Sunday marks the start of the year’s second tennis major in Paris and, while Rafael Nadal is a red-hot favourite in the men’s tournament, the women’s event is completely wide open.
Read on to get my thoughts on whether Nadal can capture an eleventh French Open championship and a seventeenth Grand Slam title overall, and to see who I’m predicting to go all the way in the women’s tournament.
Far from slowing down on the red dirt, Rafael Nadal actually seems to be improving his dominance on clay as the years go by. The Spanish superstar has picked up trophies in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome ahead of Roland Garros this year, breaking John McEnroe’s record for consecutive sets won on a single surface in the process. A solitary blip on the red dirt radar (a loss in Madrid to Dominic Thiem) is best viewed as a blessing for Nadal rather than anything else, taking at least some of the pressure off the top seed by ending the consecutive sets record at a staggering fifty in a row.
In Paris, over the best of five sets, and with Murray and Federer not competing (and with Djokovic and Wawrinka far from their best), I can’t see anyone truly challenging Nadal. As always when he is competing on clay, the biggest potential obstacle to Nadal is the frailty of his own body. Assuming he stays in top (or even close to top) health, I predict Nadal to waltz through his half of the draw. Fellow seeds in the top half include this year’s Australian Open finalist, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martin Del Potro, a former US Open champion. Both are major threats on hard-courts, but I can’t see them putting up much of a fight against the Spaniard on clay.
In the bottom half of the draw, Alexander Zverev is the highest seed and the young German will be looking to atone for a record in the majors which, to date, is very mediocre relative to his talent and his performances on the ATP Tour. I think Zverev will build on his impressive clay-court form in 2018 to make it through to the tournament’s second week. However, I think that two-time Roland Garros semi-finalist Dominic Thiem will have too much guile if the pair ends up meeting as scheduled. Former world number one Novak Djokovic is slowly but surely working his way back to top form and, whilst a tournament victory is far-fetched, I do expect the Serbian to put in a very good performance at Roland Garros.
After being humbled by Nadal in Monte Carlo, Thiem snapping the Spaniard’s winning streak and gained sweet revenge in Madrid. There, at relative altitude, the ball travels faster through the air, and Thiem swung for the fences and made the most of an unusually flat performance from Nadal. If the pair face off in Paris as predicted, I think it will be a different story – I can’t see Nadal thrashing Thiem as he did in Monte Carlo, but I do think that it will be the Spanish world number one who will be adding yet another French Open trophy to his bulging cabinet. Nadal in 4.
Winner: Rafael Nadal
Finalist: Dominic Thiem
Outside Chance: Zverev, Djokovic, Del Potro
A few major headlines dominate the pre-tournament speculation on the women’s side. Can Serena Williams win the title in what is her first Grand Slam since giving birth? And will world number one Simona Halep finally capture a Grand Slam and get the no-major monkey off her back? Unfortunately for fans of either player (or both players), my answer to both questions is a firm “no”.
Serena Williams is, if not the greatest player the women’s game has ever seen, then one of the very greatest. Put simply, there is nothing that is beyond her, and despite not having played any clay-court tournaments in the lead-up to Roland Garros, and despite this being her first major since the 2017 Australian Open, one cannot completely rule out her chances of winning the title. That said, those chances are exceedingly small, and I don’t think she will have the form or the match fitness to take the title this time around. Sharapova and Azarenka are also back in action at Grand Slam level and, whilst I expect each of them to perform relatively well, I can’t see either player making a deep run into the second week of the tournament.
Halep was unlucky to lose in the final in Paris last year, when Ostapenko went for broke and made most of her shots. The Romanian was also unfortunate in losing a tight match to Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open decider earlier this year. But that’s the catch with Halep’s style of play: it’s good enough to beat most players most of the time, but it’s susceptible to being overwhelmed by big hitters if and when they get into a groove. This year’s Italian Open final in Rome, where Elina Svitolina conceded to Halep just four games for the match, is a recent case in point.
I do think Halep will make another deep run in Paris, with Muguruza her stiffest opposition in the top half of the draw. The Spaniard is a mercurial talent – unbeatable on her day; liable to beat herself (no matter the opponent) on off days – and I don’t think she’s in the kind of form to take down Halep at present. That said, Muguruza is indeed capable of playing herself into elite form over the course of a fortnight in Paris.
In the bottom half of the draw, I like the form of both Petra Kvitova (who’s been in tremendous form on the red dirt this season) and Svitolina, who successfully defended her title in Rome last week. Ostapenko, as defending champion, will not relinquish her title without a major fight, but I feel the time is right for Svitolina, a consistent title winner on the WTA Tour, to take the next step at Grand Slam level. I’m predicting a Svitolina-Halep final and, unfortunately for the popular Romanian and her fans, I’m backing the fourth seed to come out on top. Svitolina in 3.
Winner: Elina Svitolina
Finalist: Simona Halep
Outside Chance: Muguruza, Kvitova, Ostapenko
That’s it in terms of my predictions for this year’s French Open. Enjoy the fortnight of tennis from Roland Garros and keep up to date with my additional thoughts as the action unfolds on Twitter: @satelliteserve.