French Open returns with usual suspects, coronavirus restrictions and ructions
Just over seven months since the end of Roland Garros 2020, voila Roland Garros 2021.
Last year’s tournament was pushed back from its traditional May time slot to late September due to the impact of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
And with the disease still ravaging the world, there will be the 2020 competition protocols such as limited numbers of fans, regular PCR tests for everyone attending the competition and players staying in specially-commissioned hotels.
Last year’s switch to the autumn provoked an intriguing debate about how the heavier conditions might stop Rafael Nadal from unleashing the vicious, high-bouncing top spin that has numbed arms and minds since the first of his 12 titles in 2005.
Nadal answered the queries with a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 demolition of the top seed Novak Djokovic in the final to collect a record-extending 13th crown. The 34-year-old Spaniard had not dropped a set during his seven matches.
What hope then for the contenders over the next two weeks when the sun, air and the clay courts in a leafy western suburb of Paris seemingly combine to produce the ideal landscape for Nadal?
Djokovic, the top seed, can’t play as abjectly as he did in last year’s showdown.
Though he lost the 2021 Italian Open final against Nadal on 16 May, the Serb said he took enough away from that clay court encounter to be confident about his game at the French Open.
Djokovic spoke bullishly too just before the 2020 tournament.
He and Nadal, the third seed, are scheduled to meet in the semi-finals. Roger Federer, the former world number one, is in their half of the draw as well. But the 39-year-old's billing as a title contender vanished long ago.
Like Federer, Daniil Medvedev, though seeded second, cannot be counted as a possible champion.
The 25-year-old Russian concedes he does not have the patience to prosper on clay. And his record in Paris bears him out: four visits and four first round losses. Perhaps there will be advances in 2021.
Progress for the fourth seed Dominic Thiem would mean lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
The Austrian lost to Nadal in straight sets in the 2018 final. But a year later, he answered Nadal’s fusillades with cannons and pocketed the second set to level the match.
A pyrrhic victory. Nadal waltzed away with the next two sets to notch up French Open number 12.
Since claiming the 2019 US Open, Thiem appears to have lost his mojo but should be able to raise himself for a round or two.
Fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who took Djokovic to five sets in last year’s semi-final, would consider a couple of rounds as disappointing.
The 22-year-old Greek had a match point against Nadal on the clay at this year’s Barcelona Open final and is the most compelling of the candidates to reach the final from the bottom half of the draw.
“I'm ready to face Nadal or Djokovic and I'm pumped to face any of them,” he said ahead of his match on Sunday against the French veteran Jérémy Chardy.
"Every single match against them gives me the opportunity to put myself at my top level,” he added.
"I've been feeling my game well … just consistent on court, consistent with my power, with the way I attack and the way I risk.”
Women’s top seed Ashleigh Barty returns to the scene of her first Grand Slam crown in 2019.
The Australian stayed at home because of the pandemic and did not defend her title which was claimed by Iga Swiatek - the first Pole to lift a Grand slam tournament trophy.
“I'm just trying to lower my expectations,” said Swiatek ahead of her first round match against her friend Kaja Juvan.
“I’ve got to remember that and from the experience of other players it's not easy to be a defending champion.”
Sofia Kenin, last year’s runner-up, remains a threat and the fortnight will witness the extent of Aryna Sabalenka’s eureka moment.
“Before I was really thinking a lot about Grand Slams and that I really want to win one,” the 23-year-old Belarusian explained.
“It does not really help you to win the Grand Slam. You just put a lot of pressure on yourself.
“So the biggest improvement was to stop thinking about the winning of a Grand Slam. Just to start working towards it. And that's it.”
Sabalenka, who won the Madrid Open title in early May, will reveal if her mind and body have assimilated the new mantra against the former world number 20 Ana Konjuh in the first round.
Should Konjuh cause a shock, Sabalenka is likely to emerge from the haze of defeat and tell journalists what went wrong.
Naomi Osaka, the second seed, won’t be doing that if she succumbs to the world number 63 Patricia Maria Tig in the first round.
Osaka declared on social media a couple of days before the pre-tournament Media Day that she would play stumm with journalists after her matches in Paris.
The Osaka Gambit - like any good manoeuvre - caught organisers off guard and caused a kerfuffle in the media.
Gilles Moretton, the head of the French tennis federation, which organises the French Open, was apoplectic and promised fines would follow for her rebellion.
“This is an extraordinary mistake,” he fumed. “What is happening in my opinion is unacceptable. This is tennis we want to promote."
Osaka’s line is that when she wants to be positive, questions from reporters potentially prise open the seeds of doubt and she does not want to deal with the negativity.
Bless. And the stance is fair enough if the financial cushion can offer a shield.
If anyone can absorb a 20,000 euro fine for not attending press conferences, it is Ms Osaka.
In 2020 she raked in more than 30 million euros to make her the best paid female athlete on the planet.
Barty said the jousting with reporters was part of the job. Still, on her past record in Paris, Osaka will only have to set aside 60,000 euros.
Osaka’s coach, Wim Fissette, hasn’t been ordered to stop speaking though.
The Belgian told the tournament website rolandgarros.com that Osaka has the potential to pay 140,000 euros in fines.
“She does understand what is necessary to conquer the clay,” he said.
“Naomi has shown in the past she is able to excel in the Grand Slam tournaments,” he added. “So I think we definitely cannot rule out Naomi as a dangerous player in Paris.”
What a palaver that would create: the women’s champion not coming to talk about the joys of lifting one of the sport’s biggest prizes.
Unprecedented. Sounds like a marketing coup. Voila, Roland Garros 2021.
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