It was in mid-March, with sporting events cancelled and organisers scrambling, that French Open ditched its usual May-June slot and flung a handkerchief on the September-October dates. At the time, the unilateral postponement irked all tennis bodies. But this year has underlined that hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, there couldn’t have been a better end to the Grand Slam tennis season than the heady mix of emotions we got in Paris on Sunday — the exhilaration of the unknown and the comfort of the familiar.
In an anxiety-filled world, it was a relief that Iga Swiatek and Rafael Nadal won the French Open with absolute authority. Dominic Thiem’s US Open win last month was marred by a sub-par final. Naomi Osaka’s triumph was about a message bigger than the sport. The fortnight in France, however, was about two athletes at their ruthless best.
“Congratulations Rafael Nadal! It’s amazing to kind of share this experience with you. Am I even allowed to say this?” tweeted Swiatek minutes after the Spaniard’s 13th French Open title on Sunday. There’s a reason behind the politeness. Swiatek was four when her favourite player laid the first brick to his kingdom of clay. On Saturday, she picked up her first title in Rafa-like fashion: Showing no respect to the status quo of seeds, past winners, runners-up and reigning champions. Both were 19 and the similarities only begin there.
The dizzying RPMs Swiatek puts on the ball far exceed most women and rival many men. The lasso-like forehand is another shared trait. But unlike a young Nadal, Swiatek already looks like a Wimbledon contender, and it isn’t just the sparkling white garb. On clay, where only fools rush in, the Pole won 57 net points at a success rate of 78.
Yes, women’s singles tennis has long been a carousel. Swiatek is the ninth first-time champion in the last 14 Grand Slams, and the fifth first-timer to win the French Open in as many years. She would do well to take another page out of her idol’s playbook.
Coming into the French Open, the odds were against Nadal — concerns about the 34-year-old’s long layoff and indifferent form, about the heavier balls and colder Parisian climes, both of which could, in theory, adversely affect his game. Nadal answered with a near-perfect campaign that ended by dismantling nemesis Novak Djokovic.
It’s fitting that the two losing finalists — Djokovic and Sofia Kenin — were champions at the year’s first Grand Slam. The Australian Open now seems ages ago. Happier times? Perhaps not, seeing how the tournament was played in the backdrop of the bushfires crisis. Simpler times, though. They got to lift their trophies in front of an audience, their wide grins not concealed by masks.
After her triumph, Swiatek was a rat in a maze. She sprinted up and down the stairs, climbed over barriers before making it to the box and the arms of her team. She fumbled her way through the speech before admitting, “I don’t know what’s going on.” Nadal was at his regal best, swatting aside queries about the 20-Grand Slam mark shared with Roger Federer: “It’s all about Roland Garros today”.
Off court, the two champions couldn’t be any different. Swiatek spent the enforced break doing homework in a unicorn onesie, sharing Baby Yoda memes and booting up the PlayStation. Nadal struggled with ordeals like how to add a person to a video call. Comments spammed Nadal’s feed as he tried for minutes to set up an Instagram session with fellow elder Federer. One, from a certain Andy Murray, read: “This is brilliant… he can win 52 French opens but not work Instagram.” Murray’s comment reads a lot like the running gag on Wikipedia, where fans edit the “Roland Garros” entry to read: “French Open is a major tennis tournament held over two weeks at the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris, beginning in late May and ending after Rafael Nadal kisses the trophy.”
The dates were different, but Nadal brought some semblance of order to a chaotic year. Swiatek made it better by restoring faith in the future.
For now, it’s au revoir. The Paris Masters is scheduled for next month, but COVID-19 cases in France have been on an uptick. Our champions return to their respective routines. Swiatek doing what she loves, solving math problems in Warsaw, while Nadal will try to figure out technology in Mallorca.
“But what about us,” you ask?
We’ll always have Paris.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 13 under the title “We’ll always have Paris”. firstname.lastname@example.org
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