Preview: French Open 2018

"As the 2018 French Open approaches, men and women’s clay court tennis could not be in starker contrast" - Joel McInally picks his winners, dark horses and potential upsets to watch for at Roland Garros this year.

As the 2018 French Open approaches, men and women’s clay court tennis could not be in starker contrast. Going into Roland Garros Rafael Nadal still reigns supreme as the undisputed King of Clay, while the women’s tour is in anarchy with players fighting to fill the vacuum left by Serena Williams. Nadal’s dominance makes the men’s tournament fairly predictable. He has already won the Coupe des Mousquetaires a staggering ten times and there is no reason to believe that he will not win it again this year. In fact, it is not a question of whether he will win but of how dominant he will be in victory. He has already won the title three times without dropping a set and could easily achieve that feat again. While Nadal was defeated in Madrid by Dominic Thiem in straight sets, he won in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome and at one point won a record-breaking 50 sets in a row on clay.  Beating Nadal on the red dirt over five sets is the hardest challenge in sport and it is hard to see anyone overcoming that. Nadal’s task is made easier by the fact that he cannot face Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev or Grigor Dimitrov until the final. Expect Nadal to win, and win convincingly.

The women’s side of the draw is considerably harder to predict. The easiest way to pick a winner would be to draw the name of a top 40 player out of hat – it really is that wide open. Jelena Ostapenko is the reigning champion but given her age and relative experience she may find the challenge of defending her title a different one to winning it, although with her firepower it would be wrong to rule her out. Elina Svitolina is also a force to be reckoned with on clay, with her winning the Italian Open by crushing Simona Halep in the final 6-0 6-4. Despite the strong challengers, I expect this to be the tournament that Halep finally wins her first grand slam. She came so close last year, having been a set and a break up in the final, only to be blown away by Ostapenko. Halep has to be the favourite this year, although do not be surprised if, much like last year, the winner comes from nowhere.

Rather than pick a dark horse for the men’s draw, it is perhaps better to pick the person that will provide the biggest threat to Nadal. The obvious one is Alexander Zverev who won his third Masters 1000 title in Madrid and even led Nadal by a break in the final set in the Italian Open final, only to capitulate after a rain delay. It would be wrong to back him for the title though. He is yet to beat Nadal on any surface and has never gone beyond the fourth round of a grand slam. He is a worthy bet to make the final but has a dangerous draw and could easily fall in the earlier rounds. Other contenders that could go far are Britain’s Kyle Edmund, who is strong on clay, or Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has had a good clay season.

An outsider for the women’s title that could provide an interesting storyline is Maria Sharapova. After returning from her doping ban she has failed to reach the heights of her previous success, however she remains a threat to any opponent. As a two-time champion she should not be ruled out, and with the right draw could easily make a good run, even if she does not necessarily take the title.

Potential shock upsets could be hard to find in the men’s draw given the lack of star names. Novak Djokovic could easily fall early as he is yet to rediscover his form but he has shown signs of progress, while Stan Wawrinka is also vulnerable as he tries to come back from injury. I would expect the men’s draw to mostly progress with seeding, with relatively few shocks. It is unlikely to be a classic French Open from the men.

With the women’s draw as open as it is, fans can expect a number of upsets this year. Serena Williams is particularly vulnerable at 36 and attempting to return after giving birth to her first child and could face Sharapova early on. Another player that could struggle is Caroline Wozniacki, who is off the back of winning her first slam in Australia. After finally ending her quest for that elusive first major, she may find it difficult to motivate herself in the same way. On the British side there is little hope of success, with the only realistic grand slam contender Johanna Konta being historically weak on clay. She will very much struggle to make it past the first week. While unpredictable, the women’s tournament promises to be open, exciting, and anyone’s to win.

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