The first grand slam of 2019 has come to an end. Naomi Osaka followed up on her US Open triumph to claim the woman’s title. An achievement that has elevated her to becoming the first Asian player to reach No.1 in the world. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic produced a masterful display against Rafael Nadal to empathize his dominance on the men’s tour.
Now that the tournament has reached its conclusion, here are 10 topics that require further discussion.
1) Novak Djokovic will win Roland Garros, completing his second “Nole Slam.”
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Predicting the winner of an event over four months away is a risky business, especially when that event is played on clay and you’re not picking Rafael Nadal. And hot takes such as this are popular to make after one dominating performance. But the way in which Djokovic destroyed Nadal in Sunday’s final is the kind of victory that has a lingering effect. It’s reminiscent of Nadal’s crushing win over Roger Federer at 2008’s Roland Garros, after which Rafa finally dethroned the king of grass a few weeks later. Novak’s victory over Nadal last year at Wimbledon is what propelled him back to the top of the sport, and reestablished Djokovic’s mental edge over Nadal. Beating Nadal on clay in best-of-five remains the sport’s biggest challenge. But I see Novak winning a few clay titles in the best-of-three format heading into the French Open, which will instill the necessary confidence come Paris. As we saw on Sunday, the patterns in this matchup play to Djokovic’s favor. His deep returns, superior backhand, and aggressive positioning on the baseline all take time away from Nadal. The terra baute will neutralize some of that, but not enough to derail Novak’s quest to again hold all four Majors.
2) The resolve of Petra Kvitova was only trumped by that of Naomi Osaka
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What the men’s final lacked in drama, the women’s certainly made up for. Kvitova’s fight back to save three championship points and level the match at one set all was awesome. Yet the way the 21-year-old Osaka still found a way to compose herself and close out the match was even more impressive. She seemingly matured as a competitor within the match itself. And it was poetic justice for Osaka to get to enjoy her triumph, after she was robbed of doing so in New York. Kudos to both of these great champions, and future Hall of Famers, for their perseverance.
3) Do the right thing and re-name Margeret Court Arena
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Having the Australian Open’s No.2 court named after a proud homophobe continues to be incredibly troubling. While delivering the keynote address in last week’s Australian Open Inspirational Series, Anna Wintour used the platform to address this topic. “It is inconsistent for the sport for Margaret Court’s name to be on a stadium that does so much to bring all people together across their differences,” said Wintour. I wish players would publicly refuse to be scheduled on Margaret Court Arena, but sadly that hasn’t materialized. Instead, a leader from the fashion world was the best advocate for change at this tennis event. The excuse Tennis Australia has provided, that this decision isn’t fully under their authority, is just that: an excuse. We need more officials, more players, and more members of the media to demand this change.
4) The new heat stress scale is an upgrade, but the standard for closing the roof is still way too high
This year the Australian Open replaced the ever-confusing “wet bulb” standard with the AO Heat Stress Scale. It measures a variety of weather-related factors, and requires the roof be closed if the scale reaches a 5.0. This is much easier to understand than the old rule, but 5.0 is too high of a standard. During the women’s semifinals, it was obviously extremely uncomfortable for everyone on Rod Laver Arena due to the heat. The ball kids weren’t even able to rest their hands on the court, but the roof remained open for most of the first set since the scale was still below 5.0. What is it going to take for officials to wake up and realize they’re endangering the health of players, officials, and fans? It’s time for common sense to prevail here before someone suffers from some serious medical issues.
5) The electronic net machine doesn’t work. If better technology is not available, bring back the judge that sits at the net
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There were many instances during this fortnight of lets being called when the serve clearly didn’t touch the net, but the worst example was during the women’s semifinals. As Danielle Collins served to Petra Kvitova, the electronic net machine beeped before she even struck her serve. She subsequently missed the serve and was not awarded a first serve, as Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos incorrectly asserted the beep came after her serve. For years now, players have complained about “phantom lets,” where the ball clearly doesn’t hit the net, but the machine beeps anyway. We should not only eliminate that machine, but we should allow players to challenge let calls. The technology to do so exists, so why not utilize it? Better to wait a few extra moments to get the call right.
6) Let’s introduce the first-to-10 final set tiebreak at all events
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This is one of many innovations where Tennis Australia is ahead of the other Grand Slam governing bodies. The first-to-10 tiebreak was utilized at 6-6 in the final sets at this tournament, and created some great drama. It also served as a reasonable ending to prolonged matches. This is an enhancement over the US Open’s first-to-seven final set tiebreak, which has been used for a long time now. Wimbledon has announced they’ll begin using a best-to-seven tiebreak as 12-12 in the final set, but that’s still allowing for a full extra set of play, when a more prompt conclusion would be best. And as usual, Roland Garros lags behind the other three Majors, as they continue to let final sets play out without a tiebreak. The scoring system in tennis is hard enough for a casual fan to follow. Having four different ways to decide matches at four different Majors is unnecessary. Let’s make the scoring system uniform at all events, including non-Majors, and use a first-to-10 final set tiebreak everywhere.
7) If this was Andy Murray’s last singles match at a Major, what a fitting way to conclude his career
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His over four-hour match with Roberto Bautista Agut, where he somehow summoned the will to comeback from two sets down despite the tremendous pain he was suffering from, was a remarkable feat despite the loss. Murray was never the most naturally-gifted athlete on tour, but worked extremely hard and got everything he could out of his talent and his body. Hopefully Murray finds a way to relieve the pain in his hip, even if it doesn’t yield a return to professional tennis. More important is his quality of life outside of tennis.
8) Good on the fans for booing Maria Sharapova’s ridiculous seven-minute bathroom break
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During her fourth round match against Ashleigh Barty, Sharapova played a terrible second set, losing it 6-1. Then in a lack of sportsmanship, she spent a full seven minutes off-court, in a clear attempt to disrupt her opponent’s momentum. The Aussie crowd reigned boos down upon Sharapova as she walked back onto court, as the sporting crowd is not fond of such dirty tactics. A rule limiting the amount of time a player is allowed to leave the court is long overdue.
9) Starting matches after midnight is unfair to players, tournament employees, and fans alike
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Garbine Muguruza’s near three-hour battle with Johanna Konta in the second round was one of the tournament’s best matches. Unfortunately, almost no fans witnessed it live, and it deserved a much better atmosphere. The MCA schedule ran extremely late, as two men’s matches went five sets (I’ll save the “men’s matches are too damn long” argument for another time). So these two former top 10 players didn’t start their match until after midnight, and didn’t finish until after 3:00am. It’s completely unfair for the winning player to be on court until such an ungodly hour, having to face an opponent in the next round that completed their match at a reasonable time. If we’re not going to speed up play in the men’s tournament (sorry, can’t help myself), at least move this match to a different court at an earlier time, or hold the match over until the next day.
10) One last plea to keep sacred what makes the sport so special. Please don’t allow mid-match coaching
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There’s talk that Tennis Australia is considering allowing coaching from the stands during matches at next year’s Australian Open. Please, Tennis Australia, think better of this. One of the things I love most about this sport is how players are forced to problem solve on the court, and on their own. It’s revealing of character, just as it also builds character. Limit the mid-match coaching to team events where it belongs.
At Curtains For 2019 French Open, It Was All About Women Proffering Intrepidity
Ashleigh Barty’s maiden Major title win over Marketa Vondrousova culminated an eventful fortnight from the women, who held themselves distinct vis-à-vis the men at Roland Garros.
What will we remember about the 2019 French Open? The return of Roger Federer, or the restarting of his 15-year-old rivalry at the tournament with Rafael Nadal, or Nadal’s bid for an umpteenth title, or Dominic Thiem’s thwarting of Novak Djokovic’s second Roland Garros – and non-calendar Slam – title. Or, will we think of how botched up French Tennis Federation’s (FFT) organisational and scheduling skills were, in which the male players looked to have preferential footing over the women. The controversy involving Thiem’s and Serena Williams’ press conferences, notwithstanding?
We will remember all of these. Even so, thinking about how one press conference was shunted aside to accommodate the other, ostensibly that of a man, will be a reminder of how women snatched the narrative of the event for themselves, from start to finish.
When the women’s singles draw was released, the usual bunch of names remained in the spotlight. Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, (then) defending champion Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina, and even Serena Williams dominated the discussion even as the other seeded and non-seeded players remained in contention. As is wont in tennis – especially in women’s tennis – predictions about potential upsets also took an important place of their own, though no one really expected a wild ride this time around.
At least, that was the consensus with expectations overflowing that one among these women would fulfil the coffers of consistency. However, as results flew about in a non-linear manner, rather than heighten frustrations about the women’s tour’s unpredictability, exuberance reigned high about the currently-prevailing depth in the women’s side of the game.
Case in point: Johanna Konta reaching the semi-final in Paris in spite of possessing a poor record previously in the tournament. Or, the manner in which youngsters such as Sofia Kenin, Amanda Anisimova, and Marketa Vondrousova rose collectively in a show-of-arms about them being the sport’s future, extending the subject from where Osaka had left it off at the Australian Open. Even 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty’s winning her first Major against the 19-year-old Vondrousova, for that matter, can be considered a continuation of the aspect of the younger lot shining.
The NextGen Dilemma
And one cannot help but think if the lack of hyping about Next Generation” players among the women has contributed to younger non-favourites finding it easy to establish themselves in the mainstay of the WTA tour.
It would be wrong to compare the men’s half of tennis with that of the women. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the likes of Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas gained somewhat premature prominence. In that, the roadmap about their probable path to glory was set even before they could find – and make – their place in the frenetic tour. To be honest, except for Zverev, and Tsitsipas this year, the others are still struggling to push themselves to where they are capable of belonging.
Not that all younger players in the women’s tour have found their groove. For many, it is still work-in-progress. Having said that though, it is unquestionable that the WTA’s pace is way ahead of that of the ATP in being able to bring its future to the forefront parallelly alongside its present.
That the organisers of the 2019 French Open were oblivious to this unique selling proposition (USP) of the women’s game as it went about prioritising the other gender, then, ought to be remembered the most about the Major. So that by the time the next Slam – and even other events – come about, apathy and indifference do not tar the women’s draw, reducing it to some kind of unavoidable-yet-unimportant sideshow.
Stefanos Tsitsipas’ French Open loss to Stan Wawrinka brings perspectives with life lessons
It was the longest match of the tournament, at the end of which the Greek left the court a student instead of a victor.
After his five-set, five-hour-nine-minute loss to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round of the 2019 French Open on Sunday, 2nd June, Stefanos Tsitsipas wrote a post on Instagram.
He said he had felt the “real definition of the word, competition,” and added the result made him appreciate the sport he had chosen as his career. Finally, concluding his post, Tsitsipas noted, “Today I learned something that no school, no classroom, no teacher would be able to teach. It’s called, living life!”
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Today I felt something that I can’t really explain. Today was the first time in my entire life, in my twenty years of existence that I felt that “aura”, the real definition of the word, competition. Not any kind of competition though, it felt different than any other time, any other battle, any other moment on the tennis court. There is something about today that I won’t be able to explain. It’s a feeling that makes me appreciate the sport that I chose to pursue in my life as a career. The bitter taste of that loss is something unexplainable. @stanwawrinka85 makes our sport real and pragmatic. It’s something that’s rare to find in the world that we are at. It’s something unique. There is loads of charm and charisma to it. We both struggled, we both went beyond our limits, we both experienced luck and our destiny was drawn on that Parisian court after five hours of physical and mental suffering. I really don’t know if what I feel right now is positive or negative. There is no bipolar effect to it. Today I learned something that no school, no classroom, no teacher would be able to teach. It’s called, living life!
Tsitsipas’ words, touching as they were powerful, helped him to establish a deeper connect with tennis audiences across the world. Even with those for whom his game did not hold that big an appeal.
They also presented another side to the player whose ascension to the higher levels of the sport has been a revelation in itself. Tsitsipas showed he was not content to shrug aside this loss as being par for the process of learning. Expectations drove the match, and that it would be played at the full quota of best-of-five was the least these. Along with the external (that of the audiences) build-up of expectations, once the match began, it became clear that each player vying for victory had made his own reckoning about the proceedings. And, going in with the belief that he would win, Tsitsipas perhaps did not factor in that Wawrinka, too, would have similar ideas regarding their on-court meeting.
In this regard, Tsitsipas’ comments about getting real-time knowledge of competition are understandable. Although he has won two titles this year and upset Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal this year – at the Australian Open fourth round and Madrid Open semi-final – this was the first time he was tested.
The match was physically gruelling, mentally frustrating and emotionally draining. In the end, it was the 20-year-old’s lack of expertise in the latter two areas that let him down even though his older-by-14-years rival looked physically spent after having to save numerous break points throughout the match, and especially in the fifth set.
“Living life”, is what Tsitsipas called the result in his Instagram post. Beyond the poignancy, then, there is also a connotation of caution to it. That if his past successes had helped him gain elevation in the rankings, lessons from losses like these would be the first step to seeing him cement his place as a potential champion in the years to come.
There are, of course, other aspects to be learnt, too. Like, how not to indulge in unfiltered gamesmanship. By tapping the racquet mid-rally, or for opting for a change of racquet just as his opponent is about to serve. The latter was an occurrence that happened twice in the course of his fourth round against Wawrinka, lowering the qualitative intensity of the clash.
Learning about sportsmanship is something Tsitsipas can do from Wawrinka – the man who has been on either side of a result but who has always left the court with his head held high. In yet another social media engagement, Tsitsipas borrowed Wawrinka’s tattoo, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” posted it as a tweet and said, it was inspired by the three-time Major champion.
inspired by @stanwawrinka.
— Stefanos Tsitsipas (@StefTsitsipas) June 2, 2019
Maybe, Wawrinka’s influence as an inspiration will extend to Tsitsipas’ on-court competitive comportment beyond his results as well.
The Infernal Fabio Fognini
American author Michael Mewshaw shares his thoughts on the formidable Fabio Fognini.
Some tennis champions are easy to love. The grace, gentlemanly behavior and enduring excellence of Roger Federer make him a rarity—a player admired even by his vanquished opponents. Half-bull, half-bullfighter, Rafa Nadal displays an on-court, testosterone-driven truculence that might be expected to limit affection for him. But his myriad supporters revere him for his relentless effort and refusal to quit. Although both men are among my favorites, I confess a secret vice. I’m a committed fan of Fabio Fognini, which is the same as admitting to sympathy for the devil.
Everything about Fognini appears calculated to prevent spectators from siding with him. His Mephistophelean moustache and goatee suggest he has seen and done things other men cannot imagine. As if to hammer home this impression, he used to endorse Oxygen brand clothing, and wore a scarf with a death’s head insignia. In one of his evolving incarnations Andre Agassi resembled a pirate. Not to be outdone, Fognini resembled Satan.
And his walk! What could possibly be more arrogantly provocative? At 5’10”, one of the little guys on the tour, he struts around like Nureyev striking poses. Between points he swans from deuce court to ad court and back again. At change-overs, he swanks around like a peacock, seldom deigning to glance at his opponent. To the list of competitors who get into the other guy’s head, Fognini occupies a category all his own. His every disdainful gesture seems dead set on psyching out the fellow on the far side of the net.
All this may make Fognini sound like an opera-bouffe villain, the sort who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the last act. But what redeems his posturing and preening is his transcendent talent. The Italian devil has got game as he has demonstrated over the years, taking down Nadal three times on clay, most recently in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, a Masters level event that he went on to win. More than merely a crafty dirtballer, he has also beaten Rafa on a hard surface at the 2015 US Open, fighting back from two sets down. (In fairness, this victory left him playing second fiddle in Italy and in his own household to his wife Flavia Pennetta, who won the singles title at the 2015 US Open.)
Hall of Fame Italian tennis writer Gianni Clerici commented about Fognini’s marriage to Pennetta that Fabio needed a nurse, preferably one with a background in psychology. The union appears to have helped steady him, as has the birth of their son Federico. While Fognini still shows a penchant for losing concentration and losing matches that he should win, the 2019 season has seen him rise to 12 in the rankings, with the prospect of his vaulting into the top ten for the first time in his career, depending on his performance at the French Open.
Advancing to the round of 32 in Paris Fognini on Saturday confronted the veteran Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut who beat him two months ago in Miami. True, that was on a hard court, but RBA is also adept on red clay, and in demeanor, the Spaniard represents the Italian’s mirror opposite. Poker-faced, correct and in all respects straightforward, he’s the perfect foil for Fabio and early on in their match he appeared to have the answers to the Italian’s flashy baroque style.
RBA broke serve early in the first set, and would do the same in two subsequent sets. But Fognini responded with typical fregismo, the Italian I-could-care-less attitude that makes him so maddening to players who delude themselves that they have him on the ropes. Alternating the speed and spin of his groundstrokes, opening up the court with short angled shots, serving up timely aces and throwing in a fusillade of drop shots, he broke back and took the first set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-4. For all his apparent nonchalance, he is
deceptively quick, and after long exchanges of half-speed strokes from the baseline, he’s capable of crushing winners down the line.
Yet Bautista Agut always remained within reach, chasing down balls, staying resolute on every point and managed to pull out the third set. Fognini shrugged that off, however, and in the fourth set, it was he who got an early break and never let RBA back into the match.
In the next round, Fognini faces Sasha Zverev, the angelic looking German, the Next Gen ingénue who on paper figures to beat the Italian. But the contest will take place on clay, a surface where it’s always tough to beat the devil.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, most recently The Lost Prince: A Search for Pat Conroy.
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