29 Jun 2021 22:41 IST

Tennis — French Open proves unpredictable, again

Djokovic’s second grand slam, Osaka’s withdrawal, and Krejcikova’s historic victory defined this year’s tournament

As the tennis world moves to the lush-green Wimbledon lawns, the French Open went into the record books creating history. Rafa Nadal, the incredible Spaniard who has lifted the Roland Garros cup a record 13 times and to whom a statue depicting his feared forehand was unveiled in front of the famed Philippe Chatrier stadium complex before the contest’s start, lost for only the third time in 17 years.

Serbian Novak Djokovic became the only player to beat Nadal twice in the French Open, having achieved his first victory over him in 2015. Djokovic is now the only athlete in modern history to have won all four Grand Slams — Australian, French, Wimbledon, and the US Open — at least twice. With 19 Grand Slams in the bag, he is one prize away from equalling Nadal and Swiss Roger Federer’s record of 20 majors.

Tsitsipas made history by becoming the first Greek to ever compete in a Grand Slam final.

Many twists

On the women’s side, for the sixth straight year, a first-time Grand Slam champion was crowned when unseeded Czech Barbora Krejcikova beat Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Neither had played in a Grand Slam final before. Maria Sakkari made history by becoming the first female Greek to compete in a Grand Slam semi-final. The women again displayed a deep contrast with the men’s tour, where one of the Big Four — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Britain’s Andy Murray — have held the World 1 ranking continuously since 2004.

Major tournaments are great venues for local players to showcase their talents. Organisers grant wild-card spots even if some do not come through the qualifiers. As usual, many young French players won coveted spots in the main draw. But in a tournament first, not a single French man or woman made it past the second round. Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation, has a huge problem on his hands.

But the big story was Nadal’s defeat which resulted in such a loss of confidence that he promptly announced that he would skip both Wimbledon and the Olympics next month, an extraordinary decision for a mainstay on the tour. Federer had reasons to worry about his tennis future. He withdrew after winning his third-round match against German Dominik Koepfer to “rest his body” and get ready for the grass-court season. In Halle, Germany, where Federer has won 10 titles, he meekly went down to another young gun, Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. Are the days of domination of Nadal and Federer drawing to a close?

Organisers involvement

Tournament organisers may have inadvertently had a hand in the outcome on the men’s side. For the first time in years, Serbian maestro Novak Djokovic, seeded #1 and Rafa Nadal (#3) were on the same side of the draw, ensuring that if they did meet, it would not be in the final. Seeds are a tournament’s prediction of who is likely to win the trophy. Bookmakers thought the seeding was odd as he was placed behind Russian Daniil Medvedev, a rising star who has a pronounced dislike for the red clay. The young guns — Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece), Alexander Zverev (Germany), Dominic Thiem (Austria), and Medvedev — were in the other half, ensuring that one of them would advance deep into the tournament.

Nadal relishes the tournament because matches are played under the warm, low-humidity Paris sun as Europe begins its long summer season. His top spins, the main weapon for the southpaw, normally clock 4,300 rpm under these conditions, making the ball bounce higher and feel heavier on the red clay.

Philippe Chatrier debuted a sliding roof and night lights for the first time. When the first semi-final between Tsitsipas and Zverev started later in the day to coincide with prime-time TV programming and went on for nearly 3½ hours, the major part of the second semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic (ordinarily expected to be a final played under the bright Paris sun), was mostly played under the lights. This fact had consequences.

Personal brand

Under the sun, Nadal dominated in the first set, leading 5-0, bringing back memories of the 6-0 bagel against Djokovic last Fall. As the evening wore on and the night cooled, Nadal’s topspins became less venomous. When two players are as closely matched in their skills (their head-to-head record is 30-28 with Djokovic leading), the changing conditions may have given Djokovic a slight edge in their 4.25-hour masterpiece.

While Djokovic’s performance during the two weeks was exemplary when he needed it, his path to glory was ridden with roadblocks. Against unseeded Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round, Djokovic uncharacteristically lost the first two sets, coming back to win the next three as Musetti ran out of fuel. The same thing happened in the final against Tsitsipas. As the night entered the 11 Pm curfew hour, French President Emmanuel Macron extended the curfew until the match ended, ordering the Covid-19 virus not to attack the hapless fans who would otherwise have been forced to exit the grounds.

The tournament became notable for a female star who did not play much. Japanese Naomi Osaka, the world’s #1 player, abruptly announced on social media that she would no longer fulfil her obligations of meeting the press after each match. This created a furor and the tournament fined her $15,000 for non-compliance. Osaka withdrew from the tournament citing mental health issues and later announced that she is taking a break from the tour.

While most fans empathise with Osaka, it is unfortunate that she brought the controversy upon herself. What endeared her to the world was her brand of being a shy person, outstanding on the court, but uncomfortable in the media spotlight, a feeling with which many fans could relate.

All this changed last summer. Osaka enjoyed the media's attention that poured on her when she took a strong stand on social justice. She has every right to do so, but her brand changed to that of a media-savvy star that could command a global presence while the remaining players on tour continued to struggle through pandemic bubbles and lost income. Signing endorsement after endorsement, she became the world’s wealthiest female athlete overnight.

For Osaka to suddenly claim mental health issues (she won the Australian Open just five months ago) with no warning came as a surprise. She could easily have afforded a professional consultant to break her condition to the drooling press. Instead, she unilaterally decided that she would not do any media, violating ITF's rules.

An important lesson to all future stars: You either work with the media or you don’t. You can't have it both ways.