The French Open has long been known as the most gruelling tournament in tennis. Like the other three majors, you must survive seven matches against the sport’s best players, most of whom have arranged their spring seasons so they peak for these two weeks.
But unlike the other majors, in Paris you must do it on clay; the slow surface makes Roland Garros a test of skill and stamina, of power and patience, of artistry and grit. Throw in an excitable audience that likes to get in on the action whenever possible, and the French Open can feel more like running a gauntlet than winning a tennis tournament.
Just ask the world’s current No.1s, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. They’re the two most dominant players of this decade, but they’ve known their share of heartache in Paris over the years.
Djokovic is, along with Pete Sampras, the best player never to have won at Roland Garros. Next week, he’ll try for the fifth time to complete a career Grand Slam in Paris. Since locking up the other three legs of the Slam in 2011, he has reached the final at the French three times, but has stumbled at the finish line on each occasion. Djokovic suffered perhaps the most crushing defeat of his career in the 2015 final, when he was stunned by Stan Wawrinka, a player Djokovic had beaten in 19 of their previous 22 meetings.
Each year Djokovic makes Paris his priority, each year he comes in looking better than he ever has before, and each year he ends up gamely holding up the runner-up plate, and holding back tears, as the Parisian crowd consoles him.
Serena, of course, has won at Roland Garros, three times, and this year she’s the defending champion. But clay has traditionally been her least-favorite surface, and like Djokovic and many other all-time greats, the French has been the most difficult Slam for her. Serena has won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open six times each, and from 2004 to 2014 she failed to reach the semifinals in Paris. Like Djokovic, Serena has suffered at least one shock defeat in Paris. In 2012, she arrived with a 17-match win streak, only to lose her opener to 111th-ranked Virginia Razzano. It was that loss that inspired her to seek coaching advice from Patrick Mouratoglou. Even in 2015, when Serena went all the way, it was a titanic struggle. She had to survive five three-set matches and a bout with the flu. The experience, as she said later, was an “absolute nightmare.”
This year, both Djokovic and Serena can reach major career milestones with titles in Paris. Djokovic would, as noted, finally join his primary rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, as career Grand Slammers. Serena would tie her primary historical rival, Steffi Graf, with 22 Slams. It would also make Serena the second player, after Graf, to win all four majors at least four times each. I’ve always thought that record, even more than her Slam total, was the truest sign of Graf’s dominance; now Serena has a chance to match it.
It won’t be easy for Djokovic or Serena. As both have discovered, things happen in Paris. Halfway through last year’s event, it seemed inconceivable that Serena, who could barely get out of bed, would end up winning the title, while Djokovic, who was riding a 22-match win streak, wouldn’t. But in the semis, it took Djokovic two days to subdue Andy Murray, leaving him just tired enough for Wawrinka to take advantage in the final.
Djokovic and Serena are the favorites again in 2016, of course, but this time you can’t put “overwhelming” in front of that word. While Djokovic won in Madrid and beat Nadal in Rome, he also looked stressed at the Foro Italico. While Serena won Rome without dropping a set, and looked ominously business-like while she was doing it, this hasn’t been the win-everything-in-sight Williams we’ve come to know over the past four years. Rome was her first title of 2016.
Djokovic and Williams will face opposing dangers in Paris. The challenge for him, as it was last year, will be to pace himself so that he’s ready to beat as many as three other top players in a row. The draw will loom large on the men’s side; Federer’s withdrawal means Djokovic cannot face Nadal in the quarter-finals again, but there is more than enough talent in the field to derail his title bid. The challenge for Serena, as it often is, will be to avoid an off-day in an early-round match. In 2012, she lost her opener to Razzano; in 2014, she lost her second-round match to Garbiñe Muguruza. In 2013 and 2015 she won the title.
These two all-time greats, the best of the decade, can carve their names a little deeper into tennis’s history books with a title two weeks from now. It’s only fitting that they’ll have to do it at the French Open. It’s time for Djokovic and Serena, the game’s toughest players, to take on its toughest tournament.