Breezy, Bold and Brave Bits from the French Open

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How Grand – Another Slam

Bill Simons 

Hey, didn’t we just have a big Grand Slam?

Oh, yeah, we sure did. We all remember that New York tournament. In fact the US Open – no fans and all – was one wacky, wonderful happening. But now it’s time to head off (so to speak) to Paris. 

So, deal with your whiplash and your sleep deprivation and never mind that France’s warm spring breezes have vanished. It may be a tad chilly over there in the City of Lights, and COVID may be heading back to town. But let’s take what we’ve got. So, welcome to the French Open in this most crazy of all years.

FLOWERY FIRST-ROUND MEMORY: Coco Gauff, 16, played and won her first-ever French Open main draw match today. In 1989, Monica Seles gave us our favorite Roland Garros debut. The 15-year old came out on Courte Centrale and tossed flowers to many a delighted fan. 

BEST FRENCH OPEN SHOT ANALYSIS: Sue Mott claimed that three-time French finalist Francoise Durr had a serve that “meandered like a concussed bluebottle and sometimes seemed to travel in reverse.”

USELESS STATS ARE FOREVER: In 1999, Mott reported that Agassi had become “the first earringed American divorcé since Chris Evert in 1986 to win the French Open.”…Gail Sherriff won four French Open doubles titles with three different names: Sherriff, Chanfreau and Lovera.

BEST CULINARY COMMENTARY: When 1994 French Open finalist Alberto Berasategui was asked why he ate chicken 15 minutes before a match, he explained: “Did you ever see how fast chickens run?”

BEST MALE FRENCH OPEN CHAMPS: Nadal (12), Borg (6), Lendl (3), Wilander (3), Kuerten (3), Courier (2), Sergi Bruguera (2) and Jan Kodes (2). 

BEST WOMEN CHAMPS: Evert (7), Graf (6), Justine Henin (4), Serena (3), Margaret Court (3), Seles (3), Sanchez Vicario (3), Navratilova (2), and Sharapova (2). 

BEST TO NEVER WIN THE FRENCH: Sampras, McEnroe, Connors, Becker, Edberg, Stan Smith, Ashe, Murray, Roddick, Venus, Hingis, Clijsters, Davenport and Tracy Austin.

BEST MOMENTS: Among so many others, two sublime Roland Garros moments come to mind: France’s Yannick Noah hugging his dad after his 1983 win and in 2001, after avoiding a huge upset at the hands of lowly-ranked Michael Russell, Guga Kuerten drew a heart in the red clay and fell into the middle of it, in relief and ecstasy. Noah said, “Guga has this look in his eyes. There’s love there. It’s almost religious. He’s not like, ‘I win, I’m the best.’ It’s not an ego trip. It’s, ‘Oh my God, I won. I’m so happy for my people.’” 

WIDE OPEN WOMEN’S DRAW: Three recent women Slam winners, US Open champ Naomi Osaka, 2019 French Open titleist Ash Barty and 2019 US Open champ Bianca Andreescu, are all passing on Paris. And this year’s Aussie Open champ, Sofia Kenin, lost in the fourth round of the US Open and fell in Rome 6-0, 6-0 to Victoria Azarenka. Kenin’s Italian loss brings to mind Steffi Graf’s 32-minute 6-0, 6-0 win over Russian Natasha  Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0 in the 1989 final. Graf, who lost only 13 points, apologized to the crowd that her match was so short. 

CHAMPIONS FACE OFF EARLY: There are six Slam champs in the men’s draw. Four will have met in the first round. Three-time Slam winners Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka practiced together Wednesday, and today they faced each other. Incredibly, another pair of Slam champions, Dominic Thiem and Marin Cilic, will play in the first round. In 2017 Wawrinka barely prevailed in an epic marathon win over Murray in the French semis in a battle that may have been the most destructive in ATP history. (You might say it was Stanimalistic). Wawrinka would go on to have knee surgery and needed 20 months to return to the top. Murray went on to have his complicated hip surgery. 

For Andy, today’s match was brutal, too. Stan crushed him 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. Broadcaster Chris Bowers asked, “Will we see Andy Murray at Roland Garros again?…Has he reached the ceiling?” On Eurosport Mats Wilander was blunt: “I worry about Andy Murray giving us a false hope he’s going to come back one day. Does he have a right to be out there taking wildcards from the young players?” Ouch. Eleanor Preston said, “Anytime you see Andy on a tennis court, it’s a miracle.”

BRUTAL BRITISH DAY: Murray wasn’t the only Brit to go down in Paris. No. 9 seed Jo Konta, fell to Coco Gauff, and British No. 1 Dan Evans, lost to the resurgent Kei Nishikori.

AMERICAN SCOREBOARD: American men went three for three today, with the surprisingly clay-friendly Taylor Fritz, qualifier Sebastian Korda and John Isner (who hadn’t played a clay-court match since 2018) all winning. But American women only went one for four. Coco Gauff won, but Venus, Shelby Rogers and Varvara Lepchenko all fell.

DADS MATTER: Mothers were justifiably lauded at the US Open. Goodness, three of them made the semis. But dads matter, too. Yesterday Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, tweeted, “I felt a little bit lost in Rome without my father. That week will remain unforgettable and I think that now I will appreciate it even more that I have my dad next to me. I will pay a lot of respect to what he has been doing all these years.” The Greek fell in the Hamburg final today to Andrey Rublev. 

In her sophomore year, Coco Gauff has had her share of troubles. Today she reported a poignant exchange she’d had with her dad just before she went out to face the No. 9 seed Jo Konta in her first-ever French Open match. “My dad told me something in the warmup: ‘You’re living your dream, so just enjoy and have fun.’ His goal was to become an NBA player, and he didn’t make it. He told me, ‘You’re living your dream. Not everybody gets to do that. Just have fun on the court.’ That really changed my perspective. I was really nervous going into the match. That just calmed me down. I realized it’s just a match. I’m doing some things that people wish they could do. Just go out there and enjoy it.”

BACK-TO-BACK AUSTRIANS: Within weeks, two very different Austrians scored incredible comebacks from two sets down in consecutive Grand Slam sessions. Dominic Thiem, 25, and No. 3 in the world, came back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev and win the US Open with its $3 million prize. It was his 291st win on tour. Today, in the opening round in Paris, a little-known Austrian qualifier, No. 169 Jurij Rodionov, also fought back from two sets down, and on his seventh match point beat  French veteran Jeremy Chardy 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 10-8. It was his first main draw win ever. 

SYMPATHY FOR THE SINNER: Jannick Sinner is from the land of saints, but the Italian is one Sinner who’s drawing kudos, thanks to his easy power, deep shots and wins over top 20 players like Tsitsipas. He’s no saint, but the 19-year-old is the youngest man in the draw and ATP’s best teen prospect. Today he easily dismissed the considerable Belgian David Goffin. He and Sinner were the first players to battle under Court Centrale’s dazzling new roof. 

TRENDING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION: Originally French authorities planned to have 11,000 fans on site, then it went down to 5,000 and now it’s 1,000. Unfortunately in Paris there were 16,000 new COVID infections in one 24-hour stretch late this week. There are also new restrictions on bars and restaurants in the French capital.

FERNANDO’S FURY: Fernando Verdasco’s streak of playing 65 straight Slams came to an end when authorities banned him from the French Open due to a positive COVID test. The Spaniard was livid. His statement, which dismissed French authorities, drew much criticism.   

MAKES SENSE: When Venus Williams first appeared today in Paris, Martina Navratilova gushed, “What a  trooper! What a warrior! More power to her!” Radio Roland Garros said the well-insulated star “looked like she was ready for a polar expedition.” Unfortunately, the 40-year-old icon never heated up on court and lost 6-4, 6-4 to No. 161 Anna Schmiedlova, who’d lost 13 straight Grand Slam matches. Williams was asked why she’s struggled so much since tennis has resumed play – she’s 1-5. Venus replied, “Because I didn’t win the last point at the end. Gotta win the last point.”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Vika Azarenka was asked if the French Open should be canceled…Six of the top ten WTA players weren’t in the US Open. Four of the top women are not in the French draw: Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Belinda Benic. Federer is the only ATP top ten player not in the men’s draw. BTW: When Inside Tennis showed Federer the 16 issues that featured him on our cover, we asked him which was his favorite. He said it was the one of him winning the 2009 French Open. “Maybe my greatest victory − or certainly the one that took the most pressure off my shoulders…Now until the end of my career, I can really play with my mind at peace and no longer hear that I’ve never won at Roland Garros.”

DANGEROUS AT ANY SPEED? Rafa Nadal asserted that the heavy new balls at this year’s French Open are dangerous.

LUCKY FOLKS: Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas have sweet draws and 2016 champ Garbine Murguruza has a good path to a potential final with Halep. 

ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS: The ATP championships will be ending their 12-year run at London’s 02 Arena in November. The popular event will go to Turin, Italy for 2021-25. But no problem – in 2022, the Laver Cup will be held in the cutting-edge London Arena.

UNDERHANDED COMMENTARY: Martina Hingis drew the wrath of the crowd when she served underhanded to Steffi Graf in 1999. Michael Chang’s underhand serve to Ivan Lendl in the 1989 fourth round remains one of the most devastating shots in tennis history. To many, it was tennis’ version of David slaying Goliath…Will Alexander Bublik dare hit one of his amazingly effective underhand serves at Roland Garros?On match point in the final round of this year’s French Open qualies, Monica Niculescu hit an underarm serve and quickly won the point to seal her victory.

HOW TO GET FIVE QUESTIONS INTO ONE: A beloved Scottish reporter asked Jo Konta, “They say that Paris is the city of love. You reached the semis last year. Do you feel like you’ve developed a bit of a love/hate relationship on the clay, and also possibly with the British media as well? Off the back of that, what do you love most about the clay? What do you hate most about the clay? What do you love and hate about the British media? Feel free to share the love.”

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