Why outsiders are shining at Roland-Garros

We've seen numerous amazing surprise runs this fortnight in Paris. We asked some experts to weigh in on the possible reasons behind this phenomenon.

Martina Trevisan, Roland Garros 2020, fourth round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
 - Danielle Rossingh

Victoria Azarenka called it right at the start.

“It's not going to be a normal Roland-Garros where the ball bounces high and the court gets faster,” the Belarusian former world No.1 said during her pre-tournament press conference.

“I feel like it's going to be something different. I feel like it's going to be day-to-day adjustment.”

The two-time major champion was right. The first week has been a wild ride, especially on the women’s side.

None of the quarter-finalists in the women’s draw of last month’s US Open advanced to the same stage in Paris. This includes US Open finalist Azarenka, who lost in the second round.

On Sunday, title favourite Simona Halep, the fifth-seeded Kiki Bertens and US Open finalist Alexander Zverev were all sent packing by lower-ranked opponents.

Which begs the question: is there a specific reason behind all the unexpected, yet brilliant, runs we've seen so far from lower-ranked players?

Daniel Altmaier Roland-Garros 2020© Julien Crosnier / FFT

“There are so many variables that exist to level the playing field,” said Courtney Nguyen, a senior writer on the WTA Tour who follows the circuit all year round.

“First of all, not having [big] crowds, is absolutely a benefit to lower-ranked players. Especially the sub-100 players, who are used to playing with zero fans on the Challenger tour, and the ITFs and things like that.

"In that way, you can go through this event and not feel the emotional strain of what it is, which is one of the biggest events of the season.”

Because of the pandemic, crowd sizes in Paris were reduced to just 1,000 spectators a day.

The lack of full stadiums means the top players don’t get handed “a handful of points, or even games” they can sometimes count on when a full crowd gets behind them, Nguyen said.    

Kiki Bertens, Roland Garros 2020, fourth round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Weather always plays a factor when it comes to competing on Parisian clay, whether the tournament is being staged in its usual May-June slot, or in the autumn, as it is right now.

The heavier conditions this fortnight have been challenging for some players and it's the ones with a greater capacity to adapt who have managed to excel.

“The conditions this year at Roland-Garros are totally different than the past years,” said Alex Corretja, a two-time finalist at Roland-Garros, who is working as an analyst for broadcaster Eurosport during the event.

“The balls are heavier, it’s cooler and the clay is much more wet. So that evens the matches in a way.”

Nguyen agreed. “These are heavy conditions and the balls aren’t kicking up, and that hurt Kiki and Simona,” she said.

Lack of match play

A five-month coronavirus-induced hiatus has wreaked havoc with the global sporting calendar this year and it meant that many players didn't get a chance to compete much on clay ahead of the action in the French capital.

There was an abrupt surface change from hard courts in North America to clay courts in Europe - a switch that is not as tough as the clay-to-grass transition typically experienced between Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, but one that is challenging nonetheless.

“This year has been a mess for everyone” said Corretja. “Lack of rhythm, lack of tournaments, so many months without competition...Now, everybody is almost starting from zero,” said the Spaniard.

“There is no reference. It’s only one or two tournaments on clay before Roland-Garros and the conditions are tough. It’s difficult just to be better than the other players.”

Players who have gone through qualifying have an edge this year, especially on competitors who skipped the US Open, such as Bertens.

“Those three matches that you have under your belt the week before, it gives you the chance to get used to the conditions, to the balls and also to the bubble, which is a very unique situation this year,” explained Corretja.

More depth in field

Nine of the 16 women into the fourth round had never reached that stage before in Paris, while six of them had never got to the second week of any major.

On Sunday, unseeded Polish teenager Iga Swiatek pulled off the biggest upset of the week as she dropped just three games to beat former champion Halep of Romania to reach her first Grand Slam quarter-final. For the first time since 1978, there are two qualifiers in the last eight: Argentina’s 131st-ranked Nadia Podoroska, and the 159th-ranked Italian Martina Trevisan, who knocked out Holland’s Bertens.

Hugo Gaston, Roland Garros 2020, fourth round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

In the men’s draw, Germany’s Daniel Altmaier, Jannik Sinner of Italy, Frenchman Hugo Gaston, and American Sebastian Korda all reached the fourth round in their first main draw appearance in Paris, which was the most since 1994. And on Sunday, the 19-year-old Sinner stunned the sixth-seeded Zverev to set up a quarter-final clash with 12-time winner Rafael Nadal.

“Literally everyone can beat everyone at the moment,” said Altmaier, a 186th-ranked qualifier playing in the main draw of a major for the first time.

“Physically everybody is getting stronger. Tennis-wise players are playing smarter, more disciplined. You can see this by following the last Grand Slams. Especially here in Roland-Garros, the tennis really changed after this corona break.”

Players and coaches are all grateful that tennis is back as it provides working opportunities for everyone involved with the tour and tournaments. But the sporting world still has a lot to contend with during the current circumstances.

"For me it's the motivation, I would say. You feel kind of worried all the time. Before every tournament you don't know if there will be, like, a wrong test or you will be positive, negative. It's the same for your staff," David Goffin told reporters in Paris about the most challenging part of 2020.

"Every week it's different rules. Every city is different, how to travel with the staff. In your private life also it can be just not easy. The most difficult for me, it's like to be fresh mentally on the court and to save energy to give everything on the court."

Nguyen echoed Goffin's sentiments adding that international travel restrictions because of Covid-19 and the fact that players have to wait for test results to come back negative before they are allowed on-site are additional stress factors to what is already a high-pressure environment of elite level competition.

“It’s all kind of chaotic mentally, there is an edge to everything," she said.

"A lot of us, and I am definitely guilty of this, are non-intentionally snapping back into ‘This is totally normal’ slam mode. And then the results look crazy...But then, you step back and you [realise] this is still a pandemic slam. Nothing is normal. So therefore, abnormal results are kind of normal.”