French Open showing signals Cara return

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IT was a French Open quarterfinal that felt like a final, fiercely fought by two teams of near equals.
Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova of the Czech Republic, winners of the 2011 title here and finalists last year at Wimbledon and the United States Open, defeated Marina Erakovic of New Zealand and Zimbabwe’s Cara Black.
The winning score, 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, was clear evidence of how close unseeded Erakovic and Black, once among the world’s top doubles players, had come to upsetting the second-seeded team.
Perhaps it was not so odd that the losers, led by Black, won more points (104) than the winners (99).
Black was the winner of 54 women’s doubles titles from 1996 to mid-2011, including three at Wimbledon (2004, 2005, and 2007), the Australian Open (2007), and the United States Open (2008).
With a seasoned partner, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, Black was also a formidable presence in the mixed doubles at Roland Garros. She lost in the semifinals Wednesday, 7-5, 6-4, to an older, longtime opponent, Daniel Nestor, 40, of Canada, and a new one, Kristina Mladenovic, 20, of France, the fifth seeds.
“It’s been a tough day at the office,” Black said with a weary smile.
Of her experience at Roland Garros, she said: “It’s been great, quarterfinals in the doubles and semis in the mixed. For my second Slam back in a while, it’s not a bad effort. I’m pleased, but you always want to do more.”
At 34, Black has done much more. She holds a career sweep of all four major international mixed doubles titles, winning at Wimbledon twice (2004 and 2010), France (2002), Australia (2010) and the United States (2008).
After an 18-month absence that started as a retirement and soon included the birth of a son, Black found herself back in the thick of the action at one of the four major international championships.
Smashing overheads, blocking point-blank volleys and dashing from side to side at net, Black was a dominant figure in the match, even in defeat.
“I had a great career before,” Black said, describing her 14 years on the tour. “And I was a little fried from it all. I lost my love for the game a little bit and I just thought now it was time to stop.”
In mid-2011, Black turned to coaching and family life with her husband and fitness coach, Brett Stephens of Melbourne, Australia. Their son, Lachlan, was born a year ago in April.Advertisement

Then, last summer, visiting her parents in Zimbabwe, Black and Stephens took to a grass court for a playful hit.
“I always play left-handed against him,” Black said, laughing. “It’s a bit of a joke. On the grass it’s nice to play barefoot.”
But the playful, pressure-free practice, in which Black switched back to hitting with her right hand, turned into an epiphany.
“I really enjoyed it; I think I actually missed it,” she said, “which was nice to realize after all that time.”
In January, Black returned to competition at the international women’s tournament in Auckland, New Zealand. She won the women’s doubles title with Anastasia Rodionova, upsetting the top three seeds on the way to the title.
A third-round defeat at the Australian Open demonstrated a new fact of life on the tour, Black said.
“The girls are hitting huge now,” she said. “I mean, everybody just hits the ball so great, and the power is incredible. Yeah, I’ve had to adjust and get back up there, and improve more.”
To counter the newest fact of women’s tennis, Black returned to strength training, an activity she had long enjoyed. “One of my assets is my fitness,” she said. “My fitness around the net and my movement, that’s my defence to the power.”
That point registered with at least one of her opponents at Roland Garros Wednesday. “She knows how to use her weapons well,” Hlavackova said. “She goes to the net a lot and she has very good volleys.”
Asked if Black’s penchant for poaching, cutting off the ball by moving across at the net, had made the Czechs uncertain when Black would cross, Hlavackova laughed. “You can be almost certain she will cross,” she said.