From left: Australia's Ashleigh Barty; Spain's Rafael Nadal. Photograph by Charles Platiau, Reuters
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Something old, something new: Notes from the 2019 French Open

Rafa Nadal surprised no one by winning his 12th French Open title, and Ashleigh Barty emerged victorious from a pool of unlikely contenders. Here are some observations from Roland Garros.
Exie Abola | Jun 16 2019

The outcomes in the men’s and women’s singles in this year’s French Open were about as different as could be. The women’s tournament was all about surprise and the emergence of new faces. After the third round was over, only three of the top ten seeds remained unscathed. Only two seeds reached the semis, which featured two teenagers and three players reaching the penultimate round for the first time. But in the men’s half, the top ten seeds all made it through the third round, and the last four men standing were the top four seeds, three of whom have dominated the game for the past decade and a half. The eventual champion: the one who’s won the whole thing a staggering eleven times already.

 

The women: new faces, unexpected contenders

I’ve admitted previously that I pay more attention to the men’s game than the women’s. But one thing that’s drawn me to following it more closely is that it’s wide open. The dominance of the Big Three has created a sort of glass ceiling among the men. Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have taken the lion’s share of majors over the past fifteen years. But among the women, no such hegemony exists. Well, aside from Serena Williams, that is, who is an immovable object unto herself. But she’s 37 now, and still struggling to find her form since she came back from childbirth early last year. She hasn’t won a slam since January 2017. A new generation has taken over.

Among the women, the semifinalists were the eighth seed, the 26th seed, and two unseeded teenagers. None of them had won a slam, and three of them were making their first appearance in a slam semi. Petra Kvitova, finalist at Melbourne, pulled out with an injury. Top seed Naomi Osaka, Williams, and second seed Karolina Pliskova fell in the third round. The door opened wide, and these four strode right through.

Certainly if top seed and world No. 1 Naomi Osaka is going to add to her U.S. and Australian Open titles, she will have to do it the hard way. Photograph by Giuseppe Maffia, Reuters

The Tennis Podcast—featuring David Law of the BBC, Katherine Whitaker of Eurosport, and Matt Roberts, which I’ve come to rely on for my regular tennis fix, especially during the slams—selected, in its tournament preview episode, some 25 women who had a credible chance to win it all. The losing finalist, Marketa Vondrousova, was not on that list.

The 19-year-old Czech didn’t drop a set on the way to the final. In the semis, she beat British veteran Johanna Konta, who is almost a decade older. Konta helped her out by squandering leads. She was the aggressor for most of the match, but the crafty lefty repulsed her. She has enough power from her looping strokes to push you back and set up her amazing drop shots. (She’s beaten Simona Halep twice this year and baffled her with those dying quails.)

Too bad she looked every bit the nervous teenager in the final against Aussie Ashleigh Barty. Making her debut in the main stadium, she was tight and tentative as Barty, four years older, blew her out of the water, 6–1 6–3. The Czech’s counterpunching didn’t work against the all-court attack of the Aussie. Barty is only 5’5”, but she has one of the heaviest serves in the game. She has power from both wings, and on the backhand she can switch easily from a clean two-hander to a wicked slice one-hander. Her net game is topnotch, thanks to her doubles game (where she ranks fifth). She might be the best representative of a new brand of multitooled game that makes one-dimensional baseline bashing look quaint.

Barty’s match against Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open was emblematic of the changing of the guard in the women’s game. Sharapova, on the comeback trail from suspension, launched her usual one-speed attack, which was blunted time and again by the Aussie’s Swiss-Army-knife shotmaking, who prevailed in three sets.

Ashleigh Barty, who ditched tennis to play professional cricket for a year, lifted the French Open crown at Roland Garros. Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters

Barty’s semifinal against Amanda Anisimova was the best of the last two rounds. All of 17 years old, Anisimova mowed down defending champ and third seed Simona Halep in the quarters. The young American may be a younger, better version of the Romanian. She’s about four inches taller, and she can hit harder. Her backhand is particularly wicked. David Law calls it the best in the game. Halep was a bad matchup; she fed Anisimova a steady diet of pace, which the teen ate up. Halep has no other gear, and she fell swinging away.

Anisimova faced Ash Barty in the semis, who happens to be a disrupter. It was a match of wild momentum swings. The Aussie galloped to a 5–0 lead in the first set, then watched stunned as the American stormed back, forcing a tiebreaker and winning it. Anisimova took the first three games of the second set. Barty then took the next six, and the eventual champion pulled out a 6–7 6–3 6–3 victory.

Oh, and it turns out that clay is the surface Barty likes the least. She may not have won her last slam this year.

 

The men: match of the tournament

The guys on The Tennis Podcast were unanimous: The match of the tournament was Stan Wawrinka beating Stefanos Tsitsipas, 7–6 5–7 6–4 3–6 8–6, over five hours in the fourth round. It was, at the risk of using a shopworn word, epic. And I didn’t see it. This unfolded during the middle weekend, and my wife and I were in a hotel room celebrating our anniversary. The lone cable sports channel showed Federer and Nadal breezing through their fourth round matches, not this. I’ve had to content myself with four minutes of YouTube highlights, which are amazing.

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka reacts during his fourth round match against Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas. Photograph by Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

A few of the stats are eye-popping: The winner won 194 points, the loser 195. The winner hit 62 winners, the loser 61. The most telling: Tsitsipas converted on only 5 of a whopping 27 break points. At the postmatch presser, he kept saying, in a small voice, “So many break points, so many.” The young Greek’s demeanor after defeats, that he fully expected to win the match (as he did after the shellacking he received at the hands of Nadal at the Australian Open) and was crushed that he didn’t, is just another sign that this kid is destined for greatness.

 

Federer into the semis

Wawrinka’s reward for his five-hour tussle with Tsitsipas: a quarterfinal showdown with countryman Roger Federer. Stan has beaten his more illustrious compatriot three times in 25 attempts, all on clay, and he was in good form. Yet their match, an enthralling four-setter, only affirmed that Federer’s long goodbye continues its improbable arc.

He hadn’t played on the dirt since 2015, since Wawrinka himself beat him in the Roland Garros quarters. How well would he fare after the long hiatus? Very, it turns out. He eased into the final eight without dropping a set and continued a strategy he employed throughout the clay court season: Get to the net. He dusted off the serve-and-volley game, which surprised by how well it worked. Opponents camped out far behind the baseline, which gave him time to crowd the net. And the greater distance meant trying to hit smaller targets. Wawrinka hit some highlight-reel passes, but Federer bet that the odds were with him. They were. Until he ran into Nadal.

Rafael Nadal produced a masterful performance to get past Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the last 4 at Roland Garros in Paris. Photograph by Benoit Tessier, Reuters

The Federer-Nadal semifinal was much anticipated, with good reason. It was Chapter 39 in the storied rivalry, the best in the sport, with Federer winning their five previous matchups. He’d retooled his game, particularly his backhand, to get the better of the Spaniard. But those five victories were on hard courts. Could Federer beat him now on clay, at Roland Garros?

Nope. It was a strange day, that second Friday of the tournament. The wind picked up, swirling around the court, kicking up dust. The players had to blink the dirt out of their eyes. It messed with ball tosses. Mishits were plenty. The players had a hard enough time just squaring up the ball. And in those harsh conditions it was Nadal who adjusted better. Federer stayed aggressive but had trouble putting the ball away. Nadal seemed to get to everything, sending the ball back past a flabbergasted Federer. The first two sets were hard-fought, and they both went to the Spaniard. A deflated Federer dropped the third set quickly.

 

Thiem upends top seed Djokovic

The second semifinal was one of the strangest matches you’ll ever see. Played over two days (it was suspended early in the third set because of rain), interrupted by two other rain delays, with wind swirling on the court of up to 50 kph. There were huge momentum swings and few easy service holds.

Like the Federer–Nadal semifinal that preceded it, this match seemed to hinge on who would handle the conditions better. And right away it looked like Novak Djokovic, the 15-time slam champion, and on a quest for a second personal slam, would be the worse. He twisted and turned like a circus contortionist on some shots, struggling to strike the ball cleanly as the wind pulled the ball in weird directions. His body language suggested that he’d rather be getting his teeth pulled. He quarreled with the umpire. He lost the first set meekly, 6–2. The second set was interrupted by a brief rainshower, and the world number one came back more calm and focused, taking the set 6–3.

After a dip in form following his Australian Open triumph this year, Novak Djokovic has impressed on the European clay courts. Photograph from Reuters stringer

But the weird thing about Djokovic was that those stretches where he was in command always ended. His quarterfinal against Alexander Zverev was the opposite, and the kind of match we’ve come to expect from him. The 21-year-old German, who had beaten him at the ATP yearend tournament in 2018, came out firing, pushing the Serb around and earning break points. He finally cashed in on one at 4–4 and served for the set. Then Djokovic flipped the Terminator switch on and pulled out the next three games to take the set, then went on to take the next two handily, 6–2 6–2. This is what he does to most opponents.

But in his semifinal against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic would take control then waver. After leveling the match one set all, he lost serve early in the third. A downpour led to the match’s suspension at 3–1, to be resumed the next day. And again he came back resolute, getting the break back and taking the set to 5-all. But he lost the next two games and the third set. He fought back to take the fourth set, only to lose serve early in the fifth.

Just when it looked like the Austrian had finally clinched victory, Thiem choked. Serving for the match at 5–3, the Austrian went up 40–15, then threw away the match points with bad slice backhands. Thiem had been slicing his backhand all match, more than he usually does, to keep the ball down to the Serb’s backhand and drawing him to the net. Two more errors gave Djokovic the game, and one hold later it was tied at 5–5.

There are no deciding-set tiebreakers at the French Open, and I wondered how long the match could go on. Not much longer, it turned out. On his fourth match point, this time on Djokovic’s serve, Thiem used the slice to perfection, getting it deep into the backhand corner. Djokovic couldn’t get much on the return, and Thiem walloped the ball into the far sideline out of the Serb’s reach, and he was into the final. The match had taken four and a half hours over two days.

Head-scratching stat: Djokovic came to the net 71 times and lost 35 of those points.

 

The men’s final

As I watched Federer and Wawrinka duke it out in an entertaining quarterfinal, I told my wife, “They’re playing for the right to lose to Rafa Nadal.” She chuckled, but it was true. I said it again as Thiem–Djokovic resumed on its second day. Nadal wrapped up his semi with Federer in just over two hours and got a full day of rest. Thiem scrapped with Djokovic over four hours, with three of them the day right before the final. The tennis gods seemed intent on giving the Spaniard the best possible odds on winning his twelfth title, which seemed unfair. He didn’t need any help.

The start of the match was the best part. The first seven games took 44 minutes, and they were full of brilliant, scintillating exchanges. Both showed off spectacular defensive skills, especially Thiem. After an exchange of breaks, the set turned on the seventh game, a tense 10-minute Nadal service game he eventually held. He then took next two games quickly.

Spain's Rafael Nadal, right, hugs Austria's Dominic Thiem after their men's final match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday, June 9, 2019. Nadal won 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

Did Thiem have much left in the tank after his three hours against Djokovic the day before? The second set suggested he did. It was different from the first, with quick holds. In the first five of Nadal’s service games Thiem won a single point. Nadal, for his part, never got within sniffing distance of a break point. Then in the eleventh game, Thiem broke Nadal and took the set 7–5. It was one set apiece, and Thiem, who hadn’t taken even a set from Nadal in three matches at Roland Garros, looked poised to change his fortunes.

Nadal left the court and came back looking, as David Law described him on The Tennis Podcast, as if he’d been to the carwash. His hair freshly slicked back, Nadal brought out the beast. He broke Thiem three times and held to love again and again. His shotmaking had reached otherworldly levels, and he took the third set 6–1 in less than half an hour. The fourth set was a little closer and took longer, but the score was the same.

 

Nadal and the Big Three

For Thiem to take a set off Nadal is progress, I guess, but Nadal is just as unbeatable as anyone can possibly be on the clay of Roland Garros. Thiem has beaten Nadal in the runup to the French Open every year for the past three years, but a three-set match is a sprint, not the marathon of a slam five-setter. On the tour’s most physically demanding surface, in its longest match format, no one can hold a candle to Rafa Nadal. His match record at Roland Garros is an astounding 93–2. He won his first title here at age 18; fifteen years later, at age 33, he has yet to find an equal.

Over the years his body has been taking a beating, and the injury bug comes more often now. The tendinitis in his knee can’t be cured, only managed. He couldn’t play Federer at their Indian Wells semifinal in March, and he complained about there being too many hard court tournaments. Apparently he’s taking the grass court season off and is coming back only for Wimbledon, which starts July 1. There lies his own biggest enemy at Roland Garros: his own mortality. It is this enemy, not another player, that will ultimately decide how long Roland Garros remains Fortress Nadal.

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates his record 12th French Open tennis tournament title after winning his men's final match against Austria's Dominic Thiem in four sets, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday, June 9, 2019. AP Photo/Michel Euler

In the meantime, we revel in his greatness. Twelve French Open titles, equalling Roy Emerson’s entire slam count, and double the trophy count of the runnerup (Bjorn Borg). Eighteen slams, only two behind Federer. A single-surface dominance like no one before, and likely no one ever. The world has never seen anyone like the King of Clay before, and probably never will.

His win also extends the dominance of the Big Three. They’re getting up in years—Federer is 37, Nadal 33, Djokovic 32—but they’re still chugging. Since 2005, when Nadal won his first French Open, they’ve won 49 of a possible 58 slam titles. There have been cameos by Marat Safin (one), Juan Martin del Potro (one), Andy Murray (three), Stan Wawrinka (three), and Marin Cilic (one). But over a decade and a half they’ve taken a whopping 85% of the sports’ biggest titles. The mind reels.

Of course they can’t keep it up forever. One of these days the new guys will take over, they really will. But the three are still wagging their fingers at the God of Death, saying, “Not today.” The Wimbledon and the US Open trophies will, very probably, be hoisted by any combination of these immortals. While it lasts, we revel in their greatness.