A page turns at Roland-Garros

Two champions, France’s Alizé Cornet and Spain’s Rafael Nadal, lost their first matches during the 2024 edition of the famous Paris tennis tournament. But while the former has bid farewell to the competition, the latter has not yet bowed out. Because imagining a second life for a professional athlete is not easy…


We’re used to tears at the Roland Garros tournament.


But during this 2024 edition, which comes to an end on June 9, they sometimes had the irremediable and definitive character of a funeral. With the added bonus of sad, rainy weather befitting this type of event.


France’s Alizé Cornet was the most emotional moment of the year, as she bade farewell for good, without holding back her tear glands…


In contrast, men’s tennis legend Rafael Nadal, like his fellow tenniswoman, bowed out of the first match of the tournament on May 27 against Alexander Zverev, but announced that he had not yet made up his mind to retire forever from the tennis courts.


Possible retirement?


As for Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 player, he admitted that, at the age of 37, he finds it more difficult to maintain a constant level of motivation. But while he got the tournament off to a good start, he has yet to raise the prospect of retirement.


Be that as it may, there is a certainty, or sometimes just the impression, that pages are being turned at this edition.


On May 28, 34-year-old Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet lost her first match, the 1002nd of her career, on the main Philippe-Chatrier court at Roland Garros. The player from Nice, 107th in the world, lost in two sets (2-6, 1-6) to China’s Qinwen Zhen, the eighth-ranked player in the world and a finalist at the last Australian Open.


Alizé Cornet had announced from the outset that this tournament would be the last of her career. And she let the tears flow unabashedly at the tribute ceremony dedicated to her. Applauded at length by the audience, she received a trophy of honor from former tenniswoman Amélie Mauresmo, now tournament director, and Gilles Moretton, President of the French Tennis Federation.


The highlights of the twenty-year career of the woman who began her career at the age of 15 and now boasts six singles titles, as well as the record for the number of Grand Slams played in a row (69), were shown on the big screen. All the more reason to turn up the emotional heat…


“I already cried yesterday watching Rafael Nadal. I cried again today. I’ve held it together so far, but now the emotion is overwhelming me. I’ve been preparing for this moment for weeks, but I don’t think you’re ever ready to say goodbye,” she declared.


On Monday May 27, Alizé Cornet witnessed the defeat of her Spanish “colleague”, also in his first match and also on the Philippe Chatrier court.


Rafael Nadal defeated in his first match


Rafael Nadal, who celebrates his 38th birthday on June 3, was no match for No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev. The German beat him in three sets (6-3, 7-6, 6-3).


Considered by specialists to be the best clay-court player in the history of tennis, and one of the best singles players alongside Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the Spaniard may have racked up an incalculable number of victories… including 22 Grand Slam men’s singles trophies (22) behind Novak Djokovic (24), and a record 14 wins at Roland-Garros, the last of which came in 2022…


But the former N°1 player was not seeded this time, and is no longer even ranked in the Top 250. Diminished by injuries and hip surgery, the Spanish player has played little over the last two seasons, and hadn’t returned to the Roland Garros stadium for two years.


And even if, according to the commentators, Rafael Nadal has returned to a very high level of play, it wasn’t enough to avoid this defeat.


However, the player is not throwing down the gauntlet just yet…


Unlike Alizé Cornet, he had declared that this might “not necessarily be his last appearance at the tournament”. And at his request, the French Tennis Federation has postponed the ceremony it had planned to hold at the tournament to pay tribute to him. After his defeat, however, Rafael Nadal said, “I don’t know if this is the last time I’ll be here in front of you”…


Novak Djokovic, still going strong at 37


For his part, world No.1 Novak Djokovic continues to perform, despite his 37 years and, he admitted, moments of reduced motivation…


He won his first two matches, again on the mythical Philippe-Chatrier court, first against Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert (6-4, 7-6 [7-3], 6-4) and then, more easily, against Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena (6-4, 6-1, 6-2).


“I’m still convinced that I can win a Grand Slam inside myself. That’s why I’m still playing at this level. At this age, I wouldn’t still be playing professional tennis if I didn’t believe I had the quality to go all the way. I still feel I have the game to go far,” explained the Serbian player in a press conference. However, he also admitted that he wasn’t projecting himself too far ahead, given that his “preparation for Roland Garros hasn’t been great”.


Novak Djokovic had already confessed to finding it difficult to maintain the same motivation that has driven him for over 20 years of professional tennis. But he also explained that he continues to show the same level of commitment and concentration during his training sessions.

Above all, the champion said he was this year “almost exclusively focused on the Grand Slams and the Olympics, and on playing for my country. That’s what inspires me most today”.


New goals


For these adrenalin-fuelled champions have to set themselves new goals every morning.


And when the time comes for them to retire, it’s not easy to do so away from the court that has been their only professional horizon since they were very young.


But what sets Alizé Cornet apart from her male colleagues, and has no doubt made it easier for her to give up her racket, is the fact that she has swapped it for a pen.


Having already published two novels, La Valse des jours (2022) and Ce qui manque à l’amour (early May), the former sportswoman now intends to throw herself fully into the writing profession…


A remarkable 360-degree professional conversion.


Comfort zone


In general, former sportsmen and women, particularly tennis players, continue more or less in their comfort zone, becoming coaches or commentators, for example.


Former French champion Guy Forget, for example, became tournament director at Bercy and then Roland Garros in 2012 and 2016. At the end of 2021, each of these responsibilities will be handed over to Cédric Pioline and Amélie Mauresmo, themselves two former stars of French tennis.


But there are also those who know how to use their fighting spirit on the court for a noble cause. On the international stage, American player Andre Agassi, now 54, has turned the page on his eight Grand Slam titles. “Retired from tennis since 2006, he founded the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which has opened a school for underprivileged children in Las Vegas.


However, not everyone wants to quickly find a life outside tennis. And perhaps Novak Djokovic feels more inspired by Venus Williams? At the age of 43, the American player is still present on the courts, and at the top of her game. And she plans to continue doing so until she’s 50


Read also > Sports exhibitions not to be missed in France

Featured Photo: © Roland-Garros

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