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Sunday, 27 May 2018

#RG18 Preview

#BetweenTheBaselines: Predictably Unpredictable??
What should we expect on the red clay in Paris for French Open 2018?


Could there be a more contrasting grand slam event between the men's and women's tour than the second slam of the season at Roland Garros?

On one side we have the almost predictable result before the first ball is served with a strong overwhelming #KingOfClay looking to retain his seat on the thrown with, what appears to be, little to no true resistance from his challengers.

On the flip side we have the unpredictability of an grand slam event producing some of the biggest upsets in tennis and a few "one hit wonder" slam winners.

Is the French Open unpredictably predictable or predictably unpredictable?

If any of the men arriving in Paris are hoping to write their name in the clay come two weeks from now they are going to have to put together the best two weeks of their tennis lives...while also dethroning the best clay court specialist the sport has ever seen.

This is Rafa Nadal's event to lose year in and year out.  Even a less than 100% healthy Rafa is still better on clay than 90% of his competition competing at their full 100%.  He can do it all on the red clay...and has!  The only question being asked heading into the French Open is whether anyone can even take Nadal to 4 sets let alone challenge him to a tight 5-set match.  He is the #KingOfClay after all and has claimed 10 of the past 13 titles, including last year!

While the men's picture seems as clear as a beautiful May day in Paris, the women's draw is as dark and unknown as the court itself.  Not only is the 2018 women's field wide open but historically this event has produced some of the most unlikely slam winners and finalists in the sport.  It really all started 21 years ago when a young Croatian named Iva Majoli upset heavily favoured Martina Hingis for the title.  After that result a few other shocking winners emerged including: Anastasia Myskina (2004), Francesca Schiavone (2010) and recently Jelena Ostapenko (2017).  The only thing we can really count on when the French Open gets underway in Paris is to expect the unexpected with the women's draw....or maybe not in 2018?!

The clay has been scattered and prepared for a long two-weeks of tennis action.  The ball canisters have been open.  The raquets have been strung.  And the laundry services department has been put on standby for all those white shirts, shorts and dresses needing instant cleaning after a tough day at the office.  Here we go....serve it up for the #TwineTime #RG18 Preview:

MEN

2017 Champion: Rafa Nadal

Favourite

Rafa Nadal (1) - Nadal will be seeking his 11th French Open title.  Yup, you read that right folks, 11th French Open title!  Crazy to even fathom this number but the defending champion is looking like as close to a sure bet as you can get in tennis heading into Roland Garros.  He already owns three clay court titles this season and, outside of one loss to a contender named below, he has pretty much dominated the clay as many expect and predicted.  It is a bit weird to note Nadal has only been seeded #1 at the French Open three previous times considering how often he wins here.  Will that factor into play here?  I wouldn't count on it.  As previously mentioned, the biggest debate heading into the men's event is whether Nadal is pushed to 4 sets or even 5 sets in any match over the next two weeks.  With his main contenders chalked into the bottom half of the bracket, his path to another final is looking relatively easy.  The biggest seeds he could face, namely (3) Marin Cilic, (5) Juan Martin del Potro and (6) Kevin Anderson, are not exactly huge threats on clay.  delPo could be the biggest challenger but he is battling an injury of his own and may not even step foot on the court to begin with.  Nadal's biggest roadblock may come in the 4th round against a strong up and coming young Canadian....but more on him in a moment.

The Contenders

Dominic Thiem (7) - Sure the young Austrian is seeded 7th here this week but he may be the biggest challenger to Nadal's title.  You know that one loss mentioned above on clay this season?  Yup that was at the hands of the #Thiemenator!  Thiem comes to RG18 fresh off a clay court title win this past weekend as a tune-up, while also collecting his 10th tour title (the same amount of French Open titles Nadal has won oddly enough) and his 200th ATP tour win.  Plus remember Thiem has reached the SF here the past two seasons.  With Thiem sitting on the other half of the draw this year from Nadal, he could draw the King in the final.  It won't be easy though with a potential R4 clash with (19) Kei Nishikori who is making his comeback from injury or the blockbuster possible QF against (2) Sacha Zverev...not to mention the huge #TeamUpset contender awaiting him in R2 possibly (more on him below).  If Thiem is the up and coming Prince of Clay, can the Prince dethrone the King this year?

Alexander Zverev (2) - Speaking of a young gun looking to make his mark at the slams, the #2 seeded German could be a threat here.  Zverev has been an enigma of sorts at the slams over the past few seasons.  While he wins on tour and picks up strong ranking points, he often has underperformed on the biggest stage.  Proof in point, last year's R1 defeat at this very slam.  Zverev has the skills to make a deep run on the clay (or at any slam really) but he needs to translate those skills and results during a regular ATP 500 or 250 event into wins at the grand slam level.  Nobody is selling on the 21-year old's potential yet but you have to wonder if the lack of results at the slams are going to start catching up with him eventually?

#TeamUpset

Denis Shapovalov (24) - The eyes of the tennis world may be squarely focused on the NextGen star from Canada.  #ElShapo has quickly become a fan favourite and is backing up his fan support with strong results on the court.  Shapovalov is barely out of the junior ranks and here he is with a seed at a slam...and a clay court slam nonetheless.  We certainly aren't used to seeing that from a Canadian?!  With Milos Raonic nursing an injury and unable to compete, the new #1 Tennis Canada athlete will look to carry the maple leaf throughout the Paris grounds.  He may not be a threat to win the event, given he finds himself in Nadal's quadrant to start off, but he could be a great test for Nadal (and perhaps himself) in R4.

Stan Wawrinka (23) - #StanTheMan is back folks!  We were left wondering when the three-time slam champion would return to the court and, luckily, he was able to do so at a tune-up event in his home nation of Switzerland.  Sure he lost early and is still struggling to get back to the top of his game but the 2015 champion and 2017 finalist is always worth a mention and watch.  Expectations will be limited this year given the tough R1 and possible R2 draw he was handed.  But this blog has been a fan of the #Stanimal for years, well before he started winning slams by the way, and we are not slowing down on our support now!

Albert Ramos Vinolas (31) - A Spaniard expected to go far on the clay courts of Roland Garros?  What a surprise right?  Well selecting Ramos Vinolas to go deep into the tournament may be a shock for some but don't let the seed number catch you off guard.  Ramos Vinolas did reach R3 in Melbourne at the Aussie Open to kick off his 2018 slam resume.  He also is a former QF here a few years ago in 2016.  Sure his clay court lead-up has not been the best but he certainly cannot be disappointed with his draw to the fourth round.  His biggest roadblock would be (5) del Potro but we are still uncertain of how healthy the big Argentine is heading into the event.  If Ramos Vinolas can reel off a few wins, why can't he replicate the R4 result last year or the QF result of 2016...or maybe even go one round better in 2018?

Stefanos Tsitsipas - Beware the Greeks!  Yes, I am being serious.  The young Tsitsipas has been burning up the clay this season building towards the French Open.  So much so he is now ranked in the Top 40 and sits just outside a grand slam seed...and at the age of 19!  While he is yet to win a grand slam match after going 0-3 last season, RG18 could be his true coming out party.  He already has two Top 10 wins under his belt on clay this season, over Thiem and Anderson.  He reached the final in Barcelona before being blown off the court by Nadal.  He also reached the SF in Estoril, Portugal.  It won't be easy for the young NextGen star though.  If he wins his R1 match (and finally gets that first slam win) he could be standing across the net from a French Open contender in Thiem once again.  Thiem defeated Tsitsipas in Qatar at the start of the season but the greek got revenge in the Barcelona QF.  What a blockbuster R2 battle we could see and if Tsitsipas can knock off Thiem once again, he could be the ultimate #TeamUpset flag bearer for this entire tournament.  Keep your eyes on this young gun!

R4:

(1) Rafa Nadal def. (24) Denis Shapovalov
(11) Deigo Schwartzman def. Pablo Cuevas
(3) Marin Cilic def. Marton Fucsovics
(31) Albert Ramos Vinolas def. (17) Tomas Berdych
(10) Pablo Carreno Busta def. (8) David Goffin
(4) Grigor Dimitrov def. (13) Roberto Bautista Agut
(7) Dominic Thiem def. Benoit Paire
(15) Lucas Pouille def. (2) Alexander Zverev

Quarterfinals:

(1) Nadal def. (11) Schwartzman
(3) Cilic def. (31) Ramos Vinolas
(10) Carreno Busta def. (4) Dimitrov
(7) Thiem def. (15) Pouille

Semifinals:

(1) Nadal def. (3) Cilic
(7) Thiem def. (10) Carreno Busta

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Rafa Nadal def. (7) Dominic Thiem - 4 sets


MEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (2) Oliver Marach / Mate Pavic def. (1) Lukasz Kubot / Marcelo Melo


WOMEN

2017 Champion: Jelena Ostapenko

Favourite

Simona Halep (1) - Ok if sport was determined based on karma, the sport gods own Simona Halep a grand slam title already.  Halep lost the final her last year, a final she really should have won.  She lost the Australian Open final to kick-start her 2018 campaign.  She also lost the final here in 2014.  Wow four years ago already and she is still awaiting that maiden slam title.  This could be the perfect opportunity though for the Romanian.  She has the all-around game to excel on clay, as proven in her two previous finals appearances.  Her biggest question mark is what is going on upstairs.  The mental battle seems to give her more problems than her opponent.  Her record in finals is horrible, losing WAY more than she is winning, including the Italian Open final as her tune-up against RG18 title contender Elina Svitolina.  True tennis fans know Halep deserved a slam title, similar to the argument made in Melbourne for Caroline Wozniacki.  And while we hope the sports god owe her one, the draw gods certainly punished her.  Drawing Alison Riske in R1, who is fresh off a final appearance in Germany leading into this slam, coupled with potential quadrant roadblocks (29) Kiki Mladenovic and (16) Elise Mertens could derail her championship aspirations early.  She is going to have to be on her game early...but reeling off some tough wins early could also give her the mental edge she is looking for.

The Contenders

Elina Svitolina (4) - Speaking of that Italian Open final, champion Svitolina comes to Paris with loads of momentum and confidence.  Can she parlay it all into a slam title?  Don't underestimate her.  Sure last year she came to Roland Garros with the same type of high profile and expectations and faltered in the QF.  In fact the QF round is the best she has made at any slam, including the 2018 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open.  Similar to rival Halep, the Ukrainian also has the tools of the trade to be successful and become a slam champion but the question is whether she believes it or not too.  When faced with a challenge in a close slam QF or even SF match, can she talk herself into winning?  The game is there, but is the mindset?  The draw gods certainly were here to help her as she may have the easiest path to the SF with little competition standing in her way.  A possible QF with defending champ (5) Jelena Ostapenko could loom but even Ostapenko has looked anything but a defending champ and may not survive the opening week herself.  Could an easy draw help or hinder her though?

Petra Kvitova (8) - If those higher seeds still searching for their maiden slam title are having self-doubt, enter a two-time slam champion to show them how it is done.  Ok sure Kvitova won both her slam titles on the grass at Wimbledon (2011, 2014) and yes clay has not been her favoured surface either.  But her lead-up events for this year's French Open certainly tell a different story.  Winning the title in Madrid and Prague are huge confidence boosters and could be the exact difference between Kvitova having a ho-hum R3 or R4 tourament to Kvitova being back in the title picture here for the first time since her SF appearance back in 2012.  Her quadrant of the draw is not the easiest but not the most difficult either.  The big block could come in R3 against an up and coming Estonia (more on her below).  The big blockbuster though may be a potential SF vs fellow contender Svitolina.  Don't sleep on the Czech!

#TeamUpset

Kiki Bertens (18) - One of the best female clay court specialists on tour could be the biggest dark horse in the draw.  Bertens is having herself another solid clay court season, reaching the final in Madrid (l. to Kvitova) and winning a premier title in Charleston prove her to be a real threat for a deep run in Paris.  She could see former #1 Angie Kerber in R3 but Kiki has the clay court game down over Kerber.  The big battle may be the R4 tilt vs. another possible contender in France's own Caroline Garcia, who is also having one heck of a clay court season.  The winner of that R4 battle could then draw current #1 Halep in the QF.  It is unfortunate Bertens was placed in the very top half of the bracket.  Had she slipped a few sections lower she may have been tabbed as a possible SF.  But who knows right?  She has the game to knock off the higher seeds in front of her.

Petra Martic - Looking for that truly surprising unseeded dark horse to keep your eyes on and root for?  How about 27yo Croatian Petra Martic?  Martic reached R4 last year here.  She also reached R4 at the Australian Open earlier this year.  She is in the middle of some breakthrough performances and could be another unseeded player to cause some havoc on the draw (sound familiar Ms. Ostapenko?).  Martic doesn't necessarily have the big sexy results on tour but she does have the athletic game needed on the clay courts to make her opponents hit unforced errors and for her to collect some free points.  She is currently ranked #34, sitting just on the wrong side of the seed cut line meaning she is one of the dangerous highly ranked floaters nobody wants to see in their side of the draw.  Speaking of her draw, not too bad either.  Her two biggest seeds are (9) Venus Williams, not exactly a threat on clay and certainly cycling through perhaps her last leg of high-quality tour results, in a possible R2 showdown and defending champ (5) Jelena Ostapenko, herself struggling with form and who knows how she handles expectations of being the defending champion, in R4.  Surprisingly her biggest competition may come from a few other unseeded players in her quadrant, namely former #1 Victoria Azarenka and former French Open doubles champion Ekaterina Makarova.  A R4 or QF appearance is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for the Croatian.

Anett Kontaveit (25) - Yes Estonia is an actual threat in sports folks.  And Estonia is a big threat to stir up the clay dust at Roland Garros with #25 seed Anett Kontaveit.  It has been a terrific clay court season for the 22yo, reaching the SF in Rome and the Stuttgart, both high-calibre WTA tour events in Spring.  Not only the recent success on clay but the historic success at the slams came earlier this season when Kontaveit reached R4 at the Australian Open.  Her best result here is R2 last year but expect her to go at least one round further, if not more, this year.  If Kvitova is not careful she may be the biggest win of Kontaveit's career in R3, which could open the door for an even deeper run than many expect here.  A threat for the title?  Maybe not....but who expected Ostapenko to pull out a title win last season?  From Latvia to Estonia.....the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen could add another surprise stop on its passport this season.

Serena Williams - Well how can we talk about a slam and not mention the GOAT herself?  Sure she is ranked #449 in the world and is returning from giving birth to her first child but she is a three-time champ here and you just can never count out Serena.  The saving grace for her opponents?  Clay is without question her least favourite surface.  The problem for her opponents?  Ranking or not, this is still Serena Williams they will be looking at across the net.  Interesting to see her open the slam vs. one of the Pliskova sisters and then perhaps find herself playing the other in R4?  A sister dethroning both sisters in one quadrant?  Stranger things have happened....

R4:

(1) Simona Halep def. (16) Elise Mertens
(18) Kiki Bertens def. (7) Caroline Garcia
(3) Garbine Muguruza def. (15) CoCo Vandeweghe
(6) Karolina Pliskova def. (17) Ashleigh Barty
Petra Martic def. Ekaterina Makarova
(4) Elina Svitolina def. Zarina Diyas
(8) Petra Kvitova def. (10) Sloane Stephens
(23) Carla Suarez Navarro def. (2) Caroline Wozniacki

Quarterfinals:

(1) Halep def. (18) Bertens
(6) Pliskova def. (3) Muguruza
(4) Svitolina def. Partic
(8) Kvitova def. (23) Suarez Navarro

Semifinals:

(1) Halep def. (6) Pliskova
(4) Svitolina def. (8) Kvitova

WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Simona Halep def. (4) Elina Svitolina - 3 sets


WOMEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Timea Babos / Kiki Mladenovic def. (12) Elise Mertens / Demi Schuurs


Get ready ball boys and girls, this is going to a very fun, exciting and predictably unpredictable two weeks of tennis action.

Enjoy Roland Garros 2018!