The Federation Cup final between Australia and France showed yet again that team events in tennis have a place in the hearts of both players and fans.
The year’s second major tournament starts on Sunday, and once again all eyes will be on Rafael Nadal as he seeks to claim a record-breaking 12th title at Roland Garros.
The undisputed King of Clay will once again start the favourite to take out the event he has won all but three times since his debut as a teenager in 2005.
Expected to stand in the way is the perennial challenger, Novak Djokovic, who will be attempting to complete a non-calendar Grand Slam for the second time, while Roger Federer returns after three years away from the French capital.
In the women’s draw, defending champion Simona Halep could risk dropping out of the top ten with an early loss, while world No.1 Naomi Osaka will aim to bounce back from a lacklustre past few months and look to win a third consecutive Grand Slam title.
Here is your ultimate preview to this year’s French Open.
Rafael Nadal (ranked No.2)
French Open history
Best result: Won 11 times (2005-08, 2010-14, 2017-18)
Last year’s result: Won (defeated Dominic Thiem in the final)
Australian Open result this year: Runner-up (lost to Novak Djokovic)
Titles so far in 2019: Rome
After a poor start to the European clay court season, Rafael Nadal bounced back with a vengeance last week, defeating old rival Novak Djokovic to claim his ninth Rome Masters title and reclaim the lead for most Masters titles won in the Open Era.
This followed a phenomenal run to the final of the Australian Open, where he suffered his first straight-sets defeat in a major final against Djokovic, who claimed a record seventh crown at the event as a result.
The Spaniard also managed to reach the semi-finals at Indian Wells, but a knee injury suffered in the quarter-finals forced his withdrawal, robbing fans of a clash between him and great rival Roger Federer. It also forced him to miss the Miami Masters the following week.
He then returned to action in Monte Carlo, and was primed to win a 12th title there, only to be stopped in his tracks by Italian veteran Fabio Fognini, who went on to claim his maiden Masters title at the age of 31.
Nadal was also prevented from winning a 12th title in Barcelona, where he was defeated in the semi-finals by Dominic Thiem, who also went on to win the title, before being defeated in the semi-finals in Madrid by Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Last week saw a return to the Nadal of old, though, as he romped to the final in Rome, where he defeated Djokovic in three sets in the final, but not before gaining revenge on Tsitsipas in the semi-finals.
The form shown in the Italian capital has the Spaniard primed to create more history at Roland Garros, a venue which he has ruthlessly dominated since his debut at the tournament in 2005.
On form and history, it’s hard not to see the 32-year-old leave Paris with a 12th title.
Novak Djokovic (ranked No.1)
French Open history
Best result: Won (2016)
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Marco Cecchinato)
Australian Open result this year: Won (defeated Rafael Nadal in the final)
Titles so far in 2019: Australian Open, Madrid
Even at the age of 32, Novak Djokovic continues to be a model of consistency, his return to form last year following a lean period in which he briefly dropped out of the top 20 due to injury.
It was this time last year that people doubted the Serb’s ability to win another major title after he crashed out of the French Open in the quarter-final stage after a shock defeat against unheralded Italian Marco Cecchinato.
But it proved to be a turning point, as he would then sweep the remainder of the 2018 Grand Slam season, winning his fourth title at Wimbledon, then his third at the US Open, before finishing the year ranked as world No.1.
A seventh Australian Open title earlier this year, in which he handed Rafael Nadal a straight-sets humiliation in the final, has him primed to repeat what he did in 2015-16 and claim another non-calendar Grand Slam.
Djokovic is also the last man – and one of only two, the other being Robin Soderling – to topple the Spaniard on his beloved red clay courts in Paris. When he won in 2016, Nadal had to withdraw mid-tournament due to a serious wrist injury.
While winning the French Open isn’t a priority anymore for the Serb, he would no doubt love to achieve what not even Nadal or Roger Federer have done: a double career Grand Slam, that is, winning each of the four majors at least twice.
But can he do it? Not with Nadal in his way.
Roger Federer (ranked No.3)
French Open history
Best result: Won (2009)
Last year’s result: Did not play
Australian Open result this year: Fourth round (lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas)
Titles so far in 2019: Dubai, Miami
After three years away from Roland Garros, Roger Federer returns in a year that will mark a decade since he completed his set of Grand Slam titles.
During the noughties, Federer’s attempts to complete a career Grand Slam had been thwarted by Rafael Nadal four times, three of them in finals (2006, 2007 and 2008).
But the Spaniard’s shock loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 not only turned the tennis world upside down, but also paved the way for Federer to finally break his French Open curse once and for all.
These days, Federer arrives in Paris without any added pressure, though this will be the first time since 2015 that he participates at the tournament, where he made his Grand Slam debut as a 17-year-old two decades ago, losing to Australian Pat Rafter in four sets in the first round.
To the present and the Swiss maestro’s desire to contest the clay court season for the first time in many years came after he suffered an upset loss against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round of the Australian Open, ending his chances of a record seventh title Down Under.
However, he would turn the tables on the Greek sensation in Dubai, defeating him in straight sets to win his 100th career title, which was followed shortly after with another title in Miami, where he defeated John Isner in the final.
He also notched up another major milestone where he saved a few match points to defeat Gael Monfils in Madrid for his 1200th career match victory, before being forced to withdraw from the Rome Masters prior to a quarter-final engagement with Tsitsipas.
While Federer won’t be burdened by the pressure of having to win the French Open, there is no doubt he would love to go deep in what could potentially be his final appearance in Paris.
Also watch out for Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Juan Martin del Potro, while notable absentees are Kevin Anderson and John Isner.
We now swing to the women’s side of things, where all eyes will be on defending champion Simona Halep, world No.1 Naomi Osaka, and former No.1 Angelique Kerber for a variety of reasons.
Halep has endured some tough times since winning the title last year, winning just one tournament and failing to get past the fourth round of three subsequent majors in the 12 months since.
Osaka, meanwhile, is attempting to become the first player in the Open Era to win her first three major titles consecutively, but after ascending to the top of the rankings in January, has failed to win another title or achieve another significant result.
But with minimal points to defend at Roland Garros, where she has twice reached the third round, the Japanese star has the chance to earn ranking points at will and extend her lead at the top.
Meantime, Kerber has the chance to join Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams among active players who have completed their set of Grand Slam titles.
Top seed Osaka kicks off my preview of the women’s contenders.
Naomi Osaka (ranked No.1)
French Open history
Best result: Third round (2016, 2018)
Last year’s result: Third Round
Australian Open result: Won (defeated Petra Kvitova in the final)
Title so far in 2019: Australian Open
Already with two major titles under her belt, top seed Naomi Osaka has her mind set on more history – potentially winning her third major event and then heading to Wimbledon with the chance to become the quickest player to complete her set of Grand Slam titles.
Despite her poor form in the past four months, Osaka remains world No.1 because others have failed to capitalise on her stumbles. Osaka can earn valuable rankings points here, though she will have some competition from the likes of Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, who could all unseat her at the top of the rankings.
This will be the first Grand Slam tournament the Japanese star contests as the world No.1, and it remains to be seen how she adapts to the pressure of being so highly-ranked at another major tournament.
But if the past eight months are anything to go by, she will be primed for a deep run at Roland Garros, and if she takes the title, then she could be heading to the All England Club looking to create some history.
Karolina Pliskova (ranked No.2)
French Open history
Best result: Semi-finals (2017)
Last year’s result: Third round (lost to Maria Sharapova)
Australian Open result: Semi-finals (lost to Naomi Osaka)
Titles so far in 2019: Brisbane, Rome
For so long clay courts had been Karolina Pliskova’s worst surface, but last week she was able to overcome her demons and claim her biggest title on clay, defeating Johanna Konta in the final of the Italian Open in straight sets.
The 27-year-old has had a solid 2019 season, winning her second title in Brisbane and then reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open where she lost to eventual champion Naomi Osaka a day after her epic quarter-final victory over Serena Williams.
She also reached the final in Miami where she lost to Australian Ashleigh Barty, while beforehand she reached the quarter-finals at Indian Wells where she fell to Belinda Bencic, who’d put out defending champion Osaka in the previous round.
Pliskova’s focus now turns to attempting to break her Grand Slam duck at Roland Garros, where she was unfortunate enough to face Maria Sharapova in the third round last year, winning just three games in a disappointing straight-sets loss.
The lessons learnt from that defeat, as well as the impressive form she displayed in the Italian capital last week, will have her primed for a deep run at the French Open.
Simona Halep (ranked No.3)
French Open history
Best result: Won (2018)
Last year’s result (Won, defeated Sloane Stephens in the final)
Australian Open result: Fourth round (lost to Serena Williams)
Titles so far in 2019: None
As hard as winning a Grand Slam title may be, performing as a Grand Slam champion has proven to be harder, as Simona Halep can attest.
The defending champion will arrive at Roland Garros having won just one title since then, and having not reached another major quarter-final in the past 12 months.
These results were similar to what happened to Ana Ivanovic in the year following her French Open win in 2008, and it is fair to say that the Serb was never the same player after that.
Should Halep lose in the first round, then she would risk dropping out of the top ten for the first time since early 2014, and it would complete a fall from grace for the Romanian, who surrendered the No.1 ranking in January.
It’s interesting to see how Halep adapts to the pressure of defending the title in Paris – a deep run will do wonders for her confidence going forward.
Also watch out for Angelique Kerber, Kiki Bertens, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, Ashleigh Barty, Serena Williams and Aryna Sabalenka, while Maria Sharapova is missing.
The French Open gets underway this Sunday, May 26. Following changes to the scoring rules with regards to the final set of matches at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, this will be the only major where play continues indefinitely beyond 6-all in the final set.