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The Defector Tennis Desk Bids Adieu To The French Open | Defector

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The French Open wrapped up this past weekend, with Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz taking home the trophies. Aside from a brief return for the Olympics, the clay season is over, and the majority of the tennis world will prepare for Wimbledon. The Defector tennis trio takes a look back at the tournament and hands out some awards.

Owen Lewis: Giri, Patrick! Roland-Garros is behind us. We are clearing the clay from our keyboards. We are free of killer pigeons. In the afterglow of a major with two likable winners in Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz, it’s easy to forget the stressors and slogs along the way. Though this tournament wasn’t stacked with epics, there were enough pure tennis moments for me to call this year’s edition a success. What first comes to mind for you two in the immediate aftermath?

Giri Nathan: Two thoughts on the winners. Swiatek could easily win eight of the next 10 Roland-Garros titles; she seems like she will assemble a Rafa-esque résumé here, barely meeting any resistance in these title runs (Naomi Osaka being the one surprising exception this time). And Alcaraz proving his cross-surface excellence, and ability to win a whole major without operating at his top level for all that long, all at age 21, is terrifying.

Patrick Redford: My primary takeaway is somewhat contradictory: The top of the women’s game is so good right now and could stand to get even better if a handful of players complete their pipe-dream comebacks or mature very quickly. Also, Swiatek is totally untouchable on clay and is a great type of player to be at the top of the sport. Her post-Osaka run was a total breeze, yet I never was bored of watching her. Her movement is so pure and she’s such a smothering player, and the way she totally bullies opponents off the court is so dominant that you wonder how anyone could ever beat her when she’s on. 

Then you watch Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka (when they’re on, which is to say, the first few rounds in Paris), and you see how their games are far more suited to the other surfaces. I can’t wait to watch this phylum of players improve, and I hope others can join them. Mirra Andreeva was a revelation, though she got rocked by Jasmine Paolini, and I loved watching Ons Jabeur, Bianca Andreescu, and Osaka. I don’t really think anyone in that cohort can beat Swiatek right now, but if they provide some incredible quarterfinals, that’ll be thrilling enough. Perhaps this is the fresh-eyed cope of a new fan, someone who hasn’t had time to get my hopes dashed as I’m sure you two have. Am I delusional to leave this tournament feeling this hopeful?

OL: Not at all. In the couple days after Iga waxed Paolini 6-2, 6-1, to win her fifth major and fourth Roland-Garros title, I was disappointed to read and hear a couple takes about the women’s game not being sufficiently competitive at the moment. Doomsaying after one major tournament fails to produce an epic final is dumb, but also, the final isn’t the only match that matters. We saw Swiatek survive an absolute hell-raising thriller against Osaka—she was pushed harder in that match than in her entire title runs in 2020 or 2022—and like you mentioned, Patrick, the rest of the draw was full of standouts. 

If there’s one thing I’m disappointed about, it’s that Sabalenka couldn’t make the final to create a third straight title clash with Swiatek during the clay season (she had match points against Iga in Madrid before losing more comprehensively in Rome), but anyone who saw her narrow loss to Andreeva knows she was seriously compromised. Sabalenka had made the semifinals or better at the previous seven majors—which was the longest active streak on either tour—so I think we can give her a break here. Plus, Swiatek might be unstoppable on clay, but she’s never been past the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and has lost earlier than expected at the last few hard-court majors. Those who want to see Swiatek face more challenges should get what they want soon.

GN: Swiatek, who is very familiar with the feeling of a win streak, has 19 in a row now after winning Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros back-to-back-to-back. She also has a fairly pedestrian grass-court history for a player of her all-time-great caliber, with some losses to players who would not remotely trouble her on hard court or clay. While I expect her to be alive in the second week at Wimbledon—and I think that the surfaces now all play similarly enough, and that she is talented enough, to figure it out eventually—I also think the grass season will be an apt time to examine the other big storylines at the top of the game. 

PR: Giri, can I briefly ask a dumb question? What distinguishes grass, besides the outsized importance of serving huge? I’ve seen a couple of compilations of Jannik Sinner falling all over the place as if on a slip-n-slide, and I gotta know: what’s the deal with the feet? 

GN: At this point in the game’s history, movement is probably the most important difference between all the surfaces. Grass is both slick (especially when dewy) and irregular (because it is a living thing), which poses some novel challenges. The main thing I’ve noticed is that it is incredibly difficult to defend on grass, and changing direction multiple times in a single rally is a recipe for eating dirt, especially in the early days of the season as players are still making their adjustments. Rare is the player (like Novak Djokovic) who can slide confidently on turf as if it were clay; you’ll see a lot more tentative footwork and much smaller steps. One related point, when it comes to the difficulty of defending well, is that the ball stays lower when it bounces off grass. Players with potent slices, and players who are comfortable with more aggressive patterns of play than passive baseline rallies, will be rewarded. Big servers, too, as you noted.

PR: I like the idea of sentient grass getting its revenge on players for trying to do too many painful changes of direction upon it by tripping them up.

Before we adjourn to the lawn, a note on the dusty fellas: the non-Carlos men’s player I’ve thought most about since the tournament ended is Djokovic. The doomed sense of determination he showed in those two all-nighter wins against Lorenzo Musetti and Francisco Cerundolo left me feeling a novel feeling towards him: admiration, bordering on true affection. Maybe that’s simple because, after having to watch him mercilessly destroy so many cool players for years, he bowed out early. He’s now third in the ATP rankings, ceding the number one spot to Sinner, and his French Open title to Alcaraz. Djokovic is also 37 and just suffered a serious injury, which feels like the sort of malady that ushers in the endgame of his career. Do either of you expect more from him this season? 

OL: Of all the thankless sports, tennis might be king. Djokovic won three majors and the ATP Finals in 2023 and had some people wondering whether the runaway world No. 1 could finally win the Calendar Grand Slam at the spry ages of 36 and 37. Now, Djokovic is without a tournament victory in 2024 and just went under the knife to repair a damaged knee that took him out of Roland-Garros before the quarterfinals for the first time in 15 years. He really might be done at the highest level. He’s managed to protect his body from severe injury better than just about any other athlete, but you get the sense that nothing will be the same after he comes back from this. 

While Djokovic’s skills will probably stay with him until he hangs up his racquet, I think we’re finally seeing the limits of his physicality. After watching Alcaraz do what Djokovic did, winning consecutive five-setters down 2-1 (and against much better players than Musetti and Cerundolo), I have a hard time picturing Djokovic’s stamina lasting through a grinding five-setter with Alcaraz or Sinner. I’d sure like to see Novak try, though.

As for the passing of the torch, it’s here—Djokovic is ranked No. 3 now, the lowest he’s been in years, and the Sincaraz duo have won three of the last four majors with a combined 2-0 record against Djokovic in best-of-five-set tennis along the way. Say hello to the future.

GN: Who do you think is best equipped to challenge the Sincaraz duopoly over the next 5 years? Based on what you saw over the clay season, who will sneak in some major titles along the way?

PR: Conventional wisdom says Alexander Zverev, though I’m not so sure. His groundstrokes are so booming and his first serve is so good that he’ll consistently be able to play his way into quarterfinals, though there is something about his game against the very best players that leaves me skeptical (again, maybe this is cope, since I despise him). The Zverev of the second and third sets of the final, the guy who was going for winners and denying Alcaraz the space to move, that was a guy who scares me, though he’s so rarely shown that tendency or ability in huge matches. My actual answers are Andrey Rublev (this is an irrational take, but I think he will be animated by whatever unholy force moves him to absolutely boom that forehand for some two-week period instead of screaming/crying/throwing up) and Daniil Medvedev, who I have to believe will become normal now that he doesn’t have to step on dirt again this season besides at the Olympics. Also, I have an eternal soft spot for Holger Rune, who nearly beat Zverev, and he’s still so young that I could see him doing his We Have Carlos At Home thing, probably at Roland-Garros.

OL: When Zverev won the third set, I started to think about how everyone was going to talk about the tournament that had produced his first major title. Though I was relieved that Alcaraz won and we avoided that conversation, I do think it’s coming eventually. Zverev has consistently gone deep at majors in the last year. Sinner and Alcaraz will likely gobble up the bulk of the major titles in the coming years, and whoever plays well enough to advance in the rare occasions when they lose or are hurt will grab the remainder. I don’t have a ton of confidence in anyone active to do that, but Zverev figures to get at least one at some point.

Rune seems to have potential that could see him net a couple major titles, but has been intent on hiding it so far this year. I do think he’ll figure things out enough at some point to win at least one. Big-picture, though, my guess is the next major men’s player not named Sinner or Alcaraz is under the age of 20 at the moment and remains outside the mainstream eye. 

GN: I still think Medvedev is going to pick up a hard-court major here and there, possibly when injuries have picked off one of the two golden boys; after all, he was about 30 minutes of peak match fitness away from winning in Australia this year. I also expect Zverev to eventually break through, and Rune to eventually to close the gap and look more like the player that was just a half-step behind Sincaraz for a while. Overall, though, I could see Sinner and Alcaraz splitting something like 12 or 13 of the next 20 majors. Patrick, do you have some awards to announce?

PR: Absolutement! Our first award is the Prix Mousquetaire D’Excellence Française. The French did not have a particularly strong showing at their home Slam, especially my two favorite French players (Caroline Garcia and Diane Parry), though our winner Corentin Moutet gave the fans something to cheer about. He won three matches and took a set off Sinner, though most importantly, he was a cheeky little rascal throughout his time at Roland-Garros, with a bunch of underhand serves and other antics, and the crowd loved him for it. Owen, would you like to present the award for Best Player You Only Watched Lose?

OL: It would be my honor, though there’s not much suspense: Osaka takes this one comfortably for me. Not only was she the only player to take a set from Swiatek, she had a match point and made her opponent’s life miserable even in the sets she lost. Giri, in honor of our men’s winner, do you have thoughts on the Carlitos Alcaraz Award For Most Sweetest Person? 

GN: I have to note that our sweet boy was arguably less sweet than usual. He was snippy in ways I’ve never seen before: complaining to the umpires about things like the availability of the ice towels and the slipperiness of certain parts of Court Philippe-Chatrier. (In fairness, other players including Djokovic raised the same concern throughout the tournament.) The runaway sweetest person of the fortnight was Paolini, a delightful player and person who had a lot of entertaining interviews and may never reach these heights again, but seemed to have a lot of fun doing it. She now enters the top 10 for the first time at age 28. I left the tournament feeling that she might be the highest-ranked tennis player in the world who would still actually be fun to hang out with. Who wants to award Worst Match?

PR: Conventional wisdom says Swiatek-Potapova, since it was shorter than an episode of prestige TV. However, it was so one-sided that it became cool, so my vote is Rublev’s meltdown loss against Matteo Arnaldi. I hated watching it, almost as much as Rublev hated participating in it. Any other contenders? 

OL: I’ll toss in the semifinal between Zverev and Casper Ruud. After winning the first set 6-2, Ruud was struck down by what seemed like a stomach virus and spent the rest of the match just trying to stay afloat. Ruud’s a very solid top player who could have been in the final barring some bad luck that had awful timing, and the last three sets of the semifinal just weren’t fun to watch. 

GN: With that extremely unpleasant memory fresh in mind, we now conclude coverage of the clay season. On to the grass!

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