There was a little pizzazz missing when they did the 2016 French Open draw on Friday on the Roland Garros grounds.
Two notable absentees contributed to the under-whelming feeling – Roger Federer is not playing (the back is still not quite right) for the first time since 1998 and Maria Sharapova (suspension) is absent for the first time since 2002. Both had streaks at Roland Garros – Federer’s was 17 years in a row while Sharapova’s was 13.
Their not being present at the second Grand Slam of the year definitely takes away a bit of the lustre but that may be compensated for by Novak Djokovic and his quest for a victory to complete his career Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal trying for a remarkable 10th triumph in the Paris springtime and Serena Williams aiming for a fourth title to push her Grand Slam total to 22 and tie legendary German Steffi Graf.
Closer to home, there are four Canadians in main draw singles led by Milos Raonic, who is the eighth seed in the men’s event, and Genie Bouchard hoping for a result more like two years ago (semifinal) than last year (first-round exit).
Vasek Pospisil is playing his fifth Roland Garros in a row and still looking for his first singles win while Aleksandra Wozniak, using her injury-protected ranking, is competing in her ninth French Open with her best result coming in 2009 when she reached the round-of-16 before losing to Serena Williams.
Raonic (at the top here is the moment his name was picked out into the third quarter of the draw) appears to have the best draw as he takes on Janko Tipsarevic for starters. That match will be Sunday, making Raonic the only Canadian in action on what the French have taken to calling “le Sunday start.” A former world No. 8 in 2012, the 31-year-old Tipsarevic has been hampered for several years by a foot issue and this year has only played two Challenger events, winning just one match, and one ATP tournament – losing to Federico Delbonis 6-1, 7-6(6) in Geneva in the first round this week. He’s currently No. 686 and required an injury protected ranking to enter the French Open.
Raonic and Tipsarevic have played four times and Raonic has won each of them – with a 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 10-8 victory in the 2013 Davis Cup semi-finals in Belgrade, when the Canadian saved a match point, being the highlight.
“He hasn’t played much the last two and two and a half years,” Raonic said about Tipsarevic. “I saw a bit of his match against Debonis (in Geneva) and he was still playing well. It’s going to be a difficult match and one where I really have to find my game and try to dictate and take care of the little things that can make a difference.”
Raonic revealed on Friday that he had a wrist issue when he lost 7-6(5), 6-3 to Nick Kyrgios in the second round in Rome last week. “I just had a little inflammation that I was dealing with in my wrist, my left wrist,” he said. “It was hard for me to hold the racquet but that’s passed after a few days of rest and therapy. I feel good now and I’ve done quite a few good days of training. It’s been solid as much as the rain allows training here these days.”
Future opponents for Raonic could be Mikhail Kukushkin or Adrian Mannarino in the second round, possibly No. 29 seed Lucas Pouille in the third and either No. 10 Marin Cilic or No. 23 Jack Sock in the round-of-16.
Pospisil will take on Tomas Berdych in the first round. He has a 2-0 record versus the 30-year-old No. 7 seed, with whom he shares a Czech heritage. Pospisil beat Berdych in Washington in 2014 and at Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2013.
Their respective records so far in 2016 are 19-10 Berdych and 4-12 for Pospisil who is currently ranked No. 47.
It stacks up as an interesting match from the viewpoint that Pospisil has struggled of late – but nothing like the 6-0, 6-0 loss that David Goffin inflicted on Berdych in Rome’s round-of-16 last week – his last appearance before Roland Garros.
That score remains quite inscrutable although Belgian reporters claim that Goffin could hardly miss a ball that day, which coincided with a very poor serving day for the 6-foot-5 Czech. That double bagel may have contributed to the eventual firing of his coach Dani Vallverdu.
Top Canadian woman Genie Bouchard appears to have a tougher challenge than her male counterpart Raonic. Bouchard’s debut match will be a first meeting with late-blooming Laura Siegemund.
The 28-year-old German began the year at No. 90 but has moved up her ranking to No. 38, helped by reaching the final of the WTA Premier event on indoor clay in her hometown of Stuttgart in April. At that tournament she defeated No. 6 Simona Halep, No. 8 Roberta Vinci and No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska before losing 6-4, 6-0 to German compatriot Angelique Kerber in the final.
“I’ve seen her this year and she’s had some good results,” Bouchard said on Friday about Siegemund. “I’ve seen her a little bit more at the tournaments so she’s definitely a player not to take lightly. I respect any opponent I play ever. I just look forward to battling and enjoying a Grand Slam atmosphere.”
Courts are at a premium this year at the Roland Garros site, so the shot above of Bouchard was taken at the Jean Bouin tennis club about a five-minute walk from Roland Garros. Access was not easy so the angle here is through a fence from another court located above where Bouchard was practising with Andrea Petkovic.
“When we started again it was like we had never stopped,” Bouchard said about being back with former and long-time coach Nick Saviano (pictured here). “We have that comfort level with each other. He’s known me since I was 12 years old. We went back into the flow right away, which even surprised me. There was no awkwardness, no different opinions because we’re both on the same page on so many things. It’s been great having him back and we’ve been putting in some good work, long hours on the court and hopefully it will pay off.
Looking ahead in the draw, Bouchard could play No. 8 seed Timea Bacsinszky, the Swiss who defeated her 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 in the round-of-16 at Indian Wells, in the second round.
As for Wozniak, her first-round opponent is feisty Yulia Putintseva. The 21-year-old Muscovite is only 5-foot-4 but brings a lot of energy to all her matches.
It’s a first meeting for two players with a dramatic rankings differential – Putintseva is No. 56 to No. 506 for Wozniak. That latter number is largely due to Wozniak’s shoulder surgery in September 2014, and the long road back. The 28-year-old from Blainville, Que., has only played two main tour WTA events in 2016, in the qualifying at both the Australian Open and Indian Wells. Her other four tournaments were at the ITF Challenger level but she did have a good win in Fed Cup in Quebec City in February, defeating No. 74-ranked Olga Govortsova of Belarus. She had another Top 100 success over No. 75 Ana Konjuh of Croatia in the Indian Wells qualies.
Milos Raonic made a sponsor appearance on Friday evening for New Balance at the Tennis Club Boulogne-Billancourt, located just a short walk out the back gate of Roland Garros.
Raonic hit with each of the kids and then let each of them feel the power of both his first and second serves.
There was a star-struck gallery of parents and tennis aficionados there to see the world No. 9 who was about to learn that Roger Federer had pulled out of the French Open, moving him up into the eighth seeding position.
In a media appearance afterward, Raonic assessed his year so far. “There’s been a lot of positives in the first part of the season. I started playing really well. I was unfortunate to get hurt and lose some time there. I feel that I played relatively well in the following tournaments – first in the U.S. and then at the tournaments here on clay. I feel like I’m getting close to returning to that level I had in January (a title in Brisbane and semifinals of the Australian Open). I feel like I’ve been playing well.”
About being on the red clay, he said, “I’m ready and very positive. I did a lot of good things. For me, compared to most players, I didn’t grow up on clay so it takes me a little bit longer to get used to it. I feel coming in to this tournament I’m playing my best tennis on clay. It’s also a benefit that the matches are three-of-five (sets) because if things don’t go as you hope, I feel like I’m physically strong and that helps me so I can find solutions.”
The tournament site this year is somewhat discombobulated as the Roland Garros long-range development plan evolves. In the picture above the construction of underground facilities is taking place where Courts 7, 9 and 11 used to be located.
Practice courts are at a premium, meaning that many players are hitting at the nearby Jean Bouin tennis club.
“With the construction they’re doing here this year,” Genie Bouchard said, “there are less courts on-site. But they’ve totally kind of refurbished Jean Bouin and there’s a huge gym and the facilities are really, really nice. I was really impressed with it. Obviously it’s more fun to be on-site but I think what they’ve done is the best they can do.”
Following the Paris terrorist attacks last November, there has been a very visible step-up in security for this year’s Roland Garros. Barricades are everywhere outside the grounds and it seems like pedestrians are being rooted along barricaded paths everywhere. At the top here, a man is being informed that he cannot cross the street, that he must follow the barricades. Along with barricades, everyone is being body-searched as they enter the grounds, leading some old French reporters to fear for the worst (in terms of line-ups) when play actually starts for real on Sunday.
But Bouchard isn’t too concerned. “There is more security for the players,” she said. “They check bags and go over us with the wand, and pat us down a little bit too. But, for me, I’m happy about it. I think it’s important to have very safe security here.”
It’s not too often that players at the very top practice with each other but Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray went at it hard for well over an hour on Friday on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Nadal later explained that his and Murray’s coach had arranged the session at one of the tournaments leading into Roland Garros and said he has no aversion to practising with Murray or Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.
It was interesting to note that Nadal and coach Uncle Toni still do a fair amount of discussing technique as can be seen in the picture here.
The ballkids at Roland Garros are some of the hardest working and well-trained anywhere in the tennis world. In the picture here, they are exercising and working out on the promenade between the main Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Nick Kyrgios isn’t yet quite a big enough star to get mobbed everywhere he goes. Here’s a shot of him walking behind Court Philippe Chatrier with girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic on Thursday. Although he wasn’t completely unnoticed.
While Agnieszka Radwanska has quietly risen to No. 2 in the world and is the second seed at this year’s Roland Garros, there was nothing quiet about her workout pants on Court 2 on Thursday.
This odd looking structure is located in the space outside the entrance to the exclusive Presidential Tribune on the north side of Court Philippe Chatrier. It’s called the ‘wind tree’ and consists of plastic cones that generate electricity and is part of an effort by the French Tennis Federation to campaign for renewable sources of energy. The energy created is being used to allow spectators to recharge cell phones.