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The Rally: Thoughts on muted Roland Garros as we approach business end
Even in 2020, the clay-court major has a way of bringing out the swagger, and bringing out the best in young players.
October 07, 2020
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In this week’s edition of The Rally, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor talk about a more down-to-earth Roland Garros; the hard-won pleasures of the five-set epic; and how Paris brings out the swagger in the game’s young stars.
From famine to feast. Just over a month ago, pro tennis was coming back after a five-month, pandemic-driven sabbatical. Unquestionably, life continues to remain complicated and troubling, tennis no exception. But amazingly, in just a few days, a second major will be completed. Surely, a strong sense of perspective and gratitude has helped make Roland Garros 2020 uniquely compelling.
Never was the power of it all more striking than a couple of days ago. Once upon a time, the US Open had Super Saturday. Roland Garros this week had Total Tuesday—five matches that began at 11:00 a.m. and finished well past 1:00 a.m. The telling factor wasn’t that these matches all sparkled with dazzling tennis. No, the telling factor was simply that all of it happened, and we were able to savor what makes sports so uniquely compelling: unscripted drama.
It’s been amazing to see so many unfamiliar players. To think that only three women’s seeds reached the quarters. One semifinal match will feature 19-year-old Iga Swiatek and a qualifier, Nadia Podoroska—the first qualifier to get that far at a major in 21 years. Lots of variables here.
But the big constant has been Rafael Nadal. It’s funny how, as Roland Garros got underway, there was so much conjecture about things like Nadal’s choice to skip the US Open, the weather, the balls, his lack of a tune-up title.
Meanwhile, the results speak: Nadal has won all 15 sets he’s played. In true Nadal fashion, as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, he squeezed the promising young Italian, Jannik Sinner, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1. And yet there is nothing boring about watching Nadal in action, nothing banal about such a high level of willpower. Nadal’s entire career has been based on taking nothing for granted. So if he so honors the game, best never to take him for granted. Having not seen Nadal in action since February, it’s wonderful to become reacquainted with all that makes him as great a competitor as tennis has ever seen.
How fitting that Nadal in the semis next plays Diego Schwartzman, the man who beat him in Rome just prior to Roland Garros. Like Nadal, Schwartzman is tenacious beyond belief, a pit bull in the David Ferrer mold, who in the quarters here two years ago took the first set from Nadal before joining the long list of Rafa Roland Garros victims, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
In this year’s quarterfinals, Schwartzman took just over five hours to beat Dominic Thiem in a rollercoaster of a five-setter that was surely one of the great matches of the tournament.
What did you make of that match, Steve, and what’s excited you about Roland Garros this year?
Roland Garros and the US Open have followed the same pattern this year. First, we worry about whether the tournament and its officials can pull off such an ambitious undertaking in the middle of a pandemic. Then, during the first week, there a few dicey moments, when you realize how easily it could all go wrong—at the US Open, it was Benoit Paire’s positive test; at the French Open, it was Alexander Zverev’s corona-like symptoms. Then the crisis seems to pass; there was no wider breakout in New York, and Zverev has apparently tested negative. Sports in the Covid era requires a lot of work, and some good luck, and tennis has had both so far. Knock on la terre battue.
This French Open has been unlike all others, obviously, and some aspects haven’t been ideal—rain, cold weather, slow conditions, few fans, the specter of the virus. But as a fan I’ve enjoyed the novelty of Roland Garros in the fall. There’s less pageantry, but also less pressure to make it a perfect event. No one seems to care what anyone wears—whatever keeps you warm, go for it. The players fetch their own towels and water bottles, which I like to see. And while the chilly air and new, heavier balls have slowed down play, I’ve liked that, too. It leads to more drop shots, more scrambling from baseline to net and back again, and more creativity.
We’ve also had a nice contrast in the draws. While Novak Djokovic and Nadal have marched forward on the men’s side, the women’s side turned into a free-for-all. Seeing the big names do what they’re supposed to do brings a sense of order, but upsets bring a sense of rebellious freedom, letting you know that hierarchies are there to be smashed, and no one is truly better than anyone else—it all depends on the day. While Nadal and Djokovic have maintained order, Swiatek and Podoroska, by making the semis, have given us that “can you believe this is happening?” sense of wonder that’s such a trademark of Grand Slams.
Let me ask you, Joel, about what you thought of the Thiem-Schwartzman five-hour five-setter. Was it amazing, epic, dull, too long, just right? I feel like those types of matches are all of those things at once. There are moments early in sets when you might drift off, or get some household chores done, and then there are moments that are utterly riveting.
On the one hand, not every Thiem-Schwartzman rally was essential or entertaining; i.e., the match could have been shorter. On the other hand, its length upped the stakes and gave it the feel of an epic struggle. There are a lot of calls to drop best-of-five these days, but I wouldn’t want to lose that brutal grandeur. When I’m in the stands for a five-setter, I rarely feel as if the match is too long. I think if you’re fan who buys a ticket for a day or two at a major—and not someone who watches the sport for a living, like us—you want to see as much tennis as you can, and you want to get that fifth-set feeling, when so much is on the line.
Anyway, that’s probably a topic for another day. What are you looking forward to in the semis, Joel? Despite the women’s carnage, we do have two Slam winners, Sofia Kenin and Petra Kvitova, still alive. And we may be nearing a very crucial collision between Nadal and Djokovic.
I greatly enjoyed the Thiem-Schwartzman epic. No question, not every best-of-five-match is worthwhile testimony for the five-set format. But there is something about a best-of-five match, particularly in the second week of a major, that serves as a fantastic demonstration of what tennis is all about. And certainly the battle waged by Thiem and Schwartzman revealed a great many of the format’s best qualities—from shifts in momentum to dramatic moments, wonderful rallies and the sight of two warriors proving how tennis rivals boxing as a form of one-on-one competition.
For all the historical implications of a Nadal-Djokovic Roland Garros final, watching them actually play one another for a 56th time is slightly less interesting to me than all the new and surprising plot lines and players around the women’s game.
As much as I enjoy watching Kenin play, she’d played so poorly prior to Roland Garros that in our pre-tournament picks, I figured she’d lose early. Oy, so much for predictions. With each passing match, Kenin has gotten better. She proved masterful in the quarters versus Danielle Collins, displaying a sharp mix of grit and guile. In many ways, Kenin reminds me of Martina Hingis in her keen ability to see the court and construct points in very interesting, diverse ways. How amazing indeed it would be were Kenin to earn a second major in the same year.
Kvitova, oddly enough, is a two-time Wimbledon champion who so often flies under the radar. Perhaps this is due to two factors—up-and-down play and an unpretentious, kind demeanor that never issues a controversial comment. Either way, Kvitova is back in the semis here for the first time in eight years. Given that nearly four years ago, her entire career hung in the balance, that’s an impressive achievement.
While Kenin-Kvitova is a battle of past Slam winners, the other semi pits players who’ve never come close to that kind of result. Podoroska looked so assured in beating Svitolina. I hope that continues, both here and beyond. And then there’s Swiatek. At 19, she’s got that precocious, relaxed gestalt I remember seeing when Pete Sampras won the 1990 US Open at the same age. As was the case for Sampras that year, Swiatek sees the ball, moves to it, and then calmly whacks it where the opponent isn’t. Who says tennis is a hard sport?
What plot lines at Roland Garros this year have surprised you, Steve?
Roland Garros brings the players’ personalities to the fore for me. Maybe it’s those slow-motion replays and close-ups that the TV producers there have always loved. Or maybe it’s the theatrical atmosphere of Chatrier, where the crowd follows the matches so intensely and vocally, to the point where the players can’t help performing for them in a way they don’t at the other Slams. That’s obviously not as true this year, but even with just a few hundred people in the stands, the French fans still make their presence felt.
I also feel like Roland Garros is a place where new faces and characters have appeared on the tennis stage. Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Michael Chang, Gustavo Kuerten, Justine Henin, Rafael Nadal, Jelena Ostapenko, Ash Barty: They all made breakthroughs there, and made thrilling runs to their first major title in Paris. If you’ve grown up on clay, the place must feel like home.
Will we see something similar again in 2020? As you said, Joel, two unseeded women, Swiatek and Podoroska, will play a surprise semifinal. Swiatek to me exemplifies the generational churn of pro tennis. For years, we watched and rooted for Aga (Radwanska); now, a couple of years after Aga’s retirement, we’re starting to watch and root for her Polish countrywoman, Iga.
The two have nothing in common as players, or, as far as I can tell, personalities, but that diversity is part of the beauty of being a tennis fan. Players enter our lives and become part of our extended families for a a decade or so, and as they disappear they’re replaced by new players. I loved Radwanska, and now I look forward to getting to know Swiatek and watch her evolve over the next decade. The same goes for Stefanos Tsitsipas on the men’s side. The young Greek has a star quality, and he seems to have found his Grand Slam swagger over the last week in Paris.
Even in 2020, Roland Garros has a way of bringing out that swagger, and bringing out the best in young players.