The long and often arduous clay-court season came to an end Sunday. Barbora Krejcikova stole the headlines in the end, but she was hardly the only notable storyline that stood out.
Now we're on to the grass-court season - which is hardly a seamless transition - with Wimbledon less than two weeks away.
It's a lot to unpack, but we'll give it a whirl. Web editors Alex Macpherson and Jason Juzwiak, along with senior writer Courtney Nguyen, answer a few of the burning questions.
How do you make sense of all the surprises that unfolded this clay season?
Macpherson: For years, players have been telling us that each individual progresses in a different way. Maybe it's time to listen to them. It's long overdue to retire the received wisdom that top players must break through as teenagers and enjoy seamless, linear rises - as most of those left standing in the second week of Roland Garros illustrate. From Barbora Krejcikova, whose doubles success outpaced her singles career, initially holding it back but then helping her excel in both disciplines, to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who showed that fulfilling prodigious talent can be a long game, to Tamara Zidansek and Paula Badosa, the 'B team' of Generation 1997 making moves in their own time after suffering injuries as teenagers. There is no longer a singular path to the top, which makes the multiple possible routes all the more interesting.
Juzwiak: Looking back at recent history helps to keep things in perspective. As Roland Garros unfolded, I kept thinking back to the 2010 clay-court season in which the narrative stayed murky right up until Francesca Schiavone surprisingly won a Grand Slam title. Like Krejcikova this year, Schiavone had won a 250-level title before the event, then, as no player truly put a firm authorial stamp on the dirt, came into a level field in Paris and stole the show. That happened again this year, with many players picking up a single title, but no sense of a dominant theme. With clay-court specialism mostly a thing of the past, across-the-board proficiency can knock the door wide open, and that’s been proven time and again this century. It pays to remember that in some years in particular, the clay will just keep throwing you curveballs, simple as that.
Nguyen: No one saw Krejcikova winning Roland Garros at the start of the clay season, but outside of that ... were the season’s results really that surprising? 2019 French Open champion Ashleigh Barty kept winning on clay until her body simply refused to cooperate anymore, Aryna Sabalenka discovered how to play her brand of power tennis on the clay and Iga Swiatek did Iga Swiatek things. In fact, I’d argue there was remarkable consistency among the standout players of the clay season, right up to Krejcikova. Her nine-month rise has been astounding, but she went into Paris as one of the standout players on clay this season and was the highest-ranked unseeded player.
There were a lot of thrilling matches during this year’s clay-court season. Which is your most memorable?
Macpherson: It's a tennis maxim that the best matches are rarely the ones you expect. Tamara Zidansek's overtime quarterfinal defeat of Paula Badosa at Roland Garros showed that while their section of the draw had lost its star names, it certainly hadn't lost quality tennis. Jil Teichmann roaring back from six match points down against Elina Svitolina in Madrid was one of the comebacks of the year. But it was a quarterfinal in Parma that took me by surprise, and then hooked me in. Wang Qiang and Petra Martic had both entered the clay season in slumps - but the sheer quality of their athleticism and shot-making both displayed in Wang's 7-6(4), 3-6, 7-5 win was a reminder of what really matters in this sport.
Juzwiak: I came into Roland Garros semifinal day thinking that Krejcikova would have the slight edge over Maria Sakkari, as she led their head-to-head 2-0 and had showed more consistent form on the clay, barring Sakkari’s stunning win over Iga Swiatek in the round before. But I was not at all prepared for the 3-hour, 18-minute marathon, which featured numerous swings between game-winning streaks, from the first set to the last. After Krejcikova saved a match point at 5-3 in the third set by knocking off a backhand winner out of the air, I was unsure how Sakkari would recover. To her credit, she handled herself marvelously all the way to the end and lost by the slimmest of margins. It was unpredictable and exciting, and with the highest of stakes - just what we’re looking for at that point of a major.
Nguyen: Three come to mind for different reasons: Iga Swiatek’s 6-0, 6-0 dismantling of Karolina Pliskova in the Rome final was a stunning showcase for just how dominating Swiatek can be the surface. Paula Badosa and Ana Bogdan slugged it out in, for my money, the highest-quality wire-to-wire match at Roland Garros, with Badosa saving match points to win 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in the third round. It was a fantastic display of tennis. But perhaps the most exhilarating match for me was Krejcikova’s match-point saving win against Sakkari in the French Open semifinals. The final stages of the third set were a fascinating display of two players trying so hard not to blink in the biggest moment of their careers. You could feel what was at stake and empathize and root for both women to get over the line.
We’re on to the grass-court season. Who is the one surprise player we should keep an eye on?
Macpherson: Veronika Kudermetova has been due a big-stage breakthrough for some time now. The Russian's 2021 record is currently at 26-13, which includes the Abu Dhabi final at the start of the season and a maiden title in Charleston in April. She missed an opportunity at Roland Garros, squandering two match points and a 5-1 third-set lead to Katerina Siniakova in the third round - something she was aware of when she initially failed to close out Karolina Muchova in Berlin this week. But Kudermetova is on a steep learning curve. She bounced back to defeat Muchova in three. And most importantly, her skillset is ideal for grass. Kudermetova's game is anchored around a formidable serve, and she's happy making her way to the net at every opportunity. She also has grass pedigree, having reached the 2018 's-Hertogenbosch quarterfinals in her first main draw on the surface, and gone one better to the semifinals the following year.
Juzwiak: Pick a number, any number? No matter what, someone will shock us all at Wimbledon, or even before. I’m personally curious to see how Katerina Siniakova does now that her long-term doubles partner Krejcikova has picked up one of the crown jewel events in singles. Siniakova has never done particularly well on grass at the tour level, but she demonstrated boundless enthusiasm during the Roland Garros doubles final, where she volleyed spectacularly throughout to help out her sometimes-dazed (for obvious reasons) teammate. Siniakova charged up to World No.31 in singles in 2018 after some key upsets of top players, and there could be more to come. As she herself said after the doubles final, “I think the women's draw is open, that now there is not a really strong player who keeps winning every tournament.” Siniakova is surely one who can walk through those open doors again.
Nguyen: I’m curious to see how Iga Swiatek does on the grass. She’s a junior champion at the All England Club, but she is playing just her second main draw and still chasing her first win. Despite her junior success, the 20-year-old says she’s never felt completely comfortable on grass and that her junior title was the result of being physically stronger than the field and hyper-motivated after losing in the Roland Garros junior semifinals from match points up. She may not feel confident on grass, but that doesn’t mean she can’t win on it.
What potential grass-court storyline most excites you?
Macpherson: After Roland Garros, pinpointing a specific storyline that will reliably play out as expected seems unwise. But that's exactly what's exciting about it. What effect will the abbreviated grass swing have on players' preparation? The extra week before Roland Garros proved immensely significant. Three of the quarterfinalists (Barbora Krejcikova, Coco Gauff, Paula Badosa) won titles in that fortnight, while conversely another two (Maria Sakkari, Elena Rybakina) spoke about taking the opportunity to recharge off the court. How important will previous grass-court experience be - particularly in light of the canceled 2019 season, which means a significant number of players high in the rankings have little of it at all? Who will heed Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova's message to the locker room - that if she can do it, they can as well? The excitement is in not knowing what lies ahead.
Juzwiak: The storylines will come fast and furious at us during the remaining three-and-a-half weeks of the grass-court season, but the one I’m thinking about most right now is whether one of the younger players can emerge as a champion. Veterans have tended to go deep in the past two grass-court seasons, particularly at Wimbledon, even when the formbook predicted otherwise. Angelique Kerber shook off a lackluster 2017 season to prevail at SW19 in 2018, while the look on Simona Halep’s face at the end of the 2019 Wimbledon final proved she was as shocked as anyone that the title was hers. More and more, it seems that a huge key to winning on grass is, in fact, learning from the annual reps on the surface. This time around, those reps have to come immediately after a long drought. With everyone in the same boat, maybe this is the year where a phenom will burn bright at the end of the month on the lawns.
Nguyen: I’m looking forward to a few notable main-draw debuts, namely for Krejcikova and Elena Rybakina. Both are obviously playing great tennis and they have games that should do well on the turf, with Krejcikova’s craftiness and Rybakina’s smooth power. The primary issue is whether they can transition to the low bounces and generally feel confident on the surface. The same rationale applies to young players who are still seeking their first main-draw wins, like Swiatek, Bianca Andreescu, Marta Kostyuk (also making her main-draw debut) and Jessica Pegula.