The 115th edition of the French Open is set to begin on Sunday after what has been an intriguing clay court lead-up. The second Grand Slam of the year is full of story-lines and unsolved puzzles. Here are some of the burning questions surrounding this year’s Roland Garros.
1) Can Novak Djokovic win the only big title that has eluded him so far?
The world No. 1 Serb has won 4 out of the last 5 majors. The one missing? Roland Garros 2015. It’s no secret that Djokovic has struggled with his nerves in this particular tournament. Rafael Nadal was a thorn in his side for many years, especially in the crucial 2012 and 2014 finals as well as that heartbreaking five-set loss in the 2013 semis. But last year, Djokovic thrashed the Spaniard in the quarters, played a long five setter against Murray over 2 days because of darkness only to put a flat performance against a brilliant Stan Wawrinka in the final. Djokovic comes into this year’s edition having lost in the 2rd round of Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely and won Madrid beating Andy Murray in the final, before losing to the Brit in a repeat final at Rome. He still is the favorite. But the gap between him and his rivals is narrower on the terre battue of Paris given the mental trials.
2) Is Nadal back to his King of Clay form?
Yes and no. The nine-time French Open champion started the year with a very shaky forehand and baffling losses on clay to Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires and Pablo Cuevas in Rio de Janeiro. When the tour moved to the European clay, Nadal was able to win his ninth Monte Carlo Masters title as well as his ninth Barcelona Open title. The fact that he wasn’t an overwhelming favorite going into those events signals the change of times. Ten years ago, pundits and many alike were wondering “how do you beat this guy on clay?” Not any more. Having watched Nadal in the past couple of weeks, I can say that the forehand has regained some of its zip, but it still is erratic and often lands short in pressure moments. Nadal sometimes chases every ball, but other times, he is uncharacteristically wrongfooted. Confidence, too, is huge for the Spaniard. There was no disgrace in losing to Murray in the semis of Madrid and to Djokovic in the quarters of Rome. But those were tight performances from him given the opportunities he had. But you know what they say, a grand slam is a different beast.
3) Would it be a shock if Andy Murray wins this whole thing?
The Brit has made huge strides in the past year with respect to his game on clay. Get this: Murray made his first clay court final last year in Munich winning the title against Philipp Kohlschreiber before easily beating Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the final of Madrid in what was an eyebrow-raising result. He then played Djokovic tough in the semis of the French Open, which ultimately sapped the Serb of energy before the finals. This year, Murray’s form on clay has been a continuation of his great form shown last year. He lost a tight semifinal to Nadal in Monte Carlo, but got revenge over the Spaniard in straight sets in the semis of Madrid. Even though he lost the Madrid final to Djokovic, it was incredible to see him beat the Serb 6-3, 6-3 in the finals of Rome. It was constantly drizzling in that Rome final, which made the conditions heavier, but the Brit hit through the clay and moved fluidly on the damp surface. His reaction after the victory suggested that he will be in Paris to contend for his third slam.
4) Will flying under the radar help Wawrinka throughout the fortnight?
Wawrinka has always been that enigmatic tennis player and you know the drill: he could either lose to anybody or beat anybody. There is no in-between. The defending champion, who wowed everybody last year with that emphatic win over Djokovic in the finals utilizing his lethal single-handed backhand, is not being talked about ahead of this year’s edition. His record on European clay this year is 3 wins and 3 losses. It’s hard to see him defending his title in Paris, but maybe the lack of spotlight is what he needs, so that he proves people wrong. In the absence of Roger Federer, who withdrew with a back injury, Wawrinka is Switzerland’s only hope in the men’s draw. In fact, only three men have won the last 11 editions of the French Open; namely, Nadal (2005-2008, 2010-2014), Federer (2009) and Wawrinka (2015). All hail Switzerland.
5) How far can #NextGen players like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev go?
There is no doubt that Thiem’s game is well suited to clay given his title in Buenos Aires that saw him beat three Spaniards along the way, including a big win over Nadal in the semis. But his game, which depends on lung-busting rallies, is a very physical one. Rest and recovery will be key for him in this best-of-five set format. As for Kyrgios, it is easy to say that his flashy game is suited for the faster courts, but in his losses to Nishikori and Nadal in Madrid and Rome, respectively, the Australian proved that his big game, when consistent enough, can penetrate the toughest of defenses. The Australian also has a great amount of swagger. He is here to play and not to make up the numbers. Last and not least, the youngest in this trio is Zverev who has a game that is so easy on the eyes: great timing and precision with plenty of power. But we’re still waiting for the “welcome to the big leagues” moment. Will this be it?
6) What exactly is the current state of Serena Williams?
The world No. 1 American has played just 4 events since losing to Roberta Vinci in the semis of the US Open last September. That loss ended her historic quest for the calendar year slam. It also temporarily stopped her from tying Steffi Graf’s record of 22 majors. We could argue long and hard about the emotional hurt that loss has inflicted on her. We could look at her losses to Angelique Kerber (Australian Open final), Victoria Azarenka (Indian Wells final) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (Miami fourth round) and say that she lost her aura. But the defending French Open champion just rolled to her fourth Rome title last week without dropping a set. She is a three-time winner in Paris (her least successful major), red clay still vexes her, but Grand Slam No. 22 is a real possibility. Write her off at your own peril.
7) Can Angelique Kerber back up her big win in Australia with another one here?
When the German won her first and only major in Melbourne, she was inundated with press conferences, media requests, interviews and photo shoots for sponsors. It was all a little too overwhelming for the self-effacing Kerber. Early round losses in Doha to Zheng Saisai and in Indian Wells to Denisa Allertova were baffling, but perhaps not so much in retrospect. While she recovered to reach the semis in Miami and Charleston, as well as defend her title in Stuttgart (first time she’s ever defended a title), she also put in two poor performances resulting in early round losses to Barbora Strycova and Eugenie Bouchard, in Madrid and Rome respectively. Clay is her least favorite surface, but maybe those last few losses are a blessing in disguise for her. She is the kind of player who thrives on training and rigorous drills. If she can survive the first week, watch out!
8) Can mental strength alone see Victoria Azarenka win her first slam in over three years?
The Belarusian had forgettable 2014 and 2015 seasons marred by injuries, lack of fitness and lack of confidence. But she’s won 3 titles this season, including the Indian Wells-Miami double (affectionately called the Sunshine Double). On indoor clay, she led her country to a victory over Russia by getting a couple of singles wins to clinch that Fed Cup World Group I playoff. Unfortunately, a back injury prevented her from taking the court in her round of 16 match against Louisa Chirico in Madrid, and was the main reason she lost quietly to Irina-Camilia Begu in her first match in Rome. The Belarusian is on a mission, though, to debunk the claims that she dislikes the clay. She says she’s worked a lot on her movement on the surface. But how much of a hindrance will be that back injury? She talks and acts like the champion she is. Can that alone see her through though?
9) Is Simona Halep officially back to winning ways?
It’s been a strange season for the Romanian. After a first round defeat to Zhang Shuai at the Australian Open, the Romanian announced that she would skip the Fed Cup and the Dubai-Doha swing to undergo nose surgery, only to unexpectedly announce that she postponed the surgery. She played on, didn’t look convincing and was actually nursing a left Achilles injury. She reached back-to-back quarterfinals in Indian Wells and Miami, but then lost her first match on the indoor clay of Stuttgart to Laura Siegemund. She was able to redeem herself in the Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid where she cruised to the title, albeit without facing a top 10 player. That week in Madrid took its toll on her as she struggled to adapt to the much more different conditions of Rome where she lost her first match to Daria Gavrilova. Even though Halep is an aggressive counterpuncher, she is not the kind of player who has a booming serve or screaming winners from the baseline. Yes, she played well in Madrid, but she might need a little help from the draw gods if she wants to do one better than her 2014 finals showing in Paris.
10) Have the big hitters of the WTA put an end to the rise of authentic clay courters ?
Myth: there are no authentic clay courters on tour. Myth debunked: the last few years have seen quite a few players with games suited more to the clay than any other surface. Look at Samantha Stosur’s kick serve and massive top spin forehand which saw her reach the 2010 final. Sara Errani, the 2012 finalist, employs a mixture of spins, drop shots and dogged defense to get errors out of her more powerful opponents. Her 85 miles per hour first serve allows her to start the rally on the red dirt. Carla Suarez Navarro is a player, whose beautiful swings especially on her one-handed backhand, utilizes her spins and angles to drag players out of position. Timea Bacsinsizky, the Rabat champion, who reached the semis of last year’s edition plays with a lot of loop on the forehand side as well as slices on both the forehand and the backhand.
11) Is it surreal to experience a Sharapova-less French Open?
It probably is. The Russian tested positive for Meldonium at the Australian Open and she’s been provisionally suspended since then. A hearing is currently taking place in London with a decision expected before Wimbledon. Sharapova, in her early years, was a self-proclaimed “cow on ice” whenever she stepped on a clay court. But she improved dramatically on the surface and was able to win two out of three consecutive finals at Roland Garros. Her victories in 2012 and 2014 as well as in other European clay tournaments gave rise to the nickname “Claypova”. A big match player and a steely competitor, her absence opens the door for quite a few players who simply don’t possess the toughness to beat her.
12) Can the Bryan Brothers win the title after last year’s heartbreak?
The greatest men’s doubles duo of all time is trying to win their first major since the 2014 US Open. Last year witnessed a dip in form and a loss of the No. 1 ranking, not to mention that heartbreaking loss in the French Open final to Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo. You have to give them credit for still hanging in here. In the beginning of the season, Bob and Mike switched sides on return. It was usually the lefty Bob who returned on the deuce court and righty Mike who returned on the ad court. But they have been implementing the opposite. The duo has won 3 titles this season: Houston, Barcelona and Rome. All three tournaments are on clay. And maybe that is a good omen for them.
13) Will Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza win their fourth major in a row to complete the #SanTina slam?
When #SanTina lost their quarterfinal match in Doha to Daria Kasatkina and Elena Vesnina, their winning streak of 41 matches came to an end. But everyone appreciated the incredible run they had and weren’t too concerned. But when the duo couldn’t win back-to-back matches at Indian Wells and then again at Miami, many fans started to worry given they were defending champions at both events. Did they lose their mojo and swagger? Were they fatigued? But like all established champions, Hingis and Mirza dug deep to find good form again on their least favorite surface: red clay. After losing two finals to Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic in Stuttgart and Madrid, team #SanTina won Rome to claim their first title on red clay as a duo. They are the reigning Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open champions. Wouldn’t they love to win the French Open to complete the non-calendar slam? They would be the first team to do it since Venus and Serena Williams completed theirs at the 2010 French Open.
14) Is winning a clay court tournament all that important in determining favorites and dark horses?
Not necessarily. Let’s look at Pablo Cuevas, for example. The Uruguayan won back-to-back titles in Brazil at Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Those were tournaments played in February. Are they great for his confidence? Sure. But they’re not the right metric to gauge how Cuevas can challenge the top players in a best-of-five set match in the biggest tournament on red clay; namely, Roland Garros. On the women’s side, Sloane Stephens loves the clay. She won her biggest title on the green clay courts of Charleston, a Premier tournament. But again, can she bring her A game to a tight, pressure-filled situation in a third set in Paris where a slam final is on the line, for example? Leaving Paris aside, both players failed to make impressions at the bigger tournaments: ATP Masters 1000s for the men and Premier Mandatories and Premier 5s for the women. But there is nothing set in stone: Sara Errani won three small tournaments in the lead up to the French Open in 2012 and didn’t do well in the big events, but ended up reaching that French Open 2012 final.
15) How is the weather in Paris going to affect play and the outcomes of matches?
Clay is the one surface most affected by the weather conditions. If it’s windy, the top layers of the clay swirl around and virtually a lot of the top dressing is lost making the pace of the court more like a hard court. If it’s drizzling, not hard enough for play to stop, the raindrops dampen the court making conditions much slower and heavier. The forecast for the French Open is for quite a few rain showers early on. The heavy conditions will nullify the big servers’ games. It will also give more time for counterpunchers to create more spin and angles. The Rome final between Murray and Djokovic saw the Brit using the rain to his advantage. He was able to pummel the balls that sat up, while Djokovic had problems sliding and his world-renowned movement was compromised.
16) Is there a way to avoid all the chatter about qualifying for the Rio Olympics?
The International Tennis Federation announced that the rankings published after the Roland Garros fortnight will be the ones used to determine the cut-off for Olympic qualification. In other words, this is the players’ last chance to gain points to guarantee qualification for the Olympic tennis tournament. While the likes of Djokovic and Serena Williams don’t have to worry since they have already qualified, the players who are outside the top 50 have a huge task on their hands: not only are they seeking glory on the terre battue in Paris, but they also have the added pressure that every match counts towards Olympic qualification.