French Open 2017 preview roundtable: Predictions, dark horses, more

Tuesday May 23rd, 2017

With the Roland Garros 2017 set to kick off on Sunday in Paris, SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Richard Deitsch, 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: Maria Sharapova would have been the obvious answer but we’ll have to wait for Wimbledon for that….Lucie Safarova was a finalist two years ago. Mostly on account of injury and illness she has fallen and will likely not be seeded. Similarly Genie Bouchard was a top five player not all that long ago. She’s taken her share of losses since but—as she showed in Madrid against the aforementioned Sharapova—she is still capable of top shelf tennis.

As for the men, does Juan Martin del Potro qualify as a dark horse. No? Okay, we’ll take a pair of Pablo Honeys—Carreno Busta of Spain and Cuevas of Uruguay—instead.

Richard Deitsch: Roberto Bautista Agut has played quality matches in Munich, Rome and Madrid, even if those runs ultimately ended against higher seeds. He took the first set from Novak last year in the fourth round before losing in four including 7-5 in the final set. If his draw is good, I could see a nice second week result.

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Jamie Lisanti: Keep an eye on Juan Martin del Potro. After skipping the Australian Open in January, del Potro returned to the court in February. His match-play has been limited (thanks to some early round run-ins with the links of Djokovic and Federer) but the Argentinean will return to Roland Garros for the first time since 2012 with some solid clay-court wins under his belt. In Rome, he took out Grigor Dimitrov, Kyle Edmund and Kei Nishikori before losing to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Del Potro will likely be one of the last seeded players in the draw, but never count out a former French Open semifinalist—if he can get past the expected early-round clash with a top seed, he’s certainly capable of stirring up the draw.

On the women’s side, I like Svetlana Kuznetsova. She’s not your typical dark horse. But she’s a veteran, former French Open champ and all-around badass. My motto for the next two weeks? “Pain doesn’t kill me. I kill the pain.”

Stanley Kay: Does Juan Martin del Potro count? He hasn’t played a French Open since 2012, and he’s going to be a low seed. He played well in Rome, beating Grigor Dimitrov, Kyle Edmund and Kei Nishikori before falling to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Del Potro could very well play a top player early in the tournament because of his seed, and he’s certainly capable of taking out anybody. While the clay dilutes his powerful forehand a bit, the slower surface also gives him greater ability to run around his backhands. 

Random player to watch: Pablo Cuevas. He’s 31, but he had a good clay season, losing to Dominic Thiem in close matches in both Madrid and Rome. In Madrid, he beat Thomas Bellucci, Nicolas Mahut, Benoit Paire and Alexander Zverev before losing to Thiem. I was impressed, and I think Cuevas could carry some momentum into Paris and at least make the fourth round, which would be his best career finish at a Slam.

Venus Williams isn’t a typical dark horse, but she’s certainly not a favorite to win. With the field pretty wide open and no little sister, I think Venus can make a serious run at her first French Open title. 

Anett Kontaveit impressed me in Rome by qualifying for the tournament before reaching the quarterfinals, beating Angelique Kerber in straight sets along the way. The 21-year-old Estonian looks like she could be a future star, and based on her form I think she could make some noise at Roland Garros

Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

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

JW: I suppose hard-core fans knew it already, but Rafa Nadal is really good at tennis, especially when the surface underfoot is clay. And—even at age 31, even without a French title since 2014, even coming off a dismal 2016—he is the pick to win for the TENTH time. We also, of course, learned that Novak Djokovic will come to defend his title (and, abstractly, more much) with a new apparel sponsor (Lacoste) and new aide-de-camp (Andre Agassi). Dominic Thiem is ready to take the proverbial next step. Presumably young Sascha Zverev is as well. On the women’s side we learned that the field is wide open. If you want to make God laugh, make a women’s tennis draw. 

RD: That Alexander Zverev’s time might be now. After beating Novak Djokovic for the Italian Open title, he’s up to No. 10 in the rankings. I’d bet big that he tops a higher seed during the French. Elina Svitolina has to be considered one of the co-favorites given her recent run. If you know who will win the women’s French Open, let me know, please. 

SK: On the men’s side, I learned that Rafael Nadal is the clear favorite. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are ranked higher, but both players—especially Murray—seem to be out of rhythm at the moment. Djokovic looked quite good in Italy before dropping the final to Alexander Zverev, but there’s no obvious favorite for this tournament—besides the King of Clay. He won titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona before reaching the quarters in Rome, bowing out to an ascendant Dominic Thiem. It’s fun to watch, of course, but Nadal’s status as the favorite seems more tenuous than years past: He’s older, and there are wrists and knees and other body parts that could give him trouble in a grueling Slam event. 

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How about Elina Svitolina? She surged to No. 1 in the points race so far this season after winning the Italian Open, and with no obvious favorite to win the French Open on the women’s side, she’ll be considered a favorite to win the title. The 22-year-old has won four titles so far this season, including two on clay, and her best finish at a Slam came at Roland Garros in 2015, when she reached the quarterfinals. 

I’m also looking forward to watching Garbine Muguruza. We all rushed to declare her the next No. 1 after she beat Serena Williams in the French Open final, but she has stalled since last year’s triumph, especially in Slams (last three: 2R, 2R, QF). Her clay court season didn’t exactly start well, losing in the first round in Stuttgart and Madrid. But she seemed to find her form in Rome before losing to Svitolina, retiring in the first set due to injury. Depending on her fitness, Muguruza could be a player to watch in Paris. 

JL: Elina Svitolina is on fire and the ATP's Next Gen is making a mark on the clay courts.

With Svitolina's title at the Italian Open—where she took out No. 2-seed Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep en route to the title—the Ukrainian climbed five spots in the WTA rankings to a new career high of World No. 6. This breakthrough sets Svitolina up for a deep run in Paris. She reached the last eight in Paris in 2015, her only career quarterfinal appearance at a major, but if she can continue her form, expect that stat to change this year.

On the men's side, both 20-year-old Alexander Zverev and 23-year-old Dominic Thiem showed in the lead-up tournaments that they have the skills (and the mental prowess) to beat the veterans at the top of the men's game.

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​Thiem ended Rafael Nadal's 17-match winning streak on the clay this spring, beating the King of Clay 6-4, 6-3 in Rome. While Thiem faltered in the semifinals vs. Novak Djokovic's—"I was empty mentally, this result is logical," he said after the match—Zverev was able to get past Milos Raonic, John Isner and then Djokovic in the final to win his first ATP Masters 1000 title.

If either of these Next-Genners keeps up their results on the terre battue, and figure out a way to dig deep mentally after big-time matches on the Grand Slam stage, both have a chance to play well into the second week.

Make one bold prediction for the tournament.

JW: Riding her recent hot streak and the hometown crowd, Kristina Mladenovic is your women’s champion.​

RD: Andre Agassi will receive interview requests.

SK: Andy Murray will be the victim of an early upset. 

JL:  Nick Kyrgios will post his best-ever result at a Slam and make the semifinals.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Name one offbeat and/or off-court story you will be following during this year’s French Open.

JW: The French Open lost the winners of the two previous majors—Roger Federer and Serena Williams. By their own doing, they lost Maria Sharapova, who’s won twice in the last five years. But the storyline gods started paying off their debt in the form of the Djokovic-Agassi marriage. That will be THE story of week one. Without Sharapova there to defend herself, will her story persist? And, tennis being tennis, surely Ilie Nastase will surely make an appearance.​

RD: I’ll be curious to see how many reporters offer pieces on what Bernard Giudicelli’s [the president of the French Tennis Federation] decision to turn down Maria Sharapova’s request for a wild card into either the main draw or qualifying here means for Sharapova and other tournament heads heading forward. 

SK: I’m looking forward to seeing Andre Agassi’s coaching debut. Novak Djokovic is in a bit of a slump right now—by his standards, at least—and Agassi dealt with considerably worse slumps during his career. Djokovic and Agassi don’t know each other too well, so I’m curious whether this will be a short-term arrangement or the start of a new era of success in Djokovic’s career. 

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JL: Novak Djokovic's entire off-court life is particularly interesting to me. New sponsor (Lacoste) new coach, a newborn on the way—like it or not, Djokovic's life is very different than it was at this time last year.

Last year Djokovic shared how becoming a father impacted his game and overall energy on the court. With his wife Jelena expecting the couple's second child, Djokovic's off-court life will certainly be a factor, especially as he returns to Paris, where he finally won the “elusive” French Open title last year.

And how will Djokovic's coaching carousel affect his play in Paris? After parting ways with Boris Becker in December and then longtime coach Marian Vajda and two other team members at the beginning of May, Djokovic returns to Roland Garros without the squad that helped him break through and finally get the win in 2016.

All of those factors add up to a whole lot of change all at once, but maybe it's exactly what Djokovic needs at this point in the year.

Who will win the men's title?

JW: Nadal. On clay. In a best-of-five format. With a few extra days of rest after Rome and some fear after the loss Thiem (his lone defeat of the four clay events he entered) means he will have the right calibration of confidence and motivation. Djokovic defending his title (and, by extension, his honor) would be a hell of a story, especially with the 1999 champ cheering from the box. After those two, it's a long staircase down to other contenders.

RD: Djokovic. He looked very good in Rome with wins over Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem and I think the addition of Andre Agassi is going to help him both 1. Mentally; 2. Creating a storyline away from his tennis.

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SK: The story of the 2017 ATP season has been the resurgence of the game’s elder statesmen, and I think Rafael Nadal is going to win it. He was playing with great confidence last year and looked a threat to win the title before pulling out of the tournament with an injury, and this year he really seems to have recaptured the old clay court magic. I think the Spaniard wins his 10th Roland Garros title this year. 

JL: Rafael Nadal will break his own record and win his 10th title at Roland Garros.

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

Who will win the women's title?

JW: Simona Halep is probably the logical choice – discuss: when was the last time a zero-time Slam winner had this much pre-tournament buzz? The mystifying Garbine Muguruza is the defending champ. But—in the spirit of a hot take—we’ll take Mladenovic.

RD: Pick anyone from the Top 8 out of a hat and your choice will be as good as mine. I’ll take Simona Halep, back with coach Darren Cahill, who had been playing like a major champion this month prior to rolling her right ankle in the eighth game of the first set in the Italian Open final against Elina Svitolina.

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SK: I think Simona Halep finally breaks through and wins a Slam. 

JL: As Simona Halep said last week, there are about 15 women that are favorites to win the French Open title. It's a toss-up, I’m going to say 2009 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova will take home the title, her third career Grand Slam.

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