I strongly disagree with that notion. To me, Djokovic remains the clear and perhaps overwhelming favorite to capture the only major crown he has not yet garnered. He has secured four of the last five majors since the start of 2015, and five of the last seven Grand Slam championships dating back to Wimbledon in 2014. He has won five of the eight events he has played in 2016, including the Australian Open and three Masters 1000 titles. His status as the greatest player in the game of tennis remains unassailable. Moreover, the hard work Djokovic put in across the last two weeks in winning Madrid and reaching the Rome final will serve him exceedingly well over the fortnight in Paris; that kind of intense preparation will have considerable value for a man who is on an overriding mission to fill out his resume, raise his historical standing and realize a lofty ambition.
Let me add to my case: this will be Djokovic’s twelfth appearance at the clay court capital of tennis. He has been in three of the last four finals. He won the first set in the 2014 and 2015 finals against Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka. Moreover, Djokovic has advanced to four other semifinals at Roland Garros, losing thrice to the redoubtable clay court wizard Nadal and once to a fellow named Federer. When he lost in the penultimate round to Federer five years ago, he approached that memorable four set contest with a 41-0 match record for the season. Meanwhile, when he lost to Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set of an epic semifinal encounter three years ago, he would have collided with David Ferrer in the title round. That was a golden opportunity lost.
So I believe Djokovic is overdue to succeed at Roland Garros, and will at long last be triumphant this time around. But who will be the victor among the women? Which female competitor is in the best position to record seven match victories over the long fortnight and thus establish herself as the champion?
My answer to those questions would have been different as recently as a week ago. Serena Williams had played three tournaments all year long before arriving in Rome and reimposing her game on all of her rivals. She had lost a hard fought, three set final to Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open before suffering a straight set defeat against Victoria Azarenka at Indian Wells. In the round of 16 at Miami, she wilted in the heat and was ushered out of the tournament by Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The 34-year-old American was out of commission until Rome, and was seemingly not well prepared for that prestigious clay court event. But Serena elevated her game decidedly over the course of last week. She captured her 70th career title and her fourth championship in Rome with a 7-6 (5),6-3 victory over Madison Keys. That was a timely triumph for Williams, who was not in vintage form, yet did not concede a set in five matches on the Italian dirt. I don’t make her as big a favorite as Djokovic in Paris, but who else but this ferociously determined American is worthy of being considered the woman to beat?
Over the course of the last couple of years, Williams has made immense strides as a clay court player. In her first eleven French Open appearances, she was victorious only once, ousting her sister Venus in the 2002 final. But, in her last three visits to Roland Garros, Serena has been the champion twice, including her admirable run a year ago when she collected five of her seven wins in three sets, claiming her third title in the process. She could well struggle again inordinately this year—especially in the early rounds—but to me she seems like the best bet to translate high motivation into supreme fulfillment.
Williams, of course, is hoping to tie Steffi Graf for second place on the all-time women’s list with 22 major championships. A year ago, she was ever so close to establishing herself as only the fourth woman ever to win the Grand Slam. In the semifinals of the U.S. Open, she led Roberta Vinci 2-0, 40-30 in the third set of their semifinal. Flavia Pennetta was already in the final. Had Williams managed to stop Vinci, she almost surely would have toppled Pennetta. In Melbourne this year, she had a game point to make it back to 5-5 in the third set of her title round contest against Kerber before losing. Had she gone to 5-5, I believe Williams would have won that title. Now, she heads back to Paris to defend her crown, and, even with her sparse appearances in 2016, she will be awfully tough to dethrone.
One of the primary reasons Williams stands such a good chance in Paris is the unreliability of her opposition. For instance, look at Kerber. After Melbourne, she understandably had trouble coming to terms with her newfound fame, with bearing the responsibility of being a major champion. She had some injuries, a few inner doubts and a number of hard losses. Then she won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart for the second year in a row on the clay. But she fell in the first round of Madrid to Barbora Strycova, and in Rome she was upended in the second round (after a first round bye) by Eugenie Bouchard. The left-handed Kerber’s industriousness and ingenuity make her a superb clay court player at her best, but her results have been alarmingly irregular.
Let’s examine some of the other leading players. Garbine Muguruza—so dynamic in reaching the Wimbledon final last year—made it to the semifinals in Rome last week before losing to Keys. Her game transitions well to any surface. But, in Madrid, she was ousted in the second round by the increasingly formidable Irina-Camelia Begu, who went to the quarterfinals of that tournament and advanced to the semifinals of Rome before losing to Serena. Ever since Wimbledon, Muguruza’s form has been largely unpredictable.
Azarenka was soaring after securing back to back hard court titles at Indian Wells and Miami this spring. She may soon make a strong bid to rise again to No. 1 in the world, where she resided deservedly at the end of 2012. But the enterprising Azarenka—a match player of the highest order and a tremendously resilient competitor—has been disappointing on clay this spring and hindered by back injuries. In Rome, Begu easily dismissed her 6-3, 6-2 in the second round. The week before in Madrid, Azarenka withdrew in the round of 16 with a back ailment.
In my view, that leaves only one more serious contender for the women’s title at Roland Garros: the enigmatic Simona Halep. The sometimes tenacious but often emotionally fragile Halep was inexplicably ousted in the second round of Rome by Daria Gavrilova. But the fact remains that she won Madrid, dropping only one set in six matches. Halep lost narrowly in the final of Roland Garros to Maria Sharapova two years ago. She could be the champion this year under ideal circumstances; conversely, it would not surprise me if she lost in the second round.
How does the chase for the men’s title shape up beyond Djokovic? The way I see it, Nadal must be viewed as the clearcut No. 2 candidate behind Djokovic. This inimitable southpaw has lost only twice in eleven outings at Roland Garros—to an other-worldly Robin Sodering in the round of 16 seven years ago, and to Djokovic in the quarterfinals a year ago. In 2015, Nadal had a distressing clay court season, and never genuinely believed he would win the tournament.
This year is decidedly different. After a poor start to the 2016 season, including a first round, five set loss to Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open, Nadal raised his game appreciably on the red clay en route to Roland Garros. He was victorious in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, claiming both championships for the ninth time. Having halted Andy Murray in the semifinals of Monte Carlo, Nadal lost to the British competitor in the semifinals of Madrid.
On went the Spaniard to Rome, where he took on Djokovic in a stirring and spellbinding quarterfinal. This was the best two set match I have seen in many a year, and the finest showing for Nadal against the world No. 1 since he defeated Djokovic in the 2014 Roland Garros final. Nadal looked more comfortable in the baseline rallies against the Serbian than has been the case for ages. His depth off the forehand was magnificent. His pace and angles going crosscourt off the backhand were commendable. And he mixed up his serve shrewdly, going frequently to the Djokovic forehand in the deuce court, often serving into the body in both the deuce and ad courts, always keeping his adversary guessing about his intentions.
With Djokovic out of sorts early, Nadal built a 4-2 lead,and reached 0-30 on his opponent’s serve in the seventh game. Djokovic held on his sixth game point after five deuces. Nadal then rallied from 0-40 to game point at 4-3, only to be stifled by a brilliant forehand inside out return winner off a body serve by the quick-reacting Djokovic, who subsequently broke back for 4-4. With Nadal serving at 5-6, the two gladiators put on another spectacular display. There were four deuces in that game. Nadal erased three set points against him. But, on the fourth opportunity for Djokovic, the favorite sealed the set with remarkable speed, athleticism, defense and well-channeled intensity. After scampering forward to reach a drop volley from Nadal, Djokovic went down the line. Nadal punched a backhand volley crosscourt, but the acrobatic Serbian lunged to his right to punch a high forehand volley down the line into the open court, exulting as he absorbed the excitement of the crowd.
But Nadal was competing with both pride and equanimity, and was undismayed by losing a set he might well have won. He broke Djokovic in the opening game of the second set as the top seed threw his racket in disgust. That break mattered greatly. Nadal kept holding all the way until he served for the set at 5-4. In that pulsating tenth game, the Spaniard had no less than five set points. He pressed on the first one, driving a forehand down the line wide after Djokovic made an arduous return off a body serve. Nadal, perhaps unsettled by some extraordinary defense from Djokovic, netted a forehand drop shot on the second set point. Djokovic wiped away the third set point for Nadal with a brave overhead winner, but Nadal surprisingly netted a backhand slice off a let-cord shot from Djokovic on set point No. 4. On his last set point, Nadal was coaxed into an error by a penetrating backhand down the line from Djokovic.
Djokovic surged back improbably to 5-5. Soon they moved into a tie-break. With Djokovic serving at 4-3, he lofted a lob over Nadal’s backhand side. Nadal retreated well, but was slightly off balance and missed the difficult smash. Despite losing that critical point, Nadal took the next one and served at 4-5. But Djokovic was unwavering. He laced a forehand up the line with accelerated pace, drawing an error off the forehand from Nadal. Now down double match point at 4-6, Nadal could stay with his renowned adversary no longer. Djokovic pulled the Spaniard wide to the backhand, opening up the court for a backhand winner.
Djokovic had displayed extraordinary poise and perspicacity in raising his career record to 26-23 over Nadal, upending his magnificent rival for the seventh consecutive time. But Nadal will take something substantial away from this defeat. He knew how sternly he had competed and how skillfully he had executed his game-plan. Djokovic beat him predominantly with defense, but Nadal was persistent about trying to dictate. It was a splendidly played match on both sides of the net from the moment Djokovic dug in at 2-4, 0-30 in that first set.
Every bit as remarkable—and perhaps even more so—was the Djokovic-Kei Nishikori semifinal in Rome. The 2014 U.S. Open finalist came out of the gates forcefully and unswervingly, taking the first set 6-2 as Djokovic seemed distracted after inadvertently banging his racket near his ankle and bruising himself. He needed to take a medical timeout to have the bruise addressed. But Djokovic gradually got his bearings and took the second set 6-4. He moved to 4-1 in the final set, and had two break points in the sixth game that would have dealt a devastating blow to Nishikori.
But Djokovic perhaps became over confident, while Nishikori, one of the game’s most sterling shotmakers, came alive again. He made it back to 4-4. With Djokovic serving in the pivotal ninth game, Nishikori had a 15-30 lead. He took control of the next point, forcing Djokovic to play a lunging, one handed backhand slice. Nishikori came forward behind an excellent low slice approach down the line, but Djokovic was not found wanting. He kept his forehand passing shot very low, forcing Nishikori into a forehand volley error.
Djokovic held on for 5-4 and had a match point in the tenth game, but Nishikori saved it with astonishing grace under pressure. Djokovic made one of his patented low backhand returns crosscourt off a wide serve, but the Japanese player moved forward calmly and drove an inside out forehand into the clear for a glorious, outright winner. He held on for 5-5. At 6-6, they fittingly settled it all in a tiebreak. Nishikori led 3-1, but Djokovic connected beautifully with an inside in forehand winner. He drew level at 3-3 when Nishikori drove a two-hander long crosscourt, and then moved ahead 4-3 on a Nishikori double fault.
Two more costly mistakes from Nishikori lifted Djokovic to 6-3 and triple match point. Nishikori directed a dazzling forehand winner down the line and profited from an inside out forehand mistake from Djokovic. It was 6-5 for the top seed, who promptly concluded the gripping battle with a perfectly placed serve down the T eliciting a netted forehand return on the stretch from the world No. 6.
Djokovic had survived another excruciatingly close skirmish 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), winning 112 points while Nishikori took 111. It was a jarring setback for Nishikori, but the fact remains that the 26-year-old has set himself up to be an outside threat to win Roland Garros. His recent results have been rock solid. He made it to the final of the Masters 1000 event on hard courts in Miami before losing to Djokovic, got to the final of Barcelona and played honorably in defeat against Nadal, made it to the penultimate round of Madrid where he lost to Djokovic again, and then suffered the agonizing loss to Djokovic in the semifinals of Rome.
There will be others who could play prominent roles in Paris. Nick Kyrgios is not ready to win the tournament, but he looked terrific again in Rome, upending Milos Raonic before losing in three hard sets to Nadal. Alexander Zverev has been on the cusp of prodigious achievements all year long. He could spring a surprise at Roland Garros.
Dominic Thiem played abysmally in a quarterfinal loss to Nishikori in Rome, but the Austrian could land in the semifinals if the draw is kind and he finds his range. He is an excellent clay court player.
And can we possibly leave out 2009 champion Roger Federer, who has been the runner-up four other times, most recently in 2011? Federer presumably would be particularly vulnerable this year. Knee surgery after the Australian Open kept him out of circulation until Miami, when he got sick and withdrew. He returned in Monte Carlo, losing in the quarters to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Trouble followed. A bad back forced Federer out of Madrid. He played in Rome but looked ill at ease. After defeating Zverev, he lost in straight sets to Thiem and seemed unable to extend properly on his serve. Perhaps his back will improve remarkably by the start of Roland Garros, and he always seems inspired on that stage. But making a run past the quarterfinals would be an impressive and unlikely feat for the 34-year-old under his current circumstances. Federer can’t be counted out, but he has a tall task ahead this time around. Meanwhile, defending champion Stan Wawrinka will be hard pressed to go deep into the tournament. Kyrgios stopped him in Madrid and veteran clay-courter Juan Monaco defeated the Swiss in the round of 16 of Rome. He has had a highly disappointing 2016 season thus far.
In the end, I believe unequivocally that this tournament for the men comes down to three frontline players, and no one else. Djokovic looks to make history by joining the career Grand Slam club. He will be singularly driven to win a tournament he badly wants in his collection. Nadal is searching for title No. 10, and he has maintained a high standard all across his clay court campaign.
That leaves Andy Murray, and he is clearly the third strongest candidate to succeed in Paris. Murray had a very impressive clay court season. He was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo, and nearly beat Nadal there. He made it to the final of Madrid, eclipsing Nadal before losing a spirited three set final to Djokovic. And then he won Rome on Sunday, celebrating his 29th birthday with a 12th Masters 1000 title triumph, defeating Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 with a polished performance against a weary adversary who had won 12 of their previous 13 meetings. Murray never lost his serve in his duel with Djokovic in Rome. His ground game and tactical acuity were first rate in every way. He captured his first singles title on the ATP World Tour since he recorded his last tournament win over Djokovic in the final of Montreal last summer. That was a long wait for a player of his stature.
Murray has progressed markedly on clay over the last two years. He has worked diligently on his serve over the course of this season. His first serve has more variety and is harder to read than ever, and his second serve is no longer a sitting duck. He should make it at least to the semifinals, and perhaps the final of Roland Garros. But, in the end, the odds are stacked against him in best of five appointments against either Nadal or Djokovic, especially on the red clay.
The view here is that Novak Djokovic is going to win this tennis tournament with single-minded devotion, exemplary court craft, deep concentration and the best ground strokes in the game. He will demonstrate once more that there is no better match player in his trade. Although I am not quite as confident in projecting Serena Williams to win the women’s title, I still believe that she will be ready, willing and able to respond to any challenge.