Let Us Consider The French Open’s Thrilling, Waterlogged First Week


Defector’s tennis desk has spent the past week and change watching the French Open. Two-thirds of said desk have done so in person, and one-third of the desk is currently in the stands at Roland-Garros. In a discussion that took place alongside Novak Djokovic’s wily, rocky fourth-round matchup with Francisco Cerundolo, Giri, Owen, and Patrick took stock of the draw so far, considered the limits of mortality, and discussed a couple of meltdowns.

Patrick Redford: Bonjour mes amis. It is time to put down those umbrellas for the first time in a while and consider whether Courentin Moutet is the greatest French tennis player of all-time, or whether that honor even needs the national qualifier, though before we get into anything too tennisy, I wanted to get scene reports from both of you pavement-pounding asses. What did you see on the Roland-Garros grounds?

Giri Nathan: If last year’s visit was full of the enchantment of the first-timer, then this year’s visit was a wartier and more honest vision. I felt last year that the Roland-Garros crowd had as deep an understanding and appreciation of the sport as any I’d come across, but I also now realize they can use that knowledge for evil. Every Moutet crowd was doing full-on soccer-style chants after every point, which is cool, but that’s just a few beers removed from David Goffin getting gum spit on him. His crime: having to play a first-round match against a very cool young Frenchman with a huge serve and one-handed backhand, Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard, and beating him in five sets. When you have someone as benign as David Goffin making a vociferous heel turn then you know something genuinely nasty is happening out there. The tournament changed its policy four days ago and booze is no longer allowed in the stands.

As for the conditions, it was so cold and wet out there early in the tournament that I often found myself thinking night sessions on clay should not exist. (And until 2021, they did not in fact exist.) The courts become ludicrously slow. Watching Daniil Medvedev try to end points on clay at 1 a.m. in a drizzly 52 degrees is a perverse exercise. 

Owen Lewis: I’ve only been here two days, but I’m already in sensory overload. I watched someone working at a waffles and crepes stand take a package of square waffles, slice it in half, and expertly empty the frozen treats inside in a motion smoother than Novak Djokovic’s backhand. I have seen one of the aforementioned waffles generously drizzled with Nutella and rapidly transferred into my gut. I have stumbled away from a bloated bumblebee buzzing uncomfortably close to my head and nearly spun into a stranger on a packed walkway of people watching matches on the big screen outside Court Suzanne-Lenglen. I watched Jelena Ostapenko play doubles while wearing an outfit reminiscent of a neon pink-and-blue beach ball on a court surrounded by what appeared to be a greenhouse. 

Right now, I am typing from the stands of Djokovic’s fourth-round match with Francisco Cerundolo, and for the second straight contest, the 24-time major champion is trying to convince me that he will lose. He’s called the physiotherapist twice for a knee issue and is currently down a break in the third set, having dominated the first and lost the second narrowly. The crowd on Court Philippe-Chatrier that Giri likened to a baby last year has cheered wildly and booed Djokovic for complaining about the anguished cries of an actual baby. Besides watching the possible decomposition of a man who won three major titles at the ages of 35 and 36 in 2023, not much is going on here. What’s sticking out to you, Patrick?

PR: The tenor and pitch of the crowd is so great; we’ve talked in previous chats about the importance of sound in tennis, and I can’t think of a sport where the aural is as important a part of the experience. To that end, a few distinct sounds have stuck with me. The Moutet-Sinner crowd doing the wave while our boy was trying to serve, the love that every French player gets, no matter how doomed they are (and they are all doomed), but most singularly, the thwack that a Naomi Osaka forehand has. We should start there, I think. 

Watching Osaka rip through her 6-1 second set then build up what felt like an insurmountable 5-2 lead against Iga Swiatek was a faintly surreal experience. She was ripping unconscionably concussive rockets all over the place. As someone who mostly missed out on Osaka’s first run, I was awed to see her wind up and pound those huge winners out to the wings; as someone who has watched Swiatek bully Grand Slam winners before, I was even more awed to see her God-tier footwork neutralized over and over again. That match was fantastic, if tragic, and it ages better with each successive dominant Swiatek win. I don’t know if she will drop another set at this tournament. As a larger-order note, my sense is that a fully in-form Osaka (to say nothing of another former Slam winner we’ll get to later) would add something new to the top of a women’s game already abounding with ultra-cool players of varying styles, so I left the match heartbroken but extremely encouraged. 

GN: An incredible match, and heartening to see Osaka draw some encouragement from it afterwards despite the brutal conditions of her defeat. I never thought I’d see her take a set off Swiatek on clay; I predicted she’d take four or five games in this match. This was a rivalry I thought could be era-defining before Osaka’s long layoff, and then Swiatek rolled her in the Miami final in 2022 and I figured their paths would fully diverge, but now I’m thrilled to see Osaka throw down the gauntlet again: “I’m a hard court kid, so I would love to play her on my surface and see what happens.” It’s like watching a teddy bear make a physical threat. Good shit. So far that was the only real test for Iga, who’s been the best player in the tournament by a terrifying margin. She just double-bageled Anastasia Potapova in 40 minutes. 

OL: One of my favorite things about tennis is that the hyper-concentration of one specific skill can overpower almost anything, even a significant quantity of several other skills. Swiatek was clearly a better mover than Osaka, whose footwork on the clay was visibly flawed and uncertain, especially next to Iga’s assured gliding. On top of that, Swiatek hits with more spin than Osaka, hits fewer errors, and probably even has better touch around the net. Yet for a huge portion of the match, all that got negated by the fact that Naomi Osaka has the timing of a stopwatch and the raw power of a vengeful goddess. In the second set and the start of the third, she won nine of ten games off Swiatek, a three-time Roland-Garros champion! And all this from a player, Osaka, whose success on clay in the past has been extremely limited. That Swiatek has cruised so easily since escaping with a win over Osaka should tell you how rare a talent that ball-striking ability is. 

PR: That note about hyper-concentration is a good one, so allow me to submit a contention: Ons Jabeur has powered her way into the quarterfinals by being orders of magnitude better than anyone she’s faced in the nebulous, impressive category of Being High-Key Slick With It. She’s had such a bad year, but when she is on, I don’t think there’s another top player I enjoy watching more than Ons, for both her tennis and her indomitably fun personality. Clara Tauson is a real power player who strung together a few nice upsets, yet Jabeur outfoxed her pretty comprehensively.

GN: It was a good first few days at Roland Garros for the eminently racquet-talented, multi-tool types, both Ons and Bianca Andreescu, whom I’ve seen start and stop too many times to get truly excited about. I told myself I’d permit myself excitement if she made it into round four, so here is my official written statement that I am not excited. I am merely observing that she won a quite difficult first-round match against ultra-grinder Sara Sorribes Tormo, then turned around a three-setter after a slow start against Anna Kalinskaya (her first win over a top-25 player in a year), and then lost to a reasonably in-form 12-seeded Jasmine Paolini. Andreescu’s been in multi-year injury hell and I would be grateful to watch a healthy summer on hard courts, the surface where she blew up the tour back in 2019. Basically I am open to the idea of feeling excitement at a date in the near future. How about you guys?

OL: As a fully-fledged Sorribes Tormo fanboy, I’ll put my grief aside to praise Andreescu, whose brilliant win over SST in Miami three years ago made me a fan in the first place. In the loss to Paolini, Andreescu went on a tear to win the second set by hitting just the most bewilderingly great shots of every variety imaginable. Giri, you and I had a mini-discussion about the definition of talent in the tennis Slack channel a few days ago, and you suggested that talent was being able to do a great variety of things on the court, while I said it was being able to win points as easily as possible. By those metrics, Andreescu and Osaka are two of the most talented players on tour, and their matchup is yet another rivalry we’ve been robbed of—they’ve played just once, in 2019, and it was a fucking epic. Like you, I am open to the idea of future excitement, I just have to prepare my heart to get broken again first. 

Back to Iga for a second. Now that she’s survived that Osaka scare, do either of you see her losing to anyone left in the draw? Also, Cerundolo just took the third set off Djokovic. Either Novak does his thing again or he’s out of Roland-Garros before the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009 and we’re all talking about his imminent demise. 

PR: I am ramping up the process toward potentially considering the onset of excitement, sources say to indicate. I don’t see Iga losing, considering how unbeatable she has been on the clay this season, and how unscoreable-on she has been in Paris. It says something that Aryna Sabalenka has not dropped a set at a major since the U.S Open final and she’s a mega-underdog here. That said, I’ll keep an eye on the Mirra Andreeva–Sabalenka winner, and Elena Rybakina, who has yet to really be troubled by her greatest opponent (tummy trouble, a close winner over the nasty and malicious tennis press who dares to, uh, ask her questions?). 

GN: Two last notes I had for the women’s draw. One, congratulations to a noted tennis sicko, because his girl Elina Avanesyan made it back to the fourth round with a nice upset of Qinwen Zheng, a moonball masterclass. It remains fascinating to see the damage she can do despite limited pace—a Medvedevian skill set in some ways—but Avanesyan is gone now, ousted convincingly by Paolini today. Two, the 17-year-old Andreeva continues her prodigious rampage, going far at yet another major (even when her results in between them are relatively quiet), now into the first quarterfinal of her career. Not bad for a player’s first five career major appearances: third round, fourth round, second round, fourth round, quarterfinal.

OL: Aside from the possible Djoko-upset in progress, the men’s side has been mostly chalk so far. Carlos Alcaraz is yet to drop a set, Jannik Sinner has lost just one and promptly erased it by winning three dominant ones, Stefanos Tsitsipas had a scare in the last round but ended up sailing through. With Sinner and Alcaraz set to play, respectively, Grigor Dimitrov and Tsitsipas next, both of whom they crushed last time out, a semifinal clash is starting to look inevitable. Two questions: Who is the likely winner of that (currently hypothetical) semi, and should it happen, is that winner also the likely winner of the tournament? Also: Cerundolo is two games away from bouncing Djokovic out of this tournament. Novak isn’t chasing drop shots. The crowd is absolutely throwing themselves behind him.

PR: I’m so happy Jannik and Carlos are healthy. It really seemed like Jannik wouldn’t even make it to this tournament after dropping out of Rome, but the way he crushed Moutet on Sunday was as encouraging as possible. You know he’s going to hit that tennis ball as purely as anyone, but the Frenchman was also testing his movement, the thing I worried about with his hip injury, and once he picked up on the timing, he was on everything. Carlos too looked great against Felix Auger-Aliassime, and while he’s still making that dogshit Nike kit mildly more interesting with the arm sleeve, the way he was slinging that forehand, as if shooting lasers from his hand, makes me think there’s not much reason to be worried about his health either. All I want out of this rivalry is an even H2H and tennis that breaks the boundaries of Euclidean geometry. Since Alcaraz won their most recent matchup, and since they haven’t met at a major since that U.S. Open match, I am hoping that it is Forza! time.

GN: It was probably the least puppy-dog-like pre-tournament press I’ve seen Carlitos do. He seemed genuinely unsure about his ability to perform with an arm injury. I would offer an update on the injury but Carlitos himself told the room he didn’t know the exact diagnosis—he lets his team sweat the details and keeps his own mind clear—though he has previously indicated that it is the pronator teres muscle in his right forearm. Despite his caution ahead of the tournament, I think the scorelines over the weekend have answered anyone’s questions. In the quarterfinal I expect him to cook Tsitsipas—who has abdicated his responsibilities to love, dropping out of the mixed doubles with his on-again girlfriend Paula Badosa, though he is still playing doubles with his brother—the same way he has every time they’ve played. It was pretty funny to see Alcaraz openly acknowledge that he has the edge in their matchup. The “key,” as he called it, though he obviously wouldn’t disclose what that was. And that’ll be a pretty impressive path to a semifinal: Seb Korda, Auger-Aliassime, Tsitsipas. I have to go to a wedding this weekend and I’m already stressed about how I’m going to fit in a live viewing of a hypothetical Sincaraz semifinal. I think the love of the game will supersede the matrimonial variety.

PR: Carlos refuses to put love over tennis; what better way to honor him than by surreptitiously streaming it during the vows?

OL: I don’t want to jinx this matchup, and I don’t want to look too far ahead. But the way Alcaraz unraveled Sinner at Indian Wells is still running through my head. After Alcaraz eagerly traded his biggest forehands with Sinner in the first set (and got smoked), the tennis equivalent of a dick-measuring contest, Alcaraz started mixing in slices and loopier, spinnier groundstrokes. And Sinner, who has dominated the tour for much of this season and may well be #1 in the world within a few days, imploded. His mighty forehand fell apart entirely. I know he picked up a couple aches and pains in the third set, including a wrist issue, but the ease with which Alcaraz dismantled him felt critical to me. It’s entirely possible that Sinner can adjust, or has already added the requisite dimensions to his forehand to deal with that tactic. On a faster surface, I’d favor him clearly. But on the slow clay of Paris, another Alcaraz win feels likelier. And having said that, I’m sure I’ve just kicked off a timeline in which Tsitsipas beats Alcaraz for the first time and Sinner wins the tournament (you’re welcome, Patrick). 

PR: What I liked about the Moutet match was that Sinner had an opponent who was in clear anguish and was buoyed by a naughty crowd, and rather than let off for one second or give him an inch or allow him for one moment to relieve any of that tension, he stared him down and destroyed him with booming groundstrokes until he died. It was merciless, the mark of a real competitor to be totally unbothered by any of the boundary conditions and put together three sets of all-action tennis. Moutet could have stripped his (very cool-looking) Asics kit and Sinner would not have changed his expression, or looked in any other direction than Darren Cahill’s. That covers the Locked In end of the spectrum; on the other, we have Andrey Rublev having a legitimately concerning meltdown, and poor Hubi Hurkacz trying to do a coup against the chair umpire while losing to Dimitrov. Only poor, sweet Hubi could lose in that particularly composed way.

GN: Hubi is one of the sweetest humans on tour so I’m sad to say how much entertainment I got out of this surreal and uncharacteristic meltdown.

There’s so much going on here: the utterly bewildered expression on Hubi’s face, the completely novel idea of swapping out the umpire mid-match, the way that idea is presented as if it is a common option available to all tennis players, the burden being placed on Grigor to decide whether he wants to take part in this unprecedented idea, Grigor’s own utterly bewildered expressions, the chair umpire sitting there listening to the whole thing. Portrait of a sweetie pie unwinding in real time.

OL: I hate to go into a rant this deep into the discussion, but I feel awful for chair umpire Alison Hughes. HawkEye is not reliable on clay (that’s why they don’t use it on the courts), so the television view that confirmed the call Hurkacz flipped his lid over is not gospel. But we can say that Hughes’s call was at best correct and at worst borderline, and Hurkacz reacted like he’d just hit a winner down the middle of the court on match point in a major final and gotten screwed. His anger and frankly absurd idea to pitch replacing Hughes to Dimitrov was unbecoming of such a nice guy, as you said, Giri, but also representative of a bigger problem in tennis: Players do not give a shit about chair umpires. 

They are expected to be perfect all the time. They are yelled at when they do not make mistakes and when they do. After he lost a doubles match in Acapulco two years ago, Alexander Zverev came within inches of breaking umpire Alessandro Germani’s ankles when he mashed his racket on the chair without regard for the welfare of the human being on it. They tossed Zverev out of the singles draw for that, but clearly players feel OK treating umpires like dirt. A chair umpire, in all the disgustingly extensive amount of tennis I have seen, has never overruled their own call because a player threw a tantrum. So what the hell are they doing arguing calls like this? Hurkacz had been pissed off all match, from the very first set. Frankly, I’m more inclined to believe he had finally found a scapegoat for his rage—he was down two sets at the point of his hissy fit—than that he legitimately thought Hughes was incapable of doing her job. That’s infantile behavior, and if renowned nice-guy Hubi Hurkacz is pulling crap like this, I’m wary of what the hottest tempers on tour are going to do next.

Anyway, rant over. Djokovic somehow won the fourth set. He’s winning endless backhand-to-backhand rallies in the fifth. Do we have evidence that he is mortal.

GN: That’s a great observation. The same can be said about the nastiest encounters with linespeople over the years; those supporting figures on the tennis court are quickly dehumanized by the players when they’re unhappy. It’s one thing for players to act up while they have steam coming out of their ears, but it’s another to double-down after the moment has passed; Hurkacz spoke afterwards as if that was a reasonable course of action.

PR: That’s a righteous rant, Owen, and sort of obliquely gets back to why I like Ons so much: Tennis players tend to be so blinkered as to only focus on the winning and losing of points, games, sets, matches, and tournaments, often to the detriment of their ability and willingness to be humans about anything. The chair umpire is not a person, then, merely another obstacle. Speaking of people who are not human, you’re telling me Novak Djokovic was breathing all heavy and appearing labored while going a set down? And that he won the fourth set? And that he is currently roasting Francisco Cerúndolo as if he’s on a spit over an open flame? Your Musetti blog was great, and as impressive as the spectacle of Djokovic doing this over and over may be, I’m so sick of it. With the obvious caveat, of course, that if he gets to a semifinal matchup against Zverev, who is actively on trial as his legal team appeals a penalty order fine for domestic abuse, then I want Djokovic to destroy him.

OL: Yet another thing the ATP should acknowledge. Maybe our favorite weird little guy (™, Patrick Redford) can take Zverev out tonight. Also, a long-delayed agreement on Jabeur. She is the kind of player whose joyful tennis makes new fans and seems like a lovely person on top of that. But yeah, would you believe it if I said I’d pitched Lauren this weekend on an article debating whether or not Djokovic is on the downslope? I still do not fucking know. I’m ready to pull the trigger on the take and then he bagels Musetti and wins the fourth set against Cerundolo from a break down. He just fell during a point, was hands-and-knees on the ground like a defeated animal, and I have little doubt he’s going to win the next point.

[30-minute delay]

After hurting his knee and having it tended to twice, falling behind two sets to one, and played for more than four hours for the second straight match as a 37-year-old, Novak Djokovic is about to serve for this match. 

PR: He can’t keep getting away with this; he will absolutely keep getting away with this.

OL: He did it. And after your immense patience, Patrick, I finally have nothing left to say.

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