Thoughts On The 2017 French Open
Rafa's Decima, Jelena's arrival, Novak's struggles and much more
By Stephen Higgins | 12 June 2017
Let's begin with some perspective on the relative importance of tennis.
On Tuesday December 20th, Petra Kvitova was attacked in her home by a man wielding a knife. The wounds suffered to her playing hand left severed tendons and nerves, not to mention the inevitable trauma. When she left hospital a few days later after undergoing a surgery lasting almost four hours, the two-time Wimbledon champion could barely wiggle her fingers.
Skip forward five months to the environs of Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris. This remarkable woman returned to tennis with a 6-3 6-2 victory over American Julia Boserup.
The Czech outlined her feelings afterwards, as reported by The Guardian:
“It was a nice and really heartwarming welcome,” she said. “My team was there. My family was there. Everyone who helped me through the difficult time. I’m happy with the game, of course, but it wasn’t really about the game today. I already won. This match is special to me. I won for the second time.”
While the action on court throughout the fortnight inspired players and non-players alike, Petra Kvitova's return represents so much more. Kvitova is a person of admirable courage, renowned for her kindness towards other players. Welcome back Petra, tennis is lucky to have you.
Rafael Nadal's destruction of Stan Wawrinka in the final brought the Majorcan his 10th French Open, La Decima. The 31-year-old's record in Paris now stands at a frankly unbelievable 78-2, with Robin Soderling (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2015) the only men to defeat him.
With Roger Federer dominating the early hardcourt section, and Nadal the clay, one wonders if we've travelled a decade back in time. Not that anyone who enjoys tennis can complain. Rafa is the greatest men's clay court player we're ever likely to see, so we should enjoy his elastic forehand, destructive backhand, nimble footwork and indefatigable spirit for as long as we can.
I mean I don’t really like clay courts but I have some good results on them, I’ve won some tournaments on clay courts.
That's what Jelena Ostapenko told me when I interviewed her in 2016. The 20-year-old added another clay court title to that collection on Saturday, one considerably more important than the others.
The Latvian broke a number of records with her surprising 4-6 6-4 6-3 victory over Simona Halep. Ostapenko is the first Latvian grand slam champion, first unseeded French Open champion since 1933, and the first player to win their debut tour title at Roland Garros since Gustavo Kuerten in 1997 (coincidentally, on the day she was born).
Ostapenko has now catapulted herself into the world's top 20 and can look forward to her favourite stage of the season in England. In 2014, the Riga native claimed the Girls' Singles at Wimbledon. Boasting a first major title, that phenomenal backhand will probably have even more venom at SW19.
Stan Wawrinka's streak of major final wins ended in stunning fashion on Sunday. Many thought that the explosive 2015 champion could at least trouble, if not beat, the astonishing Majorcan. Well, that prediction was way off. Wawrinka never slipped into the gear required to topple Nadal at Roland Garros, primarily because the lefty wouldn't let him.
At 32, Wawrinka was the oldest French Open men's finalist in over 40 years. The Swiss is a late bloomer though, having made his first major semi-final (US Open) in 2013 at the age of 28. Given the enormous firepower in his arsenal, the defending US Open champion is likely to get another shot at a fourth major.
Recovering from that loss will be an enormous challenge for Simona Halep. For such a natural player on the dirt, it must be difficult to handle two final defeats to players (Maria Sharapova, Ostapenko) who find clay much more of a struggle. The good news is that the Romanian is a wonderful player with an excellent coach in Darren Cahill, and she should continue to put herself in positions to capture titles. However, a funk from the French Open may hinder the 25-year-old's hopes in London.
Semi-finalist Dominic Thiem hasn't quite walked through the victor's door at Roland Garros, but the Austrian's hammer blows have severely weakened its hinges. The 23-year-old got his revenge over Novak Djokovic in the quarters with an outstanding straights sets win, but that immovable Majorcan halted his progress in the penultimate round.
Thiem has no need to feel disheartened though when you consider his 2017 clay court record: Monte-Carlo (2nd round), Barcelona (final), Madrid (final), Rome (semi-final) and Roland Garros (semi-final). He will be a French Open champion at some point so long as he stays fit.
The sight of defending champion Garbiñe Muguruza departing the 2017 French Open in floods of tears was a dreadful spectacle. The Roland Garros crowd can be brutal to players, even their compatriots, and the Spaniard was the latest victim.
The 23-year-old's fourth round loss to Kristina Mladenovic may just be a disappointing day on court but her form has been mixed since last summer. The lady from Caracas will fall out of the world's top 10 after failing to add a trophy to her cabinet since Paris last year.
It's hard to predict what the next move will be for Novak Djokovic. The 12-time major champion had this to say after his sorry quarter-final loss to Dominic Thiem, from tennis.com:
"I obviously always expect a lot from myself, but it's a fact that I'm not playing close to my best, and I know that,” he said. "Again, I'm trying, as everyone else, to work on the game and, you know, work on things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
Despite taking on the part-time services of former world no.1 Andre Agassi, it is not known whether the Serb will now prepare for Wimbledon, make a rare appearance at a primer tournament, or take a sabbatical from the game. The loss in Paris leaves the 30-year-old at world no.4, his lowest ranking in almost eight years.
Can this extraordinary champion rediscover the magic that made him almost invincible, a la Roger and Rafa?
A first major title looks ever closer for the nearly world no.1 Karolina Pliskova. In the only grand slam on clay, her worst surface, the powerful Czech survived until the last four before finally falling to Halep in three sets. The 25-year-old is probably disappointed with a loss in such a tight match but she shouldn't dwell on it for too long. In five previous main draw appearances, Pliskova had failed to make it past the second round. That's some progress.
Andy Murray struggled through the clay court stretch, garnering five wins from four tournaments. Approaching his strongest period of the season on the green grass of home, the world no.1 needed the confidence that wins bring. Thankfully for his camp, the now 30-year-old managed five more in Paris with impressive defeats of Juan Martin Del Potro and Kei Nishikori. The two-time Wimbledon champion should have a sufficient supply of confidence to take to the lawns with gusto in the coming weeks.