September 26, 2020

French Open 2020: Predicting the Final Four

It's been a long and twisty road that brought us here at last, inexplicably to the last Grand Slam of the year held, not in New York as per tradition, but at Roland Garros. In Paris. In the fall. Where things somehow look a lot different from what we're used to.

And despite organizers trying to put on a Major that's more "normal" than what we saw at the U.S. Open -- there have been qualifying rounds and fans will, for some reason, be allowed in the stadium -- there are a ton of questions that loom over more than just the action on court. While players like Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, and Bianca Andreescu aren't making the trip as they recover from injury, others like defending champion Ashleigh Barty have pulled out over the risks and restrictions of traveling in the age of COVID -- some were forced to pull out when they or their coaches tested positive last week. And Serena Williams herself has expressed concerns -- with cases rising across Europe and in France in particular, who can blame her?

As for what we can expect in terms of the action -- well, it's hard to say. With a severely abbreviated clay court season players have largely had little time to get acclimated from the hard courts, and we have precious little evidence of what to expect. At the same time, the U.S. Open seemed to open the door for both a fresh slate of potential champions and an opportunity for those we'd all but written off to shine again. But, then again, there aren't nearly as many holes in the draw as there were in New York -- nine of the top ten men and seven of the top women are still in the draws -- so if we're going to see those new champions emerge, they arguably will have a little more work to do.

So with that all said, let's get to the details on how we can epect the quarters to play out and what will likely (hopefully) be the last appearance of my Confidence Meter. Here's a reminder of what it all means:

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Here we go!



First Quarter

Top seeded Simona Halep may have been the favorite in Paris, even if defending champion Ashleigh Barty had been able to make the trip to Paris. A long ago Junior champion at the French, Halep was runner-up twice before she finally broke the Grand Slam seal and brought home her first big trophy in 2018. And she is riding a solid win streak coming into this event, with titles at the last three tournaments she's played, two of which were on clay.

She'll be challenged early, with a first round against Sara Sorribes Tormo, who's coming off an ITF title in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, and has a potential third round against Amanda Anisimova who stunned her in the quarters last year. She's also in the same section as Johanna Konta, another 2019 semifinalist who (yikes!) opens against Coco Gauff, and recent standout Maria Sakkari, whose only title to date came on clay (she was also a semifinalist in Rome last year, though hasn't had any practice on the surface this season).

Also lurking in this quarter -- summer standout Shelby Rogers. The 27-year-old was ranked outside the top hundred when she shocked Serena Williams in Lexington, and she became the belle of the New York ball with wins over Elena Rybakina and Petra Kvitova to make the quarters at the U.S. Open. And she's actually had greater success on clay -- back in 2014 she made the final in Bad Gastein, with wins over Carla Suárez Navarro and one-time French finalist Sara Errani in the process. A few years later she reached the quarters in Paris too, losing to the ultimate champion Garbiñe Muguruza, so you certainly can't count her out on this surface.

And let's not forget wildcard Eugenie Bouchard. The one-time world #5 is a long way away from the heights of her career, when she made three straight Slam semis and one final (and won what's weirdly her only tour title to date). Since then she's infamously struggled with form and fell at the start of this year out of the top two-hundred in the world. But the still-young Canadian quietly beat top seed Svetlana Kuznetsova at an event in Istanbul during the U.S. Open and made her first tour final since 2016, where she only lost in a third set tiebreak.

If she makes the third round, she could face last year's surprise runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, fresh off the semis in Rome. Granted, Roland Garros was strange last year, with only one semifinalist ever having made the final four at a Major before (props to Johanna Konta). But Vondrousova, playing in just her third main draw in Paris, scored four wins over players ranked higher than her, arguably a more impressive run than that of eventual champion Ashleigh Barty. She opens this time against a very talented teenager Iga Swiatek, and while she is on-paper the favorite, this one could be much tougher than the seedings suggest.

My Semifinalist Pick:Simona Halep
Confidence Meter:She's riding a hot streak, and won't want to give it up

Second Quarter

Like with the U.S. Open's top quarter this year, it's really hard to get excited about any of the favorites in this section. Karolina Pliskova is the presumptive pick, and she did make the final in Rome just last week, but retiring in the championship match after winning just one game doesn't bode that well for her now. And while she made the semis here back in 2017, she continues to disappoint me at the Majors. Petra Kvitova, meanwhile, has had some decent results this year, but since her semifinal in Paris way back in 2012, she's never made it out of the fourth round.

So who could surprise us? Well, there's 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko who stunned Simona Halep in the final after having already beaten Sam Stosur and Caroline Wozniacki. But the now 23-year-old has never won a match at Roland Garros other than during that run, losing in the first round of her three other appearances. That's not to say she's totally a flash in the pan -- she made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon the same year she won in Paris and reached the semis a year later. But results this year have been mixed -- she beat Sofia Kenin during Fed Cup in February, right after the American's stellar run in Melbourne, but hasn't made much headway since. This week in Strasbourg, after rebounding to take the lead over top seed Kiki Bertens (she won by retirement), she lost a tight two setter to Nao Hibino with a combined twelve breaks of serve.

There's also Petra Martic, who made the quarters last year with a win over Pliskova, but she hasn't beaten -- or faced -- anyone in the top twenty this year; Veronika Kudermetova, who beat Pliskova at the Western & Southern (do you see why I have such little faith?); and young Leylah Fernandez, who reached the final in Acapulco and took out Sloane Stephens in Lexington.

But maybe keep an eye on Alizé Cornet, unseeded at the French, who has somewhat spectacularly played the last 54 Majors and, despite wins over Serena Williams, Aga Radwanska, and Caroline Wozniacki (that one was all the way back in 2007!), has never reached a quarterfinal. Isn't she about due? After a win over Sofia Kenin at the Western & Southerhn, she made the fourth round at the U.S. Open, beating Madison Keys on the way and putting up a helluva fight versus Tsvetana Pironkova. Her problem has been consistency, but perhaps she can get that under control now.

My Semifinalist Pick:Petra Martic
Confidence Meter:If she's ever got a chance, this is it

Third Quarter

This might be the toughest section of the women's draw, led by 2010 French Junior champion Elina Svitolina, who reached the quarters here in 2015 and 2017. She's really become an all-court player since then, with runs to the semis at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year. She made her post-lockdown return on the clay of Rome, where she was a two-time defedning champion, and was upset in the quarters by last year's surprise Roland Garros runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, but rebounded to take the title this past week in Strasbourg. She begins her campaign in Paris against Varvara Gracheva, who pulled off one of the most unbelieveable comebacks in tennis history in New York earlier this month, but the bigger threats lie elsewhere.

First, at least on paper, there's Serena Williams who, for the ninth time is going for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title. And as sacrilegious as it is to say, she's probably going to fall short again. The French has never been Serena's best Slam -- she has "just" three trophies here (compared to seven in both Melbourne and Wimbledon and six at the U.S.) and it's been the site of her only first and second round exits at Majors. And while she had a decent run in New York, she's also notched some surprising losses this summer, and even her wins aren't coming easily -- she's only got three straight set victories since Australia. To expect her to put all that aside when she hasn't made the second week here since 2016 seems to be asking a lot.

While Serena shouldn't have trouble in her opener -- she faces Kristie Ahn in the first round for the second straight Slam -- she might get a quick rematch right after that with her U.S. Open quarterfinal opponent Tsvetana Pironkova. The 33-year-old Bulgarian, a semifinalist at Wimbledon ten years ago and a quarterfinalist here in 2016, had a stunning run in New York, her first event in three years after giving birth, stunning Garbiñe Muguruza in the second round and even taking a set off Serena in the quarters. Her performance earned her a wildcard to the French and a first round match against 2014 semifinalist Andrea Petkovic, now ranked well off her highs. We could very well see Pironkova get the win, and maybe more than one.

Then there's Elise Mertens, one of the real workhorses on tour since the shutdown. She's played every week there was an event taking place except this past one, and has made deep runs in all of them, including her first ever Major quarterfinal in New York, where she demolished Sofia Kenin, and the semis in Rome, where she took Karolina Pliskova to three sets. I'm actually surprised her ranking remains as low as it is -- she's currently just in the top twenty and topped out at #12 in the world two years ago -- but she could do a lot to improve that in Paris.

But the big threat here is Victoria Azarenka, for whom things look a lot different than they did at the start of the year. After pulling out of the Australian Open, losing her first match in Monterrey, and coming OHSOCLOSE to retiring, Vika has had one of the best runs since the lockdown, switching deftly from the hard courts of New York to the Roman clay, with a one-sided defeat of Sofia Kenin in the second round. The tenth seed in Paris, she's at her highest ranking since early 2017, and could well be going higher. To repeat her run, she might have to pull off another upset of Serena in the fourth round, but she must have the confidence now to do it.

And all that still doesn't cover all the possibilities of this quarter -- Ekaterina Alexandrova may be struggling a bit in recent weeks, but she's nevertheless had some solid wins this year; Yulia Putintseva, the surprise quarterfinalist in both New York and Rome, faces off against veteran Kirsten Flipkens; and a very talented Anett Kontaveit opens against Caroline Garcia, who beat Karolina Pliskova in her U.S. Open second round.

With all that talent, who's to say who could power through?

My Semifinalist Pick:Elise Mertens
Confidence Meter:With a quarter this strong, why not? 

Fourth Quarter

It's hard not to keep your eye on the players who currently hold Grand Slam titles, especially when there are only two in the mix, but I have to say I haven't been impressed by Sofia Kenin's performance post lockdown. Though she managed a follow-up to her Aussie trophy back in March in Lyon, she's been pretty quiet in more recent events and was absolutely decimated in her clay court opener in Rome by Victoria Azarenka. And it's not like she can't play on clay -- she first hit my radar last year when she beat Serena Williams at Roland Garros -- but she has a lot to prove in this go-around, and it will be critical to show her run at the start of the year was no fluke.

The other top seed in this quarter, Aryna Sabalenka, has been similarly "meh" in the back half of the season. Since claiming a title in Doha in February, she hasn't won more than one match at an event until Strasbourg last week. She did make the semis, pushing champion Elina Svitolina to three sets in her second match on Friday, but with a first round against Jessica Pegula, who beat her in "Cincy", she'll have to regroup quick here.

That opens the door for some others to shine here. Jennifer Brady will want to follow up on her U.S. Open semifinal run. Fiona Ferro, one of the only women other than Halep to win a clay court title this year, beating Camila Giorgi, Ekaterina Alexandrova, Anett Kontaveit, and former French finalist Sara Errani, in Palermo, will want to finally start gaining some traction at the Majors. And, of course, Ons Jabeur is just screaming to make her first big Major run.

Then of course, there's 2016 champ Garbiñe Muguruza, who came into the season having won just one match in the last seven months of 2019. But a second place showing in Melbourne, with wins over Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, and Simona Halep, rocketed her back up the rankings. She had a slow start post-lockdown, falling well short of my expectations for her at the U.S. Open, but rejoined the land of the living in Rome, making the semis by beating Vika and Johanna Konta during the week. She's slated for a third round against Brady, but maybe this time she can pull through.

And I'm still not willing to count out Elena Rybakina, one of the hardest working players on tour before the lockdown. I will never not be impressed by the fact that she made four finals in six events and almost as many weeks before finally taking a walkover in Doha. I was hoping she'd get a chance to recover when play was halted, but it appears the constant motion is good for her -- she lost early at the Western & Southern, U.S. Open and Rome before getting her footing back in Strasbourg on her way to yet another final. She opens against Sorana Cirstea, a Cinderella quarterfinalist from 2009 who will want to prove she's still relevant after a big win over Johanna Konta in New York, but I kind of like Rybakina's chances to keep her streak going.

My Semifinalist Pick:Elena Rybakina
Confidence Meter:She seems to do the best when she's going non-stop


First Quarter

For the U.S. Open, this quarter was the one that I thought was the most obvious, with Novak Djokovic as yet unbeaten on the year and buoyed by the fact that he was the only one of the Big Three even entered in the draw. At the time, we didn't think his biggest threat would be himself, and while he regrouped enough to claim a record-breaking his fifth title in Rome last week, he doesn't seem quite in top form. I realize how strange it is to say that -- even several notches below his best, Nole is a bigger power than almost everyone else, but it does leave cracks.

Among those is Pablo Carreño Busta, the man who benefitted from his default in New York. He's in Djokovic's quarter again, and could face him in the quarterfinals. He's made it that far once before, and though he's had some of his best results on hard courts, he can still get things done on clay. He opens against John Millman, a talented player albeit one who's never won a match in Paris, so should be able to get a few wins in before he's really tested.

There's also Hubert Hurkacz, who notched a win over Dominic Thiem at the start of the year, Jan-Lennard Struff, who beat Denis Shapovalov in "Cincinatti", and Cristian Garin, who quietly picked up two titles during the Latin America clay court swing earlier this year and took Stefanos Tsitsipas to three sets in the Hamburg semis this week. The Chilean is playing just his second Roland Garros, and a deep run could really make a big statement. A potential spoiler to him, though, is France's Ugo Humbert, who stunned Daniil Medvedev on his way to the Hamburg quarters this past week -- he also won a title in Auckland to start the year. Unseeded, he'd likely face Garin in the second round, and if he can survive might just be able to keep his momentum going.

All that said, though, this really is Nole's quarter to lose. And if he can keep his cool -- certainly not a given -- there may be no stopping him.

My Semifinalist Pick:Novak Djokovic
Confidence Meter:You gotta go with the odds here

Second Quarter

This one should be Rafael Nadal's for the taking, and in all likelihiood it will be. But near the end of what's been a very unpredictable year, we've set one more milestone this clay court season -- it's the first one since 2004 in which the 12-time champion has not yet won a title on the surface -- and there's no reason to believe we're in the clear yet. Rafa was stunningly upset by Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals of Rome, his first event back since the shutdown. That shouldn't necessarily scare us loyalists -- he's often had hiccups before the French and still come away with the title. And this year, when there was so little time between events, he didn't have that much of a chance to get his footing. Hopefully he does so quickly in Paris.

There will, after all, be plenty of others hoping to take advantage of any rust, not least of whom is Alexander Zverev, fresh off his first Grand Slam final in New York. He's made the quarters here the last two years, though never faced a real threat on those runs, and to go one better he'll likely have to get through Nadal first. Still, he will likely want to make up for squandering a two-set lead in the U.S. Open championship.

The German's first big test could be Alex de Minaur, who had his own Cinderella run in New York, but it could also come from qualifier Marco Cecchinato, someone I did not realize made the semis here in 2018, beating Novak Djokovic in the process, but had to play qualifiers to make this year's main draw. Well off his career highs, the Italian nevertheless has proven he can be a force on these courts.

Then there's young Jannik Sinner, the nineteen year old who beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round of Rome just last week. He begins his first ever French Open main draw against David Goffin, a man he upset earlier this year in Rotterdam. If he passes that test, he actually has a pretty clear field for a few rounds and could potentially set up a fourth round against Zverev. That's asking a lot, I know, but weirder things have happened.

My Semifinalist Pick:Rafael Nadal
Confidence Meter:
Yes, only 4! I'm nervous!

Third Quarter

In what must be a first, if not at least a very, very rare event and one that hasn't happened in a looooong time, this quarter features TWO (yes, caps and italics are both appropriate here) first round match-ups between former Grand Slam champions: Dominic Thiem, who finally broke the seal earlier this month in New York, versus 2014 U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic -- the last two first-time winners -- and Stan Wawrinka versus Andy Murray. We could talk for hours about these two matches alone, but there's a lot more to get to, so I'll make it quick. Thiem has been a finalist here two years straight and has won all three meetings against Cilic -- I can't imagine he'll be tested too hard early. On the other hand, Wawrinka and Murray have split their (only?!) two meetings and love five-setters -- whoever wins their battle will have to regroup quick for the next round.

That could make for an interesting opportunity for Dominik Koepfer, who they might face next. The one-time Tulane star spent most of the year on the Challengers' tour and in qualifying events, but as a qualifier in Rome he took out Gael Monfils (and pushed Novak Djokovic to three sets) and this past week scored a win over Yoshihito Nishioka in Hamburg (and pushed Roberto Bautista Agut to three sets). He's playing his first ever French Open and might just be able to manage a few wins while he's here.

And what about Monfils, the other top seed in this quarter? He's not necessarily the best clay courter, and it's been a while since the 34-year-old Frenchman has done well here. He last made the quarters in 2014 and the semis way back in 2008 -- and he's had a rough restart to his season, losing his openers in Rome to Koepfer and in Hamburg to Yannick Hanfmann. But he was on a real roll ahead of the lockdown, picking up hard court titles in Montpellier and Rotterdam before making the semis in Dubai. He opens his Paris campaign against Alexander Bublik, who underhand aced his opponent in the Hamburg quarters, and while I would love to see Monfils do well, he may not be the biggest threat.

That's not to say there aren't other threats lurking -- Casper Ruud is seeded at a Major for the first time in his young career, and after a run to the semis in both Rome, where he beat Karen Khachanov and Matteo Berrettini, and Hamburg, where he took out Fabio Fognini, he could feature prominently here. He's slated for a third round against Thiem, who he's never played before, and might just be able to put up a fight if he gets there.

And then there's Diego Schwartzman, the man who against all odds kept Rafael Nadal title-less on clay this year. The Argentine, who's only won a handful of smaller titles in his career, shocked the undisputed GOAT 🐐on this surface with a straight-set win in Rome, his first victory over Rafa in ten tries. He followed up with a solid win over Denis Shapovalov in the semis and put up a nice fight against Novak Djokovic in his first Masters final. In Paris, he starts against a barely unseeded Miomir Kecmanovic, but the Serb still hasn't gotten a foothold at the Slams, so if Schwartzman can manage the win, he could well make another run to get back in the quarters and maybe even go further than that.

My Semifinalist Pick:Diego Schwartzman
Confidence Meter:I'm just rooting for him so much...

Fourth Quarter

The last quarter of the draw is headlined by a couple of guys who certainly have the potential to be the next generation's standard bearers for the sport but seem to keep coming up a little short. Daniiel Medvedev got so close to breaking into the upper echelons at the U.S. Open last year, and I was frankly kind of surprised at how easily he lost to Dominic Thiem when trying to defend his runner-up points -- he should have had a 2-1 set lead in the semis and instead lost in straights. He then skipped Rome and strangely lost his opener in Hamburg to Ugo Humbert, not exactly a promising start on what's by far his worst surface historically.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, who won the year end championships last year, remains an underperformer in the Majors. He was upset by Borna Coric in a long third round in New York and by Milos Raonic in straight sets in Melbourne -- he's only made it past the fourth round once. He's trying to build momentum on clay though -- after dropping his Rome opener to Jannik Sinner, he's playing for the title tomorrow in Hamburg. But with the final on Sunday, the same day first rounds start in Paris, he's going to have to bounce back fast to make a deep run again.

Either favorite is vulnerable to upsets -- Medvedev opens against Marton Fucsovics, who ousted Denis Shapovalov in Melbourne and Grigor Dimitrov in both "Cincy" and the U.S. Open. The Russian has won the pair's only two previous meetings, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the tables turned this time. And Filip Krajinovic, on pace to meet Tsitsipas in the third round could also be a spoiler -- he beat Dominic Thiem at the Western & Southern and in Andrey Rublev in Rotterdam at the start of the year. He's a lower seed but may outshine his expectations.

But let's talk more about Shapovalov and Rublev too. The former was a little quiet at the start of the year, but really broke through at the U.S. Open, beating David Goffin and very nearly making the semis during a spectacular five-setter against Pablo Carreño Busta. And he got right back to work in Rome with wins over Ugo Humbert and Grigor Dimitrov on his way to the semis. Now ranked at #10 in the world, the young Canadian is really proving himself on all courts. He opens against veteran Gilles Simon and could meet Tsitsipas in the fourth round, but he's got it in him to pull off some upsets.

Rublev, meanwhile kicked off this year red hot, winning titles in Doha and Adelaide before reaching the fourth round in Melbourne. He also reached the quarters at the U.S. Open, and after a fairly early exit in Rome, he's playing the Hamburg final tomorrow. Like so many potential contenders, he'll have to turn around quick if he wants to make a statement in Paris, but he might just be able to do it.

My Semifinalist Pick:Denis Shapovalov
Confidence Meter:It just feels like his time to break through

With all that said, there's a lot of other storylines to watch at this year's French Open -- from the history-making qualifications of Mexico's Renata Zarazua, who made the semis in Acapulco and is the first woman from her country to make the main draw in Paris, and Mayar Sherif, who following in the footsteps of Ons Jabeur did the same for Egypt. And Sara Errani, a finalist back in 2012 will try to get her first win in a Major main draw in three years.

There's also the comeback stories of Kei Nishikori, playing his first Major of the year, and Jack Sock, who's currently ranked out of the top 300 but battled through qualifiers to get a first round against big-serving Reilly Opelka, and the potential young upstarts like Mackenzie McDonald.

Of course, even with all the potential drama, all eyes will be on Rafa, who despite my 4-ball rating remains the favorite for a thirteenth title here, and Serena, who despite my lack of faith could make history on the clay of Paris. And either one of them could bring us some real magic over this next fortnight.

But what I most hope for is that we are able to get through this event without any catastrophic issues among the players, their teams, or anyone in attendance. The U.S. Open did a decent job managing the new normal we live in, but it wasn't without its faults, and hopefully those in charge at Roland Garros can learn from any mistakes. After all, the last thing we need is for any infection or outbreak to change the entire storyline of what's happening here.

So as we all cross our fingers for a safe and exciting last Grand Slam of the year, let's just hope it's all worth it.

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