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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Wednesday September 23, 2020


With Rome in the books and Roland Garros qualies full speed ahead (there is also ATP action in Hamburg and WTA action in Strasbourg to keep an eye on), now is the best possible time to take stock of what we’ve learned from this year’s abbreviated road to Roland Garros.

Tennis Express

Rafa’s got work to do

Rafael Nadal came to Rome, played three matches, and saw his bid for a record tenth title at the Foro Italico end in a straight-sets defeat at the hands of Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman.

With matches critically important during a chaotic season, the loss comes as a bit of a blow to a currently undercooked Nadal. The king of clay has always been known as a player that needs time to fine-tune his menacing clay-court game before the big dance begins. That’s why the traditional road to Roland Garros always suited him so well. He’d start in Monte-Carlo, then take his talents to Barcelona before playing Madrid and, finally, Rome.

By the time he got to Paris he’d be an unstoppable Babolat-brandishing bullet train speeding towards his next coronation…

This year it was just Rome, and Nadal is now forced to prepare for the French Open with just three clay-court matches under his belt. To put that into perspective: Nadal had 17 matches on clay before Roland Garros in 2019. He lost three semifinals (to Fabio Fognini, Dominic Thiem, and Stefanos Tsitsipas) before taking the Rome title triumphantly.

This year it will be a bit of a rush, and Nadal, always a creature of habit, will be forced to adjust and make the most of a training block at home before arriving back in Paris to begin his quest for a 13th Roland Garros title. Does it mean he’s an underdog now? Far from it, but it does potentially narrow the gap between the Spaniard and those with a real chance of competing with him in Paris? One would think so.

Nadal will need to improve a lot from where he was in his quarterfinal loss to Schwartzman in Rome, and he was the first one to admit that fact last week.

“I did my job here,” Nadal said. “I did a couple things well and other things bad. And that's it. At least I played three matches. I fighted until the end. But losing that many serves, you can't expect to win a match, no? Something that I have to fix. I know how to do it. I gonna keep working and keep practicing with the right attitude and try to give me a chance to be ready.”

Simona’s the Fave in Paris

2018 Roland Garros champion Simona Halep is feeling great about her chances after winning the title in Rome. And the same goes for everybody else, it seems. The Romanian took the title in Rome for the first time and will carry a 14-match winning streak to this year’s French Open. She’s done enough to be the consensus favorite, and working in her favor is the fact that she feels fresher than usual, having played a “relatively” light schedule that featured a title in Prague, followed by a break, then her title in Rome.

“It is true that I am fresher,” Halep said after winning Rome. “Of course I did work hard at home, but I didn't have matches, many matches, so my body is not that used. So, yeah, it's a plus, in my opinion, that I feel fresh. With these matches here, I feel also confident. So, yeah, it's a better chance.”

Djokovic and Thiem are in there with a fighting chance

We’ve talked about Nadal’s situation, and we’ll be talking about it daily (maybe hourly) as main draw play approaches. But what about Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem?

Djokovic has done nothing but win in 2020, and if it hadn’t been for an ill-timed transgression in New York, he could quite possibly be touting a 35-0 record and an 18th Grand Slam title. But enough of imagining what could have been, let’s instead talk about what is. The Serb stood on the podium in Rome, defeating Diego Schwartzman in two tight sets to earn his 36th Masters 1000 and 81st ATP title. His game is clicking and, perhaps most important, Djokovic feels like he still has plenty of room to improve.

“I don't think I played my best tennis, to be honest,” Djokovic said. “I don't want to sound arrogant here. I'm of course very, very satisfied and pleased and happy to win a title. I know that I still have couple of gears, and hopefully I'll be able to raise that level for French, because that's going to be necessary if I want to go deep in the tournament.”

Sounds like a player that is ready to wreak some havoc on the terre battue…

Djokovic also appears to be feeling quite sanguine about the conditions that players might experience in Paris. He seems to believe that what might be bad for Nadal will be good for him. Makes sense, right?

“Definitely Diego showed that Nadal is beatable on clay,” Djokovic said on Monday in Rome. “The conditions that they played on, obviously heavy clay, not much bounce, humid, night session, we are going to have that, as well, in Paris. Night session, under the lights, as I said, a little bit less bounce, so I don't know -- you know, I'm pretty sure that he does not prefer that to high bounce. I know he likes the high bounce. He likes the hot and warm and fast conditions where he can use his spin a lot.”

As far as Thiem goes, he is generally considered as a top challenger right along with Djokovic. He didn’t play in Rome but Thiem is a proven commodity at Roland Garros and playing with as much confidence as he ever as. If there is a question it will be about his ability to process and manage his emotions, and his ability to be even-keel after experiencing such an incredible professional high in New York. That is a question that will only be answered after first ball in Paris. Until then he has to be considered as a legitimate contender for this title.

Wide open women’s draw? Sure, why not?

We’ve established Simona Halep as the favorite, but what about the rest of the field? It’s tricky…

Karolina Pliskova has certainly emerged as a player that can do damage, but she became more of a question mark when she had to pull out of the Rome final with a thigh injury. Serena Williams, a three-time Roland Garros champion, will turn 39 on the day before main draw play commences. She showed great form in New York and was a set from the final, but what does she have to give on the clay? Elise Mertens, the WTA’s win leader, will enjoy a week off after falling to Pliskova in Rome—she’s a threat on the clay and a potential candidate for a deep run. In reality the women’s side is loaded with players who could potentially step up if Halep falters. Three teenagers made the round of 16 last year and all three—Iga Swiatek, Amanda Anisimova and Marketa Vondrousova—are back and eager to find some form in 2020. There is also 2016 champion GarbiƱe Muguruza and US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka, two of the hottest players on tour in 2020 and two players who held their own in Rome.

There are endless possibilities and permutations, but the names of Halep, Muguruza, Azarenka, Pliskova and Williams factor into all of them.

Conditions always play a factor, but how?

Roland Garros can be a fast-playing, high-bouncing clay surface in hot and sunny conditions. But those balmy, late spring days are not going to happen this year (at least we don’t think so). The forecast right now calls for temps in the 60s and quite a bit of rain. It’s going to be a muddy track in Paris, which will make winners harder to hit and defense easier to play. The question is, will there be some power players that are able to hit through the muck, or will the conditions favor energizer bunnies that can run and defend the court to perfection?

We saw quite a bit of heavy conditions in Rome, but warmer. Players noticed the difference. Karolina Pliskova, for instance, thinks that the conditions will be perfect for Halep’s game.

“I know the weather is not looking that great in Paris, so I think the conditions, just to like play aggressive game against her is gonna be quite tough,” the Czech said. “And she had big success in Paris, so I think she's gonna be one of my like favorite to go for the title.”

Expect the Unexpected

Rusty players still in search of form on clay, endless rain delays, positive Covid-19 tests, a roof over Chatrier (well, that’s expected), upsets galore, Cinderella runs, it’s all on the table right now in Paris. It truly feels like anything can happen this year, and the most adaptable players will be the ones left standing in the end. Paris has always been a survival of the fittest, and 2020 will, perhaps more than ever, epitomize that slogan.

This will not be a normal French Open—far from it—and those players who embrace the moment, enjoy the fact that they are getting the opportunity to play in the safest manner possible, and don’t let the myriad anxiety-causing factors overwhelm them, will have a shot to perform at their best.

Tennis is a mental game, and in the age of coronavirus, it’s more mental than ever. Players have to overcome a mountain of challenges just to make it to Paris, pass all the protocols and take their place in the draw. Once in action, they’ll have to remain steely, block out the bad emotions and let the good ones shine.

 

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