For a set and a half, there was no doubt who was going to win the afternoon’s first match on court six at Roland Garros stadium. The tall lithe girl with the breathtaking combination of power and shot-making accuracy was a cinch. Whenever she needed a point, she set up a sequence wherein she got her opponent’s feet moving in one direction and then fired a shot just to her side. Only it was the side away from where she was moving. And if need be, the tall lithe girl put the ball on the line in the corner, so even if the other girl got her feet straightened out she would never have time to reach it.
It was breathtaking. It was hot on court six, and as the word got around that there was something going on here you might not see again, it got packed, every seat, and thus it was getting even hotter, which did not make anyone leave. It made more people show up.
Paris is in the middle of a heat wave, and maybe it is not entirely due to climate change.
Her serve was harder than her opponent’s. She hit more aces and far more winners — something like 50 to 25, by my close count, but look it up if you want to be absolutely sure — than her opponent, which is crucial. A winner is when you put the ball somewhere the other fellow or girl cannot even reach it. It is the basic tactical aim in this sport. If you are hitting twice as many winners, you are, rule of thumb, playing twice as well.
But not necessarily. She also made twice as many of what they call unforced errors. I dislike this statistical category because even if you miss a shot a reasonable observer would expect you to make, it is not entirely due to your clumsiness. Someone — your opponent — got you in a position, including a mental position, where you made a mistake. That, too, is an important tactic in this sport, so calling something “unforced” is not doing justice to what really happened.
Amanda Anisimova, however, made too many mistakes.
And the reason: Her opponent — Kurumu Nara, a lovely little (five one) spark plug of a tennis ace from Osaka, a city in Japan — is a fantastically tough opponent. Miss Nara — the French Open uses the old-school way of referring to the women, as in, “40-30, Mademoiselle Nara” or “Avantage, Mademoiselle Nara” — is a counterpuncher, one of the best in the business. She is 25 years old, and there is no shot so hard and fast she cannot shoot right back at you — if she gets to it. Hence the need for winners. But with her unrelenting persistence at putting the balls back on the other side of the court, the unrelenting need for winners also produced an unrelenting stream of mistakes or unforced errors. Miss Anisimova made 60 of these to Miss Nara’s 20, in round numbers. Three times as many.
If you are playing twice as well by reference to your winners, you have to qualify that by subtracting your losers or errors. Miss A. was making more losers than winners, including her aces. Or put it this way: Miss N. was hoarding more points. It paid.
You would have been forgiven for doubting this to the last point. It is not to take anything away from Kurumi Nara to say that her game just is not quite all-around spectacular. It is very good, very solid. Her WTA rank is 90, which means there are only 89 women in the world, this week, who are playing better tennis. But on the court, it looked like Miss Anisimova was hitting with more power and precision during most of the two-and-a-half hours the match lasted.
But in this case, you have to recognize that sometimes, in sports, as in life, you can win without being by most measurable and observable criteria better than your competition.
Miss Anisimova, who is 15, has never played in a Grand Slam main draw. She earned a wild card, or invitation by the tournament organizers, because of success in several minor tournaments in just the past few months, building upon a strong run (finalist) at last year’s junior French Open.
Born in New Jersey to an immigrant family, she has worked with private and USTA coaches in Florida since the age of 10. She plays an offensive game, which yesterday admittedly crashed against superior defense. But in the long run — meaning perhaps within the next half decade — she may become exhibit A for the axiom that offense beats defense.
That is about the time it took for Venus Williams, who came on the tour at about the same age as Amanda Anisimova, to start winning majors (Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year). It does not mean it is always wise to start so young. You cannot lay down a dogma in this area. Each individual is different. The kid, the parents, the coaches — they reach some sort of consensus, and maybe it works out.
Miss A., essentially, won the first set and a half and then could not maintain her mastery. With patience, grit, courage, Miss N. stuck to her plan: Hit it back, because Amanda cannot maintain her pace. She will tire. The pressure will get her. Miss Nara was right. The American’s stunning winners continued, but after she lost an early second set lead, control of the match passed to the mighty mite from Japan and her gritty persistence.
There will be other opportunities for Amanda.
Which, one expects, is what world No. 1 Angelique Kerber told herself after being trounced on Roland-Garros’s center court (called Chatrier) by Ekaterina Makarova. Following her triumph at the U.S. Open in September, there seems to be very nearly nothing that Miss Kerber can do right. She is in a long and painful slump and the match was frankly embarrassing. Miss Makarova, a highly respected player in the past decade and currently No. 40, played a nearly flawless baseline game with smooth, deep groundstrokes. But she was getting soft balls from Miss Kerber, scarcely needed to run to them or worry about their pace or spin.
By contrast, another Russian — Svetlana Kuznetsova, well liked on the tour for her good nature and generosity — had a fight on her hands with Christina McHale, whom she beat in straight sets on the Suzanne Lenglen court, despite winning fewer points and being forced repeatedly into long, brutal rallies that always suggested the young American was about to burst out and take over the match. Miss Kuznetsova, who never hides her frustration with her own uneven game, showed how patience and experience win in the end.
This was, of course, the lesson of the Anisimova-Nara match, and in a way, it was also what occurred in Venus Williams’s first match of the tournament, also on Lenglen, against Qiang Wang, who at 25 is some ten years Miss Williams’s junior and for many moments appeared ready to take over the match’s momentum with her clean, hard forehand and her steady nerves. But in the end, Miss Williams’s were more steady. She lost the lead in the two sets they played and calmly took it back and held it.
Runner-up at the Australian Open earlier this year (to her sister Serena), Venus Williams is having a late career resurgence and has as good a chance as anyone else to win the trophy — the Lenglen Cup — here. For despite her customary lapses — her nine double faults to Miss Wang’s one were unusual, certainly, but not untypical — she was showing the kind of form that has made her a star for 20 years and counting. She has the grace and power that you can see emerging in Amanda Anisimova. She has the determination, the ability to step on the pedal and overcome an opponent’s surge that Miss Anisimova, if she wants, can also attain.