French Open predictions: Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep defending their titles?

The second grand slam of the season begins on Sunday at Roland Garros

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - ATP 1000 - Madrid Open - The Caja Magica, Madrid, Spain - May 10, 2019   Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning his quarter final match against Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka   REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo
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Men's singles

Graham Caygill, sports editor: Champion - Rafael Nadal

A month ago the Spaniard was looking out of sorts as he suffered surprise semi-final losses in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.

He only has one clay title on his road to the French Open, in Rome, and that is certainly a slump compared to his dominant 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

But Nadal looked to find his range in Rome and the way he held off Novak Djokovic’s recovery was impressive.

He might not be as dominant as in past years but the Spaniard’s clay court prowess should mean he wins his 12th Roland Garros crown, even if he is not quite at his best.

Jon Turner, assistant sports editor: Champion - Rafael Nadal

For as long as we have done these predictions, Nadal has been backed to become the French Open champion. In fairness, he has picked himself - there has never been a more dominant male player at one event than Nadal at Roland Garros, as 11 titles and a win-loss record of 82-2 can attest.

This year, though, the Spanish world No 2 has looked uncharacteristically fallible, with three successive semi-final defeats. But just as doubts were starting to be raised, Nadal roared back in style, storming to the Italian Open title and dominating Novak Djokovic in the final, despite somehow losing the second set.

His success in Rome would have done wonders for his confidence and he is once again, indisputably, the man to beat. Plus, who can you see winning three sets against Nadal in Paris? No one, is the answer.

GC: If not Nadal then who? - Stefanos Tsitsipas

It might be too soon for the Greek player, but he has shown enough quality in the clay swing to demonstrate that he can be a serious contender.

He reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open, was runner-up at the ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and has won titles in Marseille and Estoril.

Tsitsipas established himself as one of the most exciting next generation talents and his first slam title can come in Paris.

Tennis - ATP 1000 - Italian Open - Foro Italico, Rome, Italy - May 16, 2019  Austria's Dominic Thiem in action during his second round match against Spain's Fernando Verdasco  REUTERS/Giuseppe Maffia
Dominic Thiem won the Barcelona Open in the build-up to the French Open. Reuters

JT: If not Nadal then who? -  Dominic Thiem

Thiem is arguably the second-best clay court player in the world and his emphatic title win at the Barcelona Open showed he is best placed to win his first grand slam at the French Open.

Among those he beat in Barcelona - a tournament he won without dropping a set - was Nadal, whom Thiem has now beaten on clay once a year for four successive years.

The Austrian world No 4 also knows how to go deep at Roland Garros having reached last year's final, and after being placed in Djokovic's half of the draw, will avoid Nadal until another rematch of the 2018 final.

Whether he can produce a shock and win the title is another matter, but if Nadal somehow falls short, Thiem is best placed to take advantage.

GC: Dark horse - Diego Schwartzman

Until his run to the semi-finals in Rome it had been a fairly underwhelming clay season for the Argentine.

But it remains his best surface and he showed what he could do 12 months ago when he took the first set off Nadal in their quarter-final.

Yes, he went on to lose to Nadal, but not many players trouble the Spaniard on clay and if he can find that form again he can be a factor here.

Tennis - ATP 1000 - Italian Open - Foro Italico, Rome, Italy - May 18, 2019   Argentina's Diego Schwartzman in action during his semi final match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic   REUTERS/Giuseppe Maffia
Diego Schwartzman gave Rafael Nadal trouble at the French Open last year. Reuters

JT: Dark horse - Felix Auger Aliassime

What a breakthrough season this guy is having. The 18-year-old Canadian made his first Masters 1000 semi-final in Miami and has reached his first two ATP Tour finals, both of which were on clay: the Rio de Janiero Open and in Lyon at the penultimate event before Roland Garros.

Auger Aliassime should have few problems in the first couple of rounds, but could run in to eighth seed Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round. While it will be a tough task to topple the Argentine, the world No 28 has the form and tools to pull off the win and could reach the second week.

GC: Disappointment - Alexander Zverev

The wait for the German to break through has proven long. He has the talent but has never proven it yet, when it matters, at a grand slam.

Should be a factor here but will most likely fall away and be gone before the business end of the tournament as the second week unfolds.

epa07597760 Alexander Zverev of Germany reacts during his semi final match against Federico Delbonis of Argentina at the ATP 250 Geneva Open tennis tournament in Geneva, Switzerland, 24 May 2019.  EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI
Alexander Zverev has not been at his best form so far this season. EPA

JT: Disappointment - Kei Nishikori

It's great to see Nishikori competing regularly and back in the top-10 after injuries derailed his career for a couple of seasons.

But the Japanese world No 7 has shown ordinary form on clay so far this season, with earlier than expected exits from Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome.

He did reach the semi-finals in Barcelona, but was defeated for a second time in three matches by Daniil Medvedev, whom he is set to meet in the quarters. That is as far as Nishikori will go at Roland Garros this year.

Women's Singles

GC: Champion - Kiki Bertens

Simona Halep is the best player on clay over the past two years but there are doubts over the Romanian’s fitness.

Bertens has had an impressive clay swing, is constantly strong on the surface, and should be a challenger.

Whether she can handle the pressure is open to question, but she has the talent to prevail and this could be her breakthrough at a major.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - WTA Premier Mandatory - Madrid Open - The Caja Magica, Madrid, Spain - May 11, 2019   Romania's Simona Halep in action during the final against Netherlands' Kiki Bertens    REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo
Simona Halep has been in mixed form but the defending champion has a superb recent record in Paris. Reuters

JT: Champion - Simona Halep

As usual, the WTA French Open looks set to be a wide-open and competitive tournament, with a number of contenders in with a great shot of winning the Suzanne-Lenglen cup.

After her showing at the Madrid Open - where she romped to the final despite carrying an illness - Halep certainly looked to be the player to beat. However, the Romanian was strangely out of sorts in a second round loss in Rome, albeit to the talented teenager Marketa Vondrousova.

That might just have been the wake-up call Halep needed, and should the defending champion find her top gear by the second week, she will be hard to stop.

GC: Dark horse - Belinda Bencic

The WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships winner has had a tremendous 2019 so far.

The Swiss is full of confidence at present. A semi-final run in Madrid where she beat Naomi Osaka and pushed Simona Halep to three sets is a taster of what she can do on clay.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 18:  Maria Sakkari of Greece in action against Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic in their Women's singles semi-final match during Day seven of the International BNL d'Italia at Foro Italico on May 18, 2019 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Maria Sakkari won the Rabat Open title and reached the Italian Open semi-finals. Getty Images

JT: Dark horse - Maria Sakkari

Few players have enjoyed as successful a build-up to Roland Garros as the Greek world No 29. A quarter-final appearance in Charleston included beating Bertens en route, before Sakkari won her first WTA Tour title the following week in Rabat.

Most recently, she same through qualifying to reach the Italian Open semi-finals, and at just 23 years old, Sakkari is only improving.

She could meet top seed Naomi Osaka in the third round, but that really is a 50-50 match given their respective form on clay.

GC: Disappointment - Naomi Osaka

To say the world No 1 has failed to convince at the top of the rankings since winning the Australian Open would be an understatement.

Clay is arguably her weakest surface and she will do well to make it to the quarter-finals, and being No 1, an early exit has to be considered below par.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 16: Naomi Osaka of Japan serves against Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania in their Women's Singles Round of 16 match during Day Five of the International BNL d'Italia at Foro Italico on May 16, 2019 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images) ***BESTPIX***
Naomi Osaka has traditionally struggled on clay and does not have much of a record at the French Open. Getty Images

JT: Disappointment - Elina Svitolina

Perhaps a little harsh given her struggles with injuries in recent months, but Svitolina's form since returning from knee trouble has been poor, losing both of her opening matches in Madrid and Rome.

Unfortunately for the Ukrainian world No 9, she doesn't have the power or the weapons to rely on while she attempts to rediscover her best form.

She also has a very tough first round assignment in former world No 1 Venus Williams, who granted is well past her best but is still capable of beating top players. A first week exit beckons for Svitolina.