The last hurdle Novak Djokovic faced en route to a career Grand Slam and the supremely rare feat of four straight majors won — matched only by Rod Laver in the Open Era of men’s tennis — was his 2016 Roland Garros final against Andy Murray. However, the last hurdle — while appreciably difficult — was not necessarily the toughest one to surmount.
The most taxing and exasperating match for Djokovic at his historic 2016 French Open came against Roberto Bautista Agut. The skies were gray then. the conditions were heavy then. Bautista Agut played well then. On that day two years ago, Djokovic was pushed back on several occasions. His form came and went. He was often angry, sometimes confused, searching for a higher level of form.
How utterly fitting it is, then, that two years later, virtually all of the ingredients of that 2016 match returned to a 2018 third-round encounter — the rain and the gray, the heavy conditions, RBA’s determined play and flashes of excellence, Djokovic’s inconsistency and changing emotions. Everything which makes tennis so compelling, everything which makes the sport such a complete test of its practitioners, came to the forefront of another Djokovic-Bautista battle.
Djokovic was playing the conditions. He was playing Bautista. He was playing himself. Djokovic was playing against the recent past and all of its dislocations, interruptions and uncertainties. He was playing against the backdrop of not knowing for sure where his game stands, not knowing for sure how he would react to a prolonged four- or five-set match, the kind of match he hadn’t won in a long time, given his injury-based absence and his loss to Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open. Djokovic is an established champion — a legend of the highest order — so it always made sense to believe he would come back to the top of the sport.
The question was — and still is: How long will that process take?
It took two solid years for Rafael Nadal to go through that process in 2015 and 2016, before his authoritative return in 2017. Roger Federer went through an “annus horribilis” in 2013 and struggled with his body and mind in 2016 before getting back in a groove.
It is logical to expect iconic champions to figure things out; the time frame is the tricky and nebulous part of the equation.
Friday, Djokovic took a definite step forward in his process of rediscovery. He surely recalled the 2016 match against Bautista Agut and called forth a very familiar experience — in a different part of his career — to help him through a new stage in his journey.
Just when it seemed Djokovic was in control of this match in the second set, he lost control. Just when it seemed Djokovic’s weight of shot was about to overwhelm Bautista Agut, Djokovic would slip on the heavy clay on Court Suzanne Lenglen and lose his balance. He would hit an unsuccessful drop shot when standing well behind the baseline. The variations in quality were — and are — reflective of a player still searching for a higher gear, the gear Nole will need in the second week of Roland Garros. Those questions are still waiting to be answered.
Yet, first things first: Djokovic made the second week. He made it through a four-set test. He showed new levels of problem solving and stamina within the specific context of his 2018 season.
More questions do need to be answered, but Novak Djokovic has provided all the right answers thus far at Roland Garros. A champion knows how to ace a test, and Djokovic has come up aces on all the tests put in his way during the first week in Paris.
Image taken from zimbio.com
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
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. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)