Mailbag: What the 2020 French Open Has Taught Us So Far

Discussing the top storylines and themes of Roland Garros, from the resurgence of the one-handed backhand to the revelations of two 19-year-olds and more.
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Wednesday is Mailbag Day so here goes….From high above Court Philippe Chatrier.

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

The revelation from the first week is Jannik Sinner. I’ve followed tennis for a long time and have yet to see a male teen step into the big stage with such a calm/Zen-like demeanor. Federer-like at his peak. Not McEnroe, not Agassi, not Federer (he figured it out as did Agassi) and Nadal, Chang, Shapovalov were just bang away aggressive. All my “money” is in on Sinner. It would be for his energy-saving ball striking alone, but his demeanor is stunning. You can’t teach that…Would love your thoughts. And you’re there watching, I think, is his ball striking as crisp and efficient as it looks on TV? The sound off the racket is completely different.
Kent A.

• Note that I write this Tuesday morning…but yes, the two revelations so far have a been a pair of 19-year-olds, Iga Swiatek and Jannik Sinner. They don’t play dissimilarly; and they don’t act dissimilarly, composed, emotionally mature kids, who take pleasure in what they do and relish their fast ascents.

How fitting that Djokovic and Carreno Busta meet again, at the very next major, eh?
Joe, Branford, Conn.

• Yes, on Wednesday, Djokovic plays Carreno Busta, the opponent when he was defenestrated from the U.S. Open. It’s an interesting bit of symmetry. But I’m not sure it will be much of a motivation. If anything, perhaps PBC will use it as motivation as well. As in: I want to beat Djokovic for the first time outright, and not on account of his self-sabotage.

Yes or No: Will Dimitrov ever win a Grand Slam tournament?

• Well…he’s a really nice guy, Dimitrov, did we mention that? The reflexive answer is “No.” He’s never reached a final and, closing in on 30, there’s little indication his best tennis lies ahead. Easy as his game is on the eyes, it’s not as durable as it needs to be. And he still hasn’t solved this foundational issue: he has so many shots at his disposal but too often picks the wrong one. He can dazzle for a day; but imagine how much would have to go right for him to string together seven best-of-five wins.

But more charitably: how do you flatly discount anyone from winning a major these days? Especially post-Big Three, could he string together seven straight matches? Sure. Between 2000 and 2005 here are some players who won Majors: Gaudio, Tom Johanssson, Al Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Were any better than Dimitrov?

Is Zverev as callow and feckless as he seems re: COVID? From clubbing after Novak’s disastrous tourney to not communicating with French open officials about his symptoms before Sinner match. And isn’t he kinda dumb to not keep silent about his shadiness?
—Dave in NYC

• I don’t want to pile on, but yes, Zverev has not distinguished himself in 2020. His latest unforced error: Despite carrying a fever and feeling ill—and despite having family members going through COVID—he played his fourth round match here, a defeat to Sinner. That he then attributed to his compromised state. Per the tournament’s own release, Zverev had gone five days without a COVID-test.

This is like the co-worker who comes to work coughing. It’s riotously selfish and endangers all. (It’s also exposed the tournament’s vulnerabilities; why were there no temp checks?) Imagine if Zverev HAD tested positive. Dozens of people and players would have been quarantined, including Sinner, with whom he shared tennis balls for three hours. If there’s a positive side to this….Zverev posted his negative test, triggering sighs of relief. Which also suggests he learned his lesson.

But, yeah, heard from a lot of you on this. A sample: Here’s Claire of Ottawa: “How is this not a bigger story? Zverev didn't report his symptoms and played anyway. This after being seen partying this summer when he said he would quarantine in the midst of the debacle that was the Adria Tour. Also his parents had tested positive! Shouldn't he know better? Talented as he may be, it's hard to root for a guy who's so irresponsible. (And don't say he's young—he’s not that young. My teenager would know better.)”

I saw Sabalenka play Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open and thought I had seen the future. What happened?

• Remember the Maria Sharapova slogan, “Make every shot a power shot”? This is Sabalenka’s apparent strategy. There is simply one gear here: hit every ball as hard as possible. Saturday night is all well and good; but sometimes it has to be Sunday morning.

I don’t have a TV where I am and so I’m only getting the direct feeds from the TC app. So ignore me if this a topic you guys have talked about. But I wonder if anyone is talking much about the shadows on the court? Playing in these stadiums in October sun vs .June sun means there are awkward shadows covering these courts all the time. It’s miserable to play in that...miserable to receive a 120 mph serve when it’s coming out of a shadow and into the sun.

• What’s a shadow? We jest. I think you raise a good point. We don’t talk about shadows enough. (Consider baseball, where they are a constant theme and stadiums are constructed to minimize shadows.) But given that sun is a requirement for shadows, I’m not sure of the role they play here.

All I read is that Serena is the GOAT but can’t you make a very good case that Steffi or Martina is the best women’s player ever??

• Clay is the questioner’s name, we should point out, not the surface. As always, the problem with the GOAT—and our reflexive need for superlatives—is that it has the effect of diminishing others. Apart from the obvious apples-and-oranges issues—accounting for technology, sports science, health care advances, travel conveniences; but also a wider and globalized field, that cuts in favor of more recent players—there is the simple issue of priorities. Right now, the great benchmark for greatness is, of course, majors won. But in the era of Chris-Martina, the Australian Open was not much different from a run-of-the-mill event. They both are in their rights to think, “Shoot, if I knew it was going to account for so much historical weight, I would have played every year.”

Is it just my perception, or has there been a resurgence of the one-handed backhand on the men's tour? The game is much more aesthetically pleasing to watch when there is a contrast in styles and the players don't seem like mirror images of one another. While many people were proclaiming the death of the one-handed backhand not too long ago, Thiem in particular has shown it can be a weapon due the wide variety of spins he generates off it, and because it is so hard to read.
Robert, Fairfax

• Some of the happier themes of this event: the prominence of the drop shot, the rise of the qualifier (as I write this on the second Monday, three remain in the draw); the increasingly global field; and the resurgence of the one-handed backhand. (Note that Daniel Altmaier of Germany fills multiple categories here.) Apart from the aesthetics, the one-hander is so damn effective. It’s easier to disguise, provides better reach, generates more power (see Thiem and Wawrinka) and is more conducive to the aforementioned drop shots. Just note that, as of now, this is a single-gendered phenomenon. Only one woman in the top 100 is an adopter.

Hi Jon, it’s Sunday early afternoon in NYC, and I was eagerly awaiting the Thiem-Gaston match. When I went to Tennis Channel, it is showing the Jason Schwartzman match. No problem, I thought, they will go back to Thiem when / if it becomes interesting. And who doesn’t like Schwartzman? But now I have been watching for over an hour and there is no MENTION of the Thiem match at all. And he just dropped the third set to Gaston. Every time we come back from a commercial, there are “quick updates on the other courts” but NO MENTION OF CHATRIER. What is going on? I am bewildered.
Confused, Will, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• While Tennis Channel is the chief rights holder, the host broadcaster and—he says dutifully—here, first ball to last…. NBC has some rights, including the last match for the middle weekend session. On the day referenced, NBC had the rights to Thiem/Gaston and chose to air the match on the Peacock Network. Tennis Channel would have loved to air that match—ironically, one of the dandies of the event. It just didn’t have the rights. (Pre-empting obvious follow-up, yes, it would be better if tennis fans were treated better by the television deities.)

The Flying Finn, alas, is not Scandinavian. Although if we were to speak about Nordic tennis then his inclusion would be correct. Scandinavia consists of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The Nordics also includes Finland and Iceland as well as Greenland, the Faroe Islands (both part of Denmark), Åland (Finland) and Svalbard (Norway).
Marcus Westberg

• Is Finland part of Scandinavia? It sounds like a Reddit rabbit hole. Finland is part of the peninsula. Lonely Planet claims it is. The ATP notes cite Finnish players as Scandinavian. But most Finns do not claim membership. So we defer to them.

Jon, you know who I miss when I watch tennis? Dick Enberg. Did you ever get to meet him?

• This is a cut-and-paste from a Mailbag I wrote after Enberg’s death. But this is one of my favorite stories so here goes:

So it’s the early 1980s. I’m a kid growing up in Indiana. Dick Enberg and Al McGuire are in my town to broadcast an Indiana/Iowa basketball game on NBC, certifying this as a real event, the 1980s equivalent of College Football GameDay coming to your campus. I am probably 10 years old. Dick Enberg is a national celebrity, but also an Indiana grad so he has this extra coating of exalted status.

Before the game, I make my way down from my nosebleed seat to their broadcast spot—which is probably 10 rows above the court—to ask, nervously, for an autograph. Enberg signs my program and then says, “You know what? I just thought of something: We could really use some help today. Would you like to be our scorer?” Naturally, I would.

Chairs are rearranged so I can sit next to Enberg. I am handed a scoresheet and told to circle points accordingly. This, of course, is completely superfluous and not necessary. Enberg is wearing a headset and a producer is there to ply him with any piece of information. There is also an official scorer, whose stats circulate throughout the game and are going to be more reliable than the jottings of a fifth-grader. But this is a saintly man, this Dick Enberg, realizing that he can make a kid’s day/week/year by giving him an artificial job…so why not?

The game starts and I am not only seated next to the great and famous Dick Enberg but I am, ostensibly, working for him, an integral part of this national broadcast. To humor me, Enberg will periodically look at my notations and as if they are sacred texts demanding studied interpretation. He will pat me on the back. At halftime and after the game, will thank me profusely.

The best part: at some point during the game, the local newspaper takes a photo of Enberg and McGuire in their perch, their NBC peacock banner draped behind them. A few people look closely enough at the photo the next day and spot me alongside them. Again, this all owes to a spontaneous gesture­­—the kind Enberg, one suspects, is inclined to make daily. He likely forgets this by the time he leaves the arena. Here I am, 35 years later, recounting it. With specificity, and with a smile.

Shots, Miscellany

• Erin Graybill writes:

This is pretty obscure, but whenever I watch Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), I'm struck by the resemblance between Swedish actor Eddie Axberg and Diego Schwartzman. (Axberg also played the lead in Troell's Here Is Your Life from 1966, though that's even more obscure.) Also, something about Ugo Humbert reminds me of the French actor Jean-Louis Barrault, probably best known for Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise (1945).

And Rob Richie, take us out:

Thought this poem might be of interest! I suspect Simona Halep is reading this somewhere and weeping....

L'aube est moins claire

[translated form]

Dawn is less clear...
Victor Hugo

Dawn is less clear, the air not so warm, the sky less pure;
Misty evening tarnishes the sun in the azure sky
The long days have passed; the months of delight are ending,
Alas! See how the trees are already yellowing!
As time departs with hastening step!
It seems that our eyes, dazzled by summer,
Have scarcely had time to notice the green leaves.

For, whoever lives like me with open windows,
Autumn is sad with its biting winds and fog,
And the fleeing summer is a friend departing.
Adieu, says this voice that weeps in our soul,
Adieu, blue sky! beautiful sky touched by a mild breeze!
Sensations of fresh air, wings beating in the wood,
Walks, ravines full of distant voices,
Flowers, innocent pleasures of peaceful souls,
Adieu, sunbeams! dawns! songs! dew!

But then one adds quietly: O blessed and sweet days!
Alas! You will return! Will you find me again?