May 23, 2015

2015 French Open: Ten to Watch

Well things sure got interesting this clay court season, didn't they?

With the 2015 French Open just around the corner, we've seen some stunning runs from a couple unexpected sources, a few real comebacks from one-time superstars, and of course, a stumble or two along the way. And even though the heaviest favorites always find a way to bring their best on the Slam stages, we've seen even them struggle a bit in recent weeks.

And that could opens the door for plenty others -- whether they're underdogs who've been able to shine on their own the last few events, or once high-profile players looking to redeem themselves for recent missteps, I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple unfamiliar faces hanging around the later parts of this tournament.

And a few might just be worth keeping an extra close eye on this time around.

The Women

Angelique Kerber

The German has been staging something of a comeback the last few months. Despite some decent results in 2014 -- her Wimbledon showdown against Maria Sharapova was one of the best matches of the year -- she also notched some surprising losses throughout the season -- to Flavia Pennetta in Australia, to then-#47 Madison Keys in the Eastbourne final, to Genie Bouchard at both the French Open and Wimbledon. In 2015 she was upset at every tournament she played through March and fell out of the top ten by the time the clay court season really kicked in. But she seemed to get her groove back on the dirt -- a low seed in Charleston, she took out defending champion Andrea Petkovic in the semis and then avenged her loss to Keys in the final, picking up her first title in over a year. Then, unseeded in Stuttgart, she knocked out three top-ten players, including Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, to clinch her biggest crown in years. She lost a little early in both Madrid and Rome, but seemed to get back on course this past week in Nürnberg. Though she withdrew from the semis, she might just have bought herself recovery time before hitting the bigger courts.

Svetlana Kuznetsova

Svetlana Kuznetsova has already tasted success on Tour -- the 2009 champion at Roland Garros has been as high as #2 in the world, but a series of injuries and hiccups has put her on a bit of a roller coaster over the years. Since falling dangerously close to a triple digit ranking early in 2013, she ended a four year long title-less streak last year in Washington, but has also lost in the first round of four of the last five Majors she's played. But the scrappy veteran always seems to fight her way back. Unseeded in Madrid at the start of the month, she faced a tough draw of one top-thirty player after another, and upset each one in turn, starting with Ekaterina Makarova in her opener and then shocking Maria Sharapova in the semis -- her first win over her compatriot since 2008. She ultimately lost to Petra Kvitova in the final, but must have given herself a nice little confidence boost during her run. Sure it's been a long time since she's been at the very top of her game, but she seems to do her best when she's most overlooked -- and with her only Slam wins in over a year coming on these courts there's no reason she won't be able to do some damage again.

Carina Witthoeft

Of course, it's sometimes more fun to watch new talent emerge at the Slams, and that might just happen here. This would be just the fourth appearance at a Major for the young German, but since jumping from the triple digit rankings at the start of the year to #61 in the world now, she could make a real run at this one. She's already shown she isn't fazed on the big stages -- Witthoeft rode an easy win over Carla Suarez Navarro in her Melbourne opener to the third round, and a few months later made it to the Kuala Lumpur quarters with a win over former top-twenty player Klara Koukalova. She also picked up her ninth and tenth ITF titles this year, making good on her top seed on the Cagnes-sur-Mer clay to start the month. She made a nice run to the quarterfinals this week in Nürnberg, ultimately losing to relative veteran Lara Arruabarrena, but should be able to recover by the time she heads to France. She opens against a rough Katerina Siniakova and would likely face 2012 finalist Sara Errani right after that -- but she's had worse draws in the past and still powered through. This time, I wouldn't count her out either.

Daria Gavrilova

Like Witthoeft, the twenty-one year old Russian really has been coming into her own this year -- a top-ranked Juniors player not so long ago, she's been putting up a nice fight against some of the sport's best. The Girls' champ in New York in 2010, this year she's already taken Angelique Kerber to three long sets in Sydney, picked up a couple ITF titles after the Australian Open and then stunned Maria Sharapova in the Miami second round. She made some progress on the clay too -- unseeded even in qualifying rounds in Rome, she made it to the main draw where she beat both red-hot Timea Bacsinszky and one-time French Open champion Ana Ivanovic during a Cinderella run to the semis. She wasn't able to repeat her upset over Sharapova this time, though, but did pick up enough points to move to #45 in the WTA rankings heading to Paris. Her first big test at the French is likely second round opponent Sabine Lisicki, but I wouldn't be surprised if she far outplayed her opponents for a few matches even after that.

Kristina Mladenovic

The Frenchwoman has become something of a giant-killer in recent months -- since one of her most notable successes on these courts just last year, she's gone on to beat the likes of Sabine Lisicki, Lucie Safarova, and most recently Garbiñe Muguruza, on her way to the semis in Marrakech a few weeks back. That last one was one of the few times she's been able to back up one solid win with another though, which probably explains why her ranking is still languishing outside the top fifty -- but she has seemed a little more consistent of late, taking a set of Ekaterina Makarova in Rome and reaching the final in Strasbourg this week, so she may be about to turn things around. The former French Open Juniors champion -- she beat Gavrilova in the 2009 final -- also has some impressive doubles results under her belt, including two mixed Major titles and a women's final at Wimbledon in 2014. That kind of match play could give her the experience she needs to finally find her game on the singles circuit too. She'll face off against 2014 breakout Genie Bouchard in her opening round -- kind of a tough blow -- but last year's semifinalist has been struggling in recent months and if Mladenovic can power through that she might really be able to make a push into the top tiers of the sport.

The Men

Ernests Gulbis

It's not just about players looking to make their first real mark at a Major, though -- and those who've done well in Paris in the past could come under pressure to prove that one deep run was not a fluke. High on that list is the twenty-six year old Latvian, who rose to a career high ranking after his performance here last year -- Gulbis made the semis with stunning wins over Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer, only the second time he'd even made it past the first week of a Major. He struggled with injury at the end of the season, though, and had to decline an alternate's spot at the year-end championships. And when he got back on court in 2015 he had even more trouble gaining traction -- he's lost pretty much every opening round he's played this year. He seemed like he might be turning things around -- out to defend a title this past week in Nice, he opened with a three-set victory over former world #13 Alexandr Dolgopolov, just his second match win of the year -- but after a third round loss to young Dominic Thiem on Thursday, he might have lost that momentum. His weak performance over the last several months has dropped his ranking back down to #25 in the world -- certainly not something to be ashamed of, but if he doesn't get his act together in Paris, he's in danger of seeing an even more precipitous drop.

Fabio Fognini

The feisty Italian hasn't yet made it that far at a Major, but the 2011 quarterfinalist in Paris has had some of his best results on these courts -- in fact five years ago he stunned then-#15 Gael Monfils in a four-hour slugfest that practically lasted until the sun went down. But after picking up a couple titles at smaller clay events ahead of the 2014 French Open, he's had a little trouble keeping his momentum. This season alone he's lost five opening round matches and seen his ranking nearly double to #29 in the world. Strangely, though, despite a slew of losses to what should have been easy opponents he has found a way to succeed against a most unlikely foe -- he's beaten King of Clay Rafael Nadal both in Rio and Barcelona, his only two top-ten wins of the year. And while he might not quite be a contender for the title he might just be able to cause some trouble for the favorites.

Guillermo Garcia Lopez

Veteran Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, on the other hand, seems to be squarely back on the upswing. The thirty-one year old made his best Slam showing here last year, reaching the fourth round after stunning Stan Wawrinka in his opener. Since then he's climbed back into the top thirty and picked up a couple titles to boot -- on the Bucharest clay last month, he notched upsets over Lukas Rosol and Gael Monfils, before outlasting young Jiri Vesely in the final. He's also defeated top-twenty players like Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson on the surface this season, and has almost reclaimed his highest career ranking. He's disappointed me in the past -- five years ago I picked him as a dark horse semifinalist at Roland Garros, and he lost in the second round -- but it feels like he has gotten a little more consistent in recent months and might just surprise me, this time for the better.

Pablo Andujar

Garcia Lopez's fellow Spaniard is a little more under the radar. Andujar has spent much of the last several years with a middle-of-the-road ranking, never climbing high enough to score a seed at a Major, but always pulling off just enough wins to stay relevant. And if he's ever going to make a statement at a Slam, this could be his best shot -- he's picked up a trio of titles on the surface and this year scored wins over Felicano Lopez and David Ferrer on his way to the Barcelona final. And this past week in Geneva he put up a nice fight against Portugal's Joao Sousa before losing in the quarters. But despite his strength on clay, Andujar has only made it as far as the second round in Paris, and the last two years he lost his opener. Still, maybe low expectations are exactly what he needs to get something done -- he has a couple relatively easy early rounds, with the first seeds he's slated to face Phillipp Kohlschreiber and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, neither of whom have had stellar results recently. The barely unseeded Spaniard could give any one of them a run for the money.

Victor Estrella Burgos

The thirty-four year old veteran made history in February when he became the oldest first-time titleist on Tour -- and after his victory on clay in Quito, he picked up a Challengers' crown in Mexico. He didn't let up once the season kicked into full gear in -- he beat U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic in Barcelona and took out both Viktor Troicki and on-the-rebound Janko Tipsarevic, before falling in three to 2014 breakout star Roberto Bautista Agut in Munich. He dropped a tight match to young Dominic Thiem in Nice this week, but that could give him some much-needed time to recover before heading to Paris. This will be just his second appearance at the French Open of his long career -- he lost last year's opener to Jerzy Janowicz -- and a shade off his highest career ranking now, he could just be biding his time before pouncing.

All these players come to the French Open with different expectations -- some are looking for a breakout, others for redemption, and maybe a few have a real shot at taking home the title. But there are plenty out there who could spoil the fun -- we saw deep runs this week from the likes of Federico Delbonis and John Isner, and one-time standouts like Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki might be poised for a comeback.

Whatever the case, it sure seems like the favorites will have their work cut out for them at Roland Garros, and no one's road to the titles will be easy.

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