French Open 2020: Halep, Nadal, Williams, Azarenka and more – in their own words
There are always plenty of talking points before a Major tournament, but this year’s French Open takes it to a new level
Roland Garros is not hosting the first Major event since the coronavirus pandemic shut down tennis around the globe—that privilege was enjoyed by Flushing Meadows in New York.
But this year’s French Open will always have other claims to fame in this extraordinary tennis calendar of 2020. For the first time since the French Championships moved to the Roland Garros site almost a century ago, the tournament will be played in the autumn, beginning after the autumn equinox and not ending until 11 October.
It did, of course, take exceptional circumstances to bring about this ‘land-grab’ in the calendar, thereby turning the normal order of things on its head.
And it was a bold move, especially given the very different weather that sits over Paris in September/October compared with May/June. Given higher humidity, lower temperatures, and a drop in sunshine-hours, physical fitness and careful preparation will be the primary concern of every player.
Good news, then, that the main Philippe Chatrier arena boasts, for the first time, a retractable roof, and that all the match courts also have floodlighting for the first time.
Less good news is that players will not be permitted into the stadium on non-match days—practice on ‘off’ days will instead be down the road at the Jean-Bouin practice centre. Also proving to be controversial change is that the tournament has switched to a new ball, regarded by most to be heavier than the former Babolat ball.
Bearing in mind that any new ball will grow heavier in damper and cooler conditions, this is just one more piece in the already complex jig-saw puzzle facing players who have had to move at speed between continents, climates and surfaces.
Time will tell whether the tapestry of tennis variables will enable Rafael Nadal to extend his record of 12 Roland Garros titles to 13, and equal the all-time men’s record of 20 held by the absent Roger Federer.
Whether Serena Williams can finally equal the all-time Major record of 24 set by Margaret Court, and win her fourth French title 18 years after her first—age 39.
Whether the stand-out player of the year—and Novak Djokovic’s match-stats of 31-1 do not lie—can become the first man in the Open Era, and only the third man in history, to win each of the four Majors twice.
Whether top-seed and former champion Simona Halep can reclaim No1 in the absence of Ashleigh Barty, and extend her unbeaten 14-0 run to 15—and trump her Rome victory last year with a Paris victory.
Whether Victoria Azarenka can continue her stunning return to form and rise up the ranks after her title run in ‘Cincinnati’ and final finish at the US Open to win her first French title.
These questions, and many others, were posed during the pre-tournament media days—all of which took place via video press conferences. Here are some of their thoughts.
Williams, talking on her 39th birthday, about still competing for Major titles:
“I honestly never thought I would be playing at my age. I mean, I don’t quite look 39. But I don’t know when it’s going to stop for me. I just have fun. When I feel it’s over, it’s over.
“But I could have guaranteed and pretty much bet my life that I would not have been playing at 39. This is why I don’t bet [smiling].”
Nadal on his concerns about the conditions this year:
“The conditions to play tennis in Rome have been good. Here the conditions are very, very tough. The weather is so, so cold. That makes it difficult for everyone.
“Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different facts. Ball is super slow, heavy. It’s very cold. Slow conditions. Of course, the preparations have been less than usual. But you know what, I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible, to practise with the right attitude, to give me a chance… I know very well this place. Is about being patient, positive, just trying to find the positive vibes every single day.
“I really believe that the organization needs to take a look at that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players, too, because the super heavy ball becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders, I think.”
Azarenka on her growing positivity after years of physical and personal set-backs:
“I would say last few years I had a lot of opportunities to test out my mental strength. I felt that I was able to handle that really well off court, then on court was more difficult. You just can’t sometimes handle all the pressure that comes at you.
“I felt that maybe, around June is where I started to feel new ways of approaching some situations. I would say that I started to understand and feel myself better around end of June.”
Williams on her fitness following an Achilles problem in New York:
“I’m here. I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t think I could perform. I’m not at 100 percent physically, but I don’t know any athlete that ever plays physically when they’re feeling perfect. That’s just something I think as athletes we have to play with.
“I hate the cold. I’m from LA and I live in Florida. For half my life I’ve never seen snow. Cold weather and me do not mix. That’s my Achilles’ heel! But I’m dealing with it. I’m having a positive attitude about it.”
“The only thing that we can say is, thanks to the US Open, to Roland Garros, to Rome, because they are trying hard to organize events, even probably knowing they going to lose money. That’s the beautiful thing that our tour has.
“Is a moment to stay together, I think, to fight for the comeback of our tour. That’s what’s happening. Of course, everybody wants to come back to the normal situation. But before that, we need to fix the most important thing, and that is the worldwide health that today is still under big problems. At least only thing we can say is thanks that we can play tennis again.”
Dominic Thiem, on transitioning from his first Major title in New York to Roland Garros:
“I mean, it was not easy because on one hand I’ve achieved a life goal actually, so I was so happy, so relieved. I was enjoying that obviously at home with family and friends. At the same time it’s now a tournament coming up where I did great the last four years, where I really want to do great as well this year. I tried not to lose all the tension. I did nothing for three or four days, then I started to practise on clay.”
Azarenka on the courts this year, but her changing attitude to clay:
“I think it’s pretty bad because it’s really cold. At the same time, we are all in the same conditions, so I’m not going to sit here and complain about it too much.
“I think the focus is, like, what can I do best to perform here. It’s going to be a lot about adjustment. I played today for the first time on the courts here after it rained. It’s very different. The court feels really, really heavy… I think more than ever it’s going to be about day-to-day adjustment.
“I hated clay. I hated everything about it. The sh***y bounces, the sliding that I can’t stop. The ball bounce here and everything. Ask me what I could not complain about. So… I guess growth. Hey, maturity [smiling]”.
Thiem on how the conditions may affect other players and himself:
“I think [Nadal’s] always going to be the big-time favourite when he’s playing, when he’s healthy and fit. I think he is that, so he’s the big favourite just because of the past. He won the tournament 12 times, which is just incredible. He’s by far the best clay court player ever.
“But there are some slight changes. I mean, the ball’s a little bit different. I mean, they were my favourite balls on tour, they really were perfect for topspin. I also think Rafa liked them a lot. It can be super rainy, super cold end of September, beginning of October. Maybe that’s little bit tougher for him. For me, it’s the same.
“I also love when it’s hot, when the ball bounces high. Maybe it’s a little bit better conditions for Novak. As I said, Rafa is a [bigger] favourite than Novak because of all his titles, all the experience. Then I guess there is coming me with three other players, like Sascha [Zverev], Daniil [Medvedev] and Stefanos [Tsitsipas].”
Halep on Paris in September:
“To play Roland Garros end of September, it’s a little bit weird. But it’s nice that we have the chance to play at this tournament. We should actually thank everyone for fighting so hard to make it possible. It’s a big difference between Rome and here, that’s for sure: 15 degrees less! I feel the cold. I feel like struggling a little bit. But for everybody is the same. Let’s see now who is going to be ready for it.
“It’s nice to be back in Paris. I love this tournament. I love this place. But it is a little bit too cold, to be honest. Hopefully we get used to the weather. I feel good. I feel confident. But you never know.”
Johanna Konta on the difficulties of returning after a five-month lockdown:
“I guess tennis-wise I think for everyone to not be able to work, not be able to do what you love on a daily basis, was going to be challenging for everyone. For me personally, I think it was very difficult to try and find the motivation every day when we were in full lockdown at home where I could only train in my living room, to get myself to be able to want to train for two hours. That definitely wasn’t a motivating environment.
“Then I think as a whole, probably maintaining some perspective and kindness towards yourself. Once you start back, it’s obviously very easy to suddenly really want to do well, really want things to start moving. It doesn’t quite work like that—for me at least. I need to give myself some space and time, kind of let things take care of themselves.”