If a Grand Slam fortnight is a novel, the qualifying tournament is its prologue. That is, if the prologue contained none of the main characters and provided little actual context into how the bulk of the novel plays out. All the same, Grand Slam qualifying can be an interesting narrative cul-de-sac, with quite a few storylines to amuse your bouche ahead of the main event. This year, the men’s qualifying draw features a cadre of charismatic young guns and a couple of old favorites who could conspire to make the early rounds more than a little tricky for the big names looming in the main draw. Qualiesologists David Kane and Victoria Chiesa bring you an all-but-comprehensive preview of the 2015 Roland Garros Men’s Qualifying tournament.
And #allez we go…
Q1: The Challenger
David Kane: This section should be fairly straightforward, given that it’s the only one to Chung Hyeon. Everyone’s favorite bespectacled #ATPteen has been truly tearing it up in the Challengers, winning 14 straight matches on the Circuit in the last three weeks. Does he have a highway into the main draw?
Victoria Chiesa: Chung is scheduled to play rising American Jared Donaldson in his opening match tomorrow, and although the match is last on Court 6, this is nothing short of a brutal turnaround for the Korean. After flying halfway across the world from Seoul, Donaldson won’t be Chung’s only opponent. Jet lag could be a factor, as could surface change; the last 10 matches of Chung’s run were played on outdoor hard courts. While he’s put together an incredible effort over the past month, reaching the main draw might be a Herculean effort that he can’t match.
DK: Even if Chung can get past Donaldson, the road doesn’t necessarily get easier. Awaiting him in the final round could be another American, Bjorn Fratangelo. The 21-year-old made history when he captured the boy’s singles title at — you guessed it — Roland Garros, the first American to do so since John McEnroe. Fratangelo has played his last four events on clay, reaching the quarterfinals or better at three. After pushing Borna Coric to the brink in Indian Wells and getting a Top 100 win over Paolo Lorenzi in Sarasota, the youngster could play spoiler right before main draw play begins.
Davey’s Pick: Chung Hyeon (KOR)
Chung has made the most of his young career by winning the matches that he’s supposed to. Though he lacks a signature victory, that won’t be a question up for debate in qualifying. If he can survive his opening round, he should make to the main draw.
Vika’s Pick: Guido Andreozzi (ARG)
Should Chung flame out, the other seed in this section is No. 27 Nikoloz Basilashvili, who retired last week against Thanasi Kokkinakis in the Bordeaux Challenger. Andreozzi, an Argentine who no doubt enjoys the clay courts, could spring a surprise in a section of question marks and precocious American kids.
Q2: The Kid
DK: This section features another promising youngster and Top 100 player, Germany’s Alexander Zverev. A proven clay commodity, Zverev broke through during the post-Wimbledon clay court season in 2014, nabbing two Top 40 wins en route to the semifinals of Hamburg. Having just won a clay court Challenger at home, he should be the one to watch, except…
VC: His first round opponent has a win against Rafael Nadal. On clay. Horacio Zeballos is a wily veteran who knows his way around the dirt, but the pair just met in Heilbronn and the teenager dropped six games en route to a first round win. So, who knows.
Davey’s Pick: Horacio Zeballos (ARG)
The recent meeting should be enough to point all signs toward Zverev, but a Grand Slam tournament is undeniably different than a home-court Challenger. With no final set tiebreak, it will truly come down to nerve, and it takes nerve to beat Nadal on a clay court.
Vika’s Pick: Marius Copil (ROU)
The spirit of ROUFIN compels me. Just go with it.
Q4: The Konqueror
DK: After a fairly bland third section, the fourth picks up in a big way, featuring yet another promising teenager, Elias Ymer. The Swede had a stellar week in Barcelona, taking out Nick Kyrgios and Thiemo De Bakker to reach the third round. Kyrgios is safely in the main draw, but De Bakker looms as a potential final round opponent.
VC: Topping this section is former Ohio State Buckeye and No. 4 seed Blaz Rola, and also features a pair of Spaniards (Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and Roberto Carballes Baena) and Germans (Andreas Beck and Peter Gojowczyk). Rola won a clay-court Challenger in Brazil earlier this year, but opens against a 37-year-old Ramirez Hidalgo who is now nine years removed from his fourth-round showing in Paris.
Vika’s Pick: Elias Ymer (SWE)
The flashy Swedish teenager already showed he has what it takes to come through qualifying at a Grand Slam, not dropping a set against Benoit Paire, Jan Mertl and Chung to qualify in Australia. He might not yet be a household name, but qualifying in Paris could be the next step.
Davey’s Pick: Elias Ymer (SWE)
What she said.
Q5: The Magician
DK: It may not be his best surface — or even his second-best — but regardless of court, Germany’s Dustin Brown is a guaranteed one-man show. If his signature aggressive style is clicking, he could get on a roll, and he doesn’t have the toughest section, right?
VC: Looming as a second-round opponent for Brown is the imposing figure of Kenny de Schepper, who stands at 6’8”. The Frenchman reached the second round at his home major a year ago, and the lefty would certainly have the crowd’s support should he and Brown meet.
Davey’s Pick: Dustin Brown (GER)
I once heard a Brown supporter sing, “You can do it if you really want.” It would seem to be the quintessential battle cry for fans of the enigmatic German, who can fill up a highlight reel without being close to a household name. Against a Frenchman playing at home, the head games are hardly stacked against him and Brown’s calling card is to expect the unexpected.
Vika’s Pick: Kenny de Schepper (FRA)
A local has to make it out of qualifying, right? It’s just the law of averages.
Q6: The Feel Good Story
DK: They say “it’s never too late to be what you might have been.” For Italian veteran Luca Vanni, it’s more a case of being what you never thought possible. Ranked (impossibly low), Vanni captivated the tennis community when he reached the São Paulo final as qualifier — beating just the kinds of players you’d expect to see in Grand Slam qualifying. But Brazil was hardly a lightening in a bottle performance for Vanni, who followed that up with an impressive run in Madrid, where he beat Nicolas Mahut and Bernard Tomic. The Italian is knocking on the door of the Top 100 and a few more wins could push him over the edge. Can anyone stop him?
VC: Vanni has a tough opener against Adrian Ungur, and the Italian has to hope the odds will be in his favor. That joke was (only) funny in 2012, when the Romanian had his best career Grand Slam result in Paris and the Hunger Games was cool; he defeated David Nalbandian in the first round and took a set off of Roger Federer in the second before falling. Ungur is one of two former top 100 players to inhabit this section, as former World No. 33 Andrey Golubev would be Vanni’s qualifying opponent should the seeds hold.
Davey’s Pick: Luca Vanni (ITA)
Had Vanni faded after São Paulo, it would been an expected, even forgivable, move. But something tells me the Italian’s story isn’t over yet.
Vika’s Pick: Adrian Ungur (ROU)
The Romanian veteran had a solid lead up to Roland Garros with semifinal and quarterfinal showings in his last two Challenger tournaments on clay, which included a win over the recently-returned Radek Stepanek. Ungur’s experience might be enough to see him past Roland Garros debutant Vanni, and it’s anyone’s spot from there on.
Q7: The Boyfriend
DK: Among the many rising ATP stars, Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka is the one most often forgotten. But that doesn’t mean his results are anything to sneeze at. The teenager is back in the Top 150 after a run to the semifinal of the very Challenger Zverev went on to win, and took out Thanasi Kokkinakis en route to qualifying for his first Grand Slam main draw at the US Open last summer. Nishioka has compact strokes and at 5’7” plays more of a grinding game. Whether that can translate to the big leagues remains to be seen, but there is more than enough reason to believe he can play Top 100 tennis. The other notable name in this section has also had his fair share of good results, but only if you believe in the transitive property…
VC: Daria Gavrilova is Luke Saville’s better half, and the Aussie is unseeded and looming™ in this section. Much like Gavrilova, Saville is a former junior World No. 1 and two-time junior Grand Slam champion, but has yet to make much of an inroad on the ATP Tour. The 21-year old opens against No. 23 seed Farrukh Dustov, in a section that is also home to Hans Podlipnik-Castillo and No. 7 seed Norbert Gombos. #funwithnames
Davey’s Pick: Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN)
If he can get past Gombos, who made a trio of clay court Challenger finals last spring, I like the youngster from Japan to make his way through an otherwise softer section of the draw.
Vika’s Pick: Guilherme Clezar (BRA)
The 22-year-old Brazilian No. 4 has played just two tournaments off of clay this year, and is more than at home on a red clay court — as evidenced by his run to the Challenger Tour Finals as a wildcard last year. Finishing runner-up in a Challenger in his home nation earlier this year, Clezar has the distinction of being the first player Janko Tipsarevic beat after more than a year away from professional tennis.
Q8: The Longshot
VC: It’s hard to look past the opening round match between Great Britain’s James Ward and Ireland’s James McGee, each of whom has captivated American tennis fans for opposite reasons over the past year. McGee had a Cinderella run through the US Open qualifying draw in 2014, reaching the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time, while Ward rallied from two sets down to defeat John Isner en route to Great Britain’s second consecutive defeat of the United States earlier this year. While some North American tennis fans might be familiar with these two, it’s actually a South American whom everyone should be watching in this section….
DK: You guessed it, another young gun! Chile’s Christian Garin beat Zverev to win the junior title at the 2013 French Open, but with a high-risk, grip-and-rip style of play, is decidedly behind the rest of his peers in terms of senior success. When he’s on, the Howitzer forehand is one to watch. The 18-year-old has played exclusively on clay in 2015, and should be ready to go toe-to-toe with No. 28 seed Daniel Muñoz de la Nava. If he can pull of the upset, he could potentially face America’s Chase Buchanan, who had a solid week at a Challenger in Sarasota.
Vika’s Pick: Daniel Muñoz-De La Nava (ESP)
While the veteran Spaniard has never spent a day inside the world’s top 100, he won his second career Challenger title in April at the age of 33. In a section where no player has an outstanding clay court pedigree, the Spaniard’s career wins on the dirt has to count for something.
Davey’s Pick: Daniel Muñoz de la Nava (ESP)
For all the emphasis on youth, experience tends to win out in lengthy clay court battles, and in a sea of players who would prefer a faster court, Muñoz de la Nava should be right at home.
Q12: The Compatriot
DK: Chilean tennis has a long and proud history, so it’s only fitting that Garin have a countryman to chase in the rankings. 19-year-old Nicolas Jarry has tennis in his blood; the grandson of a former ATP No. 14, the tall and lanky teen has been grinding on the Challengers and Futures over the last few months, but was playing qualies at some of the biggest events in the world back in January. Jarry has a smooth service motion and clean technique off the forehand side; the quality of opposition hasn’t been too tough of late, but winning does breed confidence.
VC: Jarry might be the youngest player in this section, but British No. 17 seed Kyle Edmund might know a thing or two about being the “next.” The South-African born Brit won two junior Grand Slams in doubles, is currently at a career-high of No. 121 and opens against a notable young(er brother) on the ATP Tour — Gerald Melzer. On the other side, a meeting of veteran 30-somethings Potito Starace and Victor Hanescu, each of whom had success in Paris in the past decade, is also a first round of note here.
Davey’s Pick: Potito Starace (ITA)
Starace is a veteran, but more importantly one who knows how to qualify for Grand Slam tournaments. The 33-year-old is the only one in his section who has ever won the three matches necessary to gain main draw admission, and seems like the safest bet to do so again.
Vika’s Pick: Gerald Melzer (AUT)
Jurgen’s younger brother had a career-best run to the semifinals of the ATP 250 event in Munich as a qualifier earlier this month, and was a set away from his first ATP final. The other lefty in the Melzer family has yet to play in a Grand Slam main draw, but dispatching two top 100 players in Munich might be just what gives him the confidence to take the next step.
Who are your picks? Sound off in the comments, and look for Part II — featuring the ladies — tomorrow!