More stories

  • in

    Coco Gauff Loves Clay. Really.

    Americans and the red clay of Roland Garros have not always gotten along so well. Coco Gauff and a few others are starting to change that.As French Open riddles go, Coco Gauff makes for a pretty good one.On the surface, she has no business steamrolling opponents on the red clay of Roland Garros, especially women from Europe who grew up on the stuff. But steamroll she has, cruising into the final 16 without dropping a set.Gauff is playing in the half of the draw that does not include Iga Swiatek of Poland, the world No. 1 who has not lost since mid-February and plays every match like her court-time will expire after an hour. That means Gauff is positioned as well as anyone to stay alive deep into the second week, which has some people who have been around the sport for a very long time scratching their heads.After Gauff beat Kaia Kanepi of Estonia on Friday afternoon, 6-3, 6-4, in a brisk 83 minutes, Fabrice Santoro, the retired French player who does the on-court interviews, was less than subtle.You’re an American, and yet you love clay, Santoro said. How is this possible?Indeed Gauff has grown up mostly in Florida, which has produced its share of tennis champions, but Americans have a reputation for being allergic to clay, growing up in a country where hardcourts are ubiquitous and French Open champions not named Williams are rare.Mary Carillo, who won the mixed-doubles title here in 1977 with John McEnroe, said McEnroe told her he still found it difficult to return to the venue where he blew a two-set lead in the 1984 men’s singles final. An American man has not won the singles title since Andre Agassi in 1999. Serena Williams won it three times, most recently in 2015, and her 23 Grand Slam victories have come much more often on the other surfaces. Sofia Kenin was a finalist in 2020, and Amanda Anisimova was a semifinalist in 2019.Gauff’s game, when she is avoiding her ugly streaks of double faults, is built around her powerful serve. When the ball makes contact with clay, it slows and pops in the air more than it does on any other surface, which should render her most potent weapon less so. Also, her strokes can be erratic, a dangerous trait on a surface on which the ability to grind through long rallies is essential.And yet, Gauff talks like a dirt baller who grew up in Spain, where clay-court tennis is simply known as tennis.“I love clay,” she said earlier this week. “I have good results on clay all the time.”Gauff won the girls’ title here in 2018 and made the quarterfinals in the main draw last year. She could have a good bit of American company in the fourth round, where she will face Elise Mertens of Belgium. Anisimova advanced Friday after Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic twisted an ankle badly during the second set of what had been a tense battle. Muchova had to default early in the third. Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion and a finalist at the 2018 French Open, advanced with a win over Diane Parry of France. Jessica Pegula, Madison Keys and Shelby Rogers play their third-round matches Saturday.At just 18, Gauff is the youngest of the lot. She also has been the most intentional about making herself as good on clay as she is on any other surface, from her first years of pursuing tennis seriously. She began traveling to the south of France to train at the Mouratoglou Academy when she was 10.Also, look a little deeper and the clay may give Gauff as many advantages as it takes away. At 5-foot-9, Gauff is around the average height among top players these days, but she has long legs. That can help her cover a lot of ground with just a few quick steps, but it can make balls that stay low on grass and hardcourts a tad more difficult for her.If there has been a common thread in Gauff’s first three matches, it’s how well positioned she has so often been. The balls hit the clay and bounce right into her strike zone, giving her a series of belt-high fastballs that she can tee off on, while taking advantage of the extra split second the clay gives her to set her feet or slide into position.Always aggressive and hunting for forehands, she will inevitably make her share of errors, but so far she has hit more winners than unforced errors, which is always a good sign for any player. She has also rarely appeared off balance.“I really enjoy sliding,” she said. “I think it helps me recover faster after I get to the ball. Then also, I mean, I play pretty heavy on my forehand, so I think that clay bounces the ball up even higher.”For her part, Anisimova, 20, also spent most of her childhood in Florida, but she said she grew more comfortable on the clay largely by playing a lot of junior tournaments in Latin American countries, where red clay is also far more common than it is in the United States.Anisimova is a dangerous returner, able to punish the slower serves, especially with her near-lethal backhand. She also knows her footwork and movement may be the weakest part of her still-developing game, and the longer points on clay inevitably require her to cover more ground. The clay makes her weakness a little less weak. “It gives me more time,” she said of the clay after her win over Muchova. “Hard courts sometimes can be a bit too quick.”One more win each for Gauff and Stephens, and they would face each other in a quarterfinal between two Americans.Stephens faces Jil Teichmann of Switzerland and knows she has her work cut out for her for a simple reason.“She likes clay,” Stephens said. More

  • in

    Chinese Tennis Star, Zheng Qinwen, Emerges During French Open

    Zheng Qinwen, 19, has emerged during this French Open, amid the backdrop of a long standoff between China and the women’s tour over Peng Shuai.PARIS — To keep things simpler for her Mandarin-challenged Western friends, the rising Chinese tennis star Zheng Qinwen often goes by the nickname Ana.But if you watch the teenage Zheng hit a forehand, a serve or just about any shot on a tennis court, her first English-language nickname seems more appropriate.“At the real beginning at IMG, they called me Fire,” she said in an interview at the French Open on Friday, referring to her management company, IMG.There is indeed plenty of power and passion in Zheng’s game, as she demonstrated in her second-round upset of Simona Halep. Ranked No. 74 and climbing, Zheng, a 19-year-old French Open rookie with a lively personality, is one of the most promising young players in the world as she prepares to face Alizé Cornet of France on Saturday on the main Philippe Chatrier Court.But Zheng’s run comes at a particularly uncertain time for an emerging Chinese tennis star. She is one of the leaders of the so-called Li Na generation: the group of young Chinese players who gravitated to the game after the success of Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion and long one of the highest-earning female athletes. “Li Na makes me think big,” said Zheng, just 8 years old when Li won the French Open in 2011.Li, who retired in September 2014 at age 32, was one of the catalysts for the WTA Tour’s decision to increase its presence in China, packing its late-season calendar with tournaments in the country including the WTA Finals, the tour’s year-end championships, which moved to Shenzhen, China, in 2019 for 10 years and offered a record $14 million in prize money, including a winner’s check of over $4 million.But despite the long-term deal, there has yet to be another WTA Finals in China and no tour event of any kind since global sporting events were disrupted in early 2020 near the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Though the tour resumed in other parts of the world later that year, China kept its borders shut to most international visitors and international sports events.In December, the WTA Tour suspended all tournaments in China because of allegations made by Peng Shuai, a prominent Chinese player. In an online post, Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexual assault. The post was quickly taken down and online conversation about Peng in China was censored.The WTA requested guarantees of her safety, a direct line of communication with her and, most improbably in light of the Chinese context, a full and transparent investigation into the allegations. Peng has since reappeared in public in China and suggested that her online post had been misinterpreted and that she had not made sexual assault allegations. She also has announced her retirement at age 36. But though the issue has largely faded from the headlines, the WTA Tour has not lifted the suspension or backed away from its demands for an investigation. It is still unable to communicate with her directly and concerned that she has been coerced into a retraction.The WTA already has announced that it will not return to China this season, and it is possible even without the WTA suspension that the Chinese government would not have allowed tournaments to go ahead in 2022 considering that numerous major cities, including Shanghai, have been locked down in recent weeks because of new restrictions amid a surge in coronavirus cases.For now — and perhaps quite a bit longer — Zheng and her compatriots are without a Chinese showcase for their talents even though the men’s tour has not suspended its events in China.“Of course, I wish I can play at home,” Zheng said. “I know it is China decision, and I cannot do anything. Let’s see.”The three-year absence of tour-level events in China also means that Zheng and the other Chinese women’s players must remain abroad even more than usual.“I’m sad because if they make a lot of tournaments in China then I have a chance to come back,” she said. Zheng, now based in Barcelona, Spain, and coached by Pere Riba, a former top-100 men’s player, has spent much of her short life away from home. Originally from the central Chinese city of Shiyan, Zheng was encouraged by her parents to choose a sport.“My parents asked me to choose between basketball, badminton and tennis, and I found out my favorite sport is tennis,” said Zheng, who also spent two years playing table tennis before losing interest. “I felt like there was more space to compete. Tennis is a game of choice. It’s not who’s stronger or who’s more powerful or who’s faster. Every decision you make on court can change the match.”She was an only child but said she moved to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and about 250 miles from Shiyan, when she was just 8. She said she spent four years there.“That was a difficult time for me because I was not with my parents at that moment,” she said. “They came to visit me like once a week or two weeks one time.”She said it was her father’s decision for her to join the tennis program in Wuhan so young. “He saw that I was good at tennis, and he wanted to see if I could do something,” she said.The talent scouts soon agreed. IMG signed her to a contract at age 11, not long after her father convinced her mother to make the long journey to the United States with Zheng in November 2013 to take part in the Nick Bollettieri Discovery Open, an event at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., that was open to young players without an invitation.“My mother didn’t want to go,” Zheng said. “But my father said now she is the best in China at her age so now you have to see where she is in the world.”Her first impression?“The first thought I had in the head was, ‘Wow, the sky is so blue,’” she said. “Because China, you know, had a little bit of pollution at that time.”Once on the court, she brought the thunder. “I happened to be there,” said Marijn Bal, who became one of Zheng’s agent at IMG. “And the coaches were watching all the matches, and they were like, ‘You have to come. There’s this Chinese girl who is amazing.’”Upon returning to China, she eventually relocated to Beijing to train at an academy run by Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentine-Belgian coach who worked with Li at the end of her career and had spent more than a decade coaching Justine Henin, a former No. 1 player.Zheng said she spent 90 minutes a day working with Rodriguez for several years on technique, tactics and her mentality. “I think Carlos made the base for what I am right now,” Zheng said.What she is now, with her power game modeled initially after Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, is a threat to the establishment. That includes Cornet, a 32-year-old French star in perhaps her final season who will have no shortage of crowd support on Saturday as Zheng makes her debut on center court.“I’m ready for that,” Zheng said calmly. “I like to play on the big stages.”Until further notice, however, the big stages in women’s tennis are all outside of China. More

  • in

    The Budding 19-Year-Old Star at the French Open Not Named Carlos Alcaraz

    Holger Rune of Denmark is making his mark in Paris. His childhood rival is hogging the spotlight. That is just fine with him — for now.PARIS — With all due respect and attention to Carlos Alcaraz, a favorite to win the 2022 French Open, there is another heralded 19-year-old still alive in the men’s singles draw, a guy from Denmark named Holger Rune.The similarities largely end there for two players who may very well end up being rivals for the next decade, which is about how long they have been rivals already. For the moment, though, and maybe just for another few days, they inhabit separate worlds.“It’s pretty fun when you see these players here that you have been playing at junior tournaments for years,” Rune said in an interview Thursday after a second consecutive straight-set win launched him into the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.Alcaraz, a Spaniard ranked No. 6, has sucked up much of the oxygen on the days he has played, even though he shares the stage with some pretty good players named Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Alcaraz’s five-set comeback from match point down on Wednesday against Albert Ramos Viñolas was the match of the tournament so far.Rune, ranked No. 40, has floated under the radar. He has yet to drop a set.Alcaraz plays in the big stadiums and is the talk of the locker room.“The famous Carlos Alcaraz,” is how the Russian Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 U.S. Open champion who is seeded second, recently described him with a smirk.Rune has so far played on Court 12, within Roland Garros’ low-rent district, where the backcourt is so tight he tripped over the folded tarp that protects the clay from the rain while chasing a backhand Thursday and badly twisted an ankle. He was just three games from winning. For a moment, he thought this was very bad. He limped to his chair and received medical attention, then came back and closed out Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland, 6-2,6-3, 6-3.Alcaraz has dark hair and dark eyes and for the last year has appeared to model his look and his quietly confident but humble demeanor after the Big Three: Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer. His coach, and the model for all he does, is the soft-spoken former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. Alcaraz’s father has described his son as the ultimate workhorse, even when he was a small boy.Rune, a Nordic dirty blond, plays in a backward baseball cap. His coach, the little-known Lars Christensen, began instructing him when Rune was 6 years old after he appeared at the local club in Denmark that Christensen ran.It works, but it has not always been smooth.Rune has yet to lose a set at this year’s French Open.Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock“I was lazy when I was a kid. I mean like 12 or 13,” he said Thursday after he withdrew from the doubles tournament to protect his ankle.Alcaraz hits the ball so hard even the world’s best players say it can take a set to adjust to his pace. He does not lack for touch, but at his core he leans on a testosterone-fueled brand of the game.Rune plays a style filled with finesse. He drifts across the court and never seems to expend more energy than what’s necessary.He and Alcaraz began playing each years ago in the under-12 competitions. They have played 10 times, he thinks. He’s pretty sure Alcaraz has the edge, 6-4, over the years. Alcaraz beat him in straight sets in November at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Italy.Both had coming-out parties of sorts at the U.S. Open last year. Alcaraz, then known mostly to tennis geeks, upset the third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in a five-set epic in the third round.Rune drew Djokovic in the first round.“My goal is not just to play here. My goal is to win this tournament,” Rune declared before that match. He lost the first set, 6-1, but won the second in a tiebreaker before his legs gave out and he lost 12 of the next 15 games.“I was a little inexperienced,” he said Thursday. “Didn’t know what it takes to play five sets, possibly in every match.”He still does not lack in self-regard. “I believe in my game,” he said, though he has now added a dose of realism. “I believe I can beat anybody, but I also believe I can lose to anybody.”True enough, but it’s also worth noting that for years every tennis pundit — Patrick McEnroe, Brad Gilbert and on and on — was fairly certain that the days of discussing teenage contenders at major tournaments had passed. The game had become too physical, they said. It was the domain of men.Alcaraz has dispelled that notion, winning big tournaments near Miami and in Madrid this spring and beating Nadal, Djokovic and the Olympic gold medalist Alexander Zverev along the way.Rune may not be far behind. A French Open junior champion in 2019, he won his first ATP Tour title in Munich earlier this month, knocking off Zverev along the way.He won a BMW for the effort, but there is one problem, which serves as a reminder of his youth: He has yet to take the test for his driver’s license.“Didn’t have the time,” he said. “When we have some time off, we are definitely going to do the driver’s license and take the car.”Alcaraz got his license in February. More

  • in

    Two Outsiders Get Career Boosts at the French Open

    Léolia Jeanjean and Fernanda Contreras Gomez arrived at Roland Garros relatively late in the game. But their experience helped justify what it took to get here.PARIS — The French Open, as one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, is the big time for a tennis player: large and loud crowds, major prize money and most expenses paid, including hotel accommodations, laundry and meals on-site.Welcome to the big time, Léolia Jeanjean and Fernanda Contreras Gomez.It is the first Grand Slam tournament for both, and they have arrived relatively late in the game. Jeanjean, a wild card from France ranked No. 227 in the world, is 26 years old. Contreras Gomez, a qualifier from Austin, Texas, who represents Mexico, is 24 and ranked No. 225.They are outsiders. Their biography pages on the WTA website do not yet include their photos or even their birth dates. But they are the latest reminders of how much talent and persistence exist beyond the elite in the global game of tennis. And while only Jeanjean was still in the tournament on Thursday night after her second-round upset of Karolina Pliskova, the No. 8 seed, Contreras Gomez was hardly short on memories or gratitude after her straight-set defeat to Daria Kasatkina, the No. 20 seed.Until qualifying for Roland Garros, Contreras Gomez had never faced a top 100 player in singles, but she won four matches in Paris: three in qualifying and one in the first round, reading through her tactical notes on changeovers and scribbling new ideas in her notebook as well. Writing comes naturally. She wrote a novel entitled “Rise of the Darkness,” completed this year though still unpublished.“I have had this sense of wonderment here,” Contreras Gomez said in an interview in a French Open players’ lounge on Thursday. “Every time I was on court and things got stressful or things got complicated, it was like, I’m in Paris; I’m in Roland Garros. What’s there to complain about? This is amazing.”She, like Jeanjean, played college tennis, an increasingly common path to the tour and even to the top. See Cameron Norrie, a former Texas Christian University star, who reached No. 10 in the ATP rankings this season, and Danielle Collins, a two-time N.C.A.A. singles champion at the University of Virginia, who is No. 9 in the WTA rankings after reaching the Australian Open final this year.Contreras Gomez is from a tennis family. Her father, Javier, is a teaching professional and her grandfather Francisco Contreras played in the Grand Slam tournaments and was a player and captain on Mexico’s Davis Cup team. She was born in Mexico before her family immigrated to the United States in her early teens, and was a fine enough student to be accepted at Yale in the Ivy League. But she chose to attend Vanderbilt University on a full scholarship because she felt it was her “nesting ground” and that she would be happy there. No other top-flight Division I tennis program recruited her.“When I signed her, people thought I was insane,” said Geoff Macdonald, her coach at Vanderbilt. “She has a one-handed backhand and weighed like 82 pounds. Her dad is slight. Her mom is slight. She is a little person, but I just liked her spirit and who she is, and after the first fall tournament I knew that this kid is absolutely magic.”She played in a range of slots on the Vanderbilt team and reached the semifinals of the N.C.A.A. singles tournament. Macdonald remembers her telling him after her sophomore year that she needed to conquer her fears on court to play better tennis. She then headed to Cape Town, South Africa, for a study-abroad program.“I get a video that says, ‘Hey coach,’ and she’s jumping out of an airplane skydiving,” Macdonald said. “In the next one, she’s bungee jumping over the Zambezi River.”After graduating in 2019 with a degree in mechanical engineering, she followed her dream of playing on tour but started to have understandable doubts during the coronavirus pandemic hiatus in 2020, which she spent with her parents in Austin.“It was highly tempting during Covid,” she said. “I knew as an engineer, you could make a comfortable salary, and I was like, ‘Wow I’m a struggling tennis player, I’m barely making ends meet, I could be like my friends, who have an engineering job and have a nice apartment and can go out with friends.’ But I realized that it wasn’t the money that was driving me. It was the passion for it and the desire to live, like fully live, and feel all the emotions: the sadness, the loss, the ecstasy of reaching a dream.”She met a South African former men’s pro, Christo van Rensburg, in 2020 as he was coaching players in Austin. He saw potential and encouraged her and provided some coaching and even some financing. The former Spanish star Emilio Sanchez Vicario also has been a mentor of late and Eric Ferguson has helped with physiotherapy, but Contreras Gomez broke two small bones in her right wrist when she slipped on a clay court last year. “The money situation really got in my head, and it got in my head so much that I said, ‘I have to speak to my therapist, and we’ll figure out how not to focus on this,’” she said.Fernanda Contreras Gomez after qualifying for the main draw last week.Robert Prange/Getty ImagesShe was on the edge again financially just a few months ago. She was trying to lift her ranking high enough to get into the French Open qualifying tournament and decided the best path was to fly to Australia to compete in small-money events.“I had to fund it on my own and because I did well I was able to pay for it, but I remember coming to Europe, I was on the last bit of my savings,” she said, anticipating that even if she only played in the qualifiers at Roland Garros, it could bring in a little bit more money.Jeanjean has faced many obstacles — financial and otherwise — of her own. Until her early teens, she was considered one of the most promising junior players in Europe and was provided with the services of a full-time personal coach by the French Tennis Federation at age 12.She dominated competition in her age group, drawing some comparisons to Martina Hingis, the Swiss prodigy who played tennis like it was chess, adjusting her tactics depending on her opponents and rarely trying to overpower a point when finesse was still an option.But a major knee injury stopped Jeanjean’s progress, and she ultimately chose to study in the United States, playing Division I tennis at Baylor and Arkansas before finishing her eligibility at the Division II Lynn University, a small private university in Boca Raton, Fla., where she was an outstanding player and received her master’s of business administration in 2019.But it is quite a leap from Division II excellence to Roland Garros, which she had not even visited for 10 years.“What surprises me is to see that my game troubles these players so much,” she said on Thursday after bamboozling Pliskova, a former No. 1 still working her way back from injury, with her rhythm shifts to win, 6-2, 6-2. “I thought I’d be overpowered and see winners flying by me everywhere, but that’s not the case.”Jeanjean said that for “four or five years” she never thought she would play in a Grand Slam tournament, but fueled by the desire to honor the potential she demonstrated in her youth, she decided to give herself “a second chance.” She was ranked in the 1,000s at the beginning of 2021, and without sponsors she relied on government subsistence funds and some help from her father, according to L’Equipe, the French sports publication.Now, after working her way through the minor leagues and earning less than $20,000 in career prize money, she is in the big time with a chance to get bigger, considering that she faces Irina-Camelia Begu, an unseeded Romanian, in the third round on Saturday.Contreras Gomez will head to Britain for the grass-court season with her notebook and second-round prize money of about $90,000 (minus French taxes). She still has no clothing sponsor, but her plucky performance in Paris has attracted a two-year financial commitment from Martin Schneider, an American businessman and benefactor who has supported Collins and other college players to try to make the transition to the professional tour.“Without resources, this is a brutal sport,” Schneider said.Contreras Gomez, with her engineering degree, at least has an excellent Plan B. But Plan A is going rather well for the moment.“Both my brains are fighting each other,” she said. “The creative side is let’s stay on Cloud Nine. The engineer side is like, OK, next tournament; it’s grass season.” More

  • in

    Two High Seeds Need Five-Set Thrillers to Win at French Open

    Alexander Zverev and Carlos Alcaraz saved match points in the men’s singles tournament before turning things around.PARIS — The thrills were separated only by a short stroll through the formal gardens at the French Open on Wednesday.First, Alexander Zverev saved a match point and won in five sets on the main Philippe Chatrier Court. Then, Carlos Alcaraz did the very same thing on Simonne Mathieu Court, covering the red clay like few men have ever covered it at Roland Garros as he sprinted into the corners and seemingly beyond.The fresh-look French Open, revamped to the point that old hands could use a guided tour to avoid running into a new wall or a freshly planted shrub, has certainly not lost its capacity to test its combatants to the limit.The old guard, led by the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and the 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, has had it relatively easy so far in the men’s tournament, but the leaders of the new wave have been right on the edge of breaking.On Tuesday night in the first round, the No. 4 seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, champion in Monte Carlo and finalist in Rome, had to rally from two sets down to shake free of Lorenzo Musetti, a young Italian whose one-handed backhand is pretty enough for the Uffizi but whose legs do not yet seem sturdy enough for the rigors of best-of-five-set matches.There are calls to scrap best-of-five altogether from those who consider it ill-suited to the digital age of social media highlights and entertainment overload.But the format favors the better players over the long run and certainly worked plenty of long-form magic in the second round on Wednesday. Zverev, the No. 3 seed, dueled with Sebastian Baez for 3 hours 36 minutes before prevailing, 2-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 7-5, after saving a match point with a big and bold serve up the T that Baez failed to return in the 10th game of the final set.“You just have to find a way,” said Zverev, who is 8-1 in five-set matches at Roland Garros, which is both good news and bad news (perhaps he should not be going the distance quite so often).“Some players, the greats, Rafa, Novak and Roger, always find a way in the most difficult moments,” he added. “That’s why they are who they are. I’m never going to be at that level, but I’m just trying to get closer to them.”Alcaraz, the No. 6 seed, dueled with his Spanish compatriot Albert Ramos Viñolas for 4 hours 34 minutes in what certainly looked like the match of the tournament so far.The Mathieu Court is nicknamed the Greenhouse because it was built amid botanical gardens and is surrounded by exotic plants. But the Funhouse may have been more fitting in this instance as Alcaraz extended rallies far beyond the probable with his foot speed and improvisational skills on the run that recall Nadal in his vamos-barking, scissor-kicking youth.It was not Alcaraz’s best match of 2022. Far from it. But it certainly looked like his grittiest as he found a way to advance, 6-1, 6-7 (7), 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4.“These are the kinds of matches that help you grow in your career,” said Alcaraz, a 19-year-old who started the season being considered a star of the future but has become a star of the present instead.He has won four titles, including the Miami Open on hardcourts and the Barcelona Open and Madrid Open on clay. He beat Nadal and Djokovic back to back in Madrid before taking a break to rest and recover for Paris.For all his self-evident talent, it is quite a challenge to arrive at a Grand Slam tournament in your teens as one of the favorites. And Alcaraz often did look tighter than usual on Wednesday: forcing the issue with his groundstrokes and drop shots, rather than waiting for the prime time to strike.Meanwhile, Ramos, a 34-year-old lefthander with a yen for clay, expertly changed pace and shuffled tactics. Ramos looks like a lightweight — slight to the point of gaunt — but his full-cut, inside-out forehand is a heavyweight’s punch, and he overwhelmed even Alcaraz with it time and time again.But after carefully and cleverly building the platform for an upset, Ramos could not quite finish the construction job. Serving for the victory at 5-4 in the fourth set, he had a match point and tightened up just enough on his forehand to hit the tape instead of clearing the net.Two points later, Alcaraz evened the set at 5-5 and then dominated the tiebreaker after failing to convert three set points in the 12th game.The momentum seemed clearly with the youngster, but Ramos, to his credit, refused to buy into that line of reasoning, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth set before Alcaraz roared back to 3-3 with his rare blend of offense and defense.They traded breaks of serve again, but Alcaraz was not done running and digging. With Ramos serving again, Alcaraz produced his most dazzling defense of the match: stretching to slap a forehand in one corner and then sprinting across the clay to extend the rally again, which gave Ramos, understandably on edge by now, the chance to miss a volley in the net.“Great point,” Alcaraz said. “Long match. To be able to run like this and get the point like I did, it’s amazing.”The comeback was still not complete, however, and in a match full of abrupt shifts in momentum, another turn was hardly out of the question in the Funhouse. But Alcaraz instead made it no fun at all for Ramos. With the crowd chanting “Carlos” between points, he served out the victory at love with a forehand winner and three aces.Next challenge: Sebastian Korda, a 21-year-old American whose star is also rising and who is the only man to have beaten Alcaraz on clay this season, defeating him in three sets in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters last month.“I’ve obviously played a lot of matches on clay and played many more hours on the court since then,” Alcaraz said. “I am feeling good.”So is Korda, who defeated the French veteran Richard Gasquet, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-3, on Wednesday in 2 hours 19 minutes.It would come as no surprise if his rematch with Alcaraz took quite a bit longer than that. More

  • in

    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Retires From Tennis After First-Round Loss at French Open

    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has retired from tennis after a first-round loss at the French Open, marking the end of a generation of his countrymen.PARIS — Farewells can be particularly tricky for aging tennis players. Part of the professional game’s Darwinian appeal is that there is no place to hide. There is no exiting the arena gracefully through substitution, no convincing manner to mask the erosion of skills and speed.It is you and the opponent, probably younger, healthier and better if you are, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday, on the brink of retirement.But Tsonga, the most successful French player of his close-but-no-major French generation, was not exactly alone on the main Philippe Chatrier Court as he faced the No. 8 seed, Casper Ruud of Norway.Tsonga, 37 and with a body that most likely feels older, announced in April that this French Open would be his final tournament, which meant that the French crowd was well prepared to give him his due in this first-round match.The grand and renovated stadium was barely half full when Tsonga walked onto the red clay in the early afternoon after wiping tears from his eyes in the tunnel. Lunch remains a priority for Tsonga’s compatriots. But thousands more French fans eventually found their seats and rose to the occasion, in part because Tsonga rose to it himself, even in defeat.Tsonga during his final match.James Hill for The New York Times“It was difficult because I came on the court already in quite an emotional state,” Tsonga said after Ruud’s victory, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (0). “I said to myself, ‘Wait, this is not the time to crack. You have to go for it. You have to play. You wanted to be here. You wanted to fight until the last ball.’”Clay has long been Ruud’s best surface. He can run and run. Tsonga, a former Australian Open finalist and French Open semifinalist now ranked No. 297, has not been a major threat on any surface for several years because of injuries.“Give me back my legs,” he yelled in frustration as he lost in the first round to Alex Molcan last week at the Lyon Open in France.But with Tuesday as a target, he found inspiration, and though logic suggested that he had no business pushing Ruud to the limit, he came surprisingly, poignantly close. He won the opening set, nearly won the second and then roused himself in the fourth with Ruud close to victory and Tsonga close to a bigger finish line.He broke Ruud’s serve to take a 6-5 lead in the fourth, generating one of the biggest roars he has generated in nearly 20 years of playing at Roland Garros. But he injured his right shoulder on a big forehand in the process and was unable to do much more than push the ball into play the rest of the way, tearing up as he prepared to serve the final point of his career at 0-6 in the tiebreaker. He was not alone in the tears.It was a farewell match that Tsonga acknowledged symbolized, in many ways, his 18-year career.The crowd held up his portrait as it tried to start a Mexican wave.James Hill for The New York Times“There was drama. There was injury. There was a very tough opponent on the other side of the net, because that also has been part of my career,” he said. “I think I have faced some incredible players all the way through.”That is undeniable. At 37, he is three years younger than Roger Federer and two years older than Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. It is telling that Tsonga’s highest ranking was No. 5. Though he has beaten them all multiple times on the strength of his huge serve and forehand and attacking skills, they all have, more often than not, stolen his thunder through the years, exploiting his much weaker backhand wing. Djokovic was the first: defeating him in Tsonga’s only Grand Slam singles final at the 2008 Australian Open.At the time, with his foot speed, forehand and youth, it seemed self-evident that Tsonga would experience more such occasions. Instead, he had to settle for five more Grand Slam semifinals: one at the Australian Open, two at Wimbledon and two at the French Open, the last in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka, another great talent from Tsonga’s era, beat him in four sets on his way to the championship.In all, Tsonga would win 18 singles titles on the regular tour, 14 of them in the lowest ATP 250 category and two of them in the highest Masters 1000 category.It was enough to make him the most successful French men’s player of the Open era after Yannick Noah, who, dreadlocks flying, rushed the net to win the French Open in 1983 and is still waiting for another Frenchman to follow his lead to victory.Noah, whose mother was French and father was from Cameroon, is now 62 and back living on his family’s property in Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, where he spent his early years. As a new documentary makes clear, he remains an enduring source of fascination in France and did his part through the years as Davis Cup captain and French federation consultant to inspire his successors.Tsonga kissed the court after the match.James Hill for The New York TimesThere have been world-class talents but no Grand Slam singles champions: not Guy Forget or Henri Leconte; not Cedric Pioline, Sebastien Grosjean or Arnaud Clement. And not Tsonga’s generation that includes Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils and was long ago called the New Musketeers in a nod to the four Musketeers whose Davis Cup victory over the Americans in 1927 led to the hasty construction of Roland Garros stadium so the French would have a worthy setting to host the Davis Cup final in 1928.Tsonga, who once boarded inside the stadium complex as an aspiring junior, is the first of the new Musketeers to retire, although he will soon have company. Simon, also 37, has announced that he will join him at the end of the year and is also playing his final French Open.Simon, Gasquet and Monfils were all on hand for Tsonga’s farewell on Tuesday. After the match and after Tsonga had dropped to the clay and given it a kiss, they joined his parents; wife, Noura; two young children; and coaches from all phases of his career on the court where Tsonga’s generation has often shined but, despite its sobriquet, never lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires.Tsonga, tennis’s newest retiree, had bigger immediate concerns. He could barely lift his right arm, but he looked fulfilled. “I’m proud of myself,” he confirmed. “I gave it all.”Tsonga, center with his old trainers; his fellow French players, including Monfils and Gasquet; and family during the ceremony.James Hill for The New York Times More

  • in

    French Open: Osaka Struggles on Clay, Anisimova Powers Forward

    Naomi Osaka was knocked out of a second straight Grand Slam event by Amanda Anisimova.PARIS — For now, though not necessarily for good, Naomi Osaka remains a one-surface wonder.She was back at it on Monday, trying to change the equation on her return to the red clay at the French Open after last year’s unfortunate dispute with the tournament’s organizers.That communication breakdown and confrontation over Osaka’s refusal to do news conferences to preserve her mental health led to her withdrawal after just one round.But though this year’s mood was much sunnier all around, the bottom line was essentially the same: Osaka will not be playing in the second round in Paris.She was bounced out, 7-5, 6-4, on Monday in her opening match by a now-familiar foe: Amanda Anisimova, a 20-year-old American who, like the 24-year-old Osaka, honed her game in South Florida and can pound a tennis ball with astonishing force and apparently little effort.The pace was ferocious from the start, just as it was at the Australian Open earlier this season, when these two ultra-aggressive baseliners played for the first time.Anisimova prevailed in Melbourne in the third round in three big-bang sets — 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5) — saving two match points on her serve in the final set.And she had a clearer edge on Monday at the French Open, where Anisimova reached the semifinals at 17 in 2019.“When you see Naomi Osaka in the first round, you don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Anisimova, the No. 27 seed, said. “Going into the match, I did feel the stress and the nerves a bit, because it’s a very tough first round. I’m just happy with how I was able to manage it and get through it.”Anisimova, above, beat Osaka on Monday in the French Open and in January in the third round of the Australian Open.James Hill for The New York TimesViewed objectively, this was not an upset. Anisimova, not the unseeded Osaka, was the higher-ranked player, and despite their similar playing styles, Anisimova looks at clay and sees opportunity while Osaka, yet to advance past the third round in Paris, seems to see something closer to the surface of the moon.To feel more at ease on the surface, she needs to play and compete much more often on it. Instead, she has played just nine singles matches on clay in the last three seasons and just three this year after a left Achilles’ tendon injury scuttled her plans to get her socks dirtier than usual, forcing her to withdraw from the Italian Open.Meanwhile, Anisimova reached the semifinals in Charleston, S.C., and the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome: all on clay.As of now, Osaka’s career singles record on hardcourts is 133-56. On clay, it is 21-17, and on grass just 11-9. She said on Monday that she was leaning toward not playing next month at Wimbledon, which is played on grass courts, now that the WTA Tour had stripped the Grand Slam event of ranking points in response to Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players.“I feel like if I play Wimbledon without points, it’s more like an exhibition,” Osaka said. “I know this isn’t true, right? But my brain just like feels that way. Whenever I think something is like an exhibition, I just can’t go at it 100 percent.”Wimbledon, founded in 1877, has been around a great deal longer than ranking points, which the WTA began using in 1975. Leading players who do not win the singles title there at some stage in their career still have to feel like there is a gap in their résumé. (Just ask Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles or, more recently, Andy Roddick.)Iga Swiatek, the new WTA No. 1, is certainly heading there, points or no points. So, it appears, is Serena Williams, who at age 40 is 20 years older than Swiatek as she chases one more major singles title after not competing since last year’s Wimbledon.But Osaka is uncertain, although she may head to Berlin to play in the new grass-court event there that will count toward her ranking.“As a whole, I feel like I’m going to stop telling myself that I’m bad on these surfaces,” she said of grass and clay, “and instead just keep my head down and keep working really hard, because I think that’s what I’ve been doing this whole year. I can’t expect everything to, like, come at once. So hopefully, gradually I will have the results that I want.”For now, she has four Grand Slam singles titles, all on hardcourts, the most recent at the 2021 Australian Open about 16 months ago. The pecking order is shifting and not in her favor. After breaking down in tears midmatch at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March after a heckler rattled her in a second-round defeat, she bounced back to reach the final of the Miami Open, where Swiatek trounced her, 6-4, 6-0.Osaka, who plays for Japan and is based in the United States, remains one of the biggest stars in sports and the highest-paid female athlete in the world by a large margin. She has enough lucrative long-term sponsorship deals to justify recently breaking away from IMG to start her own management agency with Stuart Duguid, her agent.But Osaka will be ranked around No. 40 in the world after Roland Garros, and though her portfolio looks redwood solid, how does it affect the bottom line and place in the sports landscape if a younger player like Swiatek takes true command of the sport and younger, perhaps hungrier players like Anisimova continue to outmuscle Osaka early in major tournaments?To what degree, in the social media age, do results and celebrity need to continue aligning after the millions of followers are already acquired?Osaka, left ankle wrapped, seemed genuinely intent on changing her luck on Monday, digging into the corners and maintaining positive energy nearly until the end. But Anisimova was more consistent on serve and more devastating from the baseline and, above all, on returns.Osaka finished with eight double faults and put just 45 percent of her first serves in play, which meant big trouble against a slugger who looks at second serves the way a lion looks at a wounded impala.Osaka, whose four major victories have come on hardcourts, has yet to advance past the third round on the clay of a French Open, and she said she might skip Wimbledon, which is played on grass.James Hill for The New York TimesWomen’s tennis is awash in talent and depth even after Ashleigh Barty’s surprise retirement in March while the No. 1 player in women’s tennis. Not long after Anisimova’s victory, the 19-year-old Frenchwoman Diane Parry took to the main Philippe Chatrier Court and defeated Barbora Krejcikova, the No. 2 seed and reigning French Open champion, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.This, too, was no full-blown upset. Krejcikova had not competed since February because of a right elbow injury. But Parry, with her rare one-handed backhand, still had to come up with the goods under duress to close out the match and secure her first victory over a top-50 player.Anisimova showed high-level moxie herself. She can implode, losing control of her emotions and her high-risk strokes. But she is also capable of remaining bold under big pressure, which bodes well for her long-range Grand Slam prospects.Anisimova, the second daughter of Russian immigrants to the United States, has been through a great deal in her young life. After her joyride to the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2019, her father and longtime coach, Konstantin, died from a heart attack in August that year.Anisimova said she was “kind of lost” for a couple of years but she was finding her way again. “I wouldn’t say that I wish I went through those things, or I’m grateful that I went through those things because they’re very hard,” Anisimova told me in Australia. “But they are things that have gotten me where I am today, and, yeah, they’ve made me strong.”She is still, in a sense, working her way back, but her ball-striking, on a good day like Monday, is a sight to behold. And while Osaka’s latest clay-court season is over in a hurry, Anisimova’s continues to run. More

  • in

    As the French Open Begins, the War in Ukraine Roils the Locker Room

    “I feel like it’s not united,” Iga Swiatek, the top-ranked women’s player, said of a decision by the tours to punish Wimbledon for barring players from Russian and Belarus.PARIS — The idea by the men’s and women’s tennis tours was to take a strong stand against Wimbledon’s decision to keep out players from Russia and Belarus, then let tennis and competition move the conversation away from politics and the invasion of Ukraine.It has not worked out that way.On Monday, the second day of the French Open, the politics of tennis and Russia reared its head once more. The professional tours’ announcement Friday night that they would not award rankings points this year at Wimbledon, essentially turning the most prestigious event in tennis into an exhibition and punishing players who did well there last year, has roiled the sport, igniting a sharp debate over the game’s role in a deeply unpopular war and dominating the conversation at the year’s second Grand Slam.Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine spoke emotionally about the invasion, saying it has made her care little about winning or losing. Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, talked of the sport being in disarray. Naomi Osaka, one of the biggest stars, said she was leaning toward skipping Wimbledon if the decision not to award rankings points for match victories there stands.“I feel like it’s not united,” Swiatek said after defeating Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in her opening match while wearing a Ukraine pin on her cap, as she has for the past three months. “It’s all the people who are organizing tournaments, like, for example, WTA, ATP and I.T.F., they all have separate views, and it’s not joint. We feel that in the locker room a little bit, so it’s pretty hard.”Swiatek’s comments came shortly after Tsurenko described how lost she has been since late February. Tsurenko, who was ranked as high as No. 23 in 2019, said she at first wanted simply to go home and figure out how she could help with the war effort, but she decided to keep playing and competed in important tournaments in Miami and Indian Wells, Calif.Then, after an early loss at a tournament in Marbella, Spain, and no tournament on her schedule for another three weeks, she realized she had nowhere to live or train. With the help of another player from Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, she landed at the Piatti Tennis Center in Italy, but the psychological challenge remains of balancing her career while her country faces an existential threat.“I just want to enjoy every match, but at the same time, I don’t feel that I care too much,” she said. “I’m trying to find this balance between just go on court and don’t care versus try to care. In some cases it helps.”Tsurenko spoke emotionally about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it had made her care little about winning or losing.Thibault Camus/Associated PressAfter feeling emboldened by Wimbledon’s decision to bar players from Russia and Belarus, Tsurenko and her compatriots were disheartened by the WTA’s decision to strike back.“When it’s not in your country you don’t really understand how terrible it is,” Tsurenko said. Compared with what she and her country have been through, giving up the chances for rankings points seems like a small price to pay, she said. “For them, they feel like they are losing their job,” she said of the players who are barred. “I also feel many bad things. I feel a lot of terrible things, and I think, compared to that, losing a chance to play in one tournament is nothing.”She hates the propaganda used by the Russian government to disparage her country. She said no more than five players had expressed their support for her since the start of the war. She dreads being drawn against a Russian player in a tournament.Dayana Yastremska, who is also from Ukraine and who also lost Monday, said the decision to withhold points for Wimbledon was not fair to players from Ukraine.“We are not a happy family right now,” said Yastremska, who still does not have a training base and was unsure where she would spend the next weeks.In an interview this month, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, said the organization had to live up to its principle that access to tournaments for players should be based on merit alone. He also said that discriminating against a player because of the actions of her country’s government was not acceptable.“I can’t imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through and feeling at this moment, and I feel bad for these athletes who are being asked to take the blame for someone else’s actions,” Simon said.Russian players have expressed disappointment in Wimbledon’s decision and appreciation for the tours’ support in protecting what they view as their right to play, though no player has sought relief in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer with experience in right-to-play cases, said tennis players from Russia and Belarus would most likely have a strong case.“We are professional athletes, we put effort every day in what we do and basically want to work,” said Karen Khachanov of Russia, who won his opening-round match Sunday and was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year.One of the few players not to express an opinion was Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former world No. 1 and member of the WTA Players’ Council, but her distress over the disagreement was clear.Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images“I say one thing, it’s going to be criticized; I say another thing, it’s going to be criticized,” said Azarenka, who once had a close relationship with President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus.In its statement Friday, the ATP said its rules and agreements existed to protect the rights of all players as a whole: “Unilateral decisions of this nature, if unaddressed, set a damaging precedent for the rest of the tour. Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable on a tour that operates in more than 30 countries.”The tangible impact of the ATP and WTA decisions on the sport was evident Monday as Osaka made her feelings known about possibly skipping Wimbledon. She is not a fan of grass surfaces to begin with, and without an opportunity to improve her ranking, she might struggle to find motivation.“The intention was really good, but the execution is kind of all over the place,” Osaka said.Swiatek, who is from Poland, which has supported Ukraine perhaps more than any other country, said locker room conversations, which might once have been about changing balls during matches, have shifted to discussions of war, peace and politics. She stopped short of overtly stating her position, but she hardly masked her sentiments.“All the Russian and Belarusian players are not responsible in what’s going on in their country,” Swiatek said. “But on the other hand, the sport has been used in politics and we are kind of public personas and we have some impact on people. It would be nice if the people who are making decisions were making decisions that are going to stop Russia’s aggression.” More