Welcome to the Weekend Read. Below you'll find a selection of our favorite stories of the week, what to know about the upcoming French Open and a throwback of one of the most iconic sports photographs ever. Enjoy.
• When Owen Hart fell to his death from the rafters in Kansas City 20 years ago, wrestling fans finally came to see performers as people. (By Dan Greene)
• Nearly half of the nation’s FBS programs sell alcohol throughout their stadiums, and the SEC may be close to allowing its schools to join the party. (By Ross Dellenger)
• Two states, tribal lands, Senator Lindsey Graham, and a dark, complicated history of legalized gambling in the South. This is how the NFL’s richest owner is navigating the quest for sports gambling revenue. (By Jonathan Jones)
• Magic Johnson's resignation should have presented Jeanie Buss and the Lakers with a wake-up call. Instead, we're here. (By Andrew Sharp)
• Throwback: Listen to the third episode of our podcast series on the first-ever Women's World Cup. (By Grant Wahl)
• The NFL is suddenly populated by more head coaches with arena football experience, and they’re using those years to design plays that work. (By Conor Orr)
Three Pressing Questions About the French Open
The French Open begins on Sunday, and this year’s tournament has no shortage of fascinating subplots. But the basic state of affairs remains largely unchanged. On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the most likely winners, a result that would only further fuel the endless GOAT debate; the women’s draw, meanwhile, is much more likely to produce a younger (or perhaps first-time) Slam winner.
Ahead of this year’s tournament, here are three big questions. — By Stanley Kay
Can anyone beat Rafael Nadal?
It’s that time of year again, when tennis fans attempt to talk themselves into someone other than Nadal winning the French Open. Might Novak Djokovic, winner of the last three Grand Slams—including January’s Australian Open, where he eased by Nadal in the final—make it four straight? Or could Dominic Thiem, the closest thing to the King of Clay’s heir, win his first major? Could Roger Federer, playing his first French Open since 2015, surprise us? And in this age of hegemony by thirtysomethings, could a whippersnapper like Stefanos Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev break through?
Sure! Technically, yes, that’s all possible. But even though Nadal dropped three matches on clay this spring—he lost just one each of the last two years—bet against him at your own peril. The 11-time Roland Garros champion remains the clear favorite, and he looked to be in strong form last week in Italy, where he beat Tsitipas and Djokovic en route to his first title of the year.
Of Nadal’s challengers, Djokovic and Thiem look the most formidable. Djokovic is one of just two players to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, and on any other surface he’d be the clear favorite. Still, the world’s top-ranked player had a strong spring, winning a title in Madrid—where he knocked off Them and Tsitsipas—and reaching the final in Rome, where he lost in three sets to Nadal. Thiem, meanwhile, can say he’s beaten Nadal on clay each of the last three years—though, to be sure, that hasn’t helped much at Roland Garros, where Nadal beat him in straight sets in both the ’17 semis and ’18 final.
Is there a favorite in the women’s draw?
No, there isn’t a Queen of Clay—at least not yet. But Simona Halep, last year’s winner, is the betting favorite, and she can make a case for herself if she wins the 2019 tournament. Somewhat remarkably, there hasn’t been a repeat female winner at Roland Garros since Justine Henin in 2007.
Speaking of repeat winners: Naomi Osaka, only 21, is aiming to claim her third straight Grand Slam title after winning the U.S. Open in September and the Australian Open in January. She’s ranked No. 1, but her form has dropped since Melbourne—she hasn’t reached a final, and she’s pulled out of multiple tournaments due to injury, including last week’s Italian Open. Osaka has never won a title on clay, and she’s yet to advance past the third round at Roland Garros, though it’s worth noting that she hadn’t reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open until she won last year’s tournament.
Halep is probably the favorite, but Karolina Pliskova and Kiki Bertens—winners in Rome and Madrid, respectively—look like strong contenders. Sloane Stephens, a finalist in ’18, is another player to watch. Serena Williams, meanwhile, has struggled with injuries this season, but she’s always a contender.
How will Roger Federer fare?
Federer is playing his first French Open in four years. An injury prevented his participation in 2016, and he skipped the entire clay season the last two years to ease his playing schedule. Clay has always been Federer’s worst surface, but his poor record against Nadal at the French Open—zero wins and five losses, including four in finals—has obscured the fact that he’s actually quite good on clay. He showed that ability over the last few weeks. He beat Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils in Madrid before narrowly losing to Thiem, and he came back to top Borna Coric in Rome before pulling out of the tournament with a leg injury.
Federer’s best chance to win another major will come on grass at Wimbledon, which begins in July. He clearly isn’t among the favorites to win the French Open—reaching the quarterfinals would be laudable, in my view—but his return to Roland Garros for the first time since his 2017 revival will make for fascinating viewing, no matter how he fares.
Vault Photo of the Week: An All-Timer
Muhammad Ali landed his famous "phantom punch" on Sonny Liston 54 years ago this weekend. It birthed one of the most iconic sports photographs in history, courtesy of SI's Neil Leifer. What do we mean by phantom punch? Let the subhead of SI's cover story on June 7, 1965 explain: "Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) is a fighter bedeviled by his own excellence. He knocked out big Sonny Liston with a punch so marvelously fast that almost no one believed in it—but it was hard and true."
Best of the Rest
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Stanley Kay.
• I’m a Floridian, so I was fascinated (and alarmed) by this story about how citrus farmers are trying to fight back against bacteria with antibiotics—a controversial tactic that could have dire consequences for human health. (By Andrew Jacobs, New York Times)
• There’s a lot of speculation these days about how the Supreme Court will rule on cases related to abortion and President Trump, but don’t overlook other important developments, like a conservative justice joining the liberals to bolster tribal rights. (By Mark Joseph Stern, Slate)
• Good environmental journalism is so important, and ProPublica hit this one—a story about the false promise of carbon offsets in combatting climate change—out of the park. (By Lisa Song, ProPublica)
• Does Manchester City’s incredible dominance prove soccer is broken? Much like our global economy, the sport’s rich are getting richer, and there’s a compelling case to be made that “greed has won.” (By Jonathan Wilson, The Guardian)
• The urban-rural divide is the essential conflict of America’s political system, which places high emphasis on where voters live. This is a fascinating read about why that arrangement favors Republicans—at least for now. (By Emily Badger, New York Times)
Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.