Tennis fans haven't had much time to catch their collective breath following a wild and unusual US Open, but in this, the strangest sporting year of any of our lifetimes, it's time to turn the clock back to mid-May and gear up for the 2020 French Open at Roland Garros. The shortest clay-court season ever is already reaching its finale.
The French Open is a pretty orderly Grand Slam on the men's side -- only nine different players have reached a semifinal in the past five years (compared to 14 at the Australian Open and 13 at the pre-coronavirus US Open), and over that time period, 17 of 20 top-four seeds have reached at least the quarterfinals.
Really, you can track who's going to win by tracking three players: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. Thiem has eliminated Djokovic in two of the past three tournaments at Roland Garros, and Djokovic beat Thiem on the way to the 2016 title. Meanwhile, Nadal has beaten Thiem in each of the past two finals. This time around, Thiem and Nadal could battle in the semis with Djokovic awaiting the winner.
On the women's side, things are far less predictable. That's the nature of playing best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five anyway, but things tend to get particularly wild in Paris. Only eight of 20 top-four seeds have reached the quarterfinals over the past five years. Serena Williams hasn't made even the quarters since 2016, and in the past three tournaments, the previous year's winner has failed to reach the quarters as well.
(That streak is guaranteed to continue since 2019's French Open champ, Ashleigh Barty, is not participating.)
As we did for the US Open, let's walk through different clusters of players in each draw to give ourselves a good lay of the land before the chaos ensues.
Per Caesars by William Hill, here are the favorites on the men's side.
Stefanos Tsitsipas (+2800)
Alexander Zverev (+3900)
Daniil Medvedev (+3900)
About what you'd expect, right? Odds of -110 are equivalent to saying Nadal has about a 48% chance of winning what would be his 13th French Open title, while Djokovic is at 32%, Thiem is at 25% and no one else is over 3%. (Yes, these odds add up to over 100%. That's the way it works in gambling.)
If you're looking for a new threat, Zverev might be the best bet. He has not only reached the past two French quarterfinals, but he has also experienced a Slam breakthrough in 2020, reaching the semis in Australia and the finals in the US Open. Tsitsipas has a game that might translate to clay better than Zverev's or Medvedev's, but the 22-year-old has battled consistency issues in Slams during his young career, advancing past the fourth round in any Slam only once.
Here are the women's favorites:
Simona Halep (+250)
Garbine Muguruza (+700)
Victoria Azarenka (+1200)
Elina Svitolina (+1400)
Kiki Bertens (+1600)
Halep, the 2018 champion and 2017 runner-up, has odds that translate to about a 29% chance, while Muguruza, winner in 2016 and semifinalist in 2018, is next at 13%. It makes sense that they're favored, especially since Muguruza might have the cleanest draw of any favorite despite her No. 11 seed, but one could make a convincing case that no one has anywhere close to a 29% chance against the field, even the extremely in-form Halep.
On the rise
Not including the betting favorites above, here are the men's players who have seen their ratings points rise the most since the start of this long, strange 2020:
Garin and Ruud have both seen clay-court breakthroughs in 2020. Garin won two of the first three clay tournaments of the year, while Ruud has reached three clay semifinals this year and won in Buenos Aires. The 28-year-old Krajinovic, meanwhile, has seen his career thrown off course by injury a couple of times but reached the third round at the French Open last year and stomped 2018 French semifinalist Marco Cecchinato on his way to the third round in the recent Italian Open. Krajinovic is the No. 26 seed and could face Tsitsipas in the third round.
Kenin's recent double-bagel loss to Azarenka on clay did not instill confidence, but she did reach the fourth round in Paris last year. While Rogers did reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros back in 2016 and looked resurgent in reaching the US Open quarters recently, Tig might be a particularly interesting sleeper. The 26-year-old started the year ranked 114th but is a career-high 58th after winning in Istanbul earlier this month. Eleven of her 14 ITF titles, and now her only WTA title, came on clay. With a first-round win, she could get a second-round shot at No. 22 seed Karolina Muchova.
Dangerous on clay
Garin and Ruud have had particularly good seasons on the dirt this year, but a few more names are worth bringing up:
Schwartzman was upset in last year's French Open second round by Argentinian countryman Leonardo Mayer, but he reached the quarterfinals in 2018, two of his three career titles came on clay and, most impressive at the moment, he took down Nadal in straight sets while reaching the finals of last week's Italian Open. Kecmanovic, meanwhile, won at Kitzbuhel, and Djere has made a pair of clay semis in 2020.
On the women's side, we start with a player who almost feels like a sleeper despite earning the No. 2 seed.
Pliskova reached the semis at Roland Garros in 2017 and reached both the finals in Rome and the semis in Prague this year. She's battling a serious Slam funk at the moment -- since reaching the Aussie Open semis in 2019, she hasn't made it past the fourth round of one and got swept out of the US Open in the second round as the No. 1 seed.
Veterans to watch
It's both a shame and a blessing that Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray drew a first-round match against each other. It assures an early marquee battle, but it will also prevent one of them from making a run. The two shared an epic five-set battle in the 2017 French Open semifinals, but while Murray took down Wawrinka in the same round in 2016, Wawrinka has a 4-1 lifetime advantage over him on clay.
Like Murray, Cecchinato is currently outside the ATP top 100. He had to battle in through qualifying, but he could be a tricky first-round matchup with No. 25 seed Alex De Minaur.
There are former champions abound in the women's field despite Barty's absence. Along with Halep, Muguruza and Williams, you've also got 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko and 2009 champion and No. 28 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. Ostapenko could face Pliskova in the second round. The past two years' runners-up, No. 19 seed Marketa Vondrousova and No. 29 Sloane Stephens, both lurk as well.
In all, 13 women in the field have made at least the quarterfinals in the past five years, and Kuznetsova has seven pre-2015 quarterfinal appearances as well. Lots of women headed into the Paris bubble thinking they've got a great shot to make some noise.
For my US Open preview, I walked through three favorites and a wild card for each quarter of the draw. It was a fun exercise for expectation-setting, and it identified all eight eventual semifinalists. So let's do it again!
Djokovic quarter: Djokovic, Carreno Busta, Matteo Berrettini, Garin
Medvedev quarter: Tsitsipas, Rublev, Medvedev, Krajinovic
Thiem quarter: Thiem, Schwartzman, Ruud, Wawrinka
It's easy to assume we know how this draw will play out -- Djokovic faces the Thiem-Nadal winner in the final -- but it's worth mentioning that each of the three favorites has quite a bit of work to do before the semis.
Djokovic could face Garin or Khachanov in the fourth round and Berrettini, Carreno Busta or Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarters. Thiem gets two-time quarterfinalist Marin Cilic in the first round and could draw Ruud in the third, Wawrinka in the fourth and Schwartzman or Gael Monfils in the quarters. Nadal has the cleanest possible route but could still draw Nishikori in the third round and clay nemesis Fognini, who has three career clay wins over the legend, in the fourth. Survive that, and Zverev could await in the quarters.
Halep quarter: Halep, Bertens, Vondrousova, Swiatek
Svitolina quarter: Williams, Mertens, Svitolina, Azarenka
Kenin quarter: Muguruza, Rybakina, Kenin, Aryna Sabalenka
Over the past five years, an average of only 1.6 top-four seeds have reached even the quarterfinals. One could see how chaos might ensue once more. In fact, only one of each quarter's top seeds is listed as either my favorite or second-favorite in each quarter. Pliskova's road is particularly ridiculous -- she could face Ostapenko in the second round, Martic or top-ranked Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic in the fourth and either Kvitova or Madison Keys in the quarters. Maybe having lower expectations this time around will help her.