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The Rally: On Sunday’s exits by Roger Federer and Serena Williams, and more from week one of the French Open
There are major opportunities ahead in the women’s draw; on the men's side, a Next Gen is starting to create must-see matches of its own.
Published Jun 07, 2021
This is remarkable, but as the second week of Roland Garros gets underway, the news is similar to what happened at the start of the first week: A big name has withdrawn.
Roger Federer has stated all along that he had no chance to win Roland Garros this year. He even said overtly that this event was intended as a tune-up to get ready for the grass court season and Wimbledon, which, as we all know, remains Federer’s best shot to win another major.
Today, in a move anticipated but hardly desired by anyone—save Federer and his team—he announced his withdrawal from Roland Garros. Just before 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning, in Federer’s press conference following his third round win over Dominik Koepfer, he hinted at such a possibility.
“We go through these matches, you know, we analyze them highly and look on what’s next and will do the same tonight and tomorrow latest, because I need to decide if I keep on playing or not or is it not too much risk at this moment to keep on pushing or is this just a perfect way to just take a rest,” Federer said. “Because I don’t have the week in between here and Halle, like normal, to see what’s best now if you count back from Wimbledon and so forth.”
It was fascinating to watch Federer labor through Saturday night’s match. I wonder if he was surprised or even anguished to find himself on a path to reaching the second week of Roland Garros. There he was, against a tough opponent—but one not quite able to take advantage of the opportunities he’d created—in thick conditions, grinding past midnight. Knowing how big picture a thinker Federer is, was he able mid-match to see the whole picture, from going to sleep at 4:00 A.M., to feeling lethargic on Sunday and then having to play again on Monday? Was Federer’s knee hurting? His back? Or was it the anticipation of a future compromised state that haunted him?
I view Federer’s decision from multiple angles. One part of me sees his choice with compassion and a strong desire to give him the benefit of the doubt. How can any of us know how Federer’s body feels? Another part is perturbed that he’d be so pragmatic and disappoint millions of fans. I also feel for Koepfer. If indeed Federer was pondering a withdrawal, if even last night he was beginning to feel physically compromised and aware that he’d be unable to play on Monday, what if he’d retired once reaching match point?
Steve, what do you make of Federer’s withdrawal?
Interesting that you describe your reaction to Federer’s decision as coming from “multiple angles.” The phrase that keeps coming to mind for me is: “more than one thing can be true.” In other words, I agree that Federer’s withdrawal and the circumstances surrounding it conjure up mixed emotions.
On the one hand, I’m happy to have had a chance to see him play that midnight match against Koepfer. I thought it was a signature late-career performance from an aging champion, one that was actually enhanced, in my mind, by the silence in Chatrier. Because you could hear every single thing that happened in the arena, and because there was a weird sense of the whole sports world peering in from the outside, the tension was off the charts. To see Koepfer play such aggressive tennis, and Federer find a way to defy him, made it one of the best matches of the year for me. None of that would have happened if Federer had simply skipped Roland Garros. If this turns out to be his last match in Paris, it was a fittingly resilient one.
On the other hand, now the tournament and fans are left with one less fourth-round contest, and the players Federer beat, especially Koepfer, must wonder why he came to Paris at all if he was willing to throw in the towel halfway through. But with the first Wimbledon tune-up, in Halle, starting right after Roland Garros, and Federer likely unable to see himself beating Djokovic in the quarterfinals and then Nadal in the semis at RG, it’s a logical, if unfortunate, decision.
As an aside, while I enjoyed the Koepfer-Federer night session, deliberately playing matches at a time when no one can attend them was a strange idea from the start.
What other stories and themes have stood out to you at Roland Garros so far? Obviously Federer wasn’t the only legendary player to make an exit on Sunday.
Wow. First Roger, then Serena. Two legends, gone on the same day, both now pointing towards Wimbledon, the Slam where each surely feels more hopeful than either ever has about Roland Garros. I covered Serena’s match, so wrote a more in-depth story about it.
When it comes to other themes emerging from Paris, consider this year’s Roland Garros a time of tennis in fragile transition. It’s terrific to see the matches happening and at least some fans being able to attend the day sessions. But surely, the emotional trauma of the pandemic continues to echo in ways that will be studied for centuries.
Start with Naomi Osaka. Perhaps, in the same way that Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova revolutionized sports in the 20th century, Osaka has such potential in the 21st. From the social activism she displayed during last year’s US Open, to her recent statements about mental health, there’s a lot to explore. Mental health, fame and wealth and the role of media are the most visible subjects Osaka has shined the light on.
My belief is that the deeper root is the highly singular nature of tennis and how that makes it challenging for tennis players—from a very early age, regardless of skill level—to create connection and community. No wonder so many players feel isolated at various stages of their life (including after their pro careers end). It means a lot that Osaka had the courage to tell the world about her social anxiety and depression. As a close friend told me after my wife died, “We build community when we share our wounds.” I hope Osaka gets help and I’m keen to engage in broader discussions about the topics she’s raised.
Another mega-theme of Roland Garros this year is the matter of bubble fatigue. Face it: Everyone remains on edge. Just the very nature of travel has become incredibly stressful. Life in the bubble is hardly natural either. Amid such a raw and uncertain environment, injuries are more likely, as seen in the cases of Federer, Simona Halep, Jennifer Brady and Ashleigh Barty. Easygoing as Barty is, surely it’s not easy for her to know she won’t be returning home until after the US Open.
Then there’s the tennis itself. On the women’s side, I’ve been highly impressed by Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens. Gauff’s court management skills are terrific and she’s made fine improvements on her forehand. When Stephens is playing well, she makes me think of Martina Hingis, but with a better serve and bigger forehand. Among the men, it’s intriguing to see that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal next each play Italians, Djokovic versus Lorenzo Musetti, Nadal taking on Jannik Sinner. Of those two, the one I most like watching is Musetti—still raw, slashing, coming into his game.
What else are you enjoying about RG this year, Steve?
By this stage of the tournament, with Barty, Osaka, and Sabalenka all out, it was starting to look as if Serena really had a chance at the title, which isn’t something many of us anticipated a week ago. But the 6’0” Elena Rybakina put on a very solid display of shotmaking from beginning to end, and while she wobbled a few times down the stretch, she straightened right back up. It makes a certain kind of sad sense that Serena would leave Paris on the same day as her fellow 39-year-old Federer. Both have had Wimbledon in their sights, as the place where they have the best chance of winning another major, for two full years now. Roland Garros was never the main event for them.
We hear a lot about how deep the women’s game is today, but it’s hard to deny when you watch someone with Rybakina, who is currently ranked 22nd, play with such poise and power in Chatrier today. This has turned into an old-fashioned, wide-open, upset-filled French Open on the women’s side, and because of that I’ve had a chance to appreciate players like Tamara Zidansek, who has survived a couple of close matches with calm confidence; Paula Badosa, whose Sharapova-esque looks gives her a star quality, and who has fought with a Sharapova-esque persistence to make the quarters; and Barbora Krejcikova, a doubles specialist who is making inroads in singles, and who is a streaky shot-maker extraordinaire.
Either Zidansek, Badosa, Rybakina, or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will reach the final from the bottom half. When that happens, the general sports media will tell us how bad it is for tennis, how low the TV ratings will be, how the sport needs stars like Osaka, not unknowns like Zidansek. But I’ll be happy to see how these players handle this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and their reactions to their successes. That, as much as seeing the big names win over and over again, is what sports is all about to me.
On the men’s side, I’ll just note that while the Next Genners have yet to dominate at the majors, they’re beginning to create must-see match-ups of their own. Tuesday’s quarterfinal between Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be a clash of two young players in top form who are trying to break through and reach their first French final, and who have a history of bad blood. This is a quarterfinal now, but it’s easy to imagine these guys playing Grand Slam finals in the future. There’s not much more we can ask for from the young guys.
The story that will likely last from this year’s Roland Garros is Osaka’s. Like you, I hope that it will be a spur for more people to be open about their vulnerabilities, in and out of sports. For now, though, it’s not clear what will or should change in the relationship between the players and the press. This confusion was summed up for me by a recent poll: A majority of sports fans surveyed thought Osaka shouldn’t have to do press conferences; but a majority also wanted to continue to hear from athletes after their matches. Something, as they say, will have to give.