Seven-time Grand Slam Champion and Eurosport’s lead Tennis Expert, Mats Wilander, tells us why Roland-Garros 2019 is the most open in recent memory and why, despite pulling out, Nick Kyrgios is good for the game.
On the openness of the men’s draw at Roland-Garros this year:
Mats Wilander: I think the men’s draw is the most open that I can remember. There was always somebody who could beat Rafa themselves but not 15, 20 guys and I feel going into the tournament there are most probably 20 guys that, whoa, these are tough matches on paper. So yeah, I think this younger generation that has come up, they are opposing a serious threat with all of them, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Auger Alliassime, obviously Zverev to a certain degree still I think is a big threat and Thiem is kind of in between but yes, there are more guys that can worry the best players and there are more match ups that I’m interested in seeing. Like I know that Tsitsipas can hit through these guys and come to the net, I know that Medvedev can hit these heavy low balls that will just drive you insane if it’s on a wet moist cold day in Paris and I think I’m talking about both Novak and Rafa in that situation. I think there are a lot of the guys who feel when the green light is on I can actually go out and threaten these guys even in five sets on clay. At least that’s the way it looks when I see them play.
On the controversies surrounding Nick Kyrgios:
MW: As long as he throws chairs and breaks racquets because he has lost the first set 7-6 and I believe dropped his serve to go down a break in the second, as long as he throws a chair because he’s pissed that he’s losing, I think he’s great for the game. I think he’s great for the game, he suddenly becomes another John McEnroe and obviously at the time McEnroe was good or bad, we weren’t really sure but obviously it turns out that McEnroe was one of the most important players that ever played the game because it welcomed the other side of gentlemen’s tennis so I like that, Kyrgios getting pissed off but I just can’t handle when it looks like he’s not trying and he looks like he’d much rather be somewhere else. That’s where the rules committee have to step in and do what they did in the US Open, literally come down and have a chat to Nick and make him understand that this is not good for the game, it’s obviously not good for you but it is not what tennis is about. You can get angry and that so I think if he keeps it within the lines of just being angry and I don’t mind in between leg shots and all that sort of stuff he does. What’s the difference between in between shots or a crazy drop shot? There’s no difference really, it’s I want to end the point here so that’s a good tactical move. So that part I have no problem with, it’s only when it looks like he’s not trying but even when he engages with the crowd – in Miami he did with a guy – I don’t mind, I think it brings out emotions that makes you want to go and watch soccer, football, you know. It’s emotional, with Nick you want to go and see him because you don’t know what’s going to happen, bad calls are going to annoy or whatever. If he keeps it within the lines of trying hard I love Nick Kyrgios.
On how the other players view Kyrgios’ antics:
MW: The locker room, they love it, they love watching it but they hate losing to it. Absolutely and the funniest thing about Nick Kyrgios, the strangest thing, is we do all get the sense that the players in the locker room, they actually love him as just one of the mates. You always get that. Okay after the match Nadal was annoyed in Acapulco and he said a few things about not respecting or whatever but the handshake against Nick Kyrgios in general is pretty like, I know what you’re going through but hey, you’re a good guy and I think that helps Nick. You do get the feeling that he is a good guy deep down.
On the impact of the weather conditions at Roland-Garros:
MW: Yes, that’s the biggest variable I think compared to the other majors. Obviously the conditions can change so much and for players that can knock confidence. I think at the French Open the conditions play a huge difference and they know that one suits them and the other one is absolutely a nightmare whereas the better you are – I mean obviously Nadal prefers it hot and dry but it depends who he’s playing. If he plays big hitters like Karen Khachanov or Dominic Thiem or somebody, I’m not sure what he’d prefer but him and Novak seems to be able to … Novak’s forehand works when it’s hot and dry because he can spin it up high, his backhand works when it is heavy and soggy because it stays low and he can somehow drive through it, he can get to everything because it’s slower and Nadal, on a heavy court you’re going to have to hit a thousand balls to hit past him. His forehand isn’t a weapon on a heavy court but suddenly it is hard to attack his backhand, you can’t hit it up high on the backhand. So the best players I think look the conditions as a serious advantage – just like they look at wind and air conditions, the top players, due to it being something you work in to becoming an advantage to you. But again, yes, match ups are so important even for them. Obviously they want to play certain players on certain days but it’s less important for them, at least that’s the way I felt when I played there. It doesn’t really matter, I can figure out heavy courts or fast courts depending on who I’m playing, I’ll figure out a way to play them.
On why there are comparatively less upsets at Roland-Garros compared to other Grand Slams:
MW: Well I think that there’s a lot of different reasons but I do think that one reason is that obviously clay is a slower surface and the guys who win on the surface in general do it through consistency with Novak and Rafa and Andy and in many ways Roger Federer through the history – maybe not the last two or three years when he’s been more aggressive but otherwise he has been consistent. When they are winning on other surfaces suddenly he gets an even slower court where he can defend even more than he can on hard courts and on grass, suddenly that gap widens a little bit because again the most consistent player wins on clay in general, so I think that’s what happens. The slower the surface, the better the best players seem to adapt and the bigger the gap is because they just don’t make enough unforced errors to beat themselves and on clay even less so. But keeping that in mind, obviously clay courts have changed over the years and Rafa, we have to say he is one of the most aggressive players to ever play the game in terms of constructing points. Yes, it takes a while but it’s not like he’s hanging out and even though he plays far behind the baseline he is not hanging out waiting for mistakes, I mean he is pushing his opponent around and with more time on a clay court he is able to be more aggressive. So that is why he has been winning and that’s why Novak and Murray have not been winning because on clay Rafa is more aggressive than they can be.
On what it takes for the younger player to transfer their promise into becoming a Grand Slam Champion:
MW: I think the biggest difference is to be able to single out the opponent that you have in front of you. The opponent and the conditions, because you cannot roll over anyone in five sets. You can get on a roll for an hour and be up a set and a break and on a regular tour that match is over but in five sets you know that is not going to happen so to be able to single out the players and the conditions and the environment and how you feel and your strengths and weaknesses a little bit to play every match like it is the last match of the tournament is the biggest difference to me. I mean I’ve had great matches in Grand Slams and the next day I know that I have a day off and then suddenly feel completely different the following day and so it makes, if you know how to handle it it actually makes it easier because you’re not really looking ahead at the other matches, nor your confidence level because confidence changes throughout the four or five hours and I think that’s what the guys who are younger, that’s the hard thing to figure out is the mix between when do I press, when do I hold back, when do I let go in the set because I’m down 4-1 and two breaks, keeping in mind I still have to play another two, that takes experience and belief and if you have early success like I did then suddenly you believe you have somehow found the formula and you are 100% convinced that okay, I know how to play five sets, I just do the same as I did last year or last time. If you haven’t figured it out, you have to have a few wins in a tournament before you believe you have figured it out.
How it is harder for young players playing in an era of three of the game’s greatest players:
MW: Yes, exactly. It is not really … during the match it is obviously very hard but also before the match, what are the tactics going to me? Am I just going to go for it for an hour and see what happens? Well that’s not going to be enough so what are you going to do when you have gone for it and you’ve got no bullets left, what’s your tactic going to be then because you are going to have not just an A and B plan but you’re going to go down to six or seven ways of winning points and that’s a hard thing to grasp before you go on court to have all those things pretty clear in your mind and then solve problems along the way because they keep changing. Even the weather changes over four hours and that’s also a big difference so I think the lead up preparation for a match is quite stressful for players who haven’t been through the grind of winning a Grand Slam or winning a bunch of matches every Grand Slam.
Thoughts on the future of the men’s game when the ‘Big 3’ have retired:
MW: Yes, I think I worry if they don’t start winning slams before Roger, Rafa and Novak are gone. Then I worry because you need, someone like Tsitsipas or one of the young guys, I can compare them to Boris Becker winning ’85 at Wimbledon, not necessarily me in ’82 at the French Open but Borg was gone and here came another Swede, would never fill his shoes but there was another Swede who played boring tennis so to speak. Then suddenly the matchup of McEnroe and Borg and maybe Connors kind of died off and what happens? Boris Becker comes on the scene and he basically singlehandedly changed the way everybody looked at tennis, changed the way the game was played, he was more power and big serves so I think that rivalries will always appear, I just hope that the likes of Zverev, Tsitsipas and Thiem are winning very, very soon, hopefully this year and then we have those three big great players hang on for a couple of more years and get beaten up a little bit before they hang the racquet up, that will be a perfect scenario.
Thoughts on the form and chances of Alex Zverev:
MW: I’m not sure, I’m a little hesitant to give my full opinion on Zverev. Obviously he has had so far a great career and he is still young. He has got a big game when he plays well, and I think the finals last year in the O2 Arena against Novak that weekend, it gives me all kinds of confidence that he will at some point arrive even in the slams. Whether that’s now, this year or next year or in a couple of years, that’s hard to tell but the only thing that I could question, and that’s not because of Ivan or any other coach that he’s had along the way, is I question trying to have another voice in your ear when you are as young as he is and you have a career so far that is pointing in the right direction the whole time. Do you hire a coach just to do better in the slams when you’re 21 years old, 20 years old or whatever he was? To me, no. I think he is trying to clear his own path and he is doing it his own way and I don’t think he ran into enough problems to start exploiting or exploring a different way of going. He comes from a tennis family, I don’t know what was so … why there had to be such a drastic situation, the emergency of firing – obviously Ivan is one of the best coaches of all time but still I don’t know, too many voices in a young man’s head is not really my cup of tea I have to say so I’m a little concerned with that, with the desperation of trying to force things rather than just let them come to him.
On the chances of Naomi Osaka winning a 3rd Grand Slam title in a row?
MW: I mean she has a really good chance. I do not see why she should dislike clay courts, I saw her in Madrid and she was able to move around pretty nicely, she could hit through the court and stay in the rallies so apart from her own words at times that clay courts are the hardest surface for her to play on, if she can somehow turn that around in the press and after a round or two come out and say I didn’t realise how good I could play on clay and put some fear into the opponents and put some belief into the fans and media and build her up, I think that she has to be mentioned as one of the three or four favourites, absolutely.
Thoughts on the form of reigning women’s champion Simona Halep:
MW: Well I think she most probably goes with a little bit of pressure because she hasn’t won anything else and I think. I mean I’m not one of them for sure, but I think there could be a feeling that Simona Halep’s time is sort of over because the power game on the women’s side is taking over and it’s hard to play like her just like it’s hard to play like Caroline Wozniacki, but I’m not one of them. I believe that she has the mindset that she has now reached number one in the world, she has won a slam, for her now it is about improving her game which I love that she’s saying that so in terms of working on the practice court and certain easy matches, that’s a great attitude to have. The only thing is that once you get into a Grand Slam and something you want to win or do well in, thinking about improving your game has to come second and suddenly it’s about do or die as an athlete. Obviously in sports life or death has to be at the forefront. Like I can’t live with myself if I lose this match because that’s when you make good tactical decisions that come from your heart rather than thinking your way round the court logically, it has to be a feeling that I’m scared of losing and I need to do this right now because it feels right. So it’s hard to go in between the two but I believe she cannot win the one without improving so I think she is on the right track and it will be great if she is still improving, that’s good too. I am not worried about her future but am I worried about her winning the French Open? No, she’s the favourite, I mean she is the favourite to win.
Thoughts on the form and fitness of Caroline Wozniacki:
MW: Well obviously with her we know she is struggling with some arthritis problems and I believe she can’t practice as hard as she used to and when you play a game like her you obviously feel like you have to practice most probably harder than everybody else to get some confidence come back. At the same time, I don’t know how many more years she has on tour but I would say some of that lack of practice sometimes plays out in a more relaxed attitude and more willingness to freewheel a little bit and in today’s women’s game that’s probably the way she has to go anyway so I think with all that’s going on it takes some pressure off of her and she could maybe hit out a little bit more and be more aggressive. Now the only problem with the French Open is that that’s the hardest tournament to do that at and be consistent in winning. You can do a match or two doing that but to be freewheeling it the whole time and not have the backup plan of I can run for four hours if I have to, that’s what … If she comes in physically not knowing if she can stay there for four hours then obviously that puts a little pressure on her hoping she is going to hit the ball beautifully and play her opponents rather than run them into the ground so that’s the tough call for her that the Plan B of physically being stronger than your opponent, I’m not sure that that’s still there in her game.
On the frustrations for Wozniacki and impact of her injuries on practice:
MW: Yes, it is obviously frustrating but if you look at somebody like Wozniacki or Simona Halep I think when you look before the tournament, or even Serena Williams, when you look at the draw you have 128 players in there, you have got to pick one who’s the clear favourite, that’s hard to do but when you are looking at the daily schedule and you see Caroline Wozniacki up against Kiki Bertens or Karolina Pliskova, okay, let’s see, well they’re going to have to hit a thousand winners because Caroline will not give you anything for free and if they hit a thousand winners they can have a thousand unforced errors and suddenly Caroline is in with a chance if she’s not making mistakes. So the match up when Caroline is involved, that’s what I look at and say well it’s just one match, we’re not talking about her winning but I am talking about this match in particular and she’s a veteran. She’s won on every court, she’s beaten everybody in every tournament at some point, number one a couple of times – no, in that situation, with or without injuries, she is on the court, she’s fit to play and you look at the mental part of the game and suddenly you have to say, well they are going to have to play a great match to get by someone like Caroline.
On if the game is more entertaining and competitive now or during Mats era:
MW: Yes, I think going into slams I think that has become really important, to have one of the big four in the finals, at least one of them and I think at times it’s been really important to have two out of the four and that has happened so much and we have been so lucky in what we have been wishing for but at the same time I think the early rounds in some of the slams have been sort of one sided, so the anticipation I guess hasn’t been as exciting with having such dominant players as we’ve had but in terms of entertainment value, I don’t think you could have bigger entertainment value than watching Novak and Roger and Rafa slug it out on any court at any time, that’s pretty hard to beat but yes, I think it comes down to the generation right behind those three have been beaten up so much that we did have a little bit of a lost generation but the generation that’s coming now, thank God those big three are still playing because watching Tsitsipas take on Federer or Nadal, that for me is some the best interesting tennis I’ve seen since the beginning of Federer/Nadal I have to say. When the young guys who come up against them, we are so lucky to have the big three still playing and being at their best because it’s so interesting to see different generations and the contrasts of style because today’s young players are different, they are completely different in terms of style so the old fashioned one handed backhand coming to the net is suddenly coming back very much into men’s tennis with Tsitsipas leading the charge.
On what Mats would say about his own game on Game, Schett and Mats?
MW: I would have said that it’s a mixture between boring your opponent to death whilst being very thoughtful and I would have said that tactically my game is more complicated than it looks from the outside, at least for me and my opponents but yeah, the obvious opinion you have watching me play is that I win because I don’t make mistakes and some players can’t handle that physically or mentally and either they risk too much, get bored or get tired. I wouldn’t have very high praise in terms of entertainment value, that’s for sure but at the same time which Mats Wilander are we talking about? 1982 at 17 or 1988 as a 24 year old? There’s a huge difference between the two.
On what Mat’s finds harder – being a professional tennis player or being a TV tennis commentator?
MW: Well it depends on how you look at it. You go into work today and there is a chance you could call it losing by making some bad predictions, by stuttering on live TV or trying to make a point but you run out of time and you can weave yourself into a little bit of a hole and then you say something that you shouldn’t have said or that you didn’t really mean but it came out anyway, so there is a chance of losing I suppose, having a bad day rather but when you are playing obviously you go into every match thinking this might be it. So I made all the finals at all the Grand Slams and that makes you able to unpack your bag and you settle into a routine and you get better. I get better as an analyst every day or every round, for the obvious reason that the more I see players playing, the easier it is not to be right but the easier it is to have a pretty firm opinion on what I think is going to happen and then obviously I am wrong and right about 50%, a similar time I guess, I don’t know.
It is very important than that what I should say is interesting is I am not more of an expert going into the tournament than anybody else, I have no idea. Anyone can make a pick by looking at statistics or whatever and looking at the clay court season where I feel that my strength is because of playing and because of having a passion for the sport, is that I feel I can look at a match, I can look at a match up and I have a pretty good idea not of what the end result is necessarily going to be but what the match is going to look like and what it has to look like for one player to win and what it looks like if the other player’s eyes to win so the tactical part on the day, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what the match needs to look like depending on what results you want from it. That’s when you I think benefit from having been a player that has played in a lot of big matches.
Eurosport’s multi-court coverage of Roland Garros begins on Sunday at 9:30.
Game, Schett and Mats is broadcast nightly throughout the tournament.
Interview credit: Eurosport