Roland Garros Gusto: 2017 French Open Preview

The 2017 French Open is set to begin this week; can Rafael Nadal reach 10 French titles? Who’ll step up on the women’s side?

Updated: May 24, 2017 • 8:12 PM ET

Rafael Nadal is seeking a 10th French Open title.

Novak Djokovic is in a slump. Roger Federer opted out. So did Serena Williams. And Maria Sharapova was annoyed when the French Tennis Federation dashed her wild card hopes. In the shadows of these circumstances, can The French Open survive? 


Of course it can. The French Open is the second Grand Slam of the year and the only major on European red clay. And even without the two biggest names in the sport, Federer and Serena, in Paris, hundreds of new and old faces will slip and slide on the terre battue with hopes of winning the toughest trophy in tennis: La Coupe des Mousquetaires for the men’s champion and La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen for the women’s champion.


One name that’s sure to be front and center come the first round — Sunday, May 28 — is Rafael Nadal. He’s the heavy favorite to win an unprecedented 10th title, which would elevate him not only in tennis history but in sports annals, as well.


This spring, the 30-year-old Spaniard went 17-1 until he was upset by young-gun Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Rome. Nadal had spoken highly of the Austrian, implying he could one day win the French Open. That’s true, but it probably won’t happen this year. And, of course, much depends on the draw, which will be unveiled Friday. 


The five-set format and pesky surface that changes with the weather promises pitfalls. Sheer willpower and mental fortitude needs to be refilled and released every other day in quantities exacted only during the tournament’s two weeks.


Nadal’s edge isn’t only his resurgent forehands and backhands, but his love for Paris and Court Philippe Chatrier. It’s the biggest court on tour, and it belongs to Rafa, who will be seeded No. 4. 


And what of defending champion Novak Djokovic? Immediately following his first French Open title last year, Djokovic’s career started to nosedive. Can his recent maneuverings help? He fired his team, hired Andre Agassi and signed with the biggest French clothing company in the sport, Lacoste. 


First to go was Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s coach of 11 years, plus two other team members earlier this month. Djokovic said via he was looking for “the winning spark on the court again,” while soon after becoming a ‘clothing ambassador’ for Lacoste, the brand that Frenchman Rene Lacoste developed in 1929 as one of the four original Mousquetaires. The choice to use a crocodile as its logo extends the memory of Lacoste, who was nicknamed ‘the Crocodile.’  


Talk about sucking up to the country. 


The red, white and blue colors of Djokovic’s tournament top mimic, or honor according to your perspective, the blue, white and red of the French flag. It will speak to French fans in a way only the French players get to do, as many of them are contracted by Lacoste, as well. Can Djokovic’s yearning for love and attention improve and survive by a croc?


La piece de resistance, though, was Djokovic’s announcement last week that Agassi would be his coach in the short term. 


"I spoke to Andre the last couple weeks on the phone, and we decided to get together in Paris," Djokovic said via USA TODAY. "So he's going to be there. We'll see what (the) future brings.


"We are both excited to work together and see where it takes us. We don't have any long-term commitment. It's just us trying to get to know each other in Paris a little bit. He will not stay the whole tournament. He's going to stay only to a certain time, and then we'll see after that what's going to happen."


Although the 37-year-old Agassi has never coached an elite player, he has experienced career meltdowns and resurgences. His most remarkable comeback happened at the French Open in 1999, when he reversed a two-set deficit to beat Andre Medvedev. Agassi won his first and only French Open title that day and became the first American to win all four Grand Slams on three different surfaces: red clay, grass and hard courts. 


“He’s a legend of our sport,” Djokovic added. “He’s made a mark in this sport forever. He’s won everything there is to win in tennis.”


But can he redirect Djokovic?


“I already feel like we are very kind of close to each other and creating this nice vibe,” Djokovic said. 


Much depends on luck at any Grand Slam. Djokovic will be seeded No. 2 and land at the bottom of the 128-player draw. The obstacles in his and other top performers way, such as No. 1 seed Andy Murray and No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka, the unexpected winner over Djokovic in 2015, are Thiem, Alexandr Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and perhaps even American Jack Sock. 


Both Thiem and Zverev are poised to upset the well-worn order of Grand Slam champions — that means continuing to break up the so-called ‘Big Four’ of Andy Murray, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. One of these four men has won 43 of the last 48 majors, spanning from the 2005 French Open to the 2017 Australian Open. 


Six of Thiem’s eight career titles have come on clay. He lost to Nadal in the finals of Barcelona and Madrid this spring, and to Djokovic in the semifinals of the French last year. Thiem needs time to set up his loopy ground strokes, but he has the power to blow anyone off the court. He did just that to Nadal in Rome. Thiem is incredibly fit, which bodes well for the 22-year-old.


Zverev has power and finesse, and his ability to build points is his biggest asset. The traits were on full display last week as he defeated Djokovic in straight sets to win his first-ever ATP Masters 1000 title, becoming the youngest champ since Djokovic in 2005 to win a title with that prestige. Just 20 years old, Zverev’s intuitive court sense is well beyond what we’ve seen at that age as the game has grown tighter and tighter. He will be under pressure, though, as it’ll be his second appearance in Paris. Djokovic lost three times in the final before breaking through in 2016.  







The Women


It’s a toss-up on who will prevail on the women’s side. Some have even considered Venus Williams, who will turn 37 years old next month, as a possibility. She has never won in Paris, but no one can rule out a run by the elder Williams sister. 


Simona Halep, picked by many, may not play. She rolled her right ankle during the final in Rome and lost to surging Elina Svitolina. According to Halep via her Instagram account, a scan of her right ankle has revealed a torn ligament.


“I’m keeping my fingers crossed for RG [Roland Garros] and will do everything possible to be ready,” she said in the post.  


Prior to her announcement, two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin and former coach of Pete Sampras and Federer Paul Annacone, picked Halep to win. However, Annacone also gave a nod to Elina Svitolina, who has won four titles since last fall.


The hubbub can’t get any louder, or can it? No. 1 seed Angelique Kerber hasn’t won anything lately, and being shaky in the first round doesn’t portent well. Garbine Muguruza, the 2016 champion who upset Serena, is also a bundle of indecision on court. Karolina Pliskova, expected to be the No. 3 seed, prefers grass and hard courts, finding it tough to manage the slippery clay surface. 


So, who’s left? Svetlana Kuznetsova comes to mind. She’ll be seeded in the top 10 and has had a resurgence of her own over the last 12 months. At 31, she’s poised to make some noise in Paris again. She has played in four Grand Slam finals, winning two, one of which was the 2009 French Open. 


With myriad possibilities, names that normally wouldn’t be considered as hopefuls pop up. 


American CoCo Vandeweghe could do damage if she plays consistently on a surface that will slow down her big serve and flat strokes. Kristina Mladenovic of France will be a sweetheart favorite, as she has positioned herself well in the run-up to Paris. Mladenovic lost two close finals this spring: Stuttgart to Laura Siegemund and Madrid to Halep. In Indian Wells, a hard-court premier tournament, Mladenovic lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Elena Vesnina. 


The French Open is the only Grand Slam that begins on a Sunday. No matter who’s projected to win, lose or place over the two weeks, it’s a major that mimics no other. The setting is iconic…springtime in Paris. The terre battue can help or hinder any player, depending on the sun, wind and amount of rain.

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