With the Roland Garros 2018 set to kick off on Sunday in Paris, SI’s tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Stanley Kay, Jamie Lisanti and Daniel Rapaport discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners.
What did the clay court lead-up tournaments teach you?
Jon Wertheim: Rafael Nadal is superawesome at claycourt tennis. (But beatable, under the right circumstances.) Alexander Zverev deserves his No. 2 seeding (but still needs to prove himself in a best-of-five format.) Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic have life in them yet (but neither is in position to add to their haul of French Open titles.) The women’s field is less “wide open” than it is a gaping abyss that would swallow up Evel Knievel. (But that makes it fun….the unpredictability, that is. Not the risk posed to 1970s made-for-tv daredevils.)
Stanley Kay: Rafael Nadal is a decent clay court player, eh? Just when you think the Spaniard can’t wow us any further on his best surface, he reels off 50 straight sets on dirt. Like last year, Dominic Thiem managed to upset Nadal ahead of the French Open—the Austrian was responsible for ending Nadal’s record set streak—but recall that Nadal ended up thrashing Them in the 2017 Roland Garros semifinals. So don’t get too excited about Thiem’s chances. Thiem and Sascha Zverev both put together nice clay court seasons, but neither appears a worthy rival to Rafa—at least not yet.
Meanwhile, stop me if you’ve heard this before: The women’s field is again pretty open. The last six majors have seen six different female champions, so no surprise there. Elina Svitolina seems to be peaking at the right time, drubbing Simona Halep in the Rome final, but Halep remains a deserving favorite at Roland Garros. The Romanian, a finalist last year, is the world No. 1 for a reason: she’s consistently good. Halep hasn’t won a tournament since the first week of the year, but she’s avoiding first-round defeats.
Jamie Lisanti: I don’t think I needed a refresher lesson on this, but here’s one thing I learned in the last month of play on the clay: Rafael Nadal reigns supreme. Per usual, the Spaniard was dominant on the dirt in the run-up to Roland Garros, capturing trophies in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome to solidify fourth place on the Open Era titles list with 78. On top of that, he’ll step foot in Paris with the World No. 1 ranking in his grasp once again. The recent tournaments emphasized Nadal’s stranglehold and demonstrated how players like Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev are capable of challenging, but not conquering, the king.
Here’s a copy-and-paste from last year: Elina Svitolina is on fire right now. In 2017, the 23-year-old Ukrainian beat Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep en route to the title in Rome. (And then proceeded to fall 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0 to the Romanian in the French Open quarterfinals.) This year, Svitolina once again captured the Italian Open crown, emphatically beating World No. 1 Halep 6-0, 6-4. So what will happen at the French Open this year? My gut tells me Svitolina will once again capitulate before the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2018.
And here’s one more takeaway: Injuries are still dominating tennis. Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will all be missing in Paris. And you can likely add Juan Martin del Potro to that list, after he suffered a groin strain in Rome. Others are likely to join that group by the time the draw is out. What should players takeaway from these absences? Staying healthy is key, of course, but recovering from those ailments is nearly just as important.
Daniel Rapaport: First and foremost, that 31-year-old Rafa Nadal is still virtually unbeatable on the dirt. Apart from the one loss to Dominic Thiem in Madrid, Rafa looked as healthy, motivated and comfortable on the clay as we’ve ever seen him. Anything short of a comfortable run to his 11th title in Paris would genuinely surprise me. That being said, Alexander Zverev is not far at all from breaking through in a major, and Roland Garros could well be the site of his first big breakthrough. His game is ready.
On the women’s side, there isn’t anyone that even resembles a favorite. There are 20 women who could legitimately hoist the trophy.
One other thing: I miss the Big Four. That might not be a popular take in the tennis world, but there was something distinctly special about entering majors wondering which of the titans (refresher: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray) would reign supreme. This clay-court season, with Fed and Murray out and Novak a shell of himself, was the first time it seemed absolutely certain that those four-headed domination days are over.
Which qualifier/player completely off the radar do you see as a potential dark horse for this year?
JW: With an early loss in Rome, Djokovic, remarkably, might not have been seeded. Which would have made answering this easy. As it stands, I’d say Stefanos Tsitsipas, tennis’ Greek Freak (who doesn’t turn 20 until August.) Borna Coric is better than his No. 41 ranking. Nicolas Jarry of Chile is rising in the ranks, as is Frances Tiafoe, for a gratuitous American reference.
As for the women, a year after an unseeded player won the title….Petra Martic is a veteran who plays her best at Majors. Maria Sakkari is the Greek freakette. Svetlana Kuznetsova is a former champ. Lucie Safarova, a former finalist is healthy again.
SK: How about Maria Sharapova? After losing in the first round in Stuttgart, she reached the quarterfinals in Madrid and the semifinals of Rome, where she beat Jelena Ostapenko in a thrilling three-set quarterfinal. On the men’s side, Stefanos Tsitsipas—despite having yet to win a match at a Slam—seems ready for a major breakthrough, especially after reaching finals in Barcelona and Portugal.
JL: Kiki Bertens had a good run at the Madrid Open, where she reached the final before losing to Petra Kvitova. In the absence of his countryman Milos Raonic, Candian Denis Shapovalov could string together a few matches in the first week at the French Open. How about another 19-year-old? Stefanos Tsitsipas showed promise in Barcelona. How about a Romanian not named Simona Halep? Meet 30-year-old Mihaela Buzarnescu.
DR: Going to go wayyyyy out on a limb here, because why not? Malek Jaziri can make a run into the second week given the right draw (which, at the French, simply means avoiding Rafa). The 34-year-old Tunisian has had a quietly strong clay season, and he’ll be the latest chapter in this ballad of Tennis Players Over 30.
Novak Djokovic has struggled this year but has shown some positive signs in the lead-up tournaments. How do you rate Novak’s chances of making a deep run?
JW: Great question. Who will show up, Djokovic (Hall of Fame player) or Joe Cavitch (journeyman impersonator)? Players struggle and go through slumps, but this is almost unprecedented. Two years ago, the guy is making a credible bid for THE Grand Slam. Since winning the 2016 French, he has lost before the semifinals in all but one of the seven majors he’s entered and is now outside the world’s top 20. He ought to be encouraged by his play in Rome. But between his questionable levels of self-belief and fitness, realistically a run to, say, the quarterfinals, would be a win.
SK: Outside of Nadal, the men’s field isn’t particularly strong. That’s good news for Rafa, but it’s also good news for the other 127 men aiming to dethrone the King of Clay, including former world No. 1 Djokovic. The Serb’s recent form befuddles: early exits in Barcelona and Madrid to Martin Klizan and Kyle Edmund, followed by a nice run to the Rome semis. With the right draw, Djokovic remains capable of making a deep run, especially after playing with greater confidence in Italy. But his fitness is a concern: Does he have the stamina to withstand a five-set marathon? I doubt it. The aura of invincibility Djokovic carried into Paris two years ago has long since evaporated, and I’d imagine players like Sascha Zverev and Dominic Them would fancy their chances against the 12-time Slam champion.
JL: By returning to Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic is also returning to the scene of the crime. On June 5, 2016, Djokovic defeated Andy Murray and finally captured the “elusive” French Open title. His win completed the career Grand Slam, vaulted him into another realm of greatness and left us asking ourselves: At this rate, who will ever stop him?
Since then, other players have stepped up as Djokovic as spiraled downward. From injuries to internal struggles and everything in between, there are various reasons for the decline. He is currently an active experiment in the testing of the theory: “What goes up must come down.” But there must be a converse of that, no?
The Serb showed promise in Rome and a tough semifinal against Nadal could be the type of competition he needed before heading to Paris. Can the breeze on Court Philippe Chatrier kick up the dirt and resurface the magic of 2016 for Novak Djokovic? He won’t win the title, but a resurgence at the place where he had his last major career breakthrough is a real possibility.
DR: I’m actually bullish on Novak at the moment. It’s difficult to explain his sudden drop-off—like, fall-off-a-cliff sudden—but I quite liked what I saw out of him in Rome. He seems to be moving well, striking the backhand almost as clean as he used to, and the desire to return to the ranks of the elite is clearly there. The fitness is an issue, granted, which is ironic for a player who at his peak was as fit as there’s ever been in sport. But the men’s field just isn’t that strong this year, and Novak can certainly beat any player not named Rafa Nadal on his day. Should he avoid Rafa in the earlier part of the draw, I’d expect Djokovic to at least reach the quarters and truly wouldn’t be shocked to see him progress even further.
Serena Williams returns to Grand Slam tennis as the No. 453 player in the world. What should Serena’s expecations be?
JW: Minimal. (What do you think this is, beer pong?) She’s not on her choice surface. The WTA policymakers did her no favors, declining to seed her. She’s almost 37. And, oh right, she is coming off a difficult pregnancy. Realistically this is a gauge event and a chance to get in some matches for Wimbledon, where she stands a much better chance. Then again, she is Serena Williams. So if the No. 453 player won the title it wouldn’t surprise us.
SK: I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Serena Williams to make a serious run at the title in Paris considering her lack of match play this season. Being Serena—get it?—anything could happen. But I think she should consider the French Open a success if she gets at least a couple matches under her belt without any health setbacks, positioning her to compete for titles on grass—especially at Wimbledon.
JL: On one side, if I’m Serena, I’m thinking: I may be ranked in the 400s, but my opponents across the net likely still view me as one of the best player in the world. I have 23 Grand Slam titles. The field is wide open. What do I have to lose? Win a few matches, shake the rust off…I can definitely win this title.
On the other side, if I’m Serena, I’m also thinking: I’m 36. I’m a mom to a growing baby with a blossoming Instagram following. I just attended the Royal Wedding and dominated the beer pong tables. I’ve played four matches this year and lost two of them. I’m here to play, but it won’t break me if I lose. Que sera, sera. (Or shall we say, Ce qui sera, sera?)
DR: To compete with everything she has, which she always does. Besides that, she can’t realistically expect to make a deep run at all. It’s her least favorite surface, she hasn’t played a major in 16 months and hasn’t played a single match on clay this year. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have a chance of making a deep run. Of course she does. She’s won 23 majors, including three French Opens. I just wouldn’t be expecting it.
Give us one off-beat storyline to follow
JW: I would classify the mystery cloaking Djokovic as an “off beat” storyline. Serena and the fairness of the WTA’s family leave act….why is there no Hawkeye on clay? What impact will the inevitable legalization of US gambling have on tennis?
SK: Depending on how Serena Williams, still finding her form after maternity leave, plays in Paris—especially if she draws a top player—I’d expect the controversy over her lack of seeding to continue. I’m interested to see whether Wimbledon organizers decide to handle the situation differently.
JL: Maternity leave in women’s tennis—and its impact on rankings and seeds. With French Open organizers announcing that the seed list will reflect the current WTA rankings and will not include Serena as seeded player, I hope the women on tour speak out about the maternity policy and its various implications, especially in the environment of a Grand Slam tournament.
DR: On the men’s side, there are only two teenagers ranked in the top 50: Denis Shapovalov (No. 26) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (No. 40). One is a fiery lefty who is animated on the court. Another is a righty with a beautiful game and a picturesque one-handed backhand. Sound familiar? I’m projecting here, but I’m high on both of these young guys as, along with Zverev, the stars capable of taking the torch from the Rafa/Fed/Novak generation. Both have shown promise on clay this season—Tsitsipas more so—so keep and eye on how these youngin’s fare in Paris.
Who will win the men’s title? Or: Can anyone stop Rafa? If so, who has the best chance?
JW: Good question. Zverev would be the best bet, but he needs to step up at the Majors (He’s coming off a first round loss in Paris in 2017.) Dominic Thiem beat Nadal in but Madrid. Djokovic can try and channel his 2015 (and French 2016) form. Someone, conceivably, could get Nadal early on a flat day. But realistically, if you took the field and I got Nadal, I’d be fine with that.
SK: How can anyone pick against Rafa? Unless the early-2016 version of Novak Djokovic shows up—and there’s no evidence that guy is ever coming back—Nadal should coast to the title, just like last year. Somehow this year’s field is even weaker than 2017’s, when Nadal won the title without dropping a set. Sascha Zverev and Dominic Thiem could challenge for the title, but Zverev has yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal and Thiem—conqueror of Nadal in Madrid—failed to sniff a set against the Spaniard at Roland Garros last year. Another player to watch: Juan Martin del Potro. But the Argentine strained his groin in Rome, putting his tournament in doubt. Advantage, Rafa.
JL: Rafael Nadal. An injury or lightning strike may be the only possible deterrents.
DR: No. No one can stop Rafa. Absolutely, positively not. Gun to my head, I’d say Thiem has the best chance, but lord bless you if you’ve the stones to bet against Nadal at this tournament.
Who will win the women’s title?
JW: Who knows? I’d like to go with top seed Simona Halep; but it’s more because the fates owe her one, than because of her current form. Caroline Wozniacki won the previous Major but struggles on a clay. Sloane Stephens is Arctic or Saharan. So is Garbine Muguruza, the 2016 champ. Maybe we’ll go with Elina Svitolina, who’s never been to a Grand Slam semifinal, but is due.
SK: Simona Halep is due for a Grand Slam title, and I think it will finally happen in Paris. Sure, Elina Svitolina beat her in straight sets—the first a bagel—in the Rome final, but I loved Halep’s fight against Maria Sharapova in the semifinal, where she rallied from a set down. Halep is an all-surface player, but her counterpunching style really shows on clay. Despite a dearth of major titles, Halep has been the tour’s best player since Serena went on maternity leave. She’s a deserving No. 1, and she won’t have to wait much longer to earn the Grand Slam she deserves.
JL: Fourth time’s a charm for Simona Halep, who will capture her first Grand Slam title after two weeks in Paris. J’espère.
DR: Going with the feel-good option here in Petra Kvitova. If you don’t know her story, it’s one worth researching, but here’s the Cliff Notes version: Last year, her left hand (she’s a lefty) was badly injured when a man with a knife invaded her home. The case went unsolved. Now, she’s won two tournaments in a row, including the 1000-level Madrid. Kvitova wins her third major overall and first outside of Wimbledon to complete one of sports’ best redemption stories.