With the 2016 French Open set to kick off Sunday in Paris, SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Richard Deitsch, Elizabeth Newman, Stanley Kay and Jamie Lisanti discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners.
What qualifier or other player do you see being a dark horse this year?
Jon Wertheim: Sparkles and Clive.
It's hard to define a dark horse these days. In the men’s game it’s essentially any non-Slam winner. Is Nick Kyrgios a dark horse? If so, that’s one. Dominic Thiem — who’s not far from the top ten but has never gone beyond the middle weekend of a Major. More conventionally: Lucas Pouille, Pablo Cuevas, Sascha Zverev. And how about a shout-out to Nicolas Almagro, who’s revived his game.
As for the women’s game, you could argue that a dark horse is any player whose surname is not Williams. Simona Halep is a player to watch among the top 10 seeds. Look out for Svetlana Kuznetsova — a former winner at Roland Garros — and Madison Keys, among the 11-20 contingent. A more conventional dark horse? Daria Kasatkina, and Jelena Ostapenko.
Richard Deitsch: Dominic Thiem and Lucie Safarova.
Elizabeth Newman: I hate that the top players on the men’s side are sooo good, that the dark horses are basically the No. 2s and No. 3s of the world. Still, my sleeper is Andy Murray. Building on his clay court success from last year, Murray has continued to shine on the red stuff. Last week's 6–3, 6–3 defeat of Djokovic in the Italian Open final served notice of just how well Murray is playing on clay. If not Rafa, then who? Murray.
For the women: Madison Keys. A new coach can make a world of difference. Although she normally struggles on clay, Keys showed remarkable confidence and focus throughout the Italian Open, making it all the way to the final before losing to Serena. The unexpected surge has given her a world of confidence heading to Paris which could put her in the winner’s circle if she can stay focused and get a little bit of help from the draw.
Jamie Lisanti: We really need to come up with a new term for this kind of player, the one that, sure, we've all heard of but also hasn't made headlines at a major tournament in awhile. (Or ever, for that matter.) Can we really label Svetlana Kuznetsova—the 30-year-old Russian vet with two Grand Slam titles, one at Roland Garros in 2009—as a dark horse? Probably not, but be sure to look out for her in Paris. I'd also keep an eye on Sloane Stephens and Louisa Chirico, the New Jersey native who is coming off a red-hot run to the semifinals in Madrid, where she lost to Dominika Cibulkova—yet another can-we-really-call-you-a-dark-horse candidate that can make a deep run in Paris. I'm always curious to see how Eugenie Bouchard fares—she faces a tough Laura Siegemund in Round 1.
On the men's side, with Roger Federer and flashy Frenchman Gael Monfils out, I'm going with Milos Raonic, if he can stay healthy. American Taylor Fritz has a tough first-rounder (popcorn match!) against Borna Coric and was drawn into Djokovic's quarter, but if he can get a win in the opener, who knows what can happen. I also like Kyrgios' chances in the bottom half of the draw and, for the home team's sake, I can see Tsonga advancing to the semifinals again in 2016.
Stanley Kay: I was going to pick Gael Monfils, but he pulled out of Roland Garros on Friday after being hospitalized with a virus. I think Dominic Thiem is a strong dark horse candidate. The 22–year–old Austrian already has two singles titles this year, and he’s had a nice clay court season, including a victory over Federer in Rome. One major hurdle: Thiem would likely have to play Nadal in the fourth round.
On the women’s side, my dark horse is Timea Bacsinszky. She’s had a solid clay court season, recording wins over the likes of Carla Suarez Navarro and Ekaterina Makarova, and she made her first Slam semifinal last year in Paris. I think she’s due for another strong performance this year.
Name one offbeat and/or off-court story you will be following during this year’s French Open.
Newman: Vive La France? The French have four of its own in the top 20 rankings on the men’s side—No. 7 Jo-Wlifried Tsonga, No. 10 Richard Gasguet, No. 14 Gael Monfils (who withdrew from the tournament on Friday) and No. 18 Gilles Simon—yet the last time a Frenchman won the title at Roland Garros was in 1983 with Yannick Noah. Pourquoi? Is this the year that a Frenchman will finally claim victory at home?
Deitsch: The very in-doubt playing future of Maria Sharapova.
Wertheim: Andy Murray’s coaching status after he, of course, parted with Amelie Mauresmo. Maria Sharapova will be a name in heavy rotation—rumor and opinion will fill the vacuum as we await the decision on her anti-doping hearing. What’s going on at the French Federation, which appears to be doing a FIFA impersonation? And, good soldier that I am, the exceptional coverage of Tennis Channel — devoting more hours than ever.
Lisanti: I don't think we'll go a day in Paris without hearing the words "Maria Sharapova" and "doping" uttered in the same sentence. Curiosity about the details and outcome of that case still lingers and watch out if a player decides to comment on it in press. Aside from that: Will Serena stay healthy throughout the tournament or catch another bad cold in the first week? Will Tomas Berdych's recent firing of Dani Vallverdu help or hurt him? Will Djokovic seek help for his mental game (a la mediation classes with the monks at Wimbledon) or find a new recovery method in Paris? I also think Serena's Paris apartment might be of interest in the next two weeks.
Kay: ESPN is no longer broadcasting the French Open after airing the tournament from 2003 through 2015. The network was hardly pulling in monster ratings for the tournament—Sports Business Journal reported last year that ESPN2’s French Open coverage averaged 0.2 from 2013-15—but no other sports network can match ESPN’s national visibility. How will ESPN’s decision to discontinue its French Open coverage affect widespread interest in the tournament, particularly considering Serena Williams’s chance at history?
Make one bold prediction for the tournament.
Wertheim: Roger Federer will not reach the second week. Also, a WTA player outside the top 40 will reach the semifinals.
Newman: Nick Kyrgios. The young Aussie will leave his temper in the locker room and make a deep run in Paris. He’s proven he can be a threat on clay this season, taking out nemesis and fourth ranked Stan Wawrinka in Madrid and ninth ranked Milos Raonic in Rome. No. 5 Nadal needed three sets at the Italian Open to escape him. If he can hold it together this could be the start of something big.
Lisanti: Weighed down by the pressure of a title defense, Stan Wawrinka will crash out early and his push into the Big Four conversation will have to wait, even with Federer's absence. No. 2-seed Agnieszka Radwanska will prove why she deserves that second slot in the rankings.
Deitsch: Stan Wawrinka will lose in the second round.
Kay: Nadal—a trendy pick to win his 10th French Open this year—won’t make the semifinals.
Who will win the women's title?
Newman: This is a tough one. I would be a fool not to say Serena because she’s well…Serena. However, she’s only recently gotten out of her Beyonce Formation and put down the dog food, and really focused on tennis this season. Rome was her first title of the year, and it was a shaky climb to the trophy. Still, If she can stay focused and healthy, Serena should be saying Mais Oui! to No. 22 in Paris.
Wertheim: I guess Serena. Her ghastly major-less streak stands at two. (That was a joke.) Part of this is the paucity of obvious alternatives. But Serena also comes in fresh from winning Rome, looking very much like her old self.
Deitsch: Garbine Muguruza.
Lisanti: Serena Williams, if she can get out of her own way.
Kay: Serena Williams has won "only" three French Open titles (she’s won six at each of the other Slam events), but it’s worth noting that two of those titles came over the last three years. This year, Serena will make it three in four, tying Steffi Graf’s record of 22 career Slams.
Who will win the men's title?
Newman: I’ve been holding my breath for a Rafa comeback for more than a year. Now is as good a time as any. Unlike last year, he comes to Roland Garros with two clay court titles (Monaco and Barcelona) and a newfound confidence to his name. Winning here is familiar territory, something that top-ranked Djokovic can never claim. I’ve got Nadal for his 10 win at Roland Garros. Viva La Rafa!
Wertheim: Djokovic. If not now, when?
Deitsch: Novak Djokovic.
Lisanti: Novak Djokovic. Surely he can do it this year, right?
Kay: Can I have a second semi-bold prediction? Andy Murray is going to win his third Slam and his first since 2013. Djokovic’s quest for the career Grand Slam will have to wait another year.