Nadal remains favourite, women’s field wide open at French Open

While Rafael Nadal seems poised to secure a record 11th French Open title, the women's field, led by Simona Halep, looks wide open.

Rafael Nadal has lost just twice at Roland Garros since he won on debut in 2005.   -  Getty Images

In the Italian Open final against Alexander Zverev last Sunday, Rafael Nadal’s age showed as he lost his momentum and the second set, and went down a break in the third set. Then the rain came and, with it, the respite Nadal needed to rejuvenate, and he clinched five straight games to win his eighth title in Rome and regain the No.1 ranking he had lost to Roger Federer just a week before.

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The Spaniard enters French Open with just a single loss this clay court season, matching his performance in 2017 – two Masters titles, one 500 Series title and reaching the quarterfinals of another Masters tournament. Between then and now, he set a new record for most consecutive sets won on a single surface – 50 – the streak beginning and ending with losses to Dominic Thiem.

Despite his performances at his age – he will turn 32 during the French Open – he seems slower, and his opponents have been hitting to his backhand more frequently. After breezing through the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open, he lost in straight sets in the Madrid Masters quarters to Thiem. Then in the Italian Open, he had three straight matches where he had to earn the win – against Fabio Fognini who took him to three sets in the quarterfinals, a grinding semifinal against Novak Djokovic (finally showing signs of form after a horrid return from elbow surgery) and the final against Zverev, who looked set to defend his title until the 55-minute rain suspension.

“When it happened, the rain delay, I didn’t feel in that moment that it would help me,” Nadal said after the final. “That’s my feeling. It’s true that, if we analyse it now, of course, we can say that the rain delay helped me. But really, in my opinion, what helped me is that I came back with a clear idea in terms of tactical issues and in terms of decisions that I took after that break.”

Zverev was more succinct: “There’s nothing I can do about it. Next time I have to find a way to come out better after the rain and play better tennis. He came out way faster and played much more aggressive than I did.”

Age-defying Nadal still favourite

Nadal has lost just twice at Roland Garros since he won on debut in 2005. No tennis player, man or woman, has dominated one surface the way he has. Does he even have a weakness on clay? The answer might be a resounding ‘no’, but for how long can he grind out win after win before his knees finally give out? Playing on clay is the most physically demanding form of tennis, though the slower courts are perfectly suited to Nadal’s counterpunching style of play with that ridiculous amount of topspin that he generates.

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Nadal and Federer have defied the ravages of time by dominating their sport in their 30s, even as long-time rivals Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka seem to have fallen by the wayside. And while Nadal has had no real rival on clay during his career, it might just be a matter of time before younger players like Zverev and Thiem – who has been the only one to defeat him with any regularity on his favourite surface in the last two years – are too fast and fit for him.

That said, Nadal is the clear favourite to win a record-extending 11th French Open title, as has been the case for more than a decade, though he has a tricky first few matches, including a possible third round encounter with Richard Gasquet.

Options run aplenty in women's draw

Among the women, however, options run aplenty. Jeļena Ostapenko last year became the youngest woman to win the French Open since Iva Majoli in 1997 (titbit of history: Ostapenko was born the day after Majoli’s win), and she’ll be looking to defend her title against world No.1 Simona Halep (who is still to win her first Grand Slam and was the runner-up in 2017 and 2014), Caroline Wozniacki (who won her first Slam in Australia earlier this year, more than seven years after first becoming No.1), Garbine Muguruza (who beat Serena Williams in the 2016 Roland Garros final and Venus Williams at last year’s Wimbledon) and Karolina Pliskova (who held the No.1 ranking for two months last year but is without a Grand Slam title). But none has showed better form than any of the others this year.

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The most promising may just be Elina Svitolina, the current world No. 4. The Ukranian’s complete baseline game – with deep groundstrokes and speed that suit the clay of Roland Garros – has come together at the right time. She defeated Halep in the Italian Open final for the second year in a row, and for her third title of the year. That’s one 2018 title less than Petra Kvitova, who won two clay court tournaments in May – in Madrid and Prague – on what is considered her least favourite surface.

And then there’s Serena Williams, the winner of an Open era record 23 Grand Slam singles titles (to give some perspective to that number: the rest of the WTA field has 27 titles between them, and seven of those were won by elder sister Venus. Also, Serena is just one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24). Williams has entered only two tournaments this year on her return to the tour after giving birth to her daughter last September, losing early both times – to Venus in the third round at Indian Wells and to Naomi Osaka in the first round at Miami.

In the run-up to the French Open, Williams withdrew from the tournaments in Madrid and Rome, but her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said she needed that time to prepare for the French Open. “Serena will play the French Open to win it,” Mouratoglou said earlier in May. “Can she do it? Serena can achieve anything – after being her coach for six years, I’m even more sure of that statement.”