Fireworks on Opening Day at the French Open

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

The French adore drama – and today Roland Garros began with an intense theatrical bang that was all about Europe’s fiercest conflict since WWII. 

Just the day before, Kiev had suffered its worst drone attack of the 15-month war. 

Today what fans first saw at Roland Garros was a match that was certain to draw sparks. Even before the beginning stroke of the opening match between the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka and Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk, there was drama. The traditional pre-match photo shoot didn’t happen. Then 20-year-old Kostyuk, who, in 14 tries, has never beaten a top 10 player, took an early lead. But not surprisingly, Sabalenka rallied and won convincingly 6-3, 6-2. 

Kostyuk left the court without shaking Sabalenka’s hand. She had never done that with Russians or Belarusians before. Some in the French crowd derisively whistled. Sabalenka at first thought the crowd had turned on her – but that was not the case. 

Marta soon admitted it had been “an emotionally tough match,” and added, “I am a naturally a positive person. If people don’t like me or hate me, I kind of understand that. It’s okay. It’s their decision – their opinion.”

But some noted that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has long opportunistically used tennis and Sabalenka to advance his standing. In an April speech he said, “Everyone is against the war,” and then spoke about Sabalenka’s recent results, including winning the Australian Open and then losing in the Indian Wells final. He joked about Aryna’s serving problems and quipped, “I will figure it out with her.”

Before Roland Garros, Sabalenka had said she was not pleased that Lukashenko had referred to her. She added, “I have nothing to do with politics…If Ukrainians will hate me more after his speech, then what can I do? If they feel better by hating me, I’m happy to help them with that.”

She added that she has “never seen so much hate in a locker room,” and explained she doesn’t understand people faulting her for the war since she hasn’t done anything. She stated that “nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, can support the war. How can we support the war?”

As for Kostyuk, she long ago confided, “My mental state…is a roller coaster…There are huge holes in my parent’s house. There are no apartments anymore. They live like many other Ukrainians, on the bags…Sport has always been politics…Countries like Russia and China are extremely political…They use their athletes. Honestly…when someone says sport is out of politics, it’s really stupid.”

Kostyuk did praise Daria Kasatkina, who has been critical of Russia’s war and has left her homeland. Marta said she appreciated that the Russian native “had stayed on the side of the truth and of kindness and love.” She expressed her appreciation of Wimbledon’s financial support of Ukrainian players, saying, “It just makes me believe that there are good people in this world left.”

As for being booed today, the defiant young Ukrainian said she’d like “to see what people’s reactions are in ten years…I think they should honestly be embarrassed.” Kostyuk noted that the missiles that are launched by Russia and Belarus don’t know whether they land on politicians or athletes. And Marta was highly critical of Sabalenka. “She never says that she personally doesn’t support this war…No one can understand what we are going through. It’s unexplainable.”

A reporter noted that Sabalenka was in a difficult position and added that top leaders are ultimately the only ones who can call off a war. But wars are largely a battle of hearts and minds, and many wondered if Sabalenka saying that she couldn’t do anything was in a way evasive, since she’s so prominent. 

Kostyuk replied, “I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation for her. Since the beginning of the war, all of them have [been in a] very difficult situation.”

Marta noted that 80 or 85 percent of Russians support the war and, just by speaking out, Sabalenka can send a message – “Because most of these people, they haven’t even ever left the country…She has a big platform…I never said publicly…I hate Aryna Sabalenka…I just don’t respect her because of her position.”

As for the tense vibes in the locker rooms these days, Kostyuk said that it has been “just months [of] shut eyes in the ground, and they walk and they don’t say anything…I see these players every single week… and they don’t have the audacity to come up and talk to me.” Marta also called for Britain to revoke the visas of Russian and Belarusian players.

Recently Novak Djokovic reflected on war: “As a child of war, I can say that in a war, no one wins. It is the ugliest thing in life, man’s worst invention, the worst idea in history. I have seen two wars, the civil one in Yugoslavia and the NATO bombing of Belgrade. I’ve seen the suffering of my family, and the poverty of my country.”

Martina Navratilova, a Czech native whose country was also invaded by Russia, said today’s controversy was “heart-breaking.”

A KINGDOM WITHOUT ITS KING: After Rafa pulled out of the French Open, the headline on the front cover of L’Equipe read, “Une Terre Sans Son Roi.” In English that means, “A Land Without Its King.” 

AMERICAN DROUGHT: In the old days American men did just fine in Paris. In 1989, Michael Chang served underhand, stepped way in on the return of serve and frustrated the mighty Ivan Lendl to win the title. Tennis-wise it was one of the greatest David slays Goliath sagas ever. Then Jim Courier took advantage of a rain delay to shock Andre Agassi, the leading light of the Bollettieri Academy, where Jim also trained. And in 1999 a tearful Agassi scored a memorable triumph. 

Since then, US men have come up short at Roland Garros. The US Open could mark the 20th year that an American man hasn’t won a Slam. What a miracle it would be if a US player won Roland Garros! Then again, American power players like Taylor Fritz do have an outside chance of taking Wimbledon.

Amidst all the doom and gloom, there is some wonderful news. Thirty-five Americans – 19 women and 16 men – made it to the Roland Garros main draw, and that’s the most in 28 years.

TAR HEELS ARE OUTRIGHT UNKINDLY OF THEIR NEIGHBOR: While the University of Virginia men’s tennis team won its second straight collegiate title, no west coast team flourished in the recent NCAA championships. Only Stanford and USC reached the round of 16. And during the regular season, No. 10 USC and No. 18 Stanford were the only teams to finish in the top 20. The last west coast men’s team to win an NCAA D1 title was USC in 2014. The last west coast women’s team to win the NCAA title was Stanford, who went back-to-back in 2018-19. Claremont Mudd Scripps’s women won this year’s D3 crown.

Incredibly, the University of North Carolina women Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack to score their first title ever. North Carolina and NC State are 12 miles apart. (Editor’s Note: California rivals USC and UCLA are 14 miles apart, and Stanford and Cal are 50 miles apart). 

THE ODDS: According to oddsmakers, the favorites at Roland Garros are Carlos Alcaraz +150, Novak Djokovic +225, Holger Rune +700, Casper Ruud +2200, Alexander Zverev +3500. 

In the women’s draw it’s Iga Swiatek -110, Aryna Sabalenka +650 Elena Rybakina +1000, Paula Badosa +2000, Barbora Krejcikova +2100, Jelena Ostapenko +2400, Cori Gauff +2900 and Ons Jabeur +2900.

KAREN SURVIVES: Since his debut into the main draw in 2017, Karen Kachanov has never lost in the opening round of Roland Garros. Today he staged a remarkable two-sets-to-love comeback against Frenchman Constant Lestienne 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 to maintain that streak.



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