The French Open begins Sunday without Roger Federer but with a set of storylines that make this one of the most compelling Roland Garros tournaments in years. Can Novak Djokovic get the career Slam? Will Serena Williams snap her dry spell? Which WTA player will come out of nowhere to make a semifinal or final? Is Nadal ever going to get his 10th title? And, seriously, how does Djokovic keep his socks so clean while sliding around on loose clay? Some thoughts on the French Open draw.
1. Novak Djokovic couldn’t have made a better draw for himself if he’d rigged that draw like it was the 1985 NBA draft lottery.
The world No. 1, aiming for his first ever title at Roland Garros to cap the career Slam, give him all four major titles at once and put him halfway to the Grand Slam, has just about the easiest mathematical road possible. Neither of his first two opponents are in the top 100. In the third round get gets the No. 33 ranked player in the world (who’s seeded No. 31 because of two withdrawals). Next up would be No. 16 Roberto Bautista Agut (the 14th seed). Tomas Berdych, the world No. 8 who was recently double-bageled on clay by David Goffin, would be up in the quarterfinals. And then, in the semis, the world No. 5, who happens to be Rafael Nadal. So, pre-Nadal, Djokovic’s schedule features almost the worst possible seeds he’d face every round. It’s as mundane as it gets for a No. 1 seed. And it’s not as if there are lower-seeded lurkers in his quarter either. Other than Borna Coric and the fading David Ferrer, it’s just a bunch of potential Djokovic victims there.
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2. Serena Williams is on a two-major losing streak. Does she break it at Roland Garros?
Only for Serena Williams would failing to win two-straight majors be an issue. Does she get off the schneid? Honestly, I have no idea. Whereas we can look at the men’s draw and make educated guesses, the women’s game, which is always unpredictable (in a good, competitive way), has basically been chaos this year. Venus Williams is 7-6 this season and still ranked No. 11. Petra Kvitova has been so bad she’s out of the top 10. Flavia Pennetta has been retired for seven months and just moved back into the top 10. In Madrid, Simona Halep was the only top-10 player to make the quarterfinals. Twelve of the 16 seeds had lost or withdrawn before then. Basically, the women’s game is completely unpredictable right now, and not in the way that all sports are unpredictable, but in the way that if you said, "19-year-old and No. 29 seed Daria Kasatkina is going to make the finals," no one could say, "you’re crazy." The only woman who can’t is Lucie Safarova because after her surprise run to the final last year, she’s practically guaranteed a first-round exit.
3. Does it get any better than this shirt of Mickey Mouse kissing the Coupe des Mousquetaires?
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Unless it’s a Roger Federer shirt covered with emojis, no, no it does not.
4. Rafael Nadal did not get a draw befitting a nine-time champion.
The first two rounds are easy. The first two rounds are always easy. In the third, Nadal could see No. 32 Fabio Fognini. "Great," you say, "he got the worst seed in a tournament that has two of the top 32 already out!" Except that Fognini has defeated Nadal in two of their last four clay appearances. (As far as I can tell, splitting with Nadal on clay has only been achieved twice since Rafa won his first French Open in 2005: Novak Djokovic has done it a number of times, while Andy Murray also pulled the feat with his win over Nadal in Rome last week.) The fourth round could bring the hottest, young, clay-court talent in the sport: Dominic Thiem. And then, in the semis, a matchup with Djokovic. Everybody is looking ahead to that matchup, but just like all those years when fans would eye a late-round Federer-Nadal showdown, they might not get what they wish for.
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5. The timing of Roger Federer’s withdrawal was crucial.
With The Fed’s withdrawal on Thursday, everybody (except Djokovic and Murray) slides up a seed, thus making life easier for everyone, as Nadal goes from a No. 5 (a seed that could have had him playing Djokovic or Murray in the quarterfinals) to a No. 4 (thus protecting the top players until the semifinals). So, instead of a 50% chance we’d have a Nadal vs. Djokovic/Murray quarter, it’s now 0%. Thanks, Rog.
6. You didn’t answer the Serena question.
No, I don’t think she wins. She handled all comers in Rome with a dominant performance that, given the complete mess that is the women’s game right now, should theoretically propel her right to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. But I don’t know – the same way I didn’t think Serena would win in New York and Melbourne, I’ve got this nagging feeling someone’s going to trip her up in France.
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7. Can Stan Wawrinka defend his French Open title?
In a word, no. In some more words, I guess it’s possible given that Stan’s road to the semis in’t exactly littered with land mines, but we’re still talking about a player who, despite making the quarters of nine of his last 12 Slams, has made just two such runs at Roland Garros and was coming off a first-round loss last year en route to his surprise title.
8. Who? Who is going to beat Serena Williams? You’re stalling like Tomas Berdych’s career.
I don’t know! Serena lost to world No. 111 Virginie Razzanno in the first round just four years ago. (And then she went on one of the most dominant runs sports has ever seen, culminating with her Wimbledon win and "Serena Slam" last summer before ending three sets short of immortality at the U.S. Open.) It could be anybody. Kristyna Pliskova. Kristina Mladenovic. Victoria Azarenka (who can’t catch a break in a Slam – she’s in Serena’s quarter). Timea Bacsinszky. Madison Keys. And that’s just up to the semifinals!
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9. Is Andy Murray a threat?
Of course Murray is a threat – the title at Rome only solidified that. He has some tricky players in his quarter – Kei Nishikori and Nick Kyrgios, mainly – but his route to the quarterfinals features just two men who have ever been to a Slam quarter (John Isner and Ivo Karlovic) and they’ve just been to one each. The effect of clay on their games is debated. On one hand, the power of their serves is diminished by the slow, red clay. On the other hand, the awfulness of their return games is too. It’s a Catch-22. Or Vingt-Deux. Though Murray avoided Nadal in the semifinals, he got the worst quarterfinal possible in Nishikori.
10. (Sighs) If. Not. Serena. Then. Who?
Victoria Azarenka. Let’s say Vika beats Serena in the quarters and then rolls to her first Slam since the 2013 Australian Open and her first ever outside Australia. She’ll beat Simona Halep – though even that matchup seems too chalky.
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11. What about on the men’s side?
This is Novak Djokovic’s time. He’ll beat the winner of the rough (for both) quarterfinal between Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, which I’ll say is Nishikori. Djokovic has had a bit of a slump going into Paris and it’s been highly debated how that will affect him. I say it gives him the mental patience to get through seven best-of-five matches with ease and takes the pressure off his bid for Roland Garros, which is getting to be as pressure-filled as Phil Mickelson at the Open (minus the insider trading threats). And, though it’s early and we can’t make predictions until the draw comes out, I like Serena and Novak to each go back-to-back at Wimbledon, thus putting Djokovic a U.S. Open away from the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver.