The 2018 French Open ended with a Demolition Party: Tournament officials gave the media souvenir hard hats and let us graffiti the walls of the press rooms. They’ll be coming down, along with much of the rest of Roland Garros, over the next 12 months. Judging by the plans, something bigger, better, sleeker, and thankfully much larger will rise in its place in May 2019. Personally, I can’t wait to see it.
The men’s version of the event ended with another version of a demolition party: Rafael Nadal’s run to his 11th title. But this wasn’t a fortnight of upheaval; both the No. 1 seeds, Nadal and Simona Halep, held the trophies on the final weekend. Before we leave these two weeks behind and set off for the grass season, here’s a look back at five of the stories that defined the last days of the Old Roland Garros.
A Laborious Baby Step
Looking back through the daily programs from the last two weeks at the French Open, I was surprised to see that the first one was dedicated to the ATP’s star of that now-bygone moment, Sascha Zverev. How quickly moments change. All eyes were on Zverev when this tournament began; he had won two warm-up tournaments and was an unlucky rain delay from beating Rafael Nadal in a third. When he blitzed his way through his first match, it looked like the 21-year-old German’s long-awaited Grand Slam breakthrough was upon us. But breakthroughs don’t typically happen on cue, and Zverev’s will have to wait.
In his next three matches, he fell behind two sets to one all three times, to significantly lower-ranked opponents. Zverev was lured into playing their games each time, and for long stretches he looked like a conventional baseline grinder, rather than the smooth-hitting 6’6” powerhouse he usually is. The fact that Zverev escaped all three times is a positive sign; he has learned, it seems, to stay in a best-of-five-set match, and even to use the format to his advantage. Hopefully he has also learned the consequences of using up all five sets on a regular basis, because he had little left against Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals.
What should we make of Zverev’s Roland Garros campaign? On the one hand, the shine has come off him a little as the ATP’s next big thing; it was Thiem who made his first Grand Slam final instead. But Zverev did reach a major quarterfinal for the first time. He should probably chalk it up as a laborious baby step, and put it in the rearview mirror.
WATCH—Match point from Zverev’s impressive win over Karen Khachanov in Paris:
You Couldn’t Beat a Cat Suit
For many fans and writers, especially those from the U.S., the first two days of Roland Garros felt preliminary. The main attraction, the returing three-time champion, the Queen herself—Serena Williams—hadn’t made her entrance yet.
We knew she would do it in style, but her debut was still a head-turner: Serena’s revamped, streamlined catsuit was the talk of the tournament for a week. It was a nod to her past, and also, she said, to the mothers that she hopes to represent. Serena has meant a lot to a lot of people—women, women athletes, African-Americans, tennis fans—but now, at 36, she was adding moms to her list of inspirees. From her first moments in Court Philippe Chatrier, Serena seemed refreshed and ready to make yet another new start. Few athletes have been able to find ways to keep doing what they love—i.e., competing—for as long as she has. In the spirit of Black Panther, she said her suit made her feel like a superhero; it’s a feeling, and a role, that obviously fits her.
“You can’t beat a cat suit, right?” she told Jon Wertheim of Tennis Channel.
You can’t beat a cat suit, but even Serena can’t rush a comeback at 36. She had to withdraw from a much-anticipated match with Maria Sharapova, because of an injury to her pectoral muscle. Still, Serena served notice that she’s still very much interested in being a force in tennis and beyond, and brought a little bit of Wakanda to Roland Garros.
Marco Cecchinato, on one level, was the surprise highlight of the tournament, the extra spice that accidentally made it into the dish, and gave it a needed kick. In the second round, Cecchinato played another Marco, Trungelliti, the now-almost-forgotten lucky loser who injected early life into the tournament with his 11-hour midnight drive to Paris. With his win in that match, Cecchinato seemed to take over Trungelliti’s hungry-oddball energy, and he ran with it all the way to the semifinals. In the process, the 25-year-old Italian, who had never won a match at a major, gave us two of the most exciting passages of play in the event: His 13-11 fourth-set tiebreaker win over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and his 12-10 second-set tiebreaker loss to Dominic Thiem in the semis.
Both had gasp-inducing rallies, and gasp-inducing miscues; inspired winners and inspired gets; stadium-rocking drama, and complete reversals of fortune in the space of a minute—all the stuff that we love about tiebreakers. Cecchinato was serenaded off with deserved fanfare in Chatrier after his semifinal defeat.
On another level, though, it was hard to know exactly how to feel about Cecchinato as he walked off court for the last time. He has been accused of match-fixing, and may still be punished for it. Let’s hope that more wins—fairly fought and brilliantly played wins—are in his future.
WATCH–Match point from Cecchinato’s win over Djokovic in QF at Roland Garros:
Nadal Goes to 11
Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win over Dominic Thiem in the men’s final sounds like a blowout, and it won’t long be remembered or remarked upon by the game’s historians. That’s the one downside of having 11 French Open titles: The individual wins stop standing out.
But this one felt a little different, because you could see right on Rafa’s face how hard it was. He was tense through the first two sets. He was sweating even more than usual, taking even more time than usual between points, and complaining about the humidity. The tension and heat finally took their toll in the third set, when he suddenly couldn’t move the middle finger of his left hand. “Drink,” the doctor told him during a changeover. When the match was over, Rafa walked straight off the court, and when he came back, he still looked exhausted. Holding the trophy, he started to cry.
And yet Rafa, as he always does, and which is so hard to do, hit through his tension, and even played better after he cramped—“suffering,” as he says, is what drives him, and that has never been more evident than it was on this muggy Sunday in Paris. For the first time, he was facing a member of the next generation in the final, and for the first time you could see how much beating back a decade’s worth of opponents, of always being the favorite but never the crowd favorite in Paris, of defending his status as the king of clay for another spring, of winning 86 of 88 matches at Roland Garros, has taken out of him. And yet, when we look back at the last two weeks, we’ll see that he dropped just one set and was never remotely in trouble in the semis or the final, against two of the world’s best players, Thiem and Juan Martin del Potro.
As Rafa put it in his proud but unboastful way afterward:
“Many people work as much as I do or even more and haven’t had my luck. This being said, yes, winning 11 times here is a lot.”
WATCH—Nadal’s interview after winning the title at Roland Garros:
Simona’s big breakthrough
“The women’s tour is as exciting as it’s ever been,” is something we’ve been hearing a lot this season. On the one hand, it’s true; the WTA’s personalities, rivalries, quality of play, and penchant for upheaval have made it the more consistently compelling of the two tours. On the other hand, we don’t really need to act surprised by that fact, do we?
The latest and most high-profile example of WTA excellence came over the course of the last two weeks, when a season’s worth of storylines collided at Roland Garros. There were young stars and new faces: Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Daria Kasatkina, Yulia Putintseva, Anett Kontaveit, and Mihaela Buzarnescu all put their own fresh spins on the game. There were major stars trying to find their form: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Garbiñe Muguruza each looked brilliant for a moment before their runs were snuffed out, either by injury or inconsistency. And then there was Simona Halep.
She lost the first set she played, to Alison Riske. She was sent out to Court 18 for her third-round match. She fell behind 0-4 and lost the first set to Angelique Kerber in the quarters. She was the underdog against a hot-hitting Muguruza in the semis. And she was so far behind Stephens in the final, and seemingly so far out of the match, that she said to herself, “It’s gone, it’s over, just enjoy yourself.” Of course, the moment a player pulls the emotional ripcord is usually when a player is most dangerous; just ask Novak Djokovic’s opponents over the years. But unlike Djokovic, Halep didn’t suddenly start slapping winners. She did something more difficult: She settled in and out-wallboarded a wallboard. She played forceful, but not risky, tennis. She hit and ran, and hit and ran, and hit and ran, and she won. She won the hard way.
It was so hard that Halep said she “couldn’t breathe” in the final game, but she made all the shots she needed to make. That’s what makes her a special athlete and personality: Her way of being tough and vulnerable, nervous and fierce, fatalistic and persistent, volatile and consistent, a perfectionist and someone who is willing to takes the losses and keep coming back for more.
Halep is all in, and she lets us see it all. We knew how hard her road had been, because over the years we had seen it in her face and heard it in her words. In Paris, we finally got to share her relief and joy. For some of us who were there, it made the whole trip worthwhile.
WATCH—Championship point from Halep’s win over Stephens in Roland Garros final: