Grand Slam tennis rolls back into the City of Love later today and, whilst my attention is uncharacteristically elsewhere for at least the first 30 hours of the tournament (Championship Play-off Final!), I have nevertheless tried to make some sense of the draws for the second major of 2015. The reigning women’s champion Maria Sharapova comes in as one of the hot favourites but on the men’s side, the nine-time champ Rafael Nadal arrives finding himself in the unfamiliar territory of not being favourite, in fact being far from it. The French Open has thrown up some surprise finalists on both sides in the 21st century and you can never completely rule out it happening again in spite of the superstar era we find ourselves watching. So who will be standing tall in Porte d’Auteuil after fifteen days of high-class tennis?
The women’s competition promises to be a fabulous celebration of in-form tennis. The top four seeds Serena Williams, Sharapova, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova have all had very good clay-court results recently, and the underdogs section looks pretty competitive too; Andrea Petkovic, Carla Suarez-Navarro, former world number one Victoria Azarenka and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are all capable of going deep into the Parisian fortnight. In addition to that, you’ve got Grand Slam pedigree in 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard who always saves her A-Game for the majors. It’s a difficult task to pick a winner and made even harder when you struggle to be objective sometimes – we all have our favourites. However, I will try.
For all the talk of how dominant Serena Williams is and how she brings her best form to the majors when she has a difficult draw, I do believe she will bow out of the French Open in the first week. There’s no doubt that the younger Williams sister is the dominant player of this era, and the era before it for that matter. She has been at the very top since the dawn of the new millennium BUT……her tussles with Victoria Azarenka are always titanic encounters – who can forget their consecutive US Open Finals in 2012 and 2013? Azarenka’s ranking is now down to 27 after the year she lost to injury, but Serena will not have wanted to see her name so early on. Azarenka recently double-faulted on three consecutive match points against the world number one, perfectly illustrating how close these two are. I take her to finally get over the line in a big match against Williams and go deep into the tournament.
From the top half of that draw, I actually think that Andrea Petkovic and Petra Kvitova will fill the semi-final spots. Petkovic would have to come past the likes of Azarenka and former finalist Sara Errani, but the German would be a popular returnee to the semi-final circle she reached last year. I watched Petra Kvitova take apart Svetlana Kuznetsova’s fine clay-court game so resoundingly in the Madrid final recently, a performance the Russian described as the best she’d ever played against. I’ve said it before but it really is time that the Croatian takes her Wimbledon form into other slams, and she looks well set to do that in Paris.
It’s hard to look beyond a Halep-Sharapova semi-final in the bottom half of the draw; a repeat of last year’s final looks certain due to them both being in fine form. The Romanian would need to come past the likes of home favourite Alize Cornet, out-of-form Agnieszka Radwanska and her Australian Open conqueror Ekaterina Makarova but her spellbinding progress is sure to see her right. The two-time champion Sharapova has an easier route to the semis but will need to avoid complacency if she comes up against former finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round. Their semi-final will be every bit as good as last year’s final, and then better. You can never rule out the Russian but I have got to believe that if Halep is to get over the line against her anywhere, it would still be on clay. Sharapova’s a clay-court expert these days of course, but Halep is as close to Justine Henin that we’ve had since the diminutive Belgian retired.
A Kvitova-Halep final would be great for tennis, a final not involving any of the typical old-guard. A classic of punch-counterpunch tennis, of that tall swinging left forehand of Kvitova’s with the chess-style game of Halep. You can never be sure in women’s finals but I’d love it to go three sets. I’d tip Halep to edge the final and become the newest member of the Grand Slam club.
In the men’s draw, eyes immediately go to the quarter which houses both nine-time champion Rafael Nadal and the world number one and in-form Novak Djokovic. Does a 128-man, 15-day tournament really boil down to just one match on Day 11? You would hope not, but then as long as it’s as titanic a struggle as we expect it would be we could deal with that. Both of these men arrive in Paris in unchartered territory; Rafa as an underdog for the first time in a decade and Nole as THE favourite. How will they cope with their new tags? I’d be absolutely amazed if they didn’t both reach the quarter-finals. Djokovic may come up against Bernard Tomic and Richard Gasquet but if either of them takes a set from him, they will have done well. Rafa is coming into this tournament at his most vulnerable since he first stepped foot on Court Philippe Chatrier for the first time in 2005 but then this is Roland Garros, this is Court Philippe Chatrier, this is his house. Nobody will take him out in a best-of-five sets match in the first week. Despite all of the form books pointing to a comfortable win for Djokovic, I think it will be an extremely tight match between the two gladiators but, if pushed into a corner, I’m backing the Serb to prevail.
Whatever happens, it’ll take a lot out of the victor, which will be ideal for their semi-final opponent, with the sensible money predicting that to be Andy Murray. Murray has won two clay court titles this year and finally feels at home on the surface. I’ve always thought the Brit is capable of winning the French Open but his best chance may lie in the future when Djokovic is not so hot. That said, the two-time slam champion would have a good shot if Djokovic is underpar following a huge quarter-final with Rafa. His counter-punching style is actually a really good fit for the Roland Garros orange and he now appears to have the belief that this is indeed the case. Once again, it could be a cigarette paper to separate that semi-final – one thing is for sure though, it would not be pretty.
The bottom half of the draw can be summed up in one word: Opportunity. 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer will look at the names before him and fancy his chances of his first final appearance in Paris since 2011. However, there’s a name there that may well just take him out and that name is Gael Monfils. The exuberant Frenchman has come close to beating the great Swiss at Roland Garros before and this time I expect him to get the job done. That would completely blow open the whole half, and it would be Kei Nishikori that would be left licking his lips. I see shocks all throughout the fortnight in the bottom half and names like Monfils, Ernests Gulbis, Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista-Agut could all have parts to play at the quarter-final stage. Nevertheless, it is the Japanese Nishikori who I think has what it takes to take advantage of a kind draw and reach his second major final. He will hope to give a better impression of himself than he did in New York last September and I anticipate that he’d provide stiffer opposition this time around but ultimately fall short again.
In short, I predict two new champions for Roland Garros to add to its exquisite roll of honour: Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic. But if they slip up against the two reigning champions, those champions will continue to reign supreme……