Great Expectations

Rome is done. The next big tournament is Roland-Garros, which, if you take the cynical point of view, is the make-or-break milestone of the clay season. You could argue that to win Rome and to lose at Roland-Garros would be a failure, because the Rome champion wasn’t able to produce their world-beating form on the biggest stage.

These expectations are unfair, on some level, because tennis is a game based on errors and consistency of any kind is hard to come by. (In 2018 and 2019, for example, Dominic Thiem lost in the first round of Wimbledon after making the final of Roland-Garros.) At the same time, though, there comes a point when anything besides a title is a disappointment. Daniil Medvedev was in that situation at the Australian Open this year — he had made the final the year before, he had won the last hard court major, Novak Djokovic wasn’t playing — but lost in the final from two sets up, sealing pretty much the most devastating outcome possible.

This year’s Roland-Garros will be interesting because it feels like several players are in that simultaneously enviable and pressure-filled spot. On the women’s side, Iga Świątek is the overwhelming favorite. She is the world #1 and is increasing her lead in ranking points by the day, she has won the last five tournaments she’s entered, compiling a 28-match winning streak along the way, and she has won Roland-Garros before. No matter how you spin things, if she doesn’t win in Paris, it will be seen as an underachievement. Is that fair? Maybe not, given that her unreal run of form for the past several months has wildly exceeded expectations, but tempered predictions are the privilege of players far worse than she is.

No pressure, right?

The men’s side features a few players who seem like they should win the title — you’ve got 13-time Roland-Garros champion Rafa Nadal (his foot has been giving him trouble, but if he’s fit or even close to it he’s the favorite), you’ve got last year’s winner and recent Rome champion Novak Djokovic. Then there’s Carlos Alcaraz, who’s 28-3 on the year, beat both Djokovic and Nadal in Madrid, is the best player in the world on form, and seems never to tire. Last year’s finalist and current Monte-Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas is also a contender — I’d rank him fourth on the favorites list, but in 2021, he was a set away from the title. It feels like all of them are supposed to win — if Nadal loses, he’s not living up to his record at the tournament; if Djokovic loses, he’s not making the most of his Rome title; if Alcaraz loses, his world-beating form of the last few months will feel more hollow; if Tsitsipas loses, he’ll have failed to progress from his runner-up finish last year.

A brutal part of expectation in sport is that only one player or team can win the big one(s) every year, but each contender has their own arc. The fact that the grand prize is individual never seems to factor into projections. When a player makes a personal-best run at a major, it’s great, but it immediately becomes a big part of who they are — that is their potential now, so that is the expectation for what they do in the future, and it’s simultaneously the case for a bunch of players. The expectations are very public, too — in 1993, Andre Agassi fantasized about what he would say to journalists who sledged his chances if he managed to defend his Wimbledon title. (He did not.) In 2015, Brian Phillips wrote a piece on Nadal before Roland-Garros and the paradoxical balance between his insane records at the tournament and his way-below-average form that year. Pressure, in an extremely stifling way, is a compliment. It means people think you can, and should, accomplish things. Pressure is what makes the losses hurt.

Expectations can even grow during a match. Win the first set? You’re supposed to win the match. Fail to convert a match point? Better recover from it, or this loss will be devastating for you. As a fan, my favorite matches are ones in which both players barely avoid a few fatal deficits. I used to say that in the best matches, each player would save at least one match point. With a stolen win or a shattering loss on the line, the drama is through the roof. Both players compete like their lives depend on it.

As a player, though, facing those expectations has to be hell. Świątek’s early-round matches at Roland-Garros will only be scrutinized if she loses or gets pushed. If she wins, few will care, because it’s what she’s supposed to be doing. Fans and pundits have known she’s amazing for a while now; there won’t be many pieces on her dominance during the first 90% of Roland-Garros, because they’ve all been written already. She’ll get all the praise if she wins the title, but none if she doesn’t. And this is her “reward” for winning 28 matches in a row (besides the ranking points and prize money, anyway).

I almost wonder if winning streaks are better appreciated in hindsight, because while they are happening, they are basically a state of sameness. The monotony is glorious, sure, with win after win after win, but it’s very easy to get used to. Accepting it as the new normal doesn’t take long. Prime Federer is often spoken about in reverential tones, though some were bored of him when he ruled the game from 2004 to 2007. I was recently talking to my aunt about how we often get nervous before something, then despite coming to realize it wasn’t as bad as we expected, we are often unable to carry that lesson into the next thing we get nervous about. I think the same kind of selective amnesia applies to appreciating the dominance of a tennis player. Everyone seems aware of how rare GOAT-level talent is, but seems desperate to compare other players to the GOATs anyway. Richard Gasquet was once called Baby Federer, and when that didn’t pan out, the cursed moniker got passed on to Grigor Dimitrov. It is obvious that players who win 10+ majors do not grow on freaking trees, but it was as if the tennis world had agreed to collectively forget that rather crucial piece of information.

Like, walk me through the thought process here. This young dude also has a one-handed backhand, so let’s compare him to one of the greatest athletes to ever walk the earth. That should be a good motivator for him and not at all an impossible standard to live up to! I kid, but it could not have taken people long to see that Gasquet and Dimitrov were very obviously not in the same ballpark as Federer. Watching this video alone will tell you that in about thirteen seconds. That Baby Fed nickname should have been killed on sight.

Even though I’m aware of the phenomenon, I find myself in the midst of it with regards to Świątek. I wrote about her the day before yesterday, and made a table of her then-27-match winning streak alongside the alarmingly low number of games she was dropping to each opponent, but after she beat Jabeur to win the Rome title, I didn’t know if there was enough material for a follow-up piece. Świątek was imperious in that final, and Jabeur a more-than-worthy challenger — Świątek tried to snare her with her patented bagel in the second set, but Jabeur stormed back from 0-4 down, getting a break back and threatening to get another in an epic 2-4 game. The tennis was brilliant: Jabeur played freely, feathering drop shots and crushing forehands, but Świątek’s unrivaled court coverage and power somehow got her out of the game after saving four break points. I didn’t feel surprised, though — the tennis world has come to expect this lofty level of play from Świątek. Beyond a simple match summary, I didn’t know how to add to the conversation about the final. I can feel myself starting to think what Świątek is doing is normal, and it isn’t, it is so far from normal, I have no idea when the next winning streak of this caliber will pop up. The way to best honor this streak is probably to say (truthfully!) that she’s done a ton of amazing stuff this year, and that she has more than earned an unexpected loss or two, and that it’s by no means a failure on her part if she doesn’t win in Paris.

And yet. I don’t totally believe this. I can acknowledge the possibility that one of the Roland-Garros favorites could lose out of an understandable dip in form, but I will still be disappointed if Świątek bows out early, or if Djokovic, Nadal, Alcaraz, or Tsitsipas lose to anyone except each other. Results are, unavoidably, a magnet for wildly high expectations. I think that the fans’ joy is the players’ pain at times (let’s not forget Djokovic’s tears during the U.S. Open last year, and how he said after he just wanted the whole thing to be over, despite being inches from *the Calendar Grand Slam*). At least three of Świątek, Nadal, Djokovic, Alcaraz, and Tsitsipas will walk away from Roland-Garros with a broken heart. I expect the tennis to be spectacular.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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