The Gospel of Djokovic, The Genius of Alcaraz – The French Open Buzz

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Paris

THE GENIUS OF CARLOS ALCARAZ: Suzanne Lenglen Stadium has a high-tech roof. But its new glimmering ceiling doesn’t diminish one of the grandest stadiums tennis has ever given us. Already the court that induces drama has given us a couple of five-set crackerjack matches featuring Frenchmen Constant Lestienne and Benoit Paire. The French do love to shout and howl as they back their musketeers.

Now, as Paris’s golden light begins to descend, I venture to the gorgeous venue. Not surprisingly, it’s packed. Yes, it is Whit Monday, a national Christian holiday. But the Christian mantra, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” was hardly a guiding principle for Carlos Alcaraz today. As we’ve seen before, he doesn’t hesitate to impose his game with a ruthless efficiency.

He pounds three explosive forehands in a row. His shots are deep, his drop-shots are cruel. Fans wearing white chapeaus, orange onesies and Miami Dolphins caps gasp in amazement. In just 26 minutes he dismisses his overmatched Italian foe, Flavio Cobolli, 6-0. 

The American next to me is stunned: “He’s opening his Roland Garros with a bagel – so absolutely brilliant. He’s such a genius, the way he constructs his points – and he’s so buff. He’s in total control and the guy’s only 20. Oh, what flair!”

The crowd’s “oohs” and “aahs” that filled the arena early in the match turn to whispers and murmurs. Before them, the young Spanish matador is offering a master class – and toying with his foe. After Alacaraz wins eight games in a row, the crowd begins to encourage Cobolli, who’s No. 159 in the world, with prolonged cheers and slow claps. Eventually, the Italian breaks through and makes it somewhat of a match before Alacaraz prevails 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. 

The 2022 US Open champion, who was injured during the Australian Open, now has won eight Grand Slam matches in a row. This year he’s 31-3, has already claimed four titles and ranks No. 1 in the world. 

After Alcaraz’s first-round triumph, 10,068 ecstatic fans left Suzanne Lenglen Stadium knowing that they’ve seen the future of tennis. They loved Carlos’s charisma, his athleticism and his shot-making. But perhaps more than anything, they relish his smile and his deep love for the game. 

THE GOSPEL OF NOVAK DJOKOVIC: In Paris, Novak Djokovic, who, with Stan Wawrinka, is the only other man in the draw who has won the French Open, shared his thoughts with reporters about records, Rafa Nadal, his own tennis mortality and a wide range of issues. 

He confided, “It’s no secret that one of the main reasons I play today and compete in professional tennis is to try to break more records and make more history. History being on the line is something that is very flattering and very motivating.” 

Novak conceded that it’s a huge loss for tennis and Roland Garros to have Rafa miss this year’s French Open. “He is by far the most successful player to play this tournament in history…It opens up a chance and an opportunity for the rest of us to get the title, because whenever he plays, he’s an absolute favorite here – or in any clay court tournament.”

Novak then jokingly added, “Honestly, I don’t miss him. I have managed to beat him twice, but I had to leave my heart and guts out on the court to achieve that. I know how hard it is to play him anywhere around the world – but especially here.”

Then Novak reflected on Rafa, saying that 2024 would probably be Nadal’s last year on the circuit: “I felt a part of me was leaving with him too. It made me wonder about my career and how long I’m going to play. So far, I’m not going to make any announcement today, but just reflecting on it, I felt a little bit emotional about what Rafa was saying.”

NOLE’S NUMBERS: Nobody accumulates stats like Novak Djokovic, who’s seeking his Serena-equaling 23rd Slam. The remaining men’s and women’s field “only” has 19 Slams between them. As for the number of weeks at being No. 1, Nole has the record: 387. The rest of the field combined has 160.

‘HE HAS QUITE A NEST – I WONDER WHAT’S IN THERE’: France’s Benoit Paire hasn’t won a match since last July in Washington. He’s 4-25 over the past 18 months. Nonetheless today he was within two games of downing No. 14 seed Cam Norrie at Suzanne Lenglen Stadium. Just a while ago, the veteran French bad boy was suspended by the French Federation. The Federation gave him a wildcard anyway, despite his being ranked No. 149. 

Broadcaster Ted Robinson noted that Paire was “unconditionally loved by this stadium for three and a half hours.” He eventually lost, 7-5, 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. 

And BTW, who has a more noteworthy beard – the Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden or Paire? The Frenchman has tennis’ most distinctive beard since Torben Ulrich. One reporter quipped, “He has quite a nest – I wonder what’s in there.”

GO FIGURE: France’s Alize Cornet has played in 65 straight Slams…Brit Cam Norrie was booed when he came out to play Frenchman Benoit Paire…The timeless Stan Wawrinka won in five sets before an adoring Court14 crowd and he will next play Thanasi Kokkinakis 

LOST IN THE WASH: Before his first-round victory over the No. 20 seed Dan Evans, Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis somehow lost all his wash – so he had to scramble to get an old shirt and some shorts. All this brings to mind our favorite laundry story. At the Beijing Olympics in 2021, British gold medal cyclist Jamie Staff recalled: “I was in the laundry and realized I was standing right next to Nadal. I didn’t bother him, but he was shoving all his colors and whites in together. I really wanted to say, ‘Dude, you’re going to have a nightmare with that. You can’t just put the whole bag in — there are reds in with whites.’ But what can you do?”

TIMES CHANGE: A year ago, the popcorn first-round match was Naomi Osaka versus Amanda Anisimova. But since then, Naomi has largely been off the circuit and is now expecting, and Anisimova is taking an indefinite mental health break from tennis.

THERE ARE NO TEARS IN TENNIS – NOT: China’s top-ranked star Zhang Shuai was clobbered in her opening round match 6-1, 6-1, and sobbed uncontrollably during her post-match press conference. Shuai has been enduring a prolonged conflict with China’s Tennis Federation and hasn’t been to her homeland in three years. 

She was banned from representing China at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. She acknowledged being under tremendous pressure, which has significantly affected her mental health and her results on the court.  

Frenchman Lucas Pouille was also reduced to tears. Famous for an upset win over Rafa Nadal at the 2015 US Open, he has now slipped to No. 670. He’s been open about his struggles with depression and alcoholism. After he managed to get through the qualifying, he broke down in tears and was comforted by his young daughter.

FRIENDLY FIRE: Seb Korda took out fellow American Mackie McDonald and Jessica Pegula defeated Danielle Collins in straight sets in the opening round. To make matters worse, Madison Keys will now play Santa Barbara’s Kayla Day, who won the final tiebreak of a qualifying match to get into the main draw, and then beat French home favorite Kristina Mladenovic.

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