PARIS – The second Grand Slam of the season gets under way on Sunday at Roland Garros, as the first round of the men’s and women’s singles stretches out over the first three days of the event.
To refresh your memory, the defending French Open champions are Serena Williams and Stan Wawrinka. And as fully capable as both are of defending their titles, both come into Paris with question marks even though Wawrinka won his home-country tournament in Geneva on Saturday.
Beyond the Canadian players who will be in action, here are the top five to watch.
1. RAFAEL NADAL
Even a year ago when he was really struggling, no one really expected Rafael Nadal to lose the French Open. Because when you’ve won a major nine times, that’s what it comes down to: more than someone else (in this case, Wawrinka) winning it, Nadal lost it.
Granted, not being in the top four made his 2015 draw exponentially tough – the collective sigh that went around the room when the draw potentially pitted him against Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals, the moment when all eyes turned to Nadal, who was there as defending champion, was the first big moment of the tournament.
But it was the way Nadal lost, in three desultory sets, only the first of which was competitive, that was the shocker.
The Mallorcan was spared that same suspense this year when long-time rival Roger Federer withdrew the day before this year’s draw, ending his streak of 65 straight Grand Slam main draws played. Had Federer played, Nadal would have been in exactly the same position this year – the No. 5 seed, waiting to see if he drew Djokovic, Andy Murray, Federer or Stan Wawrinka as a potential quarterfinal opponent.
As it is, as the No. 4 seed, he did end up in the same half with Djokovic. But if Nadal can get to the semi-final, one step closer than he was a year ago and playing an awful lot better than he was then, you’d fancy his chances to at least give Djokovic a run.
QUOTABLE: “No, no, I don't think about I gonna be 30 (on June 3). Something that I don't – even if I don't think is a real thing. (Laughter.) You know, time never stops. Nobody stops the time. That's not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years.”
2. SERENA WILLIAMS
The undisputed women’s world No. 1 was in bad shape a year ago in Paris. She had a virus/cold/Grand Slam ‘flu that was so bad, she could barely talk and hardly practiced in the days leading up to the final. There was even talk that she might not play. Williams had come from a set down to win in four of her six matches, then defeated first-time finalist Lucie Safarova in three sets to win the second of her three majors on the year.
The veteran American did NOT win the Australian Open this year; she was beaten by Angelique Kerber, so Calendar Slam Chase, the Sequel, is already dead in its tracks. Williams has played just four tournaments all season and won her first title of 2016 just last week, in Rome.
Watching her in practice over the last few days, it seems Williams has once again come down with a case of the “Slam ‘flu”. She hasn’t moved much at all, has dressed for a winter’s da in Montreal, is hitting the Kleenex box on a regular basis and looking absolutely miserable every single second.
On planet Serena, that probably means she’s ready.
But her draw isn’t particularly welcoming. In the third round, she could face France’s Kristina Mladenovic, a 22-year-old who can play lights out when the bright lights are but is just now beginning to learn to put forth the same intensity when far fewer are watching.
Mladenovic upset then-No. 6 seed Genie Bouchard in the first round here last year, and former champion Li Na in the first round the year before that. Ana Ivanovic could loom for Williams in the round-of-16 and, more pertinently, No. 5 seed Victoria Azarenka could be there in the quarterfinal. A year ago when Azarenka was seeded No. 27 and coming back from injury, Williams defeated her in the third round.
The 34-year-old isn’t chasing a calendar Grand Slam. But she is chasing history – her 22nd career major, which would tie her with the great Steffi Graf.
That might be daunting, but it seems Williams has been chasing history non-stop for the last few years.
QUOTABLE: “Obviously for me, if I'm not winning I'm not happy about my year. Four tournaments, three finals isn't bad for, I think, everyone else. Then again I'm not everyone else. So that's just kind of how I look at it.”
3. NOVAK DJOKOVIC
The Serbian star had to think 2015 was his year to finally win the French Open, after he eliminated a diminished Nadal in the quarterfinals. Then he ran into a bulletproof Wawrinka, playing one of those Wawrinka-type matches where he appears unbeatable on the day.
Is this the year? It’s been nearly impossible for players to defeat Djokovic in recent times, but the French Open has somehow always found a way to get the better of him.
Standing in Djokvoic’s way are the likes of … well, to be honest, we can’t see anyone challenging him until – if, he meets Nadal.
Djokovic had a very tough time with Mallorcan in Rome last week, barely squeaked out a victory against Kei Nishikori of Japan, and had little left on a soggy, slow day against an inspired Andy Murray in the final.
But this is a new week. No point in emptying your holster the week before the big one. It would be a shocker if Djokovic didn’t finally add a French Open title to his resumé two weeks from Sunday.
QUOTABLE: “If it doesn't happen, there is always another year, because I don't have any intention of slowing down yet. On the other hand, even if it never happens, I need to be very humble and realistic and see my results and my career need to be satisfied with what I have achieved so far. Even if my career was done tomorrow, I made some achievements that I must be proud of.”
4. DOMINIC THIEM AND ALEXANDER ZVEREV
Much has been made of the next generation of players that followed Djokovic, Nadal and Federer not quite living up to their potential – i.e., they haven’t been good enough yet to beat those future Hall-of-Famers often enough to break through and bag a major trophy. That group includes Canadian Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov.
Well, the next generation already has to watch its back – the “next-next” generation is catching up quickly, and many eyes will be upon them in Paris this week. The two leaders of the Brat Pack played each other in the ATP Tour final in Nice Saturday, with 22-year-old Dominic Thiem defeating 19-year-old Alexander Zverev 6-4, 3-6, 6-0.
Playing the week before a major, for those with serious aspirations, is rarely recommended. But while these two aren’t expected to seriously contend this year, they could well cause some surprises even if their older rivals have a lot more experience playing best-of-five set matches.
Unfortunately, only one of the two rising stars will be able to make a big push: they could face each other in the third round, and the winner could play Rafael Nadal in the round of 16.
Thiem, three years older, has a better clay-court resumé; he went down to South America this winter to play the clay circuit there, and won the Argentina Open with back-to-back third-set tiebreak wins over Nadal and countryman Nicolas Almagro in the last two rounds. He defeated another tough Spaniard in Rio in David Ferrer, and he beat Federer last week in Rome.
Along with 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios, who has Richard Gasquet and Nishikori as potential roadblocks and No. 2 seed Andy Murray in his section, there is plenty of fresh, exciting new blood on the scene.
5. ANGELIQUE KERBER
The German is the only player on the WTA Tour still with a shot at a calendar Grand Slam, a premature designation based solely on the fact that she shocked the tennis world in general, and Serena Williams in particular, by winning the Australian Open.
Kerber is the No. 3 seed, down from No. 2 last week. And if there is any surface where her terribly inept serve doesn’t hurt her as much, it’s clay.
Kerber’s biggest problem is the one that has plagued the majority of her fellow top-10 players the last 12 months: they can’t seem to put together two or three tournaments in a row where they play up to their level.
In her defence, winning your first career Grand Slam at age 28 in a country that boasts the gold standard in Graf, is a life-changer. Kerber did win the Stuttgart event in her home country last month, defeating German qualifier Laura Siegemund in the final. But she lost to Barbora Strycova in the first round in Madrid, and she lost to Genie Bouchard in the first round in Rome. She withdrew from this week’s event in Nürnberg, Germany.
There is nothing in Kerber’s recent history to suggest she’s up to the job of trying to win in Paris. And there are plenty of dangerous, hard-hitting players in her section of the draw. She may well not get out of the first week. Then again, when you have the belief she now has in herself, anything is possible.
QUOTABLE: “I had a little bit of my shoulder problems. I was like scared to play (a) few matches before Paris. I'm not playing when I'm not 100 per cent fit. This is the reason why I withdraw from Nuremberg. I had a lot of treatments at home. I was working a lot of my fitness, because my legs are fine. Yeah, now I'm feeling good again. I can serve and there is no – not so many pains like I had one week ago. So it's on a good way.”