Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Day 4: I've Got a Crush On You

by Craig Hickman

Today, France had something to cheer. Despite the fact that their Anointed One, the absolutely obvious Richie Red Shoes Gasquet himself, bowed out early once again (check his Roland Garros record; it rivals that of any American male in its, well... lack), the fans were treated to some great victories, a few unexpected.

Amelie Mauresmo, Nathalie Dechy, and Marion Bartoli advanced to no one's surprise on the women's side. But it was the men who raised eyebrows.

Gael Monfils continued to impress by dispatching an in-form Juan Ignacio Chela in a tight four-set match the day after grinding out a grueling five-setter. Seems his new partnership with Tarik Benhabiles, the first (and only) coach that got the top American male as a teenager to the third round in Paris, is working just fine. Coming into Paris after a surprise run to the finals in Portschach where he beat the top American male and Lleyton Hewitt, but ran out of steam against red-hot Juan Monaco, who won easily today, Gael lit up the crowd with his big serve, big forehand and big heart. (Sound familiar? Those were the days.... sigh)

But in the upset special of the day, doubles specialist and serve-and-volleyer Michael Llodra humbled claycourt specialist and rising(?) star, No. 32 seed Nicolas Almagro, in a dramatic fifth set. The Frenchman didn't let the Spaniard breathe. He smothered the net 78 times and came away the winner on 48 visits. If not for the Spaniard's huge kicking serve which kept him in sets with 23 aces (Llodra had 19 of his own), Almagro might not have taken a two set to one lead in the first place. As it was, he squeaked out the third set tiebreak 9-7 after being down 3-5, with Llodra serving.

Venus Williams, in a match against Ashley Harkleroad that turned dramatic late in the second set, Jill Craybas, and a resurgent(?) Meghann Shaughnessy gave American tennis fans something to be proud of in the wake of seeing the last man set sail for London early.

In other matches, both No. 1 seeds were almost forced to play more than the minimun required. Roger Federer raced against the rain, the failing light, and an inspired Frenchman in Thierry Ascione who broke Raja serving for the match and then roared back from 6-3 in the tiebreak, rifling winner after winner right off the bounce and into the corners. A Hail Mary that earned him a set point on his own serve. But he missed his first serve, lost the point, and minutes later, the match.

Justine Henin was cruising with a 5-0 lead over Tamira Paszek, a nervous 16-year-old with a baby face and a woman's bosom. (In tennisforumdom, her last name has been pluralized and applied to her robust breasts, thanks largely to a photo of an outfit she wore that featured a cutout circle right around her deep cleavage... but I'll have to look that picture up on your own time.) The upstart's backhand is much bigger than her, well... (stay on the subject, will ya) and after she shook out her nerves (don't go there), she used it to yank Justine all over the court. In a run of her own 5 games, she made the two-time defending champ look rather ordinary. But then Carlos signaled for Justine to play more to Tamira's forehand (you'd think the No. 1 player in the world coulda figured that one out on her own, but I guess not), and the youngster making her Paris debut lost her way while Justine only lost one more game. But watch out for Tamira. With Guga Kuerten's former coach in her corner, she might be a champion in the making.

Maria Sharapova fought off an inspired rally late in the second set from veteran Frenchwoman Emilie Loit (despite the headlines, Maria didn't exactly cruise) to advance. And Roger-beater Guillermo Canas is moving quietly through the draw, earning lots of young fans along the way.

Postscript: With all the focus on Paris as Graveyard for American men (I won't post the links. There are far too many of them and besides which, it's no longer "news" worth reporting about), anyone notice the upsets of the specialists by the non?

Sure, Llodra grew up on clay, but his win still proves that you must play your own game to have any success. Even in split-pea-soup conditions. (James Blake beat Almagro last year with aggressive tennis on the muddy stuff.) Radek Stepanek beat Fernando Gonzalez by attacking the net. Dmitry Tursunov, injured left wrist and all, defeated Alessio Di Mauro. Sam Querrey almost took out a homeboy, folk chants, and second-hand smoke in his debut.


Vlad said...

I am happy for Gael. This guy seems to rise when he plays in front of his country. I also think he could be very good Davis Cup player and Forget should consider him in near future.

Craig Hickman said...

He uses the energy of the crowd quite well. I agree about Davis Cup. I think he can do well on all surfaces.

oddman said...

Yes, once he gets it all together, he will be a force to reckon with. He also seems to respond positively to the intense French audience pressure, unlike Amelie and Richard. Course, he's still winning, heh heh. I would love to see him go very deep in this tourney.
Allez, Amelie - would love to see you holding the trophy!

Vlad said...

Also Craig, I think your comparison of Richard's record at RG vs that of US players is kind of pointless and there are many reasons for that. First of all, most of the matches he lost at RG he wasn't exactly supposed to win them.. I mean Costa when he was 15? then Nalbandian couple times, then Nadal in 05..these are tough players on clay (now, compare it to losses that Roddick or Blake had such as Mutis? Sargisian, Arhturs, Karlovic.. not exactly some of the best players on clay right?). Vliegen is definately one match that he was big favorite and that is probably his worst loss in Grand Slam match. Another thing to consider is that he is still 20 years old, meanwhile most of Americans such as Blake and Roddick are playing in their primes.

Craig Hickman said...

Pointless? Not a chance, Vlad.
I'm not buying any of that. A record is a record. It needs no qualification.

Besides, if he wasn't supposed to win matches, then he didn't deserve the wildcards he got into the main draw.

(As an aside, Gasquet also used to "own" Nadal as a junior but can't beat him as a professional? Too bad.)

Richie's problems in Paris aren't all that different from Roddick's: mental pressure.

That's my underlying point, even if you don't agree.