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Monday, 23 May 2016

#BetweenTheBaselines: French Open 2016 Preview
Second major of the season often the most unpredictable


The Gods are smiling down on #TwineTime this weekend with the start of the French Open.  Thankfully the opening days of the second major on the tennis circuit have been littered with delays due to rainy weather.  Hmmmm rain?  In Paris?  Never!!  While the rain is causing havoc for the players and tournament organizers, the clouds opening up and spewing water everywhere has allowed #TwineTime to publish the annual preview and predictions blog post in...almost....a respectable and timely manner.

When you think of the French Open, what pops into your head right away?  For most casual tennis fans it is probably the name Rafa Nadal.  Nadal has dominated the clay courts of Roland Garros, winning 9 of the past 11 men's singles titles.  The two he did not win went to the Men of Switzerland: Roger "The GOAT" Federer (2009) and Stan "The Man" Wawrinka (2015).  But for most hardcore tennis fans, Roland Garros also equates to chaos.  No other slam in tennis produces more carnage within the men's and women's draws than the French Open.  And just look at the history of champions.  Some of the greatest players in my generation never hoisted the title...namely John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams.  And now Novak Djokovic?  The "Djoker" has lost 3 of the past 4 finals and is still a French Open title away from the career grand slam.  Will he finally be able to accomplish the feat, similar to main rivals Federer and Nadal?  Or will he fall victim to the same unfinished story book ending that plagued Sampras and Hingis?  Time will tell...

Gaston Gaudio, 2004 French Open Champion
In speaking about champions, Roland Garros not only has been the hardest title for the best in the game to win but has also produced the most unlikely champions in the sport.  How many of you remember these big names on the men's tour:  Andres Gomez (1990), Albert Costa (2002) and Gaston Gaudio (2004)?  Even some of the finalists are almost names many tennis fans might not recognize: Alberto Berasategui (1994), Martin Verkerk (2003) and Mariano Puerta (2005)?  Now, to be fair, since 2005 one of (or both) of the Big 3 (Nadal, Federer, Djokovic) have played in the final, creating a somewhat less unpredictable draw on the men's side.

Anastasia Myskina,
2004 French Open Champion
The women's list of champions is even more of a head scratcher.  Of course you are all very familiar with the careers of French Open Champions Iva Majoli (1997), Anastasia Myskina (2004) and Francesca Schiavone (2010) right?  Recently, many now top women's players can lay claim to their first major final being in Paris, such as Sara Errani (2012), Simona Halep (2014) and Lucie Safarova (2015).  Of course, none of those 3 have found grand slam success in winning the title...yet.  Point being, we can almost guarantee to expect the unexpected over the next two weeks with some major upsets along the path to crowing the 2016 French Open Champions.

Quick side note on success though.  Can you guess the most successful male doubles player at Roland Garros since 1967?  Canadian Daniel Nestor!!!  Nestor has picked up 4 men's doubles championships with 3 different partners.  Nestor is back in the draw this year looking for title #5.

Other quick side piece, we will truly miss watching Roger Federer hit the courts over the next two weeks.  RFed pulled out of Roland Garros due to an on-going back injury in hopes of being 100% for his favourite surface, grass, and preparation for Wimbledon.  This marks the first grand slam without Federer since the 1999 US Open...a remarkable feat of 65 straight slam appearances.  Hats of to RFed...still the GOAT in my opinion.

But let's get off the practice courts now and head out to Court Suzanne Lenglen for a full preview:

The Favourites

Men

Novak Djokovic (1) - No surprise Novak enters the French Open as the overwhelming favourite.  He has been dominant all season on tour and looks primed to finally lay claim to the one slam he has yet to win.  Leading into the tournament, Djokovic won in Madrid and lost in the final in Rome.  Both finals playing against Andy Murray (who himself is becoming a HUGE threat on clay oddly enough).   Had Novak won in Rome, I think many would be almost ready to hand him the trophy now.  But the slip up against Murray did show he is perhaps vulnerable once again on his least favourite surface...which is an advantage for the rest of the field.  The question is can Murray, defending champ Wawrinka or RG legend Nadal pull off the "upset" win?  Or will The Djoker finally complete the career grand slam?  You have to wonder if maybe he is putting too much pressure on himself...similar to Roger a few years back.  Time will tell...but he isn't getting any younger and this may be his best shot.  Interesting additional pressure, should Djokovic win he will lay claim to the #SerenaSlam...holding all 4 major titles at the same time but not in the same calendar year.


Women

Serena Williams (1) - Of course Serena is the favourite here.  She is the defending champion after all and a total beast on the women's tour.  She lives for the grand slams and often brings out her best...even when her best looks average she is still winning.  Serena is always a tough out at the slams and, as long as she continues to hold that #1 ranking and continues playing at this high level of tennis, she will enter every slam she plays as the favourite.  She is the GOAT after all.  But let's not get carried away here.  She is in a bit of a #SerenaSlump.  Since the pressure of attempting to win the calendar grand slam was halted in the stunning SF loss at the 2015 US Open, Serena has yet to capture a slam.  Ok, now that is only 2 slams (US Open, Australian Open) but come on...she was the overwhelming favourite at both.  The clay courts of Roland Garros are also Serena's least favourite playing surface.  Sure she has collected 3 titles here but she is also more prone to early round defeats, especially recently with a stunning R1 loss in 2012 and R2 loss in 2014.  Based on history alone, does this mean 2016 we should expect another early round exit?  Serena has not played a ton of tennis this season and has only 1 tournament win to her credit, a few weeks ago in Rome.  Luckily for her, the clay of RG can balance out the field a bit for her.  If she can avoid the upsets but watch them all fall around her, another title is well within her grasp.  Her draw certainly isn't helping though with potential trap matches coming against Kiki Mladenovic, past champ Ana Ivanovic and main rival Vika Azarenka possibly looming in the QF.


Watch Out For

Men

Dominic Thiem (#13) - The 22-year old Austrian is looking to follow in the footsteps of another Austrian clay court champion Thomas Muster and lay claim to a French Open title.  And why not?  Currently ranked 15th in the world, Thiem has looked very strong the past weeks reaching the final in Munich and QF in Rome.  In his last tune-up event in Nice last week, he took home the championship.  Add in his clay wins from February in Argentina and Mexico and the resume is starting to look stacked towards a French Open run.  This blog has been raving about Thiem for a few years now as being the next big up and comer, it's #ThiemTime to follow-up with the big results at the slams...and this could be his major coming out party.  Thiem has been listed as a Dark Horse pick in past blogs...he has moved up to Watch Out For now for obvious reasons.  He finds himself in the top half of the draw with Djoker and in the section with Nadal.  No easy feat for a long slam run.  His best slam result was reaching the 4th round at the 2014 US Open and his best results in Paris have been the 2nd round the past two years.  His draw is very favourable for a career best 3rd round showing here, potentially battling the hard serving big man Kevin Anderson.  But this is also a winnable match, possibly setting up a R4 encounter with the #KingOfClay Rafa Nadal.


Women

Romania - Yes, that is right...I am listing the entire fleet of Romanian women as the one's to watch out for.  You only need to look back to Madrid at the start of May to see why when 4 of the final 8 players were Romanian women.  The crew is led by #6 Simona Halep.  The 24-year old has been to the championship final before and has peaked at the #2 ranking in the world.  She loves the clay and could be the perfect contender to roll through the entire field and claim her first grand slam title, similar to Majoli and Myskina.  Plus, she may fly a bit under the radar over the next two weeks with big names Serena, Azarenka, Radwanska and Muguruza getting most of the attention.  Plus she lucked out on the draw, finding herself on the bottom half avoiding Serena and Vika and having a more vulnerable Radwanska and Muguruza possibly awaiting her.  But don't stop with Halep.  Add in #25 Irina-Camelia Begu, #31 Monica Niculescu and dangerous qualifier Sorana Cirstea and all of a sudden you have the 4 Horsewomen of Romania ready to take down the field.  All 4 of these ladies are capable of deep runs, with Halep having the strong case at potentially taking home the title for Romania.


The Dark Horse

Men

Pablo Cuevas (#25) - The 30-year old from Uruguay may just be the big surprise of the tournament on the men's side.  Currently ranked 27 in the world, Cuevas is having a career resurgence year on tour.  Back in February he won back-to-back clay court titles in Rio and Sao Paulo, including a SF victory over the King of Clay in Rio.  His results have not been as strong leading into this event but he does love playing on clay and his draw is fairly positive for him.  His best slam result is making the 3rd round here a year ago,   He does find himself in the top half with Djoker but in his section of the draw he has a vulnerable Berdych and Ferrer to possibly deal with to make the QF date with Novak.  This could be his best grand slam result to date with a deep run into week 2.


Women

Dominika Cibulkova (#22) - Look who is back and a serious threat once again at the majors.  The 27-year old Slovakian once cracked the Top 10 in 2014 after a run to the Australian Open final (as a 20-seed).  While her ranking has slipped a bit over the past few years due to injury, Cibulkova appears to have found her tennis groove once again and is ascending up the rankings, now up to #26.  She does have a title to her credit in 2016, winning in Poland in April.  She also recently saw great success in clay by making the final in Madrid leading up to the French Open.  Cibulkova is also a former SF here, albeit way back in 2009.  She has the game to make a deep run....as long as her head allows her to do so.  The draw did her no favours mind you, putting her in the top half with Serena as a possible QF opponent.  Of course, that assumes she even survives a very tough section with Carla Suarez Navarro and Vika Azarenka.  It won't be easy...but she could make a deep run here nonetheless.  It is the French Open after all...anything is possible on the red clay.


So now you have a few names to watch as you enjoy the masterpiece theatre action known as Roland Garros.  Let's jump into the fun with some #TourLifePredictions:

The 115th French Open
Paris, France

2015 Champions:  Stan Wawrinka (men) and Serena Williams (women)

Men

4th Round

(1) Novak Djokovic def. (14) Roberto Bautista Agut
(11) David Ferrer def. (25) Pablo Cuevas
(4) Rafa Nadal def. (13) Dominic Thiem
(12) David Goffin def. (26) Joao Sousa
(8) Milos Raonic def. (23) Jack Sock
(3) Stan Wawrinka def. (16) Gilles Simon
(5) Kei Nishikori def. (17) Nick Kyrgios
(2) Andy Murray def. (19) Benoit Paire

Quarterfinals

(1) Djokovic def. (11) Ferrer
(4) Nadal def. (12) Goffin
(3) Wawrinka def. (8) Raonic
(2) Murray def. (5) Nishikori

Semifinals

(1) Djokovic def. (4) Nadal
(2) Murray def. (3) Wawrinka

COUPE DES MOUSQUETAIRES (MEN'S SINGLES) CHAMPIONSHIP:  (1) Novak Djokovic def. (2) Andy Murray in 4 sets - This is the final we all want to see and this is the final we all should get.  They have played one another so much this season it seems and are the runaway Top 2 in the world right now.  Djoker got the best of Murray in Australia and recently in Madrid.  Murray returned the favour with a dominating win in Rome before coming to Paris.  Murray has the confidence and swagger right now knowing he can beat Djokovic.  Who would have thought Murray would be a major contender for a clay court major though?  Crazy how far he has evolved his game over the past few seasons.  But Novak is Novak...and he is still the best in the world right now.  The career grand slam is deserving.  And perhaps it is time to rename the #SerenaSlam to the #DjokerSlam.  Novak does have a strong case for also winning the calendar grand slam this season....he just needs to finally find the winner's trophy in Paris!  

Coupe Jacques Brugnon (Men's Doubles):  (2) Jean-Julien Rojer / Horia Tecau def. (1) Pierre-Hugues Herbert / Nicolas Mahut - Rojer and Tecau are coming off a strong win in Madrid and have been one of the most consistent teams on tour this season.  They won Wimbledon and the Year-End Championships last year and have made at least the QF of their past 5 grand slams, including a SF run here last year.  Herbet and Mahut had a breakout season last year, winning the US Open and reaching the final in Australia.  While they struggled in an early loss this season in Australia, they found their groove entering Roland Garros, winning three straight Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte-Carlo.  These are the best men's doubles teams in the world right now and, similar to the men's singles championship, this is the men's doubles final we all want to see.

Women

4th Round

(26) Kristina Mladenovic def. (Q) Sorana Cirstea
(5) Vika Azarenka def. (22) Dominika Cibulkova
(3) Angelique Kerber def. (15) Madison Keys
(8) Timea Bacsinszky def. (Q) Louisa Chirico
(25) Irina-Camelia Begu def. Elena Vesnina
(4) Garbine Muguruza def. (13) Svetlana Kuznetsova
(6) Simona Halep def. (11) Lucie Safarova
(2) Aggie Radwanska def. (19) Sloane Stephens

Quarterfinals

(5) Azarenka def. (26) Mladenovic
(3) Kerber def. (8) Bacsinszky
(4) Muguruza def. (25) Begu
(6) Halep def. (2) Radwanska

Semifinals

(5) Azarenka def. (3) Kerber
(6) Halep def. (4) Muguruza

COUPE SUZANNE LENGLEN (WOMEN'S SINGLES) CHAMPIONSHIP: (6) Simona Halep def. (5) Victoria Azarenka in 3 sets - The past 3 grand slams have produced first-time champions...why not continue the streak?  Halep loves the clay, possesses the game and now has the experience of playing a grand slam final here in Paris.  This is her year!  With Serena looking very vulnerable...well the entire WTA looking open to be honest...Halep is the prime under the radar pick to continue the trend at Roland Garros of crowning an "upset" champion.  Azarenka will have a strong run though and will be looking to add to her grand slam trophy collection...and will probably feel lucky to make the final avoiding rival Williams (a predicted R3 upset victim to Mladenovic).  I like the path of the WTA though right now, where you never really know who is going to win.  Who thought Flavia Pennetta and Angelique Kerber would be the past two grand slam champions?  Let's add Halep to the list shall we?


Coupe Simone Mathieu (Women's Doubles):  (1) Martina Hingis / Sania Mirza def. (5) Caroline Garcia / Kristina Mladenovic - Wow, Hingis is still a force on the women's tour.  Sure her single days are behind her but she has resurrected her career in doubles and is the #1 ranked doubles player.  Her and Mirza have been almost unstoppable on tour over the past year and a half.  If they can win in Paris, they will lay claim to the #SerenaSlam of women's doubles...holding all 4 majors at the same time but again not in the same calendar year.  Even more amazing, if it does happen, this will be the second time Hingis has accomplished the feat in women's doubles...with the first coming way back in 1998-99.

So there you have it friends...the #TwineTime preview and predictions for #RG16.  Share your thoughts in the comment section below or find me on twitter.  Feel free to also share your predictions and who you think will be the last man and last woman standing next weekend.

Enjoy the clay court drama....