Thursday May 21st, 2015

As the players gear up for the start of the 2015 French Open on Sunday in Paris, tennis experts and writers Courtney Nguyen, Jon Wertheim, Richard Deitsch, Elizabeth Newman, Andrew Lawrence and Stanley Kay discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners. 

What did you learn from the clay-court lead-in tournaments?

Richard Deitsch: That Andy Murray is ready for another breakthrough win at a major. He won his first ATP clay-court title in Munich final and then rolled Rafael Nadal to win the Madrid Open. Though he had to pull out of the Italian Open—10 matches in 12 days will do that—he looks ready again to win one of the big titles this year. Will it be in Paris? Probably not, but I think it's coming. Obviously, the overwhelming favorite on the men's side is Novak Djokovic. His numbers this year are sick: a 22-match winning streak and a 14-1 record against players in the Top 10. At 27, it looks like the mental and physical have morphed into peak Novak and it's scary just how good that is. 

Jon WertheimIt was less a “learning” than a reinforcement. Djokovic is flirting with true greatness and remains an unsolvable riddle for the field. Not only is the top seed the favorite; something dramatic would have to happen for him to lose. Rafael is not Rafael Nadal. Neither his body nor his mind is quite right. His record speaks for itself, but he’s never looked like this heading into the event he owned over the last decade. Andy Murray is a fine clay-courter (who finally has some results to back that). The gulf separating the “Big Four” from the  “Generation Next” remains sizeable. Serena Williams’ worst enemy is Serena Williams. Maria Sharapova has clay court ability. So does Petra Kvitova—when she is locked in.​

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Stanley Kay: Rafael Nadal may be the king of Roland Garros, but this year’s clay season tournaments showed that he won’t have a shortage of challengers at this year’s tournament, as the Spaniard uncharacteristically suffered five clay court defeats this year.

Andy Murray emerged as a serious French Open contender with titles in Munich and Madrid, defeating Nadal in the final at the latter. Stan Wawrinka beat Nadal in straight sets in the Italian Open quarters. Kei Nishikori retained his title in Barcelona, while Roger Federer looked strong in Rome before succumbing in the final. Oh, and then there’s Novak Djokovic, who is hardly an afterthought.

Drew Lawrence: I learned that all good streaks must come to an end, even though I never thought I'd see the day when Rafael Nadal would lose his footing on clay. For the most part, his competition has been stiff. There was Stan Wawrinka in Rome, Andy Murray in Madrid, and Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. The headscratcher is Fabio Fognini, a plucky Italian who has built a two-match win streak against Nadal (most recently in Barcelona). The same Fabio Fognini who barely hung with Nadal in four earlier match-ups. Something ain't right.

It's not the drop-off in Nadal's performance that's troubling. Lord knows, he's taken his share of sick days for a host of aches and pains. It's just that he's always been so good about returning fresh for the clay court season and reasserting his dominance. From 2006 through 2010, the man would lose on the surface just four times. (Four!) What's more, Rafa has never made it to the French without winning at least one clay court tournament. The recent slide hasn't just hurting Nadal's reputation as the unquestioned King of Clay. It's killed his ranking—now down to seventh. This throws a serious wrench in the draw, where as many as two of the Big Four threaten to block his path to a 10th title. And, as if that weren't alarming enough, Nadal swears he's healthy—which means he's either lying and playing through it (always a dodgy proposition) or the ravages of his concussive style of play have finally caught up with him. If it's indeed the latter, well, I'm not quite ready to think about what more that would bring an end to...

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Courtney Nguyen: That this is Novak Djokovic's French Open to lose. He's simply playing at a different level right now and the scary thing is he's been able to win both Monte Carlo and Rome, going 10-0 on clay, without having to tap into his highest gear. In that span he beat Nadal, Federer, Berdych and Nishikori with relative ease. He's on a 22-match win-streak. He's won the last seven "big" ATP titles. His only loss this season was to Federer on a lightning-fast hard court in Dubai. All this while his biggest clay rival Nadal continues to be undone by his own inconsistency. Everything is pointing to Djokovic finally completing his career Grand Slam in Paris.

Elizabeth Newman: That the Nadal we’ve come to grow and love is no more. The thrill is gone for the King of Clay. The Spaniard’s machismo has been taken down several notches, replaced with frustration and insecurity. Two years ago, Nadal notched wins over Wawrinka in Madrid and Federer in Rome en route to manhandling David Ferrer in straight sets for his eight title at Roland Garros. Fast forward to 2015.

This Nadal looks defeated and humbled on the red dust. It’s the first time in 10 years that he has not won a European ATP World Tour clay-court title in the lead-up to Roland Garros. His increasing vulnerability on the court has made it all the more clear that there has been a changing of the guard and that Novak Djokovic is now the French Open favorite. 

Nguyen: As for the women, Serena Williams will go in as the favorite in Paris but once again, Maria Sharapova has proven herself to be the most reliable winner on clay. The Russian is peaking at just the right time too, rebounding from an early exit in Stuttgart to make the semifinals in Madrid and then win the Italian Open. As much as we talk about Serena being the favorite, it's Sharapova, the reigning French Open champion, who has made three consecutive French Open finals. 

Kay: On the women’s side, Maria Sharapova rebounded from a quick exit in Stuttgart with a semifinal appearance in Madrid and a hard-fought title in Rome. Petra Kvitova’s performance in Madrid, where she didn’t lose a set after the second round, showed that she could be ready to make a deep run in a Grand Slam. Serena Williams’ decision to pull out of the Italian Open due to an elbow injury showed that she is making the French Open a big priority this year. The extra rest will give her a boost.

Deitsch: I don't read too much into Serena pulling out of the Italian Open. She'll be ready. But the draw will definitely be good for Maria Sharapova, whose No. 2 ranking means she avoids Serena until the finals. 

What are you most looking forward to in the draw?

Deitsch: Nick Kyrgios, no matter the opponent. If the young Aussie gets some comfortable matches early in the draw, watch out. I'm not sure how many matches he'll be around for, but I'm looking forward to Thanasi Kokkinakis play. Serena always fascinates me in Paris. Last year she lost in the second round, the year before that she won, and the year before that she was bounced in the first. Which Serena will we get?

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Nguyen:  The two big questions on the men's side are where Nadal and Murray end up in the draw. Djokovic and Federer are the top two seeds, while Murray and Berdych are three and four, respectively. Whichever half lands Murray will already be far more difficult than the one that lands Berdych.

Then there's Nadal at No. 7, his lowest ranking in over a decade. If he lands in Djokovic's quarter, watch out. 

Newman: I’m looking forward to seeing if Murray can make a deep run. Up until a few weeks ago, the idea of Murray making any type of noise on the clay was laughable—not only had he failed to win a title on the surface but he also had never even made a final on clay. But then he had some type of “come to red clay” moment in April, rallying to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber in three sets for the title in Munich and then taking down Nadal in straight sets in Madrid. Murray now heads to Paris 10-0 on the clay this year (not including his third round withdrawal against David Goffin in Rome). Could it be that he has undergone a Red Dust Renaissance?

Wertheim: Sadistically, I wonder whether the cohort of slumping players can turn into the Avengers: Nadal, Genie Bouchard, Aga Radwanska, Ernests Gulbis (who was a semifinalist a year ago and has barely won a match since.) Can any repair their broken games in Paris?

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The Nadal/Djokovic storyline takes on a biblical ring. The stakes are immense for both. If Nadal fails to win, it will echo. (If somehow he morphs into the Nadal of old and wins, it will have all sorts of macro ramifications.) If Djokovic wins, he'll complete the Career Slam—and tiptoe into the GOAT conversation. If he fails to win it will mark a devastatingly lost opportunity. I’m looking forward to seeing which younger players on both tours—Madison Keys? Garbine Muguruza? Borna Coric? Nick Kyrgios? Even Frances Tiafoe?—will continue their ascent and which will fail to meet the moment. I’m looking forward to watching Karolina Pliskova. Hard to remember a player flying so high while under the proverbial radar.

Lawrence: Three things: 1) Gael Monfils, in his natural element. The Frenchman absolutely epitomizes the phrase je ne sais quoi. Sometimes this is a great thing. Sometimes this is a frustrating thing. But it is never, ever a boring thing. 2) Kei Nishikori. The 2014 US Open finalist grabbed the big trophy in Barcelona after the King of Clay crashed and burned, and could sneak through to the last round in Paris if Nadal destabilizes the bracket there too. 3) Simona Halep. She, like Nadal, has had a down season on clay and desperately needs to get her groove back. When she's in rhythm, she's absolutely riveting.

Kay: This year’s French Open draw is extraordinarily compelling because of the uncertainty surrounding Nadal’s seeding. Nadal has won nine of the last 10 French Opens, but he could be set for his lowest ever seed at Roland Garros. Nadal is unlikely to be a top-four seed and may end up as No. 7, meaning that he could have to face No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. A lower seed for Nadal means a considerably tougher path to victory for Djokovic, so neither player will be particularly pleased.

What qualifier or other player do you see being a dark horse this year?

Lawrence: Austria's Dominic Thiem sure has been getting a lot of hype, and why not? He moves well, crushes it from both wings, and is clever on a surface that demands a bit more than big strokes. He gave Wawrinka a good go in Rome, pushing him to tiebreaker in the first set of their round of 16 clash before falling in straights sets. Here's hoping the 21-year-old Thiem makes a deeper run in Paris, if only for the excuse to wear out his nickname—Dominator.

Newman: Nishikori seems to be everyone’s favorite dark horse, however, I don’t consider a guy who is ranked No. 5 in the world and who is 10-1 on clay this season, including a win at Barcelona, a true dark horse. Instead I’m going with Gael Monfils. Risky? Sure. But the Frenchman is 7-3 on clay this season and had an impressive showing in Paris last year, which included taking Murray to five long sets in the quarters. Monfils is more serious and is less of a caricature when he plays on the clay in front of the home crowd at Roland Garros, so if he is ever going to break through and win a major it will be here. 

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Nguyen: With everyone focusing on Djokovic and Nadal, look for Murray or Nishikori to be there in the event something nutty happens and the men's draw falls apart. As for players primed to make a surprising second week run, I'm tagging No. 17 John Isner, No. 30 Nick Kyrgios and No. 36 Jack Sock. 

As for the women, aside from No. 23 Timea Bacsinszky, I just don't see anyone outside of the Top 4 winning the title. There are too many top players struggling and the middle-tier players haven't been taking advantage of the slumps. I don't know if you can call 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova or two-time major winner Victoria Azarenka dark horses, regardless of ranking.

Kay: This might seem like a surprise after his first-round exit last year, but I think Wawrinka could make a run. He hasn’t quite emerged like we expected after his Australian Open title in 2014, but there’s reason for optimism entering this year’s French Open. Wawrinka earned a straight-sets victory over Nadal in Rome, which should heighten his confidence after second round exits in both Monte Carlo and Madrid, both at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov. Though Wawrinka has won a plurality of his titles on grass, he has four clay titles and a better win percentage on clay than any other surface. A deep run at this year’s French and Wawrinka will truly reclaim his “Stan the Man” status. (As a fellow Stan, I’m entitled to bestow or withhold “Stan the Man” status.)

Wertheim: We write this before the draw has been made….But three men: Coric, David Goffin and Thiem, who gets special dispensation for his one-handed backhand. For the women, these are more tan horses than dark horses. But we’ll take Pliskova, Carla Suarez Navarro (one-handed backhand points) and Victoria Azarenka.

Deitsch: Suarez Navarro might be a reach for a dark horse but the now No. 8 player in the world as been on a serious roll. She's made three top-tier finals in 2015 including a big win over No. 2 Simona Halep in the semifinals of Rome. I'd also watch Svetlana Kuznetsova, who played very well in Madrid. Austrian Dominic Thiem has been flying up the ATP rankings. 



How do you think the Americans will fare?

Wertheim: Fair. There may be a few Week One triumphs. It will be interesting to see how young Frances Tiafoe—who did not change his first name for the occasion—plays in his first French Open. Jack Sock has won a clay court title this year. On speed alone, Donald Young can acquit himself well on clay—as he did in Paris last year. But if there are no American men left by the middle weekend, it will surprise no one. The potential, as usual, is greater on the women’s side. Some of this is just a function of probability and more women in the draw. (And the presence of Serena Williams.) Still, the women will likely carry the flag. Although it’s her least favorite surface, on ballstriking alone, Madison Keys can make a run. It’s a big event, so Sloane Stephens should come to play. Coco Vandeweghe is no clay court impresario but she could serve her way into the middle weekend. Madison Brengle can add to her breakthrough year, too.​

Power Rankings: Murray up to No. 2, Kyrgios rises ahead of French Open

Kay: On the women’s side, Serena will be going for Grand Slam title No. 20, which would put her two behind Steffi for No. 2 all-time. Sloane Stephens is another player to watch. She has been sneakily competitive at the French, reaching the fourth round each of the past three years. She’s also bowed out to stiff competition: Simona Halep (2014; runner-up), Maria Sharapova (2013; runner-up) and Samantha Stosur (2012; semifinalist). Her results this clay season haven’t been inspiring, but with some luck, perhaps she can finally advance to the quarters.

Oh, and the men: To paraphrase Drake: if you’re reading this, it might already be too late. By time you finish this paragraph, the American male field might already have moved on to grass court season.

Lawrence: As usual, it's ugly for everyone but Serena.

Newman: Americans in Paris? Sounds like a bad National Lampoon flick. Well, I guess there is always Serena, however, she seemed a bit surly and off-center in Rome. I just hate that she has become the Americans sole de facto chance for any Grand Slam wins. 

Nguyen: I expect the Americans to shoot par. Isner and Sock are the best hopes in the men's tournament, while Venus Williams, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens should do well to play the supporting cast to Serena's show.

Who will win the men's title?

Deitsch: Novak Djokovic.

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Nguyen: Rafael Nadal. Yes, Djokovic is the favorite based on all the numbers. But I just can't discount the fact that Nadal has won the French Open nine of the last 10 years. Only once has any man been able to take three sets off him in Paris. Compare that to Djokovic, who came into Paris undefeated in his historic 2011 year and was playing better ball last year as well. Both times he walked away without the trophy. I'm siding with the established Nadal until proven otherwise.

Kay: Djokovic has made two of the last three French Open finals, and he’ll finally hoist the first-place trophy at Roland Garros this year.

Newman: My Euros are on The Djoker. With Nadal struggling it’s Djokovic’s tournament to lose.

Lawrence: Djokovic. With Nadal on the ropes, it's his tournament to lose.

Wertheim: I wish there were a daring pick. But for the 11th year in a row, there is not a daring pick. We’ll take Djokovic. Impeccable fitness. No weaknesses. A winning aura. A best-of-five format. Unless he drowns himself in expectation it’s very hard to envision him losing.​

Who will win the women's title?

Deitsch: Maria Sharapova

Nguyen: Maria Sharapova. Sure, Serena is the better player and she could romp to the title. But let's not forget: Since 2003, Serena has made the semifinals just once. That came in 2013 when she went on to win the title. As good as she is, Paris has been a difficult two weeks for her.

That's where Sharapova comes in. Her run to the title in Rome boosted her to the No. 2 seed, which means the earliest she could face Serena is the final. This pick is draw dependent though. As good as she's been playing there are certain matchups that will prove problematic. But if she can get herself through to the quarterfinals without much of a hitch, I like her chances.

Mailbag: Can Petra Kvitova be more than a grass-court great, win Slams?

Kay: While Nadal has dominated the men’s field at Roland Garros for the last decade, the women’s side has only seen only one repeat champion since Justine Henin’s three-peat from 2005-07: Maria Sharapova.

She’s on clay, but Serena’s 17-2 record against Sharapova is tough to ignore. While Simona Halep is also certainly a title candidate, I’m going with Serena.

Newman: Simona Halep. Although she hasn’t won a title on the clay this season, she was a finalist here last year, making it all the way to the final without losing a set before falling to Maria Sharapova in three sets. She knows the drill and is hungry for her first Grand Slam trophy.

Lawrence: Serena always gets the rights of first refusal. If she exercises it—or, rather, some upstart forces her to—then Sharapova claims first prize.

Wertheim: Well, here we have a wider range of options. Sharapova is your defending champ. Serena Williams is….Serena Williams. Halep’s Slam breakthrough increasingly appears to be a question of “when.” Yet we’ll go (slightly) off the board and, riding the hot hand from Madrid, take Petra Kvitova. It’s a bit of a "why not?" pick, but, well, why not? She hits a monstrous ball. She is an underrated athlete. She has the lefty strokes that still confound. She has won majors already. She might even be through with the inconsistent results.​


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