“Yeah, I got beaten pretty badly today by Ash Barty (well done, buddy), but here is why I love this sport—A THREAD.”
It’s not often that some of the best tennis commentary comes from a player who has just been eliminated from a tournament, but that’s what Andrea Petkovic gave us at Roland Garros, in a Twitter thread after her third-round defeat at the hands of Ashleigh Barty, the eventual champion.
“While waiting for my match,” the German tweeted, “I was fortunate enough to watch SO. MANY. THINGS happening around roughly the same time.”
Petkovic described a series of amazing athletic feats and emotionally wrenching scenes, all of which took place within a few minutes of each other.
“Jan-Lennard Struff serving and volleying ON CLAY saving break point after break point at 8-8 in the fifth set.”
“Madison Keys yelling COME ON at herself in a changeover over and over again after saving break points at 4-4 in the third in only the most Keysian way possible—HELLO FOREHAND DOWN THE LINE ON THE RUN FASTER THAN LIGHTNING.”
“A Polish teenager crying with joy as her opponent Monica Puig fell on her knees in desperation.”
“Two guys with one-handed backhands (you know who you are!) hit the ball so freaking hard that they had to stand back behind the baseline so far I couldn’t find them on the TV screen anymore.”
Petkovic was voicing what we many of us love most about Grand Slam tennis—the too-muchness of it all. These events are about more than just matches and scores and results; they’re about the sheer volume of emotion that’s packed into each day. Over the years, tennis players have loosened up and grown more willing to express that emotion—the tears of joy and defeat—a fact that has only made the sport more compelling. No matter the round, every match at a major feels like life and death these days.
Summing up her thread, Petkovic wrote, “What I wanna say is: this sport is crazy and I love it and I hate it. But most of all: It is ours, isn’t it! Happy tennising everybody!”
It is ours. Tennis is more than just a league, like the NBA or NFL or La Liga; to its fans, it’s a world. It’s a world that crosses borders and surfaces, and is more diverse and global than any other in sports. And if it isn’t the most popular sport, that only heightens its appeal, because it allows us to leave everything and everyone else behind for an hour or two each day. Tennis is a bubble, and we’re happy to live in it when we can.
Most of all, tennis is a world because—like the real world, and unlike the rest of the sports world—it includes men and women. The feats of athletic excellence and scenes of emotion: we get them from players of both genders and on both tours. Which is all the more reason to protest when, as happened at Roland Garros this year, the men play their semifinals in the biggest stadium, and the women play theirs in two smaller arenas.
Like many Grand Slams before it, this year’s Roland Garros consisted of administrative bungling redeemed by athletic mastery. With Petkovic’s example in mind, here’s a look back at 10 of those redemptive moments.
Benoit Paire’s ecstasy and agony. Twice the 30-year-old Frenchman put us on his personal five-set roller-coaster—once in a win over Pierre-Hugues Herbert, the other in a loss to Kei Nishikori. Both times, Paire was a must-watch for his urbane outward style—as someone said, he looks like he should be playing in a cravat—and the harrowing inward battle he’s constantly engaging with his nerves.
Sofia Kenin’s swagger. This 20-year-old blur of blond from Florida inspired jeers from the audience, and “death stares,” as she called them, from her opponent, Serena Williams. But she kept swinging out, and by the end, the crowd understood what she had been trying to tell them all along: “Sofia Kenin is in the house.”
Stan Wawrinka and Stefanos Tsitsipas’ war of the white and the red. White was the color of the zinc oxide that Wawrinka had slathered all over his face on that boiling hot day; red was the color of the clay on Tsitsipas’ back from all the rolls and dives he took on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Over five hours, Tsitsipas won 195 points to Wawrinka’s 194; Stan hit 62 winners to Stef’s 61. Together, they may have given us the match of the year.
Amanda Anisimova’s scorching racquet. Kenin, Iga Swiatek, Marketa Vondrousova: This was a good fortnight for teen moxie. The youngest of the WTA’s youth brigade was Anisimova, a 17-year-old who idolizes Maria Sharapova, and seems to share her surprising love of clay, too. My favorite moment from her semifinal run came when she hit a backhand winner past defending champion Simona Halep on match point. Anisimova tossed her racquet away so quickly, it was as if she had just burned her hands on it. Maybe she had.
Jo Konta’s one-hitter. Make a run to the Rome final out of nowhere and we can call it random. Follow it up with a run to the French Open semis and we can call it brilliant. Konta chalked up her newfound love of clay to the freedom her coach had given her to play the way she wanted to play. Watching her mix service speeds, spins, and locations, and drop just one point on serve to Sloane Stephens in the second set of their quarterfinal, was like watching a baseball pitcher throw a no-hitter—or a one-hitter, anyway. It was a pleasure watching Jo think.
Marketa Vondrousova’s measurings. Many players have one gear; they hit hard, and if that doesn’t work, they hit harder. The Czech is just 19, but she has a naturally nuanced way around the court. She can slug one ground stroke with plenty of weight, and then come under the next with the most delicate finesse. Can a player win a major title by using the drop shot as her primary weapon? Vondrousova almost did it this week, and she may show us how very soon.
Rafa and Roger take on a tornado. After Nadal’s semifinal victory over Federer, the Spaniard was proud of the “high level” that the two legends had reached in the hurricane-like conditions that surrounded them in Chatrier. He was right—any other pair of players would have looked foolish staggering around in that wind, but Roger and Rafa made the ball dance and bend into the corners of the court. It was hardly the best of their 39 meetings, but it may have been the most resourceful.
Dominic Thiem’s heaven and hell. “I’ve come from heaven to hell,” Thiem said after losing the final on Sunday. Indeed, 24 hours earlier, he had reveled in the biggest win of his career, over Novak Djokovic; now he had lost the last two sets 6-1, 6-1 to Nadal. But whether the Austrian is winning or losing, what he exudes most is humility, normality, decency, fairness, an egoless striving. I’ll remember the joy on his face when, after choking his first two match points against Djokovic in the semis, he finally broke through with a forehand winner—the open court was waiting, and this time he didn’t miss it. But I’ll also remember the thumbs-up Thiem gave Nadal after a particularly stunning drop volley by the Spaniard. The compliment was deserved, but not everyone would have had the good manners, in the middle of a Grand Slam final, to give it out.
Ash Barty’s smooth operation. It starts with the service motion—an easy backward rocking that leads to a wicked snap of her right arm. As with everything else about Barty’s game, she does it just the way we’re taught to do it, and she makes it a look a whole lot easier than it is. There’s something soothing about watching Barty drive one backhand and slice the next, roll one forehand and flatten out the next, rally from the baseline on one point and deftly take over the net on the next. In American football, when a quarterback is called a “game manager,” it’s an insult. To call Barty a “court manager” is a compliment of the highest degree. By winning on clay, the 23-year-old has already shown she can manage her way around any type of court.
Rafael Nadal’s dirty dozen. Nadal’s 12th title at Roland Garros was as convincing as any other. He served as well as he ever had, and volleyed even better. But it’s his competitive instincts that still set him apart. Against Thiem, he had a sixth sense for what to do at any given moment. When Thiem pushed him around the baseline at the start, Nadal responded by coming forward. When Thiem won the second set, Nadal responded by raising his game, with a flurry of winners, to a place where Thiem couldn’t follow. And on Thiem’s final two break points early in the fourth set—essentially his last stand—Rafa saved them by serving wide on the first one, and then, just when Thiem was expecting him to do it again, switching it up and going down the T on the second one.
There are a lot of things we can learn from Rafa—how to enjoy the struggle, how to avoid beating yourself, how to use the bad times to inspire the good. But there are some things you can’t teach. How to win 12 titles at Roland Garros is one of them.