When Serena Williams and Roger Federer bowed out of the French Open on Sunday, possibly for the last time, there was a bleak mood around the grounds. Forebodings, perhaps, of a tennis recession on the way.
Yet this resilient sport has survived such setbacks before, regenerating itself more times than Doctor Who.
With perfect timing, a pair of potential successors stepped forward in Paris on Monday, each with a style that resembled one of these all-time greats.
First it was Coco Gauff, still only 17, who echoed the mighty serve and eye-popping athleticism of a young Williams. Then 19-year-old Italian Lorenzo Musetti followed Gauff onto Court Philippe Chatrier, unfurling a single-handed backhand to die for.
In the end, Musetti ran out of puff out after giving world No 1 Novak Djokovic a real scare. Gauff had no such problems, thanks partly to the shorter format of the women’s draw. She was utterly dominant as she trounced Ons Jabeur by a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline, thus earning her first crack at a major quarter-final.
You may remember Gauff’s seismic impact on Wimbledon two years ago, when she came through qualifying before beating Venus Williams and two other seasoned pros. That was a caterpillar-to-butterfly moment: the 15-year-old in an Alice band who transmogrified into a cover star overnight
Since that one meteoric week – which halved her ranking from No 303 to No 146 – Gauff’s story has been one of steady but largely unspectacular improvement. Yes, she sprung the odd ambush, as when she took out Naomi Osaka at last year’s Australian Open. But it is only since switching to the clay this spring that she has displayed consistent champion credentials, arriving in Paris on a run of nine wins from 10 matches that counted world No 1 Ashleigh Barty among her victims.
At Roland Garros on Monday, Gauff showed a cold-eyed confidence that belied a recent loss to Jabeur only two months ago. She reached 119mph on her serve – a speed that many players in the men’s draw would be delighted to match – while her court coverage was nothing short of astonishing.
Jabeur’s trademark is a delightful drop-shot, delivered with impenetrable disguise. But every time this sleight of hand was deployed, Gauff galloped up to the net in her coltish way, arriving so early that she seemed to have read Jabeur’s mind. In most cases, her next shot was decisive.
Here was a flawless all-round display, free of the double-faults that have plagued Gauff since she tinkered with her service action last year. And as Gauff moves forward to face Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic on Wednesday – thus becoming the youngest major quarter-finalist since Nicole Vaidisova at the 2006 French Open – her peers might be alarmed to hear that she rates clay as the weakest of her three surfaces.
“Hard [courts] will always be my favourite, because that’s just what I’m used to and that’s what I started on,” said Gauff. “Grass has a special place in my heart, and that’s probably where you guys all heard of my name for the first time.
“Only thing about clay I don’t like, it’s just whenever you fall, you just get all dirty. So I’m going to go hard No 1, grass No 2, clay No 3.”
Asked about reaching the last eight of a major for the first time, Gauff added: “The difference between yesterday and today, to be honest, is I think I was just more hungry for it. With a lot of young players I think we tend to get satisfied with… not small results but certain results, before we realise that we can really shoot for more. My message has always been ‘dream big and aim higher.’”
As for Musetti, he was unable to finish the match against Djokovic, retiring through general exhaustion when the score read 6-7, 6-7, 6-1, 6-0, 4-0. But Djokovic later suggested that the young Italian “is on the right path to become a top player”.
The match turned at the end of the second set, when Djokovic took a lengthy bathroom break. “So if you really want to know what I was doing, I was not using the toilet at all,” he revealed afterwards.
“I was changing my underwear and everything else. Sometimes even if it’s a few minutes’ break from the court, it just resets you mentally.”
Jones says extreme cramping ‘very inconvenient and upsetting’
There are few tennis stars more courageous than Fran Jones, the British No 4, who competes despite having only six fingers and seven toes due to a rare congenital condition called Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia.
On Monday, in Nottingham, Jones was struck down by one of the side-effects of her EED – a predisposition towards extreme cramping. Having just spent 2hr 31mins battling Spain’s Georgina Garcia Perez, her whole body locked up as she hobbled back to her chair, and it took a good half-hour before medical staff were able to push her back to the locker-rooms in a wheelchair.
During that time, Jones was wracked with convulsions as part of an agonising full-body cramp. She was treated with multiple bags of ice, but could not even bend her right leg by the time she left the court.
“It’s obviously a difficult set of circumstances to face,” said an exhausted Jones, who made headlines around the world when she came through qualifying to play at January’s Australian Open. “But everyone has their challenges, and these are my challenges.”
The last time Jones experienced one of these seizures was as recently as April. “You have to appreciate that I load my feet in a different way and hold my racket in a different way,” she explained. “It’s very inconvenient and upsetting, what happened today. I was cruising in that third set and feeling comfortable but it’s not new and we will keep trying to get to the bottom of it.”
After collapsing onto the grass, Jones was surrounded by ballkids holding up towels while her coaches and the St John’s Ambulance staff rallied to her aid. Even Garcia Perez, who had just completed a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback win, went over to offer help. “For me this is more important than to win a tennis match,” she said. “I have a good relationship with her.”
Yet Jones herself was unimpressed with the nine-minute treatment break that Garcia Perez had taken while trailing 1-2 at the start of the third set. “I was nervous about getting a bit cold,” explained Jones, who hopes to be able to begin training again in a couple of days.
“Unfortunately my nerves were proving a little ripe and I started cramping in my forearm at 3-2 up. I was already struggling to grip the racket which is a bit of a challenge for myself. From there I tried to hang in as much as possible but it was difficult.”