The first women’s semi-final turned into a test of endurance yesterday (Friday), and not only for the few spectators who braved floods and transport strikes to show up. Out on Court Philippe Chatrier, Serena Williams and Kiki Bertens were both hobbling around at three-quarter pace because of niggling injuries.
This is not meant to be a criticism. Both women demonstrated admirable fire and determination, given that Bertens was carrying a strained calf, while Williams – who eventually came through to set up a final against Garbine Muguruza – arrived with a damaged adductor. But this match was reflective of a jinxed tournament in which both men’s and women’s draws have been badly affected by withdrawals and wounded bodies.
Are all these injuries mere coincidence? Or have the wet and wintry conditions in Paris played a part? Certainly, temperatures in the low teens are not conducive to smooth movement. And the Babolat balls have been playing particularly heavy this year, especially on the damper days when they collect -particles of clay when they bounce.
Bertens is just one of many -players who admitted earlier in the event that her shoulder was sore after one match, so difficult is it to launch these little yellow rocks over the net.
Another problem on Chatrier was the lamentable lack of spectators in the stands, which were less than a third full in the early stages. “It almost doesn’t have the aura of a grand slam this year,” said Chris Evert, commentating on Eurosport, about this dank and gloomy French Open.
It was not only the smart seats down by the court that were empty – as they so often are during lunch hour – but a good percentage of the top tier as well. Several factors were at play here, including the weather and the transit strikes which began on Thursday night, but it was not a conducive environment for a grand slam semi-final.
Even if you take away the thick blanket of cloud the French Open has become the poor relation of the four grand slams. The lack of a roof, the small and increasingly dog-eared site, the lowest remuneration for players, the poor crowds have all contributed to a fortnight that few, apart from the eventual winners, will remember with affection.
In Williams’s case, this has been another painful slog after last year’s run to the title here, when she was battling a virus and spent the night before the final shivering in bed. This time, her movement has been suspect for the past couple of rounds, and she is increasingly having to rely on out-and-out aggression to keep the points short.
Even against Bertens, who sometimes hunched over in pain after attempting a wide retrieval shot, Williams did not want to get drawn into a slugging match. She would trundle forward to the net or fall back on the drop shot – a tactic that has become ubiquitous this year because of those lifeless balls – while also picking up more free points on serve than Bertens, who struggled to push up into her service action.
Even so, Williams still needed one hefty slice of luck. Bertens served for the first set and brought up 30-15 before Williams’s return struck the net-cord and dropped dead on the far side. Instead of facing two set points, the defending champion was well positioned to break back, and duly did so.
Today’s final will thus pit Williams against Muguruza, who was ruthless in disposing of Sam Stosur 6-2, 6-4. These two also met in the Wimbledon final last year, where Williams claimed her most recent slam title to move to within one of Steffi Graf’s record. But it was their only previous encounter at the French Open, in 2014, that really made Muguruza’s name. She ousted the favourite 6-2, 6-2 in one of the shocks of the season.
“It was a first final,” said Muguruza, when asked about Wimbledon last season. “The opponent was tough to beat. I was tense. It was difficult for me to manage stress. But I’ll try and control my emotions.”
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