The tennis season’s second major starts in Paris this weekend with big names missing from the women’s draw and one major omission from the men’s tournament. It’s a chance for lesser lights and up-and-comers to showcase their talents but there will probably be at least one very familiar name on a trophy in fifteen days’ time.
The absence of Roger Federer won’t be felt too keenly. His resurgence in the early part of the year should not be underestimated or discredited but he simply would not be the threat on clay that he was on the early hard courts of the year; the Swiss clearly recognises this himself hence his decision to skip in preparation for Wimbledon. Instead, it falls to his oldest and longest rival Rafael Nadal to draw the biggest crowds to Roland Garros where the popular Mallorcan will go for his tenth French Open crown. Nadal has a tricky opening match against the once-touted-future-number-one Benoit Paire but no serious money should be put on the Frenchman to get a set never mind the win. From there on, it is not until the semi-finals that Rafa will face a stiff test when he will be expected to come up against Novak Djokovic. The Serb is in fairly decent form as he comes into his first tournament working alongside new coach Andre Agassi but would come up short against the King of Clay again. Djokovic should be applauded rather than condemned for ripping up his coaching team in an attempt to get back into the majors picture but positive results will come later on in the year if at all.
Where will the challenge come from the other part of the draw? There is a potential blockbuster third round tussle on the horizon between Andy Murray and Juan-Martin del Potro, with the Argentine possibly slight favourite at this time. Murray has admitted his bemusement at his current lack of form on the orange dirt and don’t forget that whilst he reached the final last year, he twice had to come from two sets down in the early rounds. Add into that the savage battles these two have had in the past and del Potro might be ready to take another step back to the top. It is 20 year old Alexander Zverev who could provide the fireworks in the top half of the draw. The German has long been predicted to reach the top and his form going into this event (wins in Munich and Rome) point to him as Nadal’s biggest threat. A run to the final would be a minefield, but it would not be a shock if he successfully negotiated matches against Del Potro, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka can never be counted out as he is capable of beating everyone on his day but there is nothing in his current form to suggest a second Roland Garros title is in his grasp – worth remembering though that his other title wins have all come from under the radar too. The only other guy in with a shout is Dominic Thiem; the young Austrian reached the semi-final last year but was found lacking when up against Djokovic; another year of experience will see him as a bigger threat and a recent runner-up display in Madrid serves notice of his chances here. Expect him to put up a better shout this year but still go down to Djokovic in the quarters.
The women’s tournament is lacking traditional star power but has the allure of unpredictability written all over it. Last year’s champion is here but Serena Williams is pregnant, Victoria Azarenka is not yet ready to return after childbirth and Maria Sharapova’s ranking is not yet high enough to qualify after her doping ban. Those three names are all top draws for fans but it is up to the women who are there to put their names and games to the forefront.
2016 champion Garbine Muguruza will be fairly confident that she can win a second major in Paris as she has been gifted a fairly stress-free draw but there is a potential banana skin in the form of in-form Kiki Mladenovic in the Last 16. The French doubles specialist has really upped her singles game in the last nine months much like Sam Stosur once did and with the backing of a fervent Parisian crowd she could cause major trouble for the defending champion. If Muguruza comes through that, expect her to make her way into her third Slam final.
Simona Halep has a niggling ankle injury which may cause her to pull out before her first round match but if she is cautious with it over the first few rounds she has time to play herself into fitness. A finalist in 2014, Halep would fancy her chances against the likes of Dasha Kasatkina and Carla Suarez-Navarro, before a possible winner-takes-all quarter-final clash with the bang-in-form Elina Svitolina, which would be a repeat of the recent Rome final, Svitolina coming out on top on that occasion. I am reticent to predict a first major for the Ukrainian as she is one of my favourite players, but bookmakers make these two the favourites so there has to be something in that. Halep, however, won the Madrid final, besting Kiki Mladenovic so, fitness permitting, definitely looks the one to beat in Paris. Karolina Pliskova will be well-placed to take advantage should these favourites fail to live up to their tags, but it must be said that clay is not her preferred surface and her golden time should come later in the year. Spare a thought for Petra Kvitova too. Just six months after being attacked by a knifeman in her Prague home, she is set to open up proceedings on Philippe Chatrier Court tomorrow morning. There were fears that she would never play again so this will be her biggest victory so far in an already-stellar tennis career.
Predictions: Nadal to beat Alex Zverev in final.
Halep to beat Muguruza in final.
Most likely to disappoint: Andy Murray and Dominika Cibulkova
French players to go furthest: Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia