It’s Not a Magic Wand, Part 1

I ran into Cam Norrie, the 11th-best male tennis player in the world, outside a coffee shop this morning. He was wearing a dark blue hoodie. I looked at him and said, “Cam Norrie?” and he answered “Yeah.” I was attending the night session later, so didn’t have tennis on the brain quite at that moment and proceeded to ask him the dumbest question possible: “Are you playing today?” He told me that he lost yesterday, which I knew — seconds after I walked away, I typed into my Notes app that I not only knew the result, but the opponent and the length of the match (Khachanov, four sets). Norrie had fallen down two sets, but fought back to win the third and force a close fourth. “Well, it’s fun to watch you play,” I said, trying to salvage something. He thanked me. He was a nice guy. I was sorry he had lost.

Norrie’s close third-round match stuck out amidst what was a slew of straight-setters. Six of the eight men’s singles matches played on the first day of the third round were over in three sets. Some of those results were due to a vast gap in skill level, but others were due to one player failing to convert their opportunities.

Holger Rune is a notable name among the few who hadn’t dropped a set through the first two rounds of the tournament. At 19, he was the youngest player to do so in the men’s draw. Losing a set early can sometimes help build form, but for Rune the straightforward matches felt important. Physical endurance is necessary (though not sufficient) to win a tennis match, and Rune doesn’t have it yet. He cramps in many of the matches he plays, sometimes extremely early in them. At the U.S. Open last year, he turned heads by taking a long tiebreak set off Novak Djokovic, but mousetraps attacked his legs shortly after, and he had to slog immobile to the finish line, which was still two sets off at that point. His propensity for cramping is nearing meme territory among diehard tennis fans.

This is a shame for Rune, because by all accounts, his tennis is very good. He’s ranked 40th in the world. He made such a big jump from last year that he decided to complain on Instagram when he didn’t receive the ATP’s “Most Improved” award.

Still, I didn’t feel too good about his chances in the third round against Hugo Gaston. Gaston is a rather diminutive player; his small frame isn’t the most conducive to power or great court coverage. He’s crafty, though, often floating upwards of 50 drop shots over the net in a single match. He also draws enormous energy from home crowds. Gaston is French, and his best career results have come in Paris. At Roland-Garros in 2020, he pushed the then-still-almighty Dominic Thiem to five sets (possibly contributing to Thiem gassing out at the end of a five-hour-plus marathon with Diego Schwartzman in the next round). At the Paris Masters last year, he broke Carlos Alcaraz’s brain with a bizarre, crowd-fueled comeback from 5-0 down in the second set of their match, leaving the young Spaniard with his head buried in a towel by the end. Though Gaston lost to Daniil Medvedev in the next round, he had set points in the first set and the second was close, as well.

Rune having to chase down dropper after dropper as the Parisian crowd roared for Gaston seemed like an uphill battle for the mercurial 19-year-old. Rune isn’t what most would consider “mentally strong” — he’s exceptionally confident, but that self-belief often seems to be misdirected. After offending many by berating himself with the f-slur during a match last year, Rune’s apology statement on Instagram included “Sorry for not being as perfect yet as you all expect.” He later edited the statement. He seems to think he is a better player than he actually is — before he rose to relative prominence for a young player, he publicly stated that his goal was to win more Roland-Garros titles than Nadal. (If he doesn’t win the next four Roland-Garros tournaments in succession, he will already be behind pace.) When his tennis and endurance catch up to how he views himself, he will probably be a fantastic player, but that point still seems a ways off, which can cast a slightly comedic veil over things when he talks about his tennis.

When thinking about Rune, my mind jumped back to the day before when our plane landed in Paris. Everyone shuffled off slowly. The space between the plane and the airport is a weird place — at the airport, everyone reverts to their unique lives, by meeting a specific person or making a connecting flight or entering the city to do a particular activity. But before that, while exiting the plane, everyone is a sleepy jetlagged passenger. As my mom and I stumbled through the tunnel, a man just ahead of us was trying to balance several bags. He was pulling a suitcase with one hand and kept letting go of it to adjust everything else. He could only achieve a temporary equilibrium; he was carrying way too much stuff for there to be a formula that worked for more than few seconds. Once he had achieved a momentary balance, he would take hold of his suitcase handle and keep walking. One time, he kept moving for a step or two after letting go of his suitcase, and when he reached back, it was too far away. His hand closed over empty air.

*****

My expectations for a competitive match faded after about ten minutes. It was painfully obvious, even from way up in the stands on Philippe-Chatrier, that Gaston was not an elite baseliner. His shots sounded like they were shanks even when they went in. Rune hit with flat, linear power, while Gaston’s groundstrokes looped into the middle of the court as if pulled by magnetic forces. His shots had so little mustard on them that Rune could stay stuck to the baseline, close enough to the net that even Gaston’s beloved drop shots made next to no impact. I realized that Gaston’s defense might be his biggest strength, and while he covered the court well, he wasn’t exactly Novak Djokovic. He had nothing to hurt Rune with.

Gaston predictably got all the crowd support, and the cheers helped him, but they were not a magic wand. Down a set and a break in the second set, he built a 15-30 lead on Rune’s serve for what felt like the first time in forever. Rune was ready to serve, but Gaston stepped back from his baseline and windmilled his arms, urging the crowd to go even more berserk. The fans happily obliged for a good minute, completely halting play. The cheers — induced by what felt like legal cheating on Gaston’s part — seemed like more than enough to rattle anyone, and Rune is just 19, but he responded with several purposeful, aggressive points. Gaston was never allowed to get a foothold in the match.

Rune’s only major blip was a two-game stretch late in the third set. He failed to serve out the match at 5-1, then let Gaston hold easily. During his second bite at the apple, at 5-3, Gaston played some great defense to get back to 15-all. The crowd roared as if he had won the tournament, and I had to roll my eyes a little. His performance had been shambolic. He refused to follow his drop shots into the net — even juniors know to do this, as it cuts down on the opponent’s potential angles. Gaston did adjust mid-match, slightly, by trying to put more pace on his groundstrokes, but it didn’t seem like he had given his all. Night climbing across the sky had not helped him. I didn’t feel he necessarily deserved the adoration he was getting.

The match, despite its one-sided flow, was absorbing. Court Philippe-Chatrier is a gorgeous site for a tennis match. The sheer scale of the stadium is difficult to understand without being inside. There are layers upon layers. There are 30 or so entrances around the perimeter. My mom and I had to climb several flights of stairs to get to our seats. If there is an elegant way to stack 15,000 people in a giant box to watch two people hit a ball back and forth, Roland-Garros has it figured out with their show court.

In person, I noticed things a stream wouldn’t have told me — Gaston was practicing on the very court 45 minutes before the match, which I thought was a considerable advantage. The court was watered shortly after he left. The stands seemed quite empty for a while, then suddenly became quite full just before the players walked out. The rest of the grounds were also idyllic: stands sold (overpriced) crepes and ice cream, there was a tennis court everywhere I looked. Dozens of people wore RF caps, which surprised me a little — Federer has played Roland-Garros just twice in the last six years, and hasn’t been a relevant force on tour in a while — but there’s no denying his enormous impact on the tennis world.

The great man would have been disappointed with Gaston. Despite the Frenchman’s frustratingly inept performance, I found the crowd’s applause infectious. Wanting a competitive match, I spent much of the hour and 55 minutes yelling along with them. (Exiting the grounds after the match, I passed a pair of kids still chanting Hugo! Hugo!) In the last game, Gaston took a quasi-stand, winning a long rally with some exceptional defense and saving a match point with a backhand return winner. My heart didn’t let me cheer as ironically as I wanted to.

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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