The French Open starts Sunday, and for the first time in 17 years, Roger Federer will not be there. The world No. 3 withdrew because of back problems, snapping his record-streak of 65 straight Grand Slam tournaments. The last time Federer missed a major was 1999, when he was 18 years old and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were ranked No. 1 and No. 2.
Federer’s absence will make the path to a title a little easier for Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, all of whom arrived at Roland Garros with intriguing story lines.
Nadal is in peak form again on red clay, the surface he has owned for more than a decade. As the Spaniard approaches his 30th birthday June 3, he is aiming for his 10th French Open title — La Decima. He won his first in 2005 as a teenager in capris pants and a muscle shirt. No other man in the Open era has won the same major nine times, so 10 would add to his legend.
On the women’s side, Martina Navratilova won nine Wimbledon titles and Margaret Court won 11 Australian Opens between 1960-73, but most of the top players didn’t participate in that tournament.
“For a guy to win the French is tough anyway because it’s three out of five sets; it’s grueling,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, who won seven French Open titles. “There’s just more physical fitness involved because you’re just hitting more balls back. You’re on the court longer than the other Grand Slams. To win 10 French Opens is phenomenal, and I don’t know if that will ever be matched. I don’t see it being matched.”
Nadal has won 70 of his 72 matches at the French Open. His only losses were in the fourth round in 2009 to Robin Soderling and last year in the quarterfinals to Djokovic.
“It is almost comical, just beyond your thought process that one guy or anybody could win a tournament 10 times,” tennis commentator Brad Gilbert said. “I said when I was watching him there at the French in 2005, ‘This guy was going to win seven to 10 Frenches,’ and it seems so outlandish to say somebody who hadn’t even won one was going to win seven to 10, and the fact that he’s won nine and he’s still in contention for another few more years is just off the charts.”
Nadal’s game is “completely suited to clay,” Evert said. “It gives him that one extra second to wind up because he does have the big groundstrokes. The ball sits up just perfectly for him. He’s a grinder. His physicality is unbelievable. He can stay out there all day, and he can just outlast most of his if not all of his opponents, and he’s got the patience.”
A year ago, Nadal struggled with his game and confidence. In the buildup to the 2015 French Open, he failed to win a European clay-tuneup tournament for the first time in nine years. He wound up losing in the quarters to Djokovic and ended the year without a Grand Slam title for the first time in a decade.
He spoke of his vulnerability and self-doubt. Nadal started this year by losing his opening match at the Australian Open, but once he got to clay last month, everything changed. He is 15-2 on clay heading into the French, including titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
Patrick McEnroe said of Nadal on an ESPN conference call earlier this week: “I think that this one, if he wins it, would arguably mean more to him maybe than any other one because he’s been so utterly dominated by Djokovic, especially the last couple years, and there are times when he’s looked really beaten and really down, and he’s continued to come back and work hard.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, aims to win the only major title that has eluded him. If he wins, it would be his fourth Slam title in a row, and his 12th overall. He lost to Stan Wawrinka in last year’s final. He has won five titles so far this year but suffered a shocking opening loss at Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, and lost to Murray in the Italian Open final.
Murray has been the most consistent player on clay the past few years and is coming off the big win in Rome. He has grown to enjoy playing on clay, and this could be his year.
On the women’s side, the story line is the same as usual — can anyone beat Serena Williams, assuming she is fit and motivated? Williams hadn’t won a title in nine months and played sparingly this year — just four tournaments — but looked good winning the Italian Open last week. If she wins, she would tie Steffi Graf for 22 majors, most in the Open era.
“Never underestimate Williams, because any other player would be so undercooked coming in with no tennis, and then just, boom, she wins it,” Gilbert said of Williams’ Rome win. “So, just basic Serena.”
Evert said she was “pleasantly surprised” with Williams’ Italian Open title “because I just didn’t feel that the preparation was as professional and intense as it has been in the past getting ready for the red clay-court season. I was very surprised at how she did in Rome, and that to me puts her right up there as the lead favorite.”
When/where: Sunday through June 5; Roland Garros, Paris.
Surface: Red clay.
Defending champions: Serena Williams, Stan Wawrinka.
TV: NBC, Tennis Channel.
MEN TO WATCH
Novak Djokovic: The world No. 1 tries to win the one Grand Slam title that has eluded him. Rafael Nadal: Can the Spaniard win an unprecedented 10th French Open title? Andy Murray: The most consistent clay player the past two years has fallen short at Roland Garros. Is this his year? Stan Wawrinka: With Roger Federer out, defending champion Wawrinka is the highest-profile Swiss. Kei Nishikori: Never count out Nishikori, who has had success on clay in the past.
WOMEN TO WATCH
Serena Williams: If she wins, she ties Steffi Graf with 22 majors, most in the Open Era. Simona Halep: Reached the 2014 French Open final, lost to Maria Sharapova in three sets. Victoria Azarenka: Won back-to-back titles at Indian Wells, California, and Key Biscayne, but has back issues and lost in the first round in Rome. Madison Keys: The young American lost to Williams in the Rome final and has new coach Thomas Hogstedt, a clay specialist. Angelique Kerber: Australian Open winner tries to add another major to her résumé.