Neal Abrams' 2020 French Open Preview: Nadal vs Djokovic looks inevitable for the men, Simona Halep will be tough to beat for the women

Matches start Sunday and run through Oct. 11 on the clay at Roland Garros.
Spain’s Rafael Nadal clenches his fist after scoring a point against Switzerland’s Roger Federer during their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Friday, June 7, 2019. 
Spain’s Rafael Nadal clenches his fist after scoring a point against Switzerland’s Roger Federer during their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Friday, June 7, 2019. Michel Euler | Associated Press

The Traveling Circus masquerading as the ATP and WTA Tours make their late 3rd quarter stop in Paris for the first ever French Open played in September, not May. The autumn weather (expect low to mid 60’s with a whole lot of rain) along with the early setting sun will give the players a different look at the red clay of Roland Garros, and with the absence of many top players, particularly on the women’s side, the quality of play will probably be as weak, if not weaker (giving allowances for the surface) than what we endured in New York City.

I use the word “endured” because some of the play was, frankly, embarrassing, and was our first look at what the men’s game will look like when the Big 3 are gone, which is not too far away. The competition will still be good, considering that all of the pros have had about the same amount of time off, so that they’ve all suffered the same amount of rust from their Covid-19 layoff, and you can expect Simona Halep and Rafa Nadal to walk away with more Grand Slam trophies to add to their collection when the red dust settles.

After being put to sleep by the relentless pushing of Alexander Zverev in the final (the FINAL!!!!) of the U.S. Open, I fear that we are in for more of the same, particularly from the men in Covid positive Paris. Chris Evert made the absurd comment that the women were hitting the ball off the ground harder than the men, and then the 6’6” German made her words come true in the just awful Final, losing to first-time Men’s Grand Slam champion Dominic Thiem.

Thiem didn’t win a championship, he merely survived a contest of lobbing by hitting harder than Zverev. He won by attrition. Any media assertions to the contrary are opinions from broadcasters paid by large American corporations who depend on advertising dollars to subsidize the USTA as attendance revenue totally disappeared. If we are in for more of the same, and I see no reason why we won’t be, looking at the pathetically non-competitive draw (particularly the top half) I may have to find something else to do lest I allow the mediocrity to crash my sanity.

The women have their own troubles. U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka is sitting this one out, as are three other women in the Top Ten. In New York, Australian Open champion Sofi Kenin was a total flop, and then she followed up that disappointing result with a 6-0, 6-0 drubbing last week in Rome, on clay, to Vika Azarenka in a 2020 French Open preview. Serena Williams is slow and well past her prime, and I don’t know why anyone is surprised when she tires during long matches against quality opponents. Karolina Pliskova is not a contender but a pretender (even though Evert asserted, as the U.S. Open’s top seed was 0-4 down on her way to losing, that “the reason why Pliskova was the top seed was because she knows how to win.” How about that she was the #1 seed because Ash Barty, Simona Halep, and Bianca Andreescu weren’t in the draw seeded ahead of her? Way to be on the ball, Chris.

The double-headed American disappointments of Madi Keys and Sloane Stephens appear to me to be mere third-rounders at this point in their careers. With top ranked Barty, 2019 U.S. Open champion Andreescu, and 10th ranked Belinda Bencic not in Paris, the level of play will be lower than what we had become used to, and if anyone is to catch up to Halep (who stayed far away from New York to tune up her clay court game), she will have to come from a second tier of competitors, including the newly resurgent Azarenka, Gaby Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, or perhaps Johanna Konta, Marketa Vondrousova, or even Jennifer Brady, who is playing the best tennis of her career. Other young Americans like Amanda Anisimova, Alison Riske, and Coco Gauff are only good for a win or two, although I expect the exciting Gauff to go down in her first round encounter with Konta. Long shots? Look at France’s own Fiona Ferro, who may not win this tournament but will sure be fun to watch, and Greece’s Maria Sakkari, who looks good, hits big, but can’t win seven matches in a row on the slow stuff. And that’s about it, in my humble opinion.

Mens First Rounds, First Week

There are a few really interesting first week matches in the top half of the men’s draw, but there’s nary a player who can challenge Novak Djokovic if the Serb keeps his wits about him. They’ll have human linesmen in France, eschewing electronic line calling at least for this year’s event, so Nole would be wise to know each officials’ longitudes and latitudes when he walks on the court. Any ball struck in anger to the wrong coordinates would likely get the French to argue vociferously with red faces and that nasal dialect they practice to have the Joker put out of his misery.

Russian Daniil Medvedev is the fourth seed, in Nole’s half, but Medvedev hasn’t won a match at Roland Garros in his career, and this is not the time to think that he’ll make the semis and take out the top seed. Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov also reside in the top half, but the former can’t win on clay, and the later can’t piece enough of his attractive, aggressive groundies together to make a deep run into the second week. Stefanos Tsitsipas resides at the bottom of the top half, but the Greek was so disappointing at the Open and then last week in Rome, where he lost his first round match to Jannik Sinner, that I think his mind is shot. This past week in Hamburg he appeared in better form, but which game will he pull out of his bag when he’s confronted with Roland Garros? Tsitsipas, who I thought had the game to win in New York, might have a first round battle on his hand with Spain’s Jame Munar.

The two guys who could make runs in the top half are Karen Khachanov (although he could be gone by Wednesday of the first week, too) and Roberto Bautista Agut, who is always a tough out, but never a champion. Pablo Carreno Busta is a dangerous floater, as could be the winner between Mateo Berrettini and Vasek Pospisil (on clay, it’s gonna be the Italian), but this half is Djokovic’s, unless he implodes.

The bottom half is a little more egalitarian, and therefore more questionable, if for no other reason than Nadal and Thiem are both situated in that half. If form holds, they’ll meet in the semis, and Nadal will move on, looking for his record 13th French Open title. But last week in Rome, 5’5” Diego Schwartzman took Nadal to the cleaners, so what form we’ll see from the world’s best clay court player is a question looking for an answer. My supposition is that he’ll play into this two-week tournament, improving with each match, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be tested beginning in Round Three. In the third round the Spaniard will likely face American John Isner and his giant serve, coming down from his 6’10” frame. After that he could face Fabio Fognini, the winner between Sinner and David Goffin, or even Emil Ruusuvuori, if the Fin’s game can match up to Sinner or Goffin’s on clay.

In order for Thiem to reach the semis, the newly crowned U.S. Open Champion must push through perhaps the survivor of a delicious first round encounter between Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, Diego Schwartzman, maybe Christian Moutet, Gael Monfils, or Taylor Fritz. The Frenchman Benoit Paire, whose mere presence led to an awful controversy by not playing in New York because of a positive Covid-19 test, is playing in Paris, although he again tested positive for the virus. Don’t expect to see him last long. By that, I mean that I expect him to retire in the middle of his first match because of exhaustion, as he did last week in Hamburg. Americans Reilly Opelka and Jack Sock will square off in a first round encounter to nowhere on the French clay, as the winner will likely take on Thiem, if the Austrian makes mincemeat out of former U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, as I suspect he will. Norway’s future star Casper Ruud should meet Thiem in the third round if form holds, but I think Ruud is still 18 months away from actually being a second-week Grand Slam participant. Zverev is in Nadal’s quarter, and if he’s on form he’ll get there. Should he falter it will most likely come against Alex de Minaur, the Demon.

With all that said, this tournament, as always in Paris, is Nadal’s to lose. He’s owned it pretty much for his whole career beginning when he won it in 2005 in his first try at 19 years old, losing only twice in the City of Light. Both Roger Federer and Djokovic were able to nab French Open titles when Nadal suffered his only early round loss (2009) or withdrew from the event due to injury (2016). Nadal’s only losses in a career 93-2 record in Paris came against Robin Soderling in the Round of 16 in 2009, and to Djokovic in the quarters in 2015. Federer’s countryman Wawrinka won one of his three Grand Slam events by taking the French title with a Finals victory over Nole in 2015 after the Mallorcan’s exit.

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