THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
The French are known for their cutting-edge revolution, their chatty cafes and stylish threads. As for modern tennis courts – not so much. After all, it’s Wimbledon, with its two-roofed stadiums, that has perfected the art of branding tradition, while time and again updating their assorted venues. After many years of absence from the All-England Club, Jimmy Connors showed up one year and confided he didn’t recognize the place. As for the Australian Open, like an eager kangaroo, it’s constantly leaping forward. The US Open recently delivered a spare-no-cost upgrade. Now the Miami Open has a totally new site and feel. And don’t even get us started on Indian Wells. Change is their brand.
Decades ago, thanks to French tennis boss Philippe Chatrier, Roland Garros surged. More recently it’s lagged. It seemed to be going backwards. Yes, there were some upgrades and a nice new outer court. But generally, it was a dazzle-free zone. Same old Roland Garros was continental, crowded and comfy, to a fault. Often just walking from Philippe Chatrier Stadium to Court Suzanne Lenglen made your local freeway at five seem like a breeze. Intimate French Open venues like the oval Bullring stadium or funky Court 2 provided texture, history and soul. Their bones were creaky. You felt the ghosts and were close to the players. You could almost touch them. It was all quite enchanting, but a bit out of step with contemporary impulses. These days the game shouts for gleaming, spacious venues.
But Roland Garros has changed. In just a year, its center court has been all but totally reconstructed and features great sightlines and stunning tan seats that perfectly complement the orange clay. There is a new outer court named after Simonne Mathieu, a long-ago French champ. It’s surrounded by stunning greenhouses and botanical wonders. Now both Paris and Indian Wells have their tennis gardens. One proud official gushed, “Planet Earth has met planet tennis.”
In any case, after years of drift, the French Open has reentered the great race – tennis’ unspoken, highly competitive (and maybe a tad vain) battle to see which of its big tourneys has the most compelling venues. This year, Paris has a striking new Philippe Chatrier Stadium and a gorgeous new venue. Next year, the French tennis revolution will continue. There’ll be a new retractable roof and night play. Still, like so many revolutions there’s a glitch. Roland Garros still is cramped and crowded. And there are no carpool lanes.
TEN FRENCH OPEN QUESTIONS
- NADAL’S HOUSE: No one does a single Slam like Senor Nadal does Roland Garros. He’s won eleven times. Yes, for the first time in eons the King of Clay failed to dominate the dirt season. Uncle Toni suggested his nephew was “an injured man who plays tennis.” Rafa bristled. Toni apologized and his nephew, who went on to win the Italian Open, now again seems to be in rather nifty Nadalian form. And no one has yet disproved the claim that the hardest thing to do in tennis is to beat him on clay in five sets.
- SERENA – FROM A WHEELCHAIR TO A THRONE? It was a jarring image. Singular Serena, one of the most imposing athletes in history, was spotted at Disney World in a wheelchair with her daughter Olympia. But will she be spotted lifting the French Open trophy? She’s reached the finals of three of the last five Slams she’s played. But she withdrew from the Italian Open and has barely played this season. Still, she has a cupcake draw and likes France almost as much as she likes going against the grain. She’s reached the finals in three of her last five French Opens, and she won in 2013 and 2015. In her last 14 Slam appearances she’s made it to the semis or better 12 times. If she somehow manages to triumph, she’ll tie Margaret Court for the most majors ever won –24. And that wouldn’t be too shabby for a mighty mama who just did Disney World in a wheelchair.
- PHENOMENAL FEDERER: Roger has given us a bounty of treats. And, after a three year absence, it will be a tasty enough treat just to see him again flow in France for a week or so. But we can’t be greedy and expect him to win his second ever French title – right? But hold on, didn’t someone once say, “Greed is good”?
- CAN THE ATP’S NEXT GEN STEP UP? Speaking of greedy, the older generation is an outright selfish lot. Sure, the game’s elders have allowed the sport’s youngsters to chew on a few modest morsels, but they still dominate at tennis’ grown-up table. The kids haven’t been able to elbow in. No active player under 29 years old has won a major. Still, many are emerging. Italian Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas has wins over Roger, Rafa and . Alexander Zverev is a champion-in-waiting. Danil Medvedev and Paris Masters champions Karen Kachenov are rising Russians and Canadian lefty Denis Shapovalov reached the Miami Open semis. Young Jelena Ostapenko, who was 20, won the crown in 2017. But a young French Open men’s champ? That would be a shock.
- NOVAK’S MAJOR CHALLENGE: The master craftsmen Novak Djokovic has won the three last Slams. More recently, he took the Madrid title and reached the Rome final. His form? Well, it’s formidable. But will he be distracted by off-court issues? Can he avoid a surprise upset like he suffered last year? And, if he meets Rafa in the final (as he did in Madrid and Rome), can he down the defending champion? If he does, he’ll be the reigning champion of all four of the majors.
- AMERICANS IN PARIS: Last year Sloane Stephens reached the final and Madison Keys made it to the semis. But, since then, there have been plenty of bumps in their roads. So a repeat run by the duo, who are ranked No. 7 and No. 14, would delight Yankee fans. BTW: Sonya Kenin could continue to emerge. As for the men, the prospects are, shall we say, modest. Our top guy, John Isner, is sidelined. So, we almost didn’t have a single seeded player. Our top seed is Frances Tiafoe. Even getting one of our guys deep into the first weekend of play would be rather dandy. The last American fellow to prevail in Paris was Andre Agassi – and that was 20 years ago.
- PRETTY PARISIAN PALACES: What will the reviews be like for the gorgeous new Chatrier Stadium and the inventive Simonne Mathieu Stadium?
- “SEE-MONA! SEE-MONA!” She has no big weapons. For years she’s faltered at big moments and she was the best WTA player to never win a Slam. Still, she’s fast. She scampers with abandon and fights with grit, and last year she won the French. Can Romanian Simona Halep again inspire the French throng to chant “See-mona! See-mona!” as she defends her title.
- AN OSAKA THREE-PEAT? She’s only 21 yet Naomi Osaka is No. 1 in the world and has won two majors in a row. But she couldn’t possibly win here in Paris on her off-surface. Then again the pundits said she wouldn’t handle Serena in the final of that pressure-cooker of a tournament they call the US Open. And she couldn’t deal with the power of Petra Kvitova in the Australian final. BTW: Naomi’s been No. 1 since January and will retain the top spot if she reaches the final. If she falters, Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova or Kiki Bertens could leave Paris at the top.
- WHAT A KIKI IN THE HEAD THAT WOULD BE: Veteran Kiki Bertens, 27, is Holland’s highest ranked woman ever. She won in Madrid, is seeded No. 4 and could win. And what a Dutch treat that would be.