Mailbag: What We Learned From the 2020 French Open

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Hey, everyone….some French Open wrap-up Q/A.

Small point but in the GOAT debate, why do you (and many others) always say Djokovic has an age advantage over Nadal? There's less than a year between them! Federer and Nadal are not contemporaries, Djokovic and Nadal are. Commentators have also been saying forever that Nadal's style of play will wear him out early, yet he is still winning slams. Do you really think Djokovic will be playing years longer?
Claire, Ottawa

• If these guys are averaging 1.5 majors per year, it’s an advantage to be a year younger. It’s not just the additional “draws,” the opportunities to win majors but the opportunity—in theory anyway—to do so without the other guys around. That’s all.

Larger point: Let’s zig where everyone is zagging. The praise for Nadal over these past days has been profuse and deserved. To bring that level of play to a match with these historic echoes? That’s champion stuff. Distilled to its essence. He’s beyond the point of pep talk, but I suspect he gave himself the “Lose Yourself” speech. (“If you had One shot / Or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted / In one moment / Would you capture it / Or just let it slip?”) If he wins, he ties Federer’s record and defends his turf. If he loses, the other guys really nips his heels. He surrenders Paris. And he starts 2021 as the defending champ at zero majors. So, well played, Rafa.

But let’s take a moment to praise the guy on the other side of the net Sunday. First, Djokovic—entering the favorite and top seed and undefeated—gets defaulted from major X. He then wins and an event and gets to the finals of major X + 1. Not a lot of players would have the will and skill and powers of compartmentalization to do that. In Paris, he played his best and won. He played far from his best and still won. There is such complexity with the simplicity and economy of his game.

In the final, he was beaten flatly. (Ironically the last time we saw a major beatdown like this? The 2019 Australian Open final, when…he beat Nadal.) Djokovic didn’t have a tantrum or leave the court for a bogus injury. He didn’t blame fatigue or the five-setter less than 48 hours before. For a guy who doesn’t lose much, he is extraordinarily graceful when he does. His remarks after the final should be handed out to all new players as an example for revealing yourself in defeat.

It’s a been eventful year for Djokovic. He took some heat—not undeservedly—for some lacking execution during the pandemic. But let’s make the local traffic reporter and look down macroscopically. He went through mid-October without losing on a match point. He won a major. He reached the final of another. He won more matches and more Masters 1000 than anyone. He finished another year at No. 1. And next he heads to Australia as the seven-time champ. This race is a privileged to observe. And he deserves 17/57 of the credit. Which is damn near one-third.

Now will the mainstream U.S. media and sponsors give Kenin the attention she clearly deserves? She is the best female American player on tour right now.
@roberttwoomey00

• A few of you asked similar versions. Some tied this to Coco Gauff and questions about why she receives more publicity than a player who has reached two major finals in 2020. (One possible answer there: sports fans—and sponsors, especially—like Next, Big Things. Coco is 16. Kenin is old enough to drink.)

The larger point is well-taken. I get the complaints. I wish the coaching would stop as well. Still, it’s odd that the tennis tastemakers are relatively slow to connect with an American who is short on stature and long on combativeness. She may not be the smiling-est figure—as someone once said about Reagan—when she plays. But her anger seems directed at herself and her failing to live up to her own expectations. And I would add this: In my experience, Kenin has been great to deal with. She is accessible. She is honest. She seems happy to engage with the public.

Please explain WITW is up with Kenin's dad. Very disturbing, especially in Ferro match, in COVID-era trying to intimidate/change outcome of match. Also repeatedly warned for illegal coaching. What is going on with this dude?
@bubblebeered

• Some journalists have, intrepidly, tried to ask a version of your question. Here was her answer the other day: “I've worked with him my whole career. He knows me better than any other coaches. It's worked really well. I know there's a few people on tour that has the father/coach. We've made it work. I'm not going to change that.” As for the violations, they have clearly decided that the fines—and reputational wounds— that come with getting caught are worth whatever benefit they confer. That’s too bad.

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In honor of Iga Swiatek making the final of the French Open, I pose a question. Who is the last player, male or female, to make it to the final of a singles Grand Slam using a Prince Racquet?
J. Kohn

• We had fun with this on Twitter. I guessed David Ferrer on the men’s side and Maria Sharapova in the 2000-aughts. I forgot Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon in 2013!

Fernando is not a psychologist, but one wonders: Are Djokovic’s demonstrative show of injuries during matches calculated to purposely deceive his opponent or rather an internal psychological mechanism that Djokovic uses to relieve the pressure to win?
Fernando

• Sure, I’ll buy that. Not only would he not be the first; it would be completely in keeping with human behavior. You come into a match besotted with stress. There is pressure to win, pressure to perform, in this case, pressure to redeem after a regrettable performance in your previous major. If we are referring to Djokovic’s quarterfinal match, it is the same opponent. And now you wake up with a sore neck. (Says Martina Navratilova: “Bring your own pillow wherever you go.”)

If there’s a “demonstrative show of injuries” to alleviate some of this stress, so what? It is not as though the injury was imagined. The serving percentages in the first set of that match indicated Djokovic was clearly injured. He did not require a medical timeout. In time, his neck loosened up and so did Djokovic.

Athletes tell themselves stories all the time to relieve stress and tamp down expectation. (Nadal’s claims that the balls were sub-optimal or “it is too cold” is another version of this.) We do the same thing. (“My voice is hoarse, so I apologize to the audience in advance.”) It’s completely rational.

This isn’t a question but more an observation. Dave in NYC commented about Zverev playing his match without notifying French Open officials. In your response you did mention he posted his negative test results. Yes, Zverev’s test came back negative but some COVID tests do give false negative results. Or they are negative and the next day positive! I would be interested in the results of his testing at 5 days, 10 days etc. But I wonder if any follow up tests were done.
Kathy, Rhode Island

• This was just a bad look all around. I must have had a dozen of you complain that I was not sufficiently hard on him and I don’t disagree. This is one of the problems with having a sport filled with independent contractors. As it was told to me, Zverev was under no obligation to get tested after he left the tournament. Players often need proof of negative status to enter events; but unlike doping, players are not subject to random or compulsory COVID tests in their off-time.

To paraphrase Paul Simon, “Where have you gone David Ferrer, tennis fans turn their lonely eyes to you.” Good news, he’s now Diego Schwartzman! Watching him come back to beat Thiem in five sets was a testament to grit, resilience and guile. Being Canadian, I love Shapo and FAA but, those guys should watch video of Schwartzman to realize you don’t need to hit a haymaker on every swing to beat top players. It’s impossible not to root for an undersized player with an oversized heart who’s also gracious, articulate and has a great backstory. Who else do you see on either tour that currently carries the Ferrer-ethos?
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• I’m glad you brought that up. Schwartzman is listed at 5’7”. But seeing him alongside countrywoman Nadia Podoroska (also listed at 5’7”)….let’s just say that they weren’t eye-to-eye. In that five-setter against Thiem, Schwartzman played nearly 200 serving points and had…one ace. In the match against Rafa he had two. Even with his height and with a “point-starter” of a serve, he is a top 10 player, having beaten Nadal and Thiem in the last month. Respect.

In your Mailbag this week, during the discussion on rights, Jason Schwartzman was mentioned. Isn't he an actor? Was a different Schwartzman meant?!? Did anyone else notice? Thanks again for your columns, and the email notices!
Dave

• Inside joke. But good catch by you.

As usual, I always look forward to your comments before, during and after the Grand Slam tournaments. My question this week is about Simona Halep. Does she leave French Open 2020 with a feeling of great missed opportunity, due to the depleted field? Or does she look back and realize she may have become a piece of tennis history, the first high-profile victim of a future women's tennis star?
Marcos Nowosad

• Thanks. Funny, a week we ago, essentially, “What a brutal sport, tennis is. Here comes Halep, riding a career-high match win streak, an overwhelming favorite to win another title here, anointing herself at the 2020 MVP, rankings be damned. Suddenly, she wins no majors in 2020, doesn’t finish No. 1, and has 90 days before she can rid herself of the unpleasant savor of a 6-1, 6-2 defeat to a teenager.” A minor consolation, but losing to Iga Swiatek no longer seems like such an anomaly.

Well Jon, Alexander Zverev has done it again. He was irresponsible in playing his fourth-round match, knowing that he was sick. He is a very selfish person. I know that he tested negative for COVID-19. (He should be tested again.) Think of the people he could have exposed to COVID-19 if he had tested positive. I think there should be some consequences for his actions. If I were the commissioner of tennis, I would take all points and prize money that he earned at the French Open and suspend him for the rest of the year. Your turn Jon.
A.H. Queens, N.Y.

• It does seem strange that Djokovic was docked all of his prize money for a single indefensible heat-of-the-moment act at the U.S. Open—the equivalent of a $250,000 fine—and Zverev gets nothing for, by his own admission, coming to work with COVID symptoms, and risking corrupting the entire event. The loss of reputation and good will is a bigger price than a financial penalty. But this was bad. And you wonder if he realizes how lucky he is that this wasn’t worse.

Best-of-three vs. best-of-five continues to be increasingly debated on social media (and sadly, often with contempt). I personally favor a scoring system where both the men and women play best-of-five, with sets shortened to where five games wins a set (and a tiebreak at 4-4). This would still allow for the twists and turns of best-of-five, while speeding up matches to clock in close to the current best-of-three format. And it would enable the women to partake in the same amount of drama as the men.

That being said, I would support any system where the men and women play for the same length. And that's the part of this issue I'm surprised doesn't get highlighted more often. For a sport that prides itself on being a leader in gender equality, the differing scoring systems at majors between the men and women continue to reinforce sexism. The men obviously get more TV time with their matches being longer. And we continue to see men's matches receive scheduling preference over the women's, with the best-of-five format often cited as the reason why. This furthers the idea that women are inferior to men, in that women aren't capable of playing as long. And it assumes fans want to watch more men's tennis than women's, defining the women's sport down. Shouldn't the sexism at play here, whether intended or unintended, be a bigger topic?
Matt Marolf, Long Island City, N.Y.

• For some reason, this topic tends to arouse a singular level of viciousness. The point about gender is legitimate. And Courtney Nguyen raises a corollary: best-of-five often deprives women’s matches from “classic” status. If the benchmark for a historic tennis match is a five-hour, five-set back-and-forth, the women are disqualified.

I’ll put forth my compromise again. Best-of-three in Week One. Best-of-five in Week Two. Tradition should not be ignored. The majors need something to distinguish their heft—and prize money—from conventional events. Stamina and conditioning should matter. (And maybe women sign on to this format, as well.) Best of five for an entire tournament is, to me, the equivalent of 25-round fights in boxing. First, they compromise health, this at a time when the sport is physical to an unprecedented level. Second, they clog the tournament schedule. Third, they are superfluous. I love tennis; and I struggle to sit and watch a five-set first-round match. Asking a casual fan to do the same seems crazy. There are high-stakes best-of-three matches in other tournaments. How often do we walk away saying, “Great match: I wish it were best-of-five.”

I got hammered for this, but I also think we need to consider TV—which, as the U.S. Open rendered clear, pays a lot of bills in this sport. (And more if the ATP plan is adopted.) Television tastemakers struggle. It’s hard to plan when matches can run 80 minutes or 330 minutes. More uncertainty: it can constipate the schedule.

A five-set semifinal or final? Great. A five-set first-rounder can be deadly. At a time when ratings are tanking—for whatever reason—wouldn’t tennis want to consider format tinkering that might be more friendly to folks paying the bills? (The same way the USTA makes players do those excruciating pre-match interviews as a value-add for ESPN.)

Where does Coco Gauff go from here?
Charlie, Florida

• To Linz, to defend her title. Otherwise back home to work with a serving specialist to make sure her double-faults don’t harden into a real problem. Someone asked me about her serve the other day.

I contend that this was, in a weird way, an ideal tournament for a 16-year-old. In horrible conditions, she beat a veteran top 10 seed (Jo Konta), showing real poise and maturity. She then lost a match she probably should not have, double-faulting 19 times in her defeat against Martina Trevisan. So she scores Top-10 wins and gets further confirmation that she belongs; and gets further confirmation that there remains work to be done. Which imbues her with both confidence and motivation.

What do you think of Eugenie Bouchard’s ongoing comeback? It seemed to hit a snag when she lost to an unseeded teenager in the third round at Roland Garros. But then that same teenager easily beat Simona Halep in straight sets in the next round and suddenly Bouchard’s loss to Iga Swiatek didn’t look so bad. Do you think Bouchard could be a top 20 player again?
Earl in Houston

• We’re still a ways removed from the top 20. But, yes, some good signs from Bouchard lately. And, yes, that straight defeat against Swiatek now qualifies as a “good loss.” Now, she needs to listen to everything Rennae Stubbs tells her.

Jon, can you do a daily podcast during the Slams? Please.
@bericjohnson

• It’s up to Jamie Lisanti, our producing sorceress. I have the easy job. I just have to talk tennis.

Shots, Miscellany

• Take us out, Anthony Gresko:

Below is a poem I wrote about this years' Roland Garros. I'm definitely not an English major, nor do I claim to have any semblance of poetic prose, but I feel it accurately (albeit abruptly) summarizes the tournament.

“Roland Garros 2020"

At Roland Garros, Jean-Baptiste would proclaim
“The more the world changes, the more it stays the same.”
While Twenty-twenty has been tougher to endure
The red clay was indeed, an emotional cure

We now know that a Virologists’s service
Is duty which would make all quite nervous
All the health care workers deserve our praise
As this pandemic swung in like a blaze

Now for the sport, on the famed Terre Battue
At this years’ French tournament, many things were new
"The Ball!" Some players cried, "so heavy this new ball!"
Despite this change the play was fair for one and all

Progressing with the times, with artificial lights
Kept the matches going often far into the nights
As we've grown accustomed to Spring-times' sunny fill,
We were forced to trade warmth for weeks of Autumn chill

The roof on Chatrier was a grand first time showing,
As it kept the contests dry, and the play on-going
With the lack of fans, the matches were restrained
Despite this loss, all the public was entertained

On the womens’ side, there was a missing core,
It was mom Serena and her chase for twenty four
Halep was the favorite, with the win on Rome’s clay court
But ran into Swiatek, and there she fell too short

Once again the women’s draw, unpredictable therein
An unseeded player that would triumph from within
Iga was unknown, a stranger she appeared
She suddenly becomes, a player to be feared

On to the men’s side, the pecking order kept
Most of the top seeds, through the draw they swept
Schwartzman and Thiem, what fun they were to cheer
As they both produced the best match of the year

At this years’ event, Jean-Baptiste would proclaim,
“The more the world changes, the more it stays the same."
For what the future brings, whatever changes ring
Nadal will always reign, The Eternal Clay Court King