By Alix Ramsay
Personally, I blame my colleagues. We Brits arrived in Paris days ago and began the tricky task of previewing this year’s French Open. Who to pick? What to say? So we all selected someone, we previewed them to the hilt and then we all pressed the button to send our words of wisdom back to the UK.
Right, that’s that, then.
Now, most of us have been in this game for a goodly while. We may not be the greatest tennis commentators in the world – although some of my compatriots may disagree with that notion. I’m naming no names… – but we are all experienced hacks who know how to cover our backs. Can’t go wrong with Li Na and Stan Wawrinka. And that good-looking Grigor Dimitrov is bound to go a round or two. Yup, we are safe.
The Sunday Times went big on Stan the Man; the Sunday Telegraph went big on Dimitrov (or Mr Sharapova as he is also known) and the Independent gave Li Na a big show. By the end of Monday, Stan had crashed and burned and by Tuesday lunchtime, Li Na and Shazza’s squeeze had left the building. That was some record.
Even m’esteemed colleague from the Observer – and that is an august organ – had run a piece on James Ward, our battling Brit who had qualified for the main draw. He was the first plucky Brit (my people are always plucky. Seldom successful but always plucky) to fight his way into the tournament since John Lloyd back in the days when shorts were shorts and little was left to the imagination. And Wardy, bless ‘im, did ever so well to qualify but then ran into Tommy Robredo and was busy scanning the Eurostar timetables by the end of play on Monday.
To be fair to m’colleague from the Obs, he did say in his defence that he had, at least, got Wardy into the tournament but it did not detract from the fact that another player profiled by a UK paper had failed to make it past the first hurdle. We are the kiss of death, us Brits.
So, what happened to Li Na on Tuesday? Well, not a lot, by all accounts. She was quite spectacularly bad by her standards and Kristina Mladenovic (as good a French name as you could hope to find) simply held her nerve. Mladenovic won 7-5, 3-6, 6-1.
Li was – obviously – not happy on court and a while later, she was seriously grumpy. She doesn’t hold back, our Li, and when she makes a right mess of things, she says so. She was not showing any disrespect to her French foe – who was in tears, as was her team, when it was all over – but she knew that she had played like a chump.
“I don’t think today I try a lot,” Li said. “I just state I’m doing wrong thing until end of the match. I don’t think it is only the bad day. I think probably is about myself.
“Of course the easy thing I can say is bad day for me, but it’s not. I’m 100 per cent sure. The problem is myself. I don’t think I’m doing well on the court. And also, even during the match, I don’t think totally what I should do, like especially I didn’t follow the game plan, and even I was standing up the court, in my mind I didn’t have any idea how to play the match.”
“Er, could it have been nerves?” she was asked in an attempt to lighten the mood. She was playing a Frenchwoman, after all. And this is Roland Garros. Nope, Li was having none of that. This was a truly appalling display by a grand slam champion and Li knew it.
“I would like to say again doesn’t matter who’s play today,” Li said, “doesn’t matter where she’s from, today my opponent will win the match because I threw myself away.”
Dimitrov fared a little better – he had a game plan, at least – but he was still clumped by Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 7-5, 7-6. He tried hard, he thought he was playing well on the clay but there was not a lot he could do when the big bloke from Croatia welted 22 aces past him and 42 winners in all. And the problem with Karlovic is that if you drop your serve, you’re toast. Breaking Karlovic’s serve is a bit like breaking into Fort Knox – damn nigh impossible and you will probably be locked up if you try.
Young Grigor had every right to think that he stood a chance on Tuesday. Just the other week he had done for Karlovic in straight sets in Rome – hey, he knew how to do this. And then big Ivo sent him packing.
“I thought that he was just penetrating every ball,” Dimitrov said sadly afterwards, “and I was very surprised, because the match in Rome I believe was just really different. His serves was not as accurate and volleys were not the same.
“I did not expect an outcome like that one today, but it’s tennis, you know. It’s just two opponents get into that court, only one gets out a winner. In today’s match, obviously it was not me.”
Little did Grigor know that had he not been previewed by the British press, he might just have stood a chance. Me and my colleagues have a lot to answer for.