The French Open is fast approaching and Pinnacle’s Brand Ambassador Mats Wilander has taken a look at the contenders and assessed their chances ahead of the second Grand Slam of the season. Read on for some expert insight from a former World No. 1 tennis player and multiple Grand Slam winner.
Before we take a look at the French Open contenders and think about picking the winner, there’s one important thing to remember when it comes to a tennis tournament. This isn’t golf; it’s not about one player being better than everyone else. It’s about the player who can beat the person across the net on the day.
What makes the French Open unique?
Every Grand Slam has something different about it that makes it harder to pick the winner than your regular tour event. In Australia we saw how the heat and hard court can impact performance and while the players are preparing for the second major event of the year, they’ll know it’s a completely different game on the clay court.
The playing conditions can change so much at the French Open, it can be hot and dry, cold and windy and there’s always the chance of some rain. If it’s cold and wet the play will be a lot slower as the ball will pick up some clay from the surface, get heavier, travel slower and spin less.
If it’s hot however, everything can change. The ball will travel faster, kick through off the surface and players can get a lot more spin on their shots. If you want to succeed in Paris, you need to be able to adapt. You have to be tactically aware of the conditions and who you are playing - you really can’t afford to be one dimensional.
Why do people think Nadal is guaranteed to win?
Rafael Nadal is the best player in the men’s draw for the 2018 French Open, no one can debate that. He’s probably the best clay court player there’s ever been (this is backed up by his surface-specific record of winning 50 straight sets).
After 26 straight wins on clay, it’s easy to see why people think Nadal is nailed on to win. Before blinding picking Nadal as the winner though, it’s important to understand why he’s so good on clay.
If it’s cold and wet the play will be a lot slower as the ball will pick up some clay from the surface, get heavier, travel slower and spin less.
There are three main reasons why Rafael Nadal and the French Open are a match made in heaven; his movement, his forehand and his mentality. Movement is one of Nadal’s key strengths and the ability to slide on clay dampens the impact on the hips and knees and reduces the risk of injury.
The surface itself also makes Nadal’s biggest weapon (his forehand) even harder to play against. The amount of topspin on the ball from the Spaniard’s forehand and the way it bounces off the clay makes it almost impossible to step into the court and take it early. This forces his opponents back a good three to four feet behind the baseline and gives him even more time to react to any return.
Finally, it’s his mentality. Not only does he have massive amounts of confidence going into any match on clay, but when it’s over five sets he knows he’s got an added advantage. I can speak from experience that five sets matches are so much better for you as a professional, it gives you time to get into your game, suss out your opponent and even if you’re behind after an hour, there’s plenty of time to turn it around and get back into the game.
A lot has been made of the fact that Nadal’s impressive run on clay came to an end in Madrid but that’s actually a positive for him. It might give his opponents some confidence in the fact that he can be beaten, but it will wake him up - he’s not playing for the record anymore and he certainly won’t get complacent.
It isn’t all about favourite
Okay, Rafael Nadal is the obvious favourite heading to Paris (and with good reason) but there’s a few guys competing who have a lot of things going for them and plenty of positives that could see them go far in the tournament.
The two standout contenders away from Nadal are the two that recently contested the Madrid Open final - Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. They are both still young and the lack of a Grand Slam won’t be a worry just yet, the potential is there and it’s just a case of putting it together and getting it right.
Zverev is only 21-years-old but he already has one of the best serves in the game. He is very mature in the way he approaches a match in terms of his tactics and is getting physically stronger as he grows.
Althgouh Zverev’s age and potential to develop is a major positive, it can also be seen as a weakness. Anyone looking to pick him as the winner of the French Open must be aware of the fact that he’s still lacking the explosiveness and endurance over five sets to consistently challenge the elite - he has it in him, but whether he can do it multiple times over during one event remains to be seen.
Dominic Thiem certainly has the attributes required to win a Grand Slam and I don’t think it will be long before we see that happen. His physicality is a big upside and the way he moves and strikes the ball can be a real joy to watch.
In contrast to Zverev, Thiem has struggled when it comes to tactics. Although the Austrian has been exposed by his inability to adapt during a match in the past, he took a big step forward and showed signs of maturity when he beat Nadal in the quarterfinals in Madrid.
Nadal’s big cross-court forehand is so hard to play when it comes in high to a one-hand backhand (most of the time, the only option is to keep it in play) but Thiem showed he had worked on how to handle it and implemented an impressive game plan - if he plays his best tennis and works on the tactics, he could go deep into the tournament in Paris.
Another two players who should be considered
Kyle Edmund and Novak Djokovic are at two very different points in their careers. The Brit has just broken into the top 20 players in the world for the first time in his career (currently 19th) while the Serbian (one place ahead of him in 18th) is currently experiencing a career crisis.
If you want to succeed in Paris, you need to be able to adapt. You have to be tactically aware of the conditions and who you are playing - you really can’t afford to be one dimensional.
It wasn’t that long ago that Djokovic was at his peak of tennis domination – he had won the career Grand Slam, held all four titles at the same time and had spent over 100 consecutive weeks as World No. 1 (his total of 223 weeks in top spot put him fourth on the all-time list). However, injury and changes to his backroom staff have seen Djokovic struggle since that win in Paris in 2016.
Everyone seems to be doubting whether Djokovic can ever return to the level of tennis he has shown he is capable of. While the results haven’t been there, anyone watching closely will be able to tell that Djokovic really is on his way back. He probably isn’t quite there yet but write him off at your peril.
While Djokovic has 12 Grand Slams to his name, Kyle Edmund is yet to experience what it’s like to play in a final of one of the four major tennis tournaments (his semi-final defeat in Australia earlier this year is a career-best effort). However, he is developing and improving at a rapid rate and it won’t be long before he surpasses those previous efforts.
A big plus for Edmund heading into the French Open is that he’s winning matches on clay. He’s got a huge forehand and a big serve, his performance in Australia shows he can perform in hot and fast conditions but he’s also got the ability to hit through the ball when it’s wet and heavy. Whether his tactical approach is intentional or natural is up for debate but he’s a fighter and could be the surprise package.
Another wide open Grand Slam for the women
Since she stepped off the court as the winner of the Australian Open in January of last year, Serena Williams left a void in the women’s game. The dominant force had disappeared and there was no one ready to fill the gap. Ostapenko, Murguruza, Stephens and Wozniacki have all picked up a Grand Slam title in Serena’s absence but no one has proven they can consistently perform at the big events.
This isn’t golf; it’s not about one player being better than everyone else. It’s about the player who can beat the person across the net on the day.
One of the reasons that we haven’t seen someone step up and win multiple titles in the women’s game is that everyone seems to favour a risky style of tennis nowadays. Of course, that means the players will have good days and bad days if the ability to play that way isn’t quite there – consistency is the key if you’re going to be the favourite to win a Grand Slam.
They’ll be a media storm following Serena around Paris and although she wouldn’t compete if she wasn’t physically and mentally ready, she’ll take some time to get back into her game. Obviously, she has the ability but the 2018 French Open could be another chance for a maiden Grand Slam winner.
The words maiden Grand Slam winner seem to have been following Simona Halep around for far too long now. You might think that falling at the final hurdle on multiple occasions (she’s lost in three Grand Slam finals to date) would be a concern when you’re playing but she’s still be taking encouragement from her performances.
Everyone might be putting pressure on her but Halep won’t put pressure on herself – she’s the model of consistency and definitely has a good chance of winning that elusive first Grand Slam. Caroline Wozniacki defeated Halep in Australia and might be a popular pick but clay is her worst surface. She lacks the power to play through when it’s slow and heavy and often needs to grind out a win, her style really isn’t suited to the French Open.