Roland Garros: The Big 3, #NextGen And Naomi

Rafael Nadal (photo: Christophe Guibbaud/ FFT)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 30, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The 2021 edition of the French Open has arrived – a week later than originally planned but better than waiting until October like last year. Day One of the Parisian fortnight begins on the terre battue at Stade Roland-Garros today with a worthy order of play featuring 40 matches spread across the main three show courts – Philippe-Chatrier, Suzanne-Lenglen and Simone-Mathieu – plus seven outer courts.

Imagine having an opening day ticket to Court Philippe-Chatrier. Those who are lucky enough will get to see women’s No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka, men’s No. 4 seed Dominic Thiem, women’s No. 15 seed Victoria Azarenka and men’s No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas all in action. On Court Suzanne-Lenglen, the featured attractions include the always entertaining men’s No. 27 seed Fabio Fognini, women’s No. 11 seed Petra Kvitova, women’s No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka and men’s No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev. Out in the garden-like Court Simone-Mathieu, there’s a quartet of French players to rally around: wild card Clara Burel, Gilles Simon, Corentin Moutet and wild card Oceane Dodin.

Thirteen-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, who was feted with a colossal statue depicting one of his signature strokes in the Jardin des Mousquetaires, returns in search of a record-eclipsing 14th Roland Garros singles title. If he’s successful putting together another seven-match winning streak and living up to his reputation as the King of Clay, it would mean winning his 21st major, which would surpass the total of 20 career Grand Slams he currently shares with Roger Federer.

Speaking of the Big 3, along with World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic and Federer, who is making just his second French Open appearance since 2015, they’ve all been placed together in the top half of the men’s draw. Djokovic could face Federer in the quarterfinals and either would be a dream opponent of Nadal’s. While the draw could have been kinder to the Big 3, it is what it is – and as long as each keeps winning and remains in the chase for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, it remains a compelling storyline. Meanwhile, the would-be Next Big 3 – Thiem, Tsitsipas, Zverev – anchor the draw down below and all are in action on opening day. Sprinkled through both halves of the draw are #NextGenATP rising stars such as Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz, Jenson Brooksby, Lorenzo Musetti and Emil Ruusuvuori. The future of the men’s game is in good hands.

Meanwhile, the women’s draw includes World No. 1 and 2019 French Open champion Ashleigh Barty plus reigning champion Iga Swiatek, who won the 2020 title when the major was rescheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Both Barty and Swiatek are at the top of the 128-player draw and on a collision course to meet in next week’s semifinals. Meanwhile, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and World No. 2 Osaka among the bold-faced names anchoring the bottom, and they could face each other in a semifinal tussle.

Speaking of Osaka, the talented 23-year-old Japanese-born superstar, social media maven and pop culture icon, who happens to be the highest-earning female athlete in the world and tennis’s biggest new star – and also has won two of the last three majors – garnered mega attention last Wednesday when she said on her social media platforms that she will not speak to the media during the French Open. She wants to protect her mental health. Mind you, all four of Osaka’s Grand Slam titles have been on hard courts. Her record on clay is not a distinguished one – she’s never gotten past the third round in four previous appearances. She skipped playing last year’s French Open.

Osaka wrote that she hopes that any fines she incurs – and she could be fined as much as $20,000 for each missed press conference – “will go toward a mental health charity.”

Tennis players are required to attend post-match news conferences at Grand Slam tournaments if requested by the media. Typically, a player of Osaka’s stature is usually requested and made available, win or lose.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka wrote. “We’re often sat there and asked questions we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

On Friday, the high-profile Osaka was notably absent from the tournament’s official media day, whose participants included Barty, Swiatek and Nadal. While nobody was critical of Osaka’s decision – her choice – by all appearances, what the others said suggested they would handle matters differently.

(Full disclosure: I have had the opportunity to interview Osaka, Barty, Swiatek and Nadal and others, like Bianca Andreescu, numerous times in virtual press conference settings since tennis’s restart last summer and find each of them to be very refreshing and engaging – always polite – and willing to answer reporters’ questions openly and honesty, win or lose. They accept that responsibility of being a professional tennis athlete. Last Tuesday, Andreescu even used the occasion of answering this reporter’s question about what she wanted to improve upon in her next match to break news that she was withdrawing from the Internationaux de Strasbourg tournament with a slight abdominal tear.)

Barty, 25, whose return to Paris for the first time since capturing the 2019 Roland Garros title, said in response to Osaka’s decision to boycott the press in Paris: “In my opinion, press is kind of part of the job. We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players. I can’t really comment on what Naomi is feeling or her decisions.

“At times, press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s also not something that bothers me. I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest with you guys.”

Nadal, who turns 35 on Thursday, was quoted during his media day press conference saying: “As sports people, we need to be ready to accept the questions and try to produce an answer, no? I understand her, but in the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally are traveling, who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We aren’t going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no?”

Swiatek, who celebrates her 20th birthday tomorrow, often uses her press conferences to self-analyze her performances and to talk about herself in a very mature manner. “I feel that the media is really important as well because they are giving us, you are giving us, a platform to talk about our lives and our perspective,” she said. “It’s also important, because not everybody is a professional athlete, and not everybody knows what we are dealing with on court. It’s good to speak about that. We have like two ways to do that: media and social media. It’s good to use both of these platforms and to educate people.”

On Sunday, Osaka plays 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig of Romania, who won her only WTA title in last year’s Istanbul Open on clay, in the opening match on Court Philippe-Chatrier. The first round is spread out over three days. Regardless of the outcome, win or lose, Osaka will skip the post-match news conference, which will include media both on site as well as virtually. As New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey wrote Saturday, “On Sunday, Osaka will try again to adjust her game in Paris. Win or lose, she plans to skip the news conference, and though her decision has stirred resistance, it will also stir reflection.”

Sunday’s show courts order of play