The road to the 2017 US Open continues on Sunday, with Paris welcoming the tennis world to the French Open for the second Grand Slam tournament of the season.
Here’s a look at where we stand on the eve of the clay-court season’s main event – and what it means for the Flushing fortnight at summer’s end:
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
We exited the spring hard-court season with Roger Federer firmly planted as the US Open favorite. He may now be in co-favorite status with Rafael Nadal.
The King of Clay has reaffirmed his dominion as the elite dirt-baller of all time this year. In Monte Carlo, he became the first man in the Open era to win the same tournament 10 times. He doubled down a week later, adding his 10th Barcelona title, then tacked on the Masters 1000 title in Madrid right after that, demolishing nemesis Novak Djokovic en route.
Nadal is now the ATP points leader for the season (most points accrued in 2017), right ahead of Federer – who is skipping Roland Garros to prep for the grass- and summer hard-court campaigns – and has his sights set on adding a 10th French Open title in two weeks. He is the clear French Open favorite – a mantle he very well may carry into Flushing Meadows this summer.
And the women’s favorite is …
While Nadal is the standout on the men’s side, there is no such counterweight among the women. It has been a turbulent year in women’s tennis, and with Serena Williams out until 2018 as she gets ready to have her baby, there is no standing queen in the women’s game.
With her victory in Madrid and her run to the final in Rome, Simona Halep enters the French Open as the popular title pick. But throughout her career, the Romanian has struggled to maintain her form for the full two weeks of a major. In fact, she has advanced to only one Slam final, at Roland Garros in 2014, and boasts only two other trips to a Slam semi (2014 Wimbledon, 2015 US Open).
Further muddling the picture is that prospective Roland Garros No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova has never thrived on clay, and current WTA points leader Elina Svitolina has just one career Grand Slam quarterfinal to her credit. Add in the continued spotty play of world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who has yet to beat a Top 20 player this season, and predicting the women’s winner in Paris – not to mention New York – might be as difficult as ever before.
This is 30
The return to form by Federer and Nadal has largely overshadowed the uneven seasons of the men’s top two players, Djokovic and Andy Murray. The 2016 French Open finalists both turned 30 in the lead-up to Roland Garros, and they are struggling to recapture their form from a year ago.
Djokovic recently jettisoned most of his team – on Sunday, it was announced that two-time US Open champ Andre Agassi will come on board as his coach for the French Open – as he looks to jump-start his season after a desultory past 10 months. A trip to the Madrid semis was promising, but he did not show well there against Nadal. In Rome, he registered impressive victories over Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals and Dominic Thiem in the semis, but he was easily dismissed in the final by rising star Alex Zverev.
Murray, meantime, fell in the round of 16 in Madrid to Borna Coric in a routine straight-setter and lost his first match in Rome to Fabio Fognini. Overall, he went just 5-4 in his French Open tune-ups, with three of those wins coming in Barcelona.
Who are this year’s other contenders?
Outside the bold-faced names, the four players entering the French Open playing the best tennis are Thiem and Zverev among the men and Svitolina and Kristina Mladenovic among the women. Thiem is up to No. 3 and Zverev to No. 4 in the 2017 ATP points race, and Svitolina and Mladenovic are Nos. 1 and 7, respectively, in the WTA race.
Zverev, 20, enters the French Open fresh off his first Masters 1000 title, and he also won the clay-court event in Munich earlier this spring. For his part, the 23-year-old Thiem ousted Murray in Barcelona and dazzled in Madrid, falling to Nadal in the final of both events, before turning the tables on Nadal in the Rome quarterfinals, handing the Spaniard his only clay-court setback of the season.
Svitolina, 22, is coming off titles in Istanbul and Rome, where she toppled Halep in the title tilt, and her four WTA titles in 2017 are two more than any other woman. The recently turned 24-year-old Mladenovic, meantime, has reached five finals in her last 12 tournaments, including three of the past six, and that doesn’t include a semifinal showing earlier this spring in Indian Wells.
Better yet, all four possess all-court games that should translate to success in the Big Apple.
Whither Maria Sharapova?
The other major storyline from the clay-court season was the return of Maria Sharapova. The Russian, recently back from a 15-month suspension, has shown flashes, reaching the semifinals in Stuttgart and the second round in Madrid and Rome to move back inside the Top 200.
The French Open did not offer her a wild card into either the main draw or the qualifying. But she has earned a place in qualifying for Wimbledon and seems, not accounting for injury, a likely contender to break the Top 100 by the US Open’s entry deadline. That would put her in the main draw, making her a potentially dangerous floater in what, for now, seems like a wide-open women’s field.