Bill Simons

“When I look out my window

Many sights to see

And when I look in my window

So many different people to be

It’s strange, so strange…

Must be the season of the witch.”

                  ~ Donavan

 

The rumbling thunder of a tennis revolution is sounding. Maybe it has something to do with the city. Paris, the town that gave us guillotines, rather enjoys its insurrections.

Or maybe it’s the season. Usually during Roland Garros warm, continental breezes soothe our souls. Chestnuts are in bloom. But, last night when Garbine Muguruzu emerged on court in an Arctic-worthy down parka, Jon Wertheim quipped, “She looks like she’s going for moguls in the Swiss Alps.” 

In Paris, blustery winds have been biting, and chestnut and tennis seeds are falling. Hard balls have led to high hopes. The new roof has often been closed, minds have opened. There are few fans, but many possibilities. The shadows are deep – it’s the season of the witch. Clearly, during the COVID shutdown, young tennis wannabes were chomping at the bit. Certainly they were muttered, “Why not me? Get me outta here! This is my time!”

At the US Open, not a single member of the Big Three – Roger, Rafa and Nole – got to the finish line. The dam that for so long had held tennis in check burst: Thiem won. Early at Roland Garros, unpredictable winds surged. An Egyptian woman appeared for the first time. An appealing Tunisian, Ons Jabeur, became the first-ever Arab woman to reach the Roland Garros quarterfinals. A young Dane, 17-year-old Clara Tauson, blasted US Open finalist Jen Brady off the court. Maybe it’s not shocking that Russians (and those of Russian descent) have gone deep in Paris. Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov, Sofia Kenin, Alexander Zverev, Amanda Anisimova, Stefanos Tsitsipas have all scored wins here. And Tsitsipas offered a deep thought, saying that at Roland Garros, “The biggest victory will be achieved by someone with the greatest imagination and creativity.”

But who imagined that COVID would be spiking in Paris and whiplash stories would surge in Roland Garros? As Frenchwomen briefly dreamt of an all-French final, a Martina not named Navratilova or Hingis drew attention. The virtually unknown Italian qualifier Martina Trevisan had a sweet cup of coco and took out teen Gauff. Then she stunned No. 5 seed Kiki Bertens to reach the quarterfinals.

Just this morning it seemed that the French title was Simona Halep’s for the plucking. The recently crowned Italian Open champ had won 17 matches in a row and hadn’t lost a set en route to the fourth round. Plus, the field was thinning out nicely. Last year’s champ Ash Barty hadn’t even come to the party. No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, Serena and the streaking Victoria Azarenka had been swept aside. Former French champ Muguruza, (who in her all-black outfit, was a kind of WTA answer to Darth Vader) was cruising. She was up by two breaks in the third set. But things suddenly got dark. The ever-feisty American roared back to steal a 7-6, 2-6, 6-4 upset.

On Friday Halep destroyed her nemesis Anisimova who had beaten her here in 2019. Simona gave hints of glee after she dropped just one game to the American. She gloated, “I keep on smiling, because I keep on winning.” Alex Faust asked, “Is there anyone left who can threaten Halep?” The only French Open women’s champ left in the draw would now certainly sashay to the quarterfinals. Her fourth round foe was 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, whom Halep had beaten here last year in just 45 minutes. She lost just one game. But this year Swiatek was a Pole on a roll. Never mind that Halep would have become No. 1 if she’d won the French. Iga swept to a 6-1, 6-2 win. “It was a breathtaking performance,” wrote the Guardian. “In a tournament that has already thrown up a string of surprises in both singles draws, it was the most remarkable.”   

Broadcaster Steve Weissman looked at the top half of the draw and sighed, “If you had foreseen these four names, Swiatek, Trevisan, Svitolina and [the No. 131 Argentine qualifier Nadia] Podoroska, well, you are smarter than I am.” 

OMG storylines are the mother’s milk of tennis tourneys, but this year’s French Open has been a radically unpredictable affair that has exploded the tennis order. There are still two qualifiers left in the women’s draw, Trevisan and Podoroska, as well as No. 87 Paula Badosa Gibert from Spain, No. 39, China’s Zhang Shuai, and No. 49, Fiona Ferro. 

The Frenchwoman will face the No. 4 seed, America’s Sofia Kenin, who will be favored, along with No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova, to emerge out of the bottom half of the draw, where one of them could meet No. 3 seed Elina Svitolina in the final, if the order holds.

But why would order start holding now? The American manchild, qualifier Sebastian Korda, won six straight matches to become the youngest American to reach the fourth round in nearly 30 years. But today, the son of former French finalist Petr Korda, who named his cat Rafa, seemed like a kitten as his idol, 12-time champ Nadal, teased him and caged him 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. As some pundits analyzed the Spaniard’s near purr-fect performance, Radio Roland Garros wondered whether Korda would go home and kick his cat or just rename him.

A new, interesting name in tennis is Italian Jannik Sinner. The highest ranked teen in the top 100 looks so young that Simon Cambers asked, “I’m not sure if he has to travel with shaving cream.” The Italian is said to have the calm of a Swede, the focus of Spaniard David Ferrer and the body of Czech Tomas Berdych. He rather easily took down US Open finalist Alexander Zverev and will next face Rafa.

Earlier this week the 20-year-old French wildcard Hugo Gaston, ranked No. 239, scored the first two wins of his quiet career and then shocked three-time Slam winner Stan Wawrinka. After he prevailed over the Swiss 6-0 in the fifth, French fans were in a frenzy. Eleanor Preston noted, “Hugomania is taking over here at Roland Garros. He’s been on everyone’s lips of late.” But today Dominic Thiem dominated early and took a two-set lead. Then, amazingly, the 5’ 7” star du jour brought out his left-handed wizardry and used his lobs, dropshots and guile to fight back. Thiem was tired after all his long sprints to get his foe’s mean drop shots. The recently crowned US Open champion felt the pressure of being the No. 3 seed and a two-time French finalist. But in the end form held. Thiem used his forehand, serve and experience to prevail 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 3-6, 6-3. 

In Paris, noted Ted Robinson, “It’s been an amazing run of stories…[There’s] an incredible list of people doing better than they’ve ever done before.” Goodness, we haven’t even told the tales of Nadia Podoroska, Barbora Krejcikova, Zhang Shuai, Laura Siegemund, Paula Badosa, Ons Jabuer, Fiona Ferro, Danielle Collins and Lorenzo Sonego – as well as the Hungarian Marton Fucsovics, a 28-year-old ranked No. 63 who beat Daniil Medvedev, or No.186, German Daniel Altmaier, who sent No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini packing.  

Amidst all the helter-skelter, nervous tennis aficionados could find solace in a familiar, reassuring narrative: the top two men’s seeds have been dismissing their almost hapless foes with an unblinking confidence. Rather bemused, Rafa and Novak marched on without much bother in their own bubbles of stability. Neither came close to losing a set. “The tournament has a feel,” said Jim Courier, “like we have two great actors gunning for the Best Actor Academy Award, while everyone else is gunning for Best Supporting Actor.” This year’s somewhat spooky French Open movie has brewed up a cauldron full of bewitching surprises. But, in this season of the witch, it’s hardly a shock.

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