Having just returned from my annual journey to Paris for the French Open, I thought this would be a logical time to reflect on the fortnight, to put into perspective what happened and why it occurred, to give my take on a major that was captivating in some ways and poignant in others. The greatest of all clay court players returned to the summit. An energetic, unbridled, and spectacularly bold 20-year-old turned her career and her life upside down in claiming the women's crown against substantial odds. There were a multitude of other developments that made this major both enjoyable and moving, fascinating and inspiring. Let's get to it.
RAFAEL NADAL'S EXCELLENCE
After a magnificent clay court campaign that featured three straight tournament triumphs in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid and only one loss—to Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Rome— the Spaniard was an overwhelming favorite on the red clay of Roland Garros. He had raised his game enormously during that stretch en route to Paris, and the confidence he gained from winning those three titles at the cost of only two sets left Nadal feeling more confident coming into Paris than he had been since the 2013 edition of the event. Frankly, it was hard to imagine anyone other than him ruling at Roland Garros this time around.
He ruled majestically. In seven matches, Nadal granted his adversaries a total of only 35 games across seven matches. He was never extended beyond 6-4 in any set. He swept through the field comprehensively as the No. 4 seed, ousting the No. 6 seed Thiem 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 in the penultimate round and No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in the final. Prior to that last appointment, Nadal's draw was not terribly tough, but the fact remains that he took a first rate clay court player in No. 17 seed Roberto Bautista Agut and made the Spaniard look only marginally better than a stumblebum, winning that fourth round contest 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. A round earlier, he had cast aside Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 with a ruthlessly efficient display. Keep in mind that Basilashvili had accounted for both No. 31 seed Gilles Simon and the experienced Viktor Troicki in the first couple of rounds.
And so Nadal was victorious for the tenth time at the French Open, winning his first Grand Slam championship since Roland Garros in 2014, and moving past Pete Sampras into second place on the all-time men's list with 15 majors. That puts the Spaniard in an interesting place, three "Big Four" titles behind the leader Roger Federer, but three ahead of his old rival Novak Djokovic. In my view, Nadal's triumph in Paris—plus his dominance on the clay in winning 24 of 25 matches and four of five tournaments—was all the more remarkable in light of what preceded that golden stretch. He had been formidable on the hard courts, reaching three finals on that surface from the end of January into the early stages of April. But he suffered some bruising losses during that period, most significantly three setbacks at the hands of a revitalized Roger Federer, including the title round meeting in Melbourne when Nadal built a 3-1 lead in the fifth set before his adversary collected five games in a row to seal the Australian Open title.
I believed when the clay court circuit began that Nadal's psyche might be too wounded for him to go on a spree, but I could not have been more mistaken. This man's capacity to withstand hard defeats and rebuild his self conviction is second to none. In my view, his tennis now is better than it has ever been. His signature shot—the renowned forehand—is back to what it once was. The whirlwind topspin is bounding higher again. The inside out forehand is devastatingly potent and accurate once more. That is a chief reason for his recent successes.
But the larger truth is that Nadal's backhand is markedly improved. He flattens it out more, drives it with more depth, and steps into the court to finish off points convincingly with the two-hander. He doesn't seem to use his slice off that side as often as he once did. By using the backhand as a more potent weapon, he doesn't need to rely as much on his forehand, although he did give Wawrinka nightmares with the run around forehand all through that final.
Last, but not least, Nadal's serve is more versatile these days. He is moving it around more skillfully, going more frequently into the body, and sending it out wide in the deuce court often enough to keep his opponents honest. And his second serve is less attackable these days. Against Wawrinka he won 65% of his second serve points. His depth on that second delivery was outstanding. He also faced only one break point and was not broken in the entire match. I believe that final encapsulated why Nadal's game is at a career zenith. If his knees hold up and he can survive the first few rounds against big servers, Nadal can once again be a serious factor on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon. Between 2006-2011, he had a sparkling record there, losing two finals to Federer, toppling the Swiss in an epic 2008 final, reclaiming the crowd in 2010 after being absent in 2009, and losing to Djokovic in the 2011 final.
Since then, the best he has done in four appearances is a fourth round showing three years ago. It is all about surviving the slicker first week conditions in the first two or three rounds, and then anything is possible for Nadal, even securing a third title on the grass.
Meanwhile, it is time for a final assessment of his Roland Garros triumph. To be sure, he has faced tougher opposition in the past, but the bottom line is he was not going to lose to anybody this year. No one. And now Nadal stands alone on the men's list for dominance at a major event in the modern era. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer are standouts for winning Wimbledon seven times each, but Nadal has astoundingly reached double digits in Paris, and who could doubt that he might add one or possibly two more titles to that Roland Garros collection? Martina Navratilova had a game tailor made for the grass and won Wimbledon nine times between 1978 and 1990. Margaret Smith Court was the Australian Open champion on grass eleven times from 1960 to 1973, but many of those triumphs were achieved over undistinguished fields. Nadal's accomplishment stands alone among prodigious feats at a particular major. His clay court mastery is unassailable. One day, perhaps deep into the future, we will more fully appreciate what this exemplary man has accomplished on the surface that showcases his game more than any other.
OSTAPENKO FEARLESSLY CAPTURES WOMEN'S TITLE
It was apparent from the outset of this tournament that a wide range of competitors could be in contention for the premier clay court title in the game of tennis. Serena Williams is pregnant and gone from the sport until, presumably, next year. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber has almost completely lost faith in herself after taking two majors in 2016 and reaching another Grand Slam tournament final. There was no clear favorite in Paris with the possible exception of No. 3 seed Simona Halep. The players realized that someone might well step out of the shadows and directly into the spotlight if given the right set of circumstances.
Enter Jelena Ostapenko. This breathtakingly bold shotmaker from Latvia was appearing in only her eighth career Grand Slam championship. She had never won a WTA Tour level tournament before. She stood at No. 47 in the world, still a teenager when the tournament commenced, but a 20-year-old celebrity when it ended. Ostapenko pursues a policy of unrestrained aggression, blasting away freely off both sides, pulling off clusters of flamboyant winners, willingly making more than her share of unforced errors because she is convinced she will find her range again. She often does.
Here is how she progressed through the draw in Paris. It started inauspiciously with a first round clash against the American Louisa Chirico. Ostapenko did not shine initially, losing the first set before recording a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. She then obliterated Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig 6-3, 6-2 and clipped Lesia Tsurenko 6-1, 6-4. Down a set against 2010 Roland Garros finalist and 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Ostapenko rallied for a 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 win. Startling slowly once more, Ostapenko lost the first set of her quarterfinal against No. 11 seed Caroline Wozniacki, but came through 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. And then in the semifinals, the Latvian celebrated her 20th birthday with a hard fought, three set triumph over No. 30 seed Timea Bacsinszky, who turned 28 the same day.
That set the stage for Ostapenko to face the woman many believed was destined to become a major champion: Simona Halep. It was a dandy of a final pitting a guileful percentage player and persistent defender against a big hitter ceding little ground and seldom backing off. Halep tried her hardest to impose herself and find ways to disrupt the rhythm of Ostapenko, who connected for no fewer than 54 winners. And the 25-year-old from Romania nearly managed to thwart a rival who refused to buckle despite some dire circumstances. Halep was down 3-2 before winning four of the next five games to salvage the opening set. She moved to 3-0 in the second set and had three break points in the fourth game. Had she converted there, Halep almost surely would have won the match.
But Ostapenko climbed out of that corner, taking six of seven games to win the set 6-4. Halep established a 3-1 final set lead, but never won another game. The critical moment came at 3-3 when Halep was down break point. Ostapenko's two-hander down the line was headed way wide, but clipped the net cord and somehow curled back into the court for a freakish winner. Ostapenko closed it out unhesitatingly from there, winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, rising to No. 12 in the world by virtue of her accomplishment.
Where does she go from here? That question can't be easily answered. I believe Ostapenko will win more majors, but her future will depend to a large degree on harnessing her power and learning to defend more frequently as well as launching outright winners over and over again. She will suffer some startling losses. She will register some impressive wins. She will keep us guessing. But this is a player with gumption; this is a woman with spunk. Her game will inevitably grow and her stroke vocabulary will expand. Ostapenko will surely make her presence known over the next five to ten years.
DJOKOVIC DEPARTS TAMELY
Novak Djokovic seemed to be making some progress during the course of the clay court circuit. He was a quarterfinalist in Monte Carlo, losing a close encounter with David Goffin. He went to the semifinals of Madrid, losing to Nadal. And then he got to the final of Rome, toppling Dominic Thiem 6-1, 6-0 with a rousing performance that reminded everyone of the old Djokovic as he emoted freely, struck the ball beautifully and crushed the Austrian. A day later, however, he was bottled up emotionally and totally unsure of himself and his game. Alexander Zverev took apart the Serbian in straight sets.
At Roland Garros, Djokovic never quite found his groove, going five sets with Diego Schwartzman in the third round and looking shaky despite halting Albert Ramos Vinolas in straight sets. He seemed almost certain to win against Thiem in the quarters. He had never lost to the Austrian and had taken apart Thiem seamlessly in the semifinals of the French Open last year as well as in that recent clash at Rome. Facing Thiem on the same Suzanne Lenglen court where he prevailed so comfortably in 2016, Djokovic had a 4-2 first set lead but did not hold in the pivotal seventh game. With Thiem serving at 4-5, Djokovic had two set points but failed to convert. He lost that set sloppily in a tie-break and never quite recovered, bowing out 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0.
The Serbian lost his heart after the first set and did not put forth more than a meager effort in the last five games of the match, winning only four points in a dismal conclusion to the contest. Afterwards, he was thoughtful and candid in the press conference about the confused state he is in mentally. He did not dismiss the notion of taking an extended break from the game to clear his head and recover his enthusiasm for the game. It was a poignant press gathering featuring a fellow who does not fully understand what has happened to him and why he has declined so precipitously this past year .
Ever since Djokovic surged into the forefront of the game in 2007 and moved into the top three in the world, he has with rare exceptions been a ferocious competitor. He needs to bring back that old desire to compete with an unwavering heart and mind, with a never say die attitude. I have a growing feeling that we won't see that Djokovic until 2018, but I would love to be wrong.
WOMEN'S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT
Although the final round confrontation between Ostapenko and Halep was absorbing and a fitting way to finish up the tournament, the best match to me was the quarterfinal duel between No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 3 Halep. Svitolina gave herself a golden opportunity to prevail. Svitolina was in a commanding position, winning the first set 6-3, building a 5-1 lead in the second set. She had thoroughly outplayed Halep until then. But Halep somehow stayed in that second set.
She held at love in the seventh game. Svitolina served for the match at 5-2 and reached 30-30, two points away from victory. But Halep's return of serve set up a winner. She broke back for 3-5 but was down 0-30 in the ninth game, which went to deuce twice. Halep somehow held,broke easily for 5-5, moved ahead 6-5 and reached 0-40, triple set point in the following game. Svitolina obstinately came out of that corner and held for 6-6. In that critical sequence, Svitolina reached match point, but Halep was remarkably cool in that crisis. A backhand down the line set up a forehand down the line for her. She had Svitolina badly off balance, and now bunted a backhand down the line into the open court.
Back to 6-6 was Halep. She took the next point and then sealed that sequence with a let cord winner off the forehand. Set to Halep, eight points to six in the tie-break. It was one set all, but Svitolina was essentially spent. Halep came through 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-0 and then knocked out No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova in three sets. She then put herself in enviable positions twice during the final, but could not quite get across the finish line. But Halep could console herself to some degree because she was on the brink of defeat before overcoming Svitolina.
MEN'S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT
A year ago, Andy Murray upended Wawrinka in a four set semifinal. He made it through to the title round for the first time, but was beaten by Novak Djokovic. This year, Murray and Wawrinka met again in the penultimate round, and it was a riveting match in many ways. Wawrinka could easily have won in straight sets. Murray had a chance to achieve victory in four sets. In the end, it was Wawrinka who got the job done in five. The match lasted more than four-and-a-half hours.
This was a very enjoyable contest to watch as Murray looked to prevent Wawrinka from muscling his way through that match. In the opening set, Wawrinka served at 5-3 with a chance to close it out but Murray defended his way out of that situation, broke back and eventually made it to a tie-break. When Wawrinka punched a backhand volley past Murray at 5-5 in that sequence with both stationed at the net, the Swiss had arrived at set point, and he lifted his arms to ignite the crowd, imploring them to appreciate what he had just done.
But that celebration and demonstrativeness from Wawrinka came to soon. Serving at 6-5, he made an unforced error off the backhand. Murray took the tie-break eight points to six. From 2-3 in the second set, Wawrinka swept four consecutive games, breaking serve twice, reaching one set all. He proceeded to 3-0 in the third and at that stage the Swiss had collected seven games in a row. Murray garnered two consecutive games but Wawrinka broke once more for 4-2. The British player would not surrender, climbing back to 4-4. After Wawrinka held from 15-40 for 5-4,a resilient Murray went back to work, taking three straight games and 12 of 16 points to win the set 7-5.
Improbably, Wawrinka was down two sets to one after just over three hours of play. Murray had been largely outplayed but his survival instincts had kicked in. The fourth set stayed on serve entirely, and the outcome was settled in a tie-break. Murray was serving at 2-3 when he netted a forehand drop shot that he ought not to have tried. Wawrinka was unstoppable after that blunder from his opponent. With Murray serving at 3-6, Wawrinka ran around his backhand in the ad court for a forehand inside in return winner. After four hours and one minute, it was two sets all.
But the match was over. On his way to 5-0 in the fifth set, Wawrinka took 20 of 27 points. His shotmaking was spectacular and unrelenting. His confidence was palpable. His body language was that of a winner. Wawrinka was victorious 6-7 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1. It was a battle like no other in the tournament.
RYAN HARRISON WINS FIRST MAJOR
It has been celebratory year for Ryan Harrison in a number of ways. He won the biggest tournament of his career, taking the ATP World Tour 250 event at Memphis. He has moved back among the top 50 in singles after enduring some hard times. He got married recently. And now the 25-year-old has claimed his first major title. At Roland Garros, he joined forces with his old friend Michael Venus of New Zealand to defeat Donald Young and Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico. The Harrison-Venus tandem triumphed 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3 in the final.
For Harrison, this could not have been more gratifying. As he said after the match, "You always dream of winning a Grand Slam [tournament] every time you're playing as a kid. You idolize people you see winning Grand Slams. You picture yourself in those moments, and it kind of hasn't sunk in yet. It feels a little surreal."
Harrison has worked hard, played fair and tried to get the most out of himself. A reward of this importance will only inspire him to win more prestigious prizes in the years ahead. For the time being, however, he should enjoy his Roland Garros breakthrough and appreciate the value of that win in every way.