PARIS – You won't find it listed on the French Open draw sheet this year. But there is a new force in the men’s singles draw. Call it…hope.
Remember hope? As Andy Dufresne once said, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” But over the past decade, hope has been in hiding at Roland Garros. It’s hard to be filled with sunny enthusiasm when one guys does all the winning, when the plot’s so predictable.
EXT: Paris, clay tennis courts.
Dissolve to: Rafael Nadal comes to town, SLEEVES rolled up.
Nadal plays for two weeks in his personal sandbox….he bites trophy and leaves.
Usually Rafael Nadal is to clay what Michael Phelps is to water, what LeBron James is to hardwood. The spring season starts and Nadal is reliably unbreakable and unshakeable. This year? Not so much. He’s resembled the flight path of a tennis ball laced with spin, dipping down and shooting up and darting down again. And with little predictability. Losses have pocked his 2015. And it’s not even the best players who are taking him down. He openly admits to fissures in his confidence.
This has infused the rest of the field with optimism for Paris. That starts with Novak Djokovic, who will come in as the top seed hoping to win the one major he has yet to claim. Djokovic looked relatively sharp today, beating the veteran lefty Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets.
But Nadal looked sharp as well, winning his 67th French Open match in 68 starts. He knew little about his opponent—French teenager Quentin Halys—but was never really in danger, advancing 6–3, 6–3, 6–4. It wasn’t flawless. It wasn’t Nadal in turbo mode to which we’re accustomed here. But it was solid. Which is about all he could ask for.
“After the first three games that I started a little bit slow, then I start moving the ball better. I am happy the way that I played, no? Is the first match and I played enough well, and I think my forehand worked well for a lot of moments.”
What about more macro?
“Well, obviously, the dynamics are the dynamics, no? When I had some up and downs during the season, is normal that can happen here. I am try to avoid that, and I am here to try to play good tennis and to give me a chance to play well and to compete for everything. I gonna try as I try every year. My mentality and my goal is the same always.”
And that’s the thing about hope: it cuts both ways. As Nadal sinks those teeth not into the trophy, but into a major where he has lost one match over the last decade, he must be fired with faith. Paris he could restore his game. And, in the process, his self-belief.
It all makes a new fresh twist, a fresh storyline—all this possibility should add intrigue to the French Open. That, anyway, would be the hope.
Five thoughts from Day 3
• The decline of Genie Bouchard continues. A semifinalist in 2014, Bouchard fell in the first round to Kiki Mladenovic on Tuesday. This is giving zest to the concept of a sophomore slump.
• Succeeding the week before a major cuts both ways. You come in with confidence and match play. But you also come in less than rested. In the case of Karin Knapp, she won the Nuremberg event on Saturday. On Tuesday she looked sluggish against Caroline Wozniacki. (The player she beat in the finals, Roberta Vinci, lost in the first round as well.)
• Trivia: Before Venus Williams on Monday, who was the last player to be fined for failing to attend a press conference?
• Want to fun player to watch? Check out CoCo Vandeweghe, who should be Top 20 on the basis of her serve alone. She still needs to do less missing, but she has percussive strokes, she volleys well, and, overall is a treat to watch.
• Speaking of Wozniacki, her partnership with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario appears to have lasted about as long Maria Sharapova’s with Jimmy Connors. In a sense, I give the players credit. If the fit isn’t right, get out of the relationship.
Some quick Q/A
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
So often it seems that Coach Mauresmo gets blamed when things go wrong, but doesn't get credit when things go well. Our bias?
• A similar point comes up frequently. I don't get this sense at all. Murray gets deserved credit for hiring Mauresmo and his feminist sensibilities overall. Mauresmo gets deserved credit for the resurgence of Murray’s game. It will be interesting to see what happens when Mauresmo takes time off for her pregnancy. But I don't sense she’s underappreciated.
How has Radwanska gone from “the best player not to have won a major yet” to “first round loser at the French Open”? Do you see her returning to the top of women's tennis at all, or has her chance passed?
Also, what's with the French Open website's live and completed scores pages only putting a players seeding next to some players and not others? The last I checked, Tomic had a number 27 in brackets next to his name, but Radwanska didn't. Would the tournament director call this a lapse of judgment too?
• In reverse order: I agree the site has some maddening aspects. But I wouldn’t conflate confusing brackets with allowing a fan onto the court.
As for Radwanska, her decline is getting painful to watch. For a player who is endowed with so many spins, her attitude—and thus her play—is remarkably flat. Say insiders: There’s a lack of passion that’s more to blame than any tactical issues or lack of power. I also would repeat what I said several weeks ago. For a player of such modest physical stature whose game rests on small margins, she cannot afford to be off by 10% the way other players can.
Just read in today's New York Times about the effort to get the ATP to acknowledge that Guillermo Vilas should have been ranked No. 1 for five weeks in 1975 and to retroactively correct the record. What are your feelings about it?
—Roger Jones, Waterbury Center, V.T.
• Big props to Chris Clarey and to the New York Times for this piece. Someone crassly suggested that Vilas probably missed out some endorsement bonuses when his top ranking wasn’t recognized. The statute of limitations might have lapsed there. But the record should still be corrected for accuracy.
• Where's Pascal Maria when you need him? He would have taken that kid DOWN!
—Helen of Philadelphia
• Helen is talking about the fan who made it onto the court on Sunday to accost Roger Federer. It was hard not to notice that today, when Nadal won, security formed a membrane around him as he left.
• You want college tennis, we got college tennis.
• Here’s my friend Ryan Rodenberg’s conspiracy theory on what really killed American tennis.
• Awkward handshake alert:
• Ryan Shane, a Virginia junior, won the NCAA men’s singles title over the Wake Forest freshman Noah Rubin. Jamie Loeb won the women’s title, becoming North Carolina’s first NCAA singles champion after beating a fellow sophomore, Carol Zhao of Stanford.
• George Harrison needs to improve his footwork:
• There was a business school case study on Nadal on life after tennis?