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?

The Kids Are All Right

Where have all the kids gone?

Martina Hingis won each of her five major titles before the age of 20. Try to keep track of the number of times that Ted Robinson mentions ‘Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17′ in her matches and you’re bound to lose count by the end of a dramatic three-setter. On the ATP side of things, the youth drought has been dramatic. Rafael Nadal remains the last teenager to win a major after winning his first French Open title at 19. The last teenager to make a splash of any kind on the men’s circuit was an 18-year-old Bernard Tomic when he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2011.

At Roland Garros in 2013, only 17 players in the men’s draw were born in the 1990s. There are no teenagers ranked in the top 100; 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the youngest player in the draw, entered with a wildcard. He defeated Radek Stepanek, 15 years in senior, in the opening round before falling to Marian Cilic in the second; somewhat unsurprisingly, the Australian still expects to compete in the junior event.

The youth movement in the WTA, while not headlined by the explosive teenaged prodigies of a decade ago, seems to have revitalized. At the start of play this fortnight, 48 players in the women’s field were born in 1990 or later. Like their ATP brethren, the days of the teenaged slam champion seem long gone; however, there are currently 10 teenagers in the WTA’s top 100 and that number more than doubles to 26 when expanding the bracket to players 21 and under.

14 teenagers began their journey in the women’s draw in Paris. One year ago, two of them squared off in the junior final; Annika Beck came out the victor over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in a tough three-set tussle. Fast forward to one year later, and both recorded a main draw win in a senior slam event. Beck cruised past veteran Sandra Zahlavova while Schmiedlova unexpectedly qualified and took home a quality top-50 win over Yanina Wickmayer in her senior slam debut.

In fact, six of the last seven junior girls’ Roland Garros champions competed in the main draw at this year’s event. Agnieszka Radwanska and Alize Cornet, the elder stateswomen of the group at 24 and 23, are seeded and still in the tournament. Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina and Beck all won a round before falling to seeded and more experienced opponents. Mladenovic and Beck fell to top-10 opposition in the form of Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka, while Svitolina fell to Varvara Lepchenko.

Listed generously at 5’7”, Beck took to Suzanne Lenglen as the underdog in every way. A counterpuncher by nature, the German looked across the net at someone who does everything she can, but better. Eternally positive even when down *05, Beck played brilliantly to the conditions following a brief rain delay. Clean hitting punctuated with soft cheers of “Auf geht’s” as she got her teeth into the match, Beck held steady while Azarenka capitulated. A *50 lead for the Australian Open champion quickly turned into *54, 15-40 and a seemingly improbable comeback for the teenager appeared on the cards. From there, however, one thing set them apart. Roland Garros 2013 was only Beck’s third career grand slam main draw, while it is Azarenka’s 30th. Azarenka came through in the biggest moments, and while Beck fell by a fairly innocuous 64 63 scoreline, the real story of the match told so much more.

While junior success is rarely a purveyor of success on the senior circuit, the stark contrast between the youth movement on the ATP and the WTA presents an interesting narrative. It’s long been proclaimed that teenagers can no longer compete, both physically and mentally, with the rising demands of professional tennis. While this may be true to a degree, the gulf is not as wide as it may seem. If the days of the teenaged prodigy are supposedly over, then expectations on the current young crop shouldn’t be high. It doesn’t work both ways. Nonetheless, much of the new guard has the mentality to go up against the best, and with experience, the game will follow.

Burnout is an incredibly threatening reality for young athletes, and it has shaped professional tennis for nearly two decades. Players’ success in their teenaged years has been indirectly proportional with the length of their careers; the ones still out there are the exception to the rule and are some of the game’s greatest champions. For this group? Let the kids do their thing; let the kids be kids. It’ll be their time when they’re good and ready.

Meet Me in the Middle: Venus’ Career Crossroads

This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

Venus Williams has a lot of experience dealing with little sisters.

Prior to first ball at Roland Garros, she had lost just four matches in her career to notable ‘little sisters.’ Magdalena Maleeva scored three wins against Venus in her career, while Kateryna Bondarenko also notched a victory during the Ukrainian’s career-best season in 2009.

The elephant in the room? Well, let’s just say Venus has had the most on-court success against the little sisters that didn’t grow up in her household.

When the draw was released for this year’s tournament, she found herself pitted up against another little sister in Urszula Radwanska. Like her elder sister Agnieszka, the Pole found great success on the junior circuit; however, she has struggled much more with translating this success to the WTA level, due to both a variety of injuries and a volatile on-court personality. In a match full of drama and plot twists, the two sisters battled it out for over three hours on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Each time Radwanska took a lead, Williams hit back; Radwanska’s level stayed much more even over the three hour, 19-minute contest and in the fading light of the Parisian evening, she finally pulled off the 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 victory.

Give credit where it’s due; it was finally Urszula’s time to shine on a big stage. While it seems unlikely that she will match or eclipse her elder sister’s accomplishments, as Serena did to Venus, she did show one thing that Agnieszka has become famous for: mental toughness. The younger Radwanska, who has capitulated in matches of note numerous times in her young career, could’ve easily snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite nearing tears in parts, she held firm; when all the stars align for an upset, the underdog still has to see it through. Nonetheless, much of the narrative that followed was largely focused on Williams, while the victor was barely an afterthought.

Struggling with a back injury since April and having played just one match on red clay prior to Roland Garros, Venus’ preparation was less than ideal. The murmurs and the whispers of the ‘r-word’, both of which have followed the elder Williams sister since her return to the game after a Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis in 2011, returned just a bit louder. While Venus’ mind is willing, her body says differently. She looked exhausted after every long rally, but still fought on for three hours. She clearly loves the game, but to say she’s still out there for ‘fun’ is misguided at best. She’s a competitor, a champion; she steps on the court believing she can win and still has a deep desire to do so. It’s highly unlikely that she enjoys the physically exhausting, mentally draining struggle that professional tennis often is, especially when coming out on the losing end.

On the other side of the coin, her achievements speak for themselves. She’s a seven-time grand slam champion and has every right to decide for herself when to hang up her rackets, whether just in singles or entirely. Venus Williams doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Long considered a role model of grace and class for young players, fighting spirit and professionalism has always categorized her career; this has particularly shown through over the past 18 months. If anything, this match was the perfect storm of Venus’ frustrations with poor form, as well as the stubbornness and persistence that has made her a champion.

“My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am,” she said, following the match. “But that’s all I had.” (ESPN)

If there’s anything to take away from the twilight of Venus Williams’ career, it’s the need for a middle ground. Those calling for her to retire need to gain some perspective, but so do those who believe she can still contend for the biggest titles in singles. Her A-game and Z-game have always been separated by inches. No matter how great she is, the one opponent she’ll never beat is Father Time. As we all know, however, the Williams sisters have made a career of overcoming adversity by making adjustments. Tell them they can’t, and they will find a way. It’s foolish to expect Venus to be the player she once was, but it is perhaps even more so to expect her to fall down, and stay down, after another bump in the road.

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.” (ESPN)

Sharapova raced out to a *4-0 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 *4-1 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 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

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.” (NY Post)

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 *5-6, 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 6-4, 6-4. 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, 7-6(3), 6-1.

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

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.” (ITV)

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.” (ITV)

Nadal’s Road to the Final:

R1: d. Simone Bolelli (ITA) 6-2, 6-2, 6-1

R2: d. Denis Istomin (UZB) 6-0, 6-2, 6-2

R3: d. (Q) Eduardo Schwank (ARG) 6-1, 6-3, 6-4

R4: d. (13) Juan Monaco (ARG) 6-2, 6-0, 6-0

QF: (12) Nicolas Almagro (ESP) 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-2

SF: d. (6) David Ferrer (ESP) 6-2, 6-2, 6-1

“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.” (ITV)

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) 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-1

R2: d. Blaz Kavcic (SLO) 6-0, 6-4, 6-4

R3: d. (WC) Nicolas Devilder (FRA) 6-1, 6-2, 6-2

R4: d. (22) Andreas Seppi (ITA) 46, 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3

QF: d. (5) Jo-Wilifred Tsonga (FRA) 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6(6), 6-1

SF: d. (3) Roger Federer (SUI) 6-4, 7-5, 6-3

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.