Our tennis man Andy Schooler looks ahead to the French Open which takes place at Roland Garros in Paris from September 27 to October 11.
The French Open 2020
The French Open. The tournament where the locals dine long and hard, the matches continue late into the evening summer sun and Rafael Nadal emerges as the champion.
Well, things will be different in 2020.
The dining experience clearly won’t be the same in these virus-stricken times, while the evening sun will be in short supply. And it’s far from certain Nadal will be lifting the famous Coupe des Mousquetaires for the 13th time.
Like the recent US Open, much will be different about this year’s tournament. But, unlike in New York, fans will be allowed in – up to 5,000 per day at time of writing – and players will have to stay in the accredited hotels.
Concerns have been raised by players over both issues and given the difference to the bubble conditions in force at Flushing Meadows, it seems even more likely that the tournament will be affected in some way by coronavirus.
Actually, it already has been. Five players were forced out of qualifying following positive tests of either themselves of someone around them.
Many expect something similar to happen in the main draw with some gloomy predictions suggesting it may be a struggle to complete the tournament given the recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases in France.
Whether the Weather Will Have an Effect
The on-court experience promises to be different too – the tournament is far from its traditional May/June slot. While average daily temperatures aren’t actually too much lower at this time of year, heavier conditions look highly likely in the matches which run into the evening given sunset will arrive somewhere between 7pm and 7.30pm on most days.
To cope with this, Roland Garros does now have 12 floodlit courts, as well as the new retractable roof on its main Philippe Chatrier Court. But, it will inevitably mean slower conditions.
Nadal was certainly affected by the sluggish, night conditions in Rome last week when he lost in straight sets to Diego Schwartzman. A poor serving day contributed much to his defeat but so too did the conditions – his famous heavily-spun forehand does not get anywhere near as much bite (and therefore height off the court) when the courts are playing heavy.
The loss brought back memories of Nadal’s final here against Novak Djokovic in 2012. On that occasion, the match appeared to be swinging Djokovic’s way when light rain slowed the conditions only for it to become heavier and play was suspended. When they resumed the next day beneath the sun, Nadal regained control and pushed on to win.
Who Will Suit the Changing Conditions?
The enforced calendar rejig has also meant clay preparation has been limited – Kitzbuhel, Rome and Hamburg have been the only three events on the surface leading into the tournament and most of the top players have played only one of them.
Nadal only played in Rome so this will be the first season in which he heads to Paris without having already claimed a claycourt title.
Others look ready to pounce on any weakness.
Djokovic dealt with he conditions well in Rome, emerging as the champion, and looks ready to deal with something similar in Paris. His only loss in 2020 remains his default at the US Open, awarded when he accidentally struck a line judge with a ball in anger.
Dominic Thiem was the man who took full advantage of that incident by going on to claim his first Grand Slam title so the Austrian will arrive with confidence sky high. Clay is his favourite surface so the fact he’s not played a warm-up event on it should not be too much of a concern. He’s made the final here in each of the last two years. It could be third time lucky.
Those three look a cut above the rest of the field but in 2020 you simply can’t say anything is a closed shop.
Certainly the change in conditions – and how things unfolded in Rome – will give those prepared to grind plenty of optimism.
This could be a throwback to the days of Sergi Bruguera and Gustavo Kuerten so someone like Schwartzman may be able to spring a surprise.
What's in Store For the Women?
In another change from the US Open, almost everyone in the men’s game (bar the injured Roger Federer) will be in Paris, but that’s not the case on the women’s side.
Three top-10 players have already withdrawn, led by defending champion and world number one Ashleigh Barty. US Open winner Naomi Osaka and her predecessor as champion in New York, Bianca Andreescu, are also missing.
It wouldn’t be a big surprise were Serena Williams to join them – she’s spoken lots about her long-standing health issues which mean she’s treated the COVID-19 outbreak with the utmost seriousness. A no-show by the American would see her search for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title roll on into 2021. Even if she does play in Paris, can Williams really be considered one of the favourites? This has long been her least favourite surface and while she has won the event three times, the last of those was in 2015.
Simona Halep looks a worthy leader of the ante-post market. She’s unbeaten post-lockdown, winning in both Prague and Rome, and having skipped the US Open, she’s been fully dialled in on her favoured claycourts for weeks.
Here are four from the men’s field and four from the women’s ahead of Thursday’s draw. The tournament gets under way on Sunday.
The Serb, champion here in 2016, has basically only lost to himself this year. He’s one of only two people who have beaten Nadal here in 15 years and has actually won five of their last 10 meetings on clay. If anyone can beat Nadal, it’s Djokovic.
Thiem arrives having made his big breakthrough at the highest level – winning the US Open. The Austrian loves the clay and only Nadal has proved too good for him at Roland Garros in the past two years with Djokovic among his victims on both occasions. Looks to hold a strong chance.
With conditions likely to be slower than usual, a grinder like Schwartzman could well surprise. One of the best returners on tour, he can stay in rallies until the cows come home, as he showed in Rome where he beat Nadal and tested Djokovic.
The young Norwegian has already climbed from 54th to 34th in the rankings in 2020, winning on clay in Buenos Aires. Another who is happy to plug away from the baseline, Ruud showed in Rome how he can live with higher-ranked players, reaching the semis. A potential dark horse.
Looks the most likely winner by far and there could still be some juice in her price. The Romanian has won twice on clay since lockdown ended and is probably better prepared than anyone else, having skipped the US Open. Has made three of the last six finals here, winning in 2018.
Like Halep, Muguruza is happy on clay. The 2016 champions was also a semi-finalist two years ago. She looked good in Rome, before being edged out in a final set by Halep in the last four. The Spaniard is enjoying a decent year, having also made the final of the Australian Open in January.
The feisty Kazakh has twice been to the last eight at Roland Garros and has been in food form since the season resumed, impressing at both the US Open and last week in Rome. The problem is she left there under an injury cloud. But, if fully fit, she has the potential to go under the radar somewhat.
Runner-up in Prague, quarter-finalist at the US Open and last eight in Rome. The Belgian is another who has racked up the wins since the tour’s resumption and could go well at a tasty price. A poor record against the top 10 is a worry, but several are missing and others are struggling for form.