Djokovic was a 31-year-old great champion long since adrift from himself with one trip past the quarterfinals and zero titles across eight Grand Slam tournaments; Osaka was a 20-year-old with who-knows up ahead and a useful knack for self-deprecating wit.
“I don’t know,” Djokovic kept saying to various questions, even those about merely entering the draw at Wimbledon.
“I don’t really think there’s a real reason,” Osaka said of her hopeless start in her 6-1, 7-6 (9-7) loss to Madison Keys.
Djokovic reassembled himself enough to withstand a merciless Wimbledon semifinal against Rafael Nadal and by January had won a third straight Grand Slam with an Australian Open final performance so commanding it made Nadal look like “just a guy, really,” as wrote Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press. Osaka had one more third-round loss in her (at Wimbledon) before becoming that rare player who stands 6-0 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, as she does today.
Let her get to the quarterfinals, and you’re doomed.
Djokovic seeks a fourth straight major title and all its statistical accompaniments with one of Paris’s foremost structural landmarks looming (that’s the Nadal tower); Osaka seeks a third straight with her own doubts on the clay playing surface and after her own two injury withdrawals from events this spring. She is joined by a slew of rivals who conceivably could win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, including the giant troubled by fragility of late, No. 10-ranked, 37-year-old Serena Williams.
The unforeseen-ness of all this goes to show again why betting on sports is so lucrative — for bookmakers.
Among men, this French Open in preview is about four men but mostly about two. Roger Federer reappears for the first time since 2015 — and still way up there at a primo seeding at No. 3. No. 4-ranked Dominic Thiem returns to the site of his lone Grand Slam final to date — the French, last year — and with a Barcelona clay title in late April that included a semifinal win over Nadal.
Warning: Occasional defeats of Nadal in clay preparatory events through the years, whether at Monte Carlo or Barcelona or Madrid or Rome, have meant nada next to Paris clay, where he has more titles (11) than anyone else in the Open Era has ever had anywhere. (He owns 11 titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well.)
So the men’s tournament carries two overriding themes.
A Djokovic title would be only the third time in the Open Era, which began in 1969, that one male player held all four doozies.
The second time, it was Djokovic (Wimbledon 2015 through French 2016).
Yet in the course of such rarefied pursuits, there has never been a deterrent more frightening than Nadal seeking his 12th Coupe des Mousquetaires. After Nadal made Djokovic look a half-step slow on May 19 in the final in Rome, 6-0, 4-6, 6-1, and pared his deficit in their astonishing rivalry to 28-26, Djokovic looked northwest to Paris and told reporters, “Nadal, number one favorite, without a doubt, then everyone else.” When Djokovic won his French Open in 2016, Nadal had exited before the third round ever got going, his wrist wailing for retirement.
The lifetime Grand Slam standings stand: Federer 20, Nadal 17, Djokovic 15.
Still, anyone who sat at Court Suzanne Lenglen last June 5 for Djokovic’s quarterfinal loss to Cecchinato could marvel at the very idea Djokovic could stand 11½ months later at a realistic cusp of four straight. His path from there to here represents a fresh reminder of how quickly greats can relocate greatness.
In the fourth set of Cecchinato’s 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 1-6, 7-6 (13-11) win, Djokovic saved four match points but also lost three set points. On one, he shanked a shot. Cecchinato improved his lifetime Grand Slam match record to 5-4, with all five wins in one bizarre tournament. “I don’t understand nothing,” he said in the on-court interview.
After elbow surgery the previous winter, Djokovic still looked incomplete in capability while complete in sportsmanship as he sought out Cecchinato for a hug. The meat of Djokovic’s ensuing interview transcript is helpful as a flash point before the sport took another turn:
“Do you feel like this is the kind of match that in a couple months’ time, matches under your belt . . . ”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you summarize how difficult it is to come back on the level you want?”
“It is difficult. Many things in life are difficult.”
“Are you able to articulate?”
“I’m not. I’m sorry, I’m not.”
“When do you think you’ll first play on the grass?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.”
Soon thereafter: “You said you weren’t going to play grass . . .”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just came from the court. Sorry, guys, I can’t give you that answer. I cannot give you any answer.”
From there to the most exacting win possible, a 10-8 fifth set in the sixth hour of play against Nadal in a Wimbledon semifinal one month later, is the kind of thing that might remind people why they bother with sports.
“My game overall was just disturbed,” he said by then. And: “I just had to go back to basics and hit as many balls as I can on the practice courts, just get that feel.” And: “I was top-three player for so many years in a row, it was quite a strange feeling for me not to be able to deliver my game that I know that I possess, that I know I’ve been delivering for so many years.”
One certainty has resumed, while the women’s tour has known uncertainty born of so much capability. Before No. 6-ranked Petra Kvitova won in Stuttgart in late April, 18 different women had won the season’s first 18 events. None of those 18 was Williams, who has three match wins since January and whose last three bids have ended in a mid-match retirement in Indian Wells and pre-match withdrawals in Miami and Rome.
Well, Osaka does stand 14-0 in her last two Grand Slams, the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian. Yet for further uncertainty in an event so many could win, there’s the clay issue that has vexed many through time. As Osaka said recently and charmingly in Rome, “I think it’s when the ball bounces differently from what I expect.”