The French Open is perhaps the least interesting Grand Slam to the casual tennis observer. It shouldn’t be. Sure, Roland Garros’s clay courts can neutralize the game’s heaviest hitters, most of the matches are played before you’ve had your morning cup of coffee, and Rafael Nadal’s dominance casts a shadow of inevitability over the proceedings each year. But, damn it, the 2018 French Open has been fun, and we should all revel in its red-dusted glory.
Here are the CliffsNotes from a raucous three weeks at Roland Garros.
An Unseeded Player Made a Run—but Not the One You’d Expect
Meet Marco Cecchinato. He is 25, had never won a match in a Grand Slam before this French Open, and is ranked no. 72 in the world. He has a pun-able (“Cecc” this guy out!) last name, and on Tuesday, put this face on former world no. 1 Novak Djokovic:
Cecchinato is the Cinderella story that every great tournament needs. And he’s done it the hard way, running through two top-10 seeds and Djokovic before meeting seventh-seeded Dominic Thiem in the semifinals.
The Italian’s improbable run has made me a Ceccininte for life. He infused a necessary jolt of energy into a tournament whose conclusion will feel preordained until Rafa Nadal one day hangs up his racquet. The fourth-set tiebreak Ceccinato used to close out Djokovic is one of more enthralling displays of tennis I’ve seen in a while.
With Serena Williams returning ranked no. 451, the idea of an unseeded player making a deep run in the French wasn’t a particularly spicy prediction a couple of weeks ago. But no one could have seen this Italian firestorm of one-handed backhands coming. Let’s just hope no further “instances of sports corruption” involving Cecchinato come to light before Wimbledon.
Bury Rafa in Clay
Rafael Nadal remains the king of clay and, honestly, there isn’t anyone else in his stratosphere. Entering Sunday’s final, the now-32-year old has dropped a grand total of one set so far in the tournament, and the greatest testament to his preeminence is that had you told me this would be the case three weeks ago, I’d have thought you were underestimating him. Nobody has wielded sand with this level of virtuosity since Thomas Haden Church in Spiderman 3.
In a rare display of mortality, Nadal fell behind by a set and a break in his quarterfinal matchup with Diego Schwartzman on Wednesday night, but a drizzle pushed the remainder of the match to Thursday morning. Rafa wasted no time mounting a ferocious comeback, winning the final four games of the second set and sprinting to a four-set victory. Nadal continued his surgical summer by stomping Juan Martín del Potro in the semis. Del Potro had looked in prime form coming into Friday’s matchup, but he didn’t have the mobility to chase Nadal’s high-arcing top-spin strokes from line to line for more than three sets.
Thiem will pose a challenge to Nadal in Sunday’s final. The 24-year old Austrian is straight from the David Ferrer School of Diminutive Persistence, but he packs a powerful punch. Regardless, it will take an historic upset to prevent Rafa from bringing home his 11th title.
A Williamsless Final Weekend
Tennis is better when the Williams sisters are at the top of their games. Unfortunately, this French Open saw Venus duck out in straight sets to unseeded Qiang Wang in the first round and Serena withdraw less than an hour before her highly anticipated Round of 16 matchup with Maria Sharapova. Since Serena’s exit, no match on the women’s side has gone to a third set.
Saturday’s final, no. 1 seed Simona Halep vs. no. 10 seed Sloane Stephens, is sure to be a banger. Halep hasn’t lost a set since the first round, and she tightened her grip on the world no. 1 ranking with a dominant straight-setter over three-seed and 2016 champion Gabriñe Muguruza in the semifinals. Stephens dispatched countrymate Madison Keys in straight sets and appears more poised than ever to supplant Serena as the face of American tennis (win or lose Saturday, she will claim the no. 4 world ranking Monday).
Both women are sure to be hungry come match time. Halep is still in search of the Grand Slam title that has long eluded her, and Stephens her second in 10 months. The match will mark a seminal moment for the careers of each of the ascendant young stars, and for the world of tennis. The U.S. sports media is too preoccupied with the NBA and Stanley Cup at the moment to say it, so I will: It’s torch-passing season.
The Best Matches You Might Have Missed
No. 8 David Goffin def. No. 32 Gael Monfils 6-7(6), 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3
Nimble, pesky, unrelenting: Goffin is everything you could want in a clay-court star, and watching him match up with the electrifying Frenchman Monfils was exhausting and perfectly gratifying. Monfils has long been lauded for his impeccable footwork and ability to reach any spot on the court, but Goffin went toe-to-toe and came out the victor. Every point was earned.
More impressive yet, Goffin was able to win the favor of a crowd predisposed to spur on his adversary. Some of that has to do with a minor squabble between the two over Monfils’s time taken in between points. But when Goffin fended off four match points en route to a comeback after being down two sets to one, he won hearts, as well. The crowd’s greatest allegiance is to good tennis. If you’re scrapping, they’ll reward you.
No. 11 Diego Schwartzman def. No. 6 Kevin Anderson 1-6, 2-6, 7-5, 7-6(0), 6-2
After grinding out a five-set victory over sixth-seeded Kevin Anderson, Diego Schwartzman cited the story of David and Goliath as inspiration for his triumph. It makes sense. Schwartzman, down two sets to none, was forced to break Anderson twice in a row to steal the third set. The Argentine won a tiebreak in the fourth before finishing the South African off with a resounding 6-2 fifth set. With the odds stacked against him, Schwartzman refused to die.
Oh, also this:
The Schwartzman-Anderson match was one of three five-setters in the men’s Round of 16, but based on this height differential alone, it was far and away the most captivating (Fabio Fognini, please do not @ me).
No. 25 Anett Kontaveit def. No. 8 Petra Kvitova 7-6(6), 7-6(4)
Anett Kontaveit’s toppling of Petra Kvitova in the Round of 32 was one the more shocking results on a relatively quiet side of the draw. Kontaveit was previously 0-2 lifetime against the Kvitova, and the eighth-seeded Czech entered the match with a 13-match winning streak on her side.
It was a back-and-forth affair. Kvitova jumped out in front 3-1 in the first set, only to immediately cede a 5-3 advantage back to Kontaveit, who then allowed Kvitova to claw back and force a first-set tiebreak. Kontaveit squeaked that out, 8-6, and seized momentum in the second, jumping out to a 4-2 advantage. At 5-4, the underdog squandered multiple match points but was able to take the second-set tiebreak and earn one of the biggest victories of her young career.
Her reward? A matchup with Stephens, who surrendered only two games to Kontaveit en route to victory.
No. 2 Alexander Zverev def. No. 26 Damir Dzumhur 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-5
It’s been 22 years since a German man won a singles Grand Slam title (Boris Becker at the Australian Open in 1996). Enter Alexander Zverev. Before the French, the 21-year-old was a sexy pick to make a deep run (and my pick to be a long-lost Sprouse triplet), having won two clay titles in 2018 and seized the no. 3 world ranking.
Zverev’s defeat at the hands of Dominic Thiem in the quarters felt like a disappointment, but he still managed to make a little history at Roland Garros: According to ESPN Stats & Info, Zverev is only the second top-two seed to ever win three consecutive five-set matches in a Grand Slam tournament. The second of these three victories came at the expense of the 26th seed, Damir Dzumhur, in the Round of 16. Fresh off a five-setter the round before, Zverev’s comeback was a testament to his fitness and mental resolve. His best tennis is still in front of him.
But, perhaps most importantly, the match brought us an all-time ball-boy blunder:
To be a ball person is to take on the most thankless job in sports, and, on clay, it might also be the most difficult (besides, you know, actually playing sports). Please pray for our salmon-clad friends this weekend.