From Djokovic closing in on history to Osaka’s stand: What we’ll remember about the 2021 French Open

Tennis

Novak Djokovic won his 19th major title and second at Roland Garros following back-to-back comeback wins over Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Barbora Krejcikova proved she wasn’t just a doubles specialist with her first major singles title. Of course, she won in doubles too alongside her partner Katerina Siniakova and became the first woman since 2000 to pull off the feat at the tournament.

So yes, the 2021 French Open was a pretty memorable Grand Slam.

Here are some of the biggest lessons learned during the tours’ springtime stop in Paris.

Djokovic staking claim as biggest of the ‘Big Three’

For two sets in Sunday’s final, it appeared there might finally be evidence of a changing of the guard atop men’s tennis. Perhaps the stranglehold of the Big Three on Grand Slam titles was finally easing.

But Djokovic wasn’t quite ready for any of that — and he stormed back to win the next three sets for an epic comeback victory over Tsitsipas, 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. He became just the sixth man in the history of the Open era to win at a major after falling into a 0-2 deficit.

Despite being 12 years older than his opponent and coming off one of the most emotional victories of his career against Nadal in the semifinal, Djokovic was unstoppable by match’s end. Having now won both majors held in 2021, and being the obvious favorite entering Wimbledon, the US Open and the Olympics, Djokovic has a chance to join Steffi Graf as the only players to achieve the Golden Slam.

“I’ve achieved some things that a lot of people thought it would be not possible for me to achieve,” Djokovic said Sunday. “Everything is possible, and I did put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam.”

Of course, Djokovic is now just one title behind Nadal and Roger Federer for the record on the men’s side. He will have the opportunity to tie or even surpass them this year.

While much of the GOAT conversation entering the tournament centered on Nadal because of his careerlong domination on clay and his potential to take sole ownership of the record with a 14th title at Roland Garros, Djokovic played spoiler and now his ascent in the history books seems inevitable.

“I never thought it was a mission impossible to reach the Grand Slams of these guys,” Djokovic said. “I mean, I’m not there, but it’s one less. But they are still playing, obviously they’re playing great, especially Rafa with his level.

“We all have still opportunities at Wimbledon, all the other Slams. You have four Slams a year, so we’re all competing for this amazing achievement and amazing trophies. I’ll keep on going. I’ll keep on chasing. At the same time, I’ll keep on paving my own path.”

His own path very much might end with him being considered the greatest male tennis player to ever play the sport.

Djokovic is the reigning champion at Wimbledon and will be the tournament’s top seed.

The unpredictable (and wildly fun) world of women’s tennis

For the sixth straight French Open, there was a first-time major champion in the women’s draw. Playing in just her fifth main draw at a Grand Slam and starting with odds in the 200-to-1 range according to multiple sports books, Krejcikova defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in Saturday’s final.

And not only was it the first major final for both Krejcikova and Pavlyuchenkova, the semifinal round contained all first-time major semifinalists. Heck, even the quarterfinals contained just one player ranked in the top 10.

Sure, there were perhaps more notable absences and withdrawals than normal. Simona Halep, the 2018 champion and world No. 3, pulled out with a calf injury before play got underway. Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova, both multiple-time Grand Slam winners, withdrew ahead of their second-round matches. Top-ranked Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 Roland Garros winner, had to retire from her second-round match with an injury. But even still, there have now been 12 women to win their first Grand Slam title since the start of the 2016 season. The 2021 French Open was certainly not an outlier.

What has become abundantly clear is this: The depth of talent in women’s tennis is staggering and even a player who recently cracked the top 100 such as Krejcikova could emerge victorious at any major.

With so many players having gone two years since playing on grass because of the pandemic and the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, Wimbledon could be similarly unpredictable.

That’s what makes it so exciting.

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Barbora Krejcikova reacts to winning the French Open after beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Cocomania hits a new high

Coco Gauff staked her claim as one of the brightest young stars in tennis with her fourth round showing at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old in 2019. While she had since made the fourth round at two other majors, she hadn’t been able to break through further.

But she arrived in Paris with momentum on her side. The former junior champion at Roland Garros had won the titles in singles and doubles at Parma and made a semifinal appearance in Rome — and was even a trendy outside pick from the experts to win the tournament.

Gauff didn’t quite do that, but she made an impressive run to the quarterfinals before losing a heartbreaker to eventual champion Krejcikova. Gauff took an early 3-0 lead to start the match and had five set point opportunities, but she couldn’t convert any of them.

“I’m obviously disappointed that I wasn’t able to close out the first set,” Gauff said after the loss. “To be honest, it’s in the past, it already happened. After the match, Enzo, my hitting partner, told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do believe that.”

Now with a career-high ranking of No. 23, Gauff heads to the grass-court season riding her latest high and ready to return to the major that started it all.

One for the fans

As the clock neared the 11 p.m. local time curfew in Paris during the Nadal and Djokovic semifinal, the 5,000 fans in the stands at Court Philippe Chatrier grew anxious about the required exodus.

After Djokovic won the third set, with just minutes to go before the expected curfew announcement, French officials told the fans over the loudspeaker they would be able to remain through the match’s conclusion due to the “extraordinary circumstances.” The crowd roared in appreciation — and the fans remained just as passionate until after the final point.

“The atmosphere was completely electric,” Djokovic said Friday after the match. “For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.

“I was very happy that there was no curfew, 11. I heard there was a special waiver, so they allowed the crowd to stay. Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever.”

39 and feeling fine

There were more questions than answers for both Serena Williams and Federer as they arrived at Roland Garros.

Williams had fueled retirement speculation following her emotional exit in the semifinal at the Australian Open and then didn’t play a competitive match for three months. She had notched a disappointing 1-2 record on clay in lead-in events when she finally returned to action and her lone victory came against a 17-year-old playing in the first WTA match of her career.

Federer was playing in his first major since the 2020 Australian Open after undergoing two surgeries on his right knee. He had played in just two tournaments since returning and lost his sole match on clay at the Geneva Open.

However, the pair of 39-year-olds showed they have plenty of tennis left during their time in Paris. Williams made it to the fourth round before falling to Elena Rybakina, but she was optimistic after the loss.

“I’m in a much better place than when I got here,” Williams said

Federer also made it to the Round of 16, following a hard-fought, late-night win over Dominik Koepfer, and withdrew the following day. “After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery,” he said in a statement.

Now with a few wins under their respective belts and believed to be healthy, Williams and Federer head to the grass courts of Wimbledon — a place that has been the site of many favorable results for both over their storied careers. Williams has won seven titles there, and Federer has eight.

Both reached the final at the All England Club in 2019.

Their comfort on the surface might give them even more of an edge this year after a two-year break for many from playing on grass.

“Wimbledon was always going to be a better surface for [Williams] and a place where she had a better chance to make a run,” ESPN analyst and 21-time major doubles champion Pam Shriver said last week after Williams’ loss at the French Open. “There’s an advantage this year more than ever for her because she’s played so much on grass during her career, while the younger players are really going to be lacking the experience.”

An overdue conversation about mental health

Naomi Osaka, the world No. 2 and four-time major champion, announced before the tournament got underway that she would not be speaking to the media throughout her time in Paris, citing her mental health. After winning her opener, she was fined $15,000 for skipping her news conference, as stated in the Grand Slam rulebook. Tournament officials then released a statement in conjunction with the other three major events, saying Osaka would risk further fines, as well as a possible default from the tournament and future suspension from other Grand Slams if she continued to not speak with the media.

Osaka responded the following day by announcing her decision to withdraw, calling it “the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being.”

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Stephen A. Smith reacts to Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open and applauds her for being open about her mental health.

The 23-year-old revealed she has experienced depression and anxiety since winning her first major title at the 2018 US Open and said speaking to the media often makes her nervous. She received widespread support from her peers in tennis and beyond, including Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, four-time WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith, seven-time NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving, F1 racing superstar Lewis Hamilton and eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt.

French tennis federation president Gilles Moretton insisted Sunday that the organization handled it “the right way,” but questions remain about how tournaments, as well as the WTA and ATP, can further prioritize the well-being of the athletes.

Stephens, a member of the WTA’s player council, said it was something she and her fellow council members were actively working on and called it their “No. 1 discussion.”

“I think most of [the conversations have] been, you know, how do we make players feel happy and healthy in this environment that we’re all in, that we are forced in, obviously because we are in a pandemic,” Stephens said. “How do we make players feel that they can still succeed in this environment, how do we make them feel like they’re still able to perform at their best level, even though we are literally trapped in our hotel rooms like 24/7.”

Osaka, meanwhile, said she would be taking some time away from tennis and she has since withdrawn from this week’s grass-court event in Berlin. Her status for Wimbledon is unclear.

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