50 Parting Thoughts From Roland Garros 2018

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PARIS – After two weeks of catsuits and dogfights, we got the four best claycourters in the world playing the final weekend. And the two titles—Rafael Nadal’s 17th major and 11th Roland Garros title, and Simona Halep’s long-overdue first Slam— triggered two very different sets of emotions. And that, friends, is tennis in miniature.

Cleaning out the notepad (and clipboard) after two weeks, here are my 50 Parting Thoughts from the 2018 French Open.

• Like the Spinal Tap amplifier, this one goes to 11. Putting the “X” and “I” in “prix,” Rafael Nadal won the men’s single title for the 11th time. While that’s no surprise, this is: a player believed to be so injury-prone due to his physical style is still going this strong at age 32.

• Dominic Thiem reached the 2016 semifinals and lost to Novak Djokovic, the champion. He reached the semifinals in 2017 and lost to Rafael Nadal, the champion. This year he reached the finals before losing to Nadal. Progress, we call that. He’ll get there eventually. And note his answers here: good for him. Good for him for no longer being satisfied with “close but not quite.”

• Anything less than a title and Simona Halep would have left Roland Garros disappointed, if not devastated. After losing the first set of Saturday’s final, she redefined her entire. Mixing defense with deceptive power with poise, she took the women’s title—her first Major—beating Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. We will talk about the tennis fates finally getting it right and good things happening to good people. And that may be true. But really this was about an athlete revealing her soul, fighting like hell, changing tactics, bringing her fitness to bear and ….victory.

• Sloane Stephens was two games from taking her second Major singles title and Simona Halep came alive. But it’s hard for Stephens to leave town disappointed. She turned in her best result here, proved herself to be a formidable claycourt threat, and, again, elevated her level for a big occasion. A year ago Stephens was injured and her career was in peril. She is now a force.

• Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won the doubles, beating Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic, in the final, 6-2, 7-6 (4). And this might be my favorite scene of the entire tournament.

• Discount double Czech : Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won the women’s doubles. 

• The Marco Cecchinato story ended in the semis—but not before a guy who had never before won a Grand Slam singles match won five here, including takedowns of David Goffin and Novak Djokovic. It will interesting to see if this was the Italian version of “One Shining Moment,” or if this will be a catalyst to bigger and better things for the 25-year-old.

• Letisha Chan may have lost her 2017 doubles partner, Martina Hingis, who retired at the end of last season. But she’s still winning majors. Here she teamed with Ivan Dodig to take the mixed title.

• Diego Schwartzman of Argentina reached the quarters and—just as impressively—took a set off of Rafael Nadal. That a player 5’7” can play at this level, and nearly breach the top 10 (he’s expected to rise to world No. 11), speaks well of him. It also speaks well of tennis’ ability to accommodate such a wide range of body types.

• Credit the member of the Williams camp—and it may very well be the sisters themselves—who suggested a reprise of the Venus/Serena doubles team. Eager (desperate?) for match play, Serena competed on her “off days”—with scoreboards and fans and officials and pressure situations—and, as one of you noted, took just a week to go from pre-season shape to mid-season shape. But perhaps a result of overplaying, Serena tweaked her right pectoral muscle during the middle weekend and pulled out of her round of 16 match against Maria Sharapova. The good news: it appears as though she’ll be healed in time for Wimbledon. The less good news: don’t look for her in the doubles draw there.

The mystery of Novak Djokovic intensifies. From late 2010 to early 2016 ,he made the semifinals or better of every Slam except one (23 of 24) save one, and that loss was a quarterfinal exit at the 2014 Australian Open to Stan Wawrinka—the eventual winner. Not exactly a bad loss. Since winning the 2016 French Open, he’s reached the semis of just one of the seven majors he’s entered. He lost to Marco Cecchinato here, of course, in the quarters, squandering chances and blinking first in an electric 13-11 fourth-set tiebreaker that proved the difference. While Djokovic was almost fatalistic in the postmortem press conference, I think it’s possible for him to walk away from this event guardedly optimistic. Djokovic won four matches, sometimes doing a convincing impersonation of his former self. He played through lapses. And had his chances against Cecchinato.

Still, there’s no sugar-coating the decline here. It’s hard to recall a player—absent of physical injury—slumping quite like this. But if auras fade, they return as well. As confidence wanes, it waxes as well. If personal relationships fray, they can repair. All of which is to say that you retire, Novak, age 31, at your peril.

• Will Djokovic play Wimbledon? He was noncommittal when he spoke following his defeat to Cecchinato. But, as a well-regarded former player points out—crass as this sounds—you cannot overlook his deal with Lacoste and the incentives he has to show up for the most prestigious event of the season.

• One of the great virtues of tennis: the absence of a clock. But “time of match” can be a key statistic. Alexander Zverev won three straight five-setters (coming back from two sets to one down in all three) in the middle rounds, a testament to his fighting instincts and improved durability. But by the quarterfinals, he was spent and offered little resistance against Dominic Thiem. It will be interesting to see how he now fares at Wimbledon (where he can surround himself with Yorkshire accents, his favorite.)

• I defy you to find two players—let alone two siblings—whose styles are more different than Mischa Zverev and Sascha Zverev, both of whom made the middle weekend (Mischa lost in the third round to Kevin Anderson). Never mind the age gap, which is nearly a decade, what about the approach-to-tennis gap? 

• Match-fixing is a stain on the sport, but—and you may have heard me say this before—it’s restricted largely to the subterranean world of the challenger events. Last week we learned Dmytro Badanov of Ukraine was banned for life. While this triggered a sensational headline and made it onto newswires, note that Banadov, age 30, won a grand total of $26,311 in prize money and his ranking topped out at No. 463. Tennis needs to do a better job of messaging that while match-fixing is an unacceptable scourge, the “professionals” being caught are not making a living from the sport. (Which is why they are susceptible to corruption.)

That said, we got a vivid demonstration last week of why tennis needs to police integrity at lower levels: because some of the players graduate to the big leagues. On the eve of the tournament, Nicolas Kicker was removed from the main draw when he was found guilty of match-fixing. The offenses occurred years ago at a Podunk event it Italy. But when the sanction came down, he was in the top 100. Likewise, Marco Cecchinato’s feel-good run to the semis was salted with the unpleasantness of his past.

• This week’s edition of post-tournament framing: If you’re Maria Sharapova, do you leave encouraged that you reached the second week, played some A-level tennis and will be seeded for Wimbledon—this after a solid event in Rome? Or do you leave discouraged that in the quarterfinals, you were absolutely outclassed by Garbine Muguruza, mustering just four games against a player to whom you had never lost previously?

• In her final tournament with the great Lindsay Davenport as coach, Madison Keys did herself proud, reaching the semifinals before falling to Sloane Stephens. Keys will now work with David Taylor, the well-traveled Aussie, fresh off a stint with the—quick, what’s a euphemism?—assertive Jelena Ostapenko.

• The other losing female semifinalist, Garbine Muguruza, continues to mystify. She loses three of her previous five matches coming into the tournament. She plays at an astronomically high level, including a straight set euthanizing of Maria Sharapova, in the quarters. Then she sprays balls, gets frustrated by defense, betrays little in the way of a backup plan and loses to Halep. Now onto the grass… where she is the defending Wimbledon champ.

• Brewing story to follow: Will Roger Federer stay with Nike for the duration of his career? Or will he move to another brand, perhaps a fashion brand? Or Uniqlo apparel with a new shoe sponsor? And if he does switch teams—not uncommon for athletes late in their career—what will become of the RF sub-brand?

• Four players who didn’t survive week one but impressed nonetheless:

Jaume Munar, a Nadal Academy protégé. Corentin Moutet, a 19-year-old French lefty, coming soon to the ATP Top 100. The American Bernarda Pera, who beat Jo Konta and should have beaten Dasha Gavrilova. Another young American, Caroline Dolehide. Actually add a fifth, who reached the fourth round: Max Marterer, the German who acquitted himself awfully well against fellow lefty Rafa Nadal.

• We’ve often said that the break-up of the Big Five is more like Pangaea breaking apart gradually than it is a Big Bang. Here, Nadal was the only representative of the former guard to get past the quarterfinals. At Wimbledon—which, last year, was the last time all five were in attendance—it will be interesting to see if Andy Murray shows up.

• Plenty of players could learn from Sloane Stephens’ self-possession. Her attitude: I know myself and part of that means some weeks will be better than others. And that’s cool. What this means:  she will win Slams, but she will have a hard time becoming No.1. Note her ranking right now is “only” No. 4, given that her ledger includes the U.S. Open AND Miami, as well as her result here.

• Last year, Jelena Ostapenko won the women’s singles title. This year she was considerably less successful. On the first day of the tournament, she lost to Kateryna Kozlova. Who lost to Katerina Siniakova. Who lost to Barbora Strycova. Who lost to Yulia Putintseva. Who lost to Madison Keys. Who lost to Sloane Stephens….

• Looking noticeably slimmer than she did even earlier this spring, Elina Svitolina turned in yet another disappointing major performance, falling in the third round to Michaela Buzarnescu. It’s almost irrelevant whether it’s fair or whether it’s advisable. Here’s the reality in pro tennis: you make your bones at the Slams, four tentpoles hoisting a canvas that gets ever higher. (For a visual. think of the Denver airport.) Winning in Brisbane and Bogota is all well and good. But you make your reputation at the majors.

• This is an issue at every Slam, but this one especially. The grounds are absolutely packed with avid fans. The outer courts resemble subway cars at rush hour. You can miss multiple changeovers waiting for the restroom. And yet the big stadiums—the venues most often shown on television—are only fractionally filled. Part of this is the scheduling. (Where does it say that every French player with a pulse must play the big courts?) But part of this—and there’s a larger metaphor here, of course—is that the fat cats are indifferent about the corporate seats, while the real fans are priced out (or insufficiently well-connected.) Surely there’s a clever solution here…

• Love what you’ve done with the place, FFT. A favorable omen for the renovations that will start Monday and will be in place for next year, this year’s early touches included the new hospitality pavilion and the delightfully intimate Court 18.

• On a less happy note… one of you noted that the Slams’ technology was a “race to the bottom.” After the ghastly, bug-infested Australian Open website, the French Open gives us an app that… well, the reviews and rating speak for themselves. (This is what happens when IBM abruptly cuts back its commitment to tennis.)

Today more than ever—especially for a global sport with time zones and complex television scheduling—technology is critical. The game now is defense as much as offense. Technology is no longer a way to attract fans; it is essential in keeping them. All of the on-site additions are nice, the flowerbeds and viewing platforms and cold plunges for the players. But making certain that the technology is not janky should be far higher up on the priority seedings. Both the Australian and French suffered badly when IBM left. Let’s hope Wimbledon breaks this technology losing streak.

The odyssey of Marco Trungelliti—the lucky loser who rented a van, put Grandma in the backseat and trekked from Barcelona to Paris on a moment’s notice—made for a fun early tournament story. But it also revealed the desperate measures to which players will go to play in a main draw. And with that, it laid bare the moral failure of wildcards, especially “reciprocal wildcards,” where three countries fortunate enough to host majors (credit Britain for opting out of the cartel) swap back and forth. Noah Rubin is an ascending player who acquitted himself well against John Isner in his first match. But how do you justify Rubin (ranked No. 173) getting a free place in the main draw, while the last man to beat Roger Federer, Thanasi Kokkinakis (No. 148) was forced to—and failed—to qualify.

• A tennis analytics question: what would it look like if a player hit nothing but first serves, sacrificing double-faults for second balls laced with pace? If you want the answer, watch Camila Giorgi. After beating Giorgi, 4-6, 6-1, 8-6, in one of the better matches of the tournament, Sloane Stephens put it about right, “She plays kind of crazy, but in a good way.” 

• There seems to be a new one at each tournament. And now we add Cameron Norrie, former TCU Horned Frog, to the list of players who reaped the benefits of college tennis.

• And never mind mere college tennis; how about Romanian lefty Mihaela Buzanescu, who holds a PhD. — as well as a ranking arrowing ever upward.

• When Roger Federer missed the 2016 French Ope,n it snapped his streak of 65 consecutive majors played in. Come Wimbledon, he’s in danger of seeing that mark broken by Feliciano Lopez. The lone Spaniard who plays better on grass than clay, Lopez, who turns 37 in Septembe), who lost in round one in singles and reached the semis (with Marc “Not related” Lopez) in doubles here. But note this quote he gave Chris Clarey, “I knew if I wanted to extend my career I had to take care of my body more, go more to the gym, do a lot of prevention and eat healthy, and it has been working…It’s true that in the last five, six years there have been so many injuries and so many players pulling out week after week, and it sucks for tennis.” Speaking of which….

• We say it at every Slam, but here we go again, in part to resist normalization: the injury situation is intolerable, and if tennis’ various stakeholders were as concerned with this existential issue as they are with using Hawk-Eye on clay or whether Serena should have been seeded, we’d all be better off. 

• Rough event for the Lyon doubles champs. Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios won the Lyon doubles title the weekend before the event. But more importantly, neither won a round in Paris—Kyrgios withdrawing with a hip injury and Sock continuing his annus horribilis.

• You know that kid in college who was narcissistic and melodramatic and fiercely opinionated on all matters, and kinda insufferable… yet also smart and charismatic. So much so that it’s hard to resist hearing their ruminations in the dining hall? In tennis, that kid is Alize Cornet.

• My moles tell me that the possibility of adding Hawk-Eye for clay events will figure prominently in the pre-Wimbledon players’ council meetings. Just to be clear: this is up to the players. Hawk-Eye is already equipped for most clay courts. The clay court tournaments are prepared for it. Essentially the players need to demand it and be willing to accept the complexities that come with electronic line-calling on clay. (Mainly: what you get isn’t always what you see.) We heard from multiple sources that Ion Tiriac—tsar of the Madrid event and agent to Simona Halep—threatened to use Hawk-Eye unilaterally but was put in his place by the ATP.

• We talk about the Big Four, the unyielding pillars of men’s tennis. Let’s pause to acknowledge the Unfortunate Four, the quartet of contemporaries who never breached the perimeter, who are (were?) excellent players but had the lousy timing of coinciding with the Greatest Generation. David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych lost in round one. Gael Monfils was up to his old tricks, playing erratically and losing in round three to David Goffin. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did not post.

• Back to Trungelliti, the people’s lucky loser, as someone called him. Great story. And it benefitted from the player’s full recognition of the wonderful absurdity of it all. His details about his grandmother, awkward pit stops, barbecues on the beach, and his sleep patterns… it all fueled the proverbial fire. But he’s been outdone by Abe Segal. From this excellent Chris Clarey piece on the 1968 French Open, the first open Grand Slam fifty years ago. “It was the players who struggled to reach Roland Garros stadium. Many came from abroad and were forced to get to Paris by circuitous routes. Abe Segal, the irrepressible South African player, bought a Ford Mustang in Geneva and drove to Paris carrying jerrycans filled with gasoline.”

• Hard to believe it was less than a year ago that Bethanie Mattek-Sands suffered a gruesome knee injury at Wimbledon. Through the miracles of modern medicine (and dutiful rehab), she returned here, beating Johanna Larsson—an awfully solid win, especially on clay—and winning a round of doubles. As I write this, it’s unclear whether, emotionally, she is prepared to return to Wimbledon—the scene of the terrible accident.

• When Daria Kasatkina and Kirsten Flipkens took the court for their second-round match, they were greeted by a surprise. Groundskeepers had watered the surface, thinking play had been completed. Rather than compete on a surface fit for a Monster Truck mud bog, they switched courts.

• Speaking of “here’s something you don’t see every day,” rolling Estonian Anett Kontaveit split with her coach, Glenn Schaap, mid-tournament. She played her next match and beat Petra Kvitova. She then failed to show up for her fourth-rounder against Sloane Stephens. She’ll now work with Nigel Sears, at least for the grass season.

• I blame my pal Pam Shriver for stirring the pot and invoking the alpha and omega of Fortnite and Pickleball. (Damn it, Pam, pick a demographic, would you?) But we had a protracted discussion during middle weekend about the mertis of best-of-five, whether it’s too long for our Instagram culture, or whether it preserves the tradition and gravitas of the Majors. @mkovacsphd wrote: “The Slams are the best and only growing aspect of tennis. Why mess with the one component of tennis that is doing well. Focus the energies on other areas which do need a lot of help – junior and youth play, Davis and Fed Cup, at the mid and lower levels of pro tennis etc.”

• I propose best-of-three the first week of Slams and best-of-five from the fourth round on. My concern is not dwindling attention spans or television windows or luring casual fans. It’s the players’ health. The physical demand placed on the players today is not just brutal; it’s unsustainable. Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic, Hyung Cheung, Timea Bacszinsky, CiCi Bellis, 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova, 40-year-old Bob Bryan… you get the point. This way, the players get some body preservation the first week. The second week, the Slams restore their gravitas and we still get the potential for the late-tournament best-of-five classics.

• The aforementioned players were missed. But you know whose absence was really conspicuous? Nick Imison, the ITF’s “workaholic diplomat,” one of those unsung behind-the-scenes types who make the sport what it is. 

• Press conferences feature questions and answers, but they are not conversations, with natural flow and transitions. Our favorite exchange:

ANDREA PETKOVIC: Well, I don’t want to be the pretentious ass here, like, always. But I don’t really watch sports movies. I like art house movies. So I don’t know. I like the weird French “nouvelle vague” stuff that are really boring, but really pretty people look melancholily out of the window. And there is always, like, a triangle sort of thing, nobody is happy, and somebody dies in the end. Those are the movies that I really like.
Q. How difficult is it to play against Simona?

• Rant time: We had Danielle Collins on the podcast a few weeks back and she talked about how lucky she was to have found a benefactor, an independently wealthy “angel,” who is subsidizing her career. Since then—unencumbered by concerns about finances—her ranking has shot up dramatically and she’s in the top 50. Great story.

But with some detachment I’m thinking, “Wait. Here’s a two-time NCAA champ from UVA. Presents herself well. From a modest background—she claims to be the first college grad in her family. Precisely the kind of player you root for. Precisely the kind of player a national federation should be supporting. The USTA has exorbitant salaries—“the dysfunction tax,” one former board member calls it—to lavish on executives, some of whom don’t last a full year. It has millions to invest in the training and coaching of players who have already made it big. It has millions to invest in unsanctioned events. Apart from the nine-figures of annual U.S. Open TV revenue, the USTA makes tens of millions from regional streaming deals. And it doesn’t have… what $100,000?… to give to a U.S.-born NCAA champ when funding has, demonstrably, redefined her career and made her a Top 50 player?

The big, plodding, wildly profitable bureaucratic organization is always going to be subject to criticism. Governing bodies and federations in all sports are hotbeds for in-fighting and second-guessing. I liken the USTA to Snowball in Animal Farm, the powerful figure who’s always conveniently getting blamed, deservedly or not. But year after year, there are too many of these head-scratching decisions; gross overpayments in some places, and gross neglect in some others.  

• The usual Tennis Channel cut-and-paste. Thanks for your feedback—good, bad and indifferent. While I am not responsible for match coverage choices, pricing, or the functionality of the streaming technology, I take ownership of wearing ties you didn’t like, predicting Djokovic to beat Cecchinato and referring to Diego Schwartzman’s height one too many times. Do know that your mail is read and passed on when appropriate.

• I hope this sounds neither self-aggrandizing nor self-promoting, but “Strokes of Genius” has been turned into a  full length (and fantastic) Federer/Nadal documentary that will air in a few weeks on Tennis Channel and BBC among other networks. Without giving away too much, both Federer and Nadal participated and were, as you might expect, supremely generous with both time and candor. If you’re a fan of either player—or, and this is a totally reasonable instinct, both players—you’ll enjoy this film. Airing July 1 at 8 p.m. ET


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