May 24, 2020

Roland Garros Rewind (2016 - 2019)

So here we are on what should have been the first day of the 2020 French Open, and instead of watching magic on clay, we're on the verge of what will be the third straight month without professional tour tennis.

There are signs of hope out there, though -- this weekend, a couple ladies are taking the court in the second UTR Pro Series in Florida, and Novak Djokovic recently announced the Adria Tour, which will feature top stars in exhibition matches around the Balkans in late June and early July.

Still, with the WTA and ATP officially on hold until at least mid July, whether Roland Garros will actually kick off on the twice-rescheduled September 20th as now planned remains to be seen. I clearly can't continue with my original plan of predicting the final four for this event, at least not yet, but I can take this opportunity to look back at the action I missed in Paris the few years since I last wrote about it.

As with my lookback on Indian Wells and Miami, there were a couple things that took me by surprise, some standout performances that slipped my memory -- certainly on the women's side, but even a few on the men's, which has obviously been so dominated by one name over the past decade and a half. There were players that really made a name for themselves at the French, some of whom have lived up to that glory, others who've faded away a bit. But all of them, I'm sure, hold these courts in a special place in their hearts and are eager for the day they can get back to work on them.

The Men

Not surprisingly, the French Open remains Rafael Nadal's to lose. The twelve-time champion has a stunning 93-2 record on these courts and could be one appearance away from hitting the 100-win mark. There have been some bumps in recent years -- we all got a little nervous in 2015, when the Spaniard's game seemed to be flagging a bit, and he lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarters. A year later, a wrist injury not only forced him to pull out of the third round in Paris, but also allowed Nole to complete the task he fell just short of the season before, when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final -- winning the title and the career Grand Slam. But Rafa got back to top form in short order and in the last three years, has only lost three sets on his way to the titles.

That said, we know Nadal's reign will eventually come to an end, and we're getting some glimpses of who might be ready and willing to take over. Dominic Thiem has reached the finals at Roland Garros the last two years and has quickly become the second best clay court player on tour right now. He's won ten of his 16 titles on the surface and last year beat Rafa in Barcelona and Djokovic at the French. His performance in Melbourne this year further showed he's capable of capturing the biggest titles, and I expect that sometime in the not so distant future, we'll see him lifting this trophy too.

But there were some other players that lasted late into recent draws at Roland Garros that flew well below my radar. Unseeded Albert Ramos-Viñolas made a solid run to the quarters in 2016 with wins over Milos Raonic and Jack Sock. It was by far his best performance at a Major and followed four straight first round exits in Paris. And Pablo Carreno Busta got as far a year later, but ultimately pulled out in the second set against Nadal with an abdomen injury that also forced him to skip the grass court season. But he rebounded to make the semis in New York and even spent a stint in the top ten.

The real shocker at the French Open over the last few years, though, was a little-known Italian named Marco Cecchinato. Though he picked up his first career title in Budapest as a qualifier in April 2018, he was still ranked just 72nd in the world when he hit the court in Paris. But he took out in turn Carreno Busta, David Goffin, and against all odds, Novak Djokovic, who at the time was ranked all the way down at #22 after elbow surgery the year before kept him off court for six months. Cecchinato became the lowest ranked player to make the Roland Garros semis since 1999, and he eventually jumped into the top twenty, picking up trophies in Umag and Buenos Aires to boot. But last season didn't go quite so well -- he lost in 21 first rounds, putting together a string of nine straight losses over the summer, and with a 1-7 record to start 2020, he's now down at #113. Of course, he could come out of this lockdown swinging, but something tells me this Cinderella story may have come and gone.

The Women

Things have been a little less straightforward on the women's side of things, where we've seen a different champion in each of the last six years. I was closely watching in 2014 and 2015 when Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams respectively repeated their crowns, but I hadn't realized we were in for a whole new world in the women's game by the time 2016 rolled around.

It started when Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd only won two titles at that point and was ranked fourth in the world, stunned the defending Williams. who'd drubbed her in the previous Wimbledon final, for her first Grand Slam crown. Her career has been up and down since then, winning at the All England Club the next year, then struggling for most of the last before definitively reasserting herself as a force at this year's Australian Open.

Then there was Simona Halep, long held up as the star of the next generation of tennis, she came close but fell short of the biggest titles a couple times before finally breaking the seal -- she very well could have won that title against Sharapova in 2014, lost at the same spot three years later, and came in second again in Australia in 2018, this time to Caroline Wozniacki who won her first and only Major that year in Melbourne. But fourth time was a charm for Halep -- ten years after winning the Juniors title in Paris, the pint-sized Romanian -- meh, she's two inches taller than me -- finally came home a winner, beating Sloane Stephens for the 2018 title. She added a Wimbledon trophy to her collection last year and at #2 in the world seems well in place to add a couple more before all is said and done.

But maybe more significant are the slew of upstarts who've really had their break on the courts of Roland Garros. First there's defending champ Ashleigh Barty, who currently holds the #1 ranking in the world and put together a solid 11-3 record this year before play was called. Still, it remains to be seen whether she'll be more than a one-hit wonder -- the ladies' draw last year was, after all, rife with upsets, and the four semifinalists had an average rank that would barely earn a seed at a Slam. Barty's had big wins since, of coure, claiming the year-end championship for example, but she's also more than fallible and she'll need to fight to reclaim that title. As for the other three who made the semis -- finalist Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova, and Johanna Konta -- I've put a lot of faith in their career-making runs, and I'm still waiting for a couple of them to make good on them.

The biggest outlier among the women's titleists, though, is 2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko, who started the event a teenager ranked 47th in the world and ended it a 20-year-old Grand Slam champion. She'd never won a title before that run, but beat six higher ranked players during it, including former French finalist Sam Stosur, Wozniacki, and Halep in the final. But it's been a rough road since -- the Latvian lost in the first round at the French the last two years, and while she did crack the top ten and reached the Wimbledon semis in 2018, she's had trouble making a big splash. Still, she's young -- 23 next month -- and has a lot of time to perfect her game. I'm not ready to write her off, but sure would love to see her come out of the lockdown with a little more fire in her belly.

Because, of course, we will come out of this, and there's a long list of players who not only want to add themselves to the champions' roll but will be able to do it. And like everyone of you reading this, I can't wait to get started.

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