By Jane Voigt
As the pandemic initially spread we thanked the heroes: medical professionals, grocery clerks, plus teachers. Now, though, we should thank the tennis heroes: the tournament organizers and planners, their medical teams, and the players. They, too, have sacrificed, adhering to quarantines, practicing and playing in bubbles while testing and more testing for positive COVID cases continued. Traveling with a team or family became difficult in a sport that plops them on a solo court stage, expecting them to play better or, at least, their best while going unsupported by those – families and teams – who could not be on hand during all these tough moments, days, and months that stretched well beyond a year. Consistent and constant change is something tennis players, and all humanity, are not good at. Yet they persevered. Bravo.
As a result some have called this Roland Garros chaotic. This is especially true on the women’s side where, once again, a new and different singles champion will be crowned Saturday, which has been the case over the last six years. Yet if we take a closer look, none of the top four seeds advanced beyond the round of sixteen; and, six of the eight quarterfinalists were first-timers: American Coco Gauff a teenager. Injuries cropped up. For example defending champion Iga Swiatek (No. 8) strained her right thigh in Wednesday’s quarterfinal against Maria Sakkari (No. 17), giving the Pole sensation her first loss on the red clay of Roland Garros since 2019.
Players’ anxiety and mental health presented themselves front and center, too, shifting traditional protocols and how players perceived themselves under a new interpretation of independent. Naomi Osaka punctuated that independence of thought and action when she refused to attend press conferences and then withdrew after her first-round victory. Her actions provoked thoughtless responses from Roland Garros administrators plus all three of the other Grand Slams, when they threatened to suspend her from the game. Let that sink in. They threatened to suspend the number-two player in the world from tennis. This cacophony heaped more chaos on this second major of the year, exacerbating everyone and everything it touched.
Nonetheless, forced to adapt quickly while the draw narrowed, new faces emerged through joy and perseverance. The four women’s semifinalists present four relatively unknown women onto an unfamiliar stage, having never been this far in any Grand Slam tournament.
Barbora Klejcikova of the Czech Republic, unseeded and playing in her seventh Roland Garros will face Sakkari, the Greek veteran who had been on the edge of a major career breakthrough. From the bottom half of the draw, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (No. 31) will meet the 85th-ranked Slovenia, Tamara Zidansek. Both these women bravely fought through three-set nail-biters against, respectively, a surging Paula Badosa (No. 33) of Spain and Uzbekistan native Elena Rybakina, Pavlyuchenkova’s doubles partner and 21-year-old.
Pavlyuchenkova is the only woman in these semifinals who came close to a major title, yet that was 10 years ago. This is her 13th appearance in Paris, her best singles performance noted in 2011 when she made the quarterfinals. She also made the quarterfinals of The Australian Open 2017, 2019, and 2020; Wimbledon in 2016; and the US Open in 2011. Of all the semifinalists, “Pavs,” as she’s called, is the most decorated and deserving of a crack at the title. She became the youngest junior in the world at 14 in 2006, when she was the junior girls finalist at Roland Garros, and the winner of both Wimbledon and the US Junior Girls Singles Championships.
Pavlyuchenkova told the press Tuesday that she will continue with her normal tournament routines because “It’s good for me to keep on moving and working” because it’s not good for her to “just stop and rest.”
The media doesn’t have enough time to introduce these women to the world because they play Thursday, June 10, for spots in Saturday’s championship final. Nonetheless their accomplishments should be highlighted and heralded, especially when considering the chaotic nature of the world and, yes, this French Open.
Even the greats – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – have made major adjustments while playing what they have to believe is their best tennis inside the chaos. Federer returned to Paris this year after 18 months of rehabilitation and having missed four of the last five French Opens. However, he withdrew after his third-round victory over German Dominik Koepfer. Federer had made his motives perfectly clear, when he decided to play Paris. He wanted match practice for Wimbledon and another chance to win it a record 9 times. Therefore, he prioritized his physical condition and the fact that he’ll be 40 in August and walked away. Traditionally in tennis, a sport fueled by the longevity of protocols, players don’t drop out of a major unless they are injured. But Federer did just that.
“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,” Federer said, as reported by ESPN.
Although his comments pertain to his physical well-being, he evoked grumbles from pundits that didn’t rise to the cruelty voiced toward Osaka yet mirrored her actions, almost two weeks ago, relative to her mental well-being.
“It’s not a good look,” Patrick McEnroe told The New York Times, when asked about Federer’s exit. But who thought it wasn’t a ‘good look’? Did he mean through the eyes of Federer? Tennis? Roland Garros? The French Tennis Federation, The Grand Slam Committees? The media? All these entities seemed to be in the same camp that excoriated Osaka. No acts of kindness from them, during this period of chaos when measured tolerance and compassion could have gone a long way.
These are the reasons tennis players are heroes. They have a good life, indeed, traveling the world and playing world-class tennis. Yet, they, too, have struggled through the pandemic and chaos and should be recognized for their efforts and outcomes in a world that just can’t seem to find its niche in time, but slowly creeps towards that unknown.