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US, French Open big picture: many things can be true at the same time

Matt Zemek

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When the U.S. Open ended a few weeks ago, there were some things I needed to say then, but didn’t get around to. The main theme of the U.S. Open was simply this: Tennis needs to be able to treat its players the same and apply principles in an even, fair way. Aljaz Bedene hitting a cameraman with a ball in New York needed to be treated the same as Novak Djokovic hitting a lineswoman in New York. Yet, one man (Bedene) was allowed to continue to play, while the other (Djokovic) was defaulted.

The way some players in New York were treated relative to COVID-19 was different from the way others were treated. Kiki Mladenovic, Benoit Paire, Adrian Mannarino, Daniil Medvedev, Hugo Dellien, Guido Pella — they were not dealt with in the same way. The standards constantly changed.

At the U.S. Open, not all courts had Hawkeye Live. They therefore lacked the same access to reviewed linescalls. In so many ways, the story of the U.S. Open was how uneven tennis is in applying rules and policies.

Done. I said what I needed to say on that front.

Now, what about the French Open?

If there was a larger story which emerged in Paris, it was that the small two-week break between majors — with transcontinental travel in that two-week period — was not sufficient for elite players.

Victoria Azarenka was spent in France. She was asked to play far too much tennis in far too short a time. She is the most prominent WTA example of a player who needed four weeks and not two to prepare for Roland Garros after the U.S. Open. If she had the extra weeks, Roland Garros might have worked out for her.

The most prominent ATP example of a player who needed four weeks, not two, for the French Open after New York was Dominic Thiem. He plainly had little left in the tank against Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals. He said afterward he was pleased with his tournament. He knew he was fighting uphill after winning the U.S. Open. He was never in good position to challenge for the title in Paris… and he knew it. He has his major title in 2020, so he will regard this as a successful year… which he should.

Serena Williams needed a longer break between majors after going deep into the U.S. Open. Alexander Zverev was sick in France. His body and mind could have used the downtime, too.

This compressed calendar set up a number of elite players to fail, in one of the two majors. Rafael Nadal won Roland Garros after not going to North America. He was able to maintain a base camp in Europe, focus entirely on clay. It worked out for him. Rafa values Roland Garros above all else. His decisions reflected as much. His plan — naturally, unsurprisingly — came together for him. Again.

I have just spent several hundred words on the flaws and problems with the U.S. and French Opens after one of the most remarkable and unprecedented six-week periods in tennis history. We have never previously seen major tournaments occur under such weird and unusual circumstances.

Given all the criticisms I have articulated, you might think I have a very negative view of these tournaments. To be sure, there were and are problems at these events, which is why I didn’t comment or write nearly as much as I would have under normal circumstances. (French Open coverage was hurt because I am a paid football writer and editor in the United States. Paid writing comes before unpaid writing every time for a writer such as myself. Tennis has been so easy for me to cover in normal times because the peak season in summer doesn’t coincide with football season in the fall. I am looking forward to a 2021 in which the French Open and Wimbledon will return with late-spring and summer schedules.)

Yet, you might be surprised to learn that these two events should be viewed as successful major tournaments.

Yes, I can criticize the numerous flaws with the 2020 U.S. and French Opens, and still regard them as smash hits.

Why? Simple: Players got paid, and there was no big COVID-19 outbreak.

You can see what is happening with the NFL and college football in the United States. The New England Patriots played the Kansas City Chiefs last Monday, when a player in the game — Stephon Gilmore — subsequently tested positive on Tuesday, the day after the contest. The NFL could have postponed the game until a later point in time, but the league wants to play the Super Bowl on February 7 and doesn’t want to move that date, so it is shoehorning games into a tight schedule, even if it means exposing players, as it did by playing the Patriots-Chiefs game last week.

The NBA and NHL just completed seasons in a bubble without COVID-19 outbreaks. The basketball and hockey might have been weird without fans. Moreover, some of the teams which stood to gain from having fans at their games, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, lost the home-court advantage which usually helps teams in the playoffs. If Milwaukee had played the Miami Heat in Milwaukee, not a fan-free environment in Orlando, the Bucks might have done better. People will question the legitimacy of the NBA’s “bubble” championship, but playing without fans was the compromise here. Playing without fans was the only way a season was going to be completed this year.

Everything was irregular and weird, and — to a degree — unfair to some of the participants.

Yet: A season was completed. The athletes got paid. The workers cashed their checks. They didn’t get sick. That’s a big accomplishment in a pandemic.

So it is for the USTA and the French Tennis Federation.

They did make mistakes (the USTA with COVID-19, the FFT with not creating more space between the U.S. Open and Roland Garros), so it’s not as though they deserve zero criticism. However, they pulled off their tournaments without a COVID-19 outbreak. To that degree, they at least met expectations; in many eyes, they might have exceeded them.

We have talked a lot about tennis players needing to be economically supported by the sport. The No. 1 way tennis can help its players is by playing tournaments. Players don’t get paid otherwise. Therefore, managing to pull off these tournaments without a COVID-19 outbreak is a triumph for the U.S. and French Opens, even if there were so many other things wrong with the past fortnights in New York and Paris.

Multiple things can be true at the same time. Good and bad can and do coexist. Criticism does not preclude praise or even approval. Life is complicated.

Let’s finish this column on today’s larger theme — multiple things can be true at the same time — by emphasizing that as irregular and unusual as these two major tournaments were over the past six weeks, greatness fully revealed itself anyway.

Naomi Osaka used the pandemic hiatus to mentally refresh herself. She looked like a very mentally fresh player in New York who was ready for any circumstance… and ready for the great tennis Jennifer Brady (semifinals) and Azarenka (final) played. She used the extended break in the tennis calendar as well as she possibly could. Credit to her.

The same goes for Dominic Thiem, who didn’t play a member of the Big 3 but showed he was tougher than any other player he faced in New York. Much as Roger Federer pounces on opportunities when the draw works out for him, Thiem did the same in New York. Everyone knew he had a chance to do something special when the U.S. Open draw came out. If he did play Djokovic, it would have occurred in the final. He had to make the final first. He did… and so when he got there, he caught a break. The important point: He had to put himself in a position to benefit from that luck. Thiem clearly stamped himself as the best of the non-Big 3 players right now. He gave himself a chance to benefit from the unusual circumstances in New York, and he wound up lifting a major trophy for the first time in his life.

In Paris, Iga Swiatek stepped into the quiet of Roland Garros and — with hardly any fans — best dealt with the challenge of not having a crowd to draw energy from. Fan favorite Coco Gauff struggled in pandemic majors; she was so used to having a crowd which could feed her adrenaline. Crowds help her intensity level, especially since they love Gauff so much. Crowdless tennis is a different beast; energy has to be collected and cultivated within.

This doesn’t make Gauff less of a player, to be very clear; it merely means that crowdless tennis is a different challenge, much as playing Roland Garros in cold, wet October is different from sun-baked and hot June. Swiatek looked completely at home in this different habitat and found inner peace in every match she played, never more so than when she steadied herself at the end of the first set of the women’s final against Sofia Kenin. Swiatek was easily the best women’s player in Paris over the course of seven matches. Greatness emerged in its own organic way. Who can deny that? No one. It was a performance entirely worthy of a major championship, pandemic or not.

Finally — last but not least — Rafael Nadal figured out problems. He solved puzzles. He did what he had to do, and he performed his task better than everyone else in Paris. His run to the French Open title — which concluded on the same day LeBron James led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship — was a lot like the Lakers’ run.

Nadal faced a lot of inferior opponents on his way to the title. In the semifinals, he got Diego Schwartzman instead of Dominic Thiem, much as LeBron’s Lakers faced the Denver Nuggets instead of the Los Angeles Clippers. The path was favorable for him. Yet, if other contenders (Thiem for Rafa, the Clippers for the Lakers) don’t play their best or don’t show up in the latter stages of a tournament, that’s not the fault of Nadal or LeBron. They kept doing what they needed to do. They were fully mentally prepared.

In their final competitions on Sunday, they blew out their opponents to raise hugely important trophies.

Nadal tied Roger Federer in the major title chase, 20-20.

LeBron’s Lakers tied the Boston Celtics for first place in all-time NBA championships, 17-17.

So many aspects of the U.S. and French Opens were weird and unusual and unprecedented. Some aspects of these two majors were actually unfair to the players on several levels.

Yet, while these tournaments were flawed and not reflective of a normal tennis tour, they were still successes in a COVID-19 context. They also revealed greatness in their champions and finalists.

Many things can be true at the same time.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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