Unpredictable predictability at French Open

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As another tennis Grand Slam passes by, we emerge with a newer, clearer understanding of the future of tennis.

That understanding is simple: There will always be great tennis players, and there will always be great tennis.

For years people have debated the future of tennis, especially men’s tennis. For the past two decades, the “Big Three” — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have quite literally dominated the field. The question of what will happen to men’s tennis after the Big Three retire has been nearly as big of a topic of conversation.

This year’s Roland Garros, or French Open, was held, as per usual (except for a minor blip in which the pandemic put the entire schedule into chaos) in Paris from the end of May until early June. And, as per usual, the difference between men’s and women’s fields was a frequent point of discussion.

Women’s tennis, they say, is deep and unpredictable. The men’s, they counter, is far too predictable.

There is definitely merit to this argument in the context of this particular tournament. For one, Nadal hasn’t lost a single Roland Garros final he’s played in. What’s more, the Spaniard had a 97.2% winning percentage at the Open ahead of this year’s tournament. That equates to only losing three matches out of 108 played.

Despite struggling with injuries, and being older than the majority of his competitors, Nadal once again went on to win this year’s French Open — for the 14th time.

“Completely unexpected to be where I am at this age, at this stage of my career, so it means everything,” Nadal said in his on-court interview after the win.

The men’s quarterfinalists, too, were some of tennis’ biggest household names. Nadal found himself in good company amongst top seeds including Djokovic and Andrey Rublev. The women, by contrast, had two unseeded players make it into the quarterfinals, with only one top-10 seeded player, No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

However, the men’s draw this year proved rather unpredictable, continuing a streak of younger players breaking into the ranks and radars of tennis fans and analysts everywhere.

Young Dane Holger Rune, with just one title and two prior Grand Slam appearances under his belt, overcame fourth seed Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round. Though trailing behind in aces, and ahead in both forced and unforced errors, the 19-year-old managed to beat Tsitsipas in four sets. The win came after beating 14th seed Denis Shapovalov in straight sets in the first round — some of the biggest upsets of the men’s draw.

The men’s finalist alongside Nadal, Norway’s Casper Ruud, is also only 23-years-old and played in his first Slam final, albeit losing to the “King of Clay” in straight sets while doing it.

Carlos Alcaraz, arguably men’s tennis’ biggest breakout star this past year, also showed the new era of men’s tennis. Ending his run only against Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals, the 19-year-old enjoyed a good showing in his second-ever French Open.

And against the claims of great unpredictability in women’s tennis stands Swiatek. Winning her sixth-straight title in a row, the 21-year-old Pole has now tied with Venus Williams for the longest women’s tennis winning streak of the century: 35.

In her final against fellow youngster Coco Gauff, Swiatek dominated with a 72% win on first serve, compared to only 46% of her opponent.

“She’s at her peak at a time when no one else in women’s tennis really seems to be, at least not yet,” said tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg in a tweet.

The quality of tennis in both draws at the Open this year has been immaculate, featuring both seasoned players and young stars. All this is to say that tennis certainly isn’t dead.

And it is certainly in good hands.

Maria Kholodova covers women’s tennis. Contact her at [email protected].