Thoughts on the Roland Garros Women’s Final

By Andrew Burton

Some takeaways from today’s WTA final at Roland Garros between Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova:

1. Sharapova won the match today because she was a significantly better attacker than her opponent, and about as good a defender. Sharapova won 120 points today: she hit 46 winners, earned 43 forced errors, and won 31 points off Halep’s unforced errors. If you add the winners and unforced errors together, Sharapova won 74%, or about three-quarters of her points by attacking play. Halep had 20 winners and earned 35 forced errors: she also benefited from 52 unforced errors from Sharapova. The arithmetic says that 51% of Halep’s points came from a winner or forced error. I call the winner+forced error/total points won the attacking ratio, and you can see that Sharapova was the stronger attacking player.

Now, if you add the attacking points won (winners plus forced errors) and unforced errors conceded, you have the points decided off a player’s racquet. For Sharapova, 141 points were decided off her racquet, and 52 (37%) went to her opponent. Halep’s racquet decided only 86 points: she lost 31 of these, or 36%. That’s what I mean when I say Sharapova defended almost as well as Halep.

2. The match was all square at 4-4 in the third set. Then Sharapova ran off the next eight points, and with it, the championship. She played superb aggressive tennis through this spell; at the end of the day, Sharapova won the match, Halep didn’t lose it. But the first point of the  4-4 game required a decisive intervention by chair umpire Kader Nouni.

A baseline rally ended with Halep shanking a forehand, but then she lifted her hand making an “out” gesture. Simultaneously, the baseline judge called the ball out. Nouni came down from the chair, checked the mark, and told Halep the shot was good (NBC did not have shot spot/Hawkeye technology to give any kind of unofficial determination of the correctness of the umpire’s call. Nouni then awarded the point to Sharapova, over a  (relatively mild) protest by Halep.

Robbie Koenig apparently didn’t like the call:

I did. The line judge’s call clearly came after Halep’s shank, and her ball landed well out of court. The point was rightly Sharapova’s: I’m going to trust that Nouni remembered that Halep’s ball hadn’t gone back into play – unlike his colleague Louise Engzell, who gave a shocking decision earlier in the tournament against Daniela Hantuchova.

3. The two women played some superb baseline tennis for the first five games. Sharapova gave up an early break, then ran off three games to put the match back on serve. I don’t recall seeing better control of angle by Sharapova: she had both cross court forehands to deuce and backhands to ad pulling Halep into the tramlines and beyond.

For her part, Halep betrayed no nerves in her first major final. If I had one criticism of Halep in Set 1, it was that her first serve misfired and allowed Sharapova to threaten most of the Romanian’s service games in that set.

The quality of the first set was very high, but it dropped off in Set 2; the tiebreak was a bit of a hot mess, with seven points going to a returner and five to a server. Eventually Halep made a minihold stand up at 6-5, capping an impressive run of four points from 5-3 down in the tie break. NBC commentators (and others) described the match as the best WTA final since the last three set final at RG, the 2001 final won by Captiati 12-10 in set 3. I couldn’t get there – I thought the 2010 final between Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone was a really good match, with the benefit of more consistency and variety. But your mileage may vary.

4. On Twitter, Sharapova came in for some grief from the usual suspects for her, um, vocal approach to the game, and from a wide variety of commentators for taking her time when serving. As always, it’s up to the umpire to enforce the rules on time between points: Nouni did, eventually, call Sharapova for excessive time early in Set 3. As for Sharapova’s vocal game, I listened for the amount of variation that goes into it from game to game. Sharapova varies tone, pitch, loudness and timing of her exhalations, as you can hear on these match highlights. Her opponent is never quite sure what she’s going to hear next.

5. Sharapova also took some stick on Twitter for an extended bathroom break at the end of Set 2. But lest you think that the wily veteran rolled over the ingenue, Halep pulled off one of the single most impressive pieces of gamesmanship I’ve seen recently in a big stakes tennis match.

Halep was two points from the door receiving serve, down 5-3 in the second set tiebreak. Sharapova served a let first serve, and Halep returned the ball, which was collected by a ball kid. Sharapova then recommenced her service ritual, during which Tolstoy could probably bang off a chapter about Napoleon’s generals or the lot of the serf in early 19th century Russia.

Not so fast! (Or slow). This time Halep put her hand up, cleaned the line in front of her, and made Sharapova stop. It was a beautiful grab for control, rewarded with four straight points and the second set.

6. Tomorrow, we get the anticipated match between Djokovic and Nadal for the ATP title. Not many pundits predicted a Sharapova-Halep final, although the two squared off in the Madrid final a few weeks ago in the run up to Roland Garros. To the casual eye, the ATP tournament continues to be the playground of the Big 4 (or Big 2), and the WTA an “anyone can win this thing” contest.

But I haven’t seen it that way. This has been one of the least interesting ATP tournaments I can recall, with very few high quality contests. For the men, Milos Raonic became the first of the Lost Boys to break the 3000 ATP Ranking Points barrier (Ernests Gulbis, in case you were wondering, is a month older than Juan Martin Del Potro, and therefore a member of Generation Rafa). With the early defeats of Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori, it’s been hard to argue that youth is coming to the fore in the ATP The ATP Dark Age IS coming.

On the other hand, the WTA has had several cracking matches, with an emphasis on the next generation (even if Sharapova claimed the final prize for the veterans). Linz and I chatted about mens’ and womens’ tennis a short while ago. On the evidence of the 14 days of the French Open so far, advantage WTA. Ask me 24 hours from now whether Nole and Rafa have tugged the balance back a bit.

4 Responses

  1. Dave
    Dave June 7, 2014 at 9:57 pm |

    Twas a great match indeed. Your post covered all the analysis needed, just seemed like Maria upped her game and her power game especially in the big points when she needed it most. Halep didn’t lose this match, Maria more so won it with great tennis.

    The 3 main big points/moments that I wrote down:
    4-4 all in 2nd set, an amazing point that Halep wins, to help her take the 2nd set
    2-1 Halep in 3rd set, Halep had chances to break Maria, but couldn’t get it done
    5-4 Maria in 3rd set, Maria just had a phenomenal game after that umpire decision that you mention above

    About the Maria grunting, it mainly bothers me because the tone and pitch seems to vary a bit depending on what is happening, how long the point is going, etc. Must be distracting for her opponent, even if opponents never talk about this. To me they need to basically stop all excessive grunting now (or at least grandfather it in). Almost made me watch the match on mute today the grunting was so loud. Vika is probably the worst though. I hate watching Vika vs Maria matches lol.

    Side note, but I hope Halep wins a grand slam sometime, she has had a remarkable ascent. Awesome footwork, and a big power game. I hope to see her play in person at USO this year.

  2. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic June 8, 2014 at 5:57 am |

    I love these posts, and enjoy the analysis on the ATP dark age as well (again). Great job!

  3. Master Ace
    Master Ace June 8, 2014 at 8:37 am |

    “Not many pundits predicted a Sharapova-Halep final, although the two squared off in the Madrid final a few weeks ago in the run up to Roland Garros.”

    Other than S Williams, I believe this was the expected final.

  4. Claudia
    Claudia June 9, 2014 at 8:54 am |

    What a great battle. And great analysis. I was pleased to see this match on the WTA, it does so much for the women’s game. It was great to see Sharapova win given all her battles with injury. She is still so hungry for victory.

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