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50 Parting Thoughts From the 2019 French Open: Rafa, Barty and So Much More

Jon Wertheim empties his notebook from Paris to give 50 parting thoughts on the 2019 French Open.

PARIS — With another Grand Slam in the books (and another Rafa Nadal title in Paris), it's time to empty the notebook and give 50 parting thoughts on the 2019 French Open.

• Rafael Nadal dominates clay, much the way yellowish felt dominates the surface area of the balls he strikes with force and precision. Twenty years ago, the enduring question in tennis: would anyone match Roy Emerson’s mark and win 12 majors? This afternoon, Rafael Nadal won his 12th title at Roland Garros alone with a four-set victory over Dominic Thiem, capping another breathless two weeks. Here’s our major leaderboard update for Roger/Rafa/Novak heading into Wimbledon: 20:18:15. As ever, the plot thickens in the men’s game.

• Ash Barty won her first major singles title, a triumph for variety, professionalism, poise and gap years. Barty's game runs vast palette. Her emotions do not. Which is the perfect combination. She didn’t have to beat a top-10 player to win, but she did have to beat the seven players placed before her. Which she did, by deploying perhaps the most complete game on tour.  She’s now up to world No. 2 and if you’re picking her to win Wimbledon, the line forms over there. 

• Technically, Dominic Thiem did not improve on his 2018 French Open showing, reaching the final and again falling to the Mighty Nadal. But I’d argue he progressed considerably. His semifinal takedown of Novak Djokovic—over two days and five sets, under adverse conditions, broken while serving for the match but recovering—was the kind of victory he will draw on for years. A lot of questions were asked of Thiem this event. He answered them all (save one.)

• Before the tournament, we spoke breezily about how “any of 25 women” could win. As it turned out, three of the four semifinalists were ranked outside the top 25. Marketa Vondrousova, 19, reached the final. While she seemed awed by the occasion and played far from her best, this constitutes a breakthrough.

• Roger Federer's decision to play clay in 2019 sure was validated. Four easy wins. A semi-classic takedown of his Swiss junior partner, Wawrinka. And then he ran into Hurricane Rafa. Maybe most importantly, he got some real match play heading into grass. And—much as we all try and play 221 Baker St. when it comes to Federer's career—this, decidedly, did not have the whiff of a farewell appearance. 

• Amanda Anisimova reached the second week for the second straight major. This is a best-case scenario. She leaves knowing she can play with anyone. She also leaves with a little sting of motivating disappointment, having ledd Ash Barty 7-6, 3-0 before dropping 12 of the next 15 games.

• In a draw suffused with some of the sport’s leading lights—the team of Azarenka/Barty, Sabalenka, Mertens, Anisimova—the women’s doubles title went to Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos.

• The draw is wide open! Seeds are irrelevant! Parity reigns! Anyone can beat anyone! Yes, we’re talking about men’s doubles. Only one seeded team made the semis (and lost). In the finals, the unseeded par of Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies beat France’s own Fabrice Martin and Jeremy Chardy in the final.

• Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig took the mixed doubles title, beating Gabby Dabrowksi and (G’Day) Mate Pavic in the final.

• Colette Lewis, as ever, has all your junior results here. In the girls final, top seed Leylah Fernandez of Canada beat Emma Navarro of Charleston. In the boys, the mellifluously named Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune of Denmark beat American Toby Kodat of the U.S., (half brother of former French French Open semifinalist Nicole Vaidisova.)

• Stan Wawrinka has always been the Matterhorn to Federer’s Mont Blanc. But, while already a no-brainer Hall of Famer, he has really distinguished himself in Career 2.0, both with his tennis and overall likability. Here, he won the match of the tournament, beating Tsitsipas in five sets. Then, on less than two days rest, he returned and acquitted himself well in a well-played four-set loss to Federer. I always thought of Wawrinka as “farmer strong,” as we say in the Midwest, one of those thick and pendulous wrestler types. But man, at age 34, he seems to be coming into his athletic prime. Grass has never been his best surface, so it probably won't happen next month, but he sure has played himself into contention for more majors.

• Serena Williams won the 1999 U.S. Open—this in itself is a clause worthy of us pause—and didn’t win another major until the 2002 French Open, a span of roughly 33 months. She won the 2017 Australian Open, her 23rd Major, roughly 29 months ago. A lot of you asked, so I’ll answer: I am not among those who think Serena is, necessarily, done. I am among those who think she needs to commit to playing more events.

• One last kiss for Court Simonne Mathieu, which has been short-handed  to “the Greenhouse Court” or, my preference, “The Hothouse.” It reminds us of the Tea House in Golden Gate Park—it’s like a dignified venue popped up in the middle of a botanical garden, brimming with character and creativity. (Note that it was not, as one of you suggested—facetiously we assume—named in honor of Giles Simon and Paul-Henri Mathieu.)

• More generally, this was, as Amanda Anisimova would say, a “superstrong” event for Roland Garros*. Renovations, enhancements, more space—without losing charm. Quite the opposite, in fact. Much like a quartet of closely-matched players, the four majors have quite a rivalry going, pushing each other and forcing innovation and investment. Just when it looked like Roland Garros—owing to small acreage, Parisian bureaucracy and the absence of a covered court—was falling behind a bit, it’s really surged. On the other side of the ledger…

*Note our grudging nod here to the strenuous branding effort. The organizers would just as well never have this event be called “French Open” again.

•  Novak Djokovic's major match win streak was stopped—at three events and 26 matches. All it took was a dramatic five-setter and a crawl-through-glass effort from the No. 4 player in the world. If he comes back to defend his Wimbledon title, it should surprise precisely no one. 

• This problem plagues tennis in general, but it’s especially pronounced at the French Open. The vacant seats in the big stadiums makes for brutal (warning: voguish word alert) optics. And the real pity is that it’s such an inaccurate reflection of the event. The Roland Garros walkways are akin to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Every day set new attendance records. Fans complained of waiting multiple changeovers at restrooms. Then the matches start and the prime seats are emptier than an Ayn Rand seminar at Oberlin. Many of you have floated ideas. Why not design an app whereby common fans can access the prime seats until the rightful owner comes along?

• We could devote 50 thoughts to the regrettably scheduling that, sadly, marred the last few days, created a lot of bruised feelings, and set some dangerous precedents. Short-strokes:

—The real culprit here was the piggish decision to sell separate tickets to the Friday men’s semis on Court Chatrier. Once that policy was put in place, the tournament could not easily move the women to the big court. 

—Do I think tennis officials are flagrantly sexist? No. At least not most. But the sport ought to ask itself why every time we have these scheduling controversies, it’s the women who get the short end. When a Grand Slam semi (!) is played on a court that wasn’t even supposed to be in use, everyone loses.

—Djokovic was clearly eager to get off the court Friday and complete the match Saturday. Reports vary over just much power was exerted and just how intense the lobbying got. But tennis needs to stop this business of agents and coaches thundering into the tournament offices every time a tough decision needs to be made. 

—The tournament’s response that next year there will be a roof and these problems will diminish is true—assuming the construction stays on schedule—but inadequate. It’s a star-driven sport. But the “sport” part, demands that competition be on the level.

• Now it can be told: the ultimate drama of this event was not Federer/Nadal or any other match, but whether the renovation would be completed on time. At one point there were three eight-hour shifts of workers, going 24 hours a day, to meet a non-negotiable deadline. Quick, someone set a line on the roof over Court Chatrier being finished by 2020…

• Yes, the “agro” and the agita added to the drama. Yes, the chair should be conferred discretionary power. Yes, we should distinguish between bad behavior that is self-directed and bad behavior directed at others. But I wonder how Serena Williams felt watching Stefanos Tsitsipas annihilate water bottles and smack a ball into the crowd and receive no sanction.

• We talk about coaching changes, but we seldom talk about agenting changes. Given the intersection between not only sports and commerce but sports and image, I would suggest that this personnel move can be truly disrupting and destabilizing. It’s an open secret that Alexander Zverev is in a bitter legal dispute with his former agent. (As this plays out, I was told that tournaments are going to him directly to offer appearance fees.) For him to reach the quarters with this thing ongoing—and his coach taking the week off—is worthy of mention.

• Perhaps you heard? During the middle Saturday, the tournament offered the world a peek behind the curtains when Dominic Thiem was booted midway through his press conference in order to accommodate Serena Williams. Sort of. In the sloppy retelling, Serena exercised her power. In the more nuanced retelling, a tournament employee made a regrettable decision. To me, the real crime here was that a player still in the draw—who needed to rehydrate, eat, cool down, and prepare for a Grand Slam fourth round match—was ejected in favor of a player no longer in the draw. That should never happen.

• One underrated plotline that we’ll continue to monitor at Wimbledon: the jury-is-still-out on new coaches. Or as I prefer to see it: the success of really good players, who just so happen to have made personnel moves. Naomi Osaka won two rounds in her first major since terminating Sascha Bajin but then lost to Katerina Siniakova, ending her two-Slam win streak. Sloane Stephens reached the quarters with new coach Sven Groeneveld but then turned in a disappointingly empty performance in the quarters. Madison Keys reached the last eight under Juan Todero and then had few answers for Ash Barty. On the men’s side, Grigor Dimitrov—now with Radek Stepanek—won a five-setter over Marin Cilic but still searches for the tennis equivalent of a mophie.

• This tournament’s Frost/Nixon exchange: Novak Djokovic had just won his third-round match over Salvatore Caruso on middle Saturday. And when he walked into press room, he was peppered with the obvious question on everyone’s mind. :

Q. 13 times in the last 16. 13 times in the last 16. In 14 times you played, last 14 years you played here, so is not bad.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: You will have to repeat this... (Laughter.) I'm trying to follow you.
Q. 13 times in the last 16.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: 13 of last 14 years.
Q. So is not too bad.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Not too bad. There is a lot of numbers. Yes.
Q. So I would like to know what you think about. And also this other matter. Talking to Mats Wilander the other day, he said, I think Novak will have more slam titles than Federer and Nadal at the end of the career, because he's younger and so, and so, and so. And said if they were all at the same number of slams, Djokovic should deserve to be considered the best because he had to play against cactus, and Nadal and Federer were playing against lilacs, flowers.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: You quoted him? Really? That's what he said?
Q. You played against cactus because you had to play Nadal, Federer.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: In the desert?
Q. In the desert.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: With no water?
Q. Yes. The others had to play against lilacs, which are flowers.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Where to start? Let's start with the first mathematical equation that you came up with…..

Again, this was the first exchange of the press conference.

• It was wordless. It took two seconds, max. It entailed a 45-degree bend, one of the least taxing movements he’d made over the last four hours. But Juan Martin del Potro’s impromptu bowing to Yoshi Nishioka after their second-round match was such an awesome gesture.

His explanation was equally elegant in its simplicity:

• This is a brutal sport that can make a charcuterie board of your psyche. I’ve noticed more and more players talking openly and unabashedly about mental health. Last week we name-checked Katie Swan. Here’s Guido Pella: “About the psychology thing, I'm doing it because last year I thought that I was losing my mind with tennis. It's not easy to be here so many years and you start to feel that you're really crazy, you know? Not just with yourself, but with your family, your friends. I was having a very hard time with them every time that I went back to my city, so I started for that also. And, yeah, that improved my game.”

And after losing in the quarters, the impossible-not-to-like Petra Martic said with characteristic candor:  “I still can't make up my mind. I don't know if I'm happy, sad, angry, disappointed, depressed. I think I'm all of it right now.”

• Five players who didn’t get out week one but still impressed: Viktoria Kuzmova, 16-year-old Diane Parry (bonus points for the one hander), Juan Ignacio Londero and 20-year-olds Casper Ruud and Corentin Moutet.

• Albert Murray, the American essayist and critic, sometimes spoke of the “great hit-or-miss republic.” I think of that phrase watching Sloane Stephens. She can be so good. And so not good.

• Stefanos Tsitsipas fell to Stan Wawrinka in the match of the tournament. He spent the following day, I’m told, walking the streets of Paris—cue accordion—alone.

• Remember Marco Trungelliti, the feel-good story from 2018? This story has taken a dark turn. A fine piece here from Ben Rothenberg, but still so many angles and unanswered questions. Three that spring to mind:

—A player has made $850,000 but claims that, after expenses, he has not broken even. This tells you everything you need to know about why the lower levels are lousy with match-fixing. And why ending live scoring at this level is so essential.

—Does the ATP Players Council not see fit to weigh in on Serge Stakhovsky’s remarks?

—That there hasn’t there been more match-fixing on the women’s side is a gender studies paper waiting to be written.

• Speaking of gender studies….at every event the fines list is, rightly, a matter of public record. Until recently, male players would dominate the culprits. Now it’s closer to 50:50. But the nature of the offenses is telling. For men, it’s often audible obscenity and equipment abuse. For women, it’s often illegal coaching.

•  Notice how many top contenders decline to play the week before a major. They know this: the big events are where players make their bones. And arriving at maximum health is critical. Felix Auger-Aliassime learned this the hard way. The 18-year-old Canadian sensation played last week in Lyon, reaching the finals but injuring his groin in the process. (Silver lining: He’s still closing in on the top 20 and has never won a main-draw match at a major.)  But this year, note that Alexander Zverev won Geneva, plumping his win total and confidence (and bank account.) Benoit Paire took Lyon, his second title of 2019.

• Watching players practice spotlights one of the great small gestures of tennis: players schlepping their own bags. It’s like asking Mozart to wheel in his own piano. But it stresses the virtue of self-sufficiency. Even the Big Three and Serena are—for all their titles and their millions—ultimately, out there alone. Which brings us to this: for the men, the biggest difference between Slams and run-of-the-mill events is format—best-of-three versus best-of-five. For the women, I’d submit it’s coaching versus non-coaching. Again and again, we see players who rely on on-court coaching falter in the big events. Inconsistency is to tennis what butter is to French cuisine: a staple. But unless the majors are going to allow coaching, it’s silly to permit it at the run-of-the-mill events.

• Speaking of consistency…I have to yet to hear a clear and convincing reason for why the balls are different from one clay court event to the next. If you have one, I’m all ears.

• Feliciano Lopez lost but won. He fell—somwhat ironically to 40-year-old Ivo Karlovic, given what comes next—but extended his streak of consecutive majors played to 69. We can debate the reasons and causes, but it’s hard to see many drawbacks to tennis’ spike in longevity. Players get to do what they love for longer. Fans (and brands) have longer relationships with their favorite athletes. The incentives for kids to pursue a career is stronger when said career can span 20 years rather than 10. And, back to Lopez. To the delight of his partner’s mother, he will be playing doubles with Andy Murray at Queens Club.

• Jelena Ostapenko has won seven singles matches at the French Open. They all came in 2017, when she won the title. This year she lost in round one to Victoria Azarenka…and then, partnered with Lyudmyla Kichenok, reached the quarters in doubles.

• When Nicolas Mahut lost that 70-68 match to John Isner, the tennis gods owed him one. You had this three-day marathon that yielded publicity and an Andy Samberg short. And all Mahut got out of it was first-round loser’s money and blisters. And indeed, tennis has done right by him since. The wild cards—including a record 12 in Paris—have come. He’s won Grand Slam doubles titles. And he was the story of Week One, winning a pair of matches and then losing with such grace, it left his opponent—major credit here to Leo Mayer—in tears.

• The usual public service announcement. (If this were a podcast, you would reflexively hit the fast forward button.) When is this sport going to have a meaningful discussion about technology and injury? When are people going to realize that “the sport has never been more physical” carries with it great costs? That players are losing vast sums of money because of the brutal working conditions? And that tournaments suffer, too, when players can’t compete or do so compromised? Last year, our example was CiCi Bellis, an ascending American who injured her wrist—and still hasn’t played in more than a year. This year it’s Bianca Andreescu, the 18-year-old Canadian who won Indian Wells, made a nice run in Miami, hurt her shoulder, played (perhaps unadvisedly) here and will now likely miss Wimbledon. Yes, “injuries are part of sports.” But something ain’t right. And neither is the negligible level of concern.

• Tennis careers—like most careers— do not move linearly. But what’s up with Aryna Sabalenka? She’s like the pinwheel on my Mac that spins during buffering. She won Shenzhen to start the year and came to Australia generally considered “The Next Player To Win a Major.” Since then, she’s barely played .500 ball, losing early and often. Here it was to Anisimova, the same player that beat her in Australia.

• From Aga to Iga. Giving new zest to the phrase “transition game,” the Polish player Iga Swiatek is both the reigning Wimbledon girls champ and a top-100 player thanks to her play in Paris. Get to know her here. We can safely assume she will be staying at nicer hotels from now on. And this is the best of both worlds. She left here knowing she can play deep into a major. And, after losing to Simona Halep 6-1, 6-0 in roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence, she leaves knowing there’s much work to be done. Funny that a few years ago, the consensus was that the days of teenagers winning majors were consigned to bygone days. (You know, the ages of wooden rackets and attire adorned with bumblebees.) Now we had three teens in the second week, two in the semis and one in the final.

• This is precisely the kind of back-in-my-day, middle-age-man story I once convinced myself I would never deign to tell. But at one of the first tennis event I ever covered as a journalist, the 1998 Canadian Open, Mark Philippoussis was the talk of the locker room. Why? Because the players were convening for their first event since Wimbledon, and in that interval, Philippoussis had just gotten—wait for it—a tattoo. Scandal! He had a cartoonish image of Alexander the Great imprinted on his arm and this occasioned show-and-tell time. Now, of course, we think nothing when players, male and female, have entire sleeves of ink. Looking remarkably fit—frankly, probably weighing less than he did in his playing days—Philippoussis was here for the legends event. Speaking of Greeks bearing gifts….

• Using a protected ranking, Anna Tatishvili, a Georgian-American, came here and played in the first-round match. Tatishvili not only lost in 55 minutes—to Maria Sakkari who, gamely, did comment about playing an incapacitated opponent—but was docked her full first-round prize money for “performing below professional standards.” This is part of the initiative to cut down on players taking the court when they aren’t fit. One twist here: ordinarily, eligible players are entitled to half of their first-round prize money if they decide not to play. In Tatishvili’s case, because she was using a protected ranking, she was not eligible. More bad news for her: her protected ranking expires next week.

• Thanks to all for your feedback about Tennis Channel. Again, it’s read, considered and forwarded when appropriate. Name check Mark Houska, who produces the pre-game show you seem to enjoy. And Shelby Campbell was field producer on the Normandy feature.

• This started as an inside tennis joke, but it’s become something deeper. Someone please give Hsieh Su-wei a clothing contract. She’s a super awesome player who hails from the world’s most populous region. For her second round match—a defeat to Andrea Petkovic—she took the court disguised as a Paragon Sports warehouse sale. Under Armour hat, Lululemon top, Yonex wristband, Adidas skirt and Nike kicks.

• In the late 60s, Peter Ustinov wrote an essay for Sports Illustrated about tennis. I was rereading it last week and was struck by this line, apropos recent discussions about Michael Chang, Alex Bublik, Nick Kyrgios, et al: “As early as when I was 8 or 9, I can remember absolutely insisting on accompanying my father, who was a journalist, to Wimbledon. I'll give you an idea of how long ago that was: I can remember a lady player with an eyeshade beginning to wind up to serve and suddenly shouting at the top of her voice, "Underarmmm!" And then she belted across a withering underarm service, which aced the opponent, who looked as if she had been cheated. Nowadays the cry would be taken as a deodorant advertisement, but in that distant past, serving underarm—while providing shrill warning at the same time—was a form of bad sportsmanship cleverly disguised to look like good sportsmanship. In other words, it was vintage gamesmanship.”

• As I may have mentioned to you earlier, Hall of Famer, U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Davis Cup Champion Vic Seixas is in failing health. He now requires significant help at home and he can now only get around in his wheelchair. His medical costs have become quite high and he will need continued help and medical attention. Thanks to Todd Martin and Anne Marie McLaughlin, along with Ken Solomon and Ari Brock of Tennis Channel, a GoFundMe page has been set up to support Vic).

• This year’s rain delay game entailed coming up with the best mixed doubles teams. What we came up with: Pouille/Puig. Rogers/Federer. B. Paire/B. Perra. Ferro/Ferrer. Sock/Osaka. King/Fish.

• Remember Nick Kyrgios? Aussie? Basketball fan? Yay-high? Depending on your views, he either administered electroshock therapy to the sport or disgraced it? Not only was he physically absent from Paris, but you scarcely heard his name mentioned. Like a player shaking off a poorly played point or a bad loss, tennis does “short term memory” very well. The 2018 U.S. Open women’s final was an international event that even triggered a Saturday Night Live skit. It hasn’t been brought up in tennis, or in Serena Williams’ press conferences. The Justin Gimelstob debacle that captivated the sport in May scarcely came up either.  The show goes on. The news cycle spins. And much as the sport’s titan will be missed when they depart, the sport itself will persist. Just ask Roger Federer, who offered this bit we ought to keep in mind:

“I think a lot of my fans or Novak's fans or Rafa's fans, when either one of us retires, we'll feel a bit of a void, you know, but I think it will just take a few years after that to fall in love with another player, you know. Because if you love tennis, you don't love the game because of one player. I think it's because of the sport and what it does to you and how you feel about it.”

• For the politics section of today’s show. The pre-Wimbledon battle pits Nico Lapentti against Weller Evans for the players-side ATP board seat. The jockeying to replace Gordon Smith at the USTA continues apace. The abiding question: internal or external candidate? Meanwhile, Dave Miley, a former ITF executive, is among those challenging Dave Haggerty for the ITF presidency later this summer.

• We speak often about tennis’ fraught relationship with data and misleading stats. (Does a strong record in five-setters mean you have great mettle? Or that you are inefficient and allow routine matches to get complicated? Can we at least control for rank of the opponent?) But there is some very cool on the Infosys “court vision” section of the Roland Garros website. Note, for instance, how often a player misses a first serve wide and then serves up the middle the next time.

• Who wants to host a pro tournament in the U.S.? With the WTA New Haven event headed offshore, there’s a spot open the week before the U.S. Open. Right now, if you a women who want some match play the week before the fourth major, this is your only option now…

• And here it is now, your moment of Zen:

Always fun nerding out on tennis with you guys…we’ll do it again at Wimbledon!