Tennis: First Serve | On the Path to Paris & Wimbledon Way

After that odd week of clay in the USA and other far-flung places, finally it feels like we can start on our Path to Paris – and the lead-up events to the French Open – so what have we learned so far?

Rusty Djokovic needs match time

It is hard to believe that it is was only his second tournament of the year – and it ended all too quickly. Bounced out by eventual finalist Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, he returned to Belgrade to compete there before we really get to the sharp end of prep with back-to-back Masters in Madrid and Rome.

Djokovic has been up front about not relinquishing his principles in not getting vaccinated to compete but admitted that he needs match time. And restrictions are still very much a movable feast – he will probably ok to try and defend his Wimbledon title – but will he get a chance to defend his French Open title?

Will Rafael even make it back on the dirt?

After an outstanding start to the year, the wheels finally came off with injury forcing the Spaniard to take a long break. Missing crucial clay tournaments – The Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona, another of his favourite tournaments, his aim is to return to the Madrid Masters and onto the Rome Masters. The difficulty is that Madrid is at altitude with the ball zipping about, while Rome is closer to the Parisian clay. If he is fit, it will make Djokovic’s quest to level at 21 Slams with Nadal very interesting with neither particularly match sharp on a testing surface.

Usher in the age of Swiatek

For a long time now, the WTA has had a continual turn at the top while the mighty force that was Serena Williams has dwindled – and the women’s tour has been all the better for it. With Ashleigh Barty’s sudden retirement, step forward the quirky Iga Swiatek. Not your most conventional player, and a Slam winner at 19, she seems to have been able to handle the pressures a lot better than other early Slam winners – Sofia Kenin being a good example.

She continued her great run of form in the Billie Jean Cup qualifiers over the weekend – winning both her ties with the loss of just one game.

And she’s handy on clay! With Naomi Osaka still not all that comfortable on clay (or indeed grass) could we see Swiatek start to make a claim with multiple Slams?

Serena and the elusive #24

Ah Serena. That elusive 24 that would have at least (partially) removed Margaret Court from the equation just proved to be a step too far. In fact, both the Williams sisters have plummeted down the rankings with Serena at world number 243 and sister Venus just inside the Top 500 (!) at 493.

As for whether we will ever see them back in action – Serena has spoken of making a return at Wimbledon, but this is nothing new – she often talks of making a comeback at the next Slam and injury will scupper that.

There has been rumours of a farewell doubles return for the sisters at the US Open. Serena Williams will remain the greatest tennis player of the Open Era, at least until/if any of the Big Three overhaul at number of 23 Slams.

Will we ever see anyone as dominating as Serena was at her best? That remains to be seen.

And then the grass

Ah yes that glorious time of the year when casual observers of tennis womble along to the hallowed turf of SW19. Once just a couple of warm up tournaments and then the big deal itself, the grass court season has developed now to a three-week lead-up across Europe before The Championships and for many British fans it is a chance to watch tennis on their door-step.

The surface still proves to be a challenge for some of the emerging best – Daniil Medvedev, for example, has been one of the most consistent players over the past couple of years, but struggles on clay and grass, and if he wants to make a real play for being one of the key names to step into the Big Three breach, he will need to tame the dirt and the grass.

The same can be said of Osaka. She has struggled with her mental health and her reactions to losses on these surfaces that seem to neutralize her style of play. With four Slams already in her back pocket – she is still by far and a way the most likely to make any kind of onslaught on the Williams’ pinnacle, but she will need to find a way to hit through clay and grass.

One this is for sure though – the Path to Paris and the Way to Wimbledon will herald a glorious European season.