Chilly autumn conditions and sparse crowds gave last year’s French Open one of the most unusual settings in its 130-year history.
Now as players descend upon the grounds of Roland Garros, it is a welcome return to normalcy in the schedule. Grand slam tennis has arrived for it’s second instalment of 2021. Let’s preview the action.
Nadal’s Chance at History
Last fall, Rafael Nadal quietly collected his 13th singles trophy on Court Phillipe Chartrier, dismantling rival Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the final. It was also his record-tying 20th grand slam title, equalling Roger Federer.
Now he’ll look to surpass Federer with another triumph at the French Open. He is, as always, the man to beat on clay.
Nadal is 100-2 at Roland Garros, good for a jaw dropping 98% winning percentage.
His dominance has been so otherworldly at the event, the French Tennis Federation even unveiled a 20-foot statue of the Spaniard on their grounds ahead of the tournament. A deserving honour, yet an odd choice to make while Nadal’s career is still ongoing.
— Luigi Gatto (@gigicat7_) May 27, 2021
The Spaniard picked up two titles ahead of the second grand slam season, with triumphs in Barcelona and Rome.
Here in Paris, it is Rafa vs. the Field. Bet at your own accord.
There is no sense of doubt when discussing the talent and skills of Bianca Andreescu on a tennis court.
Her all court game and mix of power and finesse have led her to a milestone U.S. Open victory, and significant titles at the Rogers Cup (now National Bank Open) and Indian Wells, all in 2019.
Unfortunately, her body has likely held her back from even more success.
Andreescu returned from injury this season after a 15-month absence, and promptly announced her return as a top threat in early April, reaching the final of the Miami Open.
Again however, she was undone by more physical setbacks. A positive COVID-19 test kept her out of big events in Madrid and Rome; she played just two matches in her clay court season at the WTA Strasbourg before withdrawing from the event this week due to a small abdominal issue.
One benefit to a grand slam event for Andreescu will be a day off between matches to stay fresh physically.
Bianca can get hot in a hurry, so if she picks up some early wins in the first week in Paris, pencil her in as a contender for a deep run.
Big Three Chaos
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have combined for 58 grand slam singles titles since 2003. Incredibly, the three superstars have never once landed in the same half of a major singles draw until now.
How did this happen? With Nadal sitting 163 points behind Daniil Medvedev in the rankings, he occupies the third seed for the tournament. Meantime, Roger Federer had been on the sidelines for nearly a year and a half, having competed in just two events in 2021.
Federer has been candid about his chances at Roland Garros, insisting he’s not a contender.
Nadal and Djokovic will be hungry to add to their grand slam haul and a potential semi-final clash looms.
Tsitsipas in line for a run
The country of Greece has never had a grand slam champion in tennis. The enigmatic world no. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas stands as one who boasts a great chance to do so in the near future.
Tsitsipas possesses an electric and versatile game on the court. His baseline shot making is elite, his movement is world class, and his propensity to stay poised under pressure is a key separator from the remainder of the tour.
He also truly believes he should be winning major trophies.
He might be nearing that moment of self actualization, and was keen on sharing some of his philosophies ahead of the tournament.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 28, 2021
Tsitsipas currently leads the ATP in wins this season with 33.
He’s coming off a recent title at the Lyon Open, opened his clay campaign with a Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo, and pushed Nadal to the absolute brink in an enthralling Barcelona Open final.
Given Medvedev’s disdain for the dirt, and Dominic Thiem’s stretch of poor form, Tsitsipas looks to be the top threat on the bottom half of the men’s draw.
Young Blood Smells Opportunity
Last fall, relatively unknown top 50 player Iga Swiatek stunned the field at Roland Garros, going on a seven-match tear en route to her maiden grand slam title. In doing so, she became the youngest women’s champion at the tournament since Monica Seles in 1992.
Now 19 years of age and an established top 10 player, Swiatek will be eyeing a repeat. Her clay court lead up has been outstanding, going 8-1 with a title in Rome, punctuated by a 6-0, 6-0 thrashing of Karolina Pliskova in the final.
American Coco Gauff also arrives in Paris with form and momentum on her side. The 17-year-old won her second career WTA title at the Parma Challenger event in Italy last week and made the semifinals in Rome the previous week.
Gauff was a junior stalwart, and has promptly gained acclaim on the pro circuit with her outstanding defensive skills, fabulous two-handed backhand, and competitive spirit. She was a junior champion at the French Open in 2018.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 28, 2021
Ash or Aryna?
Ashleigh Barty has been the most consistent player of 2021, and as such, has a confident stranglehold on the women’s world number one ranking.
She has three titles on the season in Melbourne, Miami, and Stuttgart, was a finalist in Madrid, and has the grand slam pedigree to challenge for a major trophy at any given event.
Barty has made the round of 16 or better in the last seven majors she’s played, and she should be feel comfortable on the grounds of Roland Garros, the site of her lone major title in 2019.
Meantime, 23-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, a powerhouse groundstroke player, is surely craving some major hardware.
The Belarusian has been a force on the WTA tour, amassing eight titles since 2019, including her first career clay court triumph at Madrid earlier this month.
She’s also 46-31 in her career against players who have been ranked inside the top 10 and has charged up to a career high of number four the rankings.
Naomi ditches the negativity
We’ve seen high profile athletes shun media obligations in the past. Former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch famously quipped to press “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” in response to every question he was asked during Super Bowl XLIX media day in 2015.
Earlier this NBA season, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving issued a self imposed a media blackout for a short period of time, wishing to let his play do the talking.
Now Naomi Osaka, the world number two, and one of the biggest faces in the sport, has issued a statement, revealing she will not take any press during the entirety of her French Open.
Osaka cited a lack of regard from press toward the mental health of athletes as her primary reason, and has ignited wide scale discussion amongst fans and journalists on the need or importance for mandated press conferences.
Osaka will subject herself to multiple fines, which she plans to donate to a mental health charity.
I think the messaging is clear: Osaka wishes to control her narrative and write her own story and path, with or without short sound bites.
It’s served her well to date, with four grand slam titles, and $55 million in earnings in 2020.
Other Canadian Chances?
The field of Canadians at Roland Garros is perhaps a bit thinner than usual, with just four players in singles competition.
Alongside Andreescu in the women’s draw is 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, who has had stretches of excellent play in 2021.
She won her maiden WTA title in Monterrey, Mexico in March, and backstopped Canada to a Billie Jean King Cup playoff win over Serbia in April, with two singles victories.
— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) March 22, 2021
Felix Auger-Aliassime and Milos Raonic are in the men’s singles draw.
Auger-Aliassime finished 4-5 in his clay court season, with his best result coming in Rome, when he reached the round of 16. This will be Raonic’s first and only event on clay in 2021.
Meantime, Sharon Fichman and Gabriela Dabrowski are both set to compete in doubles and should be high on confidence. Fichman recently won the biggest title of her doubles career, prevailing in Rome alongside partner Giuliana Olmos.
Dabrowski produced the most memorable victory of her career in Paris; a mixed doubles French Open crown with Rohan Bopanna in 2017.
Dabrowski is partnered with Fernandez in the women’s doubles draw, so perhaps some Canadian magic awaits.