A reflection on Djokovic's comeback, Barbora's breakthrough, Nadal, Swiatek and much more

Roland Garros walkway

From Naomi Osaka's shocking withdrawawl to Novak Djokovic's 19th major triumph, the 2021 edition of Roland Garros wasn't short of storylines.

It's impossible to cover everything that happened over the fortnight, but here are my thoughts on some of the tournament's talking points.

Immortal Nole

We have to start with Novak Djokovic don’t we?

It seems that whatever challenge you throw at the world no.1, he’ll find a way to overcome it. If not immediately, eventually.

If you’re a fan of Nadal and Roger Federer, it’s officially squeaky bum time. Djokovic has moved to 19 majors overall, one shy of the magnificent duo. He’s also the first man in the Open Era to have won at least two of each major.

Novak Djokovic
Marianne Bevis / Flickr

I rate him as the overwhelming favourite for Wimbledon given the respective situations of peers and his record there. If that comes to pass, we may have three men on 20 majors heading into the US Open, and a potential calendar slam on the line for Djokovic.

Barbora’s Breakthrough

After the unlucky/unusual withdrawals of Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova, the women’s event became a glorious opportunity for the field.

Sure enough, we had six maiden grand slam quarter-finalists, four fresh semi-finalists, and two new finalists. On this occasion, Barbora Krejcikova took advantage of the situation and deserves much credit. 

While her form meandered in the latter rounds, the Czech was ruthless in dispatching Ekaterina Alexandrova, Elina Svitolina, Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff. 

When her game was on, it was a joy to watch clean, aggressive hitting and assured movement.

To top off her first singles triumph, the 25-year-old returned on Sunday to claim the women’s doubles with long-time partner Katerina Siniakova. When you add in the junior title for Linda Noskova, it was a sensational fortnight for Czech women.

Backhand Blues For Stefanos

Firstly, there is much for Stefanos Tsitsipas to be proud of.

The 22-year-old played his first major final and pushed one of the all-time greats to five sets. That’s far better than most have managed in recent years.

The Greek showcased his enviable all-round game, athleticism and dedication. One area I think he fell short in though, painfully exposed by Djokovic, was the backhand.

Most of the time there isn’t a recipe to beat Djokovic in a major final, he’s only lost to two men since 2014. But if there is one, it involves a backhand that’s reliable and a weapon in its own right. 

For one handers, think Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem. The Swiss got the better of Djokovic in two major finals while the Austrian has twice beaten the world no.1 at Roland Garros.

One of the reasons why Djokovic turned the match around in the third set, was that he switched from challenging Tsitsipas’s forehand to specifically targeting the backhand.

The Greek’s single hander couldn’t live with the most stringent of examinations. If he wants to win these things, it will have to improve.

Strong Sakkari Will Endure

While I’m not entirely confident that we will see Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Tamara Zidansek at the business end of a slam again, I have little doubt that Maria Sakkari will return.

Maria Sakkari
Kate Tann / Flickr

I’ve long admired the Greek’s tremendous work rate and powerful game. Her attitude is superb and there has been steady progress in both her repertoire and results year-on-year. We have not seen the best of Maria just yet.

Rafa’s Revenge

The King of Clay’s record at Roland Garros has declined dramatically. Nadal now has THREE losses from 108 matches at the Bois de Boulogne. How will he sleep?

While the third set was riveting, Djokovic-Nadal no.58 wasn’t quite the classic some made it out to be. I think it will prove more vital for the world no.1 than the Spaniard. 

I expect Nadal will have unfinished business on his mind in 2022 and return to Paris fully focused on title no.14. However, I don’t think we’ll see the Swiss maestro alongside him. 

The sweaty and heavy conditions during Roger Federer’s tussle with Dominic Koepfer are exactly what he will try to avoid as he manages his body until retirement.

Iga’s Reset

The 20-year-old’s ridiculous record at Roland Garros has momentarily stalled at 14-2. It will be fascinating to see how and where Swiatek bounces back.

Can the 2018 junior Wimbledon champion do some damage at SW19 this year? Weirdly, as a professional, she’s never won a match there!

Sascha Stagnates

It might be overly harsh to criticise a grand slam semi-finalist, but I think that Sascha Zverev’s game has somewhat hit a wall. 

Alexander Zverev
Fotosr52 / Shutterstock

When on form, the German’s first serve, groundstrokes and movement are all top drawer and he can achieve great results. But that was the case in 2018 too. 

Has his game really expanded in recent years? Is he better equipped now to beat the very best in grand slams than he was before? Maybe we’ll learn more at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows.

Is The Summit Out Of Reach?

I also wonder about Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova. Like Zverev, they are excellent players who are top 10 stalwarts. However, their grand slam results have so far hit a ceiling.

After making the US Open final in 2016, Pliskova made two major semi-finals and four quarters between 2017 and 2019. In the time since, the 29-year-old hasn’t made the second week of a grand slam in eight straight appearances.

Elina Svitolina
Christian Mesiano / Flickr

As for Svitolina, while she’s a steady top five presence, back-to-back semi-finals in 2019 still count as her best work at the biggest events. 

Italy Cheers While France Sobs

For the first time in the Open Era, there were no French players in the third round of Roland Garros.

Unfortunately for Les Tricolores, of their 11 players in the ATP top 100, only three are under 30. Things are even worse on the WTA side of things with only four Frenchwomen in the top 100.

Meanwhile, Italy is salivating over its exciting trio of Matteo Berrettini, Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti. They are among the country’s ten representatives in the ATP top 100.

Hope For Us All

Honestly, there's nothing I like on clay. There's always bad bounces, you're dirty after playing. I really don't enjoy playing on clay.

That was Daniil Medvedev in April. Just a couple of months later, the clay sceptic made the last eight of Roland Garros and only lost to Tsitsipas. I suppose we can expect a deep run at Wimbledon now too?!