Seventy-eight minutes in, they’d split sets. With the 10,000-seat Court Suzanne Lenglen nearly filled to capacity, it was a Sunday afternoon feast. There was Garbine Muguruza, the defending champion, smoked in a 30-minute first set 6-1 by the Frenchwoman, Kristina “Kiki” Mladenovic. Muguruza then broke Mladenovic at 0-1 in the second set, riding it out 6-3.
As far as contemporary tennis goes, the matchup offered ample dollops of contrast. Muguruza’s strength is her powerful ground game, fueled by flat drives off both sides. It makes for a great A game. But a flat striker must be massively confident, a flame-throwing dragon with not a scintilla of doubt (exhibit A of A: Jimmy Connors). Once nerves creep in – as has frequently been the case for Muguruza since her title run here last year – much can disintegrate. Let’s just say you won’t see Muguruza making surprise forays to the net.
If not able to generate quite as much velocity as Muguruza off the ground, Mladenovic has a reasonably eclectic repertoire. Years of success in doubles and mixed have made her quite comfortable at the improvisational skills that are rather pleasing to we civilian players – drop shots, opportunistic volleys, occasionally hitting behind her opponent. The monkey wrench in this is that the combination of a bad back and the invariable nerves of trying to go far at her homeland Slam have given Mladenovic a case of the service yips. Through her first three matches, she’d served 24 double-faults. After two sets against Muguruza, she’d thrown in another nine – and there would be seven more in the third.
The energy of this match was fantastic. A lively crowd, excited to see the holder, but even more enthralled by the native contender. A beautiful Sunday afternoon, with humidity-free temperatures in the 70s, and a mild breeze. Outside the court during the break between sets, a video monitor played a commercial that featured music from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a tune laden with the spirit of mystery and merriment that laces its way through Roland Garros. Nearby, a couple each smoked a cigarette – yet another feature so distinct here in Paris.
Back inside Lenglen, Mladenovic broke early. Serving at 2-1, with a game point, there came another double-fault. It was intriguing to study the Mladenovic service motion. Like Milos Raonic, she starts it with an extreme Eastern backhand grip, the racquet curled in a seemingly awkward position that in time straightens to a fairly sculpted, intermittently effective motion. Mladenovic held for 3-1. Serving at 3-2, 15-love, Mladenovic struck a sublime drop shot winner, soon enough going up 4-2. Muguruza held again. So while the holder was sticking around, it was unclear what the Spaniard’s plan for winning this match was. Or was she hoping that an anxious Mladenovic would merely unravel?
But Mladenovic had faced her demons earlier. There had been epic struggles versus a pair of Americans, Mladenovic in the first round fighting from 3-0 down in the third versus Jennifer Brady, and two rounds later overcoming a 2-5 deficit versus Shelby Rogers.
A remarkable energizing moment for Mladenovic came in the critical eighth game. Serving at 4-3, 15-love, Mladenovic again struck a backhand drop shot, curling it down the line. In came Muguruza, nudging a down-the-line forehand – at which point, like a lefthanded batter driving one to right field, Mladenovic laced a crosscourt backhand pass. She’d hold at love, break at 15 and, one minute shy of two hours, earn the biggest win of her career.
At a tournament where French woman have only taken the singles title twice in the last 50 years, Mladenovic, at least to this point, had learned how to balance external expectation with internal motivation, all the while using her passion for the arena and creativity – those drop shots carry far at Roland Garros -- to draw the fans to her corner. “The French crowd are amazing, but they are also tough,” she’d said after second round match. “I think you got to really try to be an example on the court, like show attitude, so they kind of appreciate what you’re doing on the court.”
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