French Open Preview Buzz

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Vinay Venkatesh and Bill Simons

Paris

SIGN OF THE SEASON: “Iga Swiatek – Your wins taste better than tiramisu!”

AIN’T THAT THE TRUTH: Steve Weissman commented, “It’s Iga’s universe – and we’re just living in it.”

FIVE RINGS, FOUR TOURNEYS AND ONE HECK OF A SUMMER: Within a 12-week span, there’ll be high-stakes tennis drama at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the Paris Olympics and the US Open.

WIDE OPEN FRENCH: With all the injuries and aging in men’s tennis, the tournament is the most wide open since Nadal began to reign in 2006. In contrast, the women’s field is one-sided. It’s Iga versus the rest of the field.

RAFA’S DRAW: Although Rafa has committed to play the Laver Cup in September, this season could well be his last year. The king of clay, who’s won 14 French Opens, is now ranked only No. 305. So an intriguing question looms: just who will he play early at Roland Garros? There’s a small chance that the draw that comes out Thursday might give us a Nadal vs. Djokovic or a Rafa vs. Alcaraz match-up. 

NO “THIEM SPIRIT” IN PARIS: France gave all six of its available wildcards to French men and women. And neither Emma Raducanu, Simona Halep nor Caroline Wozniacki (who have together won four majors) were invited to the Paris party. Okay. 

But not to give the extraordinary Dominic Thiem, who is in the last year of his spectacular yet ill-fated career, seems quite an injustice. Once No. 3 in the world, the highly popular Austrian, who won the fanless Covid-era US Open in 2020 and twice reached the Roland Garros final, has had the most coulda-shoulda-woulda career since Juan Martin del Potro. The 30-year-old, who’s scored at least five wins each over Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, is ranked No. 117, just a dozen or so slots from getting a direct Roland Garros entry. Now he’s lost in qualifying so his Roland Garros career is over. 

OF JIMMY CARTER, JIMMY CONNORS AND TRUMP: Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Connors have the same initials. The former president and the world’s former No. 1 player were both at the tops of their different fields back in 1977. Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, went on to become the executive director of the ATP. Carter did attend the US Open, which Jimbo won five times. But the former president wasn’t even the best player in the Carter clan – that was his wife Rosalynn.

Anyway, when trying to reference Carter at a New Jersey rally, former President Trump got a bit confused. His comments just didn’t make sense. “We are going to evict this President, the worst president by far, Jimmy Connors is. He’s also happy. Jimmy is a very happy man. Both of them, because, you know what? They want him out. Jimmy Connors had a bad reputation. Right now, he is considered a totally brilliant president by comparison [to President Biden].”

Trump critics were quick to note that this was not the first time the former president had slipped up on people whose names were similar. He confused his primary foe Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. 

BTW: Trump was on the cover of Inside Tennis in 2004. At the 1988 US Open, he was sitting in Connors’ box when Jimmy was playing Andre Agassi. Then, as Andre began to dominate the match, Trump got up and moved to Agassi’s box.

A BEAUTIFUL MESS: The new movie “Challengers” is about a tennis-playing threesome and their love-hate relationships with each other and the sport. To some, it’s all very sweaty and sexy, an intriguing and entertaining tennis reveal with a pounding sound track, great photography, gritty action shots and a hot young star, Zendaya. Does it change how we look at relationships? Perhaps. But anyway, it’s great pop fun. 

To others, “Challengers” is quite a forgettable journey to nowhere, featuring vapid, less than appealing characters including Zendaya’s role, Tashi Duncan, a kind of “Peel-me-a-grape” Anna Kournikova type.

Even though Coco Gauff’s coach Brad Gilbert played a hefty role in making the film, she’s not a fan. Coco said she didn’t know any “throuples” on the tour and she’s never met any Tashi Duncans. While Coco liked the on-court mental dynamics in “Challengers,” to her, the characters weren’t relatable and she bristled at Tashi’s infidelity. Coco added with a smile that unlike Tashi, she wouldn’t have a romance with a lower ranked player: “I wouldn’t want to date a scrub.”

But others applauded the zest and authenticity of “Challengers.” Jon Wertheim suggested, “Imagine if Lady Macbeth had once played the Wimbledon juniors. Zendaya bubbles with self-confidence in this role.” 

For her part, the 27-year-old actress told Wertheim that “Challengers” isn’t exactly a tennis movie, a romantic comedy, or a drama. She explained, “It really can’t be defined or categorized as any one thing…It’s all just a complicated, beautiful mess.

“Tennis is an incredibly lonely sport – and I can’t imagine the pressure…to always be at the top…In our industry, there’s no literal ranking. To think that you’re on a number system of how good you are is terrifying.” 

As for the “Challengers” threesome, Zendaya observes, “Their main problem is they can’t be by themselves…Everything in their existence is dependent upon someone else’s existence…It’s incredibly codependent…When you see a beautiful rally…there has to be somebody else on the other side…Sometimes it’s aggravating and frustrating, and there’s anger…Then sometimes there’s just pure joy and appreciation.”

CAMILA FLEES HER VILLA: Camila “Don’t-even-think-of-calling-her-Tashi-Duncan-with-an-Italian-accent” Giorgi, the former world No. 24, is said to be on the run from tax authorities, along with her dad and brothers, because of suspicious gaps in her tax returns. Her lawyers denied this is the reason.

The Italian, who recently was No. 116, and has drawn attention thanks to many revealing Instagram lingerie photos, has seemingly retired. So she doesn’t have to report her location to the WTA. She fled from her villa near Florence where the owner claimed that she hadn’t paid rent for six months and that she’d stolen a $500,000 desk, other furniture and Persian rugs worth almost $110,000. 

Giorgi is said to have changed her phone number and come to America. On Instagram, she suggested that there have been many inaccurate rumors about her. She’s also facing charges of forging documents to get into Australia in 2022. 

Early in her career, she and her father Sergio came under fire for their alleged treatment of five different backers, who’d provided funds to advance her career. Supposedly they were not paid back. Sports Illustrated detailed an extended string of problematic dealings and broken promises. When Inside Tennis asked her about these in 2014, she replied, “I don’t want to talk about that…I just want to talk about tennis, not this stuff.”

All this stuff leaves us with one question: Where in the world is Camila Giorgi?

AMERICA WATCH: America had a fine clay court run. While fleet Tommy Paul has not yet advanced past the second round at Roland Garros, in the past two seasons the world No. 16 has made stunning runs to the semis of four big tourneys – last year’s Australian and Canadian Opens, and Indian Wells and Rome this spring. In Italy he beat two top 10 players in a tourney for the first time. He downed defending champ Daniil Medvedev and No. 8 Hubi Hurkacz. 

After swapping places with Ben Shelton as America’s No. 1, Taylor Fritz comes into Roland Garros as the top US male, at No. 13. He reached the Munich final, the Madrid semis and the quarters in Rome. Fritz, who won Delray Beach early this year, has never gotten past the third round at the French Open.

After winning in Houston, No. 14 Ben Shelton had a rough Euro-clay court run. As in the 2023 French Open, he fell in the second round in both Madrid and Rome. Frances Tiafoe is now No. 25. Seb Korda is No. 27.

Also at the Italian Open, former French finalist Coco Gauff lost to Swiatek in the semis. While Gauff is gallantly holding onto her lofty No. 3 ranking, she suffered 45 double faults in Rome. Coco hasn’t reached a final since taking Auckland in January. The injury-plagued Jessie Pegula, No. 5, missed the entire Euro-clay swing. No. 12 Danielle Collins, the Miami and Charleston champ, reached the Rome semis.  

HOW WEIRD CAN YOU GET? At Indian Wells, a swarm of bees brought play to a halt. After an early win in Rome, Djokovic was signing autographs when a heavy water bottle fell out of a fan’s backpack and conked him on the head – ouch! One observer on Twitter noted, “It’s karma. In New York he bashed a lineswoman in the throat [with a ball] and she fell to the ground. In Rome a fan brought him down with a bottle.” The day after the painful incident, Djoker showed up on the grounds wearing a dorky bicycle helmet.

THE GORILLA IN THE ROOM: Big-serving Alexander Zverev downed Chilean Nicola Jarry 6-4, 7-5 to win his fifth Masters crown, the Italian Open. His beaming smile lit up Rome’s Nicola Pietrangeli Stadium. The arena roared. Zverev knew well that for two weeks the Italians had dearly missed their hero, Jannik Sinner. So he began his acceptance speech by joking, “Buongiorno, everyone, my name is Jannik.” The place was in stitches. 

But not every fan was laughing. On Twitter, Abbiemc said, “All I think about Zverev winning is he’s been accused in detail by two separate women, including the mother of his child, of violence and financial abuse, and that criminal justice systems are not designed to handle domestic violence but they managed to get him to trial because it’s that bad.” 

Zverev, who’s now No. 4, has a Berlin court date on May 31, in the heart of the French Open, to appeal the criminal penalty order that was handed down to him for domestic abuse. Many wonder what will happen if he’s scheduled to play right at the time of his Berlin court hearing. 

PAINFUL PICTURE: The Italian Open’s awards ceremonies, which were truly chaotic last year, often have a twist. This year was no exception. After getting his trophy, Zverev offered a lovely family values homage, saluting his foe Nico Jarry, his wife and their two young sons, and grandfather Jaime Fillol, who were all courtside. “You have a fantastic family. It’s beautiful to see. It’s amazing…This is a fantastic example of what family life on tour can look like.”

These were lovely sentiments. But all the while it was hard to ignore the sad reality that we never see or hear of Zverev’s three-year-old daughter, or the fact that her mother has been assigned a huge payment due to domestic abuse in a case that writers and broadcasters rarely address.

AGING ICONS: Rafa, Andy Murray, Thiem, Garbine Muguruza, Diego Schwartzman, Danielle Collins and Alize Cornet are just some of the stars who have retired or indicated they’ll be hanging up their sneakers this year. But the 39-year-old Swiss warrior Stan Warwrinka wants to keep going. Even though he’s ranked No. 87, he says, “I need more confidence, but I know I can keep on doing what I’m doing.”

IS THE IGA-ARYNA GAP WIDENING? The two best players in the WTA are now Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka. They’re No. 1 and 2 and have won four of the last six Slams. In a fabulous final, amidst Madrid’s fast conditions, Sabalenka had three championship points, but Swiatek survived, winning 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (7) in 3:11. Two weeks later in Rome, Iga crushed Aryna 6-3, 6-2 in just 89 minutes. After the Pole won her third Italian Open in four years and her fourth WTA Masters 1000 title this year, she confidently told Aryna, “I hope we’re going to make it to the final in Roland Garros, and I’m going to get you there.” Iga has won three of the last four French titles and is a prohibitive favorite.

A GAP THAT’S BOUND TO CLOSE: The Big Three of men’s tennis – Novak, Rafa and Roger – have won 66 Slam titles. The current Big Three in the WTA – Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina – have seven.

THE RED SEA PARTS: In Madrid, Felix Auger-Aliassime became the first player to reach a Masters final thanks to three defaults or walkovers.

THE END OF A ROMANCE: Tsitsidosa is done. After being tennis’ hottest new couple for about 10 months, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Paula Badosa have parted ways. 

QUESTION: JUST HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO HIT A BARN WITH A BANJO? Jason Goodall said that the surging Egyptian, Maya Sheriff, “couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo at the start of the season. Now she’s won seven of her last nine matches.” 

HOT CHILI: In Rome, No. 24 Nico Jarry and No. 32 Alejandro Tabilo became the first two Chileans to reach the semis of a tournament since 2008. 

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