French Open 2019 preview: Former Champs, clay form, and dark horses – plus some key numbers
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the 2019 French Open, when Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka are top seeds
• Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka top seeds at Roland Garros
• Rafael Nadal goes for 12th title after late clay surge in Rome
• Defending champ Simona Halep and new No4 Kiki Bertens bring form to Paris
• Serena Williams and Roger Federer seek old winning feeling on clay again
The French Open, the climax of the European sweep across the red clay of three Masters, two big Premiers and two unbroken months, always brings its fair share of questions, surprises and, along the way, a few predictable answers.
But one question that has seldom been posed, one answer that is as predictable as the sun rising, relates to Roland Garros’s most decorated son, Rafael Nadal.
Nadal finds form right on schedule
Since he arrived as a teenager to win his first title in Paris at his first attempt in 2005, he has won 11 times, lost only twice in 88 matches, and garnered a total of 58 clay titles—the most recent in Rome a few days ago.
Yet this year, his run-in to Paris did not include his usual winning triumphs in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona—where Nadal has won 11 titles in both. Indeed, since finishing runner-up to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, the Spaniard had not reached a final. That is, until Rome, where his old clay form appeared with a vengeance. He dropped just six games in his first three matches and dropped only one set, to Djokovic in the final.
Until then, there had been a few hushed asides. Perhaps this would be the year for a new name on the Coupe des Mousquetaires: Perhaps last year’s runner up Dominic Thiem, who beat Nadal in Barcelona. Or the Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, up to No6 from 40 a year ago, who beat Nadal in Madrid to reach the final. He also won on the clay of Estoril. Other recent risers have been Fabio Fognini, No9 seed and winner in Monte-Carlo, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Guido Pella. And a few old campaigners have been making moves: Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, Gael Monfils
But Djokovic is the top dog
In the event, though, it is Djokovic, who this time last year arrived in Paris ranked 22 after a long dip in form with persistent elbow problems, who stands as the most likely to dethrone Nadal. The Serb reclaimed the No1 ranking—from Nadal—last autumn after a resurgent season that arguably began right here a year ago, despite a frustrated exit from Roland Garros in the quarter-finals.
He leads all-comers at the top of the ranks by a country mile, and won Madrid before running into Nadal in the Rome final. He has the added incentive of holding the other three Majors, so winning his second French Open would give him the complete the set for the second time in his career.
Can Federer make an impact after long absence?
Roger Federer is playing here for the first time in four years, and although he was the first man this season to win two titles—Dubai and Miami—his return to any clay after a three-year absence yielded only four wins. His comeback win over Borna Coric in Rome reminded rivals just what a formidable clay player he has been in his career—one title and four further finals at Roland Garros—but he had to withdraw from his Rome quarter-final with a leg injury.
Women’s draw wide open
It will take a brave person to predict the champion on the women’s side. Titles thus far this year have been spread far and wide, and over the last couple of years, the No1 ranking and Major titles have also been distributed to many contenders. The eight Majors played in the last two years were won by eight different women, and over the same period, seven different women have held the No1 ranking.
Osaka the one to beat—but Halep, Kvitova, Bertens also threats
In this constantly changing landscape, Naomi Osaka has become perhaps the most dominant—she won the last two Majors and is No1—but reigning French Open champion Simona Halep has been challenging that ranking, along with a Petra Kvitova, who was the first woman this year to win more than one title.
But two more impressive performers on clay this year have been Kiki Bertens, champion in Madrid, and Karolina Pliskova in Rome—both now in the top four—with the likes of young players Belinda Bencic, Ashleigh Barty and Maria Sakkari making inroads this season.
There may even be some good news for British supporters, for after some lean years for Johanna Konta, the Briton reached the final of both Rabat and Rome.
What about Williams?
The last three French champions are yet to produce their Parisian form this year: Jelena Ostapenko is not even seeded, Garbine Muguruza is outside the top 16, and the three-time champion Serena Williams, who played for the first time last year following the birth of her daughter, is just 7-2 this year, with four of those wins coming at the Australian Open. She has not won a title since the start of 2017, but more concerning, she withdrew after one match in last week’s Rome Premier—her only clay match of the year.
· Court Philippe Chatrier is mid-way through its transformation into a court with a retractable roof. Already, it looks elegant, classy, spacious, and ready to take on the world—but the roof is missing until next year, so the rain gods will be receiving a lot of offerings from the FIT.
· Court Simonne-Mathieu, now the third show court at Roland Garros, is sunken into its imaginative garden surrounds, and is sure to wow the capacity 5,000 fans who settle amid the four glass houses of the Serres d’Auteuil gardens.
Mathieu was born in 1908, and took up tennis at the age of 12 to try and improve her poor health. She won the French Junior Championships in 1925, but not until 1938 did she win the first of two main-draw titles, age 30. But it was on the doubles court that she excelled, winning 11 Majors, nine in women’s, two in mixed, making her France’s the most decorated female player after Suzanne Lenglen. The women’s doubles trophy is now named after her, but her career was cut short by World War 2 when she joined the Resistance.
· The western end of the site has been revamped to including five competition courts (10-13 and show court 14) plus two practice courts, 15 and 16, nestled into the tapering corner of the Roland Garros grounds.
· Additional wheelchair tournament, Quads: four players will compete in both singles and doubles. A pro-am wheelchair event on 5 June on Court 8, followed will be by wheelchair draws.
Clay champions this season ATP
Benoit Paire (Marrakech), Marco Cecchinato (Buenos Aires), Laslo Djere (Rio), Guido Pella (Sao Paulo), Fognini (Monte-Carlo), Thiem (Barcelona), Tsitsipas (Estoril), Matteo Berrettini (Budapest), Djokovic (Madrid), Nadal (Rome)
Clay champions this season WTA
Madison Keys (Charleston), Polona Hercog (Lugano), Amanda Anisimova (Bogota), Kvitova (Stuttgart), Petra Martic (Istanbul), Sakkari (Rabat), Bertens (Madrid), Pliskova (Rome)
Former French Open champions and finalists in 2019 draws
Halep (defending champion, 2014 and 2017 finalist)
Ostapenko (2017 champion)
Muguruza (2016 champion)
Serena Williams (champion 2002, 2013, 2015, 2016 finalist)
Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009 champion, 2006 finalist)
Sam Stosur (2010 finalist)
Venus Williams (2002 finalist)
Sloane Stephens (2018 finalist)
Nadal (11-time and defending champion)
Djokovic (2016 champion, 2012, 2014, 2015 finalist)
Federer (2009 champion, 2006, 07, 08, ’11)
Wawrinka (2015 champion, 2017 finalist)
Thiem (2018 finalist)
Players missing from draws
ATP: Kevin Anderson, John Isner, Andrey Rublev, Tomas Berdych
WTA: Maria Sharapova, Ekaterina Makarova
WTA: Dominika Cibulkova, Ostapenko, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka
ATP: Pablo Carreno Busta, Grigor Dimitrov, Frances Tiafoe, Nick Kyrgios, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Benoit Paire, Jan-Lennard Struff,
Facts and figures
· 7: Chris Evert’s record number of French Open women’s singles titles.
· 11: Nadal’s record number of French Open men’s singles titles.
· 186: Court maintenance staff during tournament.
· 263: Number of ball-kids, age 12-16.
· 320: Number of officials—line-judges and umpires
· 1, 375: Number of journalists, broadcasters and photographers last year
· 3,700: weight in tonnes of steel required to rebuild Philippe-Chatrier court (half the amount in the Eiffel Tour).
· 50,472: Number of balls used during tournament
· 150,000 sandwiches and 30,000 pancakes/waffles were sold last year
· €2.3 million: Prize money for singles champions; First-round losers €46,000; Total purse up 8% to €42.7 million