With the 2019 French Open set to kick off Sunday in Paris (5 a.m. ET), SI’s tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Stanley Kay, Jamie Lisanti and Daniel Rapaport pick winners, discuss this year’s top storylines, highlight must-watch matches and more.
BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM CLAY COURT SEASON LEADING UP TO PARIS
Jon Wertheim: How about eight?
—Rafael Nadal might not have had a Nadalian run-up. But he’s still damn good on the surface.
—Novak Djokovic might not have had a Djokovician run-up. But he’s still damn good at tennis and hard to beat when matches tighten.
—Roger Federer, age 37, is a sentimental favorite.
—Serena Williams, age 37, is a sentimental favorite.
—ATP politics—and tennis politics in general—are messy and rancid with conflicts of interest.
—Nick Kyrgios is erratic.
—The women’s field is wide open, with a raft of top players capable of winning tournaments and losing early.
—Clay is a gritty surface.
Stanley Kay: Nadal was not quite the indomitable clay force we’ve come to take for granted, losing three matches this spring on red dirt. But after beating Djokovic in the Rome final, he’s the clear favorite entering Roland Garros. Considering Nadal’s 11 French Open titles, he likely would have been the favorite anyway. We should acknowledge Djokovic’s and Thiem’s chances, but their clay seasons weren’t quite strong enough to warrant their elevation to co-favorite status.
Jamie Lisanti: Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all have a lot at stake in Paris, and it’s really exciting that we’ll get to see the Big Three back in action and competing on clay. It’s incredible that Djokovic is going for a second Novak Slam and if he does it, history will be made.
It’s also good to see Juan Martin del Potro back on the court and healthy enough to play—here’s to hoping it stays that way for the Argentine. Tennis is better when his booming forehand is in business. And let’s not forget that he was a semifinalist in Paris last year, losing to Nadal.
In the months leading up to Paris, it’s also clear that the women’s game is anyone’s game. With so many different tournament champions and no one person dominating the clay court season, the French Open women’s draw should be as exciting as ever.
Daniel Rapaport: There will indeed by Life on Clay After Rafa. His three pre-Rome losses were a reminder of his mortality, and of Father Time’s unbeaten record. I still think he’ll take the title—more on that in a second—but the days of the Dominic Thiems of the world winning the French Open are not far off.
WHICH PLAYER DO YOU SEE HAVING A BREAKTHROUGH TOURNAMENT?
JW: Breakthrough, of course, is a relative term. Thiem winning his first major—while we’re not picking him, it’s definitely a possibility—is a breakthrough. More modestly, so is Christian Garin (now up to No. 37) becoming a bigger name. Or an American male reaching week two. On the women’s side, Karolina Pliskova is an obvious choice, but I’ll spread my bets and name-check Kiki Bertens here.
SK: Bianca Andreescu is an obvious dark horse candidate, though she’s yet to compete on clay this season due to a shoulder injury. But after winning Indian Wells and playing well in Miami, it’s impossible to ignore the 18-year-old Canadian. Watch out for Belinda Bencic, who has rebounded nicely this year after a couple forgettable seasons.
On the men’s side, I think this French Open will mark Felix Auger-Aliassime’s Grand Slam breakthrough. And I’m obligated to mention 22-year-old Cristian Garin, winner of two titles this season and 18-4 on clay this year. He faces Reilly Opelka in the first round.
JL: Can Thiem finally win his first Grand Slam title? He has nine titles on clay for his career and he was the runner-up last year in Paris, plus he was a semifinalist in 2016 and ’17. There’s no question he’s comfortable on the clay—he moves well on the dirt and attacks with his one-handed backhand. A breakthrough here would be a huge leap for the 25-year-old.
Bencic is back and ready for action, and I’m picking her as a dark horse for this year. Flashback to the 2018 French Open and Bencic was ranked No. 72. Now, she’s toiled her way back from injury and up the rankings to No. 15—and back where she belongs. I’ll never forget when then-18-year-old Bencic upset Serena in the Rogers Cup semifinals in 2015. At the time, it was Serena’s second loss in 45 matches on the season. She’s always shown giant-killer instincts and now that she appears to be healthy, the 22-year-old Swiss is capable of shaking up the draw in Paris.
DR: I’m with Stanley in thinking FAA is ready for a Slam breakthrough. Clay might not end up being his best surface, but he’s certainly capable of winning a few matches, and doing that as an 18-year-old surely counts as a breakthrough. He has star written all over him.
JL: The last time Federer played in a French Open, American Pharoah had just won the Triple Crown and Ana Ivanovic reached her first major semifinal since 2008. The last time (and only time) Federer won the French Open was a decade ago, in 2009, when he defeated Robin Söderling. Though Federer has been known to defy Father Time, it’s not a good sign that he had to pull out of Rome last week with a leg injury ahead of a quarterfinal matchup against Stefanos Tsitispas. I don’t expect Federer to drop out in the first round, but he was drawn into Nadal’s half and a quarter with Tsitsipas, 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka and 2018 quarterfinalist Diego Schwartzman, among others, looming in the later rounds.
On the same note, I’d put Serena Williams in a similar category. She opens up against Vitalia Diatchenko, which should be a routine win, but it’s later on where she could face some trouble. Drawn into the Quarter of Death, she faces a possible matchup against Ash Barty in the Round of 16—a rematch of last year’s second rounder—and then a date with Naomi Osaka looms in the quarterfinals. A three-time champion at Roland Garros, you bet against Serena at your peril, but it’s going to take a lot for her to stay in Paris into the second week.
SK: Considering his history at Grand Slams and his subpar season, I wouldn’t bet against Alexander Zverev making an early exit. Roger Federer has crashed out of his last two Slams in the fourth round, and it isn’t difficult to envision him missing another quarterfinal. If No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka reaches the fourth round, Madison Keys—a semifinalist in Paris last year—won’t be an easy opponent. Serena Williams, seeded No. 10 and hampered this season by injury, could face dark horse Bianca Andreescu in the third round.
DR: It’s Federer on the men’s side, as much as it pains me to write that. He simply hasn’t played a best-of-five match on clay in four years. And Serena’s health makes her a huge question mark—if she’s close to healthy, she’ll make a deep run. But that’s a huge if.
JW: How about four?
—Why doesn’t clay have replay? There is a growing chorus wondering why the replay technology that is so successful on other surfaces isn’t instituted on clay. And why, if one company doesn’t have the technology, other bidders aren’t allowed to compete? A few dodgy line calls and this topic will be revived.
—Upgrades to the French Open and Roland Garros venue. We’ll have rainouts this year. Next year we won’t.
—The ATP Board has been collectively picked apart. Now we get WTA board elections. We hear at least 16 candidates have filed for two open seats. Among them are former players, including a Grand Slam champion.
—Nick Kyrgios….He’ll quit midmatch and announce his intentions to become a drummer for a ska band. He’ll badmouth Rob Pelinka. He’ll fall off a horse in Port St. Lucie…something…
JL: After Nadal raised the trophy for an 11th time in Paris last year, the tournament quickly began demolishing the stadium where it all took place. This year, Roland Garros will debut a brand new Philippe Chatrier court, plus a slew of new outside courts and areas for fans to explore. It’s always interesting to see how the players adapt and react to new courts—not only the dirt underfoot and the way the fans are seated in the stadium, but also the locker rooms and how the pre-game areas and entry ways may have changed. All of those little things can certainly have a role in a player’s nerves and overall comfort ahead of a match.
You might have missed the announcement, considering it was released just 18 minutes before the start of the French Open draw ceremony, but the ITF announced that it has reached an agreement with the ATP and WTA to “optimize the structure of men’s and women’s professional tennis.” Interested to see how that story will develop over the coming days.
DR: It’s got to be the lack of Hawkeye technology. Players are already feeling emboldened to speak out, and the issue’s only going to be magnified by the Grand Slam stage. Here’s to hoping a shoddy line call doesn’t impact a big-time player in a big-time moment, because we will have quite the scene if it does.
JW: The recency effect being what it is, why not Karolina Pliskova? In winning Rome, she appears ready. And it’s been two whole majors since we’ve had a breakthrough, first-time winner on the women’s side. Some of this also owes to the absence of other obvious candidates. The defending champ, Simona Halep, has had a rough go of it. Serena has won seven matches this year. Naomi Osaka goes for her third straight major but has never before won a clay event.
SK: Sloane Stephens has a new coach (Sven Groeneveld) and a new fiancee (Jozy Altidore). She hasn’t had a great season, but the 2018 finalist is a strong clay-court player, and I’m picking her to win it this year.
JL: With No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka’s rough draw into a stacked quarter, and players like Bencic, Aryna Sabalenka and Vondrousova looming elsewhere, I’m picking Simona Halep to successfully defend and win her second Grand Slam title in Paris.
DR: I’ll go with Simona Halep, not because I feel super confident in picking any woman in this draw. In the absence of a clear choice, I’ll go with experience and the defending champ.
JW: I’m sticking with Nadal. In the words of the prophets: when a guy has won an event 11 times, you really need clear and convincing evidence to pick against him….Here’s a small point which has been on my mind lately: we pick player X or player Y but give short shrift to all the variables. What’s the weather? What’s the court speed? Who has a blister and who ate bad sushi? Who had their legs taken out during the middle weekend, slogging through a five-setter? Which is to say, while picking Nadal (and Pliskova), we acknowledge the other 127 players in the draw. We also acknowledge the vast universe of possibility.
JL: Picking a winner at the French Open always hinges on one question: Do you dare to pick against Rafael Nadal in Paris? I’m not sure I’ve ever had the guts to do it. Before the draw was released, I was almost there: I felt as though Dominic Thiem was closer than ever to winning his first Grand Slam title. But when the bracket was released on Thursday and I saw Nadal’s fortunate draw of a qualifier in Round 1—and then the winner of Qualifiée vs. Qualifiée in the second round—I knew there was no way I could pick against him. Is there a better omen for Nadal than an opening draw like that? I wouldn’t be surprised if he stumbled upon a wad of cash as he walked into Roland Garros on Sunday. We will all watch in awe when Rafael Nadal wins a remarkable 12th French Open title in two weeks—but will we really be surprised?
SK: The first rule of the French Open roundtable: Don’t pick against Rafael Nadal. He’s got my vote.
DR: Rafael Nadal. It’s the French Open, and he’s playing in it. Need I say more?
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