French Open wrap: Five-set battles and a pilot called Roland Garros

French Open wrap: Five-set battles and a pilot called Roland Garros © Pierre René-Worms | Germany‘s Alexander Zverev celebrates after winning his very first match on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Day six at the French Open saw Novak Djokovic hit his stride, Alexander Zverev survive another five-set thriller, and 4th seeds Elina Svitolina and Grigor Dimitrov both crash out.

A damp and windy day at the is a good time to check out the nearby Tenniseum, France’s museum of tennis, which is currently hosting an exhibition on the man who gave his name to the Grand Slam tournament in Paris. That is presumably what did after her second-round win and ensuing press conference on Thursday, when a pedantic journalist found her ignorant on the matter (somehow male players rarely get that kind of grilling).

As it turns out, few tennis players or fans know who Mr Roland Garros was, perhaps because he had nothing to do with the sport. A pioneering aviator, inventor and fighter pilot, Garros, who died in combat exactly a century ago, had a knack for many sports, including rugby, football and cycling, but not tennis. A decade after his death, when France hosted the Davis Cup in a brand-new facility, it was the stadium’s constructor, Émile Lesieur, who insisted it be named after Garros, his friend and comrade during the war.

Roland Garros poses in front of a Demoiselle B.C. aircraft in 1910. © Wikimedia

‘Eat more pasta’

An often bothersome exercise for the players, post-match press conferences are an important cog in the Grand Slam media machine. Journalists like nothing better than a disgruntled player’s angry tirade, and Italy’s Fabio Fognini was happy to oblige after his second-round win, blasting what he described as the preferential treatment given to young players at Roland Garros and elsewhere on the men’s circuit.

"This Next Generation thing is bullshit, I don't like all this attention," Fognini said, referring to the “NextGen” tag used by ATP, the sport’s governing body, to promote young guns. The 31-year-old Italian, who plays Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the third round on Saturday, noted that Canadian youngster Denis Shapovalov played his first French Open match on one of the showpiece courts, when former female champions Garbine Muguruza and Svetlana Kuznetsova were relegated to a smaller venue.

“They play well, but there is such a fuss made about them, I don't like it,” said the outspoken Italian, suggesting young players needed to earn their stripes by “winning 10-8 in the fifth set on court 27” before gaining admittance to the bigger courts. He added: “They have to eat more pasta, run and win matches.”

Zverev scrapes through

Fognini has a point. Despite all the fuss, Shapovalov was knocked out in the second round by world number 70 Maximilian Marterer on Thursday. He was very nearly followed by the most prominent member of the “Next Generation”, second seed Alexander Zverev, who somehow scraped through to the third round on Friday after an epic five-set battle with Bosnia’s Damir Dzumhur – his second five-setter in a row.

Zverev, who was often outplayed and outsmarted by the Bosnian, saved a match point in the decisive set before wrapping up the contest 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 7-5. It was the German 21-year-old’s maiden win on Court Philippe Chatrier and only his first against a player ranked in the Top-50 at a Grand Slam tournament. And while he will be relieved to have finally broken that taboo, his habit of taking matches to five exhausting sets hardly inspires confidence in his ability to challenge the mighty later in the tournament.

Old guard still standing

Such is the air of inevitability surrounding Nadal’s bid for an 11th French Open title that some are already feeling nostalgic for the days of the “Big Four” of tennis (Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray), which the “Next Gen” are meant to replace. Those days may have been repetitive, as the four rivals rarely failed to reach the semi-finals at Grand Slam tournaments. But at least there was suspense as to who would eventually prevail.

With Murray still recovering from surgery and Federer sitting this one out, Djokovic is the only other member of the Big Four present at Roland Garros – and his form is still questionable after one of the most dramatic slumps in the history of the game. But there are signs the 12-time Grand Slam champion is finally on the mend.

© Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24 | Novak Djokovic lunges for the ball during his third-round match on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

The 31-year-old Serb was given his toughest test yet on Friday, battling past clay-court specialist Roberto Bautista-Agut, the 13th seed, in four sets (6-4, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2) after three hours and 48 minutes. Next up for Djokovic is another veteran Spaniard, the hard-hitting Fernando Verdasco, who booted out 4th-seed Grigor Dimitrov in the biggest upset of the third round.

It was a bad day for 4th seeds across the board as Elina Svitolina became the highest-ranking casualty of the women’s draw, slumping to a surprise straight-sets (6-3, 7-5) defeat against Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu. In other results, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki eased into the last 16 with a 6-0, 6-3 win over local favourite Pauline Parmentier, while US Open runner-up Madison Keys beat Japan’s rising star Naomi Osaka 6-1, 7-6.

And a day after Serena Williams pulled off a huge comeback win to reach the third round of the singles tournament, her "superhero" catsuit was back on court Friday as she and sister Venus powered their way into the last-16 of the women’s doubles with a 6-4, 6-2 defeat of Kirsten Flipkens and Sara Errani.

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