By Owais Majid
This French Open has been a bit of an anomaly in that, due to the way the ATP draw shaped up, every alternative day is likely to be a bit of a dud. When the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, etc, are in action on the same day, there’s naturally going to be a bit of a drop off when it comes to the bottom half of the draw.
Yesterday seemed like one such day. Throughout Sunday and early Monday, all of the attention was on the blockbuster clash between Nadal and Djokovic on Tuesday, and to a lesser extent Alexander Zverev vs Carlos Alcaraz.
Stefanos Tsitsipas was expected to come through his contest with Holer Rune with relative ease and largely the same was expected of Daniil Medvedev who would be facing Marin Cilic later that night. In fact, the majority of the tennis community had broadly assumed that Tsitsipas would reach the final, probably beating Medvedev in the semis so there was little in the way of hype surrounding those matches.
Step up Messrs Rune and Cilic.
After coming through taxing matches in his first two rounds, Tsitsipas cruised through round three courtesy a straight sets victory over Mikael Ymer. Meanwhile Rune, who has been on the watchlist of many for a while, ousted Dennis Shapovalov in the opening round in straight sets which he backed up with equally easy victories over Henri Laaksonen and Hugo Gastan.
I expected Rune to push Tsitsipas early on, maybe taking a set off him but ultimately that the Greek’s experience would prove too much for the young Dane. And so that seemed to be the case. After initially going a break and 3-1 down, Rune showed some flashes of his ability early doors, befuddling Tsitsipas with some of his stroke play. He particularly utilised the drop shot to good effect and Tsitsipas was visibly frustrated on numerous occasions. The 19 year old managed to break back eventually before playing an amazing return game to go a break up 6-5 at which point he served the set out clinically.
Tsitsipas roared back in the second taking an early advantage with a break. At that point, we saw a few glimpses of Rune’s petulant side for which he is well known. His level suddenly dropped off significantly and Tsitsipas won that set with little trouble. Most of us would have expected him to wrap the next two up in routine manner, particularly given Rune’s issues with durability.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. After the opening stages being fairly nip and tuck, Tsitsipas played a horror game to be broken for 4-2. With Rune animated and Tsitsipas conspicuous due to his lack of emotion, that seemed the first real turning point in this match and the first point at which many of us actually thought there was a possibility, if still a fairly small one, of a major upset here.
The early stages of the 4th played out in a similar fashion with one distinct difference. Contrary to what many of us would have expected, Tsitsipas was the first of the two to appear to fatigue. The eventual culmination of this was for him to once again throw in a terrible service game and hand the advantage to Rune. Not content with just the one break, Rune broke once more for 5-1.
As it so happened, that insurance break was a necessary one. Serving for the match, Rune’s level suddenly dipped. Whether that was due to nerves, his infamous cramps or a combination of the two, Tsitsipas retrieved one of the breaks to cling on to his hopes of going one better from last year and winning his first major.
But Rune, showing maturity exceeding his age and vastly exceeding what we have come to expect from him, served out a memorable victory at the second time of asking leaving Tsitsipas shellshocked.
Not for the first time, Tsitsipas has let a man his junior beat him in what could well be described as their breakout victory. There’s something a bit jarring about “next gen” simply coming up against players a few years their junior, let alone when those players are showing them up. In Alcaraz, at last year’s US Open and Rune here, Tsitsipas has suffered a pair of defeats that will erk him more so than any other defeat at a major because of what those players represent.
Tsitsipas and his peers were seen as those who would take the torch from the big three once they retired. Indeed, he himself fuelled that talk when he beat Federer at the Australian Open in 2019 in a breakout victory of his own. For what is effectively the “next next generation” to come and seem to surpass him must be an incredibly humbling and even humiliating experience.
The shock of that match soon gave way to talk of Daniil Medvedev, one of the other members of the next gen. Infamous for his revulsion of clay, the Russian was now being predicted to get to the final with a Nadal like certainty. After all, with his biggest threat out of the picture, the stars had aligned, or so we thought.
A few years ago, Marin Cilic coming up against the world number two would have us all frothing at the mouth. RECENTLY however, the Croat’s form has fallen off a cliff. Indeed, the last time he was in the top 20, many of us had never heard of bat soup.
In spite of Medvedev aversion to this surface, he was expected to beat this version of Cilic with relative ease.
Once more, how wrong we all were.
Every so often, Cilic brings out a level which leaves you wondering why he hasn’t won 25 Grand Slams, the 100 metre Olympic Gold and the football World Cup. Yesterday was one such occasion.
From ball one, he was hitting with a crispness we’ve scarcely seen from him. Though Medvedev was clearly not at his best, his performance was far from disgraceful. As it were, he was made to look distinctly average by Cilic. strutting about the court with a Djokovician confidence, Cilic broke the usually formidable Medvedev serve twice to race into a 6-2 lead.
A bemused Medvedev, chuntering at his coach, the umpire and himself, was left wondering what had hit him. If there was any consolation for him, it would have been that surely Cilic couldn’t keep this level up.
However, if anything, Cilic raised his level even further. Medvedev’s serve was once more broken twice with Cilic almost showing off by the time he’d taken a two set lead in little over an hour.
Even then, Medvedev would have known that he’d beaten Cilic from two sets down at Wimbledon so he still stood a chance. What that required though, was for Cilic’s level to dip.
Once more, Cilic defied belief and somehow maintained his imperious form. At this point, Medvedev’s tennis seemed to be saying “what’s the point. This guy’s just on a different stratosphere today”.
It’d be harsh to accuse Medvedev of tanking, but he became considerably more disinterested in the third set. Given what he was having to contend with, its difficult to put too much blame on him for it. Cilic continued to roll through his service games in a Medvedev-esq manner. Medvedev was put out of his misery as Cilic completed a 6-2 6-2 6-3 beat down of the man who 4 months ago was two sets up in the Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal.
In his on court interview, Cilic ventured that it might have been the best performance of his career and it is honestly difficult to argue with him.
If Rune’s victory over Tsitsipas was a clash of generations, then this was certainly that, only on a more extreme level. Cilic was, and is, one of the unfortunate group given the tag of the forgotten generation. Along with the likes of Nishikori, Dimitrov, and Wawrinka, all for differing reasons, Cilic has escaped the memory of many a tennis fan. Cilic’s performance today was a reminder that the so-called forgotten generation haven’t gone away just yet.
If Rune’s triumph earlier was a “remember the name” moment, then Cilic’s was probably a “remember me?” moment. Though the two men are at very different stages of their careers, though the victories represent different things in some ways, there were many similarities between the results, not least this idea that the next gen, for all of their quality, haven’t as of yet met the expectations they were once given
Obviously, today was a freak day in that two of the most prominent members of the next gen lost out in disappointing fashion, but it’s interesting that, for all the hype this group of players has had, the results haven’t as of yet met that. Whether its from those who came before them or those whose careers are just beginning to blossom, competition for this generation is as intense as it ever has been.
Incidentally, today sees Alexander Zverev, arguably the next gen player who was expected to have the most success, come up against 19 year old Carlos Alcaraz in a match Zverev is widely expected to lose. If that plays out, it’s further evidence of how the ′next gen” appear to be being left behind.
If they’re not careful, they could quite conceivably become the second coming of the forgotten generation.