There was a wind of change passing through Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday as we were handed construction helmets by the tournament to take part in a ‘Demolition Party’ celebrating the past 30 years of that centre court stadium before it gets knocked down for renovations starting Monday.
But as the journalists and Roland Garros staff walked through the halls and corridors of the stadium, scribbling on the walls with markers, and bidding their farewells, there was no escaping the fact that when it came to the tennis that took place in Sunday’s final, nothing really had changed much compared to most of the past 13 years.
Once again Rafael Nadal outclassed the field en route to the final, and overwhelmed his opponent Dominic Thiem on Sunday in straight sets to lift the French Open trophy for an 11th time since his winning debut in 2005.
The Spaniard has dropped just one set of tennis here in three years.
Thiem described Nadal’s record 11 victories at Roland Garros as “one of the most outstanding things achieved in sport”. Thiem, who is the only player to defeat Nadal on clay these past two seasons is yet to take a set off the Mallorcan in three meetings contested against him at the French Open.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s final – which, in keeping with the theme of the day, was some form of demolition.
You’d think that standing in the middle of centre court to receive the Coupe des Mousquetaires for an 11th time might feel like business as usual for Nadal but you’d be sorely mistaken.
The 32-year-old was in tears as he was given an extended standing ovation during the trophy ceremony on Sunday. The only man to ever win the same Slam 11 times, and just the second player in history to do so – after Margaret Court – Nadal continues to treat the sport with the same passion he had when he was a teenager.
The older you get, the more you appreciate the special moments in life and probably Nadal feels that every Slam he wins at this stage of his career, could very much be his last.
TOUGH FOR THIEM
The 83-year-old Ken Rosewall, an eight-time Grand Slam champion and two-time winner at Roland Garros, presented the trophies to the two finalists on Sunday and was asked to make some comments about the match.
The Aussie legend admitted he wished there were more sets played and that Thiem’s game was “a bit disappointing”. It probably wasn’t the best moment for Rosewall to drop any truth bombs, but he meant well.
While many thought Thiem would push Nadal in the final, based on the fact that he beat the Spaniard in straights just four weeks ago in Madrid, the reality is that Nadal is a whole different animal on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros.
As Thiem explained in his press conference, his game plan was the right one, but his execution was not. The Austrian No. 7 seed was aggressive but missed more than he should have, and when you’re facing Nadal, you cannot miss or allow him to get in front, because once he’s in the driver’s seat, he accelerates and never looks back.
Considering it’s his first Grand Slam final, the 24-year-old Thiem has plenty to look forward to. And he sounds confident in his future chances, promising the Paris crowd that his next trophy ceremony speech here would be conducted in French.
RACE FOR SLAM RECORD IS BACK ON
With Roger Federer and Nadal splitting the last six Grand Slams it’s difficult to predict which one of the two players will end up with the men’s all-time record of most majors won.
Federer is obviously in pole position for that record, having amassed 20 compared to Nadal’s 17. They’re both in great shape, are the top two players in the world, and appear to maintain their advantage over their opponents when it comes to competing over best-of-five sets at the majors.
Nadal says he’s not obsessed with the idea of catching up with Federer, insisting it’s not how he operates. But if his body holds up, surely he knows he has a legitimate chance of getting to that record.
Rafa is not thinking about Federer’s record of 20 Slams: You can’t be frustrated always if somebody has more money than u, if somebody has a bigger house than u, if somebody has more Slams than u. You can’t live with that feeling, no? You have to do your way.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) June 10, 2018
Darren Cahill has worked with the likes of Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt in the past, guiding them to Grand Slam titles and the world No. 1 ranking, but the Australian coach admits his success with Simona Halep in Paris on Saturday is “special”.
Cahill, who teamed up with Halep at the start of the 2015 season, said watching his charge’s final against Sloane Stephens felt like “torture” and his animated celebration when she won revealed just how much this maiden Grand Slam title for the Romanian means to him.
“I saw [his reaction], he wrote me, because I didn’t see him much [yet], that it’s his best day. I’m the only girl he has ever coached so maybe it’s special,” Halep said after her win.
Cahill explains why it is.
“This one here was kind of special considering the last three and a half years that I’ve been with her. There’s been a few downs for sure. We’ve had a rocky road as well, because for me to try to educate her and teach her the lessons and try to make sure she keeps improving,” said Cahill, who split with Halep briefly early last season because he wasn’t happy with her attitude.
“We’ve had a couple of clashes over the last couple of years, some of them everybody has seen, some of them not, but it’s all been to the learning process and she’s taken it the right way and she’s become a more mature better tennis player and this is for her, she did all this work.”
Halep knows all too well what the whole team has been through during her journey.
“I can say that half of my desire was for them because I know how much they were waiting for this moment, my family as well, all the people, the team, my coach he told me before the match ‘you go and take it today’ so he put the pressure on me but it was good pressure and he made me feel that I’m strong enough to do it so I was thinking of my people all the time,” said Halep.
Cahill’s role in Halep’s rise to the top spot and Roland Garros victory cannot be understated. The Aussie has figured out the right way to communicate with her, motivate her, and get her back on her feet every time she gets knocked down. He refuses to take the credit though and hails Halep’s maturity and growth, especially over the past year.
“I think she’s matured a lot in the last 12 months. It’s important to learn lessons from defeats, and a couple of stinging defeats. She’s handled them the right the way, the way she’s spoken about those losses, both with credit to her opponent but also going back to the practice court and working out why she’s had those losses and how she can improve. She’s a complete professional and I give her full credit for what she’s been able to achieve,” he says.
Part of Halep’s progress has also been due to her work with sports psychologist Alexis Castorri. The Romanian has been open about Alexis’ role and said she has helped her be kinder to herself.
“I think that addressing your weaknesses, being open with them, if you make a few mistakes just hitting them face on is really important in this sport,” said Cahill.
“I think the sport itself, or sport in general, has changed a lot in the last 15 or 20 years because of social media, the money, the pressure, every team now, every player has a minibus full of people traveling around.
“Just that pressure around the player is much more than it ever used to be so I think dealing with those pressures is really important. Simona has been able to do that, Alexis has been really important for her the last couple of years.
“And if you’re not addressing that side of things – whereas once upon a time in my era maybe admitting to that was a bit of a weakness, you had to suck it up and be tough.
“Now I think players are turning over every stone and making sure they are professional, if you need it, making sure you do it.”
Simona Halep is hoping her tough journey to a first Grand Slam title, that culminated with her lifting a historic Roland Garros trophy on Saturday can inspire the younger generation in Romania.
After becoming Romania’s first-ever female world No. 1 end of last season, Halep became just the second woman from her country – behind 1978 Roland Garros champion Virginia Ruzici – to win a Grand Slam title.
After falling short in three major finals, Halep finally got her victory on her beloved Parisian clay with a three-set win over 10th-seeded Sloane Stephens.
“To play in 12 months three Grand Slam finals, for me means a lot,” said the 26-year-old Halep.
“And the fact that I didn’t give up after the one last year here [in which she lost in three sets to Jelena Ostapenko] means that I’m strong inside and I do this just because I love this sport. I love to be competitive on court.
“And I have learned in those 12 months that if you don’t give up you’re able to do anything. So I hope the kids are taking this and the Romanians will believe more in themselves.”
Halep was already a superstar in Romania, but her status will no doubt soar after her latest achievement.
Ruzici, who used to be Halep’s manager and continues to be close to her, was elated after her protégé’s triumph on Saturday.
“In Romania, the achievement is enormous. We haven’t had such a champion in so many years – in tennis, anyway, since Ilie Nastase. And in other sports, since the gymnasts. Nadia Comaneci and the other gymnasts who have had Olympic medals,” said Ruzici.
While she admits she was “really worried” when Halep trailed Stephens by a set and a break in the final, Ruzici assures, “We believed, because we know she’s such a fighter, and she turns things around”.
It’s been four years since Halep reached her first Slam final, losing in three sets to Maria Sharapova in Paris. It took her another three years to get a second opportunity, but it ended in heartbreak against an unseeded Ostapenko.
At the Australian Open last January, a depleted Halep fell to Caroline Wozniacki in a gruelling three-set final.
Halep could have been forgiven if she had decided to give up on her Grand Slam dream throughout this painful process. But she insists she always kept the belief.
“I said that if I was in that position three times, I was close to win, it’s going to happen, I just have to keep working hard and not giving up,” she said.
Words can’t describe how happy the last 24 hours have been for me. I’ve read so many messages & social media posts that’ve brought tears to my eyes that I can’t thank you enough. Sorry for a few bumps along the way 🤷♀️🙄 but we finally got there!☺️💪 Lots of love, Simo ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Rzvs6fzN1Y
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) June 10, 2018
Many top players choose to focus too much on the Slams, to make sure they peak there at the right time, and in doing that, their results at regular tour events can suffer.
Despite her mostly consistent performances at the majors – she has made the quarter-finals or better at 11 of her last 18 Slams and seven of her last 11 – Halep has also been incredibly reliable throughout the year; which is why she is ranked No. 1 in the world.
“I was looking and I was trying to learn something from other players who are really focused on the Grand Slams. I couldn’t do that in the past. For me every tournament is important and I feel that if I don’t treat every tournament with 100 per cent focus I will not be ready for the Grand Slams,” explains Halep.
“It’s my way of thinking, my way to play this sport and I think it helped me to get the experience from all the tournaments to see that I’m able to win the mandatory tournaments and for sure if I’m able to beat these players, who are the same in the Grand Slams, I will one day win a Grand Slam.”
Halep, who confessed on Saturday that she feels drained, will take two weeks off before she shifts her focus to the grass season.
There was a look of relief on her face when she was on court the moment she won the match, but she doesn’t feel like a weight has been lifted off her shoulder.
“I feel the same,” she said when asked if she felt lighter. “I feel emotional, I feel tired, I feel like I don’t have energy anymore, but it’s a good tired. So I will take it, I will embrace it and I will enjoy it.”
While she laughed when someone brought up Wimbledon so soon after her victory, Halep is hoping to keep her momentum going at her next events in Eastbourne and the All England Club.
“My holiday looks boring, just chilling, sleeping and eating,” she says.
“Now I don’t know how it’s going to be. But for sure I will be ready in my head to take another step in my career. Maybe I’ll change a little bit the vision of the pressure and all the things. I don’t know how it’s going to be but for the moment I’ll be off for a few days and I’ll try to get ready, recover and go to play on grass.”
Her coach Darren Cahill isn’t worried about getting Halep back on the court for the grass.
“It’s okay, we’re ready. She loves the game, no question that we’ll give her time off, go back enjoy herself in Bucharest. Good couple of weeks, and then the plan is to play Eastbourne to get a couple of matches, maybe more, go all the way there and get her game ready for Wimbledon and I would say she’ll be full of confidence going into the grass and she’ll give it her best shot,” said the Aussie.