The tennis carousel spins ever so fast sometimes and it surely must feel that way for French world No. 7 Caroline Garcia.
This time last year, she entered Roland Garros ranked No. 27 in the world and was coming off a back injury that interrupted her clay preparations and made it tough for her to even put on her socks. She was also embroiled in a tense feud that raged between her and her French Fed Cup team-mates.
Her compatriots Kristina Mladenovic – her ex-doubles partner who slammed her after their split — Alize Cornet and Pauline Parmentier all openly mocked Garcia on social media when she pulled out of a Fed Cup tie citing an injury, implying they didn’t believe her.
Garcia channeled the fire from everything she was going through into her French Open campaign and ended up reaching the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career. The powerful-hitting Garcia was living up to her favourite hash-tag ‘#FlyWithCaro’. She was indeed flying.
By the end of the 2017 season, she had won back-to-back titles in Wuhan and Beijing, had qualified to the WTA Finals for the first time in singles, and she came to Paris this fortnight as the French No. 1 and the No. 7 seed.
“Last year with all the things that happened off court it really helped me to know myself better and I think I grew up as a person and also as a tennis player and I was better dealing with my emotions,” Garcia told Sport360 before the kick-off of this Roland Garros.
“Of course I’m working with someone helping me with different things for a while now. It’s always good to share your emotions and how you’re feeling.
“But also my parents are sometimes the people I share with the most. They help me just stay in the present and understand what’s going on and it’s part of being normal.”
Garcia is coached by her father Louis-Paul, who believes her 2017 French Open was significant, but not life-changing.
“I think it was a good step,” said Louis-Paul.
“The ambience was a bit special because of what happened in the Fed Cup team, so it was another motivation. But I don’t think it’s the right motivation for all the time, because she didn’t make the choice of that, and that happened, and she was motivated by that.
“But after that, she needs inside motivation, and that’s the way we are working on.”
Garcia made her French Open debut at the age of 17, back in 2011, and she lost in either the first or second round in her first six appearances at her home Slam.
Like many French players, Garcia felt extra pressure at Roland Garros, and would try to avoid getting assigned a match on the main centre court, Philippe Chatrier.
She claimed an important victory against Cornet on that stadium en route to the quarter-finals last year.
“I didn’t request it because it’s a big court, but Philippe Chatrier is different from all the other courts, it’s huge on the side so it’s changing all the perception you have. It’s a court I was watching on TV when I was 10, 15, so I dreamt to be there and now I am, that’s why it was complicated for me,” she explains.
“But last year I won a very important match against Alize [Cornet], so I think I’m more experienced now.
“But of course it’s always difficult to start your first round match on a big court and with fans cheering and everything.”
This year, she requested to start on the second show court here, Suzanne Lenglen, and cruised past China’s Duan Yingying 6-1, 6-0 in 58 minutes.
Garcia came to Paris this season far more prepared than last year. Her European clay-court campaign saw her make semis in Stuttgart, semis in Madrid, and quarters in Rome.
— Caroline Garcia (@CaroGarcia) May 31, 2018
She takes on Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu in the third round of the French Open today.
“I think the majority of my game is pretty much the same, very aggressive, trying to put pressure on my opponent. But maybe this last year and the last couple of months I have a little bit more control of what I’m doing,” Garcia says of the evolution of her game.
“I’m doing less unforced errors than in the past. And mathematically I’m still hitting my winners so it’s just a couple of points here and there not giving them to my opponent and it makes me better.”
While many believe Garcia has the kind of game that can reign supreme at the Slams, her father is aware that things aren’t as simple as they seem.
“You are always close and far. And you have to accept that. Because everyone in the top-100 plays tennis very well. So things are close but far at the same time,” he explains.
“That’s what’s happening also with Caroline, we are close but we are far. And sometimes the details are very difficult to work on. That’s why we want to enjoy more the route, the ‘chemin’ (path), more than the goals.
“The goals will happen because we’re on the road, that’s the way we try to work. I think it’s the good way because if you just focus on targets, frustration can come too quickly.”
Garcia’s status at home continues to grow, as the French hope to see a first local women’s singles champion since Mary Pierce in 2000.
She insists she’s not as recognizable as you’d think she’d be in France.
“I took a flight from Lyon to Paris and I think one person recognized me only. So I’m thinking I’m safe,” she said with a laugh during a press conference in Paris.
Still, the way the crowd embraced her during her quarter-final run last year here remains an unforgettable memory for Garcia.
“I think the third-round match on Court 1 against Hsieh Su-Wei was very special and very emotional,” she recalls.
“It was a tough match of very long, and I was running side to side against her. I was a bit down in the third set, but the crowd really cheered for me, and it was the first time I was feeling this kind of emotion in an individual event. It was really special to make my first second week in the French Open after all the difficult week. And to share it with French fans was making it even more special.”
Does being French No. 1 bring any extra satisfaction to her?
“It’s not really important for me to be No. 1 or No. 2 in my country, I know for people it’s important, they always ask you ‘what do you think about being French No. 1?’ but I’m just trying to be the best I can on court and for me the most important is my world ranking, how I play on court, how I improve,” she insists.
In WTA tournaments, players are allowed to consult with their coaches during matches but that rule does not apply at the Grand Slams, and Garcia admits it often feels “weird” not being able to call her father to the court at the majors.
Players coached by their parents is a common sight in tennis but it’s not always an easy formula. Louis Paul tries to juggle his role as a father and as a coach in the best way he knows how, but concedes that it can be challenging.
“It’s not easy because I want to be a good father, I try my best (laughs) but it’s not easy to be a father, being a mother is difficult too,” he says.
“It’s really to develop her, to give her all the chance for the other life after us because this happens always.
“And as a coach it’s a bit the same. It’s for her to get all the tools to be happy and to be efficient in the game. So we work on both, but finally if you look at this, it’s to work most of all for her to become a nice person, that’s the main thing. If she’s a nice person, probably she’ll achieve other things.”
But what about the saying ‘nice people finish last’?
“It depends how you understand ‘nice people’. What is ‘nice people’?” asks Louis-Paul.
“You have to get a very strong feeling of yourself to become a champion. But after saying that, you can respect other people, this is possible, do both things, that’s the right way, in life in general. You can be competitive but also respect the other people.”
As she prepares for her third round meeting with Begu, Garcia is hoping to continue to ride the wave of support she continues to get here in Paris.
After her second round three-set victory over Peng Shuai she said: “There was an incredible atmosphere for a second round. I didn’t expect that. That’s what it is. In Roland Garros you’re inhabited by something in both ways. You go and look for something in a way you have never done.
“I encouraged myself. I was boosting myself as I have never done. In the same way you’re inhabited because you want to do well and you stress. But the public was incredible, and I felt incredible emotions.”
Rafael Nadal is a fan of the new rule regarding on-site pre-tournament withdrawals that has been introduced at the Grand Slams and ATP tournaments.
The rule, brought to the majors this season, allows players who are knowingly unfit to receive 50 per cent of the first-round prize money, if they pull out of the tournament before their opening match, allowing a lucky loser to take their spot and get the other half of the prize money.
The implementation of this new rule at the Slams has led to an Open Era-record eight lucky losers making it into the main draw at the French Open this week.
Also to discourage unfit players from contesting and contributing to uncompetitive opening matches, Grand Slams now have the right to hand out hefty fines – up to the amount of the first round prize money – if a player withdraws or performs below professional standards during a first round match.
Mischa Zverev was fined $45,000 at the Australian Open this year for what the tournament perceived as a poor performance in his first round against eventual semi-finalist Chung Hyeon. Zverev retired while down 2-6, 1-4 during that match. The German explained that he had early signs of a cold but got worse during his clash with Chung.
“They probably wanted to set a warning example and that ended up being me,” Zverev said at Roland Garros, as quoted by Insideout-tennis.de.
This week in Paris, fellow German Peter Gojowczyk also fell foul to the ‘First Round Performance’ rule, getting slapped with a €25,000 fine for retiring during his opener against Cameron Norrie. Gojowczyk, who played the final in Geneva last weekend and practised at Roland Garros on Sunday, retired from his match in Paris citing hip pain while trailing Norrie 1-6, 0-2.
Another German, another warning example – this time Peter Gojowczyk gets a massive fine. Said his hip/groin started hurting early in the first set vs Norrie: was a little tired in the Geneva finals but had a normal practice on Sunday. #RG18https://t.co/hWkOmctXAe
— René Denfeld (@Renestance) May 30, 2018
Nadal was asked after his second round victory over Guido Pella on Thursday about the new rules and the world No. 1 had only positive things to say.
“Being 100 per cent honest with you, I think is a good rule, because there is a lot of money on the Slams. For a lot of players, that they are inside the tournament of a Grand Slam and they have a physical problem in that week, just playing tournament helps a lot to save the year,” said Nadal.
“Because it looks very nice on the prize money, but then you have to pay tax, then you pay coaches, then you pay all the travels. And every year the expenses are high. So the amount of money that we are — is not that much comparing what the prize money says. I’m not talking for myself, obviously. But for a lot of players be inside a Grand Slam tournament is a big help for keep surviving, no?
“So I believe is fair that if they are inside and they have the chance to retire than keep winning the money is win to win, no? The tournament wins because there is no bad players or sick players playing, and for them, he deserve, because he made the right things to be there and he deserve that prize money so they still get it.”
Nadal made an on-site withdrawal ahead of the Acapulco tournament in February because he hadn’t yet recovered from his psoas injury and the Spaniard revealed that he chose not to take his half of the first-round prize money.
“At the end of the day, is the decision. Even when you’re retired, you can take the prize money or you cannot. That’s the position I was in Acapulco, I retired, I was inside the draw and they asked me if I wanted the prize money and I say no, because I believe it was fair enough that I don’t need that prize money so the player who was in has to win that prize money. He deserve, he was in, no?
“But is good that you have the decision, because then if you go inside and you retired, is not nice for nobody.”
The Grand Slam Rulebook states that a few things are taken into consideration by the referee in order to determine whether a player deserves to be fined under the ‘First Round Performance’ rule. Such factors include, but are not limited to the following:
Argentine No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman agrees with Nadal that the new ‘On-site Withdrawal’ rule is positive but admits that it can be tricky when it comes to deciding whether someone deserves a fine or not under the ‘First Round Performance’ rule.
“I don’t know who is taking the decision after the matches, for example the Gojowczyk match, I didn’t see the match so I can’t talk about that. I’m not sure,” Schwartzman said on Thursday after his straight-sets win against Adam Pavlasek.
“I think it’s a good new rule for the players, because it’s a lot of money in these kind of tournaments.”
Asked if he found the ‘First Round Performance’ rule fair, even though it makes an assumption about a player’s intention, Schwartzman said: “Not sure, it depends on the match. If the player can’t play, of course it’s fair, but if maybe they had the injury inside the match, for sure no.”
— diego schwartzman (@dieschwartzman) May 31, 2018
Malek Jaziri insists he walks away from Roland Garros with no regrets following his second round exit to Richard Gasquet, and paid tribute to his coach Christophe Freyss, who came to support him despite having a heart procedure done two days earlier.
Jaziri, who was trying to reach the French Open third round for the first time, fell 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 to the 27th-seeded home favourite in front of a buoyant crowd on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
The defeat brings to a conclusion Jaziri’s best clay-court campaign to-date, having reached his first ATP final in Istanbul on the red dirt earlier this month.
The Tunisian, who is likely to re-enter the top-60 after Roland Garros, won his opening round over Mikhail Youzhny in five sets, without Freyss in his corner as the French coach suffered a blood clot in his heart on the eve of the match that required a procedure on Tuesday.
“Yesterday he was released from the hospital. They told him you have to be less stressed but he wanted to come today to be with me,” Jaziri said after his second round on Thursday.
“He knows I need him a lot, he gives me a lot of positive energy, he tried to push. Thanks to him that he came, I know it’s not easy for him at all, to be here today after a tough few days.
“He tried to push me the maximum that he could. He was close to die, the doctor told him ‘you shouldn’t be here anymore’. I tried to take motivation from him, from my family, from the people from my country as well.
“I gave 100 per cent so no regrets today, I gave everything on court and in the end Richard was better than me.”
Gasquet next faces 10-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal and the 34-year-old Jaziri admits he is relishing the opportunity face the Spaniard.
“I knew the winner can play Nadal, if he wins as well. Who doesn’t want to play Nadal or these top players? We play this game for these kind of things, to play on these stadiums with these amazing champions. I wanted but maybe next tournament, who knows?” said the Tunisian.
Jaziri believes his lack of consistency throughout the match is what cost him against Gasquet, who is now 2-0 head-to-head against him.
“I think overall in the match I was a bit up and down and I think consistency was the key of the match. I think that’s why he won this match. But I keep going with a positive mindset. I think I had a great season on clay. I didn’t have an easy draw at all,” added Jaziri.
“Everything touches everything. When your consistency goes down, it touches the mentality, and then physically, it’s like a pyramid. I think I improved a lot in many other things. Keep working, I’m not where I want to be. When you want to beat these guys in five sets you have to keep your intensity and energy up always.”
On his part, Gasquet was pleased to get through the match in four sets.
“I know it was a long match. For a little while I was not playing that well. The weather was stifling on the court. I didn’t manage to break back, and then obviously he felt confident, served well, played well. So I knew I had to give everything I had at the beginning of the third set to make the difference and not to leave too much in it of my energy in the second set,” said the ex-world No. 7.
“So I got ready beginning of the third set. We had long and hard balls, and I held my serve. You know when you’re one set love, you don’t look too proud obviously. And then in the fourth set I had a slight problem in my thigh. And I’m glad I won, especially the third set, which was a difficult one.
“So I was glad to get 6-3, 6-0, because at the end of the second set I wasn’t sure I was going to win like that.”
Jaziri will turn his focus to the grass-court season with his next tournament being s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.