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Road to the Open: 2017 French Open Recap

September 2, 2016 - Rafael Nadal in action against Andrey Kuznetsov during the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY.

We’re halfway through the 2017 tennis season, with only Wimbledon separating the Grand Slam campaign from this year’s US Open. At the halfway mark, let’s take a look at where things stand as the road to the US Open moves on from Paris to London.

Nadal the mighty

It seems just six months ago we were wondering if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would ever return to the top of the tennis world. They have provided resounding responses in 2017, with Federer displaying virtuoso performances to win the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami and Nadal answering with a dominant clay-court campaign capped by his unprecedented 10th French Open title.

While Federer chose to sit out this year’s French Open, Nadal, the undisputed King of Clay, routinely routed his opponents at Roland Garros – his closest match was a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 destruction of legitimate US Open contender Dominic Thiem in the semifinals – and he capped it off by handing defending US Open champion Stan Wawrinka his first loss in a Grand Slam final in the title match, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.

Nadal is playing confident, aggressive tennis, attacking and defending in equal measure. Federer plans to return for the grass-court season, and he will be formidable. And Andy Murray showed a return to form in Paris, reaching the semifinals before falling to Wawrinka, who is up to No. 3 in the world. It all adds up to what could be one of the most exciting, highly anticipated US Open men’s draws in recent memory.

And the US Open women’s favorite is …

Jelena Ostapenko was the breakout hit of the French Open fortnight, stunning reigning Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig and planting four seeds to claim her maiden tour title, sealed when she rebounded from a set and a break down in the final to upend pre-tournament favorite Simona Halep. Still, anointing her as the US Open favorite feels premature. A year ago, Garbiñe Muguruza won her first Slam title in Paris but was unable to carry that momentum into New York, falling in the second round.

So who to peg for 2017 US Open title favorite? With Serena Williams out – she is expecting in September and plans to return in 2018 – and Angelique Kerber’s first-round loss at Roland Garros continuing her 2017 swoon – she has yet to beat a Top 20 player this year – the women’s field appears as wide open as ever.

Players to keep an eye on are Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 US Open finalist who acquitted herself nicely by reaching the French Open semifinals, on her worst surface; Halep, who is still searching for her first Grand Slam title but was, all in all, the best women’s player during the clay-court season; and the inimitable Venus Williams. Yes, that Venus, the almost-37-year-old who hasn’t won a major title since Wimbledon in 2008. She has been in fine form throughout 2017, reaching the Australian Open final and the French Open fourth round. She will certainly be on the short list of favorites at the All England Club and, at this stage, has to figure as a leading contender to add a third US Open crown.

August 29, 2016 - Jelena Ostapenko in action against Petra Kvitova during the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY.

Djokovic the mortal

Novak Djokovic owns six Australian Open titles, has played in seven US Open finals and has swept the U.S. spring hard-court circuit of Indian Wells and Miami on three separate occasions. In short, he is arguably the best hard-court player of a generation that includes two all-time greats in Federer and Nadal. But at this stage, the air of invincibility he held just 12 months ago is gone.

After a promising showing in Rome, where he reached the final, Djokovic entered the French Open with some renewed luster and seemed a decent pick to defend his Roland Garros title. But he was dismantled by Thiem in the quarterfinals, winning just three of the last 16 games of the match and claiming just eight points in the final set. The loss prompted the 12-time Grand Slam champion to say candidly afterward, “It’s a fact that I’m not playing close to my best. This is a whole new situation that I’m feeling.”

Djokovic brought Andre Agassi aboard as his coach for the French Open, though it remains to be seen if the two US Open champions plan to continue working together. Either way, the arc of Djokovic’s season will be one of the most fascinating storylines to watch as we approach the 2017 US Open.

The fresh faces and the old guard

Roland Garros served as a wonderful introduction to the rising tide of young women who could make a name for themselves at this year’s US Open. Ostapenko, 20, was a revelation; the talented Elina Svitolina, 22, looked like a real title contender before squandering a 6-3, 5-1 lead against Halep in the quarterfinals; and 18-year-old American CiCi Bellis reached the third round and will now crack the Top 40, with an excellent chance of being seeded at this year’s Open.

Conversely, despite a strong French Open from future Slam champion Thiem, 23, and a fine clay-court season from 20-year-old Alex Zverev, the over-30 crowd is ruling men’s tennis these days. The current world rankings, as of Monday, look like this: 1. Murray (age 30); 2. Nadal (31); 3. Wawrinka (32); 4. Djokovic (30); 5. Federer (35). Moreover, that same group has combined to win the last 10 Grand Slam singles titles, 29 of the past 30, and 47 of the past 49, interrupted only by US Open winners Juan Martin del Potro (2009) and Marin Cilic (2015). So if you’re looking to tab a 2017 US Open men’s champion now, it might be wise to stick with the old guard.