Can the astounding parity at WTA tournaments in the post-Serena era extend to Grand Slam events?
An unprecedented 21 different winners have emerged from 22 tournaments this season. Meanwhile, No. 1-ranked Naomi Osaka has captured the last two majors, the US Open and Australian Open.
But those majors are contested on fast hard courts, and Roland Garros features slow clay, not Osaka’s forte. So, the lottery that has become the women’s tour since Serena Williams won her 23rd and last Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open, should continue to jazz up the women’s game.
There’s another critical reason almost anyone can win the French Open. Unlike men’s tennis where three-of-five-set tests better separate the wheat from the chaff at the majors, women play the same two-of-three-set matches as they do on the WTA tour. This shorter format favours the underdogs. And without strong favourites at Roland Garros, an underdog can easily become the top dog. So again, expect the unexpected.
Let’s size up the contenders and predict who will become the surprise queen of Paris.
To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet , the Romanian “suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” at the 2018 Australian Open, where beset by injury and illness, she eventually succumbed to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. The agonising defeat inspired, rather than demoralised, Halep. On her fourth try to win a major final, she overcame Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 at the French Open. That admirable resiliency is one reason Halep has been voted the WTA Fan Favourite for the past two years.
The 27-year-old Halep boasts the most stylish groundstrokes and best court coverage in the women’s game, but she lacks versatility, guile or a formidable weapon. And these deficits will prevent the defending champion from advancing beyond the semifinals.
“Versatility” should be this rising star’s middle name because she possesses every shot in the book and flaunts them every chance she can. A year ago, this former junior star was ranked No. 206. After stunning a tough Indian Wells field in March for her biggest title, she zoomed up to No. 24.
“I like to come to the net, I like to slice, I’m not going to hit the same ball over and over again,” said Andresscu about her diverse repertoire. “I’ll throw in a drop shot here and there. I’m also pretty aggressive with my shots, I like to go for it, and I think I move pretty well on the court.”
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That complete game, highlighted by a powerful topspin forehand and a wicked kick serve, should excel on clay. And when the 18-year-old Canadian gets frustrated, she can rely on something her mother taught her at an early age. “I’ve worked with a psychologist before and my mom introduced me to meditation at a really young age, so all that is definitely helping with being able to last long matches,” said Andresscu. “It also helps with not focusing on things you can’t control. I think I’m doing that really well now, and it’s really showing.”
It sure is! This exciting newcomer will likely upset a top 16 player or two and make the quarters.
“Osaka’s biggest improvement is her on-court presence, her body language,” said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. That reflects the sometimes-moody Osaka’s current state of mind. “I feel like I’m having fun playing tennis again,” she said during the Madrid Open. “And I always play well if I have that mentality.”
The 5’11” Osaka, from Osaka, Japan, possesses a myriad of weapons that intimidate and overpower foes. Her huge serves and devastating serve returns delivered from way inside the baseline closely resemble those of her idol, Serena Williams. Both assets are most effective on hard and grass courts. So Jermaine Jenkins, her new coach, will have to fine-tune her high-octane baseline game tactically for slower clay where consistency and patience pay off.
Although the 21-year-old queen of tennis has captured only three titles in three-and-a-half years on the tour, two have come at the majors where she’s thrived on the pressure. Like Serena, whose power was somewhat blunted on clay, Osaka will struggle on clay until she masters its fine points. A quarterfinal showing is mostly likely this year.
The 22-year-old Swiss Miss peaked at No. 7 in 2016 before injuries derailed her promising career. Healthy now, the hungry Bencic ascended to No. 18 in May, thanks to major wins over Osaka (twice), Halep, Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Aryna Sabalenka.
Bencic showed her fighting spirit against Osaka in the Madrid quarterfinals. Down 5-3 in the deciding set, Bencic rebounded to win the last four games and 12 of the last 14 points to prevail 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Near-perfect groundstrokes, precise timing and bold tactics allow her to play inside the baseline and redirect her opponents’ shots. These aggressive assets, highly effective on any surface, will take her to her first French Open quarterfinal.
What’s not to like about the athletic Australian who excels in both singles and doubles? Barty grabbed her biggest doubles title (with Coco Vandeweghe) at the 2018 US Open and most prestigious singles crown this March at the Miami Open. There she took out Pliskova, Kvitova and Kiki Bertens along the way. In the past 16 months, this rising 23-year-old star has also knocked off Grand Slam champions Halep, Osaka, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Ostapenko and Angelique Kerber.
Like a Swiss Army knife, this multi-skilled tactician uses many weapons to carve up confounded opponents. Only a mediocre two-handed backhand holds Barty back. But her deep slice one-handed backhand and disguised drop shot off it give her a cat-and-mouse cleverness ideal for clay.
This 5’5” dynamo from Down Under will go all the way to the final before going down.
The German veteran has won every major once, except Roland Garros, by maximising her lefty counter-punching skills. Kerber rebounded from a disappointing 2017 to upset Serena in the 2018 Wimbledon final and finish the season ranked No. 2.
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But the 31-year-old Kerber can be overpowered, and this season has defeated only one top 10 opponent, No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka, in three sets at Indian Wells, where she reached the final.
In theory, her relentlessly steady, tenacious game should fare well on clay. But Kerber has made the quarters only twice in 11 appearances at the French Open. This time she won’t advance even that far.
On May 6, while her rivals were sliding and sweating on Madrid clay, fashionista Serena wowed the crowd with her neon yellow Versace gown at the exclusive Met Gala in New York. She co-chaired the annual fund-raising event with Lady Gaga, Harry Styles and Alessandro Michele at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Motherhood has also occupied 37-year-old Serena’s time and energy since a left knee injury forced her to withdraw from her last match, a third-rounder at the Miami Open in March. Stunningly, the erstwhile Queen of Tennis has played only three tournaments and nine matches this year. On her least-successful surface and with so much rustiness, No. 11 (and fading) Serena will be lucky to reach the fourth round.
The 26-year-old American is always hard to figure. Stephens shocked everyone, including herself, when she won the 2017 US Open only two months after returning to the tour following foot surgery and rehab. Last year, she endured a desultory 4-4 record on clay before the French Open where she suddenly rebounded to reach the final.
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Stephens abounds with talent. And when she’s in a fighting mood, her blazing speed and dynamic shot-making, especially her potent forehand, make her a real crowd-pleaser. The world No. 8 recently announced in a joint social media post her engagement to U.S. international soccer player Jozy Altidore, a childhood friend whom she reconnected with three years ago.
Who knows whether that will distract or inspire the unpredictable Stephens? My crystal ball shows she’ll make the quarters.
The 24-year-old Ukrainian ranks No. 6 in the world, but, more importantly, No. 3 on the WTA Insider Clay Court Power Rankings, as of May 6. Her clay-court chops are best evidenced from winning the past two titles at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.
While Svitolina is still recovering from a knee injury, she is in a happy place with new boyfriend Gael Monfils rooting for her whenever he’s not playing.
Svitolina has typically fared worse at the majors than at regular tour events, and that trend won’t change at Roland Garros. She’ll be upset before the quarters.
Last year the two-time Wimbledon champion captured a tour-high five tournaments but, paradoxically, fared poorly at the majors. After suffering a bad upset loss to 50th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich at Wimbledon, Kvitova confided, “The nerves were there again. I just tried to kind of fight with myself. Probably I was the biggest opponent I could have.”
Kvitova conquered her nervousness and snapped that Grand Slam slump at the 2019 Australian Open. She reached the final where Osaka edged her 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 in a high-quality thriller.
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“Kvitova is the best ball striker in women’s tennis,” said Davenport. “She dropped a little weight in the off-season to get a little faster.”
That combination of powerful “big babe tennis” and improved defence should propel the 29-year-old Czech lefty to her first Roland Garros semifinal since 2012.
The dark horses
Keep an eye on 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova. This season, the Czech southpaw has already defeated Halep, Daria Kasatkina, 2017 French Open champ Ostapenko (twice) and Elise Mertens, and reached finals at Istanbul and Budapest. I also like 21-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova, who staved off a match point to upset Bertens at Dubai. The big-serving Slovak, who stands No. 5 in aces, now ranks a career-high No. 40 in the world. Another up-and-comer to watch is Anett Kontaveit. The 23-year-old Estonian upset Kvitova in Brisbane and Andresscu in Miami, and then reached the Stuttgart final, boosting her ranking to No. 15.
Overshadowed by Grand Slam champions and young rising stars throughout her eight-year pro career, Kiki Bertens started making her own mark a year ago. At Madrid, a premier mandatory tournament on clay, the late-blooming Dutchwoman defeated No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 7 Caroline Garcia and five-time major winner Maria Sharapova to make the final. Since then, Bertens has racked up 13 more wins over top 10 players, including Osaka, Halep (twice), Kvitova (thrice), and Kerber (twice) — virtually all the elite players.
Though her powerful serve and aggressive groundstrokes seem more suited for hard and grass courts, the 27-year-old Bertens prefers clay, the surface she grew up playing on. “For me, there’s more freedom on the clay,” she said during the Charleston event in April. “I can do a lot more.”
The stats back her up. Since the start of 2016, the low-key but highly competitive Bertens has won 79.1% of her clay matches; since the start of 2015, she’s also won more clay matches (90) than anyone else.
At the Madrid Open this May, the 6’-tall Bertens fired all her weapons with power and precision, beating Grand Slam champions Ostapenko, Kvitova, Stephens and Halep to become the first woman in the tournament’s 11-year history to win the title without conceding a set.
Just like 17th-seeded Francesca Schiavone in 2010 and unseeded Ostapenko in 2017, Bertens will surprise many by winning her first Grand Slam title in Paris.
The ultimate tennis challenge
"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” — William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2 .
Can anyone dethrone the long-reigning King of Clay?
Consider this: Rafael Nadal has won a staggering 11 French Open titles, and only three active players — Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka — have captured even one title. No wonder the ultimate challenge in tennis has long been to beat the Spanish toreador in a best-of-five-set duel on clay.
Once asked if he had a problem winning on clay, Federer replied, “I don’t have a problem on clay. I have a Rafa problem on clay.” Doesn’t everyone? Nadal dominates Federer 13-2 on the sport’s slowest surface.
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Among active players, only Novak Djokovic in 2015 has defeated Nadal at Roland Garros. (A wrist injury forced Nadal to withdraw after the second round in 2016.) Djokovic also boasts more wins, seven, than anyone else over Nadal on clay. Even so, Djokovic trails Nadal 6-1 at the French Open, where Nadal’s rugged physicality, relentless consistency and hyper-competitiveness sooner or later break down opponents.
Dominic Thiem now rates as Nadal’s most dangerous threat on the terre battue in Paris. Although Nadal demolished the Austrian in the Roland Garros semis in 2017 and final in 2018, Thiem has prevailed once in each of the past four years on clay elsewhere. At the Barcelona Open in May, Thiem dethroned the 11-time champion with a decisive 6-4, 6-4 victory.
“As long as Rafa plays, he will always be the ultimate favourite in any clay tournament,” said the respectful, albeit confident Thiem. “But now there are bigger challenges for him than in the last years.”
Let’s evaluate the biggest challengers for Nadal and rate their chances.
Tennis has a “Greek Freak” too. This 20-year-old Next-Genner resembles Federer stylistically — a one-handed backhand and an all-court game — though no one can match The Mighty Fed’s athleticism and artistry. Even so, Tsitsipas upset Federer, his boyhood idol, in his coming-out party at the Australian Open, where he reached the semifinals.
This 2018 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year has kept improving this year. After his Melbourne success, Tsitsipas captured the Open 13 Provence in Marseille and the Estoril Open, his first title on clay, and lost to Federer in the Dubai final.
After defeating Pablo Cuevas 6-3, 7-6 in the Estoril final, the soulful, 6’4” Athenian said, “You really have to fight hard and give your soul out on the court. I was very calm. I stayed aggressive, stayed motivated, didn’t think too much.”
At the Madrid Open in May, Tsitsipas stayed aggressive, calm and motivated to beat No. 3 Alexander Zverev 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 and to upset Nadal 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, breaking the King’s serve six times.
If Tsitsipas sticks with that winning formula, he’ll make at least the quarterfinals in Paris.
Only 18, this can’t-miss prospect still has to learn a few clay-court subtleties and shore up one stroke, as his respectable 6-3, 6-3 loss to — and lesson from — Nadal at Madrid showed. But the hyper-athletic 6’4” Canadian is learning fast.
“What’s so impressive about Felix is his ability to transition to the net and put away volleys,” said Tennis Channel analyst Mark Knowles. “If there is a weakness in his game, it’s high backhands. He hits them with excessive spin and not enough power.” That weakness was exploited by Nadal’s wicked topspin forehand which forced Auger-Aliassime to hit backhands averaging 4 feet, 4 inches high compared to an average of just 3 feet, 4 inches when FAA beat compatriot Denis Shapovalov in the first round.
How talented is FAA? He started his pro career with a terrific 5-0 record against top 20 opponents and upset Tsitsipas at Indian Wells. He’s the best bet among unseeded players to upset a top-16 seed, though he’s too inexperienced to advance beyond the quarterfinals. But... wait ’til next year.
Nadal called his stunning 6-4, 6-2 loss to Fognini in the Monte Carlo semifinals “one of my worst losses in 14 years.” The normally gracious Nadal didn’t compliment his winning opponent, but he should have because Fabio played fabulous tennis. The upset was no fluke. The 31-year-old Italian had defeated Nadal twice before on clay and also once at the US Open where he rallied from a two-set deficit to win in five sets.
Despite his reputation for being nonchalant and flaky, Fognini is often a fighter, as his 18-13 record in five-set matches proves.
Immensely talented, Fognini can exasperate his fervent fans as well as enthral them. His improvisational and sensational shot-making makes him erratic but also very dangerous when he’s hot.
Right now, the undersised (5’10”), but hard-hitting Fognini is very hot.
This crowd-pleasing contender will upset a top-eight seed and then get upset himself.
After this 6’6” German upset Federer and Djokovic and rose to No. 3 last year, pundits predicted he’d become the next Grand Slam champion. Instead, he nosedived. This season, he hasn’t beaten a top-15 opponent and has lost to six players outside the top-40.
“I just play bad, it’s not a secret,” Zverev said following his first-round loss to No. 81 Nicolas Jarry at Barcelona. “I’m missing backhands all over the places, which is my best shot. I cannot make one impressive shot. I’m double-faulting. Most of the points that I won were unforced errors by him.” When it rains, it pours. Two weeks later at Munich, Zverev squandered two match points against No. 47 Cristian Garin and lost 6-4, 5-7, 7-5.
But, as former No. 1 Tracy Austin pointed out, “It doesn’t take much to get out of a slump,” and his 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 comeback win over fast-rising Hubert Hurkacz in Madrid might provide just the fillip he needs.
Even though the 22-year-old Zverev has captured four of his 10 career titles on clay, he lacks the groundstroke consistency, defensive skills and smart tactics to go past the fourth round.
After Medvedev shocked Djokovic 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals, the impressed world No. 1 said, “It’s tough to find rhythm and he doesn’t give you much rhythm. He was very patient and played well tactically. He’s got a very solid backhand. He doesn’t make many mistakes from the backhand. He hits it very low with depth. He improved his movement a lot since last year. He definitely deserves to be where he is.”
The steadily improving, 6’6” Russian is now No. 14. Besides his signature win over Djokovic, this season Medvedev has defeated No. 7 Nishikori, Tsitsipas (for the fourth straight time) and former top-tenners Monfils, Milos Raonic, David Goffin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Though he says his favourite surface is grass, that preference may change after reaching the Barcelona final and Monte Carlo semifinals.
Medvedev has won only nine Grand Slam matches and none going five sets, so reaching the fourth round would be a good achievement this year.
The 29-year-old Japanese gained his sole major final on hard courts at the 2014 US Open, but he can also play well on clay. He’s reached the French Open fourth round in 2013, 2016 and 2018 and the quarterfinals in 2015 and 2017.
Rock-solid groundstrokes, terrific speed and unrelenting competitiveness always make Nishikori a very tough player. He also typically plays his best when it matter most. He’s No. 4 in the ATP Under Pressure Ratings (on all surfaces for 52 weeks) and No. 1 in tiebreakers won with a terrific 80.8%. Another Nishikori forte is marathon matches. Super-fit, he’s racked up a tour-best 21-6 record in five-set duels, the last three coming at the 2019 Australian Open.
Nishikori, only 5’10”, lacks a powerful serve and significant topspin to trouble elite players on clay. Even so, he should reach the quarters.
You may have forgotten that Federer won the 2009 French Open and was the second-best clay court player for most of his career. Before returning to clay competition at the Madrid Open following a three-year hiatus, Federer, a master at pre-tournament psychology, remarked, “Players maybe know I don’t have that much clay-court tennis in me in the last few years, but that doesn’t make me less dangerous to be quite honest. Anything is sort of possible. The very good, the very bad, you know. But it’s tough to just come out and play fantastic tennis.”
Tough for mere mortals, but not the ageless Federer. Showing no rust, he fought off two match points to edge Gael Monfils 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 for the 1,200th win of his incomparable career. <NO>“He can play on every surface, he looks after his body and combines great fitness, with strategy and anticipation on court,” 1960s superstar Rod Laver told ATPTour.com.
Then, in an enthralling quarterfinal, 37-year-old Federer had match points against Thiem at 8-7 and 10-9 in the second set tiebreaker before the Austrian rebounded for a 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4 victory. Once again, Federer’s Achilles’ heel, a vulnerable backhand was exploited on the match points. It marked the 21st match he had frustratingly lost after holding a match point — an ATP record.
Anything is possible for the GOAT, but it’s probable that Nadal, Djokovic or Thiem will thwart the very dangerous Federer in the semifinals.
Credit Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and former longtime coach, for creating the perfect clay-court player. Toni converted little Rafa to a left-hander, taught him a Western forehand with the ideal combination of power and vicious topspin, along with an effective volley, a varied if not overpowering serve and smart high-percentage tactics. Toni also instilled a strong work ethic, a steely concentration and the importance of playing every point as if it were match point.
Many experts predicted that Nadal’s often-grinding style would lead to injuries and prematurely end his career. They were right about the former but wrong about the latter. Throughout his travails, Nadal’s extraordinary will to win has never wavered. Fourteen years after he won his first major at Roland Garros, he’s going for his 12th French and 18th major title, just two fewer than Federer’s record 20.
On June 3, Rafa, whose muscles still bulge though his hair is thinning, turns 33, an age once considered ancient for an elite singles player. He hasn’t won a tournament this year. Even more worrisome, he was upset in straight sets in the semifinals at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, events he had captured a record 11 times, and again at Madrid, which he had won five times.
Nadal will suffer the same fate at Roland Garros, again losing in the semifinals. In a riveting, five-set classic, a younger man will finally end the long and glorious reign of King Rafa.
Extroverted on the court and introspective off it, Novak Djokovic likes to review his remarkable career in human terms. “There are times when you feel good, where you are confident on the court, where the results are positive,” Djokovic told L'Equipe , referring to his current streak of three straight Grand Slam titles. “Then you do not find your trust, you do not feel really comfortable,” explaining his recent disappointing losses at Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo.
His comment could also have applied to his 24-month malaise at the majors after winning the 2016 French Open.
“The consistency of my tennis has always been fantastic,” said Djokovic, whose 15 major titles trail only Federer’s 20 and Nadal’s 17. “But in the last four years things have changed a lot: I have two children now. I was hurt for a long time and the following day is always unpredictable. I have to remember that 15 months ago l was injured and took a six-month break before undergoing elbow surgery. I was No. 22 in the world and I thought I would never come back.
“People who look at us imagine that we are robots, that we do everything perfectly,” continued the Serb. “But we are men like the others and have the same problems as everyone else. We need to be able to understand things positively and find a balance. For me, it’s the number one priority: constantly looking for balance.”
Djokovic is closer than ever to finding that balance. A man in full at nearly 32, he’ll reach the French Open final but then lose in five exciting sets.
The dark horses
Hubert who? It’s understandable if you’ve never heard of this broad-shouldered, 6’6” Pole. This week last year, Hubert Hurkacz lost to a player ranked No. 327 in the first round of a Challenger tournament in Karshi, Uzbekistan. This year he’s already whipped Nishikori twice, Thiem, Denis Shapovalov and Lucas Pouille (twice) and ranks No. 52. Cristian Garin, another fast-rising, relative unknown, shockingly leads the ATP Stats Under Pressure category, thanks partly to winning all eight matches going three sets. The handsome 22-year-old Chilean’s best wins have come against Zverev, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov, Diego Schwartzman and Marco Cecchinato. Laslo Djere, a 23-year-old Serb ranked No. 32, is also quite capable of upsetting a seed. He’s already ambushed Thiem, Auger-Aliassime (twice) and No. 18 Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Incredibly, no active man under 30 has won a Grand Slam title. The ageless Big 3 stranglehold will end in Paris, though. On June 9, Dominic Thiem, the Prince of Clay, will become the new King.<EP>“I think I have a pretty long career ahead, at the same time it’s time to step up and really go for the big titles,” Thiem told Tennis Channel before the 2018 French Open final. “Because at one point, it’s gonna be too late.”
Thiem got thrashed by Nadal 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in that final. But Nadal is struggling this year and hasn’t won a tournament, even on his beloved clay. In sharp contrast, Thiem snapped out of an early-season slump by capturing Indian Wells.
The 25-year-old Austrian picked up momentum on the European clay circuit, whipping Nadal 6-4, 6-4 en route to the Barcelona title. Then, fighting off two match points, Thiem outlasted Federer 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 in the Madrid quarters before Djokovic edged him 7-6, 7-6. Thiem won his two previous matches with Djokovic, though, at the 2017 Roland Garros and 2018 Monte Carlo.
Nicolas Massu, former world No. 9 and 2004 Olympic gold medallist, became Thiem’s head coach before Indian Wells and should provide the final ingredient, savvy strategy, to complement Thiem’s massive power. “He has added many good things to my game,” said Thiem. “He also grew up on clay, which is my favourite surface. I’m expecting good things to happen.”
Great things will happen to the mild-mannered Thiem at Roland Garros. Twenty-four years after Thomas Muster won the title here, Austria will celebrate its second Grand Slam champion.
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