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.
Image – Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
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…)
WITNESS TO GREATNESS
While watching Rafael Nadal try to complete the third set of the Roland Garros men’s final while fending off a cramp in his left hand, it struck me: Every little detail must work in a player’s favor to reach the holy grail in tennis, otherwise known as winning a major championship. There cannot be any accidents. No drunk drivers, like what derailed Thomas Muster, or a deranged fan who interrupted the course of Monica Seles’s life. There cannot be any injuries — like Juan Martin Del Potro’s vulnerable wrists — or the distractions that may come from personal problems. One cannot even suffer a lapse in focus or concentration because that opens the door to hungry rivals who are always working to improve. (more…)