Between all the negative news of injuries, bad weather and poor sportsmanship that have dominated in Paris over the past week, Shelby Rogers and Albert Ramos-Vinolas’ fairytale runs to the quarter-finals have been two rays of light shining through a cloudy French Open.
Rogers is an American former ball girl at her Charleston home tournament, ranked 108 in the world, and with just one previous main draw victory at Roland Garros prior to this fortnight.
The 23-year-old has taken out seeds No. 10, 17 and 25 en route to her first-ever grand slam quarter-final and was overtaken by emotion during her on-court interview with Marion Bartoli after her 6-3, 6-4 victory over an in-form Irina-Camelia Begu in the fourth round on Sunday.
“When you were ball-kidding in Charleston, did you ever think that one day you would be at Suzanne Lenglen qualifying for the quarter-final of Roland Garros?” Bartoli asked Rogers.
“I always dreamed it would happen but I’m not sure I thought it could,” Rogers responded before breaking into tears.
Rogers has backed up each win this past week with an even bigger one the following round, knocking out 17th-seeded Karolina Pliskova, the ever-tricky Elena Vesnina, two-time Wimbledon champion and No10 seed Petra Kvitova, before taking out 25th-seeded Begu, who made quarters in Madrid and semis in Rome this month.
Rogers’ goal for this year was to just make the cut for the majors and she was the second to last direct entry into the Roland Garros main draw.
“Anyone that’s in the draw has an even chance, I think,” she concluded yesterday.
Her run is reminiscent of her friend Melanie Oudin’s Cinderella story at the 2009 US Open and she admits that inspired her.
“I remember it very well. It was a time we needed an American player to kind of grab on to. She was so awesome, so feisty, and just really confident. It was definitely inspirational and gave me motivation to work harder, because I see her doing it, and why not me, you know?” said Rogers, who faces No. 4 seed Garbine Muguruza in the quarter-finals.
“So I hope that I can inspire some people too because that’s really one of the biggest reasons why I play is for the kids growing up, for the people from Charleston. I want to be a good role model. Hopefully I am.”
Ramos-Vinolas has lost in the first round in Paris in each of the last four years. The Spanish lefty pulled off a massive upseton Sunday, eliminating eighth-seeded Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 to set up a quarter-final with defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
“Difficult to explain how I feel. It’s a lot of emotions. I’m very, very happy,” said the 28-year-old world No55.
“I think I played a very good match, very smart match. I’m very happy.
“I have been working since long time ago very hard, trying to find the way to win more matches. I think this year here I’m saying that maybe the work I did, it’s working on now.”
Six and a half years ago, Serena Williams played her last of 14 matches against Justine Henin before the Belgian retired from the sport for a second and final time in 2011.
On Monday, Henin will once again be on the opposite side of Williams, as the coach of the world No1’s opponent Elina Svitolina in the French Open fourth round.
Williams and Henin have a storied history that includes an infamous “hand incident” during a three-set semi-final battle in 2003 in which the American accused Henin of poor sportsmanship.
Henin had put her hand up, to indicate she was not ready, while Williams was serving, with the ball landing in the net. Williams asked the umpire to replay the first serve because it was Henin’s hand signal that distracted her but the umpire said he did not see it and the Belgian, who won the match, refused to come clean.
In 2011, Henin discussed the incident with Belgian press, implying she regretted her actions after which Williams took to Twitter saying: “Question, I keep hearing about an admittance to someone cheating me and lying about it after at the French open? Did she confess finally?’’
It’s been over a decade since ‘Hand-gate’ and Williams surely must have moved on.
She faces Svitolina for the third time, having beaten the 21-year-old Ukrainian in all their previous meetings that included a three-setter at the Australian Open last year.
It’s the first time Williams will play her though with Henin in her corner.
“It really doesn’t matter,” Williams says when asked what it would be like facing Henin as an opposing coach.
“It’s just really about going out there and playing your best. That’s really all I can do right now. That’s all I look forward to doing.”
Svitolina won the Roland Garros junior title in 2010 and is coached full-time by Iain Hughes, with Henin coming in as a consultant last December, when the trio convened in Abu Dhabi for the Ukrainian’s preseason training block.
Seeded No18 in Paris, Svitolina is looking to reach a second consecutive quarter-final in Paris while Williams is trying to become the first woman to defend the Roland Garros since Henin kept the trophy from 2005 to 2007.
8th time's the charm. In their 8th career meeting it's Svitolina who finally scores a win over former champ Ivanovic pic.twitter.com/uPpssazazd— Roland Garros (@rolandgarros) May 28, 2016
Svitolina, who got her first win in eight meetings with Ana Ivanovic in the third round on Saturday, is hoping to back up that victory with a huge upset over Williams.
“I think mentally I need to stay strong, stay positive, and no more junior mentality and junior tennis, you know,” said Svitolina, who is in the second week at a major for just the second time in her young career.
“It’s been a big thing for me now, and I need to change something, my preparation in my game, as well. “Of course I still make bad mistakes, but I cannot go further without doing mistakes.
“So we’ll see. It’s gonna be a tough match, but I’m going to try my best and I’m going to give 100 per cent in that day.”
Svitolina had a difficult clay season leading up to Paris which she says was affected by physical problems. She says she feels comfortable playing in the second week of a slam, but not everywhere.
“Maybe at Roland Garros, yes. But the other slams have been tougher for me. But we will work on it, and we will see what we can improve,” said Svitolina.
On how Henin can help her take on Williams, she added: “It’s different. Justine has a different game, and I have a different game. So it’s not like I have her in my team so I’m going to play exactly like her, because it’s impossible. We are completely different persons. So we try to find something in between that suits my game.”
Williams, who completed her rain-suspended doubles second round match alongside her sister Venus on Sunday morning before returning to the court for the third round later in the day which ended in defeat, is aware of what her young opponent is capable of.
“Obviously she’s a great player, and she knows how to play well. She knows how to just play on the big scenes, as well,” said the 21-grand slam winner after defeating Kristina Mladenovic in the third round Saturday.
“So it’s just another match for me. I think today, having this match is definitely going to be able to help me out going for it.”
Ernests Gulbis’ run to the fourth round at Roland Garros means he will re-enter the top-60 which could make him eligible for the Olympics, but the Latvian said he has not fulfilled his Davis Cup duties and has no intention of going to the Games.
Gulbis has actually met the requirement of being nominated for at least three Davis Cup ties from 2012 to 2016 but he has not been nominated in 2015 or 2016 (his last tie was in September 2014), which is also a criteria for Olympics eligibility.
The 27-year-old, who advanced to the last 16 in Paris for a third time in his career after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired injured from their third round on Saturday, explained his reasons behind snubbing the Olympics, calling it “tennis tourism”.
“That was a choice I made, based on my specific relation also with the Latvian Tennis Federation. And especially also that I really don’t like that in Olympic Games there is no points and no prize money,” said Gulbis, who faces David Goffin in the fourth round in Paris.
“It’s a little bit like tennis tourism, from my side. I don’t know how is the system in bigger federations, but I think that players got a little bit more help from their federations throughout their careers than I did.
“So guys from smaller federations where we didn’t get no help at all throughout our careers, then to go and play… From the other side, it’s always nice to represent your country, but I did represent my country enough. I did it already for last ten years.
“I don’t want to say I’m in the end of my career, but I have maybe four, five years left. And this year can be still a good year. I can maybe still end up in top-20 by end of the year, so I decided to concentrate on that.”
John Isner and Bernard Tomic both mentioned the absence of points at the Olympics as factors in their decision to skip the Games, while Feliciano Lopez said he wanted to focus on his tour goals as he has many points to defend at the US Open.
Gulbis said that in the past, he has had to pay for his own flights to play in Davis Cup and that he had asked his federation to try and secure an Olympics wildcard for him in London 2012 but that they didn’t try hard enough and didn’t really care.
The world No80 has split with his coach of many years Gunter Bresnik, whom he used to share with Dominic Thiem up until before Roland Garros and is now on the lookout for someone new.
Gulbis doesn’t think he will go down the path of hiring a “super coach” the way Novak Djokovic or Milos Raonic have Boris Becker and John McEnroe/Carlos Moya, and detailed what he wants from his next mentor.
“I’m searching for not so much a tactical coach but more of a technical coach who sees – because I’m the kind of player who has problems of maintaining his game and maintaining his shots clean,” said Gulbis.
“These are things that I need for a coach to see and to be on a daily basis next to me and seeing these small changes what I make or what I don’t make so I can maintain the same level of play throughout the year.
“Because, for example, I’m the kind of player, if I don’t take a racquet in hand for a couple of days, then suddenly I start to hit my forehand differently than I did before. So this is what I need in a coach.
“Tactically, you know, I’m still – I think that my game is pretty uncomfortable for most of the guys. If I serve big, if I hit the ball big, okay, of course I can think about where to direct that ball, but still it’s a big shot.
“So I think that mostly I need to concentrate on my own technique and my own shots to be clean.
“To be honest, I don’t necessarily think that a former player – doesn’t matter how good he is – is necessarily a good coach. I think that a good coach needs to have experience.
“I like that Gunter had a lot of experience, especially in the technical side of the game, because he spent probably one of the most hours on court from all the coaches on tour. He was together with kids, he was together with right-handed players, left-handed players, serve and volley, baseliners, juniors, 16, 18, older players.
“So his range of understanding the game is very big. This is what I liked in his experience.
“If you take a former player, they always look at the game from their perspective. They understand what they did, and not always they give you solutions for fixing your game. So you have to have, as a good coach, I think you have to – if one thing doesn’t work, you have to have a backup plan, not one, two, but many of them.
“This is what I’m searching for in a coach.”