Things learned from RG men’s event

Rafael Nadal further cements his standing as the greatest player on a single surface.

Nadal Thiem Laver Giudicelli trophy Roland Garros 2019©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Rafael Nadal extended his extraordinary run at Roland-Garros to 12 titles, capping a big fortnight of storylines from the men's draw in Paris. 

Here’s what we learned from an event filled with opportunities seized, history – maybe temporarily – denied, and a young brigade making inroads.

There may never be another Rafa on clay

With a staggering 12 Roland-Garros titles now to his name, Nadal stands as the undisputed greatest player on any one surface.

In the Open Era, the next man on the Roland-Garros all-time list, Bjorn Borg, has only half of Nadal’s haul.  Take it from the only man above Nadal on the all-time list, Roger Federer, just how tough it is to beat his great rival on the terre battue. The Swiss lost his sixth match from as many Roland-Garros meetings with Nadal in the semi-finals.

“He makes you feel uncomfortable the way he defends the court and plays on clay,” Federer said. “There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.

“I don't even know who I need to go search for to go practise with somebody who plays like him. I was thinking that during the match.

“It's just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline.”

‘Novak Slam’ 2.0 will have to wait

Novak Djokovic cut a desolate figure departing Court Suzanne-Lenglen after a quarter-final defeat to world No.72 Marco Cecchinato at Roland-Garros last year.

His turnaround since has been nothing short of remarkable. The resurgent Serb notched three straight Grand Slam titles following that humbling loss and stood within two matches of becoming only the second man after Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time twice this Roland-Garros.

While Dominic Thiem snuffed out those chances in a two-day, weather-interrupted, five-set semi-final, the world No.1 would turn his focus to Wimbledon, where he would start a strong favourite for slam title No.16.

The top seed insisted closing on another slice of history had had little bearing, though, on his Roland-Garros defeat. “I mean, look, there is always something large at stake when you're one of the top players of the world and play in the biggest tournaments,” Djokovic said. “It's not any different this time.”

Massu helps Thiem make up ground

The Austrian is closing the gap. As the only active male player under 28 to have played in a slam final, Thiem is inching closer to breaking the Big Three’s stranglehold on the majors with a second straight Roland-Garros runner-up showing.

The 25-year-old was completely overwhelmed and overcome with ease in last year’s final against Nadal. Despite falling short for the second year running, he can take solace from being the first player since Djokovic five years ago to steal a set from the Spaniard in a Roland-Garros final.

Credit must, in part, be handed to Thiem’s new coach, Chilean Olympic gold medallist Nicolas Massu, who has provided a fresh voice.

“We are happy to work together. He is a great player, a real talent, a great person,” Massu said. “The results are coming so fast, even though we’ve only been together three months. Every day is important for us because we are starting to know each other more and more. We are working very hard, with a lot of motivation and passion. We are both winners.”

Tsitsipas made of the right stuff

His Federer-slaying run to the Australian Open semi-finals this year already had pundits pencilling him in as a name for the future.

Naturally, when the 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas went on to crack the top 10 expectations mounted further. Alexander Zverev, for one, spoke of his relief at someone younger than him finally being able to share some of the burden of expectation.

While Tsitsipas ultimately came up short over five sets in arguably the match of the tournament against Stan Wawrinka, he showed plenty to suggest his name would one day end up etched on the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

It was the Greek’s grace and bitter disappointment, which spoke volumes of his class and hunger in the aftermath.

“[It’s a] long time since I cried after a match, so emotionally wasn't easy to handle,” Tsitsipas said. “I will try to learn from it as much as I can … [It’s the] worse thing in tennis. It's the worst feeling ever. Especially when you lose. You don't want to be in my place.”

Federer reignites a love affair with Paris

The crowd on a blustery Court Philippe-Chatrier gave a vanquished Federer an almighty rousing ovation as he waved goodbye, following a semi-final defeat to Nadal.

The Swiss, in his first Roland-Garros campaign in four years, was pleasantly surprised at his run to the last four. But at 37, there was a hint this may end up being his adieu to Paris.

“[The] crowd support couldn't have been better,” Federer said. “Maybe one of the best ever in my entire 20-year career that I have been on tour at a slam.

“I think I surprised myself maybe how deep I got in this tournament and how well I actually was able to play throughout.

“And next year, just like with any other tournament, I don't know. We'll see what happens. But I definitely enjoyed the clay-court season and Roland-Garros, so that would help the chances, I guess, to return to the clay.”