CHENNAI : The French Open is filled with familiar and unfamiliar narratives this year. The return of Roger Federer to the dirt. Rafa Nadal’s opportunity to move clear at the top of the men’s leaderboard. Stefanos Tsitsipas aiming to become the next Major winner. Serena Williams’ latest tryst with immortality. Ash Barty’s challenge. Naomi Osaka’s message on mental health.
One familiar narrative, though, has already played out. The singles challenge as far as India is concerned is already over. All of Prajnesh Gunneswaran (first qualifying round), Ramkumar Ramanathan, Ankita Raina and Sumit Nagal (second qualifying round) lost in the last two days or so. Even if there are mitigating factors at play — the Covid pandemic has meant that all players have not had the kind of build-up they would have normally had before a Major — this is yet another disappointing result for Indian tennis. The only way you can build on your results and show consistency is to keep making main draw appearances. The players did show they were capable of getting through the qualifiers over the last couple of seasons but this is a setback.
Davis Cupper, Nandan Bal, says one reason which could explain the relatively poor showing (four players put together won three qualifying matches) is India have historically been a bit sluggish on clay. “The clay you get in Paris is slower than India,” he told this daily. “Also, I believe a lot of them were just coming into their own before the pandemic. And the last year hasn’t helped. I believe they will put a much better showing at Wimbledon or even the hard courts later in the year.”
That’s true. Apart from Nagal who likes the dirt, a majority of Indians prefer playing on other surfaces. So much that in the 2020 edition of the French Open, four of the above-mentioned players won two matches between them in the qualifiers.
Even if Bal posits the issue of physicality in the modern game, he mentions that you can’t keep pointing to it as excuse, especially when short players have thrived. “Playing on clay is a different beast. Playing two to three hours on clay takes a lot of you. But players like Diego Schwartzman have shown you can thrive. I would give the likes of Nagal one-two years before they become fully consistent. They just need some time.”
However, one issue that’s sort of been overlooked is that all of the leading men’s players have suffered from an extended loss of form since the first lockdown. Here’s a sample — Ramkumar’s ranking dipped from 182 to 215 (two ATP main draw appearances), Gunneswaran’s went from 132 to 151 (zero main draw appearances) and Nagal dropped 16 places (127 to 143, even if he made main draw cuts in six world tour meets). India’s Davis Cup coach, Zeeshan Ali, can’t exactly point a finger but supports the theory that the likes of Nagal, still only 23, will only get better.
TIME FOR FRENCH TOAST
The end of the spring season in Paris coincides with the beginning of the French Open, the year’s second Major. The latest edition is filled with intrigue. Here’s a look at some of the plot points...
Rafa Nadal needs one more Slam to move clear of Roger Federer. Having unveiled a statue of himself at Roland Garros earlier this week, the Spaniard looks primed to win his 14th Major on the dirt and his 21st overall. But, seeded third, he finds himself in the same half as both Novak Djokovic and the returning Roger Federer, a potential problem.
The expected stories
Both Federer’s return (his second Paris Major since 2015) and Serena Williams eyeing her 24th Major will fit into this. For the Swiss, this is nothing but an exercise in fitness before grass season as well as the Olympics while Serena is 7 matches away from being the greatest ever.
Look out for Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sascha Zverev, Aryna Sabalenka and Sofia Kenin, who is the only Major winner in this group. Tennis is perhaps the only sport where a lot of column inches are dedicated to future superstars. While the why can be debated, these four have as good a chance as any to reach the final.
Men: 1 Novak Djokovic, 2 Daniil Medvedev, 3 Rafael Nadal, 4 Dominic Thiem, 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas; Women: 1 Ashleigh Barty, 2 Naomi Osaka, 3 Aryna Sabalenka, 4 Sofia Kenin, 5 Elina Svitolina
4 No of wins Osaka has had in the last three tournaments (Miami, Madrid and Rome)
1 This will be Federer’s first Major since last year’s Australian Open
2016 Last time Serena went past the third round in Paris
7 There have been seven different women’s champions from 2014
2005 Only four men have won the French Open since 2005