As the red clay in Paris starts to settle down, and our eyes adjust to the dazzling achievement of Rafa’s La Decima, a feat that only Nadal himself — the King of Clay — could achieve, we at Courtside Watch look back at the last two weeks. The week was chock full of all sorts of stories – here are the ones that caught our eye:
R1 – R3
In a match that would’ve been a quarterfinal here half a decade ago, Del Potro and Almagro faced off early in the second round. After splitting the first two sets, the Argentine’s opponent suddenly collapsed on court in pain. For a player whose career has recently been hampered again and again by injury, the frustration and the loss proved to be too much – Almagro broke down. Del Potro, in one of the all-time great moments of the sport, immediately rushed over to his side to console the Spaniard, saying,
“Try to be calm. Try to think about [your] family, [your] baby.’
Tennis has been blessed in recent years with great sportsmen standing up as ambassadors of the sport, but even in today’s age of politeness and respect between competitors, a starkly human moment between two great players should make the tour proud.
Klizan, who showed the full extent of his talent on the forehand side in his fourth-set, two-tiebreak loss to the world number one.
Khachanov, the 21-year-old Russian who took out Tomas Berdych ended John Isner’s surprisingly good clay season and got a lesson in greatness in his fourth-round match with Murray.
Chung, the Korean talent who backed up his performance against Nadal in Barcelona by taking Kei Nishikori to a fifth set. A close point here or there, or no rain delay, and it might’ve been a completely different match for him, and an even better tournament.
Berdych, who lost in the second-round to the aforementioned Khachanov – a poor season continues to get worse for him, and his window at going deep in a slam seems to be closing sooner rather than later.
Grigor Dimitrov, who started the year at the very top of the game, has failed to follow up his Australian Open semifinal showing and title-winning form with any result of substance. He did better his previous French Open appearances by winning one match more than his previous endeavors (zero), but as he settles into tennis middle-age, those gains just aren’t enough anymore.
Zverev the younger, fresh off his stunning run to the Rome title, can’t be blamed for being burned out after becoming the first man born since the 90s to win a Masters 1000. Nonetheless, given his love for the clay and his immense talent, it was surprising to see him go out in four relatively tame sets to Verdasco (who surprisingly had a good run of his own, ending in a bizarre 6-0, 4-6, 4-6, 0-6 loss to Nishikori). Zverev has all the talent needed to challenge for the big titles, and as his win over Djokovic in Rome showed, the mental fortitude to make it count – but he still has a long way to go in being a consistent factor in tournaments, week in and week out.
David Goffin, a possible favorite for the title going into Roland Garros, tragically had to end his campaign for the title in the third round as he slid into the tarmac at the back of the court while serving for the first set. A bad twist of the ankle which led to a muscle tear has knocked Goffin out till at least Wimbledon, but one can’t help but feel that injury is only delaying the inevitable for the Belgian clay courter – who else sees a Goffin v Thiem FO Final in two years’ time?
Diego Schwartzman’s third round effort against Djokovic seemed a match tailor-made for Ben Rothenberg and other advocates of best-of-three at the Grand Slams. A match that the short Argentine took to five, he had only three sets worth of energy for – a fact that played crucially to the Serbian’s advantage. Nonetheless, Schwartzman showed off incredible talent on the backhand wing when he was willing to go toe-to-toe with the defending champion’s own lauded double-handed swing.
R4 – QFs
Thiem d. Djokovic
In a replay of Soderling’s shocking oust of Nadal in 2009, where he overcame a 6-0 6-1 loss in Rome to knock out his conqueror in Paris, Dominic Thiem produced a stunning upset of the #2 seed. After winning a first set that seemed crucial to his chances, the Austrian power-house started to simply knock the Serb off the court, often hitting blazing backhands up the line while moving backwards off a Djokovic return. Commentators and fans watched a dazed Nole meekly surrender in the third set, not winning so much as a game. With the loss, Djokovic’s fall from the historic heights he achieved last year is complete – he now holds none of his four major titles.
Nadal d. Pablo Carreno Busta
A great tournament from PCB sadly ended in an ab injury, early in the second set against the eventual champion. Aside from being drawn against Nadal, and being inconvenienced by the injury, the 25-year-old Spaniard followed up strong on his Estoril title and first Masters semifinal.
Murray d. Nishikori
In their first slam face-off since Murray’s controversial loss to Kei at the US Open, Andy Murray righted the ship quickly after losing the first set. A four-set result that never really seemed in doubt, propelled Murray to defending his points from last year. The Japanese, who squeezed out a win against Chung, continues to fail in finding it in himself to beat top players when it counts.
Wawrinka d. Cilic
In a match-up that drew sighs of relief from the rest of the draw, the two most dangerous slam champions outside the Big Four faced each other in a quarterfinal from which only one would emerge. Cilic, who flew mostly under the radar for the duration of his tournament, had not dropped a set until he was demolished by an in-form Wawrinka. The one-sided loss aside, Cilic has been having a good season – no one will be happy to see his name across from theirs on the grass.
Questionably Honorable Mentions
Monfils, who managed to remain in-form and injury free, but somehow failed to make as stern a contest as expected out of his encounter with Wawrinka.
Verdasco, who found his way to dishing out a bagel in his opening set with Nishikori, also found himself at the receiving end of one in the same match. After a good tournament, which included knocking out Sascha Zverev, Nando didn’t lose a match he should’ve won – he just lost it in the most bizarre way possible.
Nadal d. Thiem
This clay season has seen so many face-offs between these two that Thiem has quickly been given the name of Prince of Clay. All through the clay season, Thiem seemed to be inching closer to Nadal in the scoreline until he finally turned it around in a 6-4 6-3 performance against the King himself in Rome. After his dismantling of Djokovic, this was one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the tournament, but Nadal very quickly demonstrated the reason behind the divide between the King and the pretender. In a straight set clinic that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated, Rafa exposed Thiem’s central weakness – an inability to change a failing game plan – to make his tenth(!) French Open final.
Wawrinka d. Murray
In a match that was, for long stretches, brains over brawn, Murray used his defensive reach and talent for hitting lobs and found his way past the 2015 champion to work up a two-sets-to-one lead. Toward the end of the fourth set, however, Wawrinka roared into Stanimal mode, ripping away a tiebreaker in a set where neither player really faced break points. Though the fifth set was one-way traffic, Murray can take solace in the fact that he came into a tournament playing pretty terribly and came away defending his semifinal berth. He’ll be looking forward to carrying his improved form over to the grass, where he hopes to do well.
Nadal d. Wawrinka
Ten. Ten finals, ten titles, ten grand slams. Rafael Nadal absorbed Wawrinka’s pace, suffocated him with his depth of shot, and cramped him into corners to sweep his way to having won a stunning 20% of all French Opens contested in the Open Era. The Mallorcan came into the tournament as the obvious favorite, but few could’ve predicted his path to the title would involve not the loss of a single set, and the concession of fewer than forty games. After three long years, the Spaniard is back at the very top of clay court tennis, and if there was every any question before about how set in stone his status as King was, there isn’t likely to be again.
All in all, the year’s second slam cemented the fact that this is a comeback year for Nadal as much as it is for Federer. Playing like it’s 2006, they’ve captured all the major titles in in play thus far (spare Zverev’s great run at Rome). With the slam count between the two split at three once again, the ATP tour heads into what is sure to be a fascinating grass court season.