French Open 2020: Man­ag­ing quick con­ti­nent, sur­face switch

Malta Independent - - Sport -

Ser­ena Wil­liams by­passed any clay-court tuneup tour­na­ments ahead of the French Open, so her first match at Roland Gar­ros will be her first com­pe­ti­tion since the U.S. Open.

Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open and is sit­ting out the French Open, which starts its 15 days of main­draw ac­tion Sun­day af­ter be­ing post­poned in May be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

Do­minic Thiem also won the U.S. Open and de­cided to rest at home for a bit be­fore head­ing to Paris.

Si­mona Halep skipped the trip to New York's hard courts al­to­gether and has been play­ing ex­clu­sively — and ex­tremely well — on clay since tennis re­sumed af­ter its pan­demic hia­tus. Rafael Nadal sat out the U.S. Open, too, but he only has played three matches on his fa­vorite sur­face in all of 2020, hardly the sort of run-up to Roland Gar­ros the King of Clay is used to.

"A com­pletely spe­cial year," he said af­ter a quar­ter­fi­nal loss in Rome last week, "and un­pre­dictable year."

And No­vak Djokovic? He trav­eled to the United States, won the West­ern & South­ern Open and ex­pe­ri­enced a tu­mul­tuous exit from the U.S. Open via dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion, then flew back half­way around the world and won the Ital­ian Open, which he prob­a­bly con­sid­ers per­fect prepa­ra­tion for the year's last Grand Slam tour­na­ment.

"Well, it is un­usual to be in these kind of cir­cum­stances, but at the same time, we are — I am, and I know most of the play­ers are — thank­ful that we have a chance and op­por­tu­nity to play and com­pete and be on the tour," said Djokovic, who will be seeded No. 1 at the French Open.

He is bid­ding for a sec­ond ti­tle there and 18th Grand Slam tro­phy over­all, which would move him within two of Roger Fed­erer's record for men and one be­hind sec­ond-place Nadal. (Fed­erer is side­lined for the rest of the sea­son af­ter two op­er­a­tions on his right knee.)

"It's just very close af­ter an ex­haust­ing month of tennis in (the) States on a dif­fer­ent sur­face (to) come back and play ... on a dif­fer­ent sur­face, dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent," Djokovic said. "It's very chal­leng­ing."

All play­ers needed to make their own de­ci­sions about how to ap­proach this once-in-a-life­time — let's hope so, any­way — year and the coro­n­avirus-al­tered tennis cal­en­dar, with the quick switches from North Amer­ica to Europe and from hard courts to clay that no one is used to man­ag­ing quite this way. As Jo­hanna Konta, a three-time Grand Slam semi­fi­nal­ist now ranked 13th, put it: "It is a very dif­fer­ent, very strange, very un­ortho­dox kind of mini-sea­son for us."

With the French Open be­gin­ning ex­actly two weeks af­ter the U.S. Open ended, the hind­sight-is20/20 an­swers to var­i­ous key ques­tions ev­ery­one needed to con­front even­tu­ally will present them­selves on the courts.

"You have to play your cards smart there, I guess," said Thiem, the run­ner-up to Nadal in Paris the past two years. En­ter just one of the two back-to-back ma­jors? If so, which? Try to be good on both hard courts and clay?

If so, what's the best way to make the tran­si­tion, which re­quires adapt­ing to dif­fer­ent foot­work, above all, and ad­just­ing in-match strat­egy, be­cause the slower clay re­quires more pa­tience dur­ing points and dulls the ef­fect of a speedy serve?

"It doesn't mat­ter how good you are," said Svet­lana Kuznetsova, who skipped the U.S. Open (which she won in 2004) and is en­tered in the French Open (which she won in 2009). "Nothing re­places match prepa­ra­tion."

There also are those not play­ing in New York or Paris, in­clud­ing Fed­erer, 2019 French Open cham­pion Ash Barty and 2019 U.S. Open cham­pion Bianca An­dreescu.

"I have no re­grets with my de­ci­sion. Of course I'm sad that I didn't play (in the U.S. Open). It's nor­mal. But I feel like my de­ci­sion was great for the health is­sue and to feel, like, re­laxed in­side," said Halep, who comes into a tour­na­ment she won in 2018 for one of her two Grand Slam ti­tles as a fa­vorite, es­pe­cially with the topranked Barty and No. 3 Osaka ab­sent. "I al­ways take these de­ci­sions just re­lated to my­self, how I feel men­tally and stuff like this. So it's all good."

Halep en­ters on a 14-match win­ning streak, in­clud­ing clay-court ti­tles in Prague last month and Rome last week.

Could all of the time Halep spent on clay be an ad­van­tage for her against play­ers who trained and played on hard courts?

"Yes and no," was Halep's an­swer. "Yes, be­cause I had the chance to prac­tice on clay only, and no, be­cause I didn't have of­fi­cial matches," she said. "So both sides, I think, have an ad­van­tage, if we know how to (use) it."

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