In the history of tennis, never has a player monopolised one of the four Majors like Rafael Nadal at the French Open.
No one even comes close to his 59-1 record at Roland Garros. Since 2005, he’s come to Paris nine times and lifted La Coupe des Mousquetaires on eight occasions – his lone blemish came in 2009, a loss to Robin Soderling in the Round of 16.
But Nadal has been uncharacteristically shaky on clay this season. Although he’ll probably start favourite again, his aura of invincibility is a little diminished this year. Rare losses on clay to compatriots David Ferrer (Monte Carlo) and Nicolas Almagro (Barcelona) were compounded by the crucial loss to arch-rival Novak Djokovic in the Rome final. That was a huge psychological win for Novak giving him plenty of belief. Some betting markets have even installed him joint favourite with Rafa.
Novak Djokovic has six Majors to his name but the only Grand Slam trophy eluding him is the French. But he’s in prime position to complete the career Grand Slam this time round. Djokovic knows it, Nadal knows it, and the whole tennis world knows it! Djokovic is definitely Nadal’s biggest threat on clay. He played out of skin in the second two sets in the Rome final. It wasn’t the first time Novak has beaten Nadal on clay either. In fact, on all surfaces, Djokovic has won the last four encounters with Nadal. The rivalry is arguably surpassing the Federer-Nadal one. But beating Nadal in best of 5 is that much harder and last year, Novak came agonisingly close in the semi, losing 9-7 in the fifth! It was a classic! This year, they’re the top 2 seeds and they’re slated to meet in the final. If it eventuates, it promises to be another battle royale.
Stanislas Wawrinka is surely in the top 6 favourites. It has been a break-out season for the Swiss, surging to a career high no.3 in the world after winning his first Grand Slam of his career and, to show it was no fluke, won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. Besides those two highs, there have been some troughs, so it’s just about consistency for Stan.
I’m writing off Andy Murray’s chances already. I love the guy but, coming back from back surgery, he has had his worst start to a season in recent memory. And besides, not once in his career has he even made the final of a clay-court event, let alone win one. His one glimmer of hope came when he thrashed Nadal 6-1 in the first set in Rome. He’s still likely to make the last 16 or thereabouts, but definitely won’t win it.
Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Ernests Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz are among the young guns waiting in the wings after the “Big 4” era dies down. Nishikori has been the most impressive of the lot in the European clay-season, climbing to a career-high no.9 in the world. His form compels me to have him in my top 6 favourites. He was up a set and a break against Nadal in the final at Madrid before his back started to spasm and eventually had to retire. He is as solid as a rock mentally and his backhand hardly ever breaks down. My only concern is will his body hold up over seven best of 5 set matches?
In short, I’d have Nadal and Djokovic as the two clear cut favourites. Then daylight. Then Federer, Wawrinka, Nishikori and Ferrer in no particular order in the second line of betting.
For the women’s draw, defending champion Serena Williams returns to Paris as the favourite. At 32 years of age, she continues to be at the top of her game, and that means, at the top of women’s tennis. Should she win the title, it would her third French Open and 18th Major triumph overall, tying her with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for fourth on the all-time list. To give you an idea of how good that is, Serena will have one more Grand Slam than Federer’s tally! Serena comes in with good form as well, winning the Italian Open for the third time. The two previous wins in Rome (2002, 2012) were followed by wins at Roland Garros, so that could be a good omen!
2012 winner and last year’s runner-up, Maria Sharapova, would have to be the second favourite after winning clay titles in Stuttgart (for the third year in a row) and Madrid. For a woman who once described herself on clay ‘like a cow on ice’, Sharapova is astonishingly more consistent at the French Open than any other Grand Slam.
A good tournament from Li Na, could see her within touching distance of the world no.1 ranking because she has hardly any points to defend after a second round exit last year, while Serena has 2000 points to defend.
With six different winners in the last six years, Other contenders include Ana Ivanovic, Sara Errani, Agnieszka Radwanska, Jelena Jankovic, Samantha Stosur and Simona Halep.
Halep continues to be one of the most under-hyped players in recent times. She has won seven titles in her career, all coming in the last 12 months to skyrocket from no.47 to no.4 in the world. Her ascension up the WTA rankings is reminiscent to Caroline Wozniacki’s, in the sense that the Dane won a lot of smaller titles to surge up the rankings but underperformed at the Majors. If the Romanian can make it to the quarters or semis, she can really make her presence felt.
Notable absentees this year include two of my favourite players: Victoria Azarenka and Juan Martin Del Potro.