Thursday, May 19, 2016

The French Open is truly "open"

Carousel, Jardin des Tuileries
As long-time readers of this blog know, the French Open is my favorite of the four majors. It's played on clay, and it's in Paris--what's not to love?! And while the French Open is always considered a bit more "open" than the other majors, this year, it feels more "open" than ever.

For one thing, two-time Roland Garros champion Maria Sharapova will not be there. Defending champion Serena Williams will be there, but--prior to her arrival in Rome--Williams has hardly been herself--or even in attendance--this season. Her Rome performance indicates that she's ready to compete at the top level, but the French Open has never been her strongest tournament, and she still hasn't had much match play.

However....Serena Williams has been known, more than once, to enter a big tournament with one or more challenges, and then proceed to win it. Having won two of her three French Open titles in the last few years may be her greatest asset because the red clay of Roland Garros is now "friendly" toward her, and her work with Coach Moratoglou has improved her clay court skills.

And while she may not like it, all eyes probably will be on Simona Halep. The 2014 runner-up was knocked out in the second round last year by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (who actually out-"Haleped" Halep), and her inconsistency and injury proneness have continued to impede her progress as an elite player. But Halep turned all that around in Madrid, where she beat Timea Bacsinszky, Irina-Camelia Begu, Sam Stosur, and Dominika Cibulkova.

Halep lost in the round of the Italian Open, to the increasingly dangerous Daria Gavrilova. But the Madrid performance stands out as one executed by the Halep who made it to the 2014 French Open final.

Is anyone else a serious contender? I'll pick Angelique Kerber as my third. She was knocked out in the first round of Madrid, but conditions in Madrid and the German star simply do not mix. The second round loss in Rome is something I consider more serious. However, Kerber defended her title in Stuttgart (she had to retire with illness in the semifinal portion of her Charleston title defense), and--having won the Australian Open in a spectacular fashion, the challenge of Roland Garros may turn out to agree with her.

In my opinion, all other clay court threats--including those who, on paper, could win the tournament, will probably turn out to be no more than nuisances and trouble-makers. The "works on paper, not in real life" players are Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova. Yes, they both absolutely have what it takes to win in Paris, but Muguruza is so moody and inconsistent, and we know too well the perils of being Petra. (Of course, you never really know, which is why the event is played.)

Much trouble can be caused (or not) by the likes of 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, clay court artist Carla Suarez Navarro, 2015 runner-up Lucie Safarova, Timea Bacsinszky, Madison Keys, and Dominika Cibulkova. Genie Buchard will be there, too, and--at any moment--could find the rest of her missing mojo pieces. Last year, Bouchard was taken out in the first round by an on-fire Kiki Mladenovic, and--as sloppy as the Frenchwoman's singles results can be--she could be quite fired up again at Roland Garros.

Other trouble-makers include Laura Siegemund (though her fortunes have waned since Stuttgart), Barbora Strycova and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Kiki Bertens, Irina Camelia-Begu has really come into her own lately, and could at least one big upset. And then there's Daria Kasatkina, who is now always one to watch, but I think she's especially one to watch on clay.

What's really going to be interesting is the doubles competition. Just in time, Santina regained its credibility, winning Rome. But Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza will have their hands full in Paris. For one thing, red-hot Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic will be in top form on home clay, and if they ride that Fed Cup spirit, they could be next to impossible to beat.

Former champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka will be part of the mix, too, as well as Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, and defending champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. Any of these teams could emerge the champions.

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