What makes Memorial Day weekend one of the busiest and most anticipated weekends of the year for any American sports fan is the beginning of the second tennis major of the year, the French Open, and this year’s event is no exception. However, we already have an oddity that has occurred at the tournament before it officially begins: For the first time in 40 years, the singles champions at the major immediately preceding the French Open will not participate. Neither Serena Williams (pregnancy) nor Roger Federer (resting up for Wimbledon), champions at the 2017 Australian Open, will step foot on the red clay over the upcoming fortnight.
But another tennis living legend will be a part of the French Open, trying to add to his almost unmatched greatness, and he starts off our line of five questions as it pertains to the 2017 French Open, which gets underway on Sunday.
1. Is Anyone Going to Stop Rafa from “La Decima?”
Nadal, during the clay court season, already won his 10th tournament title at the Monte Carlo Masters and won his 10th title at Barcelona, winning on the show court that is now named after him. A tournament win here in Roland Garros will mark 10 French Open singles titles, and it’s hard to bet against him: Nadal is 95-2 all-time in best-of-five set matches on clay. That’s not to say that he’s unbeatable, but he is darn close to it. Rafa did lose, however, 4-6, 3-6, to Austrian rising star Dominic Thiem in the Italian Open quarterfinals, though that was the fourth time Thiem and Nadal had met in the span of 34 days and the only time Thiem came away victorious. In a best-of-five scenario, Nadal must be the overwhelming favorite.
2. Since There’s No Serena, Who Is The Favorite on the Women’s Side?
Your answer to that is just as good as mine. For our money, we’ll take Simona Halep, the 2014 French Open finalist who has made the final in her last two tournaments, winning in Madrid and losing in Rome. Last year’s French Open champion, Garbiñe Muguruza, has seen her overall play dip since that title, making only three semifinals since that triumph. The world No. 1 is Angelique Kerber, but she’s playing on her least-favorite surface. Also, she has a real tough draw in the first round of this tournament, as she plays former top 10 player and fellow lefty Ekaterina Makarova of Russia.
3. Is The Djok On Us, Or Is The Djoker Just Wild?
Novak Djokovic, once the most invincible on-field performer in world sport, has changed everything up in a bid to get out of his funk. And, boy, do we mean everything! He fired his entire coaching team – including longtime coach Marian Vajda – three weeks ago, switched from the Uniqlo brand to Lacoste just a week ago and, probably most noteworthy (if the first bit of information wasn’t noteworthy enough), took on 1999 French Open champion and Hall of Famer Andre Agassi as a coach/advisor type for the French Open and probably beyond. From the outside, Djokovic’s “shock therapy” (his words) to try get the bad taste of the results of the last 10 months out of his mouth reeks of desperation. But if it works, it’s genius, right? We know there’s enough genius left in the 12-time Grand Slam champion to weave more magic, but will it come out in its full this week? Or will we see more of the player who’s been battling elbow issues who lost to then-world No. 117 Denis Istomin in a second-round match the last time we saw him at a Grand Slam?
4. The French Open Is Usually Good For Producing a Shock Winner Once In A While. Which Outsider Has the Best Chance At Pulling That Off This Year?
Are there any Iva Majolis or Gastón Gaudios lurking out there this year? I’m not sure players like Thiem, Alexander Zverev or Kiki Bertens, who reached the semifinals last year on the women’s side, would be considered complete stretches. In the bottom of Garbiñe Muguruza’s quarter, there is a potential second-round match-up between Sara Errani, the 2012 French Open finalist who had to qualify for this year’s tournament, and Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic, a top doubles player who has come into her own in the past few months in singles. I say that the winner of that match-up, if it materializes, has a shot of making it to the semifinals – and who knows how deep after that. We also like the enigmatic and charismatic Latvian, Anastasija Sevastova, to make a deep run. On the men’s side, a wild card we like possibly making a run is an American – but one you may have not heard of yet. Ernesto Escobedo impressed down in Houston at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships, making it to the semifinals and looking very comfortable on the surface. He faces Istomin in the first round and, if seeds hold, would play fellow American Sam Querrey in the second round and Kei Nishikori in the third round. I can see a Round of 16 appearance for Escobedo happening!
5. So Who’s Actually Going To Win The Singles Titles?
Well, this is where we drop the ball most times – predictions. But, because we like to entertain you all, I’ll give it a try. Going out on a limb and taking Rafael Nadal on the men’s side, defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final. (Sorry, Andy Murray fans, but we see a short run for Muzzard on the clay once more.) On the women’s side, I’ll take a former winner of the tournament who is, in my opinion, still considered a dark horse: Svetlana Kuznetsova.