Mary Carillo previews French Open, assesses Serena Williams’ chances for title No. 24

Serena Williams training ahead of the 2020 French Open
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On Thursday, tennis analyst Mary Carillo sat down with On Her Turf to preview the women’s tournament at the French Open. This Q&A has been edited lightly and condensed for clarity.

On Her Turf: Between the US Open earlier this month and the Italian Open last week, what are your takeaways ahead of the French Open?

Mary Carillo: I’m thinking that there’s a big separation between Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Victoria Azarenka — and everyone else, including Serena Williams.

It is no surprise that Simona Halep continues a great streak. She decided against playing in New York on the hard courts and stayed in Europe. It’s such a condensed clay court season, but she already won in Prague, and she won in Rome against a good field. She looks solid. Muguruza also looked very good.

Azarenka, that she was able to go from the [US Open] women’s championship match straight to Rome… she didn’t seem to have a hangover from the [US Open] loss. She’s not somebody you necessarily think of immediately as a great ‘clay-courter,’ but she played great and she could have won that [Italian Open] title.

So after seeing that, and recognizing that Serena Williams hasn’t played a clay court match since the French Open last year, which was at the end of May, and that Serena has likely not been practicing on clay since last year, I think she’s going to have some problems. Even though she is the active women’s player with the most French Open titles – three of them – she will be going up against a lot of clay-courters who’ve been practicing on the surface.

I should also quickly mention that last year’s champion, Ash Barty, isn’t coming. It was a big surprise to me that Ash Barty won last year. And it was a surprise to Ash Barty that her first major title came on clay. So her absence, of course, is significant, but not unexpected. She hasn’t left Australia since the pandemic started.

And Naomi Osaka [also isn’t playing]. Clay is not her best surface… yet. Maybe it will be one day, but it isn’t yet. So, to me, her absence doesn’t feel like that big of a hole in the draw.

The players who are showing up, they know their way around the clay court. And unlike on the men’s side – where [over the last] 15 years, it’s one of three or four guys – on the women’s side, it’s not that way. But I have my favorites.

OHT: Going back to Simona Halep… What is it about her style and approach to the game that makes her a strong clay-court player?

Carillo: Halep grew up on this stuff so it’s her first and best surface. On clay, Halep’s strengths are immediately visible. She is a tremendous mover. She’s in great shape. She understands how to go from offense to defense back to offense. She’s got a great sense of the court and how to navigate it. She cuts into the court when she knows she’s hurt somebody on the other side. Her serve isn’t necessarily a weapon, but it’s hard to break her because her second shot after the return is always solid.

She has great memories of Roland Garros. She lost in a couple of heartbreaking finals, but then when she finally won it [in 2018], it changed her life and it changed her career. And it changed her attitude about who she was as a player. In my mind, she really she deserves to be considered the best clay-court player among all the women, even though she’s only won it once and, again, Serena has won it three times.

OHT: It’s interesting that Serena is going in with more French Open titles than any of the other players, but also the fact that she only has three French Open titles compared to at least six at the other majors. Historically, what has made the French Open less of her tournament than the others?

Carillo: Well, Serena grew up on the hard courts of California. A lot of Americans are much more comfortable on a surface that doesn’t slide under their feet. And Serena is a player whose game is aggression-based, that’s what rewards her. Whether it’s her magnificent serve or the heft of her shots, on clay, a lot of stuff comes back. As well as you might strike a shot, if you’re playing against anybody who knows how to counter-punch… Instead of hitting one winner in a rally, Serena is forced to hit two or three or sometimes four.

OHT: Does the number 24 weigh on her?

Carillo: Absolutely. Not even a question. Sometimes she’ll deny it and sometimes she’ll admit it. I tend to believe her more when she admits it. She’s trying to do a remarkable thing. She’s already made history, now she’s trying to expand upon it.

OHT: Something I find interesting is that, in her return since childbirth, how quickly she reached the finals. But at this point, she’s gone 0-4 in Grand Slam finals—

Carillo: Without winning a set.

OHT: Good point. Statistically, it feels like, ‘Well, Serena has to win one eventually.’ But can you put into perspective the difference between reaching a final and winning a final?

Carillo: For Serena, you know, it’s a failure. She’s been to four finals since she had her baby three years ago. And she’s lost her finals at places where she’s always done so well. She lost [the 2018] Wimbledon final to Angie Kerber, then she lost the US Open final to Naomi Osaka… and then she lost another Wimbledon final to Simona Halep. I had picked Serena for all of these, by the way. And then she lost [the 2019] US Open final to [Bianca] Andreescu.

Serena had so much more experience and so much more success at those fast court majors, I just had it in my head that she would win them… I just feel it weighs so much upon her. And clearly, the other finalists don’t feel all that [pressure]. For them, it’s like, ‘Here’s my shot. Give me the balls, let’s go.’

For Serena, it’s a very different situation. She’s said that, if she could play in the championship matches the way she played to get there, she knows she’d be winning them. Heading into the French Open, will she allow herself to move more freely and hit more freely? We all know it’s not her favorite surface. Maybe that will allow her to settle in a little bit better.

OHT: In terms of up-and-coming women, is there anyone you’ve enjoyed watching recently that you don’t expect to win the French Open – or even necessarily make the quarters or semis – but that you think has a lot of potential for the future?

Carillo: Jen Brady. She has been this summer’s revelation, she has gotten so much better. She moved [from Orlando] to Germany to train. She found a coach and a trainer that she trusted, and she has become fitter, faster, and more confident. Everything about her game has taken such a remarkable leap. She has been the standout of the season.

Shelby [Rogers] has also been great. She got to the quarterfinals of the French Open years ago, but then she had a catastrophic knee surgery that kept her out for a long time. She’s come back fitter, faster, and more confident as well.

READ MORE: Shelby Rogers enters French Open with momentum on her side

And then, [Sofia] “Sonya” Kenin. She won her first major title in Australia [in January] and looked unbelievably strong. But clearly she feels the pressure of her new status because she’s had a pretty rough summer and hasn’t won a lot of matches. She lost love and love [0-6, 0-6] last week in Rome. No one should beat Sonya love and love.

OHT: What are your initial thoughts on the draw?

Carillo: Serena could play Azarenka in the fourth round. That’s just bad, bad luck for both of them. And, by the way, Azarenka has to go through Venus [Williams] in the second round to get to Serena.

The other big news is that Coco Gauff gets [Johanna] Konta first round.

Halep against [2019 French Open semifinalist] Amanda Anisimova would be a third round match. That’s pretty brutal, but I still think Halep gets that in straight [sets].

OHT: In a normal year, the season goes from the French Open on clay to Wimbledon on grass to the US Open hard courts. This year, to have the French Open after the US Open, how does that impact a player’s body? Are there any injury concerns?

Carillo: Changing surfaces, it stresses different muscle systems. If you go from hard courts to clay, where you’re sliding around, or grass courts where you’ve got to bend lower, you start feeling it.

The other difference is the balls; balls change from hard courts to clay courts to grass courts. That can stress out muscle systems as well, and there’s a brand new ball at the French this year. You might have to hit it harder or it might get fluffy… That means that you’ll end up after the first days of practice with a sore elbow or wrist.

OHT: Looking ahead several years… Obviously there are still the Tokyo Olympics next summer, but then Paris will host the Olympics in 2024, and Roland Garros will be the home of the tennis tournament at those Games. In the coming years, do you think we will see more Americans prioritize their clay game?

Carillo: I think the Olympics have become more and more important to the players. The Olympics have become a very big event, and that wasn’t always true in tennis. There were players who didn’t consider it as important as the majors. But I really think that has changed.

Tennis courts these days have become more homogenized. Grass court tennis is a lot slower than it used to be. Clay court tennis has sped up from what it used to be. There are very few players these days who are specialists. You know, if you are a professional tennis player, you’ve got to know how to play everything.

OHT: What did I miss? Any other questions I should have asked?

Carillo: The only other thing… It’s a different time of year. It will get darker and colder earlier. And some players aren’t good cold players.

 

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FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.