ARCHIVE - Roger Federer at the French Open in 2015. (AP Photo/David Vincent)
ARCHIVE - Roger Federer at the French Open in 2015. (AP Photo/David Vincent)|Associated Press

French Open Men’s Sunday Tennis: Abrams picks 10 1st round matches including Federer v Sonego, Tsitsipas v Marderer, Nishikori v Halys, more

Matches start at 5 am EDT

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

The French Open
Stade Roland Garros
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Men’s First Round Singles

There are very few things that would get me out of bed at 4:30 A.M. and go through the very unnatural act of having a plate full of wet scrambled eggs as I wipe the sleep from my eyes, but saying hello to the 2019 French Open on a beautiful Spring late morning in idyllic Paris, France is one of them. The day has finally come for us to welcome the penultimate clay court event on the WTA and ATP Tours, and the anticipation and excitement are palpable.

Fans and players alike are wondering if the ascension of Naomi Osaka to the top of the Women’s game is complete, or will Simona Halep, Kiki Bertens, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova or Angelique Kerber ruin her Paris Spring? For the men, can Rafa Nadal win his unprecedented 12th French title, or will Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer beat Nadal on the court he has owned for a decade and a half? Are the Big Three still dominant, or can Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sascha Zverev, or Dominic Thiem push aside the old men and stake their claim to the top of the tennis mountaintop?

As the players compete for their share of the 42,660,000 Euros offered in prize money (the Men’s and Women’s winners each pocket 2.3 million Euros), these questions and more will be answered as the second Grand Slam tournament of the year begins with great sub-plots and an ATP civil war raging in the background. So break out your own croissants and your English-to-French dictionary as the most exciting two weeks in Paris begins now.

Men’s First Round picks

Stephanos Tsitsipas over Max Marterer
These two twenty-somethings have never played on the ATP Tour, but Tsitsipas, at 20, has had a faster and more impressive start to his career. He comes into the Roland Garros ranked No. 6, with two titles this year, and a sterling 29-11 record YTD. He has notched wins over Federer (2019 Australian Open), Nadal (2019 Madrid), and Djokovic (2018 Masters 1000 Canada), and has shown that he can beat anybody and everybody. Marterer is ranked No. 110, and is still treading water playing qualies and some Challenger events, trying to get into the main draws against the big boys, where he can accumulate some ranking points, some prize money, and some necessary experience. Currently boasting a 5-9 record this year, Marterer is on the verge of making tennis a career, with $1,359,000 in prize money, but not quite there yet. Tsitsipas should roll here.

Roger Federer over Lorenzo Sonego
What more is there to say about Roger Federer? He’ll be 38-years-old in August, and he’s still playing like a hungry teenager with a 22-3 record this year alone, to go with his two titles. His career match record is an unbelievable 1202-263, and he has collected $123,632,000 in prize money, not counting endorsement deals and appearance fees. He holds the record for having won 20 career Grand Slam tournaments, and needless to say, is a living tennis legend, rewriting the record books almost every time he steps between the lines. Lorenzo Sonego is a 24-year-old 6’3” Italian ranked No. 73, and pushing to boast a yearly match record over .500. They’ve never played, so there’s no personal history, but I’d be real surprised if Sonego gives The Fed a run here.

Kei Nishikori over Quentin Halys
Quentin Halys, a 22-year-old favorite son given a wild card into the main draw, will be playing his first Tour match of 2019. He’s got a little experience, but none against 7th ranked Kei Nishikori, from Japan. Nishikori has been spotty this year, showing some brilliance and some funk, but I’m sure he’ll be ready for the challenges the red clay here present. Unless Kei really lays an egg I expect him to roll right over the wild card.

David Goffin over Ricardas Berankis
David Goffin, the Belgian living in Monte Carlo, has been the epitome of spotty this year. A year and a half ago he was firmly ensconced in the Top Ten, ranked 7th in the world. But his ranking is now down to No. 30, while his match play record for the year is only 10-12, with one of those twelve losses coming to Berankis in Qatar, where he went down in a third set tiebreaker. Berankis, on the other hand, sports a 5-3 record this year, which on the one hand is certainly better than having a losing record, but shows so few matches as to beg the question if his health is perfect. With a ranking of 72, he is right on the cusp of getting into tournaments, and he has gotten in some extra match play in some qualies and Challenger events, but as I’ve pointed out before, the ATP, in its ultimate wisdom, doesn’t count those matches for either ranking points or experience. With that said, both of these guys records are illusory, since they don’t really reflect what’s going on with their games at the current time. I think Goffin has the experience and expertise to come into this event ready to go, and he’s got ranking points to collect. He should win this match, although it will be a fight.

Grigor Dimitrov over Janko Tipsarevic
Grigor Dimitrov has a very polished game that showcases his almost limitless potential. From early on he was predicted to be a “future champion”, but never quite lived up to that billing. He topped out at No. 3 at the end of 2017, and was a name that no one wanted to see in their way on the draw sheet. Lately, however, Dimitrov has been a mystery. He’s only ranked 47th today, and has won only 9 of his 16 official matches for the year. Dimitrov became so confused as to his place in the game that he dropped down to play a Challenger event two weeks ago, and he should be given lots of credit for not only making that drastic career move, but for also winning the event. Hopefully for him, it will provide him some of the lost confidence that he needs to get back. Tipsarevic is an entirely different story. The 34-year-old Serbian has a five-year-old son, and when he was asked by a journalist what his father did for a living, he replied, “have surgery”. That’s been Tipsarevic’s last seven years in a nutshell. Back in 2012 he was ranked No. 8 in the world and was one of the most exciting players to watch as he was flashy, solid, and flamboyant, and his signature was wearing sunglasses while he played, which made him noticeable. But injury after injury just ate up his life and his career, and he’s trying to make a comeback at an age where other players (like David Ferrer) are retiring. Tipsaravic is taking baby steps, and is only 3-3 this year, while displaying a game that just needs more time to get back to where it used to be. With that said, I think Dimitrov (who is 2-4 lifetime against the Serb) has more game, is fitter, and is healthier, and will win this match. Lord knows, they’re both hungry.

Philipp Kohlschreiber over Robin Haase
I really enjoy watching Kohlschreiber play. He’s so solid that if I were making a blueprint to have a junior player follow, how this man plays the game would be a good strategy. His stroke production is downright perfect, and he rarely chokes or loses to people whom he is better than. But at age 35, he is beginning to become limited athletically. He doesn’t have one killer shot, and he’s not quite as fast as he used to be, so his ability to beat very high ranked players is compromised, although he did pull off a straight set victory over Novak Djokovic in Indian Wells just ten or so weeks ago. Robin Haase is a journeyman. He’s currently ranked No. 63, and has never been ranked above 33, but Haase, from The Netherlands, has made a decent career out of the pro tennis Tour, having collected over $6.8 Million over his fourteen years playing internationally. I like Kohlschreiber in this match. I think he has more than enough skill and energy to win this and move on to Round 2.

Ugo Humbert over Alexi Popyrin
This match is between two NextGen players who we’ll be hearing quite a bit from over the next decade or so. I guess Humbert must be considered the favorite as he’s ranked 61st, vs. Popyrin’s ranking of 109. But they’ve never played, and at 19-years-old (Popyrin) and 20-years-old (Humbert) the future is bright for the both of them, while their short histories offer very few clues as to how this one will play out. I’ve seen Humbert give some of the Tour’s best and most experienced players a dickens of a time, and I’ve noticed Popyrin’s absence from most of the big Spring tournaments this year, particularly the Masters 1000s, which bring in nice, deep draws, and offer youngsters like these guys an opportunity to pick up some much needed experience. Popyrin did show up in Monte Carlo, but spent much of the Spring playing Challenger events. Humbert, by contrast, played a lot of Masters tournaments, participating in 250s, 500s, and 1000s, and when he dipped down to the Challengers, he competed very well, taking the title in Cherbourg, France, and losing in the semis at Quimper, France, to Dan Evans. Popyrin, at 6’5” and Humbert, at 6’2”, can both serve bombs, but I think Humbert’s lefty delivery will provide more free and easy points. I’d go with Humbert in this one, but we’ll see these guys play against each other many more times.

Malek Jaziri over Oscar Otte
Malek Jaziri, a 35-year-old Tunisian, got a lucky break when Nick Kyrgios pulled out of the tournament after saying that clay courts “suck”. He was replaced by lucky loser Oscar Otte, an unknown 25-year-old German, who was then placed in the draw to take on Jaziri. Jaziri, ranked No. 94, just made it into the main draw himself, as the tournament has 128 spots of which 16 are qualifiers, 8 are wild cards, and 4 men were given spots because of their Protected Ranking. With that said, Jaziri has a good game, is particularly comfortable on clay, and should take this match if, for no other reason, than he has more experience than his German opponent.

Casper Ruud over Ernests Gulbis
Ernests Gulbis is already 30-years-old. Boy, that happened in a blink of an eye. It seems like just yesterday Gulbis was one of the up and coming youngsters giving some of the top guys fits. Well, no longer. Now, it’s Casper Ruud, a second generation ATP Touring Pro, who is the youngster giving some of the top guys fits. Ruud is only 20-years-old, but he’s making a name for himself with an 11-5 2019 record and a ranking of No. 63. I have to admit that his push up to No. 63 was aided by his recent “win” over Kyrgios in Rome at the recently completed Italian Open. This win was abetted when Kyrgios lost his mind, as he is wont to do, and after fighting with fans, screaming, and kicking water bottles and equipment, he tossed a chair onto the playing surface, was given a point, and then a game penalty, and then defaulted from the match. Those ranking points earned just by being Kyrgios’ opponent in the Masters 1000 tournament helped push Ruud up the ranking charts, but Ruud has earned pretty much everything else he’s gained. Here, against Gulbis, he’ll have his hands full, but I expect the 6’ Norwegian to walk away with a rough and tough victory.

Hugo Dellien over Prajnesh Gunneswaran
This is not one of those matches that is going to get a lot of media attention, but should be a fun, competitive one to watch. Dellien, a 25-year-old from Bolivia, has been playing some terrific tennis the past ten weeks or so, and should be considered the favorite here, even though his ranking is 92 and Gunneswaran’s is 86. Dellien had a good tournament in Madrid a couple of weeks ago where he won two rounds in the qualifying before taking out Gilles Simon 7-6 in the third and dropping a 7-5, 7-5 close one to 7th ranked Kei Nishikori. Dellien has also shown some expertise on the slow stuff having won a Challenger in Chile in March, and marching into the quarters of both the Brazil Open and Rio Open just prior to coming to Europe. Gunneswaran, from Chennai, India, has also dipped down to play some Challengers, as players ranked in the positions of these two generally do, but also had a good tournament in Indian Wells where he won two rounds of qualies before dispatching Benoit Paire and Nikoloz Basilashvili before succumbing to the giant serving of Ivo Karlovic. Although this should be close, I think Delliem’s experience on clay should help propel him past the Indian.

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