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2021 French Open preview

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Roar Guru
24th May, 2021
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The year’s second Grand Slam tournament gets underway this weekend, with history and greatness at the mercy of Rafael Nadal as he seeks a record-breaking 21st major men’s singles title as well as further immortality at Roland Garros.

Ever since his debut on the Parisian clay courts, the Spaniard has dominated proceedings, claiming a jaw-dropping 13 titles from 16 appearances and winning 100 matches against just two losses, to Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic in 2009 and 2015 respectively.

It’s no surprise to you that the 34-year-old will once start the hottest of favourites to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires, which if he does will see him overtake Roger Federer on the men’s Grand Slam leaderboard and cement himself as the greatest male tennis player of all time.

Needless to say, he will face some serious opposition from the likes of Djokovic, who suffered humiliation at the hands of Nadal in last October’s championship match, as well as Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Federer will also make his Grand Slam comeback, nearly sixteen months after he lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals of last year’s Australian Open, after which he didn’t serve another ball in anger for another twelve months.

The women’s draw, meantime, has been rocked by the withdrawal of 2018 champion Simona Halep, who suffered a calf injury in Rome nearly two weeks ago and has failed to recover in time for the second major tournament of the year.

Leading the contenders are reigning champion Iga Swiatek, who emerged from a ravaged draw to claim last year’s title, as well as Ashleigh Barty, who returns to Roland Garros after forgoing the defence of her 2019 title due to the travel risks associated with COVID-19.

Reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka will also be hoping for some better luck on the clay courts of Paris, after also skipping last year’s rescheduled tournament due to a hamstring injury she suffered during her successful US Open campaign.

And once again, all eyes will be on Serena Williams as she once again attempts to equal the record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles held by Margaret Court, as well as end what is currently her longest Grand Slam title drought, which is currently four years and counting.

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As always, we preview the men’s contenders first, starting with the undisputed King of Clay, Rafael Nadal.

[3] Rafael Nadal (ESP)
French Open history
Best result: Won 13 times (2005-08, 10-14, 17-20)
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Novak Djokovic in the final)

Australian Open result: Quarter-finals (lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas)

Titles this year: Barcelona, Rome.

Tennis immortality awaits Rafael Nadal at this year’s French Open, where he will start the prohibitive favourite to land his 14th title in Paris and a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam men’s singles title.

The Spaniard has owned this tournament since his debut in 2005, proving a major impediment to his two closest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, completing their Grand Slam title sets (which both would eventually achieve in 2009 and 2016, respectively).

He has also dealt pain to the likes of Mariano Puerta, Robin Soderling, David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem in previous championship showdowns, with the 2010 win over Soderling providing sweet revenge after the Swede had upset him in the fourth round the previous year.

Rafael Nadal of Spain

(Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

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The soon-to-be 35-year-old is once again the man to beat at Roland Garros, as he stakes his claim to being the greatest men’s tennis player of all time.

At the Australian Open, he reached the quarter-finals but threw away a two-set lead to lose to Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, marking just the second time that he’d lost a Grand Slam match from two sets to love up, and the third time overall (after losing to Federer in the 2005 Miami final).

He then opted against competing in Miami, instead returning to action at the Monte Carlo Masters where he was beaten in three sets by Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals.

Next was a record-extending twelfth title in Barcelona, in which he had to save a championship point to defeat Tsitsipas in a final that lasted three hours and thirty-eight minutes – marking the longest final in the Spanish city in three decades.

The Spaniard then went on to claim another title in Rome, coming from behind to defeat Djokovic in the final, before which he had to save a match point against Denis Shapovalov in the third round. In the preceding tournament in Madrid, he lost to Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals.

Here, at Roland Garros, it is a foregone conclusion that he will once again reign as champion, so the million dollar question remains – can anyone stop him from saluting here for a 14th time?

Prediction: Champion

[1] Novak Djokovic (SRB)
French Open history
Best result: Won (2016)
Last year’s result: Runner-up (lost to Rafael Nadal in the final)

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Australian Open result: Champion (defeated Daniil Medvedev in the final)

Titles this year: Australian Open.

As has been the case for most of the past decade, Novak Djokovic is the main challenger to Rafael Nadal for the title and he arrives in Paris looking to add to the solitary success he enjoyed in 2016, when he finally completed his set of Grand Slam titles.

The Djoker started this season in typical style, claiming a ninth Australian Open title by thrashing Russian Daniil Medvedev in the final for the loss of just nine games (7-5, 6-2, 6-2).

Before that, he was part of the Serbia team which failed to defend its ATP Cup, being eliminated in the round robin stage.

Novak Djokovic plays a backhand

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Like Nadal, the recently-turned 34-year-old also opted against playing in Miami, instead returning to action at the Monte Carlo Masters where he suffered a shock third-round defeat at the hands of Great Britain’s Dan Evans.

He fared better at the Serbian Open, but fell short of reaching the final when he lost to Russian Aslan Karatsev – the same man he beat in the semi-finals at Melbourne Park – in the semi-final. In Rome, he reached his second final for the season, only to lose to Nadal in three sets.

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Djokovic now arrives at Roland Garros as the top seed, and will attempt to become the first man in Open Era history to complete the double career Grand Slam.

But as always, there is one man to stop him and that is Rafael Nadal, whom I think will again get the better of the Serb in the final, that’s if that match-up eventuates, of course.

Prediction: Final

[2] Daniil Medvedev (RUS)
French Open history
Best result: First round (2017-20)
Last year’s result: First round (lost to Marton Fucsovics)

Australian Open result: Runner-up (lost to Novak Djokovic in the final)

Titles this year: ATP Cup, Marseille.

For just the third time since the 2005 French Open, we have a top-two seed that is someone other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray – and that is Russian second seed Daniil Medvedev.

The 25-year-old enjoyed a good start to the season, winning the ATP Cup for Russia when he defeated Italian Matteo Berrettini in the second rubber of the championship tie before going on to reach the final of the Australian Open where he fell to Djokovic in straight sets.

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It was the second major final he had lost, after going down to Nadal in a five-set US Open final in 2019.

He then claimed his tenth career title, and first for the year, by defeating Pierre-Hugues Herbert in three sets in the championship match.

A run to the quarter-finals in Miami, where he lost to Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut followed, before a string of disappointing results saw him claim only one win from three matches across the Madrid and Rome Masters.

His French Open stats don’t make for any better reading, having never won a match on the Parisian clay courts, and that is something he would love to rectify sooner rather than earlier.

Despite his poor record at Roland Garros, I think he can make a good run at it this year.

Prediction: Semi-finals

[4] Dominic Thiem (AUT)
French Open history
Best result: Runner-up (2018-19)
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Diego Schwartzman)

Australian Open result: Fourth round (lost to Grigor Dimitrov)

Titles this year: None.

Champion-in-waiting Dominic Thiem is another big name to watch at Roland Garros this year.

The Austrian has twice lost to Rafael Nadal in the championship match and after suffering the misfortune of facing (and losing to) the King of Clay in the championship match you think that his time will finally come – but when remains the question.

The 28-year-old started the season by representing his country in the ATP Cup, and then reached the fourth round at Melbourne Park where he lost to Grigor Dimitrov after coming from two-sets down to defeat Australian firebrand Nick Kyrgios in the third round.

Then, after two fruitless performances in Doha and Dubai, the reigning US Open champion made a good start to the European clay court season, reaching the semi-finals in Madrid only to lose to Alexander Zverev in straight sets.

However, his poor season continued when he lost to Lorenzo Sonego in a final set tiebreak in the third round of the Rome Masters; he then took a wildcard into the Lyon Open, only to drop his first match against Cameron Norrie.

He has yet to reach a final this season and so could a return to the French Open, where he was beaten in the quarter-finals by Diego Schwartzman last year, be the firestarter he needs to revive his stuttering season?

Prediction: Semi-finals

Other contenders of note: Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE), Roger Federer (SUI), Andrey Rublev (RUS), Alexander Zverev (GER).

Notable players missing: Stan Wawrinka (SUI), Borna Coric (CRO), Nick Kyrgios (AUS), Denis Shapovalov (CAN).

We now turn our attention to the women’s side of things, where the past two champions, Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek, lead a pack of contenders for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, currently held by the latter.

After last year’s tournament was delayed to September/October at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swiatek faces the prospect of being the shortest-reigning women’s Grand Slam champion in history, having held the title for only seven-and-a-half months.

Barty, meantime, returns for the first time since winning the title in 2019, and will face some heat from Naomi Osaka who can reclaim the world number one ranking if she reaches the final, and the Queenslander doesn’t.

This means that, even if Osaka beats Barty in the final (a match-up which is possible going by their current rankings), the latter will remain on top of the rankings ahead of the grass court season.

As mentioned at the top of the article, one of the leading contenders for the title, 2018 champion Simona Halep, has failed to recover from a calf injury in time for the year’s second major, so there is one less threat for the main title contenders to worry about.

We now preview our contenders for the women’s title starting with Barty:

[1] Ashleigh Barty (AUS)
French Open history
Best result: Won (2019)
Last year’s result: Did not play

Australian Open result: Quarter-finals (lost to Karolina Muchova)

Titles this year: Yarra Valley Classic, Miami, Stuttgart.

The most consistent player this year, Ashleigh Barty, will start favourite to land her second French Open title when she returns to the scene of her greatest triumph for the first time since winning it for the first time in 2019.

Risks associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic saw Barty abandon the defence of the title she won twenty-four months ago, instead opting to rest and put her focus into the Australian Open which was rescheduled to February from its traditional January timeslot.

The Queenslander started this season well, winning the warm-up Yarra Valley Classic tournament and then reaching the quarter-finals where she suffered a controversial three-set loss to Karolina Muchova, having been a set and break up.

She then took a wildcard into Adelaide but then dropped her first match, ending what was otherwise a successful Australian swing for the 25-year-old.

After leaving Australia, Barty then successfully “defended” her Miami Open title from 2019, and then claimed her third title for the year in Stuttgart on either side of losing to Paula Badosa in Charleston.

A fourth title beckoned in Madrid, only for Barty to lose to emerging rival Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets. Then, her pre-French Open preparation copped a blow when she was forced to retire hurt against Coco Gauff in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open in Rome.

Despite the setback, the reigning world number one returns to Roland Garros as one of the favourites for the title, and to retain top spot in the rankings she must reach the final and hope that Naomi Osaka, who is not far behind in second place, doesn’t.

I think Barty can consolidate her impressive clay court form in Paris, and go all the way once again.

Prediction: Champion

Ash Barty looks on.

Ashleigh Barty of Australia (Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images)

[8] Iga Swiatek (POL)
French Open history
Best result: Won (2020)
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Sofia Kenin in the final)

Australian Open result: Fourth round (lost to Simona Halep)

Titles this year: Adelaide, Rome.

Having only won the French Open title, and by extension her first career title, in last October’s rescheduled tournament, Polish sensation Iga Swiatek faces the prospect of relinquishing her title after only seven-and-a-half months.

Contesting just her seventh major tournament, the soon-to-be 20-year-old stormed through the field to claim the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, defeating Simona Halep in the fourth round and Sofia Kenin in the championship match en route.

She has since continued to go from strength to strength, reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open in February (where she lost to Halep) and then claiming titles in Adelaide and Rome.

At the latter tournament, she handed former world number one Karolina Pliskova a double-bagel defeat in what was the first WTA final to end with such a scoreline since countrywoman Agnieszka Radwanska dealt Dominika Cibulkova the same punishment in Sydney in 2013.

In the preceding tournament, Madrid, the Pole reached the third round where she lost a high-quality clash against her predecessor as French Open champion, Ashleigh Barty.

Swiatek’s impressive form this year has her up there among the contenders for this year’s French Open, where she will burden the pressure of being the defending champion for the first time.

Despite her young age, I think she can once again reach the final, and if it ends up being against Barty (which can only be possible if both are assigned to opposite sides of the draw) then what a championship showdown it promises to be.

Prediction: Final

[2] Naomi Osaka (JPN)
French Open history
Best result: Third round (2016, 2018-19)
Last year’s result: Did not play

Australian Open result: Champion (defeated Jennifer Brady in the final)

Titles this year: Australian Open.

One player who will be hoping for some better luck at Roland Garros this year is the reigning Australian Open champion, Naomi Osaka.

The Japanese player has enjoyed plenty of success on the hard courts in recent times, claiming her second title Down Under by defeating Jennifer Brady in the final as well as her fourth major title overall.

However, transitioning to the clay courts has proven to be a challenge historically, as her recent results have shown.

From two WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome, the 23-year-old won only one match, defeating her compatriot Misaki Doi in the first round in Madrid before falling to Karolina Muchova in the second round.

She also dropped her opening match in the Italian Open, losing to Australian Open quarter-finalist Jessica Pegula in straight sets.

Naomi Osaka plays a backhand

Naomi Osaka (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

Beforehand, she reached the quarter-finals in Miami, only to be on the receiving end of an upset loss against Greek player Maria Sakkari after copping a first-set bagel.

The challenge for Osaka is to adjust to the clay courts of Paris, where she has reached the third round three times, but no further. She has also not done well at Wimbledon, but that’s something to worry about later.

So will this year be the year where the Japanese star can make the smooth transition to the clay courts, or will her struggles continue?

Prediction: Quarter-finals

Other contenders of note: Aryna Sabalenka (BLR), Sofia Kenin (USA), Serena Williams (USA), Karolina Pliskova (CZE)

Notable players missing: Simona Halep (ROU), Samantha Stosur (AUS)

The French Open gets underway this Sunday evening (30 May) at 7:00pm (AEST). Coverage is through 9Gem and the Nine Network.

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