. The situation at the US Open fell into the latter; the phrase “Come on!” is considered a deliberate verbal utterance. The intent was not to hinder, but since it is a deliberate action, it falls under deliberate hindrance. The point penalty is given immediately.

“Why is this umpire the only one calling hindrances?”

Mardy Fish was called on a hindrance in his loss to Matt Ebden by Felix Torralba at the 2012 BNP Paribas Open. Marion Bartoli was also called on hindrance against Christina McHale at the 2011 US Open. Unintentional hindrances such as hats blown off by wind or balls falling from skirts (a notable example of this coming in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open in a match with Maria Sharapova and Camille Pin) are common. End of discussion.

Far too often, chair umpires have been criticized for being too soft: this player takes too much time in between points, this player gets illegal on court coaching, etc. Asderaki followed the letter of the rule to a T, and her implementation of the rule was spot on for the first two hindrances. The third, which many have taken issue with, was arguably a judgement call, but was still correct. Don’t shoot the messengers because the rule is hazed under 50 shades of gray.

Can we stop talking about it now?

Tango on the Terre Battue – Roland Garros 2012 Preview

Ladies’ Preview

In 2011, Li Na defeated defending champion Francesca Schiavone 64 76(0) to win her first Grand Slam title.

Last year, Li Na stormed through the women’s field, losing only two sets en route to the title, and became the first Asian and Chinese Grand Slam champion in singles. The win catapulted her to star status in her home nation, and a flood of endorsement deals followed. Li struggled with her new status for the rest of 2011, but has been rounding into form of late – at the just right time.

This year, the two women in the spotlight are very comfortable in that role: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. Sharapova and Williams split the major clay-court warmup events, with the American winning in Charleston (d. Safarova) and Madrid (d. Azarenka), and the Russian taking the crowns in Stuttgart (d. Azarenka) and Rome (d. Li). Williams has one French Open crown, which came in 2002 (d. V. Williams), but Sharapova is still searching for her first title in Paris to complete the career Grand Slam.

Breaking it All Down

First Quarter: (1) Victoria Azarenka (BLR), (6) Samantha Stosur (AUS), (12) Sabine Lisicki (GER), (15) Dominika Cibulkova (SVK), (20) Lucie Safarova (CZE), (24) Petra Cetkovska (CZE), (27) Nadia Petrova (RUS), (31) Jie Zheng (CHN)

World #1 Victoria Azarenka is playing her first Grand Slam as the top seed, and is the recipient of a kind draw. Azarenka has not been as dominant on clay as she was on the early season hard courts, having been handily defeated by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams in the Stuttgart and Madrid finals and causing controversy with her withdrawal from Rome. Despite being the top seed, there is less pressure on Azarenka coming into this event, as most pundits are talking about Williams, Sharapova and Li as the favorites. Azarenka opens against Alberta Brianti, and her first challenge could come against either Dominika Cibulkova or Lucie Safarova. Cibulkova will no doubt be looking to challenge Azarenka in a projected fourth round match, after letting a 62 *51 lead slip away in the fourth round of Indian Wells, she was the beneficiary of Azarenka’s withdrawal in Rome. 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur anchors the bottom of this quarter, and she opens her campaign against Great Britain’s Elena Baltacha.

Unseeded threats in this section include Ekaterina Makarova, who not only made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year (d. Zvonareva, S. Williams en route) but also made the fourth round here in 2011. She opens against American teenager Sloane Stephens, who has cited clay as her favorite surface, and is coming off her first WTA semifinal appearance in Strasbourg (l. to Schiavone). Simona Halep, who opens against Cetkovska, is another dangerous floater in this section. Halep, in her young career, has shown her skill on clay courts; she finished runner-up in this week in Brussels (l. to Radwanska), has reached three career finals on the surface, and her best chance of a Grand Slam breakthrough will no doubt be at this event. Local hopes in this section are on  the shoulders of Alize Cornet. Cornet, who reached a career high of #11 in 2009, has slipped down to #83 in the rankings, but is coming off a runner-up finish in Strasbourg (l. to Schiavone). She’ll play Zheng in the opening round. Also looming in this section is 2010 Rome champion Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

Sabine Lisicki is the big name in this section who could crash out early. The German, who is 10-11 on the year, has struggled after re-aggravating an ankle injury in Charleston. She opens against American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who despite coming off injury is comfortable on clay, and could face Ekaterina Makarova or Sloane Stephens in the second round. She would be drawn to play Stosur in the fourth round.

Second Quarter: (3) Agnieszka Radwanska (POL), (8) Marion Bartoli (FRA), (10) Angelique Kerber (GER), (13) Ana Ivanovic (SRB), (18) Flavia Pennetta (ITA), (21) Sara Errani (ITA), (26) Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS), (29) Anabel Medina Garrigues (ESP)

Agnieszka Radwanska goes into the French Open in good form, having just won her third title of the year this week in Brussels (d. Halep). Radwanska, who has never reached a Grand Slam semifinal, has a tough draw. She opens against streaky Serbian Bojana Jovanovski, and Venus Williams potentially looms in the second round; Williams opens against rising Argentine Paula Ormaechea. That match would be a rematch of their quarterfinal match in Miami when Radwanska triumphed in straight sets. The winner of that match could potentially face 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova; 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic and three-time clay court titlist Sara Errani loom in the fourth round. Eighth-seeded and 2011 semifinalist Marion Bartoli and 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber anchor the bottom part of this quarter, and they are in opposing forms. Bartoli, the French favorite who often struggles on clay, has only won one match on European clay this year. Kerber, who broke into the top 10 for the first time this week, reached the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. 18th-seeded Italian Flavia Pennetta could play spolier in this section, provided a recurring wrist injury which forced her to retire against Serena Williams in Rome proves to not be an issue.

Other unseeded players to watch in this section include former top 15 player Shahar Peer and Johanna Larsson, who despite having a poor year, has shown prowess on clay in the past, upsetting Ivanovic in the first round here and reaching the final in Bastad last year. She opens against Melanie Oudin, the beneficiary of the USTA wildcard. Oudin, whose struggles have been well documented since her breakthrough run to the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2009, is playing in her first Grand Slam main draw since last year’s US Open, and has never won a match in Paris.

Third Quarter: (4) Petra Kvitova, (7) Na Li (CHN), (11) Vera Zvonareva (RUS), (14) Francesca Schiavone (ITA), (17) Roberta Vinci (ITA), (19) Jelena Jankovic (SRB), (30) Mona Barthel (GER), (32) Monica Niculescu (ROU)

At this time last year, Petra Kvitova was in the midst of her breakthrough. Having stormed to the title in Madrid, she play Li tough in the fourth round, being up a break in the final set before succumbing. A few months later, she went on to win Wimbledon, and blasted through the field at the WTA Championships. Most expected her to dominate the field this year, but it just hasn’t happened. Kvitova has struggled with injury and illness, and comes into the event with question marks after suffering an abdominal injury in Rome. She opens against 15-year-old Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty. Li Na has her work cut out for her early, with a tricky opening match against Sorana Cirstea, and a potential third round encounter with Christina McHale or breakthrough player of the year Mona Barthel.

This quarter is heavy with unseeded players who can spoil the party. McHale is in good form this season, having defeated Petra Kvitova in Indian Wells, and has reached back-to-back third rounds in Grand Slams. Romania’s Sorana Cirstea and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro have proven they have what it takes to perform on the big stages, particularly at Roland Garros. Cirstea made the quarterfinals in 2009, and Suarez Navarro accomplished the same feat in 2008. Cirstea has shown no aversion to playing reigning Grand Slam champions, having defeated Samantha Stosur in the first round at the Australian Open.

Seeds primed for an early exit in this section are Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic. Zvonareva, who was seeded #3 at Roland Garros in 2011, has been plagued by hip and shoulder problems this season, and is a pedestrian 7-7 on the year. She opens against rising teenager Timea Babos, and could face Suarez Navarro in the second round. Jankovic dropped out of the top 20 this week for the first time since 2006, and has lost in the opening round in seven of her last eight events. The former World #1 faces Patricia Mayr-Achleitner in the opening round, with Ksenia Pervak, Varvara Lepchenko, Tsvetana Pironkova, Yanina Wickmayer and/or Francesca Schiavone looming on the horizon.

Fourth Quarter: (2) Maria Sharapova (RUS), (5) Serena Williams (USA), (9) Caroline Wozniacki (DEN), (16) Maria Kirilenko (RUS), (22) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS), (23) Kaia Kanepi (EST), (25) Julia Goerges (GER), (28) Shuai Peng (CHN)

What a difference a year makes. Last year at Roland Garros, Caroline Wozniacki was World #1 and the top seed, but crashed out in the third round to Daniela Hantuchova. This year, she is not only drawn to meet Serena Williams in the fourth round, but could face Jarmila Gajdosova in the second round or Kaia Kanepi in the third; both are capable of taking the match completely out of Wozniacki’s hands. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova could face off in the quarterfinals, a matchup Williams has dominated since 2005.

Dangerous unseeded players in this section include Lucie Hradecka, who made the semifinals in Madrid as a qualifier, posting wins over Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur before falling to Williams. She and Julia Goerges will face off in a hard-hitting opening round, with the winner likely going on to face Williams in round three. Clay court specialists Irina-Camelia Begu and Polona Hercog are also looming in this section, with Hercog potentially drawn to face Sharapova in the second round, where Begu could face Kanepi.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Shuai Peng are the seeded players who will most likely fall early here. Peng has not won a match since Miami, and faces Tamira Paszek in the first round, while Pavlyuchenkova has struggled mightily this season, posting a 5-14 record on the year. The Russian is defending a quarterfinal here in Paris, and opens against veteran Greta Arn.

Men’s Preview 

In 2011, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer for his sixth French Open crown and 10th Grand Slam title, 75 76(3) 57 61.

There are only three things certain in this world: death, taxes and Rafa in Paris. A six-time champion in Paris, Nadal has an almost spotless 45-1 record at Roland Garros, with that loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. He will be gunning for a record breaking seventh title in Paris, and comes in having won in Monte Carlo and Madrid.

Last season, the story was Novak Djokovic. The Serb was undefeated heading into Roland Garros, having defeated Nadal in the finals of all the major clay-court warmup events. He fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals and returns this year with a different sort of pressure. This year, he will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam, having triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open last season. The World #1 has not been as dominant these season, having accumulated five losses already, including in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome (l. to Nadal).

Breaking It All Down

First Quarter: (1) Novak Djokovic (SRB), (5) Jo-Wilifred Tsonga (FRA), (11) Gilles Simon (FRA), (14) Fernando Verdasco (ESP), (18) Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI), (22) Andreas Seppi (ITA), (28) Viktor Troicki (SRB), (30) Jurgen Melzer (AUT)

Novak Djokovic is playing his third Grand Slam event as the top seed. His shadow looms large over this section, and he opens his campaign for a fourth straight Grand Slam title against Italian Potito Starace. The first hurdle for Djokovic could come in the third round against Jurgen Melzer; Melzer has a history against Djokovic at this event, having defeated the Serb in five sets in the quarterfinals in 2010. Frenchmen Jo-Wilifred Tsonga and Gilles Simon anchor the bottom part of this quarter, and a fourth round clash between the countrymen is projected.

This season may perhaps be the swan song for Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt, who has fought through numerous hip and foot surgeries in recent years, was the recipient of the Australian wildcard. Hewitt, the former World #1 and two-time Grand Slam champion could face Djokovic in the second round. Djokovic and Hewitt also squared off in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Djokovic triumphed 61 63 46 64. Pablo Andujar, who just missed out on being seeded here, is another player looming in this section.

Thomaz Bellucci, an accomplished clay court player in his own right, can provide a stern test to Viktor Troicki in the opening round. Seppi is another seeded player in danger in this section, as his opening round opponent is former World #3 and two-time Roland Garros semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko.

Perhaps the most intriguing story in this section is that of 27-year-old American wildcard Brian Baker. Baker, who defeated among others Djokovic, Berdych, Tsonga and Murray as a junior, endured five surgeries throughout the past seven years. Baker has made his return to competitive tennis this season, and is fresh off a stunning run in Nice, where he qualified and eventually reached the final (l. to Almagro). He opens against Belgian Xavier Malisse.

Second Quarter: (3) Roger Federer (SUI), (7) Tomas Berdych (CZE), (9) Juan Martin del Potro (ARG), (15) Feliciano Lopez (ESP), (21) Marin Cilic (CRO), (23) Radek Stepanek (CZE), (26) Andy Roddick (USA), (31) Kevin Anderson (RSA)

Roger Federer has been drawn in Djokovic’s half for the 15th time in the past 19 Grand Slam events. He opens his campaign against German Tobias Kamke, and could potentially face David Nalbandian in the second round. Nalbandian, a former World #3 has reached the semifinals of Roland Garros twice, and has given Federer numerous tough matches in the past. Federer has had varying degrees of success against his projected quarterfinal opponents, as he has an 11-2 head-to-head record against del Potro and 11-4 against Berdych. Federer recently defeated Berdych in a tight three-set affair in Madrid.

The unseeded threats in this section also include, Albert Montanes and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Montanes, who reached a career high ranking of 22 in 2010, made the fourth round here last season and is the opening round opponent for Juan Martin del Potro. Ferrero, a former World #1 and champion at Roland Garros in 2003 looms in the middle of this section.

The biggest seed in danger in this section, as it always has been throughout his career is Andy Roddick. The American has never had success at Roland Garros, only reaching the fourth round once, and many question marks surround the American coming into this year’s event. He played only one warmup event due to injury, and lost all three of his matches at the round-robin event in Dusseldorf. He opens against local favorite Nicolas Mahut, perhaps best known for his exploits against Roddick’s countryman John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010. Marin Cilic, who also is not known for his clay court prowess, could potentially face Ferrero in the second round.

Third Quarter: (4) Andy Murray (GBR), (6) David Ferrer (ESP), (10) John Isner (USA), (16) Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR), (17) Richard Gasquet (FRA), (20) Marcel Granollers (ESP), (25) Bernard Tomic (AUS), (27) Mikhail Youzhny (RUS)

Andy Murray and David Ferrer are the clear favorites in this section of the draw on paper. However, Ferrer is the player in the best form and the player with the best chance of fighting through this section. Murray has had an underwhelming clay court campaign, losing to Berdych in Monte Carlo, withdrawing from Madrid with a back injury and falling to Gasquet in the third round in Rome. Isner, who was anointed by many as a dark horse for Roland Garros after defeating Federer and Tsonga on clay in Davis Cup, suffered losses to Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic and Adreas Seppi in the warmup events.

Aging veterans are prominent as unseeded players of note in this section. Wildcard Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu has made the third round of his home Grand Slam four times, and the fourth round twice. He opens against German Bjorn Phau, and could potentially await Isner in round two. German Tommy Haas, although far from the form that took him to a career high of #2 in the world rankings, has a decent track record at Roland Garros, having made the fourth round twice in his career. Haas, a qualifier, faces Filippo Volandri in the opening round, and is a potential second round opponent for Dolgopolov. American Jame Blake, who was rarely a threat on clay even in his prime, is the first round opponent for Youzhny.

Fourth Quarter: (2) Rafael Nadal (ESP), (8) Janko Tipsarevic (SRB), (12) Nicholas Almagro (ESP), (13) Juan Monaco (ARG), (19) Milos Raonic (CAN), (24) Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER), (29) Julien Benneteau (FRA), (32) Florian Mayer (GER)

Much analysis really isn’t required here, as it’s hard to bet against Nadal coming out of this section; he has an overwhelming head-to-head record against all the seeded players here. In fact, Nadal is 27-3 against the other seeds, with the only losses coming to Benneteau in 2004, via retirement to Monaco in 2007 and to Mayer in 2011. It’s worth noting that none of these matches took place on clay.

Potential unseeded threats in this section include the always dangerous Croatian Ivo Karlovic and 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis. Karlovic is a potential third round opponent for Nadal, and the Croatian’s massive serve is difficult for any player to deal with on any surface.

In terms of seeds in danger, Monaco and Benneteau are both coming off serious injuries they sustained in Monte Carlo. Monaco suffered an ankle injury and Benneteau suffered both an ankle injury and fractured elbow in the first clay court Masters Series event. Tipsarevic also has a potentially tricky opening round, against former top 20 player Sam Querrey.

Kim Keeps Away from Roland Garros – Again

The first women’s withdrawal from Roland Garros was announced today, and in many respects, it was not unexpected. Kim Clijsters will not be competing this clay season including at the 2012 French Open due to a lingering hip injury. Clijsters, who will be retiring again at the end of the year, instead has her sights set on the grass season, including Wimbledon and the Olympics.

Clijsters, who reached two finals at Roland Garros – in 2001 (l. to Capriati) and 2003 (l. to Henin) has won three career titles on clay. However, since her comeback in 2009, Clijsters has only played two tournaments on the red European clay. At the 2010 Andalucia Tennis Experience in Marbella, Spain, Clijsters defeated Alexandra Dulgheru in the opening round before being stunned by qualifier Beatriz Garcia Vidgany. At the 2011 French Open, she defeated Anastasiya Yakimova in the opening round before falling against Arantxa Rus after having match points.

At the 2011 French Open, Clijsters crashed out to Arantxa Rus in the second round. It was the first time she had competed in Paris since 2006. 

While it is unfortunate Clijsters’ body will not allow her to dictate the terms of her final year on tour, one must really consider how motivated she is to play out the year. After injuring her ankle against Li Na in the fourth round on the Australian Open, she withdrew from Indian Wells. She then proclaimed herself healthy to compete in Miami. There, she suffered the current injury and crashed out to countrywoman Yanina Wickmayer in the third round. Clijsters has openly expressed her desire to spend time with her family and to have more children, and many are convinced she would have called it quits in 2011 were it not for the London Olympics looming this July. Clijsters, who has never represented her country in the Olympics, has repeatedly cited competing there as a goal this year.

Clijsters’ next scheduled tournament is the Unicef Open in Rosmalen, the Netherlands.