The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better.
Alexander Zverev, almost by himself, provided more drama in the middle rounds of the tournament than the women did. While Maria Sharapova crushed Karolina Pliskova; then didn’t play Serena Williams; and then didn’t show up against Garbine Muguruza, Zverev was playing five-setters and showing more problem solving than he had in any previous major tournament. Diego Schwartzman unfurled a remarkable comeback against Kevin Anderson and jolted Rafael Nadal for one and a half sets. Cecchinato became the story of the second week by beating Djokovic, which followed the Italian’s win over David Goffin, who won a crowd-rousing five-setter over Gael Monfils two rounds after completing a two-set comeback against Robin Haase.
While women’s matches were occasionally riveting (Sloane Stephens over Camila Giorgi in round three, Angelique Kerber over Kiki Bertens in round three), most of the mid-tournament and end stage women’s matches were either close and scratchy (Simona Halep versus Kerber in the quarterfinals) or lopsided (Sloane Stephens over Daria Kasatkina in the quarters, then Madison Keys in the semifinals). The second set of the Halep-Muguruza semifinal was highly compelling, but for most of the first six rounds, the men created the more stirring and engrossing tournament.
Normalcy — the women delivering a better and more interesting product — finally returned on championship weekend.
If the first six rounds were surprising, the seventh and final one restored the familiar WTA-ATP balance of entertainment and intrigue. The women’s final provided a high-level title bout between Halep and Stephens. The men’s final was every bit the blowout the 2017 edition was. Rafael Nadal rolled while a one-handed backhand merchant from an alpine nation lacked answers from start to finish.
To say that the men’s final was uneventful is hardly a criticism of Nadal. The Spaniard is simply far too good on red clay to give opponents any remote degree of comfort or belief. If Novak
Djokovic can regain his former powers, we could see a Roland Garros (in 2019 or 2020) in which Nadal’s citadel is legitimately threatened, but until that happens, the men’s final at the French Open is destined to be a display of one-way traffic. What other conclusion makes sense, given that Rafa is 86-2 at Roland Garros; is 22-0 in RG semis or finals combined; and has never been taken to five sets in any of his 11 Roland Garros championship matches?
Feet of clay represent a weakness? Not in Nadal’s world. Nadal on clay in five-set matches is as close to automatic as anything I have ever witnessed in sports, on the same plane with Martina Navratilova’s 1983 season, marked by an 86-1 record.
86-2 isn’t a hyperbolic statement, so how can claims about Nadal’s dominance be viewed as gross exaggerations? If “Prime Djokovic” is not the opponent on the other side of the net, Nadal in a five-set match on red clay is the ultimate tennis version of “money in the bank,” right up there with Serena Williams in major-tournament finals.
This is not a new or original observation, so the natural question to ask on the heels of another Nadal French Open title is deceptively simple:
I’ll tell you what: Nadal might not care about ending his career with more major titles than Roger Federer, and he certainly has nothing left to prove against Federer — he has beaten the Swiss at three different major tournaments and the ATP Finals — but if he does want to finish with more majors, I have a suggestion for him.
I’m not the first person to say this — Jim Courier said as much during the French Open — but Nadal might eventually want to consider a Federer-like scheduling path if he is still intent on playing at age 36 and beyond.
In the next few years, Nadal — the defending U.S. Open champion — probably doesn’t need to radically remake his schedule, but when he goes north of 35 years old, he might want to look at Federer’s clay-court vacations and realize that he can do something similar, maybe even more ambitious.
We have seen Nadal’s body betray him one year after another at the Australian Open. We have seen the proliferation of hardcourt tennis do damage to Nadal’s knees and joints. Whereas Federer’s body has not held up well on clay, the mechanics of Nadal’s style have been hurt more by hardcourt tennis.
Is it that ludicrous or irresponsible to suggest that when he turns 35 or 36, Nadal might skip the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, instead playing more clay-court tournaments in winter, and then skip Wimbledon and/or the U.S. Open? Nadal might trial-run a year in which he plays the South American clay swing in late February and then Hamburg in late July. He could play roughly half the season and evaluate the results. Based on how that year goes, Nadal could either expand or downshift the following season as he sees fit. This presumes, of course, that Nadal will even want to play at 36 or 37. If he does, it’s exactly how he could play more tennis seasons and credibly reinforce the idea that he could remain the man to beat at Roland Garros.
Think about it: If Nadal isn’t playing hardcourt tennis and isn’t playing a full 10-month season, he can realistically put in all his chips on the clay season. Nadal would take the court knowing he existed in his comfort zone, and he could conceivably structure each year of his career so that when the French Open ends, his season would end as well. Nadal could spend the second half of each year being involved with his academy and various philanthropic pursuits. Severely reducing the length of his season would enable him to devote the same massive amount of intensity to his tennis.
The ultimate aim: to win Roland Garros 16 or 17 times.
Is that notion absurd? Yes — it is. I won’t disagree.
I would only say this: Nadal winning 11 French Opens is absurd enough.
If anyone can win 17 French Opens, it’s Nadal. No, it’s not likely, but if Rafa wants to continue to redefine — and transcend — the limits of achievement on red clay, he might need to radically reshape his structure in a few years.
A certain guy from Switzerland would probably nod in quiet approval and knowing admiration.