Before the French Open started, experts assembled by Tennis magazine, including the assiduous historian Steve Flink, gave the tournament to Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal by four to three; the magazine’s editor, Steve Tignor, whose bias tends toward tradition, demurred and voted for the man of Mallorca.
In the ladies’ draw, the same staid and useful voice of the tennis establishment, which is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and whose publisher is American legend Chris Evert, had Simona Halep beating Garbine Muguruza (both past champions) in the final, with American Sloane Stephens and Belarusian Victoria Azarenka making deep runs. There was no mention of Iga Swiatek; Sofia Kenin (finalist), and Petra Kvitova and Nadia Podoroska (semifinalists), were mentioned in passing.
Not to play Monday-morning smart-aleck, but you have to admit predictions often do not pan out in sports. Who would have predicted Tom Brady’s fantastic rally in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Super Bowl when New England overcame a deep hole to beat Atlanta? Who would have guessed the hard-luck Red Sox would come from behind and snatch the pennant from the mighty Yankees in 2004?
Even if you do not believe in curses, you see only what you look for. Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep were — are — at the top of their form, and they happened to be on long streaks going into the delayed Grand Slam in Paris. Miss Halep was 17-0, a record for her; the mighty Belgradian was the dominant men’s Grand Slammer of the past several seasons, going 10 for 24 since 2015. On the other hand, Nadal had a record 12 French Opens since 2005, 99-2 in matches, and just one behind the maestro of Basel, Roger Federer, in total slams, at 19.
The great Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, were viewed as contenders because they are the best of their generation; but they were in less good physical condition than met the eye. Of the beholder. But that is a human trait, to see what you think you should see. However, the mark of the real thinker is to ask questions like “Why does the apple not fall up?” or “What happens if we fly into the sound barrier?”
What no one expected was the blow out Rafa Nadal inflicted on his great rival (who is ahead 29-27 in wins). A match that any sensible person could have expected to go five sets and that many hours and that “either man could win,” to use the cliché, was over in three sets and scarcely over two hours. Modest as ever, Nadal said Djokovic had done the same to him at the Australian Open final in 2018 and it was his turn; fair as ever, Djokovic said Nadal played such fantastic tennis yesterday as no one has ever seen.
Was it the best match of the tournament? Not in competitive terms, but Nadal’s game was as close to perfect as the gods of tennis allow humans to play. He made only 14 errors in a match the level of which normally would cause even champions at least twice that many (Djokovic made 52); he made only one double fault; Djokovic hit a double into a break at 5-5 in the third.
Nadal needed only four aces, so stunning were his shots and his hustle. On a point early in the second set, Djokovic put over what looked like a perfectly sliced forehand drop shot with Nadal at the baseline — the drop shot allegedly being a valuable weapon in the damp and cold conditions that kept balls from bouncing as high as usual — Nadal caught it in the split-second before the second bounce and sent it past the advancing Djokovic to the sideline for a winner.
They sometimes say the score belies the closeness of a contest; in this case, the board, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5, reflected what happened only too accurately. In the third set Djokovic was certainly beginning to find his feet and his shots, and there were two exchanges of breaks, yet even here he was unable to put his preferred defensive-offense game into the match, wherein he keeps his opponent off balance with a relentless rally and then suddenly springs a big down-the-line shot from either wing.
Mr. Pleszczynski, who follows sports as well as the threats to American freedom like a sentry on the ramparts of Vienna, noticed that a Polish paper headlined “Poland-Garros!” even before Miss Iga’s spectacular and masterful win over the mighty mite American Sofia Kenin.
You could also write “Rafa-Garros,” a less effective pun but no less true. They will be back, teens and young ladies and veteran men; they will charm us and inspire us for many seasons yet, and the FFT (the French USTA) should be thanked for putting on this tournament, even if, or maybe precisely because, they resisted the fashionable calls for replacing line umps with hawk-eye and stuck to tradition for its own sake.
And for the uncertainty, the unexpected, the element of human flaw that can only heighten the human effort.