Tennis’ second major of the year, the French Open, began on Sunday. While there are plenty of intriguing storylines headed into the unpredictable tournament, the biggest one revolves around the return of a former Grand Slam champion.
We could be talking about Maria Sharapova, but she is not participating in the event due to the French federation denying her a wildcard to qualifying.
Unlike in Sharapova’s case, this return has no controversy surrounding it, a lot less fanfare, and zero scrutiny from other players. In fact, all of her fellow colleagues are rejoicing her return, and there will definitely be no boos from the crowd during her first-round match on Day 1.
Petra Kvitova, who is a two-time champion on the grass at Wimbledon, is returning to tennis for the first time since being attacked by a home intruder last December. Kvitova suffered severe lacerations to her left hand, and her return to the tour was in doubt for several months after the harrowing incident.
Her surgeon described her injuries as horrific, and stated that there was a very low chance that her hand would heal well enough for her to play tennis ever again. But Kvitova had a racket back in her left hand by March, and started practicing for her planned return to the grass next month. She made a last-minute decision to enter the French Open even though she hasn’t played a match since last November.
Kvitova has a protected ranking of 16 – her ranking at her last match – and defeated American Julia Boserup in the first round on Sunday.
The 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champ reached the semifinals in Paris in 2012, and if she can get through the first couple matches early in this tournament, she could have just as good of a chance as any to capture the title in what is the most wide open women’s draw at a Grand Slam in recent history.
In fact, trying to predict the winners of this year’s French Open on the women’s side is nearly impossible. The top players are either injured or playing terribly, and you could basically toss all 128 names into a hat and pick one out to attempt a prediction at a winner. In fact, Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias did just that on a preview show, and he’ll probably be more successful with his pick than I will with mine.
Top seeds Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova have been downright awful during the clay court events this season, and it wouldn’t be inconceivable that both of them were on a flight back home after the first round. Third-seeded Simona Halep would have been the heavy favorite, but she injured her ankle in the finals of the Italian Open just over a week ago, and she is planning on playing even though she has partially torn ligaments in that ankle. Defending champion Garbine Muguruza is also dealing with an injury, and has an extremely difficult first-round opponent in 2011 champion Francesca Schiavone, who at 36 years old can still pose a huge threat on the clay in Paris. Elina Svitolina has won four tournaments this season and is up to #6 in the rankings, but also has an injury and is in Halep’s section of the draw, which could set up a rematch in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open final (won by Svitolina). Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic is also hot, but has never made it past the third round in front of her home crowd in Paris.
So here’s my attempt at trying to predict the women’s side of the draw:
In the first quarter, I think Kerber gets bounced out very early, possibly in the first round by Ekaterina Makarova (UPDATE – Kerber lost on Sunday). The three names I like in that section are #23 Samantha Stosur and her wicked kick serve, her huge biceps, and her title in last week’s Strasbourg tournament; #8 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has won this title in 2009 and has been one of the more consistent players in recent Slams, and I LOVE Bethanie Mattek-Sands from the USA who qualified for the tournament and could face Kvitova in the second round, but I’m borderline/totally obsessed and in love with her right now so that’s a totally different issue altogether. I’m taking Kuznetsova to make the semis out of this section, and will probably lose my mind if my girl Bethanie makes a run in this (or any) tournament. She’s my dream woman.
In the second section, I had a really hard time trying to figure out who could get to the semifinals. My three picks to get far are #10 Venus Williams, who could easily make the finals or just as easily lose in the early rounds just like every other woman in the draw; #13 Mladenovic; and unseeded Anett Kontaveit, who has 29 wins this season including 11 on clay. I’ll very reluctantly take Mladenovic out of this section.
In the third section, Halep would have been my overwhelming pick but I’m skeptical how well she’ll play with her ankle injury. She rolled it sliding on the clay, and if her movement is hampered she won’t make it very far in Paris. I’m still adding her to my three names to watch, along with #14 Elena Vesnina and #21 Carla Suarez Navarro, who are all in the same quarter as Halep. I’m going to take Suarez Navarro due to my concerns over Halep’s injury.
The two top seeds in the bottom section of the women’s draw have been dreadful on clay, so I’m avoiding #2 Pliskova and #7 Jo Konta at all costs. I’ll take #19 Coco Vandeweghe based on her successes in majors alone; #28 Caroline Garcia from France; and unseeded Naomi Osaka from Japan because I really like her game. I’ll take Garcia in this ugly section to make the semis.
Overall, my pick to win is Svetlana Kuznetsova… so I’ll be praying she doesn’t lose early on so I don’t look like a complete fool. I was actually sweating it out during her first round match even though I could have easily just edited this article and changed my pick. Not that I would ever do that…
On the men’s side it’s a lot easier to pick favorites and potential winners. Rafael Nadal is the consensus favorite and the likely pick of every expert and most fans, as he has looked absolutely dominant yet again as he seeks his 10th title at Roland Garros.
The short list of serious contenders include #2 Novak Djokovic, who made the finals in Rome and added tennis great Andre Agassi as his coach for this tournament; #6 Dominic Thiem, who dealt Nadal his only loss on clay this season in Rome before getting blasted in the semis by Djokovic; and #9 Alexander Zverev, who became the youngest Masters Series titleholder by defeating Djokovic in the finals in Rome.
Section by section, I hate Andy Murray’s chances of doing anything significant in his quarter of the draw. He’s struggled on clay this year, he seems to be wilting under the pressure of being #1, and he may be sick coming into this tournament. The three names I like are Zverev; #8 Kei Nishikori, who has a great looking draw to the quarters; and (shockingly) #21 John Isner, who made it to the semis before losing to Zverev in Rome and who I can’t quit picking even though I hate his game. I’ll take Zverev to continue his breakthrough spring and make his first Slam semifinal.
In the second quarter, third-seeded Stan Wawrinka has a terrific draw, so I’ll take him as one of my favorites. The two other names to watch for me are #18 Nick Kyrgios, who has been dealing with some injuries but clearly has the talent to beat anyone on the tour if his mind is right; and #30 David Ferrer, who may be on his last hurrah on the tour but can still compete with the big guns on this surface. I’ll take Kyrgios to make the semis if he’s healthy, with Wawrinka the safe pick if Nick’s not healthy or just loses his mind completely.
In Nadal’s section, I really don’t see anyone even taking a set off of the Spaniard. The two other names I’d watch are also from Spain – #17 Roberto Bautista Agut and #20 Pablo Carreno Busta – and I’m only picking them because I absolutely love saying their names. Especially Carreno Busta. It’s so fun to say. CARRENO BUSTA!!!
Djokovic and Thiem could run into each other in the quarterfinals in the bottom of the draw, and they are two of my picks for that section. I’d also watch #10 David Goffin, although he has a tough first-round match with French veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu. And I’d be reminiscent if I didn’t mention Portugal’s Joao Sousa for the lone fact that I’m half Portuguese and live in Fall River, MA aka Little Portugal.
I’m going to take Nadal and Zverev in the final, with Rafa hoisting his tenth title and shrinking the gap between him and Roger Federer in the all-time Grand Slam titles race. Nadal would have 15 Slams with this win, and would be three Slams behind Federer but is five years younger than the GOAT.
So go Rafa, go Kuznetsova, and of course go Bethanie. Seriously I’m obsessed with her.
Written by: Adam Belue (@albinomamba44)