There are precious few constants on the WTA Tour, but one bizarre set of coincidences seems to point towards an inverse proportion in the careers of Serena Williams and her nemesis, Virginie Razzano. For much of the last decade, the Frenchwoman has made her biggest strides while Serena was struggling beneath some of her career’s stickiest situations.
At the 2006 US Open, Razzano upset Martina Hingis to reach the second week of a Slam for the first time. On the same half of the draw, Serena was laboring through thanks to a wildcard that compensated for an injury-deflated ranking. Days before Razzano reached her career high of 16 in 2009, Serena lost her cool and the US Open semifinal to Kim Clijsters on a point penalty.
Most of us remember when these two very different players clashed at last year’s French Open, the shockingly momentous occasion that it was. For Razzano, it was her first French Open main draw win since she lost her fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, to a brain tumor. For Serena, it was her first-ever first round loss at a major tournament, one that catalyzed a crisis of confidence that saw her pair with Patrick Mourataglou and tear through the second half of 2012.
As Serena soared, Razzano faltered, winning only two more WTA matches for the rest of the year. Already in the midst of an injury-induced tailspin at the time of their infamous encounter, the Frenchwoman’s slump reached its nadir when she failed to qualify for this year’s Australian Open. It was the first time she had even been forced to play Slam qualies since 2004.
But as everything seemed to go wrong for Williams over a traumatic fortnight that featured no less than three separate injuries, one could not help but think of what had happened to the last architect of the American powerhouse’s discontent. As it turns out, she was simply biding her time for another Serena meltdown to make her move. Playing in qualifying on home turf, Razzano bulldozed the field at the Open GDF Suez event in Paris, most notably taking out Dutch star Kiki Bertens in three sets.
Should she beat a fellow qualifier in the first round, the Frenchwoman would get a crack at struggling No. 1 seed Sara Errani, who also lost her opening singles match in Melbourne (albeit in the main draw).
For all her Serena-related notoriety, Virginie Razzano is quite a tennis player in her own right; with an all-court game, the Frenchwoman has excelled on every surface and, in addition to Serena, has wins over multiple Slam finalists, including Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Elena Dementieva. An engaging and endearing personality, she earned numerous fans for the courage she displayed in fulfilling her dying fiancé’s last wish for her to continue playing in his memory.
Serena too has dealt with her share of tragedy; no moment in her career has been more poignant than when she dedicated her improbable 2007 Australian Open win to murdered half-sister Yetunde Price. On the wrong end of incidents like “The Hand” and “The Shot Seen Round the World”, it’s hard to argue that the American household name with the Hall-of-Fame career has truly had it all her own way.
Does Serena really have to be at her worst for Virginie to play her best? Obviously not. But it is strange to think that two women, already inexorably linked thanks to one of the strangest matches in French Open history, might be a little more connected than we thought.
By Maud Watson
It was an upset at a major, and it was an upset of major proportions. Whether you call it shocking, stunning, or even stupefying, the defeat Serena Williams suffered for the first time in the opening round of a major marked an epic win for Virginie Razzano and an epic loss for Serena. Much credit should go to Razzano, who played a fantastic match to seal victory. But the bigger storyline of this encounter was the collapse of Williams. Up a set and 5-1 in the tiebreaker, it seemed almost certain the American would advance. But then nerves struck. She lost six straight points to lose the tiebreaker and quickly found herself in a 0-5 hole in the third. She finally did settle down while Razzano tightened up, and after rattling off three consecutive games, it looked like another historic Serena comeback was in the cards. But it was not to be. In the final nail-biting game of the match, Serena had five chances to get back on serve, and by her own doing, squandered most of them. Her unwillingness to grind and play the score cost her. More than once on the big points, she failed to even put the return in play. The loss certainly puts a different perspective on Serena’s upcoming grass court season. Even Serena, as evidenced by her tears, knows this one was different. This was a loss against a former top 20 player struggling to win matches. This was a loss where the finish line was plainly in sight. This was a loss where the words “choke job” could so easily be applied. It will test Serena’s resolve in the weeks to come. For now though, the race to become Roland Garros champion suddenly became a lot more open.
It won’t be remembered in the same manner as Isner’s historic defeat of Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, but Paul-Henri Mathieu did give home fans plenty to cheer about when he defeated the towering American 18-16 in the fifth set of their second round encounter at Roland Garros. For Mathieu, this was a moment long overdue. He showed plenty of promise early in his career, but he struggled to regain his form after blowing a 2 set lead in the fifth and deciding rubber of the 2002 Davis Cup final against Russia. Four years later, he found himself playing Rafael Nadal in the third round of Roland Garros. It was a fairly tightly contested match that lasted just shy of five hours, but once again, it was the Frenchman who got the short end of the stick. What followed were years of injuries and inconsistent play, so that by the time he entered this year’s French Open, his ranking was outside of the top 200. An upset over Isner seemed unlikely, but Mathieu, now aged 30, turned back the clock and exhibited some of the raw talent that had made him a top prospect a decade ago. It’s unlikely the victory is a precursor of positive results to come, but how wonderful to see him come out on the right end of one of these epic matches, and at his home major to boot.
The first week of Roland Garros is nearly done and dusted, and already we’ve seen two fairytale stories. The captivating case of Brian Baker has been discussed in length. After numerous surgeries and six years out of the game, he qualified in Nice last week and reached the final. He then got to play his first match as a pro at the French Open, where he defeated Xavier Malisse in straight sets. His reward was the opportunity to play on Court Philippe Chatrier against Frenchman Gilles Simon. Baker put forth a heroic effort, coming back from 2-0 down to force a fifth before succumbing to defeat. At age 27, he still has a few good years left, so let’s hope what we saw in France is a sign of good things to come. Virginie Razzano has been the story on the women’s side. After losing her former coach and fiancé to a brain tumor just eight days before the start of Roland Garros last year, she was due for some good fortune. Playing on the main show court in front of her home crowd against one of the most dominant women of the Open Era, Razzano wrote herself into the history books with her upset of Serena Williams. Much like Baker, the fact that she lost her second round match doesn’t diminish the value of her achievement. Even if she just ends up a footnote in a tennis encyclopedia or never wins another match, you get the sense that it won’t matter. Whatever happens in her career going forward, she’ll always have Paris.
Another Day, Another Record
Though not as impressive as Nadal potentially breaking Borg’s record of six Roland Garros titles or Djokovic becoming the first man since Laver to simultaneously hold all four Slams, Roger Federer did make history earlier this week. By reaching the third round, the Maestro surpassed Jimmy Connors’ Open Era record for most wins at the majors. While recognizing that the bar would have been higher had Connors not opted to occasionally skip majors, the fact that Federer was able to surpass the American’s benchmark in nearly a decade’s less time is very impressive. Federer would undoubtedly prefer another Slam title come with the record, but the achievement is still a deserved honor for a player who has so consistently produced sublime play over the course of his career.
A New Voice
After a failed experiment with Ricardo Sanchez earlier in the year, Caroline Wozniacki has decided to once again add an additional coach to her team. The new member is 2002 Australian Open Champion Thomas Johansson of Sweden. Johansson reportedly had been working with the Wozniacki camp in the weeks leading up to the French Open and will be prepared to work more closely with them upon Wozniacki’s return from Paris. From the sound of it, Johansson will not be a constant presence in the Wozniacki camp, but he has signed a contract to work with the Dane through the US Open, which will hopefully ensure he’s given more of an opportunity than Sanchez to have a positive impact on Wozniacki’s game. Wozniacki may also be looking to put in extra effort to make this relationship work, as her decline in the rankings may have spurred on recognition that she’s in need of a fresh voice with new ideas to propel her back towards the top. It will be intriguing to see how the new pupil/coach relationship plays out over the next few months.