It’s that time of year — after all the slipping and sliding of the past three weeks, the eyes of the tennis world turn to Paris for the year’s second Grand Slam. As always, TTI reconvened in their secret lair — and Twitter DMs — to hash out the biggest stories of the 2016 Roland Garros main draw.
Of the ATP, who is/has:
1. Who is the biggest dark horse?
Picking a dark horse amidst the current ATP field remains an agonizing task — with the top names shining so brightly and the way this year’s draw has turned out, most conventional dark horses turned into a soft grey, illuminated by the leading figures surrounding them in the top half. As a result you begin to search the area with the most question marks — and that is the third quarter, led by Milos Raonic and defending champion Stan Wawrinka. The Canadian is hardly a household name on the red dirt and while last year’s winner Wawrinka is into the finals at his home tournament in Geneva, it doesn’t mean he won’t find himself dropping out of the tournament in the first week. I’ll pick Jack Sock to as a dark horse in the bottom half — against my own better judgement and despite his physical fragility over the course of the past 12 months.
Nick Kyrgios has had a quietly solid season. Although his results in Australia might not have lived up to his — or the Australian media’s — expectations, he won his first title during February’s mini-indoor hard court season and went on to post solid results at nearly every tournament thereafter. Most impressive wasn’t necessarily the way he won but the way he lost, pushing many of the world’s top players to the brink. His draw could be worse, and he has the weapons on clay to make an impact and potentially a deep run this fortnight.
Jack Sock is without question the finest clay court player America has to offer at the moment. The 23-year-old excels on the red dirt as he is able to dictate play with his heavy topspin forehand, reaching RPMs that consistently exceed what even Rafael Nadal is able to produce. Sock has fourth round points to defend from last year, where he lost to Nadal in four sets. His section of the draw includes Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka obviously won the tournament last year, but his level of play is always an unknown quantity. Raonic and Cilic would pose tough tests, but Sock has the game to beat either of these two on clay.
I like Pablo Cuevas to make some noise in Paris. He’s taken a couple of “less-than-great” losses (Beniot Paire, Nicolas Mahut) during the European clay season, but won a pair of titles on the surface just a few months ago during the Golden Swing. The draw was kind as well — Cuevas’ potential third round opponent is current struggle-bunny Tomas Berdych.
While it’s tempting to pick a wunderkind here (when they don’t play every. single. week in the lead-up — Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev: I’m looking at you), I’m going in an entirely different direction and picking the veteran Joao Sousa. The Portuguese No. 26 seed had himself a nice little clay court season ahead of Roland Garros, reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid — and giving Rafael Nadal all he could handle — and just reaching the semifinals in Nice before dropping another three-setter to Alexander Zverev. He’s slated to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the third round, but the Frenchman has a few interesting characters to navigate before he gets there.
2. Who will suffer an early exit?
Tomas Berdych‘s last notable news-pieces have been: getting double bageled by David Goffin and splitting with his coach Dani Vellverdu. If that doesn’t cast a long shadow over someone’s general chances at the Bois de Boulogne, I don’t know either — and Pablo Cuevas has enough clay court smart to outwit the tall Czech.
Although the world’s Top 8 players are typically reliable in the early rounds of Grand Slams, Tomas Berdych has had a season to forget thus far. He’s currently coach-less and is coming off a double bagel defeat at the hands of David Goffin (A related scenario? Obviously). Berdych’s ranking has always been anchored on consistent results at big events but his points total has lessened nearly every week of 2016 and he might just be primed for an early upset.
The top eight seeds appear to have comfortable draws early on, but Stan Wawrinka could be in danger in the first two rounds. He’ll face Lukas Rosol, who stretched him to three sets this week in Geneva, and then could Martin Klizan, who has a dangerous heavy spinning lefty forehand that could pose issues for Wawrinka on clay.
If the Stan from the 2014 French Open shows up, the defending champion could be heading home quite early.
I’m picking none other than 2015 Roland Garros champion Stan Wawrinka to be the first Top 8 man out in Paris. I don’t like the draw he was handed — Lukas Rosol, who took Wawrinka three sets this week first, with a good clay-courted in Martin Klizan looming as a potential second opponent.
Then again, it’s not like Stan hasn’t randomly won things when we’ve least expected him to before.
At the risk of sounding incredibly repetitive, it’s hard to pick anyone other than Tomas Berdych to see his Roland Garros campaign come to an early end. The Czech is not in the best of places career-wise ahead of the year’s second major, and who knows what can happen in his section of the draw.
Although, if my dark horse pick of Joao Sousa comes though, than Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could also be bundled out of Paris in the first week.
3. The Toughest Road?
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is my prime pick here but there isn’t much room between him, Nadal and Berdych who each have difficult roads in their own right. Tsonga has semifinal points to defend here, and he’s been handed a draw littered with trapdoors — and a very in-form David Goffin as a very possible round of 16 opponent.
Just because Rafael Nadal has the toughest road to the quarterfinals doesn’t mean he won’t make it there. He’s shown encouraging form during this clay season (despite picking up only one “big” title), especially considering his form coming into Roland Garros this time last year. Yet, he still has to play a huge server in the first round (anyone remember 2011?), and his recent nemesis Fabio Fognini in the third round (anyone remember 2015?) If he gets through all that… Dominic Thiem in the round of 16. It’s not an easy path, but one I’d expect him to navigate in the end.
Fognini and Thiem are Rafael Nadal‘s projected third round and fourth opponents. Fognini beat Nadal three times in 2015, once at a Grand Slam and twice on clay. Thiem took him down in the semifinals of Buenos Aires this year en route to winning the title and has demonstrated he can slug it out with the best of them on the red dirt.
Fognini and Thiem are the types of big hitters that have given Nadal trouble at majors, and some of Nadal’s most recent Grand Slam losses have come to Fernando Verdasco, Fognini, Dustin Brown, and Tomas Berdych. All of these are players that can hit you off the court, something Fognini and Thiem could replicate in Paris.
I don’t necessarily think he’ll stumble on any of the early potential roadblocks, but I will say that the Tennis Gods gave Rafael Nadal no favors with his draw. The first two rounds should be fairly breezy, but Fabio Fognini — Nadal’s potential third round opponent — has played the role of spoiler before. Dominic Thiem will be a trendy pick this fortnight and beat Nadal earlier this year on clay. They could play in the round of 16. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga always brings his best to Paris and could definitely trouble a slightly off Nadal in the quarters — and, of course, the biggest obstacle to another Roland Garros title is Novak Djokovic, Nadal’s potential semifinal opponent. That’s a pretty rough stretch on paper.
Nadal‘s draw is about as tough as it gets on paper — but I’m more confident in the former Roland Garros champion’s form to navigate such minefields than I was at this time last year.
4. The Most Exciting R1?
I cannot help but go for Taylor Fritz vs. Borna Coric — a big match for both ATP*Teens that could turn their ranking upside down.
Okay, that was a terrible pop pun.
It’s definitely a match to watch and it’s going to be interesting to see how quickly Fritz will go for the more feeble Coric forehand. Opportunity looms for the winner — with playing the winner of comeback-ing Brian Baker and Bernard Tomic, who’s halfway round the world from the surface where he feels home.
(Dang it, I said no more puns.)
Nicolas Almagro finally got back into the winners circle in Portugal this season, but his form tapered off at the following events. Similarly, Philipp Kohlschrieber won a title on clay (a brilliant three-setter against Thiem in Munich) but posted few other noteworthy results beyond that. They play each other in the first round here and their exciting one-handed backhands and recent (minor) successes on clay should give them confidence coming into the tournament, making this match up a potentially thrilling first-round encounter.
Borna Coric vs. Taylor Fritz could be a doozy. In a match pitting two of the top three ranked U-21 players on the planet, American Fritz will look to impose his attacking style of tennis upon the cagey, resilient Croatian Coric. This match will showcase two of the future stars in the ATP game and give fans a chance to watch a clash of two contrasting styles of play. Free your calendar up for this one.
Quentin Halys vs. Hyeon Chung is my favorite first round match up. I don’t think either is at his best on clay, but both are young and can play extremely fun to watch tennis. It also provides a fun contrast: Chung’s ultra-reliable backhand vs. Halys’s very explosive forehand.
I very much like the look of two matches first up for the men, for entirely different reasons. The match between Alexander Zverev and Pierre-Hugues Herbert looks like it could be fun on paper, as the Frenchman looks to find his feet on the singles court and the explosive young German keeps looking towards the top of the men’s game.
While all that’s well and good, nothing comes close to the potential drama and intrigue in store between Fabio Fognini and Marcel Granollers. The Spaniard had a fair amount of good fortune during the lead up to Roland Garros, making runs twice as a lucky loser, and his loud (ahem), grinding brand of tennis is just the kind that might send Fognini over the edge.
Get your popcorn ready, we might be in for a long one.
5. The Unheralded Opposition?
Watch out for the Baltic double: Ernests Gulbis seems to have been able to win a couple of matches in the past two weeks and the enigmatic Latvian has a fondness for Paris. Unless his signature forehand plays fiddle in his own swansong, the World No. 76 could do just enough damage to get past Andreas Seppi and possibly Joao Sousa — and a possible Tsonga-Gulbis third round? We’d all be watching that just to see how much Gulbis might be able to antagonize the crowd.
Also, he might not be a clay expert but shout out to Ricardas Berankis — that third round encounter between Nadal and Fognini is hardly set in stone.
(Very little is with Fognini, to be perfectly fair.)
Did anyone know Grigor Dimitrov isn’t seeded? Hard to believe, but the flashy but perhaps underachieving Bulgarian has had a fairly terrible season devoid of any impressive results and complete with some exceptionally tragic mental meltdowns. Yet even his most ardent detractors can’t deny his has all the weapons and talents to overwhelm most opponents – could the slow French Open this week help his weaker return game and push him back into form?
Houston champion Juan Monaco has been put in one of the softest sections in the draw, and despite being unseeded, will have a great chance of making a deep run if he can find his way past a likely second round match with the struggling and down-trending David Ferrer.
Monaco has never made it past the fourth round of the French Open, but if he finds himself in a second week match with Berdych or Cuevas, Monaco made be able to make his furthest-ever run at the French Open.
Thomaz Bellucci had been relatively quiet before his bagelling of Djokovic in Rome (and let’s be real, that was 90 percent Djokovic’s doing) but he rarely underperforms on clay and is more than capable of big wins on the surface. Drawing Richard Gasquet in the first round isn’t ideal, but the Frenchman has had a forgettable clay season and seems ripe for an upset at home. After that, Bellucci could get an increasingly reliable Nick Kyrgios in the third round; I’m banking on the Brazilian out-dirtballin’ the Aussie, but maybe more than that I’m banking on a Kyrgios implosion of some type — a clay-lover like Bellucci would be perfect to take advantage of a situation like that.
I’m most certainly, 100 percent going to regret this, but….
*whispers* did anyone see Fernando Verdasco‘s section of the draw?
We all know that Verdasco is predictable in his unpredictability, and who knows how much of his Grand Slam magic was used in his upset of Nadal in Australia. The Spaniard will face newly-minted No. 33 seed Steve Johnson — courtesy of Alexandr Dolgopolov’s withdrawal — and beyond that, could be primed for a fun third-round against Kei Nishikori.
Or, he could lose 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 to Johnson. His choice, really.
6. The Semifinalists?
Stan Wawrinka (????)
How boring and conventional — did I just go and pick the Top 4 seeds for the semifinals? Djokovic has been handed a very manageable draw into the later stages of the tournament — unlike Nadal, but contrary to some of the doomsayers who have been shuddering at the sight of the players accompanying him in the second quarter, the Spaniard has beaten most of those players during the clay season.
I’m confident we’ll see a Nadal-Djokovic semifinals and a hype-machine operating at “epic” velocity.
The third quarter sticks out like a sore thumb — in theory it’d be tailor-made for someone like more-consistent-2016 Gael Monfils (withdrawn with a viral illness) or Dominic Thiem to have a breakthrough run — but none of those names ended up in Wawrinka’s designated quarter of the draw. It leaves us with the defending champion, almost by default. As mentioned previously, by this point, people are probably well too aware that the 31-year-old isn’t a beacon of reliability.
Anything other than a Nishikori-Murray quarterfinal would be big surprise given how consistently both have performed for most of the past few weeks — but the Japanese might have the more taxing round of 16, hence it is advantage Murray.
Ready for this bold intrepid prediction?
Djokovic vs. Nadal and Wawrinka vs. Murray.
Yeah, that’s the top four seeds. Nishikori is a tempting upset pick on the bottom half, but Murray’s clay court form has been impeccable and owns the match-up with the Japanese. Wawrinka, although suffering early losses throughout the clay court season courtesy of some rough draws, has looked solid in Geneva and can be expected to perform well again as the defending champion. The top half of the draw is pretty self-explanatory: Djokovic has a light draw to the semis and although Nadal’s draw is tough, it’s safe to expect him to come through with perhaps a few sets dropped here or there.
Djokovic vs. Nadal and Murray vs. Wawrinka.
Going chalk here: Wawrinka is obviously the biggest question mark, but I believe his draw is one that he will be able to get through, assuming he is playing well. As for the other three, it’s going to take a big upset to take down the winners of the last three Masters Series 1000 events.
Djokovic was handed a great draw and is still the most reliable bet in tennis by a long shot. I don’t see anyone troubling him too much on the way to the semis. I’ll pick Rafael Nadal to meet him there, despite his difficult path. The bottom half seems more prone to drama, but I’ll go with Andy Murray (since he’s super-good on clay now, which is weird) to face…Milos Raonic? That feels like a weird thing to say, but I don’t trust anyone else enough to pick them out of that quarter.
And now I’m chuckling at the thought of a Murray-Raonic French Open semifinal.
I’ll go with three of the top four seeds to make the semifinals — but not the ones you’d expect. Up top, we’ll get get another Djokovic vs. Nadal showdown, and defending champion Wawrinka will back it through the third quarter.
On the bottom, however, I’ll go against the grain and pick Nishikori to upset Murray in the quarterfinals, and make his maiden semifinal at Roland Garros — going one better than his quarterfinal showing from a year ago.
7. The Champion?
At some point, Novak Djokovic has to win it, surely — and despite his erratic performance in Rome, why not this year? But he has left the door a little more open than he’d have liked this clay season.
Murray d. Djokovic. I really want Djokovic to complete the career Grand Slam — I really do. It’d be great for the sport: THREE active players who have won every major at least once.
BUT: something in my soul is thinking Murray is going to grind his way through this draw and take the title amidst all the Djokovic/Nadal noise — if he doesn’t drop his opening match to Radek Stepanek, of course.
This is the year: Novak Djokovic will get it done. He has to, right? RIGHT?
Novak Djokovic will finally win the French Open. I will say that I’m a little less confident than I was at this time last year, but it still feels inevitable and I guess I’ll keep picking him until he finally does it (or retires — whichever comes first).
I keep picking Novak Djokovic because, really, how can you not? He’s been undone by double faults and zoning opponents in the biggest moments in more recent Roland Garros championship matches — but I think that this is the year, finally, he won’t let the title slip away.
Like our picks? Hate ’em? Sound off in the comments! Stay tuned for our WTA picks, coming later this afternoon!