2015 French Open Burning Questions After the Early Rounds

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMay 30, 2015

2015 French Open Burning Questions After the Early Rounds

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    The first week of the French Open generates many of the tournament's storylines, as the field is reduced to 16 men and 16 women.  

    The possibilities have become apparent for the final eight days of the year's second Grand Slam event.

    The favorites, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, are still alive, leaving plenty of room for speculation and discussion.

    We consider nine burning questions that will be addressed in the second week.

Will Novak Djokovic End Nadal's Reign?

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    Thibault Camus/Associated Press

    The French Open is the only Grand Slam singles title Novak Djokovic has not claimed, and he has the best chance of his career to break through this year.

    He has dominated men's tennis over the first half of 2015, winning the Australian Open and holding the No. 1 ranking by a wide margin over No. 2-ranked Roger Federer. He rolled through the first three rounds of the French Open without the loss of a set and has won 25 consecutive matches this year heading into his fourth-round match against Richard Gasquet.

    However, it's not just Djokovic's play that makes him the favorite. Just as important is that Rafael Nadal is vulnerable. Nadal has won the last five French Opens and nine of the past 10. He has beaten Djokovic all six times they have met at Roland Garros, including both times Djokovic reached the finals, in 2012 and 2014. There's no telling how many French Open titles Djokovic could already own were it not for the presence of Nadal.

    They could meet for the seventh time at Roland Garros in this year's quarterfinals. This time, Djokovic should be favored. Not only has Djokovic played better tennis than Nadal over the first five months of 2015, but he beat Nadal rather decisively, 6-3, 6-3, in their only meeting this year on the clay at Monte Carlo.

    Beating Nadal in the tournament the Spaniard has owned for the past decade remains a major physical and psychological challenge for Djokovic. 

    Another concern for Djokovic is the strained groin he sustained in his second-round match. That is the type of injury that can linger and re-emerge as a problem. The injury seemed to give him no trouble in his third-round victory over Thanasi Kokkinakis, which is a good sign. For Djokovic to break the Nadal jinx, he needs to be healthy.

What Happened to the Presumed Rise of Bouchard and Halep?

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    Francois Mori/Associated Press

    The express train carrying Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep to the top of women's tennis stalled at the French Open. Now the question is whether they can restart the engine.

    Bouchard's most impressive results have come in Grand Slam events. She reached at least the semifinals in three of the four majors in 2014, including a berth in the Wimbledon finals, and she got to the quarterfinals at the 2015 Australian Open.

    Her ranking rose from No. 31 at the start of 2014 to a career high of No. 5 before the year was over. In August, her picture was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with an article inside titled "Eugenie Bouchard Could Be Tennis's Next Big Shot."

    It had been a steady climb for the 21-year-old Canadian until she was beaten by 44th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets in the first round at Roland Garros this week. Bouchard came into the tournament with the highest seed she ever had at a Grand Slam event (No. 6), but she left with the earliest exit of her career in the main draw of a major. Her reputation as a big-event standout was bruised as well.

    Halep did not fare much better. A finalist at the French Open last year, Halep rose as high as No. 2 in the rankings and seemed primed to capture her first Grand Slam title. But she failed to reach the finals in any of the next three Grand Slam events before her disappointing second-round departure at this year's French Open.

    The third-seeded Halep lost 7-5, 6-1 to 70th-ranked Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, the same player who had ousted Halep in last year's U.S. Open.

    Since pushing Maria Sharapova to three sets in the 2014 French Open title match, the 23-year-old Halep has had a habit of fading in Grand Slam tournament matches. Her defeats in the last four majors have all been in straight sets, and the second-set scores were 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 and 6-1.

    Last July, Melissa Isaacson of ESPNW.com wrote, "In Bouchard and Halep...fans will get a glimpse into the future of women's tennis with two of the brightest young stars in the game."

    The French Open results interrupted their rise as they deal with the pressure of increased expectations. The question now is whether Bouchard and Halep can rebound from their setbacks and get back on the track to stardom.

Is This France's Year in Men's Singles?

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    David Vincent/Associated Press

    The French fans are hungry for a men's champion in their Grand Slam tournament, and they have plenty of players to support in the second week of the French Open.

    A Frenchman has not reached the finals at Roland Garros since Henri Leconte did in 1988. Yannick Noah, who won the French Open title in 1983, is the only Frenchman since 1946 to win the event.

    However, five of the 16 players still alive in the men's draw this year are French. No other country has more than two representatives in the fourth round.

    None of the five Frenchmen can be considered a fluke, and at least one is likely to reach the semifinals. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet are all seeded, and unseeded Jeremy Chardy knocked off 16th-seeded John Isner in the second round on his way to the final 16.

    All five have reached the fourth round of the French Open at least once before, so this is not unfamiliar territory. Tsonga and Monfils have gone as far as the semifinals, with Tsonga getting to the final four in 2013 and Monfils doing it in 2008. Those two have the best chance to reach the finals, primarily because they are on Roger Federer's half of the draw, away from Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

    The most intriguing of the five Frenchmen is Monfils, an unpredictable player who plays his best tennis at Roland Garros. He has reached the French Open quarterfinal four times, losing to Andy Murray in five sets in last year's quarterfinals.

    His fourth-round opponent is Federer, who has eliminated Monfils from the French Open three of the past six years. However, Monfils beat Federer in straight sets on clay in Monte Carlo this year.

    Alize Cornet is carrying the French flag on the women's side, but it has been a mere 10 years since a French woman reached the finals at Roland Garros. Mary Pierce was a finalist in 2005 and won it in 2000.

    The French emphasis this time is on the men's side.

Does Maria Sharapova Have What It Takes to Break the Serena Williams Jinx?

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    David Vincent/Associated Press

    The cold that slowed Maria Sharapova during the first week of the French Open is not her biggest concern. She is plagued by a larger malady that could go by the name of Serena-itis.

    Sharapova has a lot of work to do to get to the finals, but her performance so far suggests she should be favored to do so. Despite needing a long-sleeved shirt and tissues to combat her chills and sniffles, the second-seeded Sharapova easily won her three matches during the first week. The second-round loss by No. 3-ranked Halep, last year's French Open runner-up, helped clear Sharapova's path to the finals.

    To win a second straight French Open, though, Sharapova may require help on the other side of the draw. She needs Serena Williams to be taken out by someone else. If the top-ranked Serena makes it to the finals to oppose Sharapova, the Russian will face a major psychological barrier. 

    Serena has won 16 consecutive matches against Sharapova, dating back to 2004. The American is 4-0 against Sharapova on clay and beat her in the finals of the 2013 French Open 6-4, 6-4. Serena also eliminated Sharapova from this year's Australian Open.

    Serena has been able to overpower Sharapova, using her big serve to keep the Russian on the defensive.

    Sharapova is ranked No. 2 in the world, has five Grand Slam singles titles to her credit and is playing good tennis at the moment. The law of averages suggests she could beat Serena at some point, but does she have the mental strength to overcome 11 years of failures against her biggest foe?

Can Roger Federer Get His First Grand Slam Title Since 2012?

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    Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

    Roger Federer played impressive tennis through the first week of the French Open, and that combined with his favorable draw suggests he has a chance to get to the finals of a Grand Slam event for just the second time in his last 11 majors.

    With either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal likely to be waiting in the finals, the odds are against the 33-year-old Federer winning a major title on his worst surface at this stage of his career. But things are lining up nicely for Federer, at least giving him hope that he can claim his first Grand Slam singles crown since Wimbledon in 2012.

    For one thing, his ranking is up to No. 2, which speaks to his improved play this year. Second, he had good performances in the clay-court events leading up to the French Open. Third, Djokovic and Nadal are in the other half of the draw, giving Federer an easier path to the finals. Furthermore, Federer's nemesis, Nadal, who has won the last nine matches against Federer on clay, is not in top form. Finally, three straight-set victories in the first week at Roland Garros indicate Federer is playing sound clay-court tennis.

    The immediate concern is mercurial Gael Monfils, Federer's fourth-round opponent. Monfils beat Federer in straight sets on clay at Monte Carlo in April, and the Frenchman typically plays his best tennis at the French Open. Monfils was down 2-1 in sets in both his second- and third-round matches and survived both.

    If Federer gets past Monfils, he could have two of Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga remaining in his path to the finals. All would pose a challenge, but all are players Federer can beat, even on clay.

    Federer has won just one of his last 20 Grand Slam events, and his chances for an 18th Grand Slam title diminish each year. A lot of things have to fall into place for him to win a second French Open. But that's what happened in 2009, when Federer did not have to beat anyone ranked in the top four to claim his one and only French Open crown.

Is Sloane Stephens Having a Resurgence?

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Seventeen American women participated in the French Open singles event, but only two are still around for the second week.

    One is Serena Williams, the No. 1 player in the world. The other, surprisingly, is Sloane Stephens, who will face Serena in the fourth round.

    Stephens was once considered the future of American women's tennis. She gained worldwide attention when she beat Serena while reaching the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open. Her ranking rose to No. 11 in October 2013, and she seemed to be on the verge of greatness at the age of 20.

    It has been a downward spiral ever since. In her last three Grand Slam events before the 2015 French Open, Stephens lost in the first round twice and the second round once. Her ranking slipped to No. 45 earlier this year, and she is currently ranked No. 40, a long way from the top-10 ranking that seemed imminent two years ago. 

    Madison Keys replaced Stephens as the top American hope for the future, but the 16th-seeded Keys lost in the third round to Timea Bacsinszky, while Stephens stayed alive.

    Stephens made her presence felt immediately by knocking off 15th-seeded Venus Williams in straight sets in the first round. She then took care of two top-50 players, Heather Watson and Tsvetana Pironkova, without the loss of a set.

    Stephens' revival may have been aided by hiring Nick Saviano as her coach last December. He has focused on getting her to enjoy the game again.

    "I feel really good about my tennis, and I feel really good about the place that I'm in. I'm happy,'' the 22-year-old Stephens said, according to ESPNW.com, after her victory over Venus.

    Before declaring that Stephens is on the rise again, it should be noted that Stephens got to the fourth round in each of the past three French Opens as well. She failed to get to the quarterfinals in any of them.

    Whether she is ready to take another step in her resurgence will be determined in the fourth-round match against Serena.

Is Jack Sock the Next American Hope?

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    We will know quickly whether Jack Sock is ready to contend for the French Open title this year.

    The 22-year-old American was outstanding in the first week, but his fourth-round match will be against Rafael Nadal. Few expect Sock to beat the nine-time French Open champ, but if he can hold his own, perhaps take a set, there would be reason to believe Sock could challenge for a French Open crown in the future.

    If Sock beats Nadal, who has not been in top form this year, America's hopes for its first men's French Open champion since 1999 would grow considerably. Beating Nadal would not clear Sock's path to the finals, since No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic would likely be waiting in the quarterfinals. However, it would make him the first American since Andre Agassi in 2003 to reach the French Open quarterfinals.

    This will be Sock's first career match against Nadal. Sock beat his first three opponents with the loss of just one set, and he was particularly impressive in two of the matches: a straight-set upset win over No. 10 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the first round and a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, third-round victory over promising 18-year-old Borna Coric.

    Sock, who is ranked No. 37, has the groundstrokes to make an impact on clay. The New York Times reported that Sock's forehand was clocked earlier this year at an average speed of 77 miles per hour, the same as Nadal’s and two mph faster than Roger Federer’s. He puts nearly as much spin on his forehand (measured in revolutions per minutes) as Nadal as well.

    “Jack is the only person who is in Rafa’s league as far as the combination of speed and rpm's on the forehand side,” two-time French Open champion Jim Courier told the New York Times.

    Sock's berth in the round of 16 of this year's French Open comes as a surprise. He lost in the first round of his final two clay-court events before the French Open, although he did win a clay-court tournament in Houston in April, beating two top-20 players along the way—Kevin Anderson and Roberto Bautista Agut.

    Sock got to the third round at Roland Garros last year and won one match in the main draw in 2013. This is different, however. A win over Nadal could make him an instant celebrity in the United States.

Will Serena Williams Get Her 20th Grand Slam Title This Week?

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    Thibault Camus/Associated Press

    The French Open has been feast or famine for Serena. She won the event for the second time in 2013, but she was an early upset victim in 2012 and 2014.

    She struggled a bit in her second-round match this year, dropping a set before beating 102nd-ranked Anna-Lena Friedsam, an outcome that made Serena look vulnerable. Serena again dropped the first set in her third-round match against Victoria Azarenka, but she showed her toughness in beating the 27th-ranked Azarenka, who is starting to resemble the elite player she was two years ago before suffering a series of injuries.

    Serena remains the favorite to take this year's French Open, which would accomplish three things of note.

    It would give Serena her second major title of the year and keep her on course to complete a single-year Grand Slam.

    It would be her 20th career Grand Slam singles title, breaking a tie with Helen Wills Moody for the third most in history, leaving her two behind Steffi Graf and four back of Margaret Court.

    Finally, the French Open women's finals will be played on Saturday, June 6, and if Serena wins the crown that day, she would become the second-oldest woman to win a major title, at 33 years, 253 days. Martina Navratilova was just nine days older, at 33 years, 262 days, when she won the 1990 Wimbledon title.

    A third French Open title would initiate further discussion about Serena's place in tennis history and how much longer she can dominate the game.

Is Rafael Nadal Playing Well Enough to Win a 10th French Open Crown?

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    Rafael Nadal is not the player he was while winning his previous nine French Open crowns.

    A series of injuries and resulting layoffs have taken their toll, dropping his ranking to No. 7, his lowest ranking in more than 10 years. He reached the finals in only two of the 10 tournaments he has played in 2015, and his only title came in a relatively minor clay-court event in Argentina where he did not beat anyone ranked in the top 50. Nadal has not advanced past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event since winning the 2014 French Open.

    His recent results suggest he has no chance at Roland Garros this time. But this is the French Open, where Nadal is king. He raises his game at Roland Garros, and he seems to have a psychological edge on every opponent who challenges him there.

    Nadal has not lost a match on Roland Garros' red clay since 2009, winning 38 consecutive matches since. He has a lifetime 69-1 record at the French Open, and his three victories this week suggest his confidence is rising.

    He blew by his first three opponents without the loss of a set, dropping no more than 10 games in any match. No player was as dominant as Nadal in the first week of the French Open, although it should be noted that none of his three victims is ranked among the top 100. 

    Nadal's dominance at Roland Garros will have its biggest challenge if he should get past Jack Sock and face Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic has won five of his past six matches against Nadal, including a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Nadal in their only clay-court meeting in 2015. But Nadal is 6-0 against Djokovic at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard has the magic touch.

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