U.S. Tennis Is In Dire Straits

American women have not fared as well on Days 3 and 4 of the 2012 French Open as they had on Days 1 and 2.

In revisiting the themes from the Australian Open, I almost wrote about the American women and their hot start on Tuesday, but I wanted to wait one more day to see how the next few matches went. Good thing. The action from late Tuesday and early Wednesday have changed the narrative quite a bit.

U.S. Tennis Is In Dire Straits (But You Probably Knew That Already) (Part II)

Christina McHale, is 19 and interesting, but she probably lacks the athleticism necessary to break into the top 10, at least any time soon. Vania King is a scrapper and only 22, but she is relatively one-dimensional. And neither are ranked in the top 40 (though McHale might sneak in when the next rankings are released). The only other women in the Top 100: Williams, No. 67 Bethanie Mattek-Sands (almost 27 years old), No. 81 Irina Falconi (21) and No. 95 Sloane Stephens (18). McHale and Stephens are both interesting players to watch, but putting a country's hopes on two players leaves little margin for error.

Through two days at the French Open, American women were undefeated. It was the rare, encouraging storyline for American tennis, but a quick look at the draw suggested that the good feelings were probably going to be short-lived. And it goes without saying that, with Serena Williams' upset loss on Tuesday, the narrative suffered a fatal blow.

With Day 4 at Roland Garros half-over, we can divide American women into four categories based on their French Open performance.

Fun While It Lasted: No. 57 Vania King, No. 112 Irina Falconi, No. 269 Melanie Oudin.

Unseeded players are guaranteed to be paired with either a seeded player in the first round or, barring upset, the second round. Most Americans got lucky in one sense: their seeded opponents didn't come until the second round. Vania King, Irina Falconi and Melanie Oudin all dispatched of their first-round opponents but were quickly eliminated by top-ranked, second-round foes. King won only two games versus No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova early on Wednesday, while Falconi and Oudin won five each against No. 6 Sam Stosur and No. 21 Sara Errani, respectively.

Still Alive, For Now: No. 53 Venus Williams, No. 63 Varvara Lepchenko, No. 190 Alexa Glatch.

The elder Williams, Lepchenko and Glatch have yet to play their second-round matches, but all three face Top 20 opponents. Glatch and Lepchenko face No. 18 Flavia Pennetta and No. 19 Jelena Jankovic, respectively, but the toughest draw was given to the best American of the three; Venus must take on one of the hottest players on the tour in No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska. To her credit, Venus has won six of eight matches against Radwanska and smoked her Polish opponent (6-1, 6-2) in their only battle on clay (Rome 2009), but Radwanska has won their only battle in the last two years.

Lepchenko also has a solid chance of advancing versus Jankovic. The American (by way of Uzbekistan) actually has a better record than Jankovic so far this year (23-14 versus 17-14) and has raised her ranking from 110th on Jan. 1. The 26-year old is not exactly a hot, young up-and-comer, but she is certainly playing the best tennis of her career.

Set For American Elimination Matches: No. 36 Christina McHale, No. 70 Sloane Stephens, No. 162 Lauren Davis, No. 167 Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

The most impressive American results this week have come at the hands of Mattek-Sands and Davis. Mattek-Sands whipped No. 12 Sabine Lasicki in the first round, while Davis did the same to No. 30 Mona Barthel. Their reward? A match against a fellow American. Of these four, only two will advance to the third round after Mattek-Sands plays Stephens and Davis plays McHale, the No. 2 ranked American player. McHale looked far from impressive in her three-set, first-round win over Kiki Bertens, but hey, neither did No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Survive, advance, et cetera.

Short Stay: No. 5 Serena Williams, No. 90 Jamie Hampton.

Down 6-4, 4-3, in her first-round match versus Arantxa Rus, Jamie Hampton was forced to retire from the match with a lower back injury; it was the first loss for any American this week, and it was quickly forgotten after what happened to Williams later on Tuesday.

The 2012 clay court season has now proven two things about Serena Williams: 1. Her upside is still higher than anybody else's. 2. At 30 years old, she is more vulnerable to upsets now than she has ever been. Her dramatic, strange three-set loss to Virginie Razzano showed us a Serena as powerful as ever (she had 39 winners and won a solid 68 percent of points on her first serve); but the younger Williams' famous killer instinct was nowhere to be seen. She blew a 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, and she failed to take full advantage of Razzano's second serve down the stretch (she was tentative on quite a few opportunities in the final game). Her power game was sporadic (47 unforced errors), and Razzano was simply able to outlast her.

Serena Williams is still capable of complete dominance, but as she gets older, it is likely that she will find it more difficult to turn around poor stretches of play as quickly. She was emotional and, at the end, humble, and she even saluted a crowd that had completely turned on her as she was leaving. But that doesn't change the fact that her French Open 2012 is over and that she is no longer undefeated in first rounds of grand slams.

In all, two Americans are guaranteed to advance to the third round, and three others could if they pull a second-round upset. This is not quite the success story we were talking about on Monday, but considering the rankings of these players coming into the tournament (only one in the top 30, four in the top 60), it does still suggest the Americans are overachieving a bit, even without Williams. Still, it does not say much about the state of American tennis that "two to five unseeded Americans in the third round" is a bit of a success story.


Other Wednesday matches to follow (TV schedule here):

  • Men's 2nd Round: No. 11 Gilles Simon vs. Brian Baker. This match is already in progress. Baker, the 27-year old American comeback kid, is looking to make his rather incredible story last into the second half of the first week.
  • Women's 2nd Round: No. 10 Angelique Kerber vs. Olga Vogortsova. Aside from Radwanska (her doubles partner) and Serena Williams, Kerber might have been the hottest player on the women's tour. She had little trouble with China's Shuai Zhang in the first round; we'll see if Vogortsova, the No. 74 player in the world, can stem Kerber's momentum. A third round match versus Pennetta or Glatch awaits.

And finally...

It was bugging me, but that's definitely it.

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