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French Open preview; Sharapova Looking for a Sharapova Slam; Ivanovic Still Hungry to Get Back to the Top; Simon Back at Full strength; Brian Baker Adopting New Outlook in the Game; Ferrer Thinks His Legs are His Best Assets on Court

Aired May 24, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET


PAT CASH, HOST, CNN'S OPEN COURT: We're in Paris for a Grand Slam edition of OPEN COURT.


The wait is finally over and Roland Garros has become the center of the tennis world for the second Grand Slam of the year. Rafael Nadal has dominated the French Open. The king of clay has reigned supreme six of the past seven years. Only the Swedish legend, Bjorn Borg, has won as many titles.

Coming up on the show, Maria Sharapova has won almost everything worth winning on the tennis circuit. A French Open title is all that stands between the superstar and a Sharapova Slam.


CASH: OK, Ferrer, you're going down.

Keeping pace with the Running Man. David Ferrer shows me why he likes to play in the dirt. And the fabulous Baker Boy. You might not know his name but you won't soon forget his story.


CASH: We begin our French Open coverage with one of the most famous faces in the world of tennis. Maria Sharapova is chasing history here in Paris. She's won all the Grand Slams except the French Open. But as the World Number Two tells Pedro Pinto, she's ready to change that.


PEDRO PINTO, SPORTS ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voice-over): Maria Sharapova knows how to win a slam. Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open -- she's conquered them all.

But clay has always been the stumbling block, keeping her from completing a Sharapova slam. Now, after a strong season on the dirt, she enters Roland Garros with a new-found confidence on clay.

PINTO: I think, you've said in the past that, on clay, sometimes, you felt like you're callanized (ph). It hasn't looked like that recently. So, how are you conquering the surface.

SHARAPOVA: I occasionally still feel like that and I'm sure, I still look like it, too, once in a while. Oh, the first two days on clay are just brutal especially the practices -- you know, you're just getting your footwork down and the movement and it's so frustrating. And I never crack rackets but in those first two days -- like, crack rackets all the time, like two. Give me extra rackets.

But over the years, I think the biggest key for me is just being physically stronger. So, yes, it's been nicer -- less rackets cracked.

PINTO: So, does that mean that you like your chances for the French Open. And how driven are you to achieve that this year since you feel so comfortable.

SHARAPOVA: I am but it's a long summer. We've got so many things going on this summer. We have the French Open which has always been a big goal of mine because I've always said it's going to be the most challenging Grand Slam for me to win whether it was when I called myself that -- you know, "callanized (ph) there" -- whatever it was.

But, you know, if I go there and I play well and, physically, I'm healthy and I feel great, there's no reason why I can't win it.

PINTO: For a long time -- I'm sure you got tired of hearing about it -- it was about, "What's going on with the woman's game."

SHARAPOVA: Yes, it was tough being compared to the men's game when you have, you know, such amazing rivalries. You have the top four, you know. Roger and Raf are getting to the finals and, you know, you added Novak to the mix -- just started dominating, you know. And Andy Murray who is kind of, you know, getting far in the tournaments, always looking for, you know, for the first big one.

So, there's so many stories created there that it was very challenging to be compared to that. I saw this and I still believe that the level of the game from the first round on that you play at a woman's event is so much higher than you see five or, I mean, ten years ago.

You know what, I mean, I kind of felt like I come to the tournament, you know, take the first two matches and see it as a warm-up in a way and everyone would be saying in the press, "Why is it always 6-1, 6-0, 6-2", you know. And what can you really say. I mean, you try to win the match in the best way possible.

PINTO: So, what is the one thing that gets you up in the morning. Is it the career Slam. Is it the Number One. What drives you right now.

SHARAPOVA: Oh, none of those things. Certainly not the first thing I think about in the morning because, you know, I've played tennis since I was 4 years old and, I mean, when you're in a match situation and you can be losing or you're winning, there's so many emotions that go into that.

There's just so many feelings that, even when I was away from the game for nine months with a shoulder surgery and trying to get back, I never ever felt -- in so many things that I did off the court -- just great experiences and the wonderful people -- I got to work on amazing projects.

But nothing gave me that feeling of being in those positions where I had to pull out of a match and I was losing -- had to close it out when I was, you know, when, maybe, I didn't expect myself to win.

It's such an adrenaline rush which you don't get in many things in life. Not that you wake up in the morning everyday feeling like that. Because there are a lot of days where you're like, "I don't want to see anyone, not the coach, not the trainer, not the fitness coach. None of you guys." I want to see my pillow and that's it.

Many days, you know, I have those days for sure.

PINTO: While Maria Sharapova dreams of lifting the trophy in Paris, Anna Ivanovic has been there and done that. And she'd like nothing more than to do it again.

ANA IVANOVIC, SERBIAN PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: I'm really hungry to get back to the top and I feel there is still so much in me that I can do and achieve. And that's something that drives me and motivates me everyday.

PINTO: Ivanovic has already achieved the great deal -- Grand Slam Champion, World Number One and Federation Cup Finalist. But the 24-year- old is far from finished. The Serbian star is moving up the rankings again, enjoying some inspiration from that special day in Paris.

IVANOVIC: I often think and, sometimes, it still seems so unreal. Because it just happened when I didn't expect it and I was in the zone the whole tournament and I was playing really well. I don't want to be the girl who lost three finals in a row.

But I really put it together, you know. I didn't let the moment kill me and overwhelm me like it did the previous year against Safina in the final. So, I stayed in the moment and I played a solid match.

I still remember, I, kind of, mishit my return. And it went short. And she missed. It was just very, very thrilling. And I remember when national anthem came on court, that was probably the first and the only time I ever cried during national anthem. And it was something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.


Two years after winning Roland Garros, Ivanovic's career fell off- course. She suffered a series of injuries and watched as her ranking fell to 63 in the world.


IVANOVIC: I think, that was probably the lowest point of my career so far because, all of a sudden, I wasn't in tournaments anymore. That was, kind of, like a reality check a little bit. And it's something that really shook me.

And I said, I really have to change and change the things and structure and everything. From there, I, sort of, started working on my way up. But it was a very tough time.


PINTO: For a time, Ivanovic struggled to find the right coaching combination, working with five different coaches in just two years.

Now, she's teamed up with Nigel Sears.


IVANOVIC: I'm really happy with my new coach. First, that made things really different. We made the structure. We made the plan and we were both aware, it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be work in progress.

And one of the things was for me to accept this. Because, on profession, is you're going to always try to make a quick fix and try to make everything perfect straight away but, sometimes, it's a process.


PINTO: Ivanovic grew up in Belgrade. She was 5 years old when she saw Monica Seles playing tennis on television. She asked her parents to buy her a racket.

IVANOVIC: It's funny, when I step back on clay court, I feel like a kid again because I grew up playing on clay. And that's where I started to love the game.

PINTO: Despite all of the challenges facing her war-torn country, Ivanovic continued to train alongside her countrymen, Novak Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic.


IVANOVIC: We were very fortunate that there were a lot of good players coming up at the same time. I think, we are very emotional people and we are very combustible in a way. So, it can be good and bad.


PINTO: Djokovic led the Serbs to a Davis Cup win in 2010. Ivanovic will hope to do the same at that said cup final later this year.

IVANOVIC: Anywhere we go, we try to represent Serbia in the best possible way. And, I think, sport is something that brings people together no matter what nationality or color they are.


Good serve.

I knew I would be no match for Anna on the tennis courts. But I thought that my years of training on the ping pong tables of Portugal might finally come in handy.

Best of three with Anna.

Here you go.

IVANOVIC: Slide serve. This is a decider. One all.

Oh no. I hate to lose.


CASH: Still to come on OPEN COURT, Gilles Simon, the Frenchman who uses his tennis brain to outsmart the competition.


Welcome back to OPEN COURT. I'm here at Roland Garros, the home of French tennis. The last homegrown champion here was Yannick Noah back in 1983 and the French public is hungry or, shall I say, starved for a new hero.

Gilles Simon has proven himself capable of being the biggest name in the game. Here's Alex Thomas.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He looks not like a great athlete. He's got skinny legs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not a showman. He doesn't have a good serve. He doesn't play with the public.


ALEX THOMAS, SPORTS CORRESPONDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL: Gilles Simon may be lean but he's no lightweight on the tennis court.


GILLES SIMON, FRENCH PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: I was very small and very, very skinny still but -- teach (ph) me longer than the rest (ph) of the guys but I always improve my ranking.


THOMAS: With his quick movements and clever play, Simon has found a way to use his size to his advantage.

SIMON: Every time the match goes three hours, most of the time, I win it. I now lose 69 kilos and that it's easier to play three hours than for the guys who are 90 kilos.

THOMAS: American Number One, John Isner, says it can be a tough day at the office when he has to face the Frenchman.

JOHN ISNER, AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: He's the one guy you don't want to play against if you're not on your game. Because if you're not on your game, he's going to eat you up. I think, his best attribute is he's a very, very good competitor.

THOMAS: Former French star, Thierry Tulasne, has coached Simon for the past six years. He's watched as Gilles seized his potential in 2008.

TULASNE: Actually, he beats everybody -- Federer, twice. He beat Nadal. He beat Jokovic. He beat Murray. He won two tournaments, I think, last year. He played a full year. He was not injured. That made him Number Six in the world.

THOMAS: Injuries slow down the momentum. But now, Simon is back at full strength with his eye firmly on Roland Garros.


SIMON: I was just 10 years old and I knew just Roland Garros. So, that's why I wanted to play there. Was the only court I knew.

TULASNE: I think, he can win a Grand Slam. I may be crazy to say that but I really think so. And in the next four years, I think he can do it.


CASH: Now, here's a story to inspire you. Almost a decade ago, Brian Baker was a junior prodigy, the next great hope for American tennis.

He won junior tournaments and even beat the Grand Slam champion. But as he was on the verge of tennis stardom, his body failed him. Mark McKay reports on an amazing comeback as you'll see Baker hitting the clay courts here at Roland Garros.


MARK MCKAY, SPORTS CORRESPONDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voice-over): It's a thrill for any player -- the final preparations for a shot at a Grand Slam. But for Brian Baker, packing his bags in National Tennessee, his journey to the French Open in Paris marks a success story in itself.

The last time he took on Roland Garros was almost a decade ago. He was still a junior then and he reached the final.

BRIAN BAKER, AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: I just turned pro right before that tournament and I was definitely hoping to, you know, start off with a bang on a tour and have a successful career out there.


MCKAY: In 2003, Baker was considered one of America's top prospects. And it didn't take long to make his mark on the senior circuit.

In 2005, he shocked crowds of the U.S. Open be defeating World Number Nine, Gaston Gaudio. But Baker's promising career was derailed by a crippling catalogue of injuries spanning six years. He went through three hip operations, elbow surgery and treatment of a sports hernia.


DR. THOMAS BYRD, NATIONAL SPORTS MEDICINE, NASHVILLE: Well, we know that the disorder he had was simply the way his hips formed when he was probably 9 or 10 years old. And what's remarkable to me is that he was able to reach such an elite status in the first place.

Because for Brian, he was spending as much time battling with his hips as he was his opponents. Even long before it ever became evident that his hips was an issue.


MCKAY: Baker then found himself on the sidelines as names such as Verdich, Tsonga and Monfils, players he'd beaten on the junior circuit, became stars.


BAKER: You know, it was difficult to watch tennis on T.V., seeing those guys doing so well. I think, after the first couple of years, I mean, you stop -- you stop the whiny. You start just, you know, "How am I going to come out of this better.".


MCKAY: With his playing career in ruins, Baker maintained his fitness while attending business school, making time to coach the college tennis team, dreaming all the while of making a comeback someday.


STEVE BAKER, BRIAN BAKER'S FATHER: I told him, I said, "If you could go back, you have to get a few wins. Then, perhaps, the tennis world will remember you again.


MCKAY: With his dad's support, Baker worked his way up through the rankings until he had enough points to secure a wild card place in Paris. He'll travel without a coach but his entire family will be there to cheer him on.


STEVE BAKER: It's really something else to go from the Middle Tennessee Tennis League playing with his dad and his uncle, in case you're on the same team, and to go play in the French Open the next year. That's -- a lot of people are smiling about that.


MCKAY: Before Paris was a trip from Nashville to Nice and a chance for Baker to find his feet on the French clay once again.

BAKER: Owning (ph) motivation won't be an issue at all. You know, I'm not going to just put so much pressure on myself and say, "If you don't, at least do this well." It's going to be a huge disappointment. It's more of, you know, "Let's keep this momentum going."

Nothing is guaranteed and that, you know, I know now how easy or how quick tennis can be taken away from me. And so, now, I feel like I just come and enjoy the game a little bit more. You know, I still hate losing. No fun there to lose.

But, I think, it's easier for me to, you know, understand the process and just, you know, take it -- take it one step at a time and just enjoy it more. I think, that's the biggest thing.


CASH: Still to come on OPEN COURT, I'm sweeping the court for David Ferrer. The Spanish Number Two joins me on court after the break.


CASH: I've come to the tennis court of Barcelona to catch up one of the fiercest and fittest flyers in the world of tennis, the Spaniard David Ferrer.



CASH: OK, Ferrer, you're going down. Now, I don't want you to be easy on me, OK. I know you're a nice guy but I don't want you to be easy on me. So, let me warm up slowly first. I like to try and win the warm-up if I can.

At least you have three cameras. I've never had three cameras. I have a movie star.

Who do you think are the best clay court players now for the French Open.

FERRER: Well, I think, this moment, Rafael Nadal is the best player in clay court in the history. Me, I'm a good player in clay court but, I think, I need to improve more my game.

CASH: Can anybody beat Rafa.

FERRER: Maybe, Novak Djokovic has good performance. Roger Federer also but, for me, Rafael is the favorite player.

CASH: One of David Ferrer's greatest strengths is his footwork.

OK, you can run me around now. Come on. Well, I lost -- I lost the first point. I'm already tired. I'm serious now.

I see you. I watch -- I come and said, you know -- watch your footwork and I tell my son and my students -- I said, "Look at the footwork. " You've got fast heels.

You're a windscreen wiper. Side-to-side. The old jump shot.

So, if you don't have power shots, how are you -- you got the Number Four in the world. You must have some power.

FERRER: Of course, I have some power shots but I don't have the best power shots of them.

CASH: One of David's biggest strengths is that he only hit the big forehand for a winner. It's very typical of the Spanish or clay court sort of shot. He runs around in his backhand, hit the forehand and hits you in a sharp angle. I can go ahead and get a couple back anyway. Let's give it a shot.

Boy, I got it back anyway.

FERRER: Oh, I missed it.

CASH: You fell asleep.

One of the things that the Spanish do so well and David, exceptionally well, is the sliding, the movement around the court -- very, very graceful. And this is one of the keys to clay court playing.

Davis Cup is always important to the Spaniards.

FERRER: Davis Cup is very important for us because it's a different competition. Maybe, the people of Spain support more Davis Cup than other tournaments.

CASH: We've heard some very nice things said about you. Roger Federer said you're one of the best -- best returners in the game and Novak Djokovic said that you are like a wall, a brick wall. There are nice things to say about you. I mean, so what is your -- best part of your game.

FERRER: Strongly, I think, it's my legs. I move my legs (ph) in the court. It is very, very important for me. And thanks to Noah, Roger and Rafael for all the good words.

CASH: Oh, that's just too easy, you know. Thanks, David. I didn't get -- I didn't have -- you did very well at running me around. Still, I had a good workout. Thanks very much and good luck.

FERRER: Thank you very much.


CASH: Well, that's all we have for this show. Next month, we head to the grass courts of Wimbledon. But, for now, it's goodbye from Paris.