Mainstream interest in tennis is cyclical, to put it generously. The sport’s popularity wanes when it’s not currently contesting a Grand Slam, the four tournaments that amount to two months of relevancy over the course of a calendar year. Actually, that’s probably a bit too generous, because few people give a shit about the French Open. Je suis désolé, Roland Garros.
There’s a confluence of factors that often make the French feel like the least prestigious of the four Grand Slams. It falls precipitously close to Wimbledon, the most hallowed and exciting tournament of the year by virtue of its tradition and its esoteric surface—have you ever seen a grass court anywhere else? The clay courts of Paris are ubiquitous, and slow. Watching matches between two clay-court specialists is akin to watching David Ferrer rally against a wall. Worse yet: There is an aura of inevitability that surrounds the men’s singles draw as long as Rafael Nadal is healthy—the Spaniard’s dominance can be only so compelling when he’s won the tournament 10 times in 13 years.
Nadal’s French coronation seems like even more of a sure thing now that Roger Federer elects to skip the clay season to stay fresh for his favored grass. Will Nadal make it 11 trophies in 14 years? Well …
Still, I can’t help myself: This year’s French Open feels so damn entertaining, and people might be sleeping on it. (Either that or the Tennis Channel’s erratic coverage caused you to throw your remote at the screen and break your television.) Nadal’s 11th title might be the destination, but the journey toward championship Sunday hasn’t followed any discernible script—unless the prevailing narrative is pure chaos from a clay-stained circle of hell.
In the women’s draw, Serena Williams’s highly anticipated return to a major following the birth of her daughter was the tournament’s X factor. Even a rusty Williams who hasn’t played a Grand Slam in more than a year is better than most of the competition. And to throw an unseeded Williams into the fray was downright cruel to her side of the draw, as she dispatched the 17th-seeded Ashleigh Barty and 11th-seeded Julia Görges in the second and third rounds, respectively. A fourth-round match with Maria Sharapova, whom Williams holds a 19-2 record against and low-key (high-key?) really dislikes, was prime time. But then: Williams had to withdraw due to a pectoral injury that affected her serve (her serve velocity dipped considerably in a doubles match between her win over Görges and the scheduled match with Sharapova). The tennis gods are cruel.
In Williams’s stead is the American starlet who could one day prove to be her successor: Sloane Stephens has gotten hot at the right time, and the U.S. Open champion only has compatriot Madison Keys—whom Stephens beat in last year’s U.S. final—standing in the way of a second major final in three tournaments. But Stephens’s run is shocking, if we’re being honest: Her flat, powerful groundstrokes aren’t conducive to the slow, hoppy clay of the French, where she has never advanced beyond the fourth round, and she was slumping after the U.S. Open, failing to win another match that year and losing in the first round of the Australian Open. This isn’t a Cinderella story, but it certainly isn’t preordained, either.
Yet it’s the men’s side that’s delivered the most unexpected thrills, and we have the Italians to thank. One of the most entertaining matches of the French thus far was a fourth-round, five-set thriller on Monday between the third seed, Marin Cilic, and 18-seed Fabio Fognini. Cilic is a towering juggernaut who looks like a bodyguard from the John Wick universe; Fognini, meanwhile, could play his diminutive mafia boss that luxuriates in fine wine and expensive steak. Cilic is mechanical, and audaciously boring to watch, which made for a fascinating juxtaposition against the counterpunching Fognini, who had a damn skull on his headband, and plays to the energy of the crowd better than most players on the tour. Fognini nearly came back from two sets down to take down the Croatian. But, alas. Ciao, Fabio, but thanks for the memories.
Fognini’s near-comeback was upstaged on Tuesday by Marco Cecchinato, someone you’ve definitely never heard of. The Italian, ranked no. 72 in the world (highest career ranking: 59) is better known for a 2016 match-fixing scandal than his play on the court—yet he proved a sturdy test for Novak Djokovic. Perhaps Cecchinato played the match of his life; perhaps his one-handed backhand can be best described as Discount Wawrinka; perhaps Djokovic isn’t as healthy as he’d hoped to be; perhaps Djokovic is just washed. But Cecchinato persevered in a grueling fourth-set tiebreak to beat the former world no. 1 and make it to a French Open semifinal after previously failing to make it past the first round of any Grand Slam in his entire career.
Unseeded players going deep in a Grand Slam isn’t something that happens only at the French, of course; the tournament is just a much better catalyst for these moments in this era. Federer’s absence aside, few top players play their best tennis on clay—and as Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Andy Murray move past their primes and the quartet’s lopsided dominance of the midaughts eventually wanes, the French could be ground zero for these unpredictable upsets. One day, assuming his left arm isn’t replaced by one made of vibranium, Nadal will retire, and someone like Cecchinato might get hot enough at the right time to win the whole thing.