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Hi Steve,

Here comes the next edition of Roland-Garros, sooner than ever after its fall ’20 version. It’s been great to see the entire clay court season roll out—darn amazing to see players traveling, staying safe and competing.

Every Slam has its own flavor. Roger Federer dubbed the Australian Open the Happy Slam, an attribute likely aided by players having had some time off prior to the year’s first major. At no Slam do players arrive at more fresh than the Aussie Open.

Consider Roland Garros the Homework Slam. It’s the one where if you want to do well, and you can’t afford to cut a corner in your preparation. Everything from fitness to match play to recovery needs to be in tip-top shape. Such are the physical, mental and emotional demands of clay-court tennis.

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Based on recent form, last year’s champions, Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek have hit the books and appear ready for spirited title defenses. While student supreme Nadal was not quite as dominant in the clay-court season as he once was, he logged 16 clay court matches (14-2) and earned two titles, winning Barcelona and Rome.

Nadal’s Rome run featured victories over a wide range of contenders and playing styles: Jannik Sinner, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev, Reilly Opelka and Novak Djokovic—the latter in a terrific three-set final. Swiatek also won Rome, capping off the week with a 6-0, 6-0 demolition of one-time world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the final. It was also interesting that Nadal and Swiatek each won Rome after facing match points in the third round—Nadal against Shapovalov, Swiatek versus Barbora Krejcikova.

The fans are vocal. They choose favorites and villains immediately—Federer being the former, Nadal the latter, and Djokovic somewhere in between.—Steve Tignor

Beyond these two favorites, the player I’ve been most impressed by this spring is Coco Gauff. Still just 17 years old, Gauff’s clay-court record this year is 12-3. She’s been particularly impressive the last two weeks, reaching the semis in Rome and winning the title in Parma. Over the course of those matches, Gauff’s revealed a lot of homework–crisp serves, an improved forehand, and a keen appetite for figuring out how to end points on the clay.

And she’s also earned wins over a broad spectrum of accomplished players—from veterans like Kaia Kanepi and Camila Giorgi, to the rising Maria Sakkari, crafty Yulia Putintseva and powerful Aryna Sabalenka. Gauff has also continued to play plenty of doubles, including a title run in Rome alongside her longstanding partner, Caty McNally. Gauff’s combination of extensive match play and skill-building leaves me intrigued to see how she competes at Roland Garros.

Steve, what players interest you as Roland Garros nears?

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Sakkari has had a great start to 2021. (Getty Images)

Sakkari has had a great start to 2021. (Getty Images)

Hi Joel,

Will you miss Paris in spring? Once upon a time, we both regularly made the trip there to cover Roland Garros. Of the four majors, I’d say it’s the one that’s the most difficult to fully appreciate through a TV set. Along with missing the atmosphere of the city and the grounds, you also miss the experience of watching professional clay-court tennis from up close.

You can’t understand how hard the players are working, and what a war every point is, until you see it and hear it live. I don’t mind avoiding an international flight right now, but I’m looking forward to seeing the new Roland Garros, finally lit up at night, sometime in the near future. It has to be on every tennis fan’s bucket list.

Let me give you two players on each tour who interest me the most as we get set for the draw ceremonies this week.

Djokovic is playing on home in Belgrade this week. (Getty Images)

Djokovic is playing on home in Belgrade this week. (Getty Images)

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Men

Novak Djokovic: I’ll be curious to see what type of attitude Djokovic takes into the tournament. More specifically, what type of attitude he takes into a potential semifinal or final against Nadal. Right now their rivalry seems completely surface-based; Nadal has trouble believing he can beat Djokovic on hard-courts, while Djokovic struggles to believe he can beat Rafa on clay. If they meet in Paris, will Djokovic be able to shake off his skepticism and play with the same type of confidence he brings to their hard-court tilts? That, as much as anything else, could determine the outcome, and which of them adds another Slam to his already-bursting resumé.

Stefanos Tsitsipas: He’s had an amazing and drama-filled spring, but does it qualify as a breakthrough spring, one that might change his expectations for himself going into Roland Garros? Yes, he won his first Masters 1000 title, in Monte Carlo, reached the Barcelona final, and played two of the best matches of 2021 so far, against Nadal and Djokovic. But he also lost both of those matches. So where does that leave Tsitsipas, mentally, as RG begins? Is he a guy who is still waiting for the Big 2 to leave the scene? Or is he someone who believes he can beat them now?

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Sabalenka won Madrid earlier this month. (Getty Images)

Sabalenka won Madrid earlier this month. (Getty Images)

Women

Aryna Sabalenka: There are echoes of Tsitsipas’s situation in Sabalenka’s right now. Like him, she has had a big clay-court season, beating Ash Barty for the Madrid title and losing to her in the Stuttgart final. Sabalenka appears to finally be on the verge of fulfilling all the potential we’ve seen in her for three or four years now, and joining Naomi Osaka as a new face of women’s tennis. But while Osaka has won four major titles, Sabalenka has yet to make it past the quarterfinals at any of them. Is this the tournament where that changes?

Coco Gauff: As you say, Joel, no one has been as diligent with her homework as Coco in 2021. She has miraculously cleaned up the double faults that I thought might become a career-threatening problem for her, and she has learned how to use her forehand to set up her more-lethal backhand. At 17, the fairytale part of her career is over, and the hard work of becoming a champion has begun. Sometimes you see a player have a great run in the tournaments leading up to a Slam, and then bomb out at the Slam itself. Hopefully that’s not the case with Coco in Paris—she has won there in the past, after all, in the girls’ event three years ago.

Joel, we’re covered the important players at Roland Garros. What lesser-known facets of the tournament do you find engaging, and do you agree with me that there’s nothing quite like the live version?

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Steve,

No tournament more than Roland Garros engages the senses in so many ways. The connection between the clay and the climate is like nothing in all of tennis. Start with the color and texture of the clay—an exotic, gritty orange, light years removed in look and feel from the hard courts I’ve spent my life playing on. So instantly at Roland Garros, there’s a visceral awareness of the earth and each player’s connection not just to the ball and the opponent, but to the literal ground and the recognition that it too will play a role in how the points play out. In other words: Take nothing for granted.

Along with that, at Roland Garros, you can see the way the weather affects the tennis itself. One year I sat inside the old Bullring court to watch a women’s match on an overcast morning. Soon it began to rain. But only on clay can the tennis continue. So there we were, circled and huddled in our slickers and umbrellas, watching the players navigate the increasingly wet court and the random raindrops. Thirty minutes later, the sun came out and the prior mud was baked out. One player now put on sunglasses. The other one changed racquets. Later that afternoon, inside the warmth of Court Philippe Chatrier, I watched Nadal massively torment his opponent with one high-bouncing topspin drive after another. One suspects that at Roland Garros the players string their racquets at a wide range of tensions and even weights to accommodate these constantly shifting conditions.

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The tournament’s spirit of the senses even carries into the dining experience. The first year I went to Roland Garros, the late Leo Levin, long tennis’ statistical guru, told me it was mandatory at least once a tournament to eat a French hot dog, smeared with Dijon mustard, on a baguette. Leo noted that the crisp snap of the sausage, along with the sharp tang of the Dijon and the crusty bread, would truly make one feel welcome and smack in the thick of what this event was all about—the Paris version of what strawberries and cream are to Wimbledon.

And as was usually the case, Leo was right. Something about that taste combination helped me channel the arduous rallies won over the years by the likes of Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Mats Wilander, Gustavo Kuerten, Monica Seles, Justine Henin and, of course, Nadal. Crunch.

Steve, what are some aspects of Roland Garros you enjoy?

Joel,

For a traveler from the U.S., Roland Garros is the most foreign and exotic of the four majors. The language, the surface, the food, the style, the fans, even the way the ball kids go about their jobs: Everything is different from what we know back home, and a jolt to our senses and sensibilities.

During my first trip to RG, in 1998, I felt like I had landed in a Star Trek-style alternative sports universe. The World Cup was being played in Europe that summer, and during a Cedric Pioline match in Chatrier, Brazil’s Ronaldo showed up in the FFT box with Anna Kournikova. When most of the fans in the stadium stood, right in the middle of a game, to pay their respects, I was stunned. As a red-blooded U.S. kid, I had only a vague idea of who Ronaldo was, and no idea at all why French people would give him a standing ovation.

At the same event, two European men approached me to ask if I had a light for their cigarettes. When I shook my head no, one of them asked the other, “Why would you ask an American person that?” I was surprised they could tell, just from looking, that I was an “American person,” but I probably shouldn’t have been. I never feel quite as American, for better or worse, as I do at the French Open.

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Over the years, I’ve come think of the audience at Roland Garros as the most under-appreciated aspect of the event. The fans there have a reputation, not undeserved, for being fickle and vicious, even to their countrymen. Only in Paris have I ever felt that a match could tip over and turn into a full-fledged riot. But the upside to that passion is that tennis feels more important, more monumental, in Paris, than it does anywhere else.

The fans are vocal. They choose favorites and villains immediately—Federer being the former, Nadal the latter, and Djokovic somewhere in between. They’re united in their cheers and jeers. And they love nothing more than to inject themselves into a match and influence it. None of this is typical behavior for tennis fans in other countries, but it’s what gives Roland Garros its flavor, its drama, its edge.

The fans were conspicuous in their absence last fall. Will we get to see and hear more from them in 2021? It won’t feel quite like Roland Garros again until they’re back in full.