It was a day that saw the ‘Big Three’ back in action together at a Major as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic progressed to the third round at French Open on Thursday. While that offered a familiar feel in the men’s draw, the women’s draw has once again been thrown wide open with the withdrawal of world No 1 Ashleigh Barty due to injury.
Here are talking points from day five action at Roland Garros:
Federer fumes before fine win
Roger Federer made his Grand Slam return after 487 days in his first-round match at the ongoing French Open. But it was his second round match, against old rival Marin Cilic, that felt like we had the 20-time Grand Slam champ back in earnest. At least the one we know in recent years, where the grace in the stunning backhand winners is mixed with grit in winning some ugly points.
Federer saw off Cilic for the 10th time in 11 meetings, winning 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 to reach the third round. Over the course of the four sets, there was the old fluency and flourish we know, but also the failed break opportunities and a rare moment of fury with the chair umpire Emmanuel Joseph.
However, the dispute with the chair – over a time violation – served to remind of just how much time the 39-year-old has been away; something not seen much in his performance so far.
Federer was handed a time violation at 1-3 down, while returning, for taking too long between points. That was because he went to the side of the court to get his towel.
The pandemic saw new rules introduced – including players, rather than ball boys, having to fetch their towels. But Federer, who underwent two knee surgeries in 2020, was off from the tour for 14 months and had played just four matches since the new rule was brought in.
“I guess I’m just new to the new tour,” he later said, calling it a misunderstanding on many levels.
His flashpoint with the umpire came while he was receiving serve with the laws of the game insisting the receiver play to the speed of the server.
“I didn’t feel like I was playing particularly slow, and with the towels, quite honestly, if I want to go to the towel, now I can’t go to the towel anymore, it’s okay, I get it. I understand playing to the server’s pace, I have done it in hundreds of matches, and I always feel like I don’t make my opponent wait very much, but clearly Marin wanted to go faster.”
It appeared that Cilic had complained to the umpire about the time being taken.
Other than this flare-up in the second set, the only one Cilic won, Federer played some of his best tennis since return for a morale-boosting win.
“It shows me that I still have something in the tank, it’s super important for confidence.”
The women’s draw opens up more
World number one and former champion Ashleigh Barty limped out of Roland Garros, throwing the battle for the women’s title even more open.
Barty, already suffering from a left hip injury, retired injured midway through the second set of her second-round match against Poland’s 45th-ranked Magda Linette. The Australian had won the title on her last visit to Roland Garros in 2019 but had chosen not to defend it last year due to the pandemic. She came into the Major on a good run of form and was one the firm favourites.
The top seed’s withdrawal leaves the tournament already without the world’s top three-ranked women’s players. World No 2 Naomi Osaka pulled out following a media boycott issue and given her track record on clay, she was not one of the main contenders anyway. Third-ranked Simona Halep, the 2018 French Open winner and a perpetual favourite on clay, withdrew before the event with injury.
That leaves world No 4 and recent clay convert Aryna Sabalenka as the top remaining player in the draw. She certainly has form on her side, having reached the final at Stuttgart and won Madrid – both against Barty.
But before one thinks of WTA rankings, one must remember last year’s champion. Iga Swiatek was an unseeded world No 54 who had not won any singles title before she swept through the Grand Slam without dropping a set. She is showing similar form here, with three of her four sets so far being 6-0 or 6-1. The tenth seed, who had blanked Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 in the Italian Open final, is certainly carrying on the clay form from Rome last month and Paris last year.
There is also Sloane Stephens, who — after being two points away from a first-round exit against Carla Suarez Navarro — has turned things around. Pliskova exited at the hands of 2018 runner-up Stephens as the 59th-ranked American won 7-5, 6-1. Seemingly playing with a new-found verve, the former US Open champion is emerging as a definite contender.
No French player in the third round
The French Open is a little less French this year as there will be no French player, man or woman, in the third round of singles for the first time in Open Era.
French men’s tennis suffered its worst Roland Garros performance in 53 years after Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet, the host country’s last two men standing, promptly collapsed to defeat on Thursday.
The home nation started the main draw with 18 men.
Now, five days later, there are none – the first time since the birth of the Open era in 1968 that there will simply be no messieurs in the ‘simple messieurs’.
For the third time in the modern era, there are also no French women in the third round.
Firstly on Thursday, world number 15 Monfils, a semi-finalist in 2008, was defeated by Sweden’s 105th-ranked Mikael Ymer 6-0, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. The French showman, Monfils perked up in the second but a total of 62 unforced errors summed up his afternoon.
That left only fellow 34-year-old Richard Gasquet and he had to defeat 13-time champion Rafael Nadal to salvage national pride. However, Nadal won 6-0, 7-5, 6-2 for his 17th win in 17 matches against a player he first faced when he was 12.
There were even 21 Frenchmen and women in the qualifying rounds, but not one managed to fight into the main draw.
The last Frenchman to win Roland Garros was Yannick Noah in 1983 while Mary Pierce was the country’s most recent women’s champion in 2000.
Like Gasquet and Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, at 36, and 37-year-old Gilles Simon don’t have a lot of petrol left in the tank. All four, however, have been in the top 10.
“That was a period of French tennis which was beautiful for everyone. But it is a generation which will soon leave,” said Gasquet, part of the 2017 Davis Cup winning team.
“In high-level sport, there are not 50 guys who still play at this age. There are the Nadals, the Federers, but they are extra-terrestrials,” added Gasquet.
Elsewhere in the French ranks, Adrian Mannarino and Benoit Paire are already 32. Lucas Pouille, at 27, is struggling to regain his best level after elbow injury. Future hopes Ugo Humbert and Corentin Moutet are both 22 but struggle for consistency.
There will also be no French women in the third round after Fiona Ferro and Kristina Mladenovic lost Thursday. It’s the third time since 1968 that there has been such a flop after 1981, 1986 and 2019.
Roland Garros tournament director Guy Forget refused to be downcast.
“I’m convinced that the young players we have now, the 16-18 year olds, probably within one to three years will take up the baton,” he told AFP. “We have had lows and we have bounced back.”
(With AFP inputs)