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.
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“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.
En route pour le 3ème tour ! Merci encore à ce magnifique public de @rolandgarros ! 👊🏼👌🏼🇫🇷🎾💙#FlyWithCaro #NoPasaNada #RG18
📷 @yanlerval pic.twitter.com/WDvG5iQbHZ
— 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.”