By John Huston
THEY’RE NO. 1: Novak Djokovic is aiming to fill the one blank on his Grand Slam resume at Roland-Garros. Not that the world No. 1 needs it, but his draw is kind. Actually, perhaps he does need it – last year he peaked against Rafa Nadal early on and couldn’t withstand Stan Wawrinka’s backhand barrage in the final. This year he can’t meet Nadal until the semis and before then his projected opponents include Tomas Berdych, who is struggling and sports a 2-25 record against the Serb. Refreshed from superstar role-playing with Beyonce in “Lemonade,” Serena Williams served notice in Rome that she is back in tournament-winning form. Her draw begins with the slicing Slovakian Magdalena Rybarikova and might get tricky in the third round against Timea Babos or Kristina Mladenovic. In the quarters she could face Dominika Cibulkova, or Victoria Azarenka, who gave her a memorable GIF-tastic battle in Paris last year.
RAFA’S ROUGH ROAD AND MURRAY’S MOUNTAIN: Thanks to Roger Federer’s withdrawal, No. 4 seed Rafa Nadal couldn’t meet Novak Djokovic until the semifinals at the earliest – sure enough, he landed on Djokovic’s side of the draw. His road to a meeting with Djokovic is definitely a rougher one, with Dominic Thiem potentially across the net in the fourth round and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and all of France possibly laying in wait in the quarters. The player with the best winning percentage on clay this year, Italian Open champ Andy Murray, has some big servers in his quarter – John Isner, and more formidably Nick Kyrgios, though the angry Aussie upstart might have to pass through Richard Gasquet and Kei Nishikori to get to him.
FIRST-ROUND MARQUEE MATCHES AND MELTDOWNS: It’s a battle of young turks as 18-year-old Taylor Fritz and 19-year-old Borna Coric face off in round one. (Give Coric the advantage on clay.) Aging vet Radek Stepanek‘s string of wins was one of the top stories of qualifying week and the old-school serve-and-volley Czech has been rewarded with an encounter with Andy Murray. A flailing Grigor Dimitrov has drawn No. 22 seed Viktor Troicki, while No. 33 Steve Johnson has the poor luck of facing Fernando Verdasco. For drama (picture the Venus-munching-popcorn GIF), all eyes will be on the first-round match between fallen It Girl Eugenie Bouchard and Germany’s Laura Siegemund, whose antics – multiple medical timeouts and loud shrieks upon opponent’s errors – have even made her infamous among fellow players. Possible trap match: Aussie Open champ Angelique Kerber vs. Kiki Bertens.
TURKISH TRIFECTA: Speaking of young turks, Turkey has a player in the women’s main draw for the first time this year. In fact, not one but two – Cagla Buyukakcay and Ipek Soylu both came through qualifying. Marcel Ilhan did so on the men’s side as well. It’s good news for a nation that has rewarded the WTA season-ending championships with huge crowds in the past.
AMERICAN WOMEN: Led by Serena, in general the American women fare better than the American men on clay. Could one of them break through in Paris this year? Sloane Stephens remains as enigmatic as ever. A few years ago, she was making the second week of Slams while suffering lazy-looking losses in small tournaments. Now she’s winning tour events and going out early in Slams. But she’s made the second week in Paris four years in a row, and she won her biggest title in Charleston last month. Her draw isn’t easy, but should she pass her initial hurdles, with Sara Errani struggling and Aga Radwanska weakest on clay it has the potential to open up beyond the fourth round, which is where she’s come up short since 2012.
The word on Madison Keys is that she’s more of a grass and hard court force than a clay player, but she made it to the final of Rome, and her blink-and-you-missed-it coaching arrangement with Mats Wilander and current ties with Thomas Enqvist show a desire to control her power with more spin for the red dirt. Aside from dangerous Daria Gavrilova in the third round, her draw looks promising. Aussie Open champ Angelique Kerber looms as a possible fourth-round foe. But Kerber has been struggling, and Keys almost beat her on the green clay of Charleston last year.
There’s another, younger American to keep an eye on. Louisa Chirico has been rocketing up the rankings, especially with a semifinal showing in Madrid. She still had to play qualies in Paris – and came through strong. With a heavy forehand and defensive skills, Chirico is going to be a clay force in years to come – she’s still growing into her game. Provided she gets past tiny Lauren Davis, she could face towering Venus Williams in a second-round match up. Taylor Townsend won the US wild card. She’s landed not far from Serena, and could face Romania’s Sorana Cirstea in a second-round battle of talents on the rebound.
THE MISSING MEN: There is no doubt that a gaping absence will be felt at Roland-Garros this year: Roger Federer has withdrawn from the event. Federer has shown up for the Slams like clockwork for his entire career, extending back to juniors – that’s 73 straight majors, people – and Federer adoration is at its apex in Paris. Will a next generation hero finally step up to fill some of the massive void? Here’s hoping someone does, because the 24th-hour withdrawal of France’s leading showman Gael Monfils only adds to the sense of loss.
SAY IT FIVE TIMES FAST: The French contingent competing at Roland-Garros includes wild card Tessah Andrianjafitrimo. On the men’s side, Spain presents the slightly less tongue-twisty trio of Jordi Semper-Montana, Roberto Carballes Baena and Daniel Munoz de la Nava.
WEEK ONE MATCHES TO WATCH: A finalist in 2014, Simona Halep won Madrid and she excels on clay. However she may have a date in the third round with Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who has reached the finals in Strasbourg and more importantly, who has all but literally shoved Halep off the court in straight sets at Roland-Garros last year and the US Open the year before. She’s exactly the name Halep fans don’t want to see near Halep’s in the draw, and guess what – she’s there. Other third-round match ups include Nadal vs. Fabio Fognini and Alexander Zverev vs. Dominic Thiem. Second round: Bernard Tomic vs. Borna Coric or Taylor Fritz; David Ferrer vs. Juan Monaco; Jack Sock vs. Dustin Brown; Donald Young vs. Benoit Paire; Madison Keys vs. Daria Gavrilova; Williams vs. Chirico.
FRONT RUNNERS – AND DARK HORSES: Of the top women’s seeds, Garbine Muguruza looks to have a fortunate draw, but she runs hot and cold. After an ideal spring on the American hard courts, Victoria Azarenka arrives in Paris either injured or having played the clay season extremely safe. She’s landed in Serena’s quarter. Kei Nishikori and Nick Kyrgios may face off for the honor of battling Andy Murray in the quarters. Dark horses to look out for: on the men’s side, teen dynamo Alexander Zverev, and for the women Irina Camelia Begu, whose slice proficiency and big forehand are ideal for clay, and last year’s finalist Lucie Safarova, always dangerous if she catches fire.
STAN – STILL THE MAN? Oh yeah, the defending champion. Last year Stan Wawrinka entered the French Open amid personal turmoil while wearing an ugly pair of shorts and left it as the new men’s champion, still wearing the same ugly shorts. This year Wawrinka has been far from inspired, to the degree that a week ago he barely looked like a contender. But now he’s in the final in Geneva and showing signs of picking up steam. Can he be a full-power locomotive in the later rounds at Roland-Garros? Yes – as long as he runs a gauntlet likely to include Frenchmen Jeremy Chardy and Gilles Simon early on.