No one at the beginning of this Covid year could have predicted that we here at Tennis Threads would be writing the French Open in September, just a couple of weeks after the US Open had concluded!
Tennis is starting to find its way back and, while we must first and foremost look after the health and safety of everyone involved, we are hopeful we will be able to retain these playing opportunities and produce a strong finish to the season Andrea Gaudenzi
But that is where we find ourselves, heading directly to Paris from New York to conclude a month long burst of unexpected and unprecedented Grand Slam activity. This year’s Wimbledon-free tennis calendar has been gravely disrupted, and whether we like it or not, we now embark on a mini autumnal clay court season, with just two transitional events in Rome – playing live now – and Hamburg, for the players to adapt their games and their mind-sets, from hard courts to clay.
But, following the successful US Open earlier this month it will be to Paris at the end of this month that fans will look to as a clear sign that tennis is creeping back to some sort of normality.
It’s something that the ATP is delighted about.
Its chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi stated as much last week when he said, “Tennis is starting to find its way back and, while we must first and foremost look after the health and safety of everyone involved, we are hopeful we will be able to retain these playing opportunities and produce a strong finish to the season,”
One major plus for the ATP, the WTA and the players themselves at Roland Garros will be the return of fans to the courts, 11,500 of them each day divided into three zones. Of course, they will be strictly ‘socially distanced’ and will all have to wear masks and remain in their allocated zone for the duration of their stay. But fans are fans, and the game and its players will surely benefit. It is a major change in this restrictive tennis season, and, in addition to the new roof which is being debuted on Philippe Chatrier court, as well as the new floodlights on 12 of the courts, this is turning out to be a big year for the French.
Ambience aside, it is the presence of fans which potentially marks a defining step forward for the game, and a confidence boost for sport in general. Naturally it is something that the French Tennis Federation (FFT) is proud of, and rightly so.
“Since the international circuit restarted, Roland Garros will be the first tournament with the privilege of hosting an audience,” FFT President Bernard Giudicelli said last week.
What this will mean for the contenders – not least new US Open Champions of last weekend Dominic Thiem and Naomi Osaka – and their preparation, no one knows. The final outcomes will depend on who enters the draw but indications are that more of the top players will be in Paris than were in New York, despite being restricted to the two hotel ‘bubble’ exclusion zone around the Port d’Auteuil vicinity.
Of course, as in New York, there will be absentees, anxious about the virus. The ever present shadow of coronavirus still hangs heavy over a Paris entry list likely to be deprived of some of the game’s finest talents. As I write, I note that home favourite Jo Wilfrid Tsonga has withdrawn from the event – not because of Covid 19 – but with a back injury, such is the moving feast that is a Grand Slam draw. Who’d be a tournament director?
Until we see the draw, it is all rather futile to predict outcomes, but then again, it would be a brave man to bet against title holder Rafael Nadal coming through again for his 13th French Open title and his 20th overall.
Who can challenge the 34-year-old, who prepared himself well by remaining in Europe while his challengers battled it out on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows? Nadal chose clay preparation and is seeded to meet his great rival Novak Djokovic in the Italian Open final this coming Monday.
One who might offer some serious competition to the Spaniard might be new US Open champion, Austria’s Dominic Thiem, a finalist in Paris for the past two years and one who has confirmed his entry. The confidence boost of winning a Slam after four attempts will surely elevate his chances to serious contender status at Roland Garros.
He will be joined by his defeated and deflated US opponent of last weekend, Alexander Zverev. The German, a quarter finalist in Paris in the last two years, will be bruised, having lost the US Open final from a winning position, but equally, just by reaching the final – his first in a Grand Slam – in New York, he has shown that he has the weapons for contention.
One can only surmise how Novak Djokovic’s expulsion from the US Open will affect his preparation for the French, but, in classic Novak style, he has, following the US Open final, taken the pressure off himself and piled it on to its winner, Thiem, saying, “Dominic is right behind Rafa on clay as the favourite to go all the way.”
Mind games or no mind games, he is probably right. If another challenge is going to come from anywhere, it will, as Djokovic suggests, come from what will probably be an uber-confident Austrian.
That said, in the absence of 2009 winner, Roger Federer, the Serbian, who is seeded No 1 in the Italian Open, will also be looking to build on his 17 Grand Slam titles, even though that record only includes one Paris victory, back in 2016.
2015 French champion Stan Wawrinka, opted out of the US Open draw and will be another one to come to Paris with fresh legs, especially has he was knocked out of the Italian Open early.
22-year-old Greek sensation, Stefanos Tsitsipas, another Roman early casualty, didn’t play in New York and, despite being ranked 6 in the world, will need to improve on his 4th round exit in Paris last year, if he is going to make any impact. Equally, the Russian Daniil Medvedev, despite reaching the US semis last week, will have to make it past the 1st round in Paris, something which he has failed to do in his three previous attempts.
Andy Murray, a finalist in 2016 and now ranked 110 in the world, has received a wild card to the event.
The greatest obstacle that they will all come up against, of course, will be Rafael Nadal, the title holder who has won it a ridiculous 12 times. Even at 34 years of age, he will be the hot favourite on his favoured surface, despite having lost four times to Thiem in previous three set clay encounters on clay.
As it was at the US Open, the women’s draw will suffer withdrawals, not least 24 year old Ashleigh Barty, the title holder, who announced her withdrawal from the French during the US Open, stating, “although I am disappointed on a tennis front, the health and well-being of my family and my team will always be my priority.”
Another who is unlikely to play is Canada’s Naomi Andreescu, ranked 7 in the world. She was unable to defend her US Open title this year and continues to suffer from a long-standing foot injury.
The Netherlands’ Kiki Bertens and Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, world ranked 8 and 10 respectively, have yet to declare.
Naomi Osaka on the other hand, fresh from her third career Grand Slam title, will be fighting fit and hungry for more, and where better to boost her impressive record than in Paris. She has yet to go further than the third round in three attempts at Roland Garros, but you can’t rule out a champion.
The same might be said for her defeated opponent in New York, the 6 feet tall Belarussian, Victoria Azarenka, now 31, who left the Tour to fight a custody battle for her daughter, but not before reaching three Grand Slam finals, including the French in 2013. She returned in style in 2018 and excelled last weekend by reaching her fourth career Grand Slam final. Given that, she is not one to be underestimated.
Serena Williams, who lost to Azarenka in the semis in New York, continues her seemingly endless quest to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam career singles titles and while the American, who turns 39 the day before the tournament – which she has won on three occasions – begins, she is also nursing an achilles injury.
Current Australian Open champion and world No 4, Russian born American Sofia Kenin, 21, is another who, having reached the fourth round in New York, will play in Paris. On her only previous outing at the French Open last year, she reached the fourth round but as a Grand Slam champion, she has experienced what it means to win big, and that is a big plus.
Current Wimbledon champion and 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep is in the draw and must fancy her chances. The current World No 2 didn’t play the US, preferring to remain in Europe and practice on the clay.
She will be joined in Paris by other US (and therefore rested) absentees, the Czech Republic’s Karolina Pliskova, a former French Open semi-finalist and ranked 4 in the World, who is defending her title this week in Rome, and twice French Open quarter- finalist and current World No 6 Elina Svitolina, from the Ukraine, who is currently playing her first tournament since lockdown March.
Wild cards have been offered to just two non-nationals, Canada’s Eugenia Bouchard, 26, who in 2014 reached the final of Wimbledon and two semi-finals that year, the Australian and the French Open. She is a lowly 212 in the rankings but was granted a wild card based on her recent clay court form, which saw her reach the final in Istanbul earlier this month.
The other wild card went to Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova, who withdrew from the tour three years ago to have her first child, Alexander. She returned at the US Open to reach the quarter finals, only losing out in three sets to Serena Williams.
The women’s draw is more unpredictable than the men’s, but the eventual champions will come, I suspect, not only from those who can compete the best, but also from those who can cope the best with the ever changing circumstances that will encompass this year’s final Grand Slam event.