It’s funny how things turn out sometimes. Rain has been a real pain the last two weeks in Paris but the mayhem in the schedule meant that both men’s and women’s semi-finals were played on Friday – which is usually not the case – and they were split on two stadiums, Philippe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen.
It drove organisers to sell new tickets for Lenglen for a measly €20 which meant fans got to see Novak Djokovic take on Dominic Thiem, and Garbine Muguruza take on Sam Stosur for less than what I would pay for a sandwich and two juices in the media cafeteria here.
The ground pass holders were given free access to Lenglen as well. It’s a tennis fan’s dream come true really. Yet somehow the stadium was virtually empty during the first semi-final on Lenglen between Muguruza and Stosur.
Even more bizarre was the sight of the bare seats on Chatrier for Williams and Bertens.
Attendance has taken a hit this fortnight and all things considered, it’s quite understandable.
Cold, wet weather, floods around the Seine, big-name withdrawals… all factors that do not bode well for any tournament. But still, watching a Serena Williams semi-final, in 12-degree weather, in front of empty stands was a real dreary situation.
It didn’t help that the start of the match coincided with the holy French lunch time, which is something not to be messed with. The stands did fill up for the men’s matches though, as Djokovic took on Thiem on Lenglen and Andy Murray played Stan Wawrinka on Chatrier.
Chatrier even had some famous faces in the stands with repeat visitor Leonardo Di Caprio in attendance, as well as Manchester United legend Eric Cantona.
Murray was asked if he ever notices when there are celebrities in the stands for his matches.
Eric Cantona in the crowd at Roland Garros. I dare Andy Murray to kung-fu kick him.— Sachin Nakrani (@SachinNakrani) June 3, 2016
“I met Eric Cantona afterwards. But, no, not always that aware of what’s going on in the crowd. You know, more kind of focused on my team and the court, what’s going on on there. Yeah, I don’t often see what’s going on off the court,” said the Scot.
And is he fan of Cantona?
“I don’t think many people aren’t. Incredibly talented guy. Fun to watch. Yeah, it was nice to meet him. He’s a legend in British football. So, yeah, it was very, very nice to meet him,” added Murray.
There is a reason why they are two prominent figures of the fabled ‘Big Four’ – when a grand slam reaches its business end, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray know how to find another gear.
It’s why it is no surprise the two 29-year-olds will face off in tomorrow’s French Open final after delivering their best performances of the fortnight in their respective semi-finals on Friday.
Just three days ago, Djokovic was down a set to Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round and battling to deal with the heavy conditions to overcome the Spaniard. Last week, Murray had to fight through back-to-back five-setters against Radek Stepanek and Mathias Bourgue in the opening two rounds.
But on Friday, Djokovic edged closer to capturing a fourth consecutive major title (are we calling it a Novak Slam yet?) and completing a career grand slam with a brutal 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win over 13th-seeded Dominic Thiem, while Murray put together arguably the best clay display of his career in a 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 dismissal of defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic is into his fourth French Open final while Murray became the first British man since 1937 to reach the Roland Garros final and his triumph over Wawrinka ended his six-match losing streak against top-four opposition in grand slams.
“Best performance of the tournament. As I was hoping after the long fourth round that I’m going to start playing better as the tournament progresses, and that’s what’s happening now,” said Djokovic after his 108-minute victory over Thiem.
“So I’m very pleased with the way things are going.”
Djokovic has had to play on three successive days due to the rain and he is grateful he now has Saturday off to prepare for the final.
“I put myself in a position in which I wanted to be in of course, ever since last year’s final (when I lost to Wawrinka). I was hoping that the clay-court season would be successful in the other tournaments, but mostly in this one,” said the world No1.
“It’s always high on the priority list when I start a season thinking about Roland Garros, and to be able to reach finals is really special. I give myself another opportunity to win the trophy.
“For a change, it’s great to have a day off tomorrow,” Djokovic added with a smile. “I think it’s gonna serve well to recover, to get that energy supply, and Sunday I’ll give my all, as always.”
Djokovic took a two-set lead inside 70 minutes but Thiem opened himself a tiny window to breathe when he broke the top seed for the first time and created a 3-0 advantage in the third set.
But the lead was short-lived for the 22-year-old Austrian sensation as Djokovic struck back and ran away with a straight-sets win.
Simultaneously on Chatrier, Murray was mercilessly dismantling Wawrinka, the man who 12 months ago was delivering the same kind of drubbing to Djokovic in the final.
Extending his winning streak to 11, on clay, having won the Rome title a little over two weeks ago, Murray saved four of the five break points he faced, hit 25 winners against 22 unforced errors and took 79 per cent of the points on his first serve.
“I didn’t necessarily expect to be here a few years ago,” said Murray, whose wife Kim and four-month-old daughter Sophia were on-site Friday.
“So, yeah, got to try and enjoy it. Proud I have managed to reach the final of all four (grand slams).
“It was a tough atmosphere today, as well. You know, handled that extremely well.
“To reach the finals of the French the first time, that’s a big moment for me. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Wawrinka looked almost helpful during long stretches of the match, as he allowed Murray to dictate play.
The Swiss world No4 had beaten Murray in their previous three encounters, but even when he took the third set, Wawrinka looked nowhere near someone who would win that match.
“I think I have never played against him as strong as he was playing today,” said the 31-year-old Wawrinka.
“Of course I’m disappointed. I could play better. I could have tried to turn the match around, but I couldn’t find the solutions today. I didn’t know how to increase my level of game to fight back.”
For a third time, Serena Williams will attempt to equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 grand slams and standing between her and that historic milestone is Garbine Muguruza, a player she has lost to at the French Open before.
Saturday’s title clash in Paris is a rematch of last year’s Wimbledon final, which was when Williams lifted her last major trophy.
The 34-year-old American has come so close to equaling that Graf record, falling just two matches short at the US Open last September, and falling to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final five months ago.
“If I get there it will be great,” Williams says of the 22 mark she is chasing.
“Nothing I can do about it. The only thing can I do is just play to win the tournament and that’s it.”
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admits that it would be impossible for Williams to keep the prospect of matching Graf’s tally off her mind but he is confident in his charge’s ability to deal with the pressure.
“Everybody tells her every day, so it has to be on her mind. But it’s okay. It’s just dealing with pressure and it’s something she’s doing quite well,” said Mouratoglou, who faces off with a fellow French coach, Sam Sumyk in the final.
“She doesn’t do it well all the time because she’s human, but most of the time she’s one of the best in the world to deal with pressure because she has the highest pressure of all players every single day of her life.”
Seeking a fourth title victory at Roland Garros, Williams, the defending champion, could become the oldest Roland Garros winner of all-time should she defeat Muguruza on Saturday.
Retired ex-Wimbledon champion and current presenter at Roland Garros, Marion Bartoli, said on TV that Williams is struggling with an adductor injury, which she reportedly received extensive treatment for after Thursday’s quarter-final.
“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know, maybe she’s closer to Serena than me,” Mouratoglou said sarcastically, referring to Bartoli. “As far as I know, yes (Serena’s fit).”
Williams was a little more forthcoming in her press conference when told Bartoli had talked about her physical condition, saying: “I have had some issues, but, you know, it is what it is.”
To reach the final, Williams ended Kiki Bertens’ 12-match winning streak (at all levels) 7-6 (7), 6-4 in the semi-finals on Friday. Playing in front of a near-empty stadium in 12-degree weather, Williams fought back from a break down in both sets before overcoming the Dutch world No58, raising her level when it mattered the most.
“It almost doesn’t have the aura of a grand slam this year,” Chris Evert said on Eurosport, and she was right. The rainy, cold weather, floods in Paris and numerous withdrawals have almost killed the spirit of the French Open this fortnight.
But not according to Williams, who feels her final opponent, Muguruza, has had an incredible French Open so far. The Spanish 22-year-old reached her first French Open final with a 6-2, 6-4 win over former runner-up Sam Stosur.
Muguruza is 1-3 head-to-head against Williams, with her sole victory against the American coming in the Roland Garros second round two years ago.
“I think Muguruza has been playing really well. She’s been playing a really aggressive game and going for her shots. Regardless, I think it will be a good match,” said Williams.
“Last time we played here in France she was able to win the match. I learned so much from that match. I hate to lose, but when I do, I hope it was worth it. That match was definitely one of those that was kind of needed and worth it. So I look forward to hopefully learning from that.”
The Spanish world No4 has made swift progress since she had her breakthrough moment against Williams. She owns only two WTA titles, but is already into her second grand slam final. Muguruza has shown that she is a big-match player. The grander the stage, the tougher she plays. Her 2-0 record in major semi-finals a true testament to that.
“I think she proved that she has it,” says Sumyk of Muguruza, his mentee. “I think she proved that she’s a hell of a player. She has a lot of mental resources. She enjoys and is not worried to play in front of a full crowd.”
Sumyk does not put much weight on Muguruza’s previous win over Williams in Paris, “it was 250 years ago” he says, but believes having the experience of facing off with the world No1 in the Wimbledon final last year can help her.
Mouratoglou hailed Muguruza’s aggressive game-style and said the key to the match would be with whomever imposes her game first.
“I don’t see any of those two players winning by defending,” said Williams’ coach.
“I think Muguruza’s a great player. She 100 per cent deserves to be where she is. But as always I’d like to think that the keys of the final are in Serena’s hands, which has always been the case in her career.
“We don’t plan on winning because Garbine is going to play bad, we plan on winning because Serena is going to be better. In Wimbledon I don’t think Garbine played her best tennis but I think if she would, Serena would’ve still won.”
Muguruza is not looking at the past as she has her eyes set firmly on the French Open crown.
She said: “I don’t want to talk about Wimbledon. I’ll have nothing to lose, so I will try and win against the best tennis player in the world. That’s all. I’ll try and control my emotions, and I hope I can win this title. Why not?”