Mailbag: Early Storylines from Roland Garros 2020

Without fans and during a cooler, gloomier time in Paris, is the 2020 French Open falling flat? How are players handling the quick transition from the U.S. Open in New York, to clay-court lead-up tournaments, to the Roland Garros dirt?
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PARIS – Wednesday is Mailbag day so here goes….

• On our most recent podcast, Chanda Rubin and I preview the 2020 French Open, also known as 2020 Roland Garros.

• Speaking of Chanda….a good solider reminder that Tennis Channel has all the coverage, first ball to last.

Onward, while marveling over Clara Tauson….….

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Jon, I am watching the French Open from home and I can’t make up my mind how I feel. Does it feel like a major to you or just weird?
Charles T.

• I write this with a few first round matches still left to be played. So it’s early and subject to change. But in short, yes and yes. It’s definitely weird for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the absence of fans and the COVID protocol. But also the time of year. There’s a reason why Ella Fitzgerald didn’t sing about “Paris in the fall.” It’s rainy and dark and chilly…and this impacts the surface as well as the mood. Even without a new ball. Even without a roof atop the big court. Even without lights on the court...the surface is stickier and less granular. Even stepping onto the court for interviews, I can say it feels different underfoot.

All that said, here’s what happened Monday alone: Dominic Thiem made a graceful transition and looked terrific in his first match as a major champion. Serena Williams fought through a patchy set and then played a dazzling set as she chases her 24th major (after this writing, Serena withdrew from the tournament, citing an Achilles injury); Nadal was Nadal-ing in search of his 13th title here; teenagers won; players deep in their 30s won; a match went 16-14 in the fifth; a player ran out of rackets and had to borrow a stick (off-brand) from her coach; the fourth seed lost. In other words, yes, it felt like a major.

We’ll see how this plays out. But, so far Roland Garros has taken the baton from the U.S. Open—sanitizing it first, of course—and it feels like a major.

Jon, I know the French Open just started but I’m curious what you are hearing about the 2021 Australian Open. Am I going to be able to go the tennis?!!
Djeorg, Melbourne

• Assuming you are local, the answer is, happily, likely. It is—all together now—a fluid situation. But Australia has 20 new cases the other day and the recent lockdown appears to be effective. It sounds like right now the big concern is confronting outside threats. The players recently received an email from Tennis Australia which reads in part:

“As you may have read, the Covid-19 infection rate in Australia is extremely low—today for example it was less than 20 people. Australia is a safe place and the community has done a good job ensuring the infection rate remains very low by wearing masks, physically distancing and practicing good hygiene. Our government is very committed to suppressing the spread of the virus and requires every person who comes to Australia to quarantine for two weeks. This has been the case for everyone, including Australian Citizens, since March and has been a major factor in keeping infection rates low here.”

Two other notes: I’m told that, while it will not replace the cancelled Shenzhen year-end event, the WTA is looking into adding events to the calendar, post-Paris. Multiple sources tell me Prague—which hosted an event in August—is the frontrunner for a year-end event that will include top players.

On the ATP side, it looks like 2021 will continue to feature events with reduced crowds. The big question: to what extent—if any—can tournament directors cut prize money, to reflect the diminished ticket revenues.

Just glancing at the first day scores and it seems like one of the clear themes is that players who did relatively well at the U.S. Open are falling rapidly in Paris...not uniformly, but in higher numbers than rankings and seedings would predict. Not in the least surprising but confirms what many people had expected about back-to-back majors on different continents in the age of COVID-19.
Leif Wellington Haase

• This is always the dilemma, isn’t it? Do you rest before a major? Or do you get matches, hoping to find rhythm and confidence (and appearance fee lucre)? This year it was amplified. A lot of contenders and high seeds—Svitolina, Sabalenka, Tsitsipas, Rublev, Garin, Medvedev—played the week before the 2020 Roland Garros event. And the Hamburg men’s event ended on a Sunday, meaning that after a major had started, players were still competing in an ATP 500 event.

So you don't find Nadal's expression of global concern for the pandemic on Twitter two months ago at all disingenuous, considering that he has no problem participating in the French Open amid a rise in COVID cases in France and Spain? I guess it's easier to consider the situation "safe enough" when you're a 12-time champion. At least Ash Barty, the top-ranked woman (and defending champion), commendably refused to play at both Flushing and Paris.
Sean, San Diego

• Broadly, I think we give everyone a wide berth. This situation is fluid—no pun intended—and a decision that seems sound one minute seems suspect the next. And vice versa. Also, who among us is entirely consistent here? (I’m reluctant to eat indoors; but just flew across an ocean.) Specific to Nadal, I’m not sure what’s disingenuous. You’re allowed to express global concern, but still maintain your job….After his first round match, Nadal was asked about the hollow atmosphere and the absence of fans. His response: “It’s sad...but perhaps it should be sad, in the world there are many people suffering, it needs to be sad.”

I don’t understand your support for the underhand serve. Just because it is technically allowed doesn’t make it right. There are rules in the rulebook but there are also unwritten rules, Jon. I’m not a pro but if anyone did that to me, I would probably be so insulted I’d stop playing. It’s not cool, Jon. Plain and simple.
Doug T.

• We had some back-and-forth on Twitter on this as well. Honestly, I don’t get it. When an infield plays deep, you bunt. It’s not the same exertion of power as a solid single; but it’s no less legitimate. In rallies we hit drop shots when the opponent positions himself far back. Why should it be different for the serve? It’s a completely legitimate tactic and should be celebrated, not derided as cheap.

You probably already have gotten this answer to what other Scandinavians were top tennis players. I lived in Denmark during the beginning of Kenneth Carlsen’s professional career; so I was aware of him. He was a mid-level, uninspiring player to watch. Sadly.
Jenny

• Nice. And of course, Jarkko Nieminen, the Flying Finn, also interrupted the Swedish hegemony. Oh, wait, here comes another reader, Pedro Pelaez: You will probably have Sharko answer this question but I believe Jarkko Nieminen was the highest ranked Scandinavian that wasn’t a Swede in July 2006 when he hit his career high ranking of No. 13 (next closest was Bjorkman at No. 29 and T. Johansson and Soderling at No. 38 and No. 39, respectively).

After Diego Schwartzman's spectacular recent performance, I was curious about his height. And searching for any analysis of the resulting disadvantages (or benefits) to his playing, I stumbled upon this article. His is such a wonderful story! It seems like movie material, really. And this makes me wonder that in all this hoopla about Big 3 and Murray, Wawrinka, etc. (deserving, no doubt), how many such gems lie hidden? There must be so many amazing stories about tennis players, given their diverse backgrounds, their own struggles, and their families' struggles.

I realize that struggles are common to every sport and may not necessarily make good copy. But I am sure there will be a wealth of really interesting, but hidden, stories and nuggets, stories that give you a wider appreciation and understanding not just of the player but also of the world around them. Kind of similar to Diego's background of his great grandfather escaping a Nazi concentration camp and migrating to Argentina. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone (you?) compiled the best stories among them into a book or a series?
Arun Narayanan, Lappeenranta, Finland

• There’s something wonderful about a fan from Finland, writing to an American journalist, about a player from Argentina. I love your point, as well. As tennis transitions to the Post-Big (Three/Four/Five) to an era with few titans, it is imperative that these stories are told. We won’t have players with double-digits majors so give the folks at home other stories and other reasons to care.

Regarding sibling rivalries in the same sport at the same time...Did anyone bring up the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle? Both are consistently in the top 12 in the points battle for the year-end championship. Both have won the championship. They have had on track altercations against each other and haven't spoken to each other until their grandmother insisted at Thanksgiving dinner. They both drive for top-tier team owners (Ganassi & Gibbs) that also have a long and successful history in racing. The sport being NASCAR. I agree that the Williams sisters’ competition / rivalry / success is greater. The Busch brothers have also had success. If compared to in tennis, Kurt vs. Kyle would be like McEnroe vs. Connors...hot tempered, divisive, competitive, and really good.
Bret (maybe the last NASCAR fan in Utah!)

• What’s this term, NASCAR? Rings a faint bell. (You want to know from a sport in decline….) That’s a good one. While they never competed against each other—outside the home—the Reggie Miller/Cheryl Miller combo is good, too.

Press releasing

The USTA today announced that the University of Florida will be joining a growing list of colleges across the country to offer Professional Tennis Management (PTM) programs. UF will be adding a Racquet Sports Director Specialization to their online Master’s in Sports Management program. The program will focus not only on helping aspiring Directors of Racquet Sports to be masters of the game they teach, but also to have a firm understanding of business practices, communication, leadership and entrepreneurship.

• Match Tennis App is helping keep tennis tournaments alive throughout the United States through the creation of its Virtual Tournament Desk (VTD) technology. Match Tennis App is the provider of the leading tennis player tournament management application being used by tennis organizations throughout the country. Three of the largest USTA Sections have mandated tournaments to use the app. The new technology integrates with the USTA’s existing tournament management system to provide more effective social distancing protocols.

The goal was simple: Develop a technology solution that would facilitate a safer COVID-19 environment for tennis venues nationwide so that the sport of tennis could once again host competitions for tennis players, especially those hoping for college scholarships.

CEO and former WTA world-ranked No. 33 player Lindsay Lee-Waters founded Match Tennis App with her husband Heath Waters and his brother Matt Waters. As the parents of a nationally top-ranked 14-and-under junior, the Waters have been on the front lines of the junior tennis tournament scene, and desire to enhance the quality of experience for players, parents, and tournament staff through innovative digital experiences.

• The International Tennis Hall of Fame allows fans to participate in the Hall of Fame voting process through Fan Voting, presented by BNP Paribas, which will take place from October 1-25 at vote.tennisfame.com. The top-three vote getters in the Fan Vote will receive bonus percentage points on their Official Voting Group result.