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Thursday, June 10, 2010
Seven things we learned at the French


In some ways, the French Open was predictable: Rafael Nadal won the whole thing. In other ways, it was far from it. Roger Federer lost sooner than expected, the Queen of Clay stuttered, and a scrappy Italian with a big smile made history.

What did we learn from the tournament? Here are seven things from the seven rounds:

First round: Gasquet is the lead in Groundhog Day

Where have we seen this before -- Richard Gasquet blowing a two-set lead at a Grand Slam? Was it at this year's Australian Open, last year's Australian Open or Wimbledon 2008.

Wait, it was all of the above.

Not content with squandering advantages against Mikhail Youzhny, Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Murray, respectively -- an admittedly talented trio -- Gasquet buckled again versus the Scot.

The tormented Frenchman claimed he had nothing left in the tank for the final 2½ sets against Murray after playing a long three-set final in the French Riviera two days earlier. He took a pop at organizers for not giving him an extra day to recover, although he seemed to forget they did him a favor by sticking him on Court Suzanne Lenglen, away from the Center Court cauldron. (Gasquet can't handle the pressure of playing at Roland Garros.)

Murray, rightfully, questioned why Gasquet chose to compete at a tournament a week before the French if he wasn't prepared for the quick turnaround.

Gasquet always has an excuse. He'll never change, and more importantly from a tennis perspective, never reach a Grand Slam final.

Second round: They don't need lights

Who needs lights at the French Open when darkness will do?

In what is believed to be the latest finish in tournament history, Gael Monfils and Italian clay-court specialist Fabio Fognini were finally hauled off Philippe Chatrier at 9:55 p.m. local time on the opening Wednesday. Adding to the drama, it was 5-5 in the fifth set.

"In my 30 years of tennis -- watching qualifiers, Grand Slams, whatever -- I've never seen a match played in that kind of darkness," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill.

Fognini drew the ire of the crowd -- or what remained of it -- for wanting to stop roughly 25 minutes earlier, at 4-4. Chair umpire Carlos Bernardes finally got fed up of his stalling tactics and hit him with a point penalty. When they returned the next day, Fognini had the last laugh, prevailing 9-7.

The saga overshadowed Monfils' poor play. Like countryman Gasquet, he blew a two-set-and-break lead. Monfils played ultra-conservatively from the baseline, content to soak up pressure instead of taking the initiative.

Third round: Rome is one thing, a Slam is another

Who was the second-hottest player on clay this season? David Ferrer.

Besides winning a title and reaching another final on the Latin American clay-court swing, Ferrer got to the semis in Madrid, Barcelona and Monte Carlo, and went one step further in Rome. His draw in Paris suggested a quarterfinal showing, at worst.

Ferrer came unglued against the unlikeliest of opponents, Jurgen Melzer, and in straight sets. Melzer has always had the talent to trouble the elite, but between the ears has been a problem.

Boosted, Melzer finally reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, rallying from two sets down against the slumping Novak Djokovic. He went out (as usual) swinging against Nadal in the semis.

Fourth round: Henin isn't the old Henin

This was supposed to be Justine Henin's Slam, since she had won 21 straight matches at Roland Garros.

But Henin hasn't fully mastered the art of the comeback, unlike fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters. Henin looked nervy in a three-set defeat to eventual finalist Samantha Stosur.

"When you come back at this level after two years off, you know it's not going to be easy to deal with a lot of situations, and that means I still have to work harder and see it as a big challenge," Henin said. "I took this year as a year of transition, so of course it's hard, but in another way it seems a bit normal."

The seven-time Grand Slam champion continues to glance at Carlos Rodriguez incessantly between points, he continues to coach from the stands, and against Stosur, Henin annoyingly uttered "allez" after "allez" when her opponent missed.

Wasn't Henin supposed to have matured on court?

Quarters: Every streak must end

Among Federer's numerous achievements, reaching 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals is up there. The streak, realistically, had to end sometime, and it was most likely to transpire in Paris.

A year after being toyed with in a French Open final that completed Federer's Grand Slam collection, Robin Soderling ended his 0-for-12 skid against the Swiss by winning in four riveting sets. The slow, heavy conditions hurt Federer.

That said, Federer was flawless in the opening set, hitting 16 winners and only three unforced errors. Soderling's serve picked up, he saved a set point in the third with an outrageous backhand smash -- impressive enough was Federer forcing him to play a shot -- and overturned a 40-15 deficit to break at 5-5 in the third. Not a bad way for Soderling to follow up his 2009 upset of Nadal.

At least the quarterfinal streak remains, as Federer pointed out.

"I really felt like my tennis was good enough to come here and do it again, but that wasn't the case today," Federer said.

Given he'll be nearly 30 next year at this time, the odds are against Federer reaching another French Open final.

Semis: Elena just isn't meant to win one

In the women's game, Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina are the two best active players never to have won a major. Although there's still hope for Safina (so long as she gets healthy), the same can't be said of Dementieva.

The French draw opened up nicely for the Russian. And despite being hampered by a calf injury, she managed to reach the final four. That was where the road ended.

Dementieva, almost in tears on court as the pain escalated, retired trailing Italy's Francesca Schiavone 7-6.

She's 0-6 in her last six Grand Slam semifinals.

"I really wanted to go and play, and even with the pain, I was waking up every morning and couldn't really make a first step," Dementieva said. "It was that painful. But I really wanted to play because it's a very special tournament for me. So I was pushing myself very hard to go through the pain. I couldn't do any better."

We all know what happened in the final. Schiavone's smart, flawless and beautiful tennis made her one of the sport's unlikeliest Grand Slam champions.

Final: Rafa is back

There were times during the French Open when Nadal didn't seem invincible. He looked ragged against Lleyton Hewitt, down a break early, did just enough in each set to top fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, and bizarrely blew a 5-3, 30-0 advantage in the third set against Melzer. Eventually taken to a tiebreak, Nadal almost let that slip.

Given the way Soderling was crushing the ball -- and taking into account last year's eye-popping result -- more than a few were expecting a tight affair in the finale.

It didn't happen. Nadal played some of the best defense of his career, transitioned from defense to offense wonderfully and bested Soderling mentally to win a fifth French Open crown.

"He is very difficult to play against," Nadal said of Soderling, "because he has a big serve, very flat shots, very good shots from both sides, and is very difficult to control. Today I felt great physically. I felt perfect mentally, too."

Nadal didn't drop a set.

In this form, he's the favorite at Wimbledon.