French Open Week 1 takeaways: Nadal continues Roland Garros dominance

Rafael-Nadal

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning a point against Richard Gasquet of France during their second round match on day 5, of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, Thursday, June 3, 2021. (Michel Euler / AP)

A week of thrilling tennis has unfolded on the well-manicured red clay in Paris, the site of the 125th edition of the French Open.

Top names like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Iga Swiatek have made comfortable work of their opponents early, while others have fallen victim to the upset.

Let’s recap what we’ve seen so far at Roland Garros through Week 1.

Seeds don’t matter

The volatility amongst seeded players in the women’s field has been on display through Week 1 of Roland Garros. Just three players inside the top 10 were still standing in the field after three rounds: Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek and Serena Williams, who was eliminated in the fourth round on Sunday. Coincidentally (or not), Swiatek and Kenin met in the 2020 French Open final last fall.

World No. 1 Ash Barty was forced out of the event in her second-round encounter with Magda Linette, retiring from the match with a hip injury in the second set. Seasoned players like Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova all exited early.

Ruthless hitting Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka entered the event 11-2 on clay with a title in Madrid and potential slam contender, but even she faltered in the third round to Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

That leaves a wide open second week, with a high potential for a first-time Grand Slam winner.

Watch for Paula Badosa, a dark-horse contender who plays her best tennis on this surface. The Spaniard is on a nine-match winning streak, having won the Serbian Open two weeks ago.

Italian talent shines

Two teenaged Italians find themselves in the second week of Roland Garros.

Jannik Sinner, who made quarterfinals at the French Open last year, has charged into the fourth round and awaits an exciting rematch with 13-time champion Nadal.

Sinner has endured tests of stamina and will to get there, especially in overcoming a dramatic five-set thriller in his opening-round match over Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert.

His easy power from the baseline on both wings is as breathtaking as it is overwhelming, as fellow pros have marvelled at his skill set and tabbed him as a future Grand Slam champion in the making.

Meanwhile, fellow countryman Lorenzo Musetti has achieved his career-best at a major, joining the Round of 16 in Paris. The 19 year-old has a game tennis purists will adore. A picturesque one-handed backhand, crafty use of spins and angles, and a lovely feel for the ball.

Musetti has already reached three ATP semifinals in his young career and delivered big victories over opponents like David Goffin, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori.

It is the first time two teenagers have made it this far at the French Open since Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils achieved the same feat in 2006.

Gauff’s got game

In 1990, Monica Seles made Roland Garros history, defeating Stefi Graff in the final to become the youngest champion in the tournament’s history at the age of 16 years, six months.

While that peerless record is out of reach for 17-year-old American Coco Gauff, a deep run at this event in 2021 is certainly within it.

Since winning her first-career title on the surface in Italy at the Parma Challenger, Gauff has continued her clay court charge in Paris with standout wins over Aleksandra Krunic, Wang Qiang and Austraialian Open finalist Jennifer Brady, who retired from their third-round match after the first set with a foot injury.

Gauff was a junior French Open champion in 2018 so feels at ease on the courts in Paris; she’s also developing and maturing as a player.

“I think you can tell I’m improving and making smarter decisions on court,” Gauff said, following the win over Brady.

Gauff has now reached the Round of 16 at a major three times.

Tennis bodies fail Osaka

Naomi Osaka sent shockwaves through the sports world when she announced ahead of Roland Garros that she would not partake in any post-match press conferences. In hindsight, it seems regretful this had to become such a hot button topic.

Osaka ultimately wanted to avoid any negativity surrounding an event she’s admittedly struggled at in the past, and shine a light on the dynamic between athletes and media.

Instead, with an astonishing disregard for the well-being of one of its most high-profile athletes, the four Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open) issued a joint statement warning Osaka of possible disqualification or suspension for missing press conferences.

The move backfired spectacularly. Osaka pulled out of the tournament to avoid becoming a distraction and detailed her personal struggles with depression since 2018 in a Twitter post.

It’s not clear when Osaka will return to the court, but perhaps she can work with the governing bodies in tennis to affect positive change toward how they view mental health issues.

Their response this past week was archaic at best.

The Big 3 are all business

Nadal has lost just two matches at Roland Garros in his entire life, so it can be hardly quantified as surprising that he’s through to the second week unscathed. Nadal hasn’t dropped a set, brushing aside opponents with his deep, penetrating forehand, blitz of angles, otherworldly court coverage and elite return game.

A record 14th title at French Open would push him to 21 total Grand Slams, surpassing Roger Federer.

While world number one Novak Djokovic has just one French Open title coming back in 2016, he’s also been to four finals and is more than capable of top tier tennis on the red dirt. He’s been in sharp form so far. He has yet to lose a set through one week.

The surprise from this indomitable group has been 39-year-old Roger Federer.

The Swiss maestro downplayed his chances heading into the event, since he’s competed in just two tournaments since February of 2020. Yet, he still managed to navigate three difficult matches and reach the round of 16.

He also continues to defy the laws of physiology and maybe even geometry with shots like this:

Unfortunately, Federer pulled out of the tournament ahead of his fourth round match with Matteo Berrettini, but he looks fresh and in form for his favourite event which is just weeks away: Wimbledon.

Night Matches Offer an Eerie Vibe

While day sessions at the French Open this season have been able to return to their usual Parisian atmosphere on the grounds of Roland Garros, with ruckus stadiums and grandeur, the night matches have been almost eerily silent.

That’s because they are played to zero fans at all. Due to COVID-19 curfew restrictions that kick in at 9 p.m. in parts of France, no fans have been permitted to attend the night sessions at Roland Garros.

This unfortunately took away from the lustre of some otherwise great matches, like Sloane Stephens’ come-from-behind victory over Carla Suarez Navarro, who was playing the final tournament of her career after making an inspirational return from cancer.

Fortunately, the easing of curfew restrictions comes June 9th, just in time for the men’s quarterfinals to play in front of a packed house at night.

An expressive, raucous and engaged French crowd can often elevate an already great match to iconic heights.

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