“Fly With Caro” has been an almost ubiquitous phrase (not to mention hashtag, meme and GIF) in women’s tennis this summer. That is because Caroline Garcia, the supremely talented French woman who Andy Murray first tipped for greatness over a decade ago finally seemed to be delivering on his prediction that she would one day become world #1. Unfortunately, to extend the flying analogy, in her semifinal against Ons Jabeur at the US Open, Garcia came back down to earth with an almighty bump, as she lost limply in straight sets, 6-1 6-3. If not quite a crash-landing, it was certainly a forced one, as the Tunisian comprehensively defeated her.
Caroline Garcia Returns To Earth
Garcia’s Spectacular Summer
It had appeared that Garcia had completely reinvented herself this summer, in a manner befitting of the great reinventor himself, David Bowie. Since Wimbledon, she had gone from being ranked in the 70s to the world’s top 10, with a long unbeaten run of matches, up to the semi-final against Jabeur. In the process, she had won in Cincinnati, to claim surely the biggest title of her career and certainly the biggest since she had won two other WTA 1000 events in 2017, the Wuhan Open and the China Open, in that long-ago, pre-pandemic and pre-Peng Shuai world when China was an increasingly important part of world tennis and women’s tennis in particular.
Specifically, Garcia radically improved both her serve and, even more importantly, her fitness. The former was the result of intensive work with the relatively new coach she appointed in 2021, Gabriel Urpí, while the latter was the result of hiring, for the first time ever, a physiotherapist to travel with her on tour. Having finally parted with her long-time coach, her father Louis-Paul, she seemed to be reaping the benefits of striking out on her own as an entirely independent player and woman.
If anything, Garcia’s spectacular form before the US Open had improved even further at Flushing Meadows. In particular, her performances in the last 16 and quarter-final against Alison Riske-Amritraj and Coco Gauff respectively were astonishing. In both matches, she played with a freedom, flair and sheer fluidity that occasionally evoked memories of even the most artistic tennis players of the last 40 years, namely John McEnroe in the mid-1980s and Roger Federer in the mid-noughties.
As a result, she dispatched both her American opponents, who were obviously playing in front of a home crowd, with relative ease. In fact, she played so well that when she ran back on to the court afterwards to celebrate, her arms outstretched like a bird, plane or Superwoman, it was almost a surprise that she did not actually take flight.
But Back Down To Earth Against Jabeur
Unfortunately for Garcia, against Jabeur in the semi-final she was more like a tennis Icarus than a tennis Superwoman, as she came back down to solid earth (or at least hard court) in extraordinary fashion. Having lost serve only three times in the entire tournament, she was broken in her very first service game against Jabeur and never really recovered. Martina Navratilova, commentating for Amazon Prime Video, seemed to nail it when she said that Garcia had gone from the flowing tennis she had exhibited in her previous matches in New York to almost completely frozen tennis against Jabeur, as the scale and grandeur of playing in her first Major semifinal (in singles) seemed to overwhelm her completely.
Almost every sportsperson will admit that the only thing worse than losing a match is not really turning up for it, which was the fate that befell Garcia in the US Open semifinal. She was certainly no longer flying. Indeed, she was barely getting off the ground at times, as Jabeur brilliantly kept the ball low with a succession of slices that prevented the French woman from striking the ball as cleanly and aggressively as she had throughout the rest of the tournament.
The result was probably the most disappointing Grand Slam semi-final debut by any player, male or female, since Diego Schwartzman followed up his epic, five-hour-plus win over Dominic Thiem at the autumnal French Open of 2020 with an uncharacteristically meek straight sets semi-final defeat to Rafael Nadal. At least Schwartzman had the excuse that he was playing an opponent who had not only been in many more Major semi-finals than him but who had won most of them.
By contrast, Garcia was facing an opponent who was only in her second ever Major semifinal (after making the final at Wimbledon this year) and who had appeared to be consumed by nerves herself in her scrappy quarter-final victory over the conqueror of Serena Williams, Ajla Tomljanović. In the semi-final, however, it was as if Jabeur had used up all her nerves against Tomljanović, leaving her completely calm and composed against Garcia, whose turn it was to freeze.
So commanding, indeed so complete, was the Tunisian’s performance that Navratilova referred to her continually as “Professor Jabeur”, in stark contrast to Garcia, who played like a student or even a school girl riddled with anxiety. And the fact that Jabeur and Garcia are actually the same age (28) only added to the surreal nature of the so-called “contest”.
Where Now For Garcia?
As Jabeur progresses to the final against Iga Swiatek (who, having already won two French Opens, will surely start as favourite), Garcia must regroup and, if necessary, reinvent herself again. She will naturally be devastated by what happened in the semi-final – not so much by the result, dispiriting as that was, but by the almost complete lack of a performance. Nevertheless, she should take enormous encouragement from the quantum leaps (in both performances and the rankings) that she has made this summer. If she does so, and can retain both her vastly improved serve and vastly improved fitness, then she will have every chance of performing infinitely better in another Major semi-final if she ever reaches one.
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