The dust has settled in Madrid and Rome. The French Open is less than a week away. Most big-name players are enjoying a week off from tournament play before zeroing in on Paris. Grand Slams are a different animal than regular tour events. It is always hard to predict what will carry over from one to the other. Even so, here are a couple safe conclusions to draw for the second major of the season after its two biggest lead up events.
Sharapova will be a factor, Djokovic could be one too:
If you are still in the camp that thinks Meldonium was the dark secret to Maria Sharapova’s success, you are starting to look really foolish. The five-time Grand Slam winner secured the 28th seed at Roland Garros with a quarterfinals appearance in Madrid and a run to the semis in Rome.
Rome was the second week of back to back events for Sharapova and many others. At that event alone, she spent almost 13 total hours on court. This included a dramatic three-set win over reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and was punctuated by a tight three-set loss to World No. 1 Simona Halep.
One of the effects of Meldonium is increased stamina. After her performance over the last month, it is clear that whatever edge the substance gave Sharapova either was not real or she has found a legal substitute.
Either way, the two time French Open winner failed a drug test, admitted it and was suspended for over a year. It is time to move on. Sharapova’s chances of achieving the ultimate redemption in Paris and winning a third title there will largely depend on where she lands in Friday’s French Open draw, but she has proven that she can still go toe to toe with the world’s best and has to be on any list of title contenders.
Also, remember who we are dealing with here. When Sharapova came back from major shoulder surgery in 2009, the entire tennis world rolled its collective eyes when she said she would win majors and become World No. 1 again. The Russian certainly proved to be right on that occasion. The same eye roll happened earlier this year. After an opening round loss in Stuttgart that brought her losing streak to four matches, Sharapova said that she was not far off and very happy with the work that she was putting in on the practice court.
Once she showed up in Madrid, she was proven right again. She has given herself a realistic chance at achieving yet another last laugh when almost everyone in the sport had written her off.
One name Sharapova does not want to see anywhere near hers in the draw is Serena Williams. The 23 time Grand Slam winner has not played since March after giving birth to a daughter in September but is already in Paris practicing. Sharapova has not beaten Williams since 2004. Williams will be unseeded, meaning she could land anywhere in the draw. An early meeting with Serena would be the only sure fire bet to derail Sharapova’s chances at a deep Roland Garros run.
The reason for Novak Djokovic’s recent absence from the game was far more traditional. The 12-time major winner missed the back half of the 2017 season with an elbow injury.
He had been a shell of himself for much of this year, but the European clay was fairly good to him. He defeated former U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori in both Madrid and Rome. His best result of the season by a significant margin was reaching the semifinals in the Italian capital. There, he lost a competitive straight sets match to longtime rival and eventual tournament champion Rafael Nadal.
This is the first time all year there has been reason to be optimistic about the Serb. He is moving well, does not appear to be in pain, and has stopped tinkering with his game and coaching team for the moment. While being a real threat to Nadal’s Roland Garros dominance is probably a stretch this year, a run to the quarterfinals is realistic. That is never where a player with Djokovic’s resume wants to exit, but it would be a great result under the current circumstances.
There is opportunity for the men, but not at the top:
As mentioned above Rafael Nadal won the Italian Open on Sunday. It was his eighth career title at the event. The Spanish lefty lost a grand total of one match on clay leading into the French Open. There, he has a career record of 79-2 with 10 titles. So, barring a random case of food poisoning or some other freak injury, Nadal is going to win the French Open again this year.
Still, with Djokovic not quite at his best and Roger Federer and Andy Murray out, the race to oppose Nadal in a semifinal or final is wide open. Alexander Zverev will be seeded second in Paris. Thus, he is guaranteed not to have to deal with Nadal until the final. The 21-year-old German picked up two clay court titles of his own in recent weeks, but has never been passed the fourth round of a major.
Former U.S. Open winner Marin Čilić has never been all that successful in Paris or on clay in general. However, the Croat did reach the Rome semis and has made the final at two of the last three majors.
Winning the French Open this year appears to be wishful thinking for anyone not named Nadal. However, getting to the final weekend would be an incredible result for Zverev, Čilić and so many others in the field. We will begin to see who can take advantage of the opportunity this Sunday.