Sport without fans is an odd spectacle and inasmuch as that spectacle is diminished while watching football (a sport defined by its fans), tennis, known for its long pauses, individual battles and brutally televised mental warfare has done so too. The French Open played under the shroud of Covid-19 may have been the second Grand Slam to come out of hibernation and stage a tournament, but simply because of the big names involved ended up becoming the tournament most wholly contested over the last few months.
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A host of organising problems, from player pullouts, to injuries to restricting spectators to a mere 1000 per day has meant the whole tournament has had an eerie air, almost like it isn’t actually a Grand Slam but is in fact a district level tennis meet held in New Delhi. Which is perfect, because quite appropriately then, the old axiom anyone can win has held true. In the best way possible.
Devoid of fans, the overwhelming crushing pressure of doom, young upstarts have made their presence felt in the tournament, the women’s singles final a testament to that.
It would be inappropriate to call Kenin an upstart. She is after all the defending Australian Open champion — the champion of the one Grand Slam played to full galleries this year — and is a player not so much touted for great things as she is doing those great things right now.
The pandemic struck at the wrong time for her year, as she was riding the wave of success in a blistering opening of the season. And when it restarted it seemed all that momentum had washed away. She was knocked out in the second round of the Western & Southern Open in August. That form spread over to the US Open, her home Grand Slam where she was knocked out in the Round of 16 in September. Rush over to clay and Kenin suffered a hugely embarrassing 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka in the Italian Open last month.
The best part about 2020 — yes there are some good parts — is that all it takes is a couple of weeks to throw things around. And here’s how Sofia Kenin’s two weeks have been. She is in the final of Roland Garros, courtesy of her own brilliance, her fortitude — she’s played four three setters already in Paris — and the implosion of the draw around her. Which is not to say she’s had it easy. She beat Petra Kvitova — a player who years after loving grass has suddenly found her feet on clay — in straight sets in the semis to set herself up for a second Grand Slam title and will walk in as the favourite, if only because she has the experience of that stage before.
Swiatek’s Unmatched Performance
But really, how much does experience count for? Iga Swiatek is nineteen. What were you doing at 19? She is in the final of the French Open. How has she got here? She has done so without dropping a set. And enroute, she handily hammered a former French Open champion (the favourite Simona Halep), a former ‘next generation’ star (Eugenie Bouchard), the wiliest of all professional players on the tour today (Chinese Taipei’s brilliant Hsieh Su-wei) and a qualifier who was winning hearts, melting bookies and throwing commentators in a frenzy in the semi finals. All of this, without dropping a set. Playing the kind of tennis only teenaegrs can conjure — energetic, brave, swinging for the lines.
Loss is a teacher. Which begs the question, if you haven’t lost what have you learnt? Swiatek could very well blast Kenin off the court and take home the trophy, but what if she blinks first? Will she rally forward and manage to pull herself back?
Swiatek’s game is a lot like Kenin’s, reliant on big ground strokes and a deceptive drop shot. The conditions at this year’s tournament have aided players with a faster game style — a fact Rafael Nadal alluded may hamper his own chances this year — and one way or another this final is definitive of the women’s game today. Serena Williams, for all her brilliance is not the player she was last year or the year before. Injuries and age hit us all. Simona Halep is moody, on her day unbeatable, but also completely able to self destruct.
The combined age of the two women Grand Slam champions of this year is 43 — Serena is only four years younger. And on the evidence of today’s final, that average age is set to drop further. This isn’t about an upstart teenager vs an experienced youngster. This is a change of guard. The future is young. And the future has arrived. The final will start at 1830 hours (IST).
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