Photo: AP Photo/Michel Euler
‘An umbrella for Roland,’ the latter being the colloquial way Parisians refer to their most cherished tennis event.
The new retractable roof on Court Philippe Chatrier stadium brings the French Open in line with the Australian Open (three) as well as Wimbledon and the US Open (two each) in offering shelter against the elements and assuring uninterrupted action on court for rights-holder, television partners.
Among the changes this year because of the roof include play until approximately 10 p.m. (4 p.m. ET in Canada) regardless of the weather and available light because of new arena lighting. But there will not be, as originally planned, a separate night session each day. As well, all the quarter-final matches – women and men – will be played in Court Philippe Chatrier.
Having a roof will avoid situations that in the past resulted in late-stages women’s matches being farmed out to Court Suzanne Lenglen or Court Simonne Mathieu while the men were showcased in Chatrier. It will also avoid scheduling issues that have been unfair to various players – particularly Novak Djokovic. In 2015, Djokovic’s semi-final with Andy Murray was interrupted by failing light on Friday and had to be completed on Saturday with 90 minutes of highly-intense tennis. That left the Serb vulnerable on Sunday against a rested Stan Wawrinka. And last year Djokovic – because of windy, rainy conditions – had his Friday semi-final with Dominic Thiem interrupted and resumed on Saturday. He ended up losing but had played three of the four days preceding the Sunday final, while Rafael Nadal had only played one day of the five before the final. That’s because two men’s quarter-finals are programmed on Tuesday and the other two on Wednesday, meaning delays in the Wednesday quarter-finals or the late Friday semi-final can result in a tougher timeline for the players involved.
With the bottom half – featuring No. 2 Nadal – having been already designated as playing one day ahead in this year’s schedule, it will again be top-seed Djokovic with the Wednesday/Friday/Sunday scenario in the second week should he progress that far.
The new roof will take 15 minutes to close and the Roland Garros grounds crew will still be on standby with covers for the court in case of rain. Worth noting, the arena is not climate controlled and openings to the outside at the top mean that rain (though not as far as the court surface) and wind can penetrate.
A serious issue at this autumnal Roland Garros will be the weather. Notable, in the forecast below, the temperature is not predicted to reach 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) at any point in the entire first week.
Nadal has already reacted unfavourably about the cool conditions. His trademark topspin may not be bouncing quite as wickedly in chillier air and on damper courts.
His compatriot, Garbine Muguruza, came prepared on Friday, wearing a ski jacket for her media availability.
The cooler climate may help players when it comes to endurance because they shouldn’t tire as much as on hotter days. But there also could a flip side – tight ligaments and muscles may not loosen up as easily as when it’s warmer.
Most prognosticators seem to agree that Rome winner Simona Halep followed by Garbine Muguruza, both former champions, are the women’s title favourites in this most unique of years, with Nadal and Djokovic, also former winners, being the picks on the men’s side.
It’s interesting to look back at 2009 when now 12-time champion Nadal suffered his most surprising loss (one of only two in 15 years) – beaten 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2) in the fourth round by Robin Soderling of Sweden. He later explained, “I started with some problems at home (his parents separating), the most important thing, a lot of problems on my knees and, in my opinion, I played very bad all the clay-court season (although he had won titles in both Monte Carlo and Rome).”
So it’s tricky to predict what lies ahead, especially in a pandemic year – and one that has already seen the unlikely exit at the US Open of presumptive favourite Djokovic under bizarre circumstances. Possibly that will give the World No. 1 extra incentive – along with the fact that a victory and he will become the only open-era player since Rod Laver in 1968 to have won each Grand Slam title twice.
There are six Canadians in the singles draws at Roland Garros – and that would have been seven had Milos Raonic not withdrawn. The current world No. 20 elected to skip the clay-court season entirely in 2019 as a precautionary measure, so it’s not totally unexpected that he decided to take a pass on the French Open for the third year in a row.
Heading the Canadian contingent will be recent Rome Masters 1000 semi-finalist Denis Shapovalov. A newly-minted member of the top-10, Shapovalov is seeded ninth in the absence of No. 4-ranked Roger Federer.
He enters Roland Garros with impressive results – reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open (Pablo Carreno Busta) and the Rome semi-finals (Diego Schwartzman). Both losses came in extremely close matches.
Shapovalov has compiled an impressive 9-3 record since the resumption of play last month. In his first-round match at Roland Garros he faces No. 53-ranked Gilles Simon. The 35-year-old Frenchman, a father to 10-year-old and seven-year-old sons, has usually had his best Grand Slam results at Wimbledon and the Australian Open rather than at home in Paris. He has lost the only two matches he has played on clay the past month but could still be tricky for Shapovalov if he somehow finds inspiration in what could be his 15th and final appearance at Roland Garros.
Looking beyond Simon, the main challengers who could prevent Shapovalov from reaching a potential semi-final against the top-seeded Djokovic are Dimitrov, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Lajovic and Rublev. His dramatically improved game in general, and especially on clay, gives him an excellent chance to improve on an underwhelming 1-2 record at Roland Garros in his only two previous appearances.
It’s hard to imagine but Félix Auger-Aliassime is playing his first French Open after missing last year with a groin injury he suffered in the final of the Lyon ATP tournament right before Roland Garros.
Ranked No. 21 and seeded 19th at Roland Garros, Auger-Aliassime has struggled on the clay at the recent events in Rome and Hamburg – going out in the first round in Rome to No. 29 Filip Krajinovic and in the second round this week in Hamburg to No. 56 Alexander Bublik.
The 20-year-old Montrealer’s first-round opponent will be No. 51 Yoshihito Nishioka, a 24-year-old Japanese who won their only previous meeting as pros at Indian Wells in 2019 in a thriller – 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(5). Nishioka, a 5-foot-7 lefty, is a nifty shot-maker but is more comfortable on hard courts with a career record of 58-52 on that surface compared to just 3-10 on clay. It should be a testing match-up for Auger-Aliassime, but if he gets through he could wind up facing either Stan Wawrinka or Andy Murray in the third round.
Vasek Pospisil has a 0-6 record at Roland Garros and will be in tough in his first round against No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini. Having reached the semi-finals of the US Open last year and the round-of-16 this year, it would be logical to think hard courts are the 24-year-old Italian’s best surface. But he’s 26-13 in his career on clay and only 30-31 on hard courts. Pospisil, who chose not to play a pre-Roland Garros event on clay, showed remarkably good form at the US Open – upsetting No. 18-ranked Milos Raonic and No. 11 Roberto Bautista Agut. If he can make the contest against Berrettini more like a hard-court match-up, he has a chance to advance and possibly win more than just his first ever match at Roland Garros.
The least known Canadian in the main draw is Steven Diez, the Toronto-born, Spain-resident currently ranked No. 179. Diez is a solid clay-court player and has qualified for his first Grand Slam event in his 16th attempt. The diminutive 29-year-old has a good shot at winning his first round as he faces No. 236 Mackenzie McDonald, a 25-year-old who underwent hamstring surgery in June, 2019. The American is only 1-5 at ATP events in 2020 and needed to use a protected ranking to enter Roland Garros. If Diez gets past McDonald, he will likely be matched against the gold standard on clay, Nadal, in the second round.
Leylah Annie Fernandez, just turned 18, has made terrific strides in 2020. In January she qualified for her first Grand Slam tournament in Australia and then earlier this month at the US Open she won her first match in a Grand Slam main draw.
In order to have a chance to go further at Roland Garros she will have to defeat No. 31 seed Magda Linette of Poland in the opening round. Linette, 28, currently ranks No. 36 after reaching a career high No 33 in February. She’s a solid if unspectacular player who has ranked in the top-100 for the past five years.
Fernandez, currently at exactly No. 100, can draw inspiration from the fact that she won the 2019 French Open junior title on her last visit to Roland Garros. If she can get through two matches, she could potentially face No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova in the third round.
Ranked a lowly No. 330 when she played in the Prague WTA International event last month in her first tournament since the pandemic break, Genie Bouchard has recently looked more like the player who reached the 2014 French Open semi-finals and a ranking of No. 5 later that same year. She has her ranking up to No. 168 and may even be favoured when she faces No. 108-ranked Anna Kalinskaya of Russia in their first round match on Sunday – fourth match on Court 7 after a 11 a.m. (5 a.m. ET Canada) start.
Bouchard, who looks more fit and toned after spending pandemic time in Las Vegas working with Andre Agassi’s long-time trainer/guru, Gil Reyes, is 8-3, including qualifying matches, since she returned to action in Prague. She lost a tough final, after coming through the qualifying, to No. 88 Patricia Maria Tig of Romania in Istanbul two weeks ago and will now test herself against Kalinskaya. The 21-year-old, who claims hard courts is her favourite surface, lost in the first round of qualifying last year in her only previous try at Roland Garros. So far in her career, her main claim to fame is upsetting a slumping Sloane Stephens in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2019 US Open.
If Bouchard advances past Kalinskaya, she could play No. 24 seed Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine in the second round and possibly last year’s runner-up, No. 15 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, in round three.
Bouchard, a wild card entry through an exchange between Tennis Canada and the Fédération Francaise de Tennis, is playing her seventh French Open. She obviously has learned to appreciate some of the simple pleasures of Parisian life, such as a tasty croissant au beurre – as can be seen from her Instagram picture above.
BIANCA – ANIMAL LOVER
Bianca Andreescu may be off the tour for the rest of the year to get her body right, but she’s still out there and active. The past few weeks she (together with her beloved dog Coco) has debuted in a commercial on Canadian television promoting animal shelters with sponsor Royale, a soft tissue paper products company.