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50 Parting Thoughts from the 2020 French Open

We may recall 2020 as a kink in the chain of history. But tennis did its part to keep lineage intact. The last two majors were held under extraordinary circumstances. Yet they were held. The autumnal French Open—total two-week attendance: 15,000—wrapped Sunday. Herewith, 50 thoughts from Roland Garros 2020. 

• As with the U.S. Open, we crowned an extra winner here: the tournament itself. The “bubble” wasn’t impermeable. The COVID-19 metrics worsened in France as the tournament went on. But of the 256 players in the main singles draws, zero tested positive. Zero. The FFT’s decision to change court positioning, so to speak, and grab these autumn dates was criticized at the time. In retrospect, it was a shrewd tactic and, as a result, we got three majors played in this sidespin-drizzled year. 

• Rafael Nadal is your 2020 French Open champion for the—punchline—13th time and now ties Roger with his 20th major. Even given his history and dizzying standard, this was a breathtaking performance, punctuated by an absolute takedown of Djokovic in the final. This was peak Nadal. Offense and defense and resistance is futile. Especially impressive: Nadal knew the history at stake. And he made a ringingly clear point.

Iga Świątek emerges as such a big winner. She crushed the competition, allowing just 28 games in 14 sets. She won the Mind Olympics, all the while crediting her sports psychologist. She married brute power with real creativity. (A Pole with a margin for error. Sorry.) She leaves not with questions about, “Can she replicate this?” but “What will she do next?”

• In his previous major, Novak Djokovic was defaulted. A true credit to his powers of compartmentalization, he went undefeated in his next 11 matches. Then he ran into the Nadal power-saw. It was a strange year for Djokovic, no doubt. But he leaves here still ranked No. 1. He heads to Australia, an event he’s dominated nearly as comprehensively as Nadal has dominated in Paris. He is the youngest of the Big Three. This wonderful, twisting, maddening derby continues. 

• Every athlete talks about their desire to win, their disdain for defeat, their love of competition. Sofia Kenin walks the walk. She came within two sets of winning her second major of 2020—Hall of Fame credentials, at present. Even in defeat, she is firmly embedded in the top five. A lot of players with a lot more native gifts have achieved a lot less.

• In the most Hellenic kind of way, Stefanos Tsitsipas leaves with an exalted status. After a potentially devastating loss at the U.S. Open, he loses his first two sets here and appears to have angered the gods. He then goes 11 days without losing another set. In the semifinals against Djokovic, Tsitsipas didn’t win but he pushed the match to five sets. After the supremacy of the Big Three, Thiem and Tsitsipas have revealed themselves to be four and five.

• Diego Schwartzman was unable to replicate his Rome feat and beat Nadal here. But his run to the semis—including a takedown of Dominic Thiem, the previous major winners—cemented his status as a top 10 player. And as the worthy heir to David Ferrer.

• Petra Kvitová has such a winning and positive and measured personality. But you suspect that even she might consider uttering a mild expletive, after failing to hit through Kenin, playing big points poorly and losing to a player she had never before lost to in the semis.

• You thought Nadal has a strong record at Paris? Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies (former Auburn Tiger) defended their title—and their undefeated record at Roland Garros—winning the men’s doubles. In women’s Tímea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic beat to former collegians Desirae Krawczyk (Arizona State) and Alexa Guarachi (Alabama).

• Unlike the U.S. Open, this event featured juniors. Because it’s about time Switzerland provided us with some decent players, in the boys final, Dominic Stephan Stricker, the seventh seed from Switzerland, beat his eighth-seeded countryman, Leandro Riedi. Both proudly identify as former Roger Federer sparring partners. In the girls, Elsa Jacquemot beat Alina Charaeva 4–6, 6–4, 6–2 in the final to become the first French girls champ since Kristina Mladenovic.

• An eternal question hovering gloomily over tennis, creating a layer of tarnish for the golden age: What will happen to the sport after the departure of the Big Three? Well even in Paris, as—Nadal Nadals and Djokovic Djokovicses—we got a glimpse. Here’s what will happen: Draws will open and there will be less predictability. There will be breakthroughs and dazzling debuts. The world will flatten. (Multiple players from six continents were represented in the field.) Stories of lesser players will get told. It will become even more apparent that tennis is at its best when men and women compete alongside each other.

• Given the variables that militated against normal—the conditions, the absence of crowds, this wild year—it was not surprising to see two qualifiers in Week Two. Congrats to both Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podoroska, both of whom made more money in this event than they had in their entire careers.

• Overall, a protracted round of applause for the quality of play—and, by extension, the athletes’ collective professionalism. Both here and at the U.S. Open, you would never have known the players were returning from an unexpected—and existentially stressful—six-month hiatus. The only rust was the color of the courts.

• Our favorite match of the tournament might well have been Hugo Gaston—the 5’8”, 20-year-old French wild card—pushing Dominic Thiem to five sets. (The other match-of-the-tournament was Thiem's subsequent five-setter against Schwartzman.) This three-hour bit of theater had almost everything, not least Gaston hitting more than 50 drop shots. The great lacking element: the crowd. Imagine 15,000 partisans imposing themselves on this tableau, the undersized and inexperienced local wild card against the winner of the previous major.

• He did fare as well as his fellow-19-year-old Swiatek, but what a tournament for Jannik Sinner. In the first match of the event, he ran roughshod over David Goffin (get well soon) with his smooth power and equanimity. He kept it going for ten more days, until fell gamely to Nadal in the quarters. If Sinner is not seeded by the 2021 French Open, it will be surprising.

• Plenty of ink, pixels, air time and audio time have been devoted to Alexander Zverev. This is less a controversy—which implies two sides—than a public scolding, deserved as it is. As it is written: “Screw up COVID protocol once, shame on you. Screw up COVID protocol twice, putting your self-centeredness on full display, and you have lost innumerable fans you may never win back.”

What I can’t figure out: why were other players not more forceful in their condemnation? A player pumps her fist after an opponent double-faults and it becomes a crisis, the talk of the locker room. Here is a guy who…. in a best-case scenario doesn’t understand COVID after six months; and in a worst case simply doesn’t care about anyone’s health other than his own. He comes to work sick, shares a locker room, a press conference table, and, of course, a court with colleagues, and imperils the entire event.

• Spare a thought for Simona Halep. And at the same time consider the psychic brutality of tennis. She passes up the U.S. Open to focus on clay. This appears to be a wise strategic move, as she wins Rome and enters Roland Garros as the top seed and overwhelming favorite. In three matches, she drops only 12 games, including an absolute destruction of Amanda Anisimova, the player who knocked her out in 2019. And then Halep musters a mere three games against a scorchingly hot Iga Świątek. Halep leaves on the sourest of notes. She fails to win a major in 2020. She loses a bid to take over the top ranking. She is unlikely to play again until Australia. One of those players who is fast becoming impossible not to like, she is philosophical in defeat. “It’s not easy to take it, but I’m used to some tough moments in this career. So I will have a chocolate and I will be better tomorrow.”

• Another major, another disappointment for Serena Williams, who pulled out after her first-round win. There are a lot of opinions and diminishing optimism that she will win that elusive 24th major. Me? A) I was surprised she even entered here, the major that demands the most from her. B) I would not bet that a 39-year-old woman would win a major; neither would I bet against Serena. C) This quest for Margaret Court’s 24 majors always seemed a little silly given the apples and oranges. But if this is what sustains Serena and motivates her to stay on the scene, great. … And long as we’re talking Williams: You have to love that a 40-year-old woman loses and no one even thinks to ask, “Could this be the last time we see Venus Williams at Roland Garros?”

• The strangest moment of the event? One candidate, anyway: During Sonia Kenin’s quarterfinal against Fiona Ferro, Kenin was displeased that her opponent’s coach, Emmanuel Planque, was seated in the “Tiriac seats,” directly behind the baseline, and not in the usual box for the lower-ranked players’ coaches. She complained, as did her coach/father, but Planque had some special accreditation and security guards were reluctant to intervene. So Alex Kenin pulled what the kids call a baller move and relocated himself directly next to Planque. (Good thing there’s no pandemic; otherwise it would violate every bit of social distancing protocol.) For most of the match, the two opposing coaches sat in adjacent seats. And from that moment on, Kenin controlled the match, winning in three sets.

Mid-match, I asked both men what the hell was going on. They both essentially shrugged and explained they were fine. “We’ll go out for a beer afterwards,” Planque said, mockingly putting his arm around Alex Kenin, who responded, “No, better vodka." Ah, tennis.

• You want to return serve in a different arrondissement from the court? Great. Your opponent is entitled to counter that with an underhand—note: not underhanded—serve. This is an acceptable tactic, no different from a drop shot. It’s a bunt single when the infield plays deep; a backdoor cut. The idea that it is unsporting, the tennis equivalent of the barking dog play, is fallacy.

• Now that we have laid to rest the ridiculous “debate” about the underhand serve (resolved: It is legit), let’s turn our attention to the drop shot. Owing, yes, to the conditions, but also to the positioning of the opponent, the drop shot was, like a voguish dance move, in style in Paris. All players must add it to their arsenal—some even practiced the drop in conventional warmups. It’s a great way to finish points on sloggy surfaces (or when the opponent is roaming charges away from the court) and the risk/reward ratio is quite good. Request: can we please get a separate stat on the drop shot? When you hear that, say, Sonia Kenin hit more drop shot winners than slugging winners, you think, a) good for her and b) shouldn’t there be a way to get that information in ways other than by counting on fingers and toes.

• Goodbye, GOAT debate. We have a new candidate for Most Tiresome Tennis Topic and it is “Hawk-Eye on clay.” Frustrated players may wish to see technology replace humans; but right now, the technology isn’t there. The explosion of clay as the ball bounces distorts what your eyes see and renders Hawk-eye’s artificial intelligence imprecise and beyond the acceptable margin of error. Is there an alternate technology? Perhaps. FoxTenn—which sounds like a local news affiliate—might be an option. Hawk-Eye (we hear, in Paris this week to make another presentation to the FFT) might improve. But right now, it’s like prescribing a drug that doesn’t meet the approval threshold.

• Here’s a wedge argument: I can’t figure out why we’re not making more of video. For ball that may or may not bounce twice … for ascertaining that we are inspecting the correct mark … even for foot-faults….Why not use incontrovertible video? Speaking of…

• “Having a rough year” takes on new shape and weight in this 2020 annus horribilis. But—confined to tennis—it’s been rough tobogganing for Kristina Mladenovic. She resumed her season in Palermo and lost her first match 7–6, 0–6, 1–6. Okay, weird score but it’s post-pandemic. She then went to New York and lost her second match to Elise Mertens, 6–1, 6–7, 6–3. Next? At the U.S. Open she won a round but then squandered a 6–1, 5–2 lead—failing to convert four match points and losing the last set 6–0. At least there was still doubles. But wait. The Squeaky Fromme of the “Paire 11,” Mladenovic was defaulted from the event and then had to quarantine at a suburban Marriott, a quintessential American punishment.

In Paris, she was up 5–2 when her opponent, Laura Siegemund, won a point despite a double-bounce that went uncalled. Visibly shaken, Mladenovic mustered only three games after that. Three years ago, she arrived as a top-10 player, picked by some to win this event. Today, she is struggling to stay in the top 50. In singles. Some balm for all this: She and Timea Babos are among the elite doubles teams and hung around until the final weekend.

• Among the army of invaluable/invisible … the good folks providing translation for press conferences. We say this every year—with affection—but either players become poetic when they arrive in Paris, or the translators perhaps take some literary liberties. Here’s France’s Alize Cornet on the challenge of playing before a French crowd: “Some other times when I felt so much pressure and I was actually drowning in this pressure. So I think overall it's mostly positive for French players, but the French crowd is very exigent, very tough to conquer.”

• We forget that Paris has the latitude of Newfoundland. Even in October, it was dark more than it was light. Whatever the cost—and the time, given the lumbering French bureaucracy—the roof over Chatrier saved the event. The ultimate autumn accessory. Without it, the FFT could never have land-grabbed these October dates.

• Given all the Sturm und Drang—which sounds like a German doubles team—it generated in advance of the U.S. Open, the PTPA was noticeably quiet here. For one, there is the unanswered foundational question about PTPA: What is it? A union? An association? A dissident group within the ATP? Whatever, it created a stir in New York, stoked Federer and Nadal and triggered much discussion. Since then? Crickets. It scarcely came up during the French Open. We repeat our view: Tennis players ought to organize and challenge the status quo. But doing so during a pandemic, before the first Major back, and without women were unforced errors in ascending order.

The gender studies unit that is the fine list. At last check—and there are some reviews/appeals pending—there were 20 fines imposed on men and 15 on women. The women’s fines were mostly for coaching (see: Kenin, Sofia) and the men were mostly for abusing equipment and audible obscenities (see: Daniil Medvedev).

• Five players who didn’t get out of the early rounds, but impressed nonetheless: Hugo Gaston (Thiem), Egor Gerasimov (Nadal), Tamara (and Tamara and Tamara) Zidanšek (Muguruza), Clara Tauson, the Danish slugger who took out Jen Brady, and Alexander Bublik, who hit the shot of the tournament.

• Deep in her first-round match against Kiki Bertens, Ukraine’s Katarina Zavatska broke a string. Then another. Then another. And with her entire complement of rackets out for restringing, she was forced to borrow a racket from her coach. In tears and using a different make and model, she lost 6–0 in the third.

• In the first round, Sonia Kenin played Liudmila Samsonova, a 21-year-old from Olenegorsk, Russia. Unfurl your Google map and check out Olenegorsk. It’s a town of 20,000 people, north of the Arctic Circle. Kenin won in three sets (redundant?) and Samsonova, who plays for Italy now, was off before we could ask about her origin story. But when we talk about a sport with few barriers to entry, here’s a vivid example. And she wasn’t alone. Renata Zarazúa became the first female tennis player from Mexico to advance to the second round at the Roland Garros French Open in 20 years. And Mayar Sherif became the first Egyptian woman to win a round.

• It’s a bit of icky branding/marketing. But you will note the mission creep of the French Open being renamed “Roland Garros.”

• Subplot to follow: COVID-19 and its effect on Olympic rosters. The selections were supposed to be made based on rankings following the 2020 French Open’s completion in May. Now? Who knows? Note, for instance, the American women and the charge of Jenn Brady. Note Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who partnered with Sonia Kenin and reached the latter rounds in women’s doubles.

• An unseemly headline: Prosecutors Launch Match-Fixing Investigation at French Open. The Tennis Integrity Unit is not commenting, but this is troubling. Corrupting the legitimacy of competition is the cardinal sin of sports, so let’s be careful here. But let’s eliminate morality and think of this strictly in terms of economic incentives. Hundreds of thousands of Euros were reportedly wagered on a break of serve in the fifth game of the second set. The player serving came into this tournament having won $23,005 in 2020.

• It was no one’s fault, per se. But it was ironic that the draw did not include 18-year-old Lorenzo Musetti—the new Jannik Sinner, as it were—who’s been the talk of tennis, just tearing it up in September. He started with his takedown of Stan Wawrinka in Rome and followed it by winning five matches—beating Frances Tiafoe among others—to take the Forli Challenger. What a pity that he was not at the French Open. We hold our noses and tolerate wild cards as necessary departures from the objective rankings to appease promoters. If ever there were on occasion to circumvent the rankings and offer special dispensation, would this not be it?

• Musetti is further proof. “The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated,” says the one-handed backhand. Never mind the top of the sport. Look through the junior ranks as well. While certainly in the minority, plenty of players sling with one hand, including Daniel Altmaier, the German comer who reached week two. But it’s largely a one-gender phenomenon. When Carla Suarez Navarro retires, for the first time ever there are unlikely to be any one-handers in the WTA top 100.

• At the U.S. Open, we mentioned this v/v Croatia. Here we turned our attention to Romania, a country with fewer than 20 million citizens that provided seven main draw players on the women’s side, including the top seed. A reminder: “Players-per-capita” is more telling than “players.” Speaking of apples-to-apples …

• This is neither to condemn nor condone. But too often we hear about “all these five-setters” or the absence of five-setters at majors. Over the last decade, we have averaged 23 five-setters over the 127 matches, or about 18%.

• Like a drop shot dying a small death in the dirt … what ever happened to the pre-tournament “controversy” about the switch to Wilson tennis balls?

• This has been an issue since competitive tennis began, but the parent/coach dynamic continues to be a source of fascination. Kenin, Tstisipas, Caroline Garcia, Oceane Dodin and Alexander Zverev (sort of) are among the offspring/clients. Some relationships are healthier than others. Here’s Tsitisipas: “My mom, she knows a lot about tennis. Sometimes it can be a bit complicated when she wants to give her own opinion or advice direct to me, then have my dad tell me something else. We've sat down and we said, ‘Guys, that's my coach. Whatever opinions or whatever thoughts you have, has to be filtered through Apostolos, my father.’ It can get quite hectic.”

I was talking about this the other day with Marion Bartoli, who a) is pregnant with a daughter on the way and b) was coached by her father for most of her career. She made the point that if the parent coaches the kid from an early age, as the relationship persists, it’s very hard for a new coach to enter the dynamic.

• This tournament’s every-match-tells-a-story….In round two, France’s knee-bending, back-scratching, serve-and-volleying Pierre Hugues Herbert—who has made the wise decision to go all-in singles—led Alex Zverev 6-2, 4-1, 30-40. He couldn’t get the second break, botched two volleys his next service game and the whole match changed. Zverev won 6-4 in the fifth.

• Show me a doubles match and I will show you a former college tennis player. They are everywhere. At a time when college tennis is under siege, someone needs to impress upon the campus decision-makers that, unlike most non-revenue sports, college tennis offers a path to a (sometimes quite lucrative) fruitful pro career.

• Early in the tournament, I was told that a number of top WTA players were told to prepare for an October event in Prague—not to replace the WTA Finals Shenzhen (as I regrettably did not make clear) but as another event added to the calendar for the top players. Within days, the COVID rates in the Czech Republic rose, the financing fell, and the event never came to pass. ATP players got a bit of good news later in the event when the FFT announced that the Bercy Paris indoor event would proceed as planned with 1,000 fans. Still, it’s a fluid—and airborne— situation. You have a ban on bars and limit public gatherings … are indoor sporting events safe?

• Midway through the tournament, the 2021 Australian Open announced that Roger Federer and Serena Williams both committed to playing the event. Players received a detailed email outlining the conditions of their 14-day quarantine. “We plan to set up Quarantine Hubs across a number of cities in Australia from early December, where you will be able to play, train, fully prepare and enjoy some recreational time in warm weather and blue skies.”

I’m curious how this affects the middle class. You have to think: The qualifiers and the Martina Tevisans and Daniel Altmaiers will go, thankful for the opportunity. The stars will go, happy to take their families to the Antipodes for the holidays and make an adventure out of it. If you are—and I’m reluctant to just pick a name here—a player ranked 30–70 with a family and without the means to fly your entire gang down, how do you feel about departing on Dec. 14?

• Larger issues as we look to 2021: Promoters are, quite reasonably, not inclined to pay full boat prize money when attendance is severely limited, if not entirely cut. (All of the remaining events on the ATP calendar have already cut prize money.) The question: How severe a cut are the players—the top ones in particular—willing to endure?

• There’s a great line (I wish I could find and credit the source) on the differences between the English and the French. “The English are more likely to go to bed with a hot-water bottle than a friend’s spouse.” And of course, there’s the George Bernard Shaw comment that the U.S. and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. It strikes me that the tennis majors also encapsulate some of the distinctions among countries. The Cassandras at Wimbledon who bought the insurance policy must have been looking on with dignified bemusement as the counterparts conducted these two-week fire drills.

• From Liam Brody to Emilio (son of Andres) Gomez to Sebastian (son of Petr and, it’s too seldom noted, Regina Rajchrtová) Korda, there were triumphant images of the qualies. And rightly so. Making the main draw of a major is a huge deal. (And—this year especially; this phylum of player especially—a huge financial deal.) But it also underscores the brutality of this sport. So many familiar names, from Vera Zvonareva to Hyung Cheon (trivia: the last player to beat Djokovic in Melbourne) didn’t make it in. Imagine a global sector—neurosurgery, medical malpractice law, risk arbitrage, whatever—in which the top practitioner can be a billionaire, the No. 20 practitioner can be a millionaire … and the No. 100 practitioner can barely pay their credit card bill.

• ­Lots of feedback about the Tennis Channel coverage. Two overarching points: 1) It’s a pandemic and these are challenging circumstances for making TV. That explains a lot of decisions, both in terms of elements—why weren’t there more on-court interviews?—and staffing. 2) For the record, NBC has some rights during the middle weekend of the event. So Tennis Channel, for instance, was unable to air Dominic Thiem’s match against Hugo Gaston, not because it was deemed unimportant, but because a different network had the rights.

•The media excellence award goes to the intrepid colleague who asked this of Kevin Krawietz:

Q. One of my German friends is a big, big fan of yours, and she follows your results all over the world. Whenever you win a match, she celebrates by eating a cheesecake. Sometimes without a plate. Can be quite messy, to be honest. How do you celebrate your victories? What's your favorite dessert?

KEVIN KRAWIETZ: Very nice question (smiling). Yeah, I eat some banana bread (smiling). Honestly, I'm eating not so much dessert here. Keeps a routine like from last year. But if she's eating every match a cheesecake, yeah, I mean, hopefully we win not so much for her, or yes (smiling). Yeah, she can keep going to eating cheesecake if we winning. That's a good sign for us, also.

Always fun geeking out on tennis with you guys. With any luck, we’ll do it again in Australia …. Stay safe and sane.