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    For Novak Djokovic, Another Well-Meaning Effort Goes Off the Rails

    Novak Djokovic may look back on these last months as some of the most dreadful in his career, a series of moments that appeared to be filled with opportunity but fizzled in spectacular fashion.On Sunday, his troubled year brought the challenge of the greatest clay-court player the game has known, and Djokovic flopped dramatically again as he lost to Rafael Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.To be fair, there is no shame in losing to Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal is now 100-2 on the red clay in Paris. But Djokovic, who won the Italian Open on clay in Rome last month and tore through his early matches at Roland Garros, was supposed to have an opening.The weather was cool for the autumn version of this event, which is usually played in late spring. That slowed the ball down and took one of Nadal’s favorite weapons — his absurdly high-bouncing forehand — out of his arsenal. A new, heavier ball was supposed to make life even harder for Nadal and his power game, and favor Djokovic’s ability to find the sharpest angles for his winners. Midday rain in Paris forced organizers to close the roof, another supposed advantage for Djokovic.And then, like so many other times in this strange year, it all went south so quickly for Djokovic, a 17-time Grand Slam champion who had not lost a match he had completed in 2020.He struggled with his serve and failed to win a game in the first set. It was more of the same in the second, and his errors began to pile up. Seemingly easy forehands whipped into the net. Too many of his usually lethal backhands sailed wide.And while Djokovic battled to extend the match in the third set, the final moments made clear how inevitable the result had been. Djokovic double-faulted to give Nadal the break that allowed him to serve for the third set at 6-5. A sloppy forehand gave Nadal match point, and then Djokovic barely moved on the ace that ended the tournament.“I was not so pleased,” Djokovic said of the way things turned out.That’s the way things have gone for some months now for Djokovic, ever since he started the year with a crushing win over Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final for his 17th Grand Slam title. What looked like another year of dominance for the world No. 1 came to a halt in March when the spreading coronavirus forced sports to shut down.In the spring, during the lockdown in Europe, Djokovic posted a series of conversations with his friend Chervin Jafarieh, who serves as a kind of New Age guru for the tennis star. The conversations were meant to help people add meaning and purpose to their lives, but Djokovic’s bizarre talk about the human body being able to make polluted water healthy through prayer and belief overwhelmed whatever good intentions he might have had.In June, he began the Adria Tour, which was supposed to be a series of tournaments that would bring tennis out of its hiatus. But it became a kind of superspreading event, with Djokovic and several other marquee players being infected with the coronavirus. The tour was canceled after significant backlash for parties and other events that had few pandemic precautions.Then, his game on cruise control at the United States Open in September with none of his main rivals in the draw, Djokovic lost his temper and swatted a ball that hit a line judge in the throat. Tournament officials, bound by the rules, disqualified him.Then came Sunday in Paris.“I was thinking the conditions were more favorable to me,” he said.If that was the case, someone forgot to tell Nadal, who blistered through the first set and had Djokovic on his heels in a way he rarely finds himself. Tied at 1-1 in the second set and serving at 0-15, Djokovic watched Nadal pummel a backhand passing shot down the line. It passed just a few feet from where he was standing. His head dropped. His eyes fell to the red clay, his spirit broken.“I was completely overplayed,” he said.It is possible that Djokovic lost the French Open two days before he took the court against Nadal.On Friday, Djokovic held a two-sets-to-none lead over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. He failed to convert a match point in the third set, and the match stretched to five sets over a total of four hours. That is not a good way to prepare to play Nadal at the French Open, especially after Djokovic battled stiffness in his neck and back earlier in the tournament.After the loss on Sunday, Djokovic tried to be philosophical. He was beaten by a better player, someone who has proved nearly impossible to beat at this tournament. Still, he made 52 unforced errors compared with 14 for Nadal.He spoke as someone who expects he will have many more chances, and at 33, he probably will. Some will go his way, and some will blow up in his face. Even the best tennis player loses 45 percent of the points he plays. Perfection will always be elusive. The key for Djokovic moving forward will be whether he can limit his unforced errors, both on the court and off it.“I have my flaws, as anybody else,” he said Sunday evening in Paris. “In the greatest defeats you learn the greatest lessons, as a tennis player and a person as well.” More

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    Iga Swiatek Steamrolls Sofia Kenin to Win the French Open

    PARIS — Iga Swiatek, an unseeded teenager from Poland, won her first tour title at the French Open on Saturday with a 6-4, 6-1 defeat of Sofia Kenin, the reigning Australian Open champion and No. 4 seed at Roland Garros.Swiatek, 19, the youngest woman to reach the French Open final since 18-year-old Kim Clijsters in 2001, became the first man or woman from Poland to win a Grand Slam singles title. She entered the tournament with a No. 54 world ranking, a recently acquired high-school diploma and a vague plan to test her game on the WTA Tour for what she described as a “gap year” before deciding whether she wanted to continue her education at a university.University, it appears, will have to wait.During her coronation at Roland Garros, Swiatek did not drop a set, befuddling the likes of the women’s world No. 1 and former champion Simona Halep, whom she dispatched in the round of 16, with her powerful forehand and angled groundstrokes. She lost only 28 games the entire tournament, and no more than five games in any match.In the final, Swiatek took Kenin’s intensity and raised her a level, pounding 25 winners against 17 unforced errors. She wasn’t completely impervious to nerves, squandering one set point while serving 5-3 in the first with a netted backhand on her way to being broken. But she broke Kenin back to secure the first set in 48 minutes.Kenin, 21, had played all week with her left leg taped, with the tape, like the shadows from the low-hanging autumn sun — creeping across more of her upper leg as the tournament went on. With Swiatek leading by 2-1 and on serve in the second set, Kenin requested a medical timeout and left the court to have her leg treated.Kenin returned to the court with her leg heavily wrapped and Swiatek, sensing her opening, reeled off the final four games in rapid-fire fashion to close out the second set in 31 minutes.Kenin finished with 10 winners and 23 unforced errors. She finished this disjointed Slam season with a 16-2 match record, with a fourth-round exit in the United States Open between her bookended trips to the final.Swiatek, who bounced around the court as if she had pogo sticks for legs, didn’t exactly come from nowhere; in 2018, she won the Wimbledon junior singles title and the French Open junior doubles title. But her rise here left even her head spinning.“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said during an on-court interview. Laughing, she continued, “I’m so happy.”Swiatek added, “I’m just overwhelmed.” More

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    2020 French Open: Women’s Final Preview

    How to watch: 9 a.m. on NBC; streaming on the NBC app.Sofia Kenin, the Australian Open champion, is back in her second Grand Slam final of the year and the second of her career. The 21-year-old has had a breakthrough year, which is quite a feat considering she won the 2019 WTA Most Improved Player of the Year Award.Iga Swiatek has been the biggest story of the tournament, reaching her first major final at just 19. She has not dropped a set yet and has conceded only 23 games total. In the round of 16, Swiatek faced off against Simon Halep, the No. 1 seed and the clear favorite to win the tournament, and beat her, 6-1, 6-2, in just over an hour.The two youngsters have some similarities in their games, with both using drop shots to great effect. The cold and often humid conditions of the unusually scheduled French Open have allowed their drop shots to bounce even lower, making them even more difficult for opponents to return. Even if the opponent can dig the ball out before it hits the dirt a second time, Swiatek and Kenin are both excellent volleyers, a side effect of playing plenty of doubles.But the players differ in their groundstrokes. Although each has a varied arsenal with which to keep her opponent on edge throughout baseline rallies, their preferences are distinct. Kenin’s preferred shots are flat, pasted directly into the corners, robbing opponents of the time necessary to set up their own shots. Swiatek relies on a heavier topspin shot, using it to create tightly angled trajectories that expand the contours of the point, dragging opponents from side to side.Both styles have clearly been well served by the clay, and they make for an interesting contrast as the players meet. While a slight mental edge could be given to Kenin because she is already a Grand Slam champion and experienced in the final stages, Swiatek’s run of results cannot be ignored.Either way, the future of women’s tennis is clearly in good hands. More