Our thoughts on the 2016 French Open.
What’s Your Takeaway From The 2016 Clay Season?
Jonathan D’Rozario, Head Tennis Writer: Change is coming. I don’t know whether that’s in the form of a transformed Murray, a resurgent Nadal, or a Cinderella-esque run to glory for one of the young guns (Nishikori in particular has played well this clay season), but something’s coming. Maybe not in time for a French Open surprise, but if I was a Djokovic fan I might be getting just the teensiest bit anxious right about now.
Mikey Jarrell, Tennis Contributor: Nadal’s back, baby!
Justin Kelly, Tennis Contributor: The results from Rome, Madrid, and Monte Carlo make one thing clear: there is not an obvious front-runner for Roland Garros. In mid-April, Rafa beat Murray in the semis on his way to win Monte Carlo. Less than a month later, Murray handled Rafa, but lost to Djokovic at Madrid. Less than two weeks after that, Murray beat Djoker (who had beaten Nadal in the quarters) to win Rome. The usual pecking order on clay has been challenged by these results. The French Open will either reestablish the familiar clay hierarchy (Nadal, Djokovic, then everyone else) or showcase new powers to be respected on this surface.
Evan Selzer, Tennis Contributor: Djokovic’s victory is not guaranteed. He is still the best, but he isn’t invincible. His two “real” losses this year came on clay in the last few weeks but he still dominated the field to win Madrid and went 9-2 on clay. Despite Djokovic still being the favorite, Andy Murray is now a serious title contender. In the three tournaments he made a semi-final in Monte Carlo, a final in Madrid, and won the Rome title.
Gaurav Shastri, Tennis Contributor: Murray’s rise. The clay has usually been a struggle for him but this year he’s been great.
Alex House, Tennis Contributor: The resurgence of Andy Murray. It is no secret that clay is the Scot’s weakest surface, but he has rose to the occasion. He threatened Djokovic’s dominance in Monte Carlo, being the only one to claim a set from the world number one, and then rolled him over in straight sets to win in Rome. He has bounced back nicely from an underwhelming latter half of 2015 and has now established himself as a legitimate contender in Roland Garros. Murray is another obstacle in Djokovic’s quest for the career slam and possible calendar slam, in other words tennis immortality.
Troy Bridson, Tennis Contributor: Djokovic has proven he is the best player in the world regardless of the surface. If Djokovic plays like he did in Madrid, there will be no stopping him in the French Open. Of course, Nadal will always be a factor on clay. I don’t think Nadal has shown quite the level of dominance this clay season as he has in years prior, but he has shown flashes of his former self this season. I really like the way Andy Murray has been serving the ball. He has seemed comfortable and confident on clay this season, so he could be someone to watch out for. I do worry about Murray’s composure in major tournaments however. On the women’s side, the game seems wide open right now. Serena will be Serena, but clay isn’t her best surface, so I’m looking for some surprise results.
Who’s The Player To Watch Outside The Top 5 / Who Will You Be Watching This French Open?
JD: I was going to say Juan Martin del Potro, but unfortunately he’s going to miss the French Open in preparation for the grass court season, so I’m going with Dominic Thiem. Not that many men can say they’ve beaten Rafael Nadal on clay, and he’s one of them, and he just so happens to be situated in Rafa’s quarter (they would meet in the fourth round if both progress). I also haven’t forgotten my prediction from the very beginning of the season. I’m expecting big things.
MJ: Rafael “El Torito” Nadal Parera.
JK: Alexander Zverev. At Indian Wells, the 19-year-old German, up 5-2 in the third set, had match point on Nadal. Though his inexperience and nerves got the better of him, Zverev is still one of the most promising and dynamic players on the tour. While certainly not a contender for the French Open title, Zverev should make some noise in the early rounds and might be a smart upset bet.
ES: Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray are the three obvious names to watch and each has a lot at stake. Djokovic is gunning for the career slam to solidify his place as one of the best ever. Despite Nadal’s troubles over the past few years, he seems to have had a recent resurgence. A title at his favorite tournament would truly signify the return of his mojo. Andy Murray has traditionally struggled on clay and the French Open is the only Grand Slam where he has yet to make a final. However, his recent clay results suggest this is the best chance he’s had. Additionally, he is the only player who has been been able to consistently trouble Djokovic this year. He’s beaten him once and gone three sets in his two losses. Other players to watch include Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, and David Goffin, who have all started the year well.
GS: Player to watch for the French Open this year is Kyrgios. Can he make some strides in not only his clay game, but also in his game in all aspects? Interested to see where he can go this season.
AH: Nick Kyrgios. He has finally cracked the top 20, which means he now legitimately fits the mold of a player-to-watch. This is a title he should hold for the foreseeable future until he breaks through and passes the threshold of up-and-comer and reaches superstardom. Kyrgios’ elite groundstroke ability, coupled with his explosive personality, makes him entertainment gold. He impressed in the clay court season, with a win over defending French Open Champion Stan Wawrinka, as well as pushing Kei Nishikori and Rafael Nadal to the brink. His untapped potential and spoiled-brat persona make him a must-see attraction, and a valuable asset to the sport going forward.
TB: The player to watch is certainly Djokovic. He has distanced himself from the rest of the men’s tennis world for quite some time now. Can he finally win the French Open? Djokovic’s best shot could very well be this year. He needs a French Open title for his legacy.
Give Me A Bold Prediction
JD: I was going to say Federer gets upset before the quarterfinals, but given that he’s not going to be playing (tears, many tears), my bold prediction is that Andy Murray wins it all this year given that he doesn’t have Nadal in his half of the draw. Murray has lost on clay this year only to Nadal and Djokovic, and beaten them both as well (both more recently than he’s lost to them) and has to be riding a huge wave of confidence. He also stated that he believes clay might be his best surface at the moment. If he has the benefit of watching a Djokovic-Nadal semi-final five-setter from his hotel room after beating an out-of-form Wawrinka or Ferrer (poor Ferru) he could very well surprise us all.
MJ: Nadal wins the whole damn thing.
JK: Someone who has never won the French will win it this time. Since 2005, Nadal has won the French Open all but two times (Federer in 2009 and Wawrinka in 2015). Despite Rafa’s recent resurgence on the tour, I think his play reverts to his medium-term average, which is not good enough to beat back either Djokovic or Murray.
ES: Last year’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, will not reach the semi-finals. Despite being the defending champion, the number three seed, and the winner of a clay court title this week, Stan the Man is not going to have a great tournament. He has had a subpar year to say the least and only won a total of three matches at the three clay court Masters 1000 events.
GS: The French Open semi-finals will feature two players outside of the top 10.
AH: Djokovic loses in the final. Although he has never won the French before, he is entering the tournament as big of a favorite as he has ever been. I still think, however, that either Nishikori or Wawrinka will again prevent Djokovic from becoming the king of clay, thereby thwarting is seemingly realistic chances of Grand Slam perfection in 2016. Wawrinka will not play out of his mind like he did last year, but he has still proven himself to be a tough out for Djokovic in the past. Nishikori had a productive clay court season, and was one of two players, the other being Murray, who really posed formidable challenges to Djokovic. Nishikori played the Serb well, matching his durability, which is not an easy task, and excelled with his back against the wall. He still needs to figure out how to play up to Djokovic’s level for the entirety of a match, but I think he is on the cusp of becoming a major champion.
TB: We all want to see Djokovic vs. Nadal, but I’m afraid Nadal won’t get to the semifinals. He will get bounced before the long anticipated matchup.
Djokovic Vs Nadal, Who Are You Picking In A Matchup Right Now?
JD: Right this second, I think it’s got to be Djokovic. Although he’s been falling off a bit as of late, and Nadal’s been improving, I think that confidence is such a huge part of Nadal’s game that without a win over Djokovic on clay this season he can’t be the favorite in this matchup. What I will say is that recently he’s been looking sharper against Djokovic than he has in a long time, and his most recent defeat was his (breaks up in both sets) to lose (which he unfortunately did), and that counts for something. Not sure exactly what, but it does.
MJ: Is this… is this a trick question? Am I supposed to say something OTHER than Nadal? I’m confused.
JK: Djokovic in five sets. Using a statistical model (the details of which I will disclose in a series of future posts) that incorporates performance over the last 12 months and advantages conferred by surface, I give Djokovic the edge over Nadal. The model predicts a long match, but gives the victory to the Serb with 70% probability.
ES: Djokovic all the way. The last time he lost to Rafa was the 2014 French Open Final. That match was the last time Djokovic has even lost a set. Though their most recent clash in the Rome quarter finals was the closest it has been in years, Nadal was unable to convert after having five set points serving at 5-4 in the second. It seems unlikely that Nadal has a chance.
GS: Djokovic. Nadal has been playing better but as far as I’m concerned, Novak is still the king of tennis. I’m taking Djokovic almost every time.
AH: Djokovic. He has Nadal’s number of late and I do not see that changing in a potential matchup at the French. A reinvigorated Nadal, however, will make for a showdown far more captivating than the straight-set thrashing Djokovic dished upon the former King of Clay. It signaled a changing of the guard, but if they meet this year expect a match that resembled their battle in Rome. Djokovic will prevail in a competitive four-set thriller that will feel a lot closer than the scoreboard indicates.
TB: Djokovic—Nadal won’t even be there.
What Part Of The 2016 French Open Are You Most Excited About?
JD: I think it has to be the fact that for the first time in a while, the favorite to win the crown on the men’s side is actually kind of hazy. Djokovic has been the go-to favorite at all the Slams the past two or so years, and before that Nadal was always the heavy favorite at the French. With Wawrinka’s surprise title last year showing that magic can happen, Murray’s incredible jump in clay prowess (he’s beaten both Nadal and Djokovic on clay this season, and in the last 52 weeks he boasts a higher win percentage (0.850) than either Nadal (0.848) or Djokovic (0.833)), Djokovic’s seemingly slowing play, and Nadal’s halfway resurgence, I genuinely don’t know who’s the favorite leading into the French. The betting odds say Djokovic with Nadal and Murray about equal, but I’m skeptical. Needless to say, I’m very excited.
MJ: Well, to tell you the truth, I’m most intrigued by the steady improvement Dominic Thiem has been making with his ground strokes, specifically the consistency with which he’s generating optimal spin rates while still managing to maintain his quicker-than-average recovery time to the middle of the court, indicating improved footwork, which would impart… Kidding. ¡VAMO’ RAFA! ¡VAMO’ PA’ LANTE!
JK: I’m most excited to see if Andy Murray can at long last break through to the finals of the French. Murray has won or made the finals of all three other Slams. Despite appearances in the semis the last two years, Murray has proven weak against top tier players on clay. His recent success on this surface should prime him for a run on the big, orange stage.
ES: I’m most excited about the fact that many of the young players in this tournament are finally entering a Grand Slam with some good results. Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev have both had promising starts to the season and have the potential to do some damage in the draw. American 18-year-old Taylor Fritz is also playing in his first French Open and has been relatively quiet since making the finals of the Memphis Open in February.
GS: The part of the French Open I’m most excited for is to see the beginning of a new era of tennis. More players getting more chances to break through and challenge the Big 4.
AH: The excitement looming around a Nadal comeback always makes for a compelling and usually tournament-stealing storyline. He either plays a brand of tennis reminiscent of his old transcendent self or he will he will blow up in flames. It has been the latter of late, but the clay court venue adds a certain amount of mystique and a faint feeling of hope in the air. I have also said that this is Nadal’s last chance at a major title, and with his improved form in the clay court season he stands more than a puncher’s chance.
TB: I am most excited to see whether Djokovic can finally win the French Open and continue his quest for the grand slam sweep—something I have predicted he will accomplish in 2016.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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