After the dankest, coldest and most downbeat build-up to a major in living memory, Great Britain’s leading players face a day of reckoning. Handed a trio of hostile draws by the French Open’s computer, Andy Murray, Johanna Konta and Dan Evans must play for national pride on Sunday at Roland Garros.
Should they fail, then 2020 will surely go down as the worst ever year for British singles players at the grand slams. Admittedly, Wimbledon was cancelled, which didn’t help. But apart from that, the only person to reach the third round of a major this season was Cameron Norrie, who snuck into the last 32 of the recent US Open.
The statistic demonstrates how valuable it was to have a banker like the old, two-hipped Murray. Between 2011 and 2015, Murray reached at least the quarter-finals of 17 straight majors – as long as you discount the one French Open he skipped because of a bad back.
Since Murray turned bionic last year, the regular mantle of LBS – or Last Briton Standing – has passed to Konta. Her tally of 14 wins at the slams in 2019 was a magnificent achievement. This season, however, she has managed just one – and that against compatriot Heather Watson.
Doubling down on the harshness of the draw, French Open organisers have lined up Murray, Konta and Evans on the first-day schedule like ninepins.
In all probability, the weather will curtail play to some extent. The forecast shows temperatures starting at 11 degrees, in conditions made even slower and heavier by persistent drizzle. But the absorbent nature of red clay allows tennis to continue in light rain, and the worst-case scenario would find all three of Britain’s brightest hopes eliminated by Monday morning.
Konta looks to have the best chance of progressing – both in this first round and the tournament as a whole. Her opponent, 16-year-old Coco Gauff, is already an icon of the game after her spectacular breakthrough at Wimbledon last year. And yet, as tends to be the way of these prodigious teenage talents, the legend has thus far exceeded the results. Gauff is a fine and charismatic performer, but since the resumption of play seven weeks ago, she has a modest W4 L4 record, similar to Konta’s own W5 L4.
“I'm going to be playing against the tennis that she brings,” said Konta of Gauff. “Not her social media following. Not her persona.
“Whenever there's a young player that does exceptionally well it is going to be sensationalised. But she's physically and mentally mature enough to deal with the demands we have on tour. She's going to keep getting better and better.”
If Konta’s seeded status failed to insulate her from a nightmare draw, the same could be said of Evans. He claimed the 32nd and last place among the seeds when Milos Raonic withdrew through injury. Even so, the computer still spat out the name of Kei Nishikori, three times a quarter-finalist here, who has missed enough tennis himself of late to enter that “dangerous floater” category.
For Evans – who has yet to recover his excellent pre-lockdown form – it was “probably the hardest draw I could have got. No-one really needs to question his quality. It will be a difficult match, but I will have to give it my best.”
The heavy conditions expected on the cold, damp French clay will hardly suit Evans’s mercurial strokeplay – nor indeed that of any Briton. It will take great physical effort on every shot to generate any kind of pace. Whereas most of our players grow up on fast indoor courts. As a result, they enjoy deflecting the ball with their hands, in a form of the game that often resembles oversized ping-pong.
To return to the draw, Murray could have no complaints when he landed 16th seed Stan Wawrinka, since he came in as a wild card with a ranking of No 111. This contest is a repeat of the 2017 semi-final here, a 4hr 34min five-setter which applied the last rites to Murray’s dicky right hip – and also left an exhausted Wawrinka needing double knee surgery later in the year.
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Knowing a potential humdinger when they see it, the schedulers have stuck the match on the new-look Court Philippe Chatrier, which was upgraded over the winter at a cost of some €160m. If the forecast is accurate, this will give Murray an early taste of tennis under the new retractable roof – one of very few first-time experiences still available to him on the professional tour.
Despite the mutually destructive nature of that 2017 dust-up – and the fact that Murray ambushed Wawrinka in October’s Antwerp final – these three-time major champions have since established something of a bromance.
“In the last few years we have become closer,” said Murray this weekend. “Like, I message him a bit, he messages me after matches and tournaments. Which wouldn’t have been the case six, seven years ago. There is a mutual respect there. I am glad he has managed to get himself back to playing top tennis after a pretty nasty knee issue. He is a great, great player, and a good guy.”
In fact, Wawrinka’s recent career offers the sort of road map that Murray might aspire to follow. The Swiss is two years older, but remains competitive enough to reach the quarter-finals in three of his last four majors. That is enough to provide a warm glow of satisfaction, even for a player like Murray who has previously stood at world No 1.
However things turn out, Murray remains upbeat about the long-term outlook. “What I would love is six months of consistent practice, tournaments, resting,” he said. “The thing which is hard is that, where I am ranked now, you often have to win against the top players early on in the events. But if I can get those five or six months where I am able to compete in the tournaments I want to, and practice properly, I will definitely win some more tournaments and have some more good wins.”