Mailbag: What We Learned from the 2021 French Open

Mailbag: What We Learned from the 2021 French Open

Putting a bow on the tournament with final thoughts on the year’s second major, including the Djokovic-Nadal semifinals match, Barbora Krejčíková’s chance at Wimbledon and more.

A run through some post–French Open questions …

Mailbag

Wow, that semifinals match! It is being rightly hailed as one of the best of all time, and even Djokovic said it was one of his best three matches ever. I, however, feel that the first and fourth sets were not at super high level. What elevated was set No. 3. Oh my! When we think of other great matches talked about in the same vein—Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon ’80 final, Federer-Nadal 2008 Wimbledon final, Nadal-Djokovic 2012 Australian Open final, Federer-Djokovic 2019 Wimbledon final—they were all A) five-setters, B) it was the fifth set which elevated the match to an all-time status (although Borg-McEnroe fourth set breaker was awesome). In this semifinals match, so many greats like Murray, Evert, Roddick were already tweeting in the middle of third set itself that this was the greatest match of all time which spoke to the quality of unreal hitting seen in that set. Do you agree? Thank you!
VK

• My knee-jerk response: “Ah, the recency effect.” But a few days later, I am still in awe of that third set. That was tennis at its most elevated—with historic stakes.

By classic standards it was not an all-time match. It didn’t go the distance. There were lopsided set scores, starting with Nadal’s 5–0 lead. There were 14 breaks of serve (8–6 Novak). Djokovic won nearly 20 more points. But—especially accounting for the context—the quality of that third set was extraordinary. The inevitable boxing analogy: one of the great rounds of all time. And it was fought with a sense that “whoever wins this third-set battle ain’t losing the war.”

In the early coverage of Djokovic’s Roland Garros victory, I haven’t heard much speculation about his chance of matching Steffi Graf’s “golden slam” in 1988. It seems to me that, midway through the Grand Slams, Novak has the best shot at achieving this feat since Steffi did it. (But, since the Olympics are being branded as the 2020 games, will it even be considered a “golden slam” if Novak wins in Tokyo as well as at the next two majors?)
Teddy C., NYC

• First, yes, an Olympic gold is an Olympic gold. If he’d won four majors in 2020 and had to wait for ’21 for the Olympic gold, we might have an issue. But this year we get four majors and Tokyo. So the Golden Slam, sure, it’s in play. To his credit, Djokovic isn’t ducking the issue:

Q. It’s probably almost inhumane to ask you about the next Grand Slam after a performance like that. But Marian Vajda has been talking about the calendar Grand Slam and golden Grand Slam being a target for you with the Olympics. Does that motivate you? Do you think it’s possible given the frenetic nature of this Grand Slam summer?

A. NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Everything is possible. I mean, definitely in my case I can say that what I’ve been through in my career, in my life, this journey has been terrific so far. I’ve achieved some things that a lot of people thought it would be not possible for me to achieve.

Everything is possible, and I did put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam. But, you know, I was in this position in 2016 as well. It ended up in a third-round loss in Wimbledon. This year we have only two weeks between the first round of Wimbledon and the finals here, which is not ideal because you go from really two completely different surfaces, trying to make that transition as smooth as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Re Krejcikova: Jon, I can already predict that she will be ousted in R1 at Wimbledon….this has been the norm for WTA newly crowned champion…
@ajjaxx

• Nope: 1) I disagree with the premise. Even Jelena Ostapenko—inevitably cited as the one-hit wonder—reached the Wimbledon quarters the month after winning the 2017 French, 2) Barbora Krejčíková was unseeded—by one spot—but has been a revelation this year. A multifaceted game? Athleticism? Check. Check/Czech. Emotional maturity? Check. She handled the big moments so well. That she was able to regroup and take the doubles 24 hours after this career highlight speaks so well of her.

Her triumph was obscured a bit by the Djokovic scene-stealing. But BK’s tennis was surpassing, and her postmatch remarks were lovely as well. Usually where there’s a surprise winner, the rest of the locker room says (often quietly), “If she can do it, why not me?” In this case (courtesy of Courtney Nguyen), Krejčíková implored her colleagues, “If I can do it, they can, too.”

I will say upfront that I’m a huge Rafa fan, but I’m also a fan of the sport and have been for 30 years. It was disappointing to see these headlines on two mainstream tennis sites (tennis.com and atptour.com): “Djokovic Dethrones Nadal After Roland Garros Epic” and “In Their Latest Classic, Novak Djokovic Dethrones Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros”.

My point here is how sports journalism is now more about overblown rhetoric and clicks than the honest, sensible reporting of facts. To even suggest that Rafa Nadal has been dethroned as the King of Clay (which the media dubbed him in the first place) is absurd. He is the “King” because of his clay court records and achievements, which are probably never going to be surpassed. Therefore, the loss of one match has absolutely no impact on that legacy. A King riding into a war does not lose his throne if one battle is lost.

As an aside, this is why, in part, people initially supported Osaka’s refusal to attend press conferences, and that was before she revealed her mental health issues. It’s always very obvious that few reporters have real knowledge of the sport. They ask inane and incorrect questions. Players should be given bonuses (or medals) for having to put up with banality of the inquiries. This is true across the board in this ‘internet news’ age, but it’s very disappointing nevertheless.

I expect sportswriters, who are presumed to be knowledgeable about a particular sport, to do objective reporting and not resort to clickbait. Long Live The King!
Betty Scott, San Francisco

• I always like taking these media questions because I think trust for the media would improve if people had more insight and access to the process. Here are some truths re: Betty’s comments:

  1. Writers don’t write the headlines. Maybe they should—or at least suggest some. But they don’t. They submit the story. The framing is left to others.
  2. At some outlets, the headlines and presentation are prepared by one person. They might not have expertise in the subject matter. You and I might be disinclined to talk “dethroning a king” based on one match. But nuance might be lost on a newbie. W/r/t Sports Illustrated, I can tell when a producer who knows tennis is handling display copy, and when a colleague less conversant in tennis is on the case.
  3. It’s not always senior employees who are making these snap decisions. There are all sorts of stories about headlines gone sideways. But it’s worth remembering, perhaps, that this can be an entry-level job and your outrage is being directed at a 24-year-old just trying to do the best they can to move up.
  4. This isn’t unique to tennis, but there is a real tension between seasoned, sourced reporters and “parachuting reporters.” For a niche sport like tennis, it would be tragic if only hardcore reporters were asking questions. It is imperative to bring generalists and local columnists and mainstream media into the tent. The problem: This makes you vulnerable to questioners that confuse “game” with “match” and ask tired or insensitive questions.

What are the chances of Herbert/Mahut making the Hall of Fame?
@jtpspurs

• Amid the (justified) Djoko-swooning, the men’s doubles final, held the same day, didn’t get the due it should have. But in a thoroughly entertaining match, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert took the title.

This was Mahut’s title and, sure, he’s getting close to HoF. Eleven years ago, he was the losing party in that comically elongated 70–68 Wimbledon match. The conventional wisdom: This was destined to be Line One of his tennis epitaph. Who would have guessed he would go from there to compiling a HoF-worthy career. This sport will break your heart. Every now and then, it shows some soul.

As usual great work with the 50 Parting Thoughts. I just wish you had mentioned a word about Carla. Such a sad sight to see her crying in her last match at an empty stadium.
Thanks, Leena

• We referenced Carla Suárez Navarro in Week 1 but should have devoted more space.

I can’t really blame the organizers—and, yes, they had other fires to extinguish that day—but I wonder why they put her on court last. When the curfew hit, CSN finished the match (and thus her career) in front of zero fans.

Hello Jon, Hope you are healthy and happy. I would like to push back on one of your parting thoughts from French Open: The idea of one player winning the same major 13 times is simply silly.

If anything, the great achievement of the Big Three is that they have shown that it is not silly. Without Djokovic and Nadal, Federer would arguably have won at least 12 Wimbledons. Federer has 8 and was thwarted four times by them. Djokovic could yet win 13 Australian Opens. Surely, someone in the future will win 13 slams, because while it is inconceivable that there will be three GOATS at the same time again, it is surely possible that there will be one GOAT at some point of time…
Arun

• I still say silly. Sure, a few points go Federer’s way, and he has double-digit Wimbledons. And Djokovic doesn’t go on that walkabout. Trivia Question: Who was the last player to beat Djokovic in Australia? Answer: Hyeon Chung. Q. Who was the last player before that? A. Denis Istomin—and he has double-figure titles in Melbourne. But: 1) those didn’t happen, 2) if they had, it would be silly, too.

I think we—certainly—sometimes lose sight of the simple arithmetic as we toss around terms like “golden age” and “embarrassment of riches.” There are 128 players in each major draw. There are 40 major singles titles up for grabs each decade. Three guys have won 59 among them.

Hey Jon, I was just looking at this week’s WTA rankings and I was shocked to see that Sofia Kenin is still ranked World No. 4 having won nothing of note since last fall and not coming close to defending her points from last year’s Roland Garros runner-up spot. Iga Swiatek loses in the quarterfinals as defending champion and doesn’t drop a single spot. Can we agree that this COVID-ranking system is a MESS? And don’t get me started on the downright bizarre decision by the ATP to extend the COVID-ranking until September, which has the stench of favoritism toward a certain 39-year European player who benefits more than anybody else hanging all over it. I understand they had to do something, but couldn’t they have just frozen the points for the tourneys that were actually canceled and when it comes to the rest, let the chips fall where they may? We’re going to have players carrying points from 2019 over into 2022, it’s ridiculous! What’s your take on this?
Fred

• You have an international tour made up of players from different countries with different protocols. You have players who, through no fault of their own, have limited opportunities. You have players who, quite reasonably, weren’t comfortable traveling. You had to account for this in the rankings and accommodate as many people and circumstances as possible.

Your point is well taken. It does seem odd that a player like Kenin has an inflated ranking owing largely to success in January of 2020. Why not have two rankings? One, the COVID-19 ranking that is used for entry cut-offs and seedings. The other, the regular 52-week rolling rankings. It may serve little functional purpose, but it would give fans a way to consider the differences and paint a more accurate picture.

It was an interesting 2021 French Open conclusion. An unknown female player won. A known player lost in one semis, paving the way for another one. But I have a question for your comment on the tennis rules.

It was the match between Djokovic and Musetti. After losing two sets, Djokovic takes a so-called bathroom break and wins the rest by changing the momentum.

A similar situation in the final made by the So-called No. 1 player resulted in a change of momentum. How reasonable are these breaks chosen by a player? Can this rule be rewritten considering these cases? Instead of a break after two sets, a player can take a break after 3 hours of play. But not after a couple of sets.

So much of injustice to the losing player in these situations.
Anna G.

• It’s funny, I don’t recall Djokovic taking that break. (I do recall Lorenzo Musetti winning the first two sets … most of us saying, “I still would bet on Djokovic to win” … and Djokovic almost dropping a golden set in the third.) Cynically, the change-in-momentum break is almost to be expected in tennis. Less a question of fairness than an unwritten rule. Less cynically, well-conditioned athletes are, yes, sweating profusely but also swigging fluid every other game. It’s not unreasonable that once or twice in four hours, they would seek a restroom.

Why is the Halle draw much, much stronger than Queens draw this year? Usually Queens has a tougher draw. Did Queens not have as much cash this year as other years for appearance fees? Queens draw is like a 250 event.
Sunny S., Philadelphia

• Few things. The loss the of week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon meant that top players reassessed their scheduling. The late Paris run of, say Stefanos Tsitsipas and even Daniil Medvedev meant that they were unlikely to play on grass the following week. The reality is that the Big Three are going to play where they want. They’re at the point where they ration their tournament entries; and a few extra bucks in appearance fees are not going to impact their decisions. A German player like Alexander Zverev will, naturally, play a German event. Now we’re at the bottom half of the top 10.

I agree with you 100% on your comments regarding Federer’s withdrawal from the French. People’s anger is strange….The man is likely in his last year and he adds so much to any event. I would rather watch Federer play three matches and withdraw than watch any other matches in the draw. We can’t fight Father Time, but we can at least accommodate our greatest champion a bit longer. If this allows him to be his best at Wimbledon one last time, then it is worth it.
Marwan Hanania

• I envision Federer asking, “What? You’d rather I not play?” Again, I get it. I think the way I phrased it on Tennis Channel was “not his most graceful dismount,” effectively framing one major as a tune-up for another he deems more important. But this is misdemeanor stuff.

For all the charges of “hypocrisy!” and “selective justice,” I also feel like there’s some accrued goodwill. You do right by the sport for two decades? You go through your career without a midmatch retirement? You go to great lengths to accommodate the tour and tournaments? You treat the fans well? … That ought to figure into your sentencing when you make a mistake.

Novak Djokovic is obviously a great player but who wants to sit down and watch him retrieve balls for 3-5 hours? Sure, it’s a simplistic comment but that’s what it boils down to for me.
James, Portland

• I do.

Shots, Miscellany

• You know who has a new book out? Dr. Renée Richards, Diary 1999.

Look who’s keynoting.

• The WTA and ATP have today announced an agreement with TopCourt, which sees the digital tennis learning platform become the first official tennis e-learning platform of the ATP Tour and WTA Tour. TopCourt offers tennis fans the educational tools for learning the game from the world’s best players of the past, present and future, as well as the sport’s legendary coaches. Exclusive content includes tennis lessons, drills, strategy and training tactics, player interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, offering fans unprecedented access to their favorite players.

Since launching less than a year ago, TopCourt has already gained the support of more than 50 star ambassadors and coaches, boasting an eclectic roster of current stars, Grand Slam champions and legends of the sport, including Bianca Andreescu, Victoria Azarenka, Taylor Fritz, Sofia Kenin, Petra Kvitová, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Venus Williams, Alexander Zverev, the Bryan Brothers, Lindsay Davenport and Chris Evert. TopCourt also features an incredible roster of the sport’s most legendary coaches such as Paul Annacone, Nick Bollettieri and Brad Gilbert.

• On the heels of five-time professional pickleball major champion Tyson McGuffin capturing gold in men’s doubles alongside playing partner Riley Newman at the Professional Pickleball Association’s $65,000 Atlanta Open, Selkirk Sport, the leading Pickleball paddle and accessories brand, today announced the re-signing of McGuffin (Hayden, Idaho) to an endorsement deal as a Team Selkirk ambassador. McGuffin, currently the No. 2 ranked singles player in the world and the No. 3 ranked doubles player in the world, is one of the most decorated professional pickleball players of all time.

• And a final bit of unseemly self-promotion. This Summer of 1984 book is out this week. Lots of McEnroe, Martina and Super Saturday. 

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