French Open Midterm Grades: The Favorites Remain and the Underarm Serve Reigns

Publish date:

There was a reason Ella Fitzgerald didn’t sing about Paris in the fall time. It’s chilly, rainy, and dark, which has the effect of turning the clay of its glorious tennis venue into something more akin to sludge than dirt. Still, Roland Garros 2020 is off and running….often netward in pursuit of a drop shot or, better yet, underarm serve. If we need optimistic gloss, who better to cite than the 12-time champion, Rafa Nadal, who notes: “We are lucky enough that we can play tennis under this very tough worldwide circumstances. In another way because there is a lot of people suffering in the world. At least when we are fighting and we are creating a good show for the people who are at home is a good entertainment, no?”

Yes. Aided by a new roof—completed in time for autumnal tennis—the schedule keeps churning. One week in and one week to go: drama remains, the favorites remain, as do a bevy of players outside the top 100. Herewith our midterm grades for Roland Garros 2020:



The faves: For all the upsets and anticipated match-ups that collapsed like souffles, the faves remain. Simone Halep, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem have been COVID-tested, but not match-tested.

Sebastian Korda: The last American man standing has won six matches, including three to qualify. Good clay genes, this guy has. Alas for him, Nadal looms on middle Sunday.

The underarm serve: It’s here. It’s buccaneer. So deal with it.

Hugo Gaston: Just when you are ready to decry wild cards—antithetical to fairness as they are—here comes a 5-foot-8 20-year-old who takes down former champ Stan Wawrinka.

The hoi polloi: Nineteen unseeded players on the women’s side reach the round of 32, the most outsiders crashing the velvet ropes since we went to 32 seeds in 2001.


Clara Tauson: The Danish 17-year-old qualified and turned in just a dazzling performance, beating Jen Brady. Then Tauson’s body and mind caught up and she went out meekly to Danielle Collins. Still, what a debut.

Italy: The new tennis powerhouse nation. Fabio Fognini and Matteo Berrettini both went out early but, still, The Boot is doing more than its share to help carry this tournament, led by Jannik Sinner, a star on the make.


Moms: Four started …. who would have thought Serena Williams (Achilles) and Vika Azarenka (bad day at the office) would be outlasted by Patricia Maria Tig and Svetana Pironkova?


Alexander Zverev: Hasn’t summoned his best tennis here. But for a guy who lost a heartbreaking match at the previous Major, it speaks well of him that he’s found ways to win here.

Coco Gauff: Showed tremendous poise and maturity, out-fighting No. 9 Jo Konta in a first-round match played amid conditions recalling a Green Bay Packers game. She then regressed against an Italian qualifier, double-faulting 19 times in a disappointing defeat.

Australia: Ash Barty opted out. So did Nick Kyrgios. Alex DiMinaur lost in round one. On the plus side, the Big Island is averaging 20 COVID cases a day. Which bodes well for some version of a 2021 Australian Open.

Taylor Fritz: Lost his third round match—ending with the longest tiebreak in French Open history—but fought well. And credit him with fashioning a top-30 career without ever reaching round four of a Major.


Daniil Medvedev: The No. 4 seed came in without a win at Roland Garros. And he keeps the streak alive. (Though bonus points for this.) A recent tennis storyline: Whether it’s the homogenization of surfaces or the improved professionalism of the players, there are no more surface specialists. Medvedev is an Old School holdout.

Channel Surfing: Rough tournament for the Brits. Wild card Andy Murray gets TKO’d by Stan Wawrinka. Jo Konta lost to a 16-year-old (granted, it was Coco Gauff). Dan Evans lost in five set to Kei Nishikori. Cam Norrie lost in five sets. Kyle Edmund didn’t post. At least there’s Wimbledon coming up. Oh, wait….

Sara Eranni: We try to give wide berth for bad acts committed during the aroused state of competition and the strange days of COVID. But Errani was just disgraceful in her second-rounder against Kiki Bertens, mocking an injured opponent, declining to shake hands (tap rackets) after a three-hour battle, and cursing as she left the court. You might think an athlete coming off a doping ban would be collegial. Errani was the opposite.

Marketa Vondrousova: At the 2019 French Open, she won six matches. In 2020 she won three games, dropping her first match to Iga Swiatek….a Pole on which we can rely.

The pandemic: So many small pleasures will be reconsidered when we move on to the next round. For now, COVID wreaks havoc on a global sport, with players flying in from all over the world and then sharing one locker room.