SI Now: Should Rafael Nadal be the 2014 French Open favorite?
On Thursday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim and senior writer Richard Deitsch discuss how they believe Novak Djokovic is the French Open favorite despite Rafael Nadal's historic dominance on clay.
With the French Open set to begin on Sunday, SI.com's Greg Bishop, Courtney Nguyen and Jon Wertheim dig into the most tantalizing storylines and predict the winners.
NGUYEN: Federer's luck, Sharapova's woes, more French Open draw winners and losers
What did you learn from the clay-court lead-in tournaments?
Greg Bishop: That Rafael Nadal isn't invincible. Maybe. Sort of. He looked pretty shaky throughout this clay-court season -- at least shaky by his historically dominant clay-court standards. Then he won the title at the Madrid Open (by retirement) and made the final at the Italian Open, and he finished the French Open warmup tournaments with more points accumulated than anybody else on the men's tour. By those standards, shaky now seems like an overstatement. Nadal is still ranked No. 1. He's still the best player ever on this surface. He should still be the favorite, although not by as much as usual, and the difficulty in his draw definitely adds to the tension of the tournament. Meanwhile, the women's side seems as unpredictable as ever based on the lead-in tournaments. Maria Sharapova won two of them, at Stuttgart and Madrid. That means -- the guess here -- not much.
Courtney Nguyen: Rafael Nadal is vulnerable. It would be one thing if he was getting dusted by Novak Djokovic, his chief rival on clay. But the losses to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo -- a player he had not lost to on clay since 2004 -- and then Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona -- a player he had never lost to on any surface -- were shockers. For the first time since 2003 he comes into Paris with three losses on clay and only one European clay title. And perhaps the most telling, when asked about his confidence, you can see that he's not where he wants to be. That said, taking two sets off Rafa on clay is a completely different ask than taking three. As the King of Clay himself would say, "We gonna see, no?"
Jon Wertheim: It wasn't so much "learning" as having prevailing conventional wisdom confirmed. Rafael Nadal is -- by his standards -- struggling a bit. Only a fool wold put it past him to ultimately win a ninth title in Paris, but he's never come into Roland Garros with such modest momentum. Novak Djokovic has won just one Grand Slam title over the last two years, but he's playing at a dizzying level. Roger Federer has it in him to win another Grand Slam, but it's unlikely to come on clay -- and not only weeks after the birth of his twin boys. Andy Murray is still in a post-Wimbledon funk. Kei Nishikori has a bright future, but is dispiritingly prone to injury. Injuries are collectively hitting crisis level. American players struggle on clay. When Serena Williams is focused and healthy, everyone else is playing for second.
What are you most looking forward to in the draw?
Bishop: I like Grigor Dimitrov against Ivo Karlovic in the first round, and Nadal vs. Stan Wawrinka would be an interesting semifinal. That half of the men's bracket is particularly interesting. We could see Wawrinka-Murray in the quarterfinals; same goes with Nadal-Ferrer. Nadal has his work cut out for him.
Nguyen: I'm disappointed to see Sharapova drawn into Serena's quarter. Those two have no business meeting before the final. That said, I'm definitely looking forward to that match. Otherwise, the first week is going to be crazy for both the men and the women, and I fully expect some bracket reshuffling by Thursday. That's particularly true given the wet forecast for the week, which will test everyone's patience. The two prime-time first-round matches to keep an eye on for the women are Ana Ivanovic against rising French star Caroline Garcia and Madison Keys taking on a possibly injured Sara Errani. Big opportunities for the youngsters there. As for the men, I smell a possible upset for Wawrinka, who plays the big-hitting Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the first round.
Wertheim: There are endless subplots. Can Federer take advantage of the kindest draw and reach still another quarterfinal or semifinal? Can Dimitrov stave off the ace-fest from Karlovic in his first match? To what extent will a brutally rainy forecast have an effect on play? Can Nishikori or Ernests Gulbis take the proverbial next step? Can Wawrinka build on his success in Australia? Can Ivanovic sustain her enraging play heading into a tournament she won in 2008? Will the play of Caroline Wozniacki -- she of the high road -- be impacted by recent off-court news? Which French players will break the fans' hearts and how? This tournament often serves up a surprise finalist (who will be this year's Wichita State? Simona Halelp? Camila Giorgi?), but ultimately there are just two central themes: Djokovic or Nadal? And can Serena be beaten?
WERTHEIM: French Open women's seed reports -- Serena once again the big favorite
Who might break through on the men's side?
Bishop: Wawrinka is an extreme dude, and his clay season in particular shows that, with early losses in Rome and Madrid, and a tournament victory in Monte Carlo. When he plays his best, most sublime tennis, he can play with anyone in the world, and that's the argument for him as a breakthrough French Open champion this year. The first set he took off Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final was poetic in its dominance. So many winners sailed down the line, into the corners. His one-handed backhand is the best in men's tennis. He's capable of losing early in Paris -- or winning the whole thing.
Nguyen: Ernests Gulbis. He's into the final of the Open de Nice this weekend, and he's been playing some very good tennis on clay. He could face Federer in the fourth round, and he's beaten him on clay before. If he gets through that match, his draw opens up.
Wertheim: On the men's side, "break through" tends simply to mean "have a strong showing" -- as it's almost unthinkable that a player outside, say, the top eight would actually win the title. Dominic Thiem is a promising young Austrian player. Dimitrov is now up to No. 12. Gulbis may have finally matured. Roberto Bautista Agut is now seeded. But chances are slim that any of them will make the semifinals.
Who might break through on the women's side?
Bishop: It's hard not to like Ivanovic, the 2008 champion. She beat Sharapova in Rome, where she lost to Williams in the semifinals. She made at least the quarterfinals in each of her last three tournaments, all played, it should be noted, on clay. Each of those losses came against players (Williams, Sharapova, Simona Halep) ranked in the top eight. If a former champion, albeit a distant one, does not qualify for breakthrough candidacy, I like Sara Errani. Her game is suited to clay. She made the final at Rome. And she's no stranger to deep major tournament runs.
Nguyen: Halep. Assuming she's healthy -- she sustained an abdominal injury in Rome -- she's a solid pick for the semifinals, if not the final. She's never made it past the second round in Paris, but she earned a No. 4 seed this year and has been drawn into Li Na's half. She's also beaten Petra Kvitova and Ivanovic, the two highest seeds in her quarter, just last month.
Wertheim: How about a re-breakthrough? Six years ago Ivanovic won the French Open, ascended to the top ranking and generally looked to be in position to settle in as a WTA queen. As if she'd made some Mephistophelian bargain, she promptly lost early and often, expelled from the top 10 and seldom even making the second week of Grand Slams. Lately, though, she's looked like her old self.
Who wins the men's tournament?
Bishop: Rafael Nadal. In the name of Robin Soderling, this sure feels like the year to pick someone else. Common sense, statistics, history -- they all say otherwise. To bet against Nadal at the French Open is like betting against Floyd Mayweather. It's like burning money. Nadal won in Paris from 2010 to 2013. Same for 2005 to 2008. He is to clay what Picasso was to paint, what Nirvana was to grunge -- genius. It's all well and good that he hasn't played as well this clay-court season as usual. And his draw is uber-difficult, with Murray, Wawrinka and Ferrer all in his half. Fine. That makes for a bit more intrigue in a tournament that isn't always the most intriguing of the Grand Slams. It would be an upset, a big one, a seismic one, if he lost at all, let alone early. Famous last words.
Nguyen: Novak Djokovic. Even if Nadal were in his best form, Djokovic has been knocking on the door of this tournament for the last three years, and he led Nadal in the fifth set of their semifinal last year before losing 9-7 in the final set. It's only a matter of time before he wins Paris to complete his Grand Slam set. Why not this year?
Wertheim: Novak Djokovic. I feel stabs of guilt picking against the guy who is to clay courts what LeBron James is to the basketball court, what Michael Phelps is to water. Nadal's record at Roland Garros -- one defeat in nine years, to a guy who is no longer playing -- is preposterous. But you make these predictions based on the present, not the past. What with his injuries, his (admirably self-avowed) shaky confidence and his uncharacteristically spotty record on clay, Nadal has sown enough doubt for me to pick the other guy. Djokovic for the win, completing the career Grand Slam.
WERTHEIM: French Open men's seed report -- Is this Novak Djokovic's year?
Who wins the women's tournament?
Bishop: Can we flip a coin? Use an Ouija board? Deliberate at least? This seems like an exercise in futility. Serena has looked solid in recent months, but she has often struggled on the red clay at Roland Garros. Perhaps Sharapova should be the favorite, but who knows which Sharapova will show up? To that end, the pick here is a player among the most consistent in this clay-court season, a player who has already won this tournament. Once, at least. In 2008. Ana Ivanovic wins in a draw marked by upset after upset.
Nguyen: Serena Williams. After an early-season run marred by injury and fatigue, she put her foot down in Rome. That said, the heavy conditions won't favor her. But as long as she can stay healthy over the two weeks, I don't see an upset happening.
Wertheim: Serena Williams. Yes, she's "only" won two of the last five Grand Slams she's entered. Yes, especially at her age (32), injuries are always a concern. Yes, there are 127 other players in the field. But I still like her to defend her title.