So here we are, with Roland Garros about to begin during this staggering, challenging year. It was one thing for the US Open to happen in a bubble, but at least it took place during its usual time. But Roland Garros, starting in late September, just after the Open? There are so many factors to take into account, particularly since no surface more than clay is affected by the elements—from autumn weather, to the possibility of more rain, to different positions of the sun, to fewer hours of daylight, to night tennis. And, of course, looming over all of this, the massive stress of COVID-19.
Then there’s the player skill mix. A great many notables—including Roland Garros champions Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep—skipped the US Open and have been in Europe since March. I wonder how that’s affected everything from their mood to their training habits, and how they are now approaching competition. If on the one hand, clay is easier on the body, points typically go longer. What kind of playing styles will be rewarded at this year’s tournament? I suspect the emphasis will be on simplicity, more battles being won by someone who can keep getting back one ball after another than a player who employs more elaborate tactics (yes, we’ll miss you, Roger).
I also wonder about another man who has won Roland Garros before, Novak Djokovic. Anguished as he justifiably was to be defaulted from the US Open, perhaps Djokovic is somewhat fresher than he might have been had he played another week of tennis in New York. In Rome last week, Djokovic looked pretty sharp, the crispness of his movement and groundstrokes quite formidable.
Then there are the players who played in New York and have arrived in Paris. Battle-tested? Yes. Weary? Perhaps.What a month it’s been for Victoria Azarenka—four straight weeks of play, from New York to Rome. Hopefully, having taken this week off, Vika hasrecharged her batteries well enough to continue her great tennis. Then there’s Serena Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, keen to win a fourth title here.
Among the men, Dominic Thiem in recent years has established himself as the world’s second-best clay court player, most notably by reaching the finals at Roland Garros the last two years. But now, after at last capturing his first major—and doing so in a very emotionally taxing final—will Thiem be able to play as well on the clay as those years when he’s usually played many matches on the dirt? Ditto for the likes of Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev. Interestingly enough, Medvedev is 0-3 at Roland Garros; then again, his real rise up the ranks didn’t commence in a major way until last summer.
What are some of the storylines that engage you, Steve?
All photos from FFT.
Until I read your opening paragraph, I hadn’t thought about all of the new variables that we’ll see at this year’s version of Roland Garros. The weather and sky in Paris in the fall; a retractable roof over Chatrier; the first night matches in the tournament’s history. I can’t be the only one whose first thought is: Will any of this mess with Rafael Nadal’s well-honed French Open mojo?
But I’ll start with the last of your variables: The ongoing pandemic. France has experienced a rise in cases recently, and the government there has lowered its limit on public gatherings to 1,000 people. Roland Garros organizers hoped to have a fairly large number of fans in the seats, but that will not be possible now. Until recently, I was cautious and skeptical when it came to the idea of holding sporting events in 2020. But the success of the US Open and the Italian Open has made me a little less leery. Do you think we’ve reached a point, Joel, where we should just get used to the fact that events like Roland Garros are going to happen, whether they’re 100 percent safe or not? Or is that asking for trouble? I’m happy to have a chance to watch the French on TV at home, but I’m also happy not to have to make the trip to Paris or sit in the press room myself.
As for the tennis, what’s interesting to me is that, for the first time since Serena had a baby in 2017, we may have a more easily identifiable favorite on the women’s side than we do on the men’s. Simona Halep is the top seed, she won the tournament in 2018, she just won in Rome, and she’s on a 14-match win streak. She may not win in Paris, but a loss by her would be an upset. On the men’s side, I’d say that Djokovic, Thiem and Nadal will begin as co-favorites, each with an equal chance of winning. Djokovic because he’s the best all-around player in the world, and he wants to put the US Open behind him; Thiem because he has made the final the last two years, and now he has the Grand Slam monkey off his back; and Nadal because…well, because he’s 93-2 at Roland Garros, and a combined 10-1 against Djokovic and Thiem there.
What intrigues you about the men’s and women’s draws, Joel?
When it comes to assessing the staging of tournaments, I suspect (hope?) that a great many of tennis’ powers-that-be are taking a long look at so many factors related to safety, attendance, spectator engagement, and the very future of tennis events. Let’s recall that when the FFT opted to hold Roland Garros during this time of year, it did so without consulting a number of other events that were currently on the ATP and WTA calendars. As it turns out, many were in Asia, where tennis has been completely cancelled. We shall see what’s to come for these tournaments moving forward.
As far as the tennis at Roland Garros goes, there are a number of opening-round matches that I can’t wait to see. On the women’s side, Coco Gauff versus Johanna Konta is a fascinating generational struggle. Also curious to see how it goes between surprise US Open quarterfinalist and the book lover’s favorite, Andrea Petkovic. Among the men, the match between a pair of three-Slammers, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, figures to be quite dramatic. I’m also intrigued to see what happens when two US Open champions, Dominic Thiem and Marin Cilic, play on the clay. Thiem beat Cilic in four sets in the third round in New York, but of course it’s tough to get a read on how fresh the Austrian will be following his big Slam breakthrough. And then there’s young Italian hopeful, powerful Jannik Sinner, up against the solid veteran, David Goffin.
When it comes to the draw overall, in recent years I’ve changed my approach. While certainly it’s fun to spot potential future matches, a while ago I realized I was putting too much energy into that; far too much conjecture and wonder. So instead, I’ve decided it’s best instead to let the tournament come to me—to just savor the matches that are scheduled and merely keep those other possibilities way, way deep in the background.
Steve, who are some of the other players you’re particularly keen to watch at Roland Garros this year?
Aside from this last-minute limit on fans, everything seems to have worked out pretty well for Roland Garros. They’ve been rewarded for unilaterally commandeering these two weeks on the 2020 schedule; like you said, the Asian events that RG overrode weren’t going to be played anyway. Roland Garros even had a qualifying draw, which the US Open didn’t.
You’re right that we can look too far ahead at the start of a major. How many brutal draws on paper have we seen evaporate by the end of the first week? How many quarterfinal collisions have failed to come to pass? Better to take each round as it comes, and enjoy the chance to see the players who are still in the tournament. Who knows, this year, when we’ll see them again?
To that end, I’ll be curious to see whether Gilles Simon, the definition of a wily veteran, can slow the recent roll of Denis Shapovalov in their first-rounder; the Canadian would seem to have a solid shot at the semis this year. I’ll tune in to watch the shot-making spectacle that Gael Monfils and Alexander Bublik will likely put on, as ill-advised as some of those shots may be. And, of course, Murray vs. Wawrinka is an early-round bonus. Hopefully they don’t send destroy each other’s bodies, the way they did here three years ago.
On the women’s side, I’ll be curious to see how Aryna Sabalenka matches up with Buffalo’s pesky Jessica Pegula; how big-swinging Iga Swiatek handles drop-shot queen Marketa Vondrousova; whether Amanda Anisimova can recapture some of the blazing magic that nearly took her to the final last year. And of course, Konta vs. Gauff. Konta had her own magical run to the semis here in 2019, which was a lot of fun to watch.
Two players I’d like to see do well are Azarenka and Garbiñe Muguruza. I’ve always thought Vika should have had more success on clay, and Muguruza is one of those people I root for because I think the sport is better when she’s playing well and making herself a factor late in majors. Azarenka and Muguruza both let leads in Slam finals slip this year, too—Vika at the US Open, Garbi at the Australian Open. In both cases, they played brilliantly for two weeks, looked as if they had one hand on the trophy, yet somehow walked away empty-handed. Each had the same dazed, gutted look when the final was over. Can one of them close the deal in Paris?
Part of me also wonders: Could Serena pull a surprise, now that she’s playing the Slam she’s not supposed to win?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it, like you said, one round at a time.