Yes, the French Open is more than three months away, but with the excitement of the Australian Open still fresh in our minds we can’t help but take what we now know and forecast what to expect at Roland Garros in May.
The French Open is an entirely foreign animal to the Australian, requiring a different style of play and patience for long, grueling matches. Its thick, red clay can pound the body, sap power and test the mental resolve of even the game’s toughest players.
We know defending champions Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will be the favorites in the men’s and women’s draws respectively. We also have a pretty good idea as to who their biggest challengers will be when the second Slam of the year gets underway.
There are, however, other storylines and developments to keep an eye on. Will things get better for American men’s tennis (not likely)? Will slumping stars regain their form and challenge in Paris? Are more surprises of the likes we saw in Melbourne coming our way?
The bad news is we have a long wait ahead of us to enjoy what lies ahead on the red clay. The good news is it will get here before we know it.
Here are way-too-soon-to-be-guaranteed predictions for the 2014 French Open.
These are indeed dreary days for U.S. men’s tennis, and things aren't going to be getting any brighter at Roland Garros this May. Not only will an American fail to advance into the second week of the 2014 French Open, it's more than likely there won’t be one to make it as far as the third round.
The top three red, white and blue threats—John Isner, Sam Querrey and Donald Young—were all non-factors at the Australian Open either due to injury or early exits, and not one of them has many clay court accomplishments to foster positivity in Paris later this year.
The red clay calamity isn't a new phenomenon either. An American hasn't won the French Open since Andre Agassi did it way back in 1999, and only two others—Michael Chang and Jim Courier (twice)—have done it since 1989.
It hasn't been any better for the Yanks in Slams overall, as the last American to win one of tennis’ biggest prizes was Andy Roddick more than a decade ago at the 2003 U.S. Open.
It’s enough to make one wonder what in the world of John McEnroe and Pete Sampras has been going on with U.S. tennis over the past decade-plus.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have staged some terrific Grand Slam battles over the past several years, yet it’s hard to imagine a more memorable one than their semifinal tussle in the 2013 French Open semifinals. The match was a five-set heavyweight battle captured by Nadal 9-7 in the fifth.
Given their solid form in Melbourne and recent history of meeting in Grand Slams, we can expect to see a rematch of last year’s epic in the finals of this year’s French Open.
Nadal has won eight titles at Roland Garros and is the greatest clay court player of any generation. Likewise, Djokovic has a game that travels to any surface, and it’s fair to say he should have won that four-hour-plus semifinal battle last year.
That’s water under the bridge, but the thought of getting a rematch between the two at Roland Garros after they failed to meet each other at the Australian Open as expected is something worthy of looking forward to.
Sloane Stephens is struggling through a purgatory of sorts in women’s Grand Slam tennis that isn't likely to end at the French Open.
Albeit the clear heir apparent to Serena Williams as the face of American women’s tennis, Stephens has failed to claim that elusive WTA victory, and continues to receive Grand Slam seeds in the mid- to low teens.
As a result, the American consistently finds herself directly in the fourth-round or quarterfinal cross-hairs of the game’s top players, and with little success to show from it.
Case in point; at the 2013 French Open Stephens lost in the fourth round to second-seed Maria Sharapova, and at the U.S. Open later that year she fell in the same round to top-seed Serena Williams. At this year’s Australian Open, the American was also taken out in the round of 32 by No. 2 Victoria Azarenka as the 13th seed.
While there’s no shame in losing to those players, it must be getting old for Stephens to see the majority of her Grand Slam runs end at the beginning of the second week.
Unless she can finally break through with a WTA victory that will greatly boost her world ranking, she will once again find herself needing to beat two or even three of the game’s elite just to reach her first Slam final.
The Australian Open wasn't just hot, it was crazy hot. Temperatures soared as high as 110 degrees during the first four days of competition, causing some of the game’s top players to wilt and others to openly question whether they should have been on the court in the first place.
While it will be warm in Paris this May, the top men and women players won’t face anything close to the sweltering conditions they did in Melbourne.
The average high temperature in Paris during May rests just under 70 degrees, which should help the stamina of the game’s top seeds, who seemed worn and weathered in the second week at the Australian.
That’s not to say the conditions will be cozy at Roland Garros, because it’s never an easy place to play. Given the nature of clay court tennis, long, gritty and grueling matches are far more the norm at the French Open.
Given that, the man and woman who ultimately make it through the draw unscathed will have earned it just as much as Li Na and Stanislas Wawrinka did Down Under.
They just won’t have applied nearly as much sun screen or ice-packed towels along the way.
In an effort to improve his overall game and make a significant jump in the rankings, Kei Nishikori added former French Open champion Michael Chang to his coaching team late last year, and the positive returns on that decision have already become evident.
Nishikori defeated Tomas Berdych to win the Kooyong Classic in early January, and then looked sharp during his run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, where he gave Nadal everything he wanted in a tight three-set battle.
Now with three months to prepare under Chang’s guidance, Roland Garros could very well be the same launching pad for Nishikori that it was for his new coach back in 1989. The 17-year-old American defeated then-world-No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the fourth round of that championship, and went on to become the youngest Grand Slam champion ever when he ousted Stefan Edberg in the finals.
Now the tutor, Chang certainly has a lot to work with in the 24-year-old Asian star. The No. 17th-ranked player reached the fourth round of last year’s French Open before running into Nadal, and has the type of all-court game and terrific fitness that can thrive on the red clay given the right strategy and preparation supporting him.
With Chang on board, Nishikori now has that guidance, and it may very well translate into the late second-week run so many have been expecting from him for the past couple years.
The second week at the Australian Open was littered with talented young woman looking to win their first Grand Slam title, and that youth movement will continue at the French Open.
For the second time in the past three Slams, Agnieszka Radwanska reached the semifinals only to fall short of her second-ever finals appearance. Likewise, feisty and powerful young stars like Eugenie Bouchard and Australian runner-up Dominika Cibulkova made significant impressions Down Under.
Given their strong court coverage and power from both sides, those players, along with the likes of Stephens, will continue to put pressure on the elite players led by Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, none of whom made it out of the quarterfinals in Australia.
The rise of this young, engaging talent is a great sign for the future of women’s tennis, and it will once again be front and center at Roland Garros.
The last thing Sharapova needed at the Australian Open was an early exit, yet that’s exactly what she got. And considering how things have gone for the Russian since her last appearance at the French Open, it’s hard to imagine her duplicating that effort at Roland Garros this summer.
Injuries, outside distractions and overall inconsistent play have certainly taken their toll on Sharapova, who lost in the second round of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, withdrew from the U.S. Open and then was bounced in the fourth round by Cibulkova last week in Melbourne.
Those performances significantly belie her No. 3 ranking before the Australian Open began, and considering the high quality of emerging talent behind her, something has to change for a deep run to materialize at this year’s French Open.
Sharapova did reach the finals last year before being blitzed by Serena, so we’re not ruling it out, but her play since that showing leaves us reason to harbor serious doubts.
Serena Williams’ victory in the 2013 French Open was just the second of her brilliant career on the red clay of Roland Garros, which hasn't exactly been kind to the world No. 1 throughout her career.
Given that the struggles have far outweighed the conquests at the French Open, and her surprisingly early exit in Melbourne a week ago, it’s not a stretch to suggest Williams could fall short in Paris come May.
Serena’s power, which dwarfs that of just about every competitor she faces, is somewhat neutralized by the slow clay surface at the French Open.
That allows lesser-ranked players that are more comfortable on the surface to prolong matches with the sport’s top star. In the past, that has at times worn Serena down and made her vulnerable to upsets as the tournament wore on.
It will still take a monumental effort to topple her, but considering her French Open record and the great talent she’ll face, it wouldn't be a complete surprise to see Serena bow out before the finals for the third time in the past four Slams.
The Australian Open didn't end the way Radwanska would have liked, but the strong form that carried her to the semifinals in Melbourne serves notice that she's a significant threat to win a first career Slam title in Paris.
While she has at times struggled with the mental side of the game, Radwanska has all the tools to compete at the French Open. She possesses the power to pound from the baseline but also an all-court game suited to mixing things up when needed.
Furthermore, the confidence the Pole gained by beating rival and two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals will serve her well when she faces the elite in the final rounds at Roland Garros in May.
Radwanska advanced to the quarterfinals of last year’s French Open before falling to Sara Errani, and claimed three of her 13 WTA titles in 2013. That pedigree shows the physical prowess to win the French Open, now Radwanska needs to prove she has the mental makeup to finally seal the deal.
Okay, so it’s not exactly the boldest of predictions, but it would be downright foolish to go against the king of clay winning yet again in the house he has owned eight times before, regardless of his finals loss in Melbourne.
As previously predicted, Djokovic will shake off his own Australian defeat to Wawrinka and battle his way into the finals where Nadal will be waiting, a little more rested due to his efficiency on clay. The two will battle just as fiercely as they did in last year’s semifinal, but also like last year, Nadal will prevail.
With the victory, Rafa will continue his push up the career Grand Slam rankings, getting to within just three of Roger Federer’s best-ever 17 major titles. In the process he’ll also break one of his own records as the only man to win the same Grand Slam nine times over.
Health concerns and a monumental upset could certainly derail what we believe to be the inevitable, but it’s far more likely that the 2014 French Open once again becomes a coronation for its greatest-ever ruler.