It is springtime in Paris, which means it is time for the year’s second Grand Slam, the French Open. Commencing at Roland Garros today, the second major of 2015 is a chance for the clay-court specialists to showcase their talents and, in Novak Djokovic’s case, represents a golden opportunity for the Serb to claim the one major trophy missing from his mantelpiece. Read on for my tournament predictions and an overview of the first day’s play.
Going into the tournament, all the talk centres around two men: world number one Novak Djokovic, who has been near-invincible in the last six months and who is desperately seeking a maiden French Open crown to complete a career Grand Slam, and Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion who has so often thwarted Djokovic’s bid for the career Grand Slam but who has been far from his dominant best on the red dirt this season.
Nadal’s underwhelming season to date and an unkind draw mean that he will face Djokovic in the quarter-finals, if both men advance that far. That’s likely to be a boost for Djokovic, as Nadal in his current state needs a number of good wins under his belt if he is to acquire the necessary confidence to beat Djokovic. The conditions in Paris suit Nadal to a tee, but on current form I think Djokovic will play well inside the baseline and attack the Nadal backhand mercilessly to finally notch a win in Paris over the Spaniard.
Andy Murray has been the surprise packet of the clay court season, winning a couple of titles on the red dirt and coming in to Paris with a 10-0 record on the surface. If he can get past the challenges posed by clay-court warriors such as David Ferrer, I fancy his chances of making it through to the final four. Unfortunately for Murray, that is where a hungry Djokovic will most likely be waiting.
In the bottom half of the draw, look for a rejuvenated Roger Federer, having won in Istanbul and made the final in Rome, to cruise through the first week and then take down compatriot Stan Wawrinka to book his place in the semi-finals. Tomas Berdych has been ultra-consistent this year, but I fear he will succumb to the clay-court nous of Kei Nishikori should the pair meet, as predicted, in the quarter-finals.
In many respects, this is probably Federer’s best chance to win the French Open since he claimed his one and only Roland Garros title in 2009. But Djokovic was far too good for the Swiss star in Rome and, with a career Grand Slam at stake, I can’t see Djokovic letting Federer get the better of him.
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Finalist: Roger Federer
Semi-finalists: Murray, Nishikori
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: at her best, Serena Williams is undoubtedly the best player on the WTA Tour. At this point in time, the critical words in that sentence are “at her best”, with Williams struggling with an elbow injury which required her to withdraw from last week’s Italian Open. Not only does the injury cause pain, it also affects the American’s ability to serve, thus weakening one of the biggest weapons in the 19-time major winner’s arsenal.
Making matters worse, clay is Williams’ least-favoured surface and Roland Garros is not a particularly happy hunting ground – only a couple of the American’s 19 Grand Slam titles have come in Paris. Of course, being a two-time French Open champion is nothing to be sneezed at, but it’s all relative when one is referring to a modern day legend of the game.
I’ll back Williams to grind her way through her opening matches, which should give her ample opportunity to rest her elbow. A potential quarter-final match-up against close friend Caroline Wozniacki is one Williams should win, but a possible semi-final against Petra Kvitova is a lottery. Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion, beat Williams en route to the title in Madrid earlier this month, but the Czech is inconsistent at the best of times and is no certainty to advance to the second week of the tournament. That said, Kvitova’s best is good enough to beat anyone.
In the bottom half of the draw, defending champion and 2015 Italian Open champion Maria Sharapova is the favourite to advance to the final, but she is scheduled to face a stern test in the quarter-finals in the shape of Carla Suarez Navarro. The diminutive Spaniard is in the best form of her life, and only narrowly lost to Sharapova in the final in Rome. If the pair meets in Paris, I fancy the Spaniard to turn the tables and upset Sharapova. Simona Halep made last year’s final in Paris and, whilst her form to date in 2015 hasn’t been as good, I can see her making a deep run at Roland Garros once again this year.
I think Suarez Navarro can go all the way to the final, given her confidence levels at present and given just how hard it is to beat her on clay – like her compatriot Nadal, she can run all day and has a huge heart. However, if Serena can survive the first week, I’ll back her to lift her game in the second week and use her big-match experience to overwhelm Suarez Navarro in the final.
Champion: Serena Williams
Finalist: Carla Suarez Navarro
Semi-finalists: Kvitova, Halep
Matches of the Day – Day 1
1. Alejandro Falla vs. Roger Federer
In 2010, unheralded Colombian Alejandro Falla gave Swiss superstar Roger Federer the fright of his life, taking the first two sets of their first round match at the All England Club. Federer eventually squeezed through to the second round, completing a 5 set comeback victory, but I’m sure he will remember that Wimbledon encounter when they pair meet again in Paris today.
Falla has a game which is particularly tricky on grass, with a sliding leftie serve and a compact double-handed backhand. But whilst Falla’s game is difficult for opponents on grass, it’s less damaging on clay, a surface on which the ball travels more slowly. Federer played well in Rome last week and I think he will handle Falla with relative ease today. Federer in 3.
2. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Marsel Ilhan
It’s been an up and down year to date for 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka. Making the semi-finals at Melbourne Park represented a creditable effort in attempting to defend his crown, and he did beat the king of clay, Rafael Nadal, en route to the semi-finals in Rome last week. On the other hand, there have been disappointing results in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo.
Ilhan is Turkey’s leading men’s player and has a decent 6-6 record in 2015 heading into Roland Garros. Wawrinka lost in the opening round in Paris last year, a combination of higher expectations on his shoulders courtesy of his win in Melbourne and a tricky opponent in Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Ilhan is playing in only his second French Open main draw and, whilst I don’t have high hopes for Wawrinka in the tournament overall, I think he will get through this one. Wawrinka in 4.
3. Kei Nishikori vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu
Nishikori had a breakout Grand Slam performance last year, making the US Open final after defeating world number one Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals. Having now seen Djokovic conquer almost all before him since that loss to Nishikori, it makes one realise just what a fine performance it was from the Japanese star.
Nishikori couldn’t finish it off in the final in New York, going down to a red-hot Marin Cilic, but I think Nishikori is among the top 4 or 5 contenders in Paris this year. He will need to be switched-on against the dangerous Mathieu, a veteran of the ATP Tour and a former top 12 player, who is sure to receive plenty of support from the Parisian crowd today. Nishikori moves well on clay and, with a former French Open winner in his camp, will have high hopes of emulating the feats of coach Michael Chang. Nishikori in 3.
4. Ana Ivanovic vs. Yaroslava Shvedova
This should be a particularly good contest, pitting the former French Open champion and world number one Ana Ivanovic against the plucky Kazakh, Yaroslava Shvedova. The Kazakh is a two-time quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, making the final eight in both 2010 and 2012, and a solid all-court player who has enjoyed a lot of success in doubles and mixed doubles.
Ivanovic is the better-known and more high-profile of the players but, as far as opening round contests go, this is a tough test for the Serbian star. I’ll back the seventh seed to ultimately prevail, but not without having to work extremely hard. Ivanovic in 3.
5. Garbine Muguruza vs. Petra Martic
It was at Roland Garros last year that Spain’s Garbine Muguruza really announced herself to the tennis world, not just beating defending champion Serena Williams, but thoroughly humbling the American superstar with a 6-2 6-2 beat-down. Williams gained a measure of revenge by beating Muguruza at this year’s Australian Open, but even that involved a 3 set struggle.
Croatia’s Petra Martic has had her own successes at the French Open in the past, making it through to the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2012. However, the Croat has largely struggled since that time, winning only two Grand Slam main draw matches since that run in Paris. Martic was forced to qualify just to make the main draw in Paris this year and, whilst the qualifying matches will have her playing well, I think Muguruza has far too much power in this one. Muguruza in 2.
Put your house on: Roger Federer. The second seed is in good form at present and will be too good for the Colombian Falla, as previewed above.
Upset alert: Ernests Gulbis made the semi-finals in Paris last year, knocking out Federer en route to the final four. This year is quickly shaping up as an annus horribilis for the Latvian, who has a miserable 2-12 win-loss record for the year to date. Igor Sijsling beat the talented Alexander Zverev in qualifying to make the main draw at Roland Garros, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Dutchman takes out the erratic Gulbis in their clash today.
Likely to go the distance: Big-serving Ivo Karlovic and former top tenner Marcos Baghdatis look set to keep the Parisian crowd enthralled with a marathon match today. I’ll take Karlovic down the stretch.
That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.