PARIS – For the past few years there has been one word that best describes the sport of tennis: odd. It began in 2020 when COVID broke out and Indian Wells locked its gates. Soon after, the French Open unilaterally announced it was moving its dates to the fall, and Wimbledon revealed it had a dandy insurance policy and was postponing its 2020 tourney.
Then things got really interesting.
• The US Open was played without fans. Novak Djokovic was disqualified for hitting a linesperson in the throat.
• At the re-imagined French Open held in October, teen Iga Swiatek scored a shock win.
• Before the 2021 Australian Open there were marathon quarantines.
• The unsung Czech Barbora Krejčíková, who was supposedly a doubles specialist, won the French Open singles title.
• Last year’s Wimbledon at times seemed more like an infirmary than a cathedral. Many were hurt. Superstars Roger Federer and Serena Williams suffered injuries, and both have been sidelined ever since.
• At the US Open, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu won 22 straight sets to become the first qualifier to win a Slam, while Djokovic felt the weight of history. He stumbled at the last hurdle by falling in the final, and failed to complete his quest for a Grand Slam.
But the Nole drama was nothing compared to “L’Affaire Djokovic,” where the No. 1 player in the world was banned from playing an Australian Open that veered from agony to ecstasy. Rafa Nadal came from behind to win a record 21st Slam, and home favorite Ash Barty wowed the world as she became the first Aussie to triumph Down Under since 1978. Just months later, the 25-year-old announced her retirement – never mind that she was a dominant No. 1.
Oh, and lest we forget, there was plenty else to chew on in tennis, too. Naomi Osaka boycotted press conferences and kickstarted mental health conversations. China’s Peng Shuai attracted international headlines with her accusations of abuse and the WTA pulled out of the lucrative Chinese market. The invasion of Ukraine prompted Wimbledon to ban Russians and Belarusians, and the ATP and the WTA have now retaliated by stripping the ranking points from Wimbledon.
If that were not enough tennis drama, a dreamy 18-year-old Spanish phenom with bulging muscles and a subtle drop shot won this year in Rio, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid. The emergence of Carlos Alcaraz has been the most dazzling ATP star-is-born narrative since boy Rafa dazzled us in 2005. Similarly, the Polish powerhouse Iga Swiatek is on a roll, having won 28 straight matches.
Even looking to the future, there will be oddities. Wimbledon will be without Russians and Belarusians, and Novak Djokovic still might not be able to come to America to play the US Open because he is unvaccinated.
It’s understandable that some might yearn for a bit of normalcy. Rafa recently said, “Humanity needs a little bit of calm.” But, even before the first ball was struck at the French Open, there was turbulence.
The Roland Garros men’s draw seemed to be right out of the wild and wacky playbook that’s been so evident in the past few tennis seasons. The draw is as lopsided as the Titanic was on that chilly night long ago in the North Atlantic. The three top men’s prospects – Djokovic, Nadal and Alcaraz (along with No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Diego Schwartzman) are all packed into the top half of the draw, and the top quarter (“the quarter of death”) includes both No. 1 Djokovic, who is the defending champion, and 13-time winner Nadal. The duo could well meet in the quarterfinals in a tournament that invites many questions. Here are 10.
1. RAFA’S FOOT: Nadal at Roland Garros is a fearsome force. After watching him practice the other day, Zverev said, “All of a sudden his forehand is just 20 miles an hour faster. He moves lighter on his feet. There is something about this court that makes him play 30% better.” But, will his perpetually injured foot again do him in?
2. DJOKOVIC’S RE-BOOT: After finally coming back to the tour, Djokovic at first struggled, but then impressively worked his way back and won in Rome. Will he be able to continue his fine form in five-set matches and possibly get through Nadal, Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas to defend his title and equal Rafa with 21 Slams?
3. CHARLY’S ANGEL: Alcaraz likes to be called Charly, because he thinks his given name Carlos is too formal. In any case, it seems that the 19-year-old has been blessed by an angel this year. With his power off both wings, a fearless mindset and subtle drop shots, he has dominated top-10 players – including Nole and Rafa. But, amidst mighty expectations, will his level drop at Roland Garros with its best-of-five matches?
4. SWIATEK’S DOMINANCE: Following Barty’s retirement, Pole Iga Swiatek has made an almost breathless dash to the top. Her forehand punishes. Her mind is strong. Her speed and athleticism are weapons. She loves the spotlight, doesn’t blink in finals and is wearing the No. 1 crown with ease. Coming into Paris she’s won 28 straight matches and since February won five titles including four Masters. Although just 20, will she win her second French in 18 months? She may face Simona Halep in the third round.
5. GREEK GRIT: Last year’s finalist, No. 4 seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, has had an impressive clay season. He again won in Monte Carlo and reached the finals in Barcelona and Madrid. He has a dreamy draw, although his first-round foe, young Italian Lorenzo Musetti, is no cupcake.
6. FIELD WARRIORS: The past eight women’s championships have given us eight different winners, and the past three winners – Krejčíková, Swiatek and Barty, were hardly expected. Does another surprise winner lurk on either the women’s or men’s sides?
7. AMERICANS IN PARIS: There are plenty of Americans in the field. US players did well on the hard court circuit this year. Taylor Fritz won Indian Wells. Then, on clay, Reilly Opelka won in Houston and Jessica Pegula reached the Madrid final. But overall, US singles players were rather quiet on the Euro clay. In Paris the draw is fairly friendly to Americans, although former semi-finalist Amanda Anisimova faces Naomi Osaka in a first-round popcorn match. The question lurks: can an American reach the second week?
8. ONS MORE WITH FEELING? Ash Barty’s feel-good win at the Australian Open was a triumph that touched many. Would an Ons Jabeur win in Paris do the same? The popular Tunisian won in Madrid and reached the Italian Open final.
9. TSONGA’S SWAN SONG: The most popular male French player since Yannick Noah is retiring after Roland Garros. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 36, reached the 2008 Australian Open final and the semis of five other Slams. He won 18 titles, but admits he has regrets. How sweet it would be if he could win a few matches in Paris.
10. GHOSTS: Some of the games greatest names – Venus, Serena and Roger – are missing in action. Venus reached the 2022 Roland Garros finals. After her three wins in Paris, Serena would speak to the crowd in French and then retreat to the apartment she owned in Paris. Federer prevailed in three matches last year and his French Open win in 2009 was one of the greatest triumphs of his career. Will any of these greats ever play the French Open again?