It appeared as if Novak Djokovic was about to change the muddy picture in men’s tennis when he thrashed Dominic Thiem 6-1, 6-0 in the semifinals of the Italian Open last Saturday. That followed on the heels of Thiem’s 6-4, 6-3 dispatching of Rafael Nadal in the previous round.

All it would take was Djokovic carrying over his form from Saturday into Sunday’s final against Alexander (Sascha) Zverev and the Serb and Nadal would have again staked their claims to being prohibitive favourites for next week’s Roland Garros.

But Djokovic came up flat in the final and Zverev roundly outplayed him 6-4, 6-3 in what was a coming-out-party victory for the 20-year-old German. He became the first player born from 1989 and onward (actually 1997 for him) to win a Masters 1000 event – making Kei Nishikori, 27, Milos Raonic, 26, Grigor Dimitrov, 26, and a few others feel a tiny bit older.

Nadal remains the obvious choice to win the second Grand Slam of the season. He won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid before losing to Thiem last week and his 17-1 record on clay is impressive and includes just two sets lost before the Rome quarter-final – in his first match at Monte Carlo against Kyle Edmund and in his opening match in Barcelona versus Fabio Fognini.

Djokovic, now teamed up with Andre Agassi for the French Open, talked about “shock therapy” when he split earlier this month from long-time coach Marian Vajda, physio Miljan Amanovic and fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch.

Agassi will certainly add an aura to Djokovic’s courtside entourage – whether he can instill a renewed confidence in the 30-year-old Serb, whose game has been strangely shaky at times this year, remains to be seen.

It’s a similar situation with current world No. 1 Andy Murray and his own superstar mentor, Ivan Lendl. The 30-year-old Scot is only 5-4 at four clay-court events in 2017 with losses to Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Thiem, Borna Coric and Fognini, all players who can be dangerous on their day.

Murray was runner-up in Paris a year ago but remains a big question mark this time around. The same goes for 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka who has been less than stellar on clay and Nick Kyrgios who has not built on his sensational performance in the three-set, all-tiebreak semifinal against Roger Federer at the Miami Open in March, partly because of the death of his grandfather and a hip issue that bothered him in Madrid.

Zverev, 20, and Thiem, 23, have played the best of anyone on clay, with the exception of Nadal, and are obvious candidates to win Roland Garros one day, but probably not this year.

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On the women’s side, the absence of a pregnant Serena Williams and the decision of the French Tennis Federation not to give Maria Sharapova a main-draw or qualifying wild card have taken a lot of the glitz out of Roland Garros and removed the women who have won four of the past five (two each) titles dating back to 2011.

Simona Halep is the consensus pick as the player who has the best chance of winning after her victory in Madrid two weeks ago and her runner-up finish (to Elina Svitolina) in Rome on Sunday – a match in which Halep injured her right ankle in the first set.

Add that fitness concern to defending champion Garbiñe Muguruza retiring from her semifinal against Svitolina with a neck problem and Caroline Wozniacki pulling out of a match in Strasbourg on Monday with a back issue, and the 2017 French Open could wind up being a survival of the fittest.

The vacuum atop women’s tennis is personified by no less than the current No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who has won just two matches in the three clay-court tournaments she has played in 2017, looking nothing at all like a dominant player.

Here’s a list of the Top 10 players in the WTA’s ‘Race to Singapore,’ based on results so far this year, and a comment about each one’s chances of winning Roland Garros.

  1. Elina Svitolina: Very impressive in 2017 with four tournament titles already, the 22-year-old Ukrainian probably doesn’t quite yet have the oomph to win a Grand Slam.
  2. Karolina Pliskova: She has the oomph but has not demonstrated the clay-court bona fides needed to win the French Open.
  3. Johanna Konta: Ditto.
  4. Caroline Wozniacki: It kind of seems like the game Dane, 26, has jumped the shark – but never say never.
  5. Simona Halep: Runner-up in 2014 in Paris, the 25-year-old Romanian has easily been the closest to being the real deal on clay in 2017.
  6. Venus Williams: A finalist back in 2002, the 36-year-old has not been past the quarter-finals in any one of her other 18 appearances at ‘Roland.’
  7. Kristina Mladenovic. Finalist in Stuttgart (Siegemund) and Madrid (Halep) she’s a rare player with a strong record on clay this spring, plus she’s playing at home.
  8. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Still a fine player at almost 32, a lot would have to go her way for the 2009 champion to get through seven matches to title No. 2.
  9. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: ITF Junior World Champion at just 15 in 2006, the 25-year-old Russian’s last four year-end finishes have been No. 26, No. 25, No. 28 and No. 28. A big hitter, mobility and endurance are the issues for her on clay.
  10. Elena Vesnina: Lightning struck for the crafty, 30-year-old Russian at Indian Wells in March – it won’t strike twice.

With fluidity of the 2017 season so far, there are probably another 10 players who, with a few breaks, could hold up the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen on June 10. That might even include 2014 semifinalist Genie Bouchard, or it did until she had to pull out of the Nuremberg tournament on Tuesday with a right ankle injury.


It’s been a year of ups and downs for 26-year-old Vasek Pospisil, with nothing being loftier than his thrilling 6-4, 7-6(5) victory over world No. 1 Andy Murray in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March.

After then losing in the third round to No. 106-ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, Pospisil opted to pass on the qualifying for the Miami Open and instead headed off for a series of Challenger events.

Playing in Mexico and then in Asia, he went just 9-5 at his first five tournaments and had losses to No. 194 Denis Shapovalov, No. 215 Nicolas Jarry, No. 63 Yen Hsun Lu, No. 159 Teymuraz Gabashvili and No. 142 Duckhee Lee.

But, just weeks after splitting with coach Mark Woodforde, he finished with a flourish by winning the $150,000 Challenger in Busan, South Korea, last week. Not only did he win it but he didn’t lose a set and defeated No. 112 Dudi Sela 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals and No. 134 Go Soeda 6-1, 6-2 in the final.

With the 125 ATP points he earned, his ranking moved up from No. 106 to No. 82. Considering he started 2017 at No. 133, that can definitely be construed as significant progress.

Most importantly, the timing was great because Monday was the cut-off for Wimbledon and Pospisil is well inside the No. 104 (roughly) required to gain direct entry.

With only 60 points to defend between now and August, a spot in the Top 100 is secure for the moment and he can rest during Roland Garros and concentrate on getting ready for the upcoming grass court season and Wimbledon, where he reached the quarter-finals two years ago in singles and won the doubles (with Jack Sock) in 2014.


After not playing since a first-round loss at the Rio Olympics to Genie Bouchard last August, and undergoing foot surgery in January, Sloane Stephens (here with coach Kamau Murray) began to full-out hit tennis balls again last week while in Toronto visiting friends.

Stephens, 24 and currently ranked No. 204, hopes to make her return for the grass-court season and Wimbledon. If not, she plans to play World Team Tennis and then the summer hard-court events, including Rogers Cup in Toronto from August 5-13.

She will be able to use an injury-protected ranking of No. 26 for entry purposes.



A tip of the cap to the peripatetic and pertinacious Adil Shamasdin of Pickering, Ont. The Brown University (an Ivy League college) grad has reached a career-high doubles ranking of No. 54, bettering his previous mark of No. 55 – all at the age of 34.

So far in 2017, Shamasdin (above with Vasek Pospisil) has won four Challenger titles – Bergamo (Italy), Wroclaw (Poland), Drummondville (Quebec) and Leon (Mexico). He was also a runner-up in Heilbronn (Germany) earlier this month.

What’s remarkable is that Shamasdin has had all those results with different partners – Julian Knowle of Austria (Bergamo), Andrei Vasilevski of Belarus (Wroclaw), Sam Groth of Australia (Drummondville), Leander Paes of India (Leon) and Igor Zelenay of Slovakia (Heilbronn).

He also made it to the semifinals of the ATP 250 event in Istanbul, Turkey, earlier this month, with yet another partner, Antonio Sancic of Croatia.

This week Shamasdin is playing the ATP 250 in Lyon, France. And guess what? With another different partner – Andres Molteni of Argentina.


Roger Federer and wife Mirka attended the Pippa Middleton wedding last Saturday. Mr. Federer, 35, and Mrs. Federer, 39, were certainly nattily attired for the occasion.

NOTE: Plans are for a Roland Garros blog from Paris on Wednesday, including coverage of the remaining Canadians in the qualifying – Peter Polansky, Steven Diez and Francoise Abanda.