Jun 11, 2019
Peter BodoESPN.com Staff Writer
- Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”
The 2019 French Open was a tournament with a split personality. For the first 10 days, surprises were popping like champagne corks in the dining pavilion under mostly bright, calm skies. Then, on the second Wednesday, the rains and wind arrived, wreaking havoc with the schedule, altering the playing conditions and tilting the playing field.
It’s how things sometimes go at a best-of-five, two-week Grand Slam event, which is why winning one is such an epic achievement. Here are our takeaways from the Parisian fortnight.
The Fedal rivalry remains the gold standard
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal may be busy creating the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis, one that has all the requisite elements: It’s a clash of styles and personalities, and it already has a rich history.
The two have already met more times than any other men’s pair in the Open era, with Djokovic holding a slim 28-26 lead. They were seeded Nos. 1 (Djokovic) and 2 in the tournament, so they could have met only in the final. But the prospect of a Roger Federer vs. Nadal semifinal (Nadal led in that rivalry, 23-16) had everyone amped up to the point where nobody was talking about Djokovic vs. Nadal.
Yes, it was partly due to Federer’s return to clay (he had not played Roland Garros since 2015). But given Nadal’s mastery on red clay, was the semifinal worth the hype? The result (another Nadal blowout) just underscored how, impervious to fact or detail, the Fedal rivalry rules the imagination of most fans and pundits.
Serena needs a shake-up
The most unusual thing about Serena Williams’ French Open is that she was not a factor in any sense of the word. For the first time since forever she was just another third-round loser — the victim of a mild upset as Williams, seeded No. 10, lost to unseeded compatriot Sofia Kenin, 6-2, 7-5. Williams left the tournament quietly, but with a sober assessment of her situation.
Acknowledging that she had not played enough matches entering Roland Garros — she completed just three full matches between the Australian Open and French Open, with one retirement and two withdrawals — Williams floated the idea of taking a wild card or two into grass-court events to prepare for Wimbledon. “I’m definitely feeling short on matches,” she said. “I have some time on my hands, so maybe I’ll jump in and get a wild card on one of these grass-court events and see what happens.”
Wimbledon is almost exactly three weeks away, but there’s no word yet of Williams asking for a wild card at any of the WTA grass-court tune-up events.
Tsitsipas takes Next Gen to the next level
Alexander Zverev, the 22-year-old German who was seeded No. 5, continues to spin his wheels at majors. He still has plenty of time to break through at a Slam, but some sense a complacency in the three-time Masters 1000 champion’s attitude and have cooled toward him while embracing hard-charging 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The “Greek Freak” is ranked right behind Zverev at No. 6. Tsitsipas has made no bones about his ambitions, and he has come up big in his most recent majors, eliminating Federer at the Australian Open, where he was finally beaten by Nadal in the semis. His nightmarish draw in Paris ended with an excruciatingly close five-set loss to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round.
The loss left Tsitsipas in tears — and, probably, a lot of Zverev fans wishing he could take losses so hard. Tsitsipas told reporters after his loss to Wawrinka, “It’s the worst feeling ever. … [It’s been a] long time since I cried after a match.” The reaction was very different from Zverev after he lost to Djokovic in the quarters. “He’s world No. 1 for a reason. … Things happen, and it’s fine,” Zverev said.
Watch your back, Sascha. Tsitsipas isn’t far behind.
The WTA has shifted the paradigm
Take nothing away from Ash Barty’s magnificent win. She played a terrific championship match and has a game flush with Federer-esque versatility. But the WTA is busy transforming a game that has previously been driven by the theme of domination into one dominated by the theme of parity. No pundit was prescient enough to predict a final featuring Barty and Marketa Vondrousova, yet both amply demonstrated that they belonged there.
A different woman has now won nine of the past 10 Grand Slam tournaments (top-ranked Naomi Osaka is the only repeat winner, at last year’s US Open and this year’s Australian Open). Meanwhile, the average age of WTA tournament champions this year (23) is the youngest in more than a decade (that’s bad news for the Petra Kvitovas and Simona Haleps of this world), and the first 18 tournaments each produced a different winner. Sure, a dominant player may soon emerge from all this. But it’s more likely we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift — one that may also occur in the men’s game when the big three have faded out.
The Bryans have good news for Andy Murray
News flash: The Bryan brothers did not win the French Open men’s doubles. Seeded No. 7, they lost in the third round to the quality team of Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau, who were seeded No. 10. Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan (who is currently the No. 1 doubles specialist in the world) are 41 years old. Most impressive: Bob has been playing with an artificial hip since undergoing a full replacement last August.
The fact that the twins are still seeded and contending at major events is nothing short of remarkable — and good news for Andy Murray, who will attempt a comeback from hip surgery starting at Queens Club next week. The Bryans reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and have won two tour-level titles (including the Miami Open) since Bob returned at the start of the year.
The men’s doubles title in Paris ultimately went to the unseeded German team of Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies. The women’s doubles championship was won by No. 2-seeded Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic.
Oh, no, Canada
At the end of the hard-court season in Miami, a fleet of aggressive, appealing young Canadians appeared ready to flood the upper regions of the rankings. Bianca Andreescu, 18, astonished when she won Indian Wells as a wild card. Fellow teenagers Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov made the semifinals of the prestigious Miami Open. Milos Raonic, a role model and elder statesman at age 28, was rounding back into form after injury.
Then came clay. Raonic, ranked No. 18, pulled out of the French Open with a knee injury. Andreescu, up to No. 23 in the world, won her first-round match, then withdrew to continue nursing an injured right shoulder. Shapovalov, seeded No. 20, dropped his first-round match. Auger-Aliassime, No. 22, withdrew due to a groin injury suffered the week before the French Open.
Cumulatively, those four Canadians were just 10-10 in matches for the entire clay season, thanks mainly to a late bump when Auger-Aliassime won three matches in Lyon, France. There’s no reason to panic, and they ought to do better on grass anyway. Plus, Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez did win the girls’ (18-and-under) title, defeating Emma Navarro of the U.S. (The boys’ title went to Denmark’s Holger Vitus Rune, who beat American Toby Alex Kodat.)
Oh, no, Part II
Anna Anisimova’s brilliant run to the semifinals of the French Open was good news for American tennis. But it was the only good news, masking the poor tournament most players in the substantial U.S. fleet experienced. The only other bright spot was Kenin, who made great use of her wild card to upset Williams and reach the fourth round (she benefited from a second-round walkover issued by No. 22 seed Andreescu).
Taylor Fritz was the only American man out of nine in the draw to even reach the second round, where he lost. The women had just four contenders left by the fourth round: 2018 runner-up and No. 7 seed Sloane Stephens, No. 14 seed Madison Keys, Kenin and Anisimova. Stephens was beaten in the quarters by Johanna Konta. Keys, a semifinalist last year, lost in the same round to eventual champ Barty.
Djokovic’s drive to complete his second non-calendar-year Grand Slam was ruined in the semifinals by a combination of rainy, blustery conditions and Dominic Thiem. The 25-year-old Austrian, in turn, was defeated by Nadal in a championship match that might have gone better for Thiem had the weather not forced him to play on each of the final four days.
Weather is one thing. All but indoor tournaments have to deal with it. But the French Open — and everyone else but Wimbledon — has departed from what was once an ironclad schedule calling for players in the same round to play on the same day, with a day of rest between each match. The way it worked out, quarterfinalists Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal ended up suffering no interruption to their schedules. They even had a two-day break before meeting in a Friday semifinal. But Thiem — thanks to his Wednesday quarterfinal being rain delayed to Thursday and then his semifinal against Djokovic being halted mid-match on Friday due to inclement weather — had to play each day Thursday through Sunday. Talk about a long, hard weekend.
The retractable roof for Court Philippe Chatrier will be completed by next year’s tournament. That will solve one of the two problems (at least for the final few days) that can combine to give some players an unfair advantage over others.