There was a passage of play during the French Open semi-final clash between Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev when your love for sports might have gone down the existential route. Something as notorious and regular as Nadal’s grunts were overshadowed by the chair umpire shouting ‘égalité’, a french word for Deuce. Trailing 5-4, Zverev was trying hard to keep the game within his fleeting distance. When facing a set point, he unleashed his diabolical groundstrokes, but on advantage, he was betrayed by his executions.
Read More: Alexander Zverev Is Far From A Role Model But Deserves Sympathy For Heart-Breaking French Open Exit
Easy volleys were falling way outside the court, routine smashes, with the whole court wide open, were crashing into the nets, and drop shots always found the galloping Nadal. He squandered a 6-1 lead in the tiebreak and lost the first set. The second set offered us some of the most tedious passages of play, where the game was stuck with both players making too many mistakes.
Make no mistake, Zverev’s game is far from boring, and his earth-shattering groundstroke was going to present a different kind of challenge for Nadal, whose court coverage has suffered due to a nagging injury. It was supposed to be a thrilling battle, but all we got was an error-fest where neither managed to seize control. Only a few weeks ago, Zverev played some of the best tennis on the clay against Carlos Alcaraz, albeit in what turned out to be a lost cause. So what has changed between then and now? Is this just a natural cycle of sports performances in an operation? Or is something more sinister at play?
I would argue for the latter. The Nadal-Zverev clash was not just an aberration. Most of the games have followed a very similar pattern. Some matches felt like a three-hour video that could fall under the ‘Try Not To Yawn Challenge.’ And it has less to do with players alone; after all, their game too rests on the conditions. It was only Nadal’s presence that placated the sufferings. Novak Djokovic’s presence would have made it more interesting, but this is where the organisers messed up first.
Djokovic vs Nadal For Quarter-Finals, Seriously?
If the primary concern for tennis, like any other sport, is revenue maximisation, shouldn’t they ensure that players who are the favourite to reach the finals should be allowed to reach as deep as they can? This might feel like rigging the draw, so let me put it in a slightly different way: Shouldn’t the player ranked No. 1 in the world be more handsomely rewarded than a player ranked below them?
In a just world, the current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic shouldn’t have been facing Rafael Nadal—the most successful player on clay court—in the quarter-finals. “Novak Djokovic should have played Casper Ruud, not Rafael Nadal, in the men’s singles quarterfinals in Paris, if a No. 1 seed and World No. 1 ranking were to be appropriately rewarded,” wrote Matt Zemek, the author of Expressly Fed: Several Years Aboard The Federer Express.
“Come on French Open, it’s time to go with the seeding system,” Hohn McEnroe said in a video. “Enough already. We had Nadal and Djokovic last year in the semis. One of the greatest matches ever, in the semis. Tennis needs it in the final. Now we could have Djokovic-Nadal in the quarterfinals. Come on, let’s get it together, finally.”
Moreover, the top half of the draw had clubbed Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Alexander Zverev, three of the top-five players, together. In contrast, the bottom half had a much easier draw. This is one of the reasons Marin Cilic, whose best days are now far behind him, reached as far as the semi-finals.
Subject To Weather
A wave of sweltering heat has swept across Europe, with Paris experiencing one of the hottest summers on record. Moreover, the excessive heat has been punctuated by consistent rainfalls, thereby making the air more humid and warm. Although humid air is not as dense as dry air, it does affect the playing conditions and the players themselves. In his match against Zverev, Nadal was seen sweating profusely and rushing to his water bottles even in between the points.
“You feel like your racket is a little bit heavier… that your legs are a little bit heavier, everything is a little bit heavier.” It’s more about humidity’s effect on a player’s body than it is about the effect on the ball,” said Stephane Bohli, a former tennis player.
While Bohli is quite accurate in his assessment, the red clay in the French Open definitely impacts the ball. Every time the point is played, the ball gathers dust and moisture and gets heavier with time. This naturally slows down the ball and reduces the topspin, which is an important part of Nadal’s game. Again, players have to generate more power to hit the ball, and they could suffer a shoulder injury in the process.
Let’s Go Back To Babolat Balls, Eh?
A couple of years ago, Wilson replaced Babolat as the official ball supplier of the French Open. A host of tennis players criticised Wilson’s ball when it was first used during the 2020 French Open. Compared to Babolat, the Wilson ball is a lot heavier and thus slower, often making up for an insipid passage of play. After losing to Kei Nishikori, Dan Evans said that he wouldn’t even give these balls to a dog to chew.
Nadal, though he is condition-agnostic on the clay, too expressed his displeasure on the decision to switch to Wilson. Nadal has won the tournament with four different balls, but his best days surely came when the Babolat ball was used, as it was light and fast and perfect for his swirling topspin.
“I practised with the balls in Mallorca with warm conditions, the ball was very slow, I think (it’s) not a good ball to play on clay, honestly. That is my personal opinion,” Nadal said in 2020. Undoubtedly, the free-flowing game that we associate with him was rarely seen this year. It also makes him more vulnerable to baseliners like Djokovic and Alexander Zverev, who can ace their backhands on the rise with the added time.
Back in 2011, when the Dunlop was replaced with Babolat, players like Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer didn’t approve of it. So this can be thought of as a part of the game, as some changes will favour some players over others. For instance, both Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev had no problems with Wilson. However, the main issue here is the sluggishness that prevents fast-paced tennis—the kind that keeps viewers hooked and on the edge of their seats.
The Wilson balls come with an extra lacquer that makes them more resistant to wear and tear, but at the same time, it adds to the weight. The loose knitting also fluffs up the ball, thereby increasing its diameter. There is an injury concern too, as hitting wet and heavy balls on a consistent basis can also result in a tennis elbow.
Wilson will continue to be the ball supplier until 2025. If the first three years are anything to go by, they surely need to revamp their product, or else we can expect another three years of a slugfest.