The King and Princes of Clay
As the action kicks off in Paris this week, Rafael Nadal once again heads to the French capital in great form. Fresh from Masters 1000 victories in Rome and Monte Carlo and a win in Barcelona, he is the unquestioned favourite to claim the title on June 10th. But for all of Nadal's dominance this season, he is not without rivals gunning for his crown. Perhaps chief amongst them is Austria's Dominic Thiem, who has at least created some doubt as to where the Coupe de Mousquetaires will end up.
He did so by beating Nadal in straight sets in the Madrid Open quarterfinal this month to inflict a first defeat for the Spaniard since the Australian Open in January. Thiem went on to reach the final in Madrid, but was beaten by Alexander Zverev, who may well prove Nadal's most serious rival for Roland Garros glory. Though the German has never beaten Nadal in five attempts, he does not lack clay court prowess and having pushed Nadal close in the past, may feel his time is fast approaching.
Whilst Thiem has enjoyed more success against the veteran Spaniard, he hasn't shown the same consistency as Zverev this year, and has yet to get his hands on one of the sport's biggest trophies. That said, he has reached two French Open semifinals, whilst Zverev has never been beyond the fourth round of a Slam, reaching that stage only once. Thus whilst both will rightly be looked on as contenders, both also have much left to prove.
The old guard
What the rest of the top ten may be able to accomplish is uncertain. Marin Cilic, the world's 4th best has yet to win a title this year, although he has reached two Grand Slam finals over the past twelve months at Wimbledon and Melbourne Park. Grigor Dimitrov, ranked a place lower, is also yet to lift his first title this year. The Bulgarian is always capable of producing some magical moments, however, his game remains plagued by inconsistencies, and he rarely exudes confidence on clay.
Then there is the curious case of Novak Djokovic. The Serbian is still on the comeback trail after a lengthy injury layoff, that saw him bring his 2017 season to a close following Wimbledon. He has brought back former coach Marian Vajda and fitness trainer Gebhard Gritsch in an attempt to return to the formidable levels of fitness and confidence that made him one of the greatest champions the sport has ever seen.
There have been real signs of improvement lately, particularly in Rome where he impressed in reaching the semifinals, although Rafael Nadal had too much for him there. But one would none-the-less fear that the French Open is slightly too soon for him to mount a serious title challenge. Wimbledon may perhaps represent a more realistic goal for Djokovic, but, fortunately for the tennis world, he looks close to getting back to his ruthless Slam-winning best.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Stan Wawrinka, who has had a torrid year plagued by injuries and a lack of match fitness after a knee operation kept him out for nearly six months last year. He has only one win to his name since February, and his title defence in Geneva ended in ignominious fashion at the hands of Marton Fucsovics who defeated him 6-4 6-0 in the quarterfinals.
Glory at last for Halep?
The women's draw seems rather less straightforward. Though Simona Halep is currently the favourite to lift the trophy, her position is nowhere near as assured as her fellow #1 Rafael Nadal's. There is increasingly, however, a feeling that Halep's time to win a Slam is at hand, and were she to finally lift her maiden title, it would surely be a popular outcome, particularly after the manner of her defeats in the final in Paris last year and earlier this season in Melbourne.
Perhaps the most serious threat to her title aspirations comes from the young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina. Svitolina looks to have found a rich vein of form at just the right time to launch a serious assault on the Paris crown after defeating Halep in the final in Rome. But, Svitolina has never gone beyond the quarterfinals at a Major, and the step between winning big titles and winning Slams is a big one, as Alexander Zverev would no doubt confirm.
The likes of Wozniacki, Muguruza, Kvitova and Ostapenko are sure to also consider themselves amongst the challengers for the crown. Ostapenko particularly will look to draw on the memories of winning the title last year, when she made a thrilling run out of obscurity into the tennis limelight. Muguruza is also a former champion in Paris, and the Spaniard often saves her best tennis for the big occasion.
The veterans and former champions Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova may also prove to have a say in where the title ends up, even if they are unable to win it themselves. For Williams it is a second comeback after she played four matches in March in Indian Wells and Miami, her first since giving birth in September. It seems unlikely she will progress very far considering her lack of match practice, but Williams is such a great champion that she can never be entirely counted out.
Sharapova will be seeded at a Slam for the first time since returning from her ban last year and enters the tournament in the best form she has shown for some time. She was particularly impressive in Rome, reaching the semifinals and defeating Ostapenko in a three-set thriller in the last eight. However she has not won a title since October of last year, and her last success at Slam-level was in 2014.