By Karen Helf
Tuesday was a brutal day for La Federation Francaise de Tennis (FFT) fans. At end of day, veteran Gilles Simon advanced while countrymen Jeremy Chardy, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Benoit Paire and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bid farewell to Paris. The 33-year-old Simon, Richard Gasquet and Adrian Mannarino are keeping French hope alive. This group is part of the ATP over-30 crowd that makes up half of the players left in the draw, including Federer, Anderson, Djokovic, Verdasco, Lopez, Kukushkin, Isner, Fognini, Cilic and Bautista-Agut. This stat is a clear indicator of the longevity shift on the ATP tour. Perhaps they should adopt the mantra, “Old Guys Rule.” It is poetically French that senior tour players are like a fine wine – older vintages are often far superior.
Speaking about his peers and the old guard that will not yield, Alexander Zverev addressed the expectations on younger players. “A lot of other young guys are playing great,” he said. “There’s a lot of young guys being top 20, top 30 now. I’ve just managed to win maybe a few more matches [than them] here and there and get to the later stages of the big tournaments.”
“But there’s a lot of other young guys that are doing great. Tsitsipas is doing really well, Shapovalov has been doing really well this year, especially with the expectations on his shoulders. It is not easy for us young guys sometimes, too much [is expected] from us.” This reflection sounds like the words of an elder. Perhaps maturity is another secret to Zverev’s success. To this point, is he right?
The state of the game has changed, with experience of 10-plus years a common theme. Yet fans and commentators hold the same expectations that a 19-year-old will take out an older, physically fit, wise, confident opponent. While Marin Cilic expressed that nothing is impossible for younger players, it seems we may need to revise the scale upon which we judge the potential of the next generation. The other aspect that this group faces is constant social media scrutiny and criticism. Yes, everyone deals with social media abuse. However, the psychological impact to a teenager is surely different than that of a man who has accomplishments, a fuller life perspective and years of experience. The current thirty-somethings rose up without facing this third opponent.
Perhaps some of Zverev’s wisdom comes from the career of his brother Mischa and learning lessons via observation. “Sometimes [I’ve seen] very positive things, sometimes…the mistakes he’s done,” he said. “To see somebody that’s already been through it is very helpful, obviously.”
“He’s been on tour for ten-plus years already, and [I’ve seen] what he does, how professional you have to be to be on top of the game. Because there have been some years that he hasn’t been at the standard that he is now and you drop a lot immediately in tennis. It doesn’t give you a lot of room.”
Milos Raonic d. Jo-Wilfred Tsonga 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 7-6(5)
The Accor Arena crowd was solidly behind new father Tsonga on his return to the tour. After two hours and 53 minutes there was a wake of broken hearts. As expected, both players’ serves were stellar and intense, with a total of 40 aces. Tsonga and Raonic both had break opportunities that were defended fiercely by their opponent.
In the first tie-break, Tsonga mixed up his serve pace with success and absorbed Raonic’s groundstroke pace to captured the set. The crowd responded: Allez, Jo! In the second, the holds continued despite a slight fall-off on Tsonga’s percentage of first-serve points won. Raonic took a 4-0 lead in the tie-break and eventually evened the match.
As the third set began, the atmosphere was electric. And at the risk of sounding callous, it was an thrilling rinse repeat. It did appear as though Milos was going for a bit more. The final tie-break was toe-to-toe: 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, 3-4, 4-4, 5-5. But after two Tsonga errors, it was set and match Raonic. The two shared an embrace at the net and despite huge disappointment, Tsonga managed to smile on court and in the presser. It’s a quality that makes him likable.
Novak Djokovic d. Joao Sousa 7-5, 6-1
Bearing a veil of pressure, Djokovic took center stage against motivated qualifier Sousa. On paper, the match outcome seemed obvious. But within minutes it was clear Sousa had other ideas. He kept pace with Djokovic to 5-5. Novak wore a few expressions of distress, but in typical form, he solved the equation by making successful adjustments.
As set two began, Sousa showed no sign of letdown. He pressed with punishing shots that required the full-stretch version of Djokovic. Painting the lines, he forced long rallies. The Portuguese was playing with heart, like it was a final, and I was reminded that he is a brilliant athlete and fun to watch. But Djokovic shifted to the next gear, allowing Sousa a single hold of serve.
Marin Cilic d. Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 6-4
Cilic and Kohlschreiber had the late shift on Center Court. In terms of competition, the German did not have his A game tonight. Marin’s solid service and return game won. A full account of daily match results can be found here.