By David Zakhodin
In today’s Monday Morning Tennis Player Column, we look back and look ahead to everything Roland Garros related as we enter the second half of the French Open schedule. Following last week’s preview, it is safe to say that similarly to years past, Roland Garros has not lived up to its pre-tournament hype. While we are all hoping that status quo changes as the second week unfolds, I must at least acknowledge that we are a step above where we were at this time last year. The first week of the 2016 French Open was highlighted by nothing but nearly constant rain delay and lack of quality matches. Even though we may not have necessarily seen an uptick in match quality, at the very least we have escaped Paris’ spotty spring weather and had a consistent slate of tennis. But in order to properly investigate this opening week of play, we must look at Roland Garros through the same three lenses we examined last week: the coverage, the FFT, and the tennis.
Tennis Channel Never Ceases To Amaze
When I said in last week’s column that Tennis Channel would have first to last ball coverage of Roland Garros, that was probably the first piece of Fake News released by The Fan’s Country Club. Unfortunately, we don’t have a press secretary to defend my blunders so we’ll just stick to the facts. With NBC showing some live tennis on weekends with the familiar Ted Robinson - John McEnroe - Mary Carillo tandem, my hunch is that NBC will carry the final. Perhaps Tennis Channel is the real Fake News source since they advertised first to last ball coverage and didn’t feel like stipulating that the final would be a replay. Unfortunately, this is the least of Tennis Channel’s worries.
As I mentioned earlier, Tennis Channel had a lot going for them at the start of the tournament. The graphics looked great, the commentators were doing a fine job (with the exception of Mary Carillo), and the network at least made an effort to provide the sort of smooth wall-to-wall coverage we are accustomed to seeing from ESPN. However, Tennis Channel got a little too comfortable up in its flush Lacoste Terrace studio. Instead of focusing on which tennis matches they should show on television for college students like myself who don’t have room in their budget to accommodate for TC Plus, they decided to throw a birthday party for Rafa in which CEO Ken Solomon gifted the King of Clay with some fishing gear that Rafa won’t need until his post-Wimbledon hiatus to Mallorca. While there’s nothing wrong with this kind gesture by Tennis Channel, tons of viewers missed the conclusion of the Murray - Del Potro match.
Furthermore, Tennis Channel’s poor production choices worsened even more so the following day when I woke up wanting to watch the fifth set of the Milos “I Wear New Balance” Raonic - Pablo Carreno Busta match. I may not root for the missile, but a number of our fans love the young Spaniard and wanted to enjoy a drama-filled battle. Tennis Channel’s response? They show the full Venus Williams - Timea Bacsinszky match without interruption. Now, I understand that the women’s match was on Court Chatrier (another suspect FFT decision), but to not even check in with the Raonic - PCB grind during the latter stages of the fifth set was downright abominable. Instead of watching PCB earn his first Grand Slam quarterfinal berth, we had to settle for Lindsay Davenport talking about Venus Williams’ need to “identify a consistent location for her contact point” when striking the ball. Care to discuss, Tennis Channel?
The Old FFT Is Back
I may have been too quick to praise the French Federation of Tennis and its successful passing of legislation to promote the growth and construction of Roland Garros. These plans probably look great on paper but what’s the point if no one shows up to the matches anyway? When you look at any match on Court Philippe Chatrier that does not feature a Frenchman, you will find that in all likelihood a solid portion of the stadium’s lower bowl has empty seats. Not only are the corporate sponsors who seemingly don’t care about where their money goes not showing up, but the FFT box itself is often empty past the first two rows. I am sure the tournament organizers already have their fair share of built-in excuses for these empty seats, but the reality is that this doesn’t happen at the other Majors. Rod Laver Arena and Centre Court are full for nearly every match, irrespective of the nationality of the players on court. And with regard to Arthur Ashe Stadium and its sometimes empty top section, expectations are a little different for a venue that seats 24,000 as opposed to the measly 15,000 on Court Philippe Chatrier. Each of the other three Majors seem to always be setting new attendance records year after year, and yet Roland Garros lingers behind. I can see now why some of the environmentalists made the argument for not expanding the venue. If they can’t fill the seats they currently have, why spend money on more? Tennis is supposed to be the second most popular sport in France, and with there being no French squad participating in the last stage of Champions League soccer, there is no explanation for why the high priced seats on this court are not filled during earlier stages of the tournament.
To add insult to injury, the FFT isn’t even helping itself with the scheduling of matches. They clearly didn’t listen to my anger over Rafa playing his opening match on Court Suzanne Lenglen, as they put him there once again for his fourth round match against Roberto Bautista Agut. If you thought that was outrageous, then wait for this: on Tuesday afternoon, Rafa will be playing PCB on Chatrier while Novak will face off with Thiem simultaneously on Lenglen. So instead of putting both Rafa and the match of the tournament during separate time slots on the same court, they are forcing fans to make a difficult choice and putting all the power in the hands of Tennis Channel and its bad broadcasting calls.
In addition to poor scheduling decisions, there has to be a more efficient way for the tournament to place the tarp that covers the courts overnight or in the event of rain. While this is a problem that extends to all clay court events, Roland Garros needs to be held to a higher standard. How is it possible that a player is forced to retire with injury because he slipped and twisted his ankle because of said tarp? I’m not saying this because David Goffin was our dark horse pick to win Roland Garros, but it is ridiculous that certain players who choose to play further behind the baseline lose an extra foot of space to defend because of a poorly folded tarp that is nothing but a stationary safety hazard. Not only did it ruin Goffin’s chances at a great run, but it’s aesthetically unpleasing and could instead be folded up along the side of the court just as is done at Wimbledon where players slip in the back of the court because of the actual surface and not because of the minutiae surrounding it.
The Tennis Rundown
The French continue to disappoint. Not that hopes were high for all the wild cards who hopped on for a free ride into the main draw, but Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s first round loss was nothing short of indefensible. All credit in the world goes out to Renzo Olivo who played out of his mind (same guy lost the next day in straight sets to Kyle Edmund who I’m not sure knows how to correctly slide on clay), but for Tsonga to go out in such a lethargic manner in front of his home crowd is just SAD. Moreover, he had been having a pretty good season with multiple titles that it was not outside the realm of possibility for him to make a run at a place he’s succeeded at in the past. As far as Tsonga’s top compatriots, Richard Gasquet pulled his usual stunt where he cannot finish a match because of a bad back. Back injuries are no laughing matter, but I honestly do not remember the last time he didn’t cite the back as an excuse to retire when being down big in a match. Lastly, Lucas Pouille… safe to say he may be just like the rest of the French players when it comes to having a weak mental game. Following some very solid tennis that led him to a two sets to one lead over Spaniard Ramos - Vinolas, Pouille won three games the rest of the way. And with Gael Monfils checking out mentally and hardly putting up a fight against Stan in the Round of 16, the curse of Yannick Noah lives on for France.
Russia may be the last thing anyone wants to voluntarily discuss these days, but the country may have found its next tennis star. Since Nikolay Davydenko retired, we haven’t really had a torchbearer for Russian tennis outside of the occasional spark from Mikhail Youzhny. However, with the emergence of talented young Karen Khachanov, fans have a lot to look forward to. For a guy who has had an inconsistent 2017 and has failed to shoot up the Race to Milan standings, Khachanov reaching the second week of Roland Garros is a huge accomplishment. Even though he may have done it against a semi-tanking John Isner who couldn’t keep his nerves under control, Khachanov earned his keep with another huge win over Berdych in the previous round. The guy is a gamer.
Speaking of Isner and his disappointing performance against Khachanov, it was another meager French Open for the Americans. Aside from the good tennis Stevie Johnson played, no one performed up to par, and the Americans once again confirmed that they are incompetent on the red dirt of Roland Garros. Worst of all was the showing from Jack Sock, someone who is ranked in the Top 15 and should be winning at least two or three matches in this tournament irrespective of opponent.
The feel-good story of the week was the way in which Juan Martin Del Potro reacted when his opponent Nicolas Almagro was forced to pull out with a devastating knee injury. While everyone, including myself, was quick to point out this human moment on social media, I cannot help but think that Almagro slightly overreacted with regard to the severity of his injury. I have no doubt that he was in pain and extremely disappointed with having to pull out of the match, but he looked like an over-dramatic European soccer player moaning and crying on the ground. Del Potro’s compassion did not go unnoticed, but I felt the Argentine was happy to be there as opposed to wanting to compete for a title. In his following match against Murray, Del Potro had a golden opportunity to advance in the draw considering Murray’s recently shaky play. Instead, he played loose in the tight moments of the first two sets and tanked the third. Disappointing effort from Delpo.
The final eight is set on the men’s side, and seven of the top eight seeds have advanced. Missing from the quarterfinal squad is Raonic who I’m sure no one is going to miss. Instead, we get the gritty Pablo Carreno Busta taking on Rafa, who seems to have a field day with all these Spaniards he gets to roll en route to the semifinals of many of his Slam wins. On the other side of the draw, Murray takes on Nishikori in a match that features two guys who probably whine the most out of the top ranked players. Nishikori, especially, seems to only play well when he feels like it considering he has dropped multiple 0-6 sets en route to this stage. Then, we have Stan and Cilic battling for a spot in the semifinals. Both have yet to drop a set and are cruising through the draw in a business-like manner. Stan looks more poised than ever to be the Kryptonite to potential history should he be able to reach the final, and Cilic is showing a rare sign of consistent form on clay. Ultimately, the biggest matchup of the four quarterfinal bouts will be the grind between Novak and Dominic Thiem. Novak smoked him both in last year’s semifinals and several weeks ago in Rome, but who knows where Novak’s mental state will be should things go sideways for him. Andre Agassi will not be there to guide him on in the box, and Thiem will capitalize on any opportunity he gets to burst into contention for a Grand Slam title.