French Open preview roundtable
With the French Open set to begin Sunday, SI.com's tennis analysts analyze the top storylines and predict the winners.
Jon Wertheim: I look forward to seeing if another player can step up and challenge the two overwhelming favorites, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. Or at least whether the tennis gods can whip up some funky results like they did around this time last year, when Virginie Razzano stunned Williams in the first round of the French Open and Lukas Rosol upset Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon. Right now, Le Magic 8-Ball would certainly tell us that all signs point to Nadal winning a record eighth French Open title and Williams prevailing for the second time.
Courtney Nguyen: The potential Nadal-Novak Djokovic semifinal, which would basically be the de facto final. Djokovic is the only guy who can come close to stopping Nadal on clay, as evidenced by the Serb's 6-2, 7-6 (1) victory last month that ended the Spaniard's eight-year reign at the Monte Carlo Masters. That's the match everyone wants to see. If Nadal defeats Djokovic, a projected final against Roger Federer would just be a coronation by beatdown.
Bryan Armen Graham: The titanic semifinal clash between Djokovic and Nadal is the most anticipated match of the tournament -- and maybe the season.
Bruce Jenkins: A great first-rounder between Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych, which could lead (ideally) to Monfils-Ernests Gulbis -- about as lively as it gets. I'd like to see eccentric stylists Alexandr Dolgopolov and Bernard Tomic meet in the second round and Djokovic against the fast-rising Grigor Dimitrov in the third. On the women's side, let's have Sara Errani silencing the far-too-brash Yulia Putintseva in the second round, then meeting Madison Keys in the fourth; a nostalgic run for Francesca Schiavone to the quarters, setting up a match with Victoria Azarenka; and a Sloane Stephens-Maria Sharapova fourth-rounder after Stephens gets past Dominika Cibulkova in the third.
Wertheim: This is the same discussion we had last year. Williams comes in playing lights-out tennis. She looks thoroughly comfortable on clay. The rest of the field is retreating. Her sketchy record at Roland Garros bears mention; she hasn't even been beyond the quarterfinals in a decade (though she didn't play the clay-court major in 2005, 2006 and 2011). Plus, there's the specter of 2012. Still, I put current form over past complications.
Nguyen: Current form, but with caution. She went into last year's French Open on a similar tear and bounding with confidence only to crash out to Razzano in a nervous, panicky performance. I think Serena has really taken to heart the lessons from that loss and it humbled her in a palpable way. She goes into Paris this year much quieter and calmer, and the 31-year-old admitted that she's actively keeping her confidence and expectations in check. That change in attitude, to go with her destructive form, is what makes this year feel different from the others.
Graham: Serena's career-best 24-match winning streak has led many bookmakers to list her as the odds-on favorite to win her second French Open title. The junior Williams' history of underwhelming performances at Roland Garros is worthy of mention, but it's just that: history.
Jenkins: It's all about how Serena's playing lately. Yes, she had a 17-match winning streak heading into that first-round disaster last year, but when she broke into tears at the onset of crisis against Razzano, you knew her mind wasn't right. I think she has the physical and mental edge over everyone in the field, and it's hard to imagine her not taking it all the way. I'm really interested in her potential second-rounder against Caroline Garcia, though. That's a talented, young French player who can be dangerous when she's on.
Wertheim: Federer can still win another Slam. He cannot win another French Open. Even at full health and full confidence (neither of which he currently possesses), even without Nadal in his way, the surface demands too much of him physically. If he survives deep into the second week, as is his ritual, it will be a successful event.
Nguyen: Finals or bust. Federer and the French fans, who have always adored him, could not have put together a better draw if they tried. (Federer faces qualifiers in the first two rounds and has David Ferrer in his half instead of Nadal or Djokovic.) There are no major landmines, though an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could be tough in the quarterfinals.
Graham: Federer will face qualifiers in the first two rounds, so look for him to extend his mind-bending streak of Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances to 36. And rather than draw Nadal in the semis (against whom he's 10-20), he'd likely face David Ferrer (14-0). Expect one last French Open final appearance from the Swiss master, where he'd be a heavy underdog against either Nadal or Djokovic.
Jenkins: He can hardly believe his good fortune. No sign of Nadal or Djokovic unless he reaches the final. Sam Querrey or Gilles Simon is a potential concern in the fourth round, but a motivated Federer should handle that with ease. The big hurdle would be Tsonga in the quarterfinals, but if he gets past that, I'd see Federer beating one of the great clay-court artists, Ferrer, in a compelling semi. Winning it all? Not quite. But Federer has been given a great chance to take his customary spot on the final weekend.
Wertheim: Men: Grigor Dimitrov. Tennis' Harold Miner was cursed with the "Baby Federer" label as a teenager and is only now starting to come into his own. The 22-year-old is seeded at a major for the first time after a spring in which he's beaten top players, proved (not least to himself) that he belongs and put his talent on display not for a point or a set here and there but for an entire tournament. Remember, it took Federer a few years to finally get going, too. Is a real Slam breakthrough coming?
Women: Sloane Stephens. If you know tennis rhythms, it was all but inevitable that she would regress to the mean after her smashing Australian Open. Leaving aside her public-relations unforced error, she's had a forgettable spring. She's lost a lot more than she's won, often to lesser lights, sometimes with strikingly ugly scorelines. Again, this was to be expected. No need to panic. But it would nice to see Stephens -- who hardly shrinks from the big occasions -- reverse course in Paris (where she made the fourth round in 2012).
Nguyen: Men: The Frenchmen, who could electrify the first week and build toward a dramatic second seek. Monfils, now ranked No. 109 because of injury, opens against the fifth-seeded Berdych and could play Gulbis in the second round. Monfils often brings his best to Paris, having made the semifinals in 2008 and the quarterfinals in 2009 and 2011. Meanwhile, the No. 1 Frenchman, Tsonga, has a good path to the quarterfinals, where Federer could await. Then there's Richard Gasquet, who will play his first French Open as a top-10 player. This could be the year the prodigy makes good on his promise.
Women: Ana Ivanovic. The 2008 champion has a doable draw to the semifinals, which would be a tremendous confidence-booster and proof that she hasn't completely stalled out in her career. She's drawn into the quarter anchored by Agnieszka Radwanska (who went only 1-2 in the European clay tune-ups) and last year's finalist, Errani. Ivanovic needs to take advantage of a quarter littered with struggling players such as Julia Goerges, Venus Williams, Nadia Petrova and Sabine Lisicki.
Graham: Men: Tomas Berdych. If anyone outside tennis' elite class is primed to capitalize, it's Berdych. No stranger to high-profile upsets, the big-hitting Czech is coming off semifinal appearances in Madrid and Rome and enters Roland Garros with as reasonable a shot as anyone to upset the natural order.
Women: Sara Errani. After inspired showings at Madrid and Rome, Errani has positioned herself nicely to make it four consecutive years with an Italian woman in the French Open final. A run to the semis (or beyond) could solidify her place in the top five.
Jenkins: Men: Gulbis has been the talk of the tour with his sensational play and outrageous comments, and he needs to back that up. ... Milos Raonic desperately craves a breakthrough, but I just can't see it here. ... John Isner needs to get back on track on European clay. He has a potential third-rounder against Tommy Haas. ... All of the French men face the pressure of performing before a skeptical crowd; Tsonga probably has the best shot at reaching the final.
Women: Stephens needs to steer the conversation back to tennis after all the magazine-housed sniping about Serena. ... Caroline Wozniacki will be under tremendous pressure, drawing the talented Laura Robson right off the bat. ... The underachieving Petra Kvitova has a real shot at facing Sharapova in the quarters. ... Radwanska, strangely off-form on clay, should reach the semifinals if she pulls her game together. ... And it's a potentially glorious stage for Errani, who wouldn't face any of the top three until the semifinals (Serena).
Wertheim: Men: Rafael Nadal. It's not simply that Nadal is back to his old clay-mation. It's that there are so few other alternatives. Only one other player in the draw has even won the tournament, and he is a dignified 31-year-old man Nadal was seen dusting in Rome last week. A few weeks ago, Djokovic looked to be a good bet to become the first man in almost a quarter century to win the first two majors of the year. (Actually, the only credible bet in Paris besides Nadal.) But Djokovic has since regressed and comes in on a gimpy ankle. Anything can happen. But nothing can happen, too. Hard to see Nadal losing.
Women: Serena Williams. The odds of "something happening" on the women's side are greater. If two players can win the men's title, a full dozen can win the women's title. (Even with the retirement of four-time winner Justine Henin, a half-dozen former champs are in the draw.) We'll stick with Serena, though. Yes, she lost in the first round in 2012 and has a shaky overall history at Roland Garros. But in her current wise, mature and poised state, we figure that's more likely to be a source of motivation than a source of concern.
Nguyen: Men: Rafael Nadal. As if anyone is going to bet against him. Aside from a potential semifinal against Djokovic, his projected path to his eighth Roland Garros title is a relatively simple one: Daniel Brands, Martin Klizan, Fabio Fognini, Kei Nishikori, Gasquet, Djokovic and Federer. A surprise run by Stanislas Wawrinka or Jerzy Janowicz would make it slightly trickier.
Women: Serena Williams. She has the softer half of the draw because No. 3 Azarenka was drawn into No. 2 Sharapova's half. Williams' half is also missing 2011 champion Li Na, 2010 finalist Sam Stosur and other dangerous women such as Kvitova and Jelena Jankovic. With many of the potential threats duking it out on the other side, this really comes down to Serena's focus and ability to just get through her early rounds without drama.
Graham: Men: Rafael Nadal. If Djokovic can outlast Nadal in the semis and win his first French Open title, the buzz surrounding Nole's chances at a calendar-year Grand Slam will approach a critical mass. But the Spaniard enters on a 15-match win streak and his 52-1 record at Roland Garros speaks for itself.
Women: Serena Williams. The title is Serena's to lose. She's played 100 singles matches since losing the 2011 U.S. Open final, winning 94 of them. We are all witnesses.
Jenkins: Men: Rafael Nadal. I just can't see any other outcome. He's going to be tested, with potential matchups against Rosol (belated revenge for Wimbledon, and quite the different story on clay), Nishikori and Gasquet. Djokovic shouldn't have much problem getting to Nadal in the semifinals, and that's probably crucial, given that Djokovic has had ankle problems this year. I don't think it's an overly sentimental call to predict a Nadal-Federer final. At that point, one can only hope it goes more than three sets.
Women: Serena Williams. As if she needed any advantages, Serena got a favorable draw with Sharapova and Azarenka in the other half. A quarterfinal against Angelique Kerber could be interesting (they've met only three times and split two matches last year), with a high-contrast semifinal looming against Radwanska or Errani. On the other side of the draw, Azarenka will face a severe quarterfinal test in Li, but I see her winning that and beating Sharapova. At that point, the stage belongs to Serena, as she further builds her case as the all-time best.