Ahead of the 2016 French Open, starting on Sunday May 22, The National's sports writers and editors make their predictions.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport
GRAHAM CAYGILL — DEPUTY SPORTS EDITOR
Winner: Rafael Nadal
A weird choice, given he fell short to both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the past two weeks in Madrid and Rome respectively. But there are signs the Spaniard is beginning to get back towards something nearing his best. He played some great stuff in losing to Djokovic in Rome and there was really not much in it. He will be much stronger then he was when he went out meekly to Djokovic in the last eight, and taking three sets off the nine-times winner at his happiest hunting ground will be a tough task for anyone. With Djokovic not looking at his best, Nadal has a great chance to pick up his 10th Roland Garros crown.
Surprise package: Nick Kyrgios
The Australian still has the odd shouting match with umpires, but generally he appears to be calming down and letting his tennis do the talking. Which is good, as when he is in full flow he can be unplayable. Clay should not be his strongest surface, but he showed in reaching the last eight in Madrid that he can play well on it. If the world No 19 gets a decent draw, and keeps his mind in check, there is no reason why he can’t play well into the second week in Paris.
Disappointment: Tomas Berdych
The Czech is in bad form, has just split with his coach and has won only three matches on clay in the build up to the French Open. None of these are good omens for the world No 8, whose best past result is a semi-final spot in 2010, and do not expect him to do that again this time, or even make it into the second week.
Winner: Simona Halep
The Romanian’s clay season has been a mixed bag, crashing out in Stuttgart in poor fashion, but winning in Madrid. She can be very good on clay, as her run to the 2014 French Open final, and this could be the No 6 seed’s best chance to win a major yet. It is Serena Williams’s weakest surface, Victoria Azarenka is struggling with a back problem, and two-time winner Maria Sharapova, who beat her in that 2014 final, is not there due to her suspension over a failed drugs test. Halep has the game to win, and this is a tremendous opportunity with a weakened opposition.
Surprise package: Johanna Konta
Clay is not the Briton’s finest surface, but the world No 22 showed in her demolition of seventh seed Roberta Vinci in Rome that she can be unplayable if she is on form. Granted having beaten a top 10 player in Rome, she then lost immediately in the next round to unheralded Japanese player Misaki Doi, so the consistency needs work, but there are enough glimpses there to think that with a good draw that Konta can create some headlines in Paris.
Disappointment: Angelique Kerber
This is only because of the increased expectation on the German, due to coming to Paris having won the first grand slam of the year in Australia. A quarter-final in 2012 is as good as she has done previously, and with injury problems too, the world No 3 is unlikely to go deep in the tournament, which may not be a bad thing if it allows her more time to prepare for Wimbledon at the end of June, which should suit her game more than the courts of Roland Garros will.
JON TURNER — ONLINE SPORTS EDITOR
Winner: Andy Murray
Despite traditionally considering clay his weakest surface, Andy Murray is the form player entering Roland Garros following a semi-final appearance in Monte Carlo, a final in Madrid, and most recently — and importantly — the Italian Open title. His straight sets victory over an albeit tired Novak Djokovic in the Rome final was a real statement of intent by the world No 2, and he will be brimming with confidence heading to Paris. He also comfortably defeated the undisputed king of clay, Rafael Nadal, in the Madrid semi-final. The first serve is working a dream at the moment, and the aggression on his groundstrokes from both sides of the court means Murray is rarely not in control of rallies, while his favoured drop shot will be a potent weapon. Murray may never have a better chance to win the French Open.
Surprise package: Dominic Thiem
What a season Dominic Thiem is having so far. The 22-year-old Austrian is up to No 15 in the world following a start to the season that includes two titles, one final, and two semi-final appearances. One of those titles came on clay, the Argentina Open, where he defeated Nadal in the semi-final, while his march to the final of the BMW Open also came on clay. Thiem possesses a big game from the back of the court, particularly his forehand, great speed, and one of the most effective first serves on the tour. Consistency can sometimes be an issue, but Thiem has the ability to produce magic when he is on. As is so often the case, how the draw falls may dictate his tournament, but with a kind route, he can make it all the way to the semi-finals.
Disappointment: Stan Wawrinka
Two titles this season, in Chennai and Dubai, has not disguised what has been a very underwhelming season for Wawrinka. Of the seven other tournaments the world No 4 has played, his best showings have been two quarter-final appearances. Perhaps even more worrying, Wawrinka has won just three matches in three clay court tournaments leading into the French Open. The serve is not firing at the moment, and his groundstrokes do not look dependable. After his stunning triumph at Roland Garros last season, much of the attention will fall on the Swiss, but given his current form, he will do well to make it into the second week.
Winner: Serena Williams
Perhaps not the imperious figure of past seasons, but Williams remains the dominant force of women’s tennis. The American world No 1 has been very selective with her tournaments this season, limiting her on court time to grand slams and Masters 1000 events. In those four events, she has reached two finals and won her most recent event at the Italian Open, without dropping a set. A clay court title in the lead-up to the French Open is the ideal preparation for Williams, who should enter Roland Garros fresh and firing. When focused and fit, she remains unplayable and there should be no stopping her in Paris.
Surprise package: Dominika Cibulkova
It has been an up-and-down season for Cibulkova so far, with some successful tournaments mixed in with some disappointing showings. Of the 11 events the Slovakian world No 25 has played (she has certainly been busy), she has collected one title and reached two finals, although those results have been countered by three first round defeats, including at the Australian Open. Most encouragingly for Cibulkova is her most recent performance, reaching the final of the Madrid Open before losing to world No 6 Simona Halep. If she can carry her form from Madrid into the French Open, and she has a kind draw, she has the chance to make a deep run and possibly repeat her 2009 effort in reaching the semi-final.
Disappointment: Petra Kvitova
For a former world No 2 and two-time grand slam champion, 2016 has been a wretched season for Kvitova. In nine tournaments played, Kvitova, who has slumped to world No 12, has a solitary semi-final appearance to show for her efforts and a win-loss record of 10-9 this season. A player who for so long was deemed the biggest threat to Serena Williams in terms of power and talent, Kvitova seems to have lost her way in recent months. It doesn’t look like she will get any respite at the French Open either, where her high-risk power hitting will largely be nullified. Another early exit beckons for the two-time Wimbledon champion.
AHMED RIZVI — REPORTER
Winner: Andy Murray
The most successful man on clay over the past 13 months, the Scot should be the favourite at Roland Garros, not just because of his own form but also the struggles of his main rivals. Rafael Nadal is not the force he once was and Murray has won two of their last three duels on the dirt. In Rome last week, Novak Djokovic looked far from the indomitable No 1 we have seen in recent times. Not only did he lose to Murray on clay for the first time, he also got bageled by Thomaz Bellucci in the opening set of their second round match. The conditions at Roland Garros are a lot quicker than Rome, and that should also favour Murray’s game. He has never arrived in Paris as confident as he is now. Mentally, he is in a lot better place than Djokovic and Nadal, and that could make all the difference.
Surprise: Kei Nishikori
If he gets a good draw, Nishikori could go all the way. He has been amazingly consistent, making the semi-finals in Rome and Madrid before losing to Djokovic. He made it to the final in Barcelona, but lost to Nadal. Nishikori also reached the final in Miami, where he lost to Djokovic and the Serb beat him in the quarter-final of the Australian Open as well. So four of his eight defeats this year have come against Djokovic, and two against Nadal. Now, if he could somehow avoid one or both of them in Paris, who knows where he might finish.
Disappointment: David Ferrer
One of the most dogged performers on the Tour, the 2013 runner-up has looked a bit sluggish this season. For the first time since 2006, he is arriving at Roland Garros without a title under his belt, or at least a final. It seems like Father Time is catching up with the Spaniard, who celebrated his 34th birthday in April. Also, his current ranking of 12 will not make it any easier for him in the draw.
Winner: Serena Williams
It is hard to imagine anyone else lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Certainly not in the absence of Maria Sharapova. Those two have shared the honours equally over the past four years, but with the Russian now serving a doping suspension, the French Open is Williams’ to lose. She might be ageing and might not have played a lot this year, but in Rome last week, it became abundantly clear those things matter little. Simply put, Williams has no equal on the tour, certainly not on clay.
Surprise: Svetlana Kuznetsova
One of the three women to beat Williams this year, Kuznetsova certainly has better credentials on clay than the other two — Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber. She is a former champion and she defeated Williams in the quarter-finals on her way to the title in 2009. Of course, it is impossible to predict anything with Kuznetsova. She can outhit anyone on the tour on her day, and yet look so frustratingly ordinary at other times. But then, that is precisely the reason why she is a surprise pick.
Disappointment: Victoria Azarenka
Azarenka was the hottest name on the tour following her Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami, but, as expected, she has failed to set the clay courts of Europe alight, leaving Rome without winning a match and pulling out injured in Madrid after winning her first two matches, so expect little from the Belarusian in Paris. Though she did reach the semis in 2013, a modest career winning percentage of 68.6 on clay courts is a giveaway.
JONATHAN RAYMOND - ONLINE SPORTS EDITOR
Winner: Novak Djokovic
Yes, Andy Murray has won three of the last five sets between these two on clay, upsetting the world No 1 for the Rome Masters title in the process. But Djokovic is still, by a considerable measure, the best player in the world right now, on any surface. He has an uncanny, maddening knack for making dominance somehow look like less, but he wins. He hurt his ankle in Madrid against Kei Nishikori in the semi-finals, and looked uncomfortable throughout that match even though he won. He admitted after losing the final to Andy Murray he had been worried about twisting his ankle as he complained about conditions. It’s rare Djokovic gets so unsettled, but it happens, and he should be fine for the French Open – which means he should win it.
Surprise package: Kei Nishikori
Don’t rule out the Japanese making a breakthrough. Only Djokovic stopped him in both Madrid and Rome (which, fair enough, right?) and he hasn’t lost to anyone outside the Big Four since February. Of course, he’s 0-6 against Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray in that time, as well. But he has such mobility on clay, he has stretches where he can go shot-for-shot with anyone at his best and, health permitting, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before it clicks for him.
Disappointment: Rafael Nadal
This depends on how you like to define disappointment. Nadal has been as physically sound as he could hope to be for pretty much the entire year, and expectations (especially with wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona) are that he’s at least close to being peak Nadal again. Meaning he should win. It’s Roland Garros. But Nadal isn’t quite at his peak, nor is he likely ever getting back there, and unfortunately it’s just too easy to envision him losing to a Nick Kyrgios or Gael Monfils or Dominic Thiem or even a young gun like Alexander Zverev or Borna Coric.
Winner: Garbine Muguruza
Here’s the thing about the current women’s game: If it’s not Serena Williams, it feels like it could be literally anyone from No 2-30 or thereabouts. Muguruza is one of the most talented players on the WTA Tour, a delightfully audacious player, and while she’s had a mixed season (who hasn’t?) the Spaniard has a good history at Roland Garros (quarter-finals last two years) and is due for a real breakout moment.
Surprise package: Madison Keys
Took a good challenge to Serena Williams in the Rome final, with her compatriot then tipping the 21-year-old for future stardom. She scored wins over Muguruza and Petra Kvitova, among other good players, in that run and has, ironically, fared pretty well all season as long as she’s been playing outside the United States.
Disappointment: Simona Halep
The Romanian spent so much time the last couple years hanging around the top two or three in the rankings, right on the cusp of that breakthrough grand slam victory (2014 French Open final, 2014 Wimbledon semis, 2015 US Open semis) but now it feels like it’s maybe just not coming. She followed up winning in Madrid with a second round loss to Daria Gavrilova in Rome, exactly the kind of maddening flop that could afflict her at Roland Garros.