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Tennis Briefing: How did the top women break ground? What does Zverev’s win mean?


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Welcome back to the Monday Tennis Briefing, where The Athletic will explain the stories from the last week on court.

This week, the coveted Masters 1000 in Rome drew to a close, with the men and women now readying themselves for a trip to Paris for the second Grand Slam of the season at Roland Garros. Alexander Zverev and Iga Swiatek ran out winners in the Italian capital, while Chile made a mark on men’s tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal went up a snowy mountain, and wildcards caused something of a storm.

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How long is it since the WTA top three all made a semi-final?

The chatter around women’s tennis this year has been all about the logjam at the top of the sport. Iga Swiatek, the world No 1, is hogging the big titles — Doha, Indian Wells, Madrid, Rome — but world Nos 2, 3, and 4, Aryna Sabalenka, Coco Gauff, and Elena Rybakina, have been making their way into the business ends of plenty of tournaments, too; Sabalenka won the Australian Open.

It still took this week, in Rome, to emphasize just how random women’s tennis has been for the past decade. When Swiatek, Sabalenka and Gauff all made the semi-finals of the Italian Open, it marked the first time in 11 years (Roland Garros 2013) that the women holding the top three spots in the rankings made the semi-finals of a WTA event. Rybakina didn’t get knocked out, either, she had to withdraw with illness.

That’s not just random, that’s bananas.

Swiatek’s win in Rome was her 21st WTA title, at 22 years old (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It proved to be a banner week for once-in-a-blue-moon tennis occurrences. Americans nabbed three of the eight semi-final spots in Rome last week, thanks to Tommy Paul, Coco Gauff, and Danielle Collins.

That seemed a little odd given Americans and red clay don’t get along so well.

It was. It hadn’t happened for 22 years when Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick all made the final four in 2002. Agassi and Williams actually won that year. Two Americans did make it to the last four in Rome in 2021, 2016 and 2004, but three means it wasn’t accidental — and to look at the players who made it, there was actually a kind of logic.

The through line for this year’s semi-finalists is tons of time on clay in their childhoods. The club Paul’s mother and stepfather owned had green clay courts. Collins grew up in Florida, where green clay is popular because it drains the daily rains quickly. Gauff is a Floridian, too, and she also spent a couple months each year during her early teens on the red clay at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in France.



Why Swiatek and Sabalenka’s Madrid epic was bigger than the two of them

Did Federer and Nadal secure their bags? (It looks windy)

One has only been retired for a year and a half and the other is still active, but Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer gave the world a glimpse of what their future together will look like over the next several decades: they’re going to reminisce and they’re probably going to make a lot of money.

Last week, Louis Vuitton released the latest instalment of a campaign built around the concept of “core values.” Federer and Nadal are at the center of this one.

Past personalities have included Angelina Jolie, Bono, Sean Connery, Steffi Graf, Keith Richards, Muhammad Ali, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Sally Ride, and on and on. With Carlos Alcaraz an ambassador for the French designer, they’re planting a flag firmly in the middle of the court.

The duo and their 42 Grand Slam titles are far from a tennis court and instead are hiking across the snow in the Dolomites, thousands of meters above sea level. “The first time Rafa has seen snow,” Federer jokes.

Not weather for a Grand Slam rivalry (Louis Vuitton)

The two sit and talk about their lives and legacies into a camera, amid what begins as flurries but looks like a growing storm by the time they are done. Nadal appears slightly less at home than Federer, who grew up in Switzerland and often lamented that tennis kept him from skiing. Both Federer and Nadal have long said the other made them better tennis players. They had a rivalry built on respect and a polite friendship that fans lapped up.

In retirement, they will be plenty valuable on their own. Together, the past is likely a prelude.



Roger Federer, the master of reinvention

How does the ATP Tour feel about Alexander Zverev’s title?

Alexander Zverev is a Masters 1000 champion. He is also about to defend himself against charges of domestic abuse.

The German has been competing as a domestic abuse hearing approaches in Berlin over charges that he abused a former girlfriend during an argument in 2020. Zverev has denied the charges, but in October the Berlin criminal court issued a penalty order, fining Zverev nearly $500,000 (£393,000) in connection with the charges from Brenda Patea, a model and social media personality who is the mother of his daughter. In Germany, a prosecutor can seek a penalty order on cases it considers simple because there is compelling evidence that it should not require a trial. Zverev is appealing that order.

Tennis (by way of the ATP Tour) has not punished Zverev, refusing mostly even to comment on the situation as the legal process plays out. Privately, the hope was that he wouldn’t win anything big, and in not doing so, organically shield the sport from any widespread embarrassment. That ended Sunday when Zverev won his biggest title since he tore three ankle ligaments in the French Open semi-finals in 2022. His comeback has been slow and steady and Sunday’s win in the Italian Open was a major milestone for him.

Zverev serving during his win over Nicolas Jarry of Chile (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Awkward. Strange. An affront to fans and victims of domestic abuse. Zverev’s presence on the tour has been described as all of the above. Now he’s heading back to Paris and has to be considered among the favorites in what should be the most wide-open French Open in about two decades. So many of the top players and usual favorites are injured, old, in poor form, or some combination of the three.

Zverev has his own question mark to deal with. His hearing in appeal of the penalty order is set to begin on May 31, which is the fifth day of Roland Garros. Zverev is not required to attend the hearing and says he has no plans to. That doesn’t change the equation for the organizations that control men’s tennis, which still don’t have a specific policy for dealing with a player in Zverev’s situation.

Hence, a man holding a title second only to a Grand Slam also has a penalty order against him, which is only handed down in German court cases where the judge has determined the evidence is clear enough for a judgment without a trial. If he wins his appeal against this penalty order, then there will be a public trial after that. The ATP Tour will be watching all this. What it will do about it is another question.



Why Alexander Zverev is allowed to play despite domestic abuse allegations

How wild is a wildcard in 2024?

A constantly thorny topic, last week saw the French Open announce their wildcards for this year’s event. They were exclusively reserved for home hopes and players from the U.S. and Australia, as part of the reciprocal agreement between the French Tennis Federation (FFT), Tennis Australia and the United States Tennis Association (USTA).

The wildcard system is complicated. It’s a strategic muddle of soft nationalism, politics, ticket sales boosterism, and player management interests, and the first of those four gets ramped up come every Grand Slam. “Automatic entry” is probably a fairer description for a mechanism whose supposed wildness has been all but civilised out of existence.

In total, the French Open this year declined to offer four active former Grand Slam champions wild cards: Dominic Thiem, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Emma Raducanu. There are mitigating circumstances for some of those, but for Thiem, a two-time Roland Garros finalist who would have been playing his last French Open ahead of retiring this season, it feels like a shame.

Perhaps he’ll qualify anyway, but it would have been nice to guarantee such a popular former finalist the chance for a proper farewell.

When asked by The Athletic about their policy, the tournament responded simply: “For wildcards, priority is given to French players, outside of the agreements with Tennis Australia and USTA.”



Dominic Thiem will retire from tennis at the end of this season

Shot of the week

Doubles is doubles. Except when it isn’t

Recommended reading:

🏆 The winners of the week

🎾 ATP: 

🏆 Alexander Zverev def. Nicolas Jarry 6-4, 7-5 to win the Italian Open (1000) in Rome. It is Zverev’s sixth Masters 1000 title.
🏆 Arthur Fils def. Pedro Martinez 6-2, 6-3 to win the BNP Paribas Primose Open (Challenger 175) in Bordeaux, France. It is Fils’ third ATP Tour title.
🏆 Francesco Passaro def. Lorenzo Musetti 6-3, 7-5 to win the Piemonte Open Intensa Sanpaolo (Challenger 175) in Turin, Italy. It is Passaro’s first ATP Tour title.

🎾 WTA:

🏆 Iga Swiatek def. Aryna Sabalenka 6-2, 6-3 to win the Italian Open (1000) in Rome. It is the world No 1’s 21st WTA Tour title.
🏆 Anna Schmiedlova def. Mayar Sherif 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 to win the Parma Ladies Open (125) in Parma, Italy. It is Schmiedlova’s third WTA Tour title.
🏆 Diana Shnaider def. Emma Navarro 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to win the Trophee Clarins (125) in Paris. It is Shnaider’s first WTA Tour title.

📈📉 On the rise / Down the line

📈 Nicolas Jarry moves up eight places from No 24 to No 16. It is his highest career ranking to date.
📈 Diana Shnaider ascends 15 places from No 62 to No 47. It is her highest career ranking to date.
📈 Alejandro Tabilo moves up seven places from No 32 to No 25. It is his highest career ranking to date.
📈 There are normally three ups and three downs, but there has to be an exception for Francesco Passaro. He rises 107(!) places from No 240 to No 133, with a 245-point gain from his title in Turin.

📉 Anhelina Kalinina falls 25 places from No 31 to No 56. Last year’s Italian Open finalist only reached the second round this year.
📉 Daniil Medvedev falls from No 5 to No 4 after Zverev’s title, reorienting the draw at the French Open.

📅 Coming up

🎾 ATP: 

📍Paris, French Open, ft. … Wait and see?
📺 UK: Sky Sports; U.S.: Tennis Channel 💻 Tennis TV

🎾 WTA:

📍Paris, French Open, ft. Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Coco Gauff, Ons Jabeur
📺 UK: Sky Sports; U.S.: Tennis Channel

Tell us what you noticed this week in the comments as the tours continue.

(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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