While the French Open returns to its normal May/June time slot after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed last year’s edition of the Grand Slam event to the fall, there is still one constant: Everyone on the men’s side will be trying to figure out how to beat the King of Clay.
Four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, who has won the tournament a record 13 times, is looking to add to his dominance at Roland Garros. This time, he definitely will have to go through either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, as all the members of the Big Three are in the same half of a Slam main draw for the first time since 2005.
Ashleigh Barty, meanwhile, returns to Paris after winning the women’s singles crown in 2019 and skipping the trip in 2020 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and risks.
Will Nadal and Barty win on clay again? Which players could break through? Our tennis gurus make their picks for the 2021 French Open.
Who will win the men’s singles title?
Jerry Bembry: Nadal. The King of Clay has won all but three French Open titles since 2005. Just engrave his name on the trophy.
James Blake: Nadal is the King of Clay for a reason. He has been my pick at Roland Garros for about the past 10 years and will continue to be until someone proves able to win three out of five against him there.
Darren Cahill: Nadal. Rome gave him the matches and tough challenges he was looking for. His game is in great order and looks as strong as ever physically. He is seeded No. 3, but seedings don’t matter when it comes to Rafa and Roland Garros.
Simon Cambers: Come on! Rafa, Rafa and Rafa again. If he is fit, Nadal surely will win it again.
Bill Connelly: Nadal. It is the only answer, of course; but with Djokovic in the same half of the draw, it certainly opens the door for someone in the bottom half. Stefanos Tsitsipas is there and is on a hot streak at the moment. Just saying.
Cliff Drysdale: Dominic Thiem. We need a new winner in Paris.
Chris Evert: Rafa. He said he has been training for this like it’s the most important tournament of his career. He still has goals and plays with a purpose and, set to turn 35 during the tournament, he is still the fittest player in five-set matches.
Mary Joe Fernandez: Yes, Nadal. He has won two warm-up events, and his confidence seems high. He will always be the favorite at Roland Garros.
Brad Gilbert: Vamos Rafa! Let’s see history happen in a couple of weeks with (blackjack) 21 Slams in the loaded top half of the draw that includes Djoker and Federer. The bottom half of the men’s draw will present a lot of opportunities for players, especially for Tsitsipas.
Jason Goodall: Rafa. Although he has shown he is definitely short of his very best form in his lead-up tournaments, he has played and, crucially, won enough matches to build up confidence to the point that he will believe he can defend his title. It won’t be easy given the draw, but that will spur him on to even greater heights.
Sam Gore: Rafa still rules. Period.
Luke Jensen: Nadal. He still looks like the beast on the red clay. Monte Carlo was a wake-up call after his loss to Andrey Rublev, but it’s going to be tough to go into the lion’s den and take out such a dominant force on the dirt over a two-week tournament with a best-of-five format.
D’Arcy Maine: Who else can you really say but Rafael Nadal? He has won 13 titles at Roland Garros and took home titles in Rome and Barcelona during the 2021 clay swing. He’s in the same half of the draw as Djokovic and Federer, but he remains the player to beat on this surface.
Pam Shriver: Nadal. While there is a possibility he could lose early on like in 2009, given that Rafa didn’t have his A-game or best forehand during most of the clay-court lead-up, it’s impossible to pick against him at Roland Garros with the best-of-five format. It’s hard to fathom one player is seven match wins from winning the same major for the 14th time.
Rennae Stubbs: Do we even need to ask? As I said last year, until Nadal isn’t entered into the tournament, he is the favorite.
And the women’s singles winner?
Bembry: Barty. Seven different women have won the French Open since 2014. Barty, the 2019 winner, is the best bet to be the first two-time winner in that span if the arm injury that forced her out of the Italian Open isn’t too serious.
Blake: Barty was a surprise winner a few years ago, but it wouldn’t be a surprise this time. She has an all-court game and moves comfortably on the clay.
Cahill: Barty. She settled in nicely on the clay in Stuttgart and Madrid and played a ton of matches of late after the long 2020 layoff, so the extra week between Rome and Roland Garros is a blessing to rest up the body.
Cambers: Barty deserves to be favorite, and she should win. I would worry about Iga Swiatek, but I’ll go for Barty.
Connelly: Aryna Sabalenka. She’s 11-2 on clay this spring, and the two players she lost to (Barty and Coco Gauff) are stuck in the top half of the draw, along with quite a few other awesome clay-courters. This sets up pretty perfectly for her.
Drysdale: Naomi Osaka. She is the best ball striker on tour right now.
Evert: This is a tougher one! But Sabalenka has played better and better this clay-court season, building up her confidence. She is hungry for more majors.
Fernandez: Swiatek. She looked sharp en route to winning the Rome title and knows what it takes to win in Paris.
Gilbert: Honestly, I am not sure. There could easily be 10-15 players who could win the tournament. Why not a repeat from Iga (Pop) Swiatek?
Goodall: Barty. Her game is beautifully suited to clay, with an intelligent use of the forehand in terms of height, spins and angles combined with lovely variation off the backhand, and her short slice, which allows her to play rallies on her own terms. It’s much more difficult for opponents to power through her on clay, which all adds up to another Barty Party.
Gore: Barty. Her game suits this event, and she is so mentally tough. She also handles all of the off-court distractions better than anyone else.
Jensen: Osaka. This four-time Grand Slam champion hasn’t performed well on clay so far in her career, but Osaka has a way of being in the eye of the storm and seems to play better when there is noise surrounding her. She is a wonderful and thoughtful champion who thrives when the pressures are at their highest. The slow red-clay courts should allow her to set up for each big shot she wants to deliver. To win in Paris, she needs to play extended points and not look for the quick strike.
Maine: Barty. The world No. 1 has been on an absolute tear this spring with titles in Miami and Stuttgart (singles and doubles) and a final appearance in Madrid. She had to retire from her quarterfinal match at the Italian Open due to arm pain but says it was just a precaution ahead of the major. With her seemingly now at 100%, this is the Aussie’s tournament to win.
Shriver: Barty and Swiatek are co-favorites, as it feels as if we have two defending champs after Barty did not play last year due to the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. But since I have to make a pick — Barty has been playing consistent top-shelf tennis and would love to prove she is No. 1 in the world despite 11 months of not playing. Barty will win — she is the best athlete on the tour, and she is comfortable at the top.
Stubbs: Barty’s play has established her as the best all-around player in the world, on any surface. As a past champion here, she feels comfortable in Paris and will be the one to beat. Swiatek will be snapping at her heels, though.
Which men’s player currently ranked outside the top 10 could make a surprise run to a title?
Bembry: Casper Ruud. One title and three semifinal appearances in his past four tournaments have the 22-year-old at his highest ATP ranking (16th).
Blake: Aslan Karatsev has taken the tennis world by storm this year, performing so well in Melbourne that I don’t think the big stage will get to him. He can also likely hit through any slow conditions.
Cahill: Jannik Sinner. He broke into the top 20 and has gained confidence playing against the best in the world. He looks better every time we see him play, and he’s ready for a deep Slam run. A bonus: His seeding means he will avoid anyone seeded 1-8 in a third-round game.
Cambers: I would have said Denis Shapovalov but was gutted to see him pull out of the event. Ruud has the game for clay and could go close.
Connelly: Ruud. He reached four clay semis this spring and won in Geneva. While his draw isn’t easy — he could potentially face Thiem in the quarters and Tsitsipas/Daniil Medvedev in the semis — he is at least on the opposite side from the Big Three.
Drysdale: I’ll go with Sinner. The draw helps him early on.
Evert: Sinner. He has shown a maturity beyond his years and can hang with the top players.
Fernandez: Karatsev. He has been impressive all year and looks confident heading into the tournament.
Gilbert: While I’d like to see an American reach the second week with a quarterfinal berth, I will take a flier on 18-karat Karatsev to back up his brilliant run at the Australian Open.
Goodall: Sinner is the obvious choice, but also keep an eye out for Ruud, who has found strong form on the European clay. He’s maturing nicely and starting to believe he can run with the big dogs.
Gore: Sinner. A quarterfinalist last year, he is due for a huge result at a major.
Jensen: Sebastian Korda. This dude has winning big in his blood! Son of former Grand Slam champion Petr Korda, Seb has all the mindset and technical tools to be special. If he serves well — and his long arms give him great leverage on the serve — the young American could have a nice run.
Maine: Sinner. The 19-year-old became the youngest player since 2006 to advance to the French Open quarterfinals last year and has since won two ATP titles and reached the Miami Open final. If anyone is capable of pulling off the unexpected in Paris, it might just be him.
Shriver: Sinner. As a young rising star, he will gain the benefit of playing twice at Roland Garros in seven months. He played well in 2020’s unusual version of this event and is now a more experienced and improved player.
Stubbs: Sinner. He has the game to really do some damage at Roland Garros.
Which women’s player currently ranked outside the top 10 could make a surprise run to a title?
Bembry: Coco Gauff. She recently won her second WTA singles title in Italy and has shown recent improvement on clay.
Blake: Garbine Muguruza. She has the experience of winning in Paris before and has shown she can compete against anyone in the world. I think she is in a happier place this year, and that can produce better results.
Cahill: Muguruza. If she’s over some of her nagging injury concerns, she will be a danger player sitting outside the top 10. From the start of the year, she has been in excellent form.
Cambers: Petra Kvitova. If the weather is warm and dry, the court will play faster, and she has the game for any surface when she’s on.
Connelly: Kiki Bertens. She’s in a race to find her form after an Achilles injury, and had won only two matches this year, but if she does find a rhythm, she is awesome on clay. Plus, her draw is not terrible.
Drysdale: Muguruza. Her victory here in 2016 will help her again.
Evert: Gauff. Another player who has improved and grown during the clay-court season. She looks sharp, possesses power and intensity, and has wins over top clay-court players.
Fernandez: Muguruza. The former champ has been playing well and looks determined to make another great run.
Gilbert: OMGauff! In almost every Slam of late, we have had a couple of unseeded players in quarterfinals, and usually one in the semis. With so many American women in the draw, I see Gauff making a deep run into the second week.
Goodall: Muguruza. She has played some wonderful tennis so far this season, especially in the Middle East. If she’s fully recovered from injuries that hampered her at the start of the clay-court swing, she will believe she can win it all in Paris.
Gore: Jessica Pegula: Her recent results have been outstanding, and she is a player still on the rise. She is still seeking a Slam breakthrough, and this could be it.
Jensen: Gauff. At just 17 years old, she is now ranked No. 25 in the WTA rankings. I like players going into majors on a hot streak, and the Gauff is real! Clay might end up as her favorite surface with the high bounce allowing her to set up the big forehand. Don’t be shocked if the ultra-talented American wins this major.
Maine: Gauff. Yes, I said it. She is coming off of a singles and doubles title in Parma and a semifinal appearance in Rome. We’ve all seen how dangerous she can be at majors (just ask Naomi Osaka), and her newfound momentum and confidence could propel her even further.
Shriver: Gauff. She is ready for a deep run, assuming her serve and forehand continue to show the improvements of the past month. Many of her clay-court wins seemed routine. She looked more patient, and her speed is second to none. The crowd, as at Wimbledon in 2019, will be ready to raise her up even more.
Stubbs: I’m going to tip my hat toward a former Slam champ in Bianca Andreescu. If her body stands up, she is always a tough out. But outside the top 10, Muguruza’s form, when she has been injury-free, has been spectacular this year. The Paris fans and clay suit her. She will be tough to beat if she reaches the second week.
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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