2016 French Open Men’s Preview and Predictions
Steen Kirby, Tennis Atlantic
Summer tennis begins in earnest with the 2016 French Open kicking off Sunday. Two weeks of action from the red clay of Roland Garros are sure to yield thrills, spills, and more than a few upsets, as the best clay courters in men’s tennis will vie for supremacy in Paris. Here is a preview, and predictions.
May 22-June 5, 2016
Prize Money: €16,008,750
Top 8 seeds (ATP ranking in parentheses)
1: Novak Djokovic (1)
2: Andy Murray (2)
3: Stan Wawrinka (4)
4: Rafael Nadal (5)
5: Kei Nishikori (6)
6: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (7)
7: Tomas Berdych (8)
8: Milos Raonic (9)
World #3 and former French Open champion Roger Federer will be missing his first Grand Slam main draw since 1999, as a back injury will snap his 16 year consecutive Grand Slam streak. That means his rival and clay legend Rafael Nadal gets his own quarter of the draw. French favorite Gael Monfils is also absent, as is another talented shotmaker, Alex Dolgopolov, but the rest of the top players are ready to go, many of them looking to benefit in Federer’s absence.
First round matchups to watch:
(31)Federico Delbonis vs. Pablo Carreno Busta
Delbonis beat PCB in Marrakech this year and he’s 4-0 in the h2h, but PCB is one of the tougher unseeded players in the draw, and this match will be a classic clay court battle, featuring long defensive rallies. PCB comes off the quarters in Geneva and he was also a finalist in Estoril. Delbonis also reached the quarters in Geneva, and prior to that he reached the semis in Istanbul and Bucharest, plus won Marrakech to help secure an RG seeding. The Argentine should beat the Spaniard in this one, but I’d expect more than 3 sets.
(20)Bernard Tomic vs. Brian Baker
The veteran Baker is a testament to hard work, tenacity, and overcoming all odds to maximize talent, no matter the circumstances. Tomic is the opposite of that, and the #20 seed is in danger of dropping his sixth straight match to likely finish the clay season without a win in 2016, and fuel swirling questions about his future in tennis. After tanking his way through the clay season, Tomic is actually facing one of the easier round 1 opponents as Baker has barely played ATP level tennis this year, regardless, the American is solid enough on clay and should give Tomic enough of a challenge that he may fold in short order.
Borna Coric vs. Taylor Fritz
Coric has struggled to be consistent on ATP clay this year, but he does have a final and a quarterfinal on the surface this spring. The young Croatian has a bright future ahead, but he’s certainly experiencing ATP World Tour growing pains right now. Fritz isn’t as sharp on clay as his fellow young gun (though he was the French Open junior finalist last year), but he did win a match in Nice after dropping two matches to Radek Stepanek in Madrid and Rome. This young American is also likely to reach at least the top 20 in due time, but now, and in the future, Coric should win this matchup on clay.
Hyeon Chung vs. Quentin Halys
Another ATP next gen battle like the matchup above, the 19 year old Halys has less ATP experience than the 20 year old Korean Chung, but the Frenchman is going to have the crowd behind him, and most likely play better on clay, particularly in Paris. After Chung’s poor clay season, Halys should hand him a fourth straight loss.
(32)Fabio Fognini vs. Marcel Granollers
Granollers reached a pair of clay quarterfinals in the run up to the French Open, as the Spanish veteran isn’t quite done with singles yet. Fognini is on a poor three match losing streak, after reaching the semifinals in Munich and the quarterfinals in Barcelona earlier this spring. The ATP clay h2h is even between these veterans, Fognini should be better these days, but you never know with his erratic mentality, and Granollers could grab a win over a seed in Paris.
(24)Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. Nicolas Almagro
Almagro is 4-1 on ATP level clay against Kohlschreiber, and won the last two h2h meetings. The Estoril champion has been poor otherwise on tour in recent weeks, but he’s demonstrated the ability to find form and make sudden runs, as he also reached a clay final in Buenos Aires. It’ll be feast or famine for Almagro, while the fellow one-handed backhand veteran Kohlschreiber won Munich and reached the semis in Barcelona, demonstrating his own ability to find form. I have Kohlschreiber as a slight favorite, but this match has five sets written all over it, and Almagro’s fitness and mentality may let him down.
Diego Schwartzman vs. Guido Pella
Schwartzman should be the more in form player here, but he’s never beaten Pella, and this will be a tough all-Argentine war on clay. DS comes off the round of 16 in Nice, and he won Istanbul for his maiden title. Pella reached the quarters in both Bucharest and Nice, but he hasn’t had quite as good of a clay court spring (he also reached the final in Rio). Both players are on their best surface, and this match could go five sets, I have Schwartzman narrowly advancing with his undersized game.
(22)Viktor Troicki vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov had the upperhand against Troicki until he lost in a third set tiebreak final against the Serbian in Sydney earlier this year. That set the stage for Dimitrov going on to be unseeded in Paris, and struggle mentally to finish big matches and get important wins. The Bulgarian has lost three straight matches since blowing the Istanbul final, while Troicki has been mediocre on clay this year with a lack of notable results. Dimitrov *should* win this match, perhaps in straights, but his problem is his mentality, not his talent.
Sam Querrey vs. Bjorn Fratangelo
Querrey won four matches this spring on clay, a decent showing for him, while Fratangelo comes off a clay challenger final in France, and also a clay challenger title and a semifinal. The 22 year old American has been the darling of stateside clay challengers, while Querrey is the experienced and steady veteran with a low upside at this point. I have Fratangelo winning this if he’s fresh enough and perhaps leaving a mark in Paris.
The world #1 Novak Djokovic has a great chance to win his illusive first French Open title. Djokovic has been far and above the elite player on tour this year, but RG is his worst slam, and he’s more vulnerable on clay than other surfaces, as losses to Andy Murray in Rome, and Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo this year demonstrate. Djokovic didn’t appear healthy in Rome, but he still reached the final, and he’s at least made the semifinals in recent French Opens.
To open his quest, Djokovic should roll past Yen-Hsun Lu, who is happy to collect a check on clay, and then dispatch either Marsel Ilhan or Steve Darcis, both of whom are qualifiers. Delbonis is slated to be his third round opponent, and neither the Argentine, nor PCB, or Gerald Melzer/Aljaz Bedene have anywhere near the level, or the game to threaten Djokovic. Barring injury, he should be safe to reach week 2. I have Delbonis over PCB, then over Bedene before falling to Djokovic in round 3.
The section below Djokovic featuring Roberto Bautista Agut as the highest seed is quite open. The Coric/Fritz winner has a great chance at third round money and points, as neither Tomic or Baker is an intimidating round 2 opponent. I have Coric into round 3, opposite Bautista Agut. The Spaniard hasn’t done much on clay this year, but his round 1 opponent Dmitry Tursunov has been poor and the Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu is 34 and unpredictable. He’ll open with fellow veteran Santiago Giraldo, who is no longer an ATP caliber player it seems. RBA over PHM, and then suffering an upset loss to Coric is my pick. RBA has underperformed recently, and I feel the young Coric will sense his time to rise. Coric has beaten RBA this year, but is 0-2 on clay in his career against him.
David Ferrer has been below his usual caliber this spring on clay, and suffered another bad loss when he fell in the Geneva semifinals. Still, the Spaniard should roll past Evgeny Donskoy, to setup a match with Rome quarterfinalist Juan Monaco. Monaco, an Argentine veteran, is capable of playing great on clay but he’s been fighting injuries, and he could fall to Denis Istomin round 1. I have Ferrer finding a way to vanquish Monaco, and the serve and volleyer Feliciano Lopez, to make the 4th round, more due to the ease of his draw, than his own form. Lopez has been in poor form, but lucky loser Thomas Fabbiano, and Victor Estrella/Illya Marchenko are some of the easiest opponents you can face early in a slam draw as of now. This section is quite unimpressive.
Tomas Berdych will open his French Open against Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who is poor on clay, with Malek Jaziri/Florian Mayer to follow. That’s not a difficult start, and Berdych should ease into round 3, for a big meeting with Pablo Cuevas, presuming Cuevas handles qualifier Tobias Kamke, and the Chung/Halys winner. Berdych has not had a great clay season, and I have Cuevas notching an upset. He’s a purer dirtballer, and though he hasn’t been on fire this spring, he’s still solid and crafty, enough to beat a power hitter like Berdych, who hasn’t found his range on clay this year.
The nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal is one of only two players in this draw to have won a French Open. Rafa, who won Monte Carlo and Barcelona earlier this spring, before losing to Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, will open with the big serving Sam Groth. After that routine match, he should demolish either Facundo Bagnis or qualifier Kenny De Schepper, with Granollers/Fognini or Nicolas Mahut/Ricardas Berankis to follow. Mahut is poor on clay but he’s at home, I have him beating Berankis, but losing to Fognini, and then Nadal ousting Fognini in round 3. Fognini famously beat Rafa in a slam (US Open 2015), but on clay it shouldn’t be close, given Nadal easily dispatched Fognini in Barcelona not that long ago.
Dominic Thiem looks set to dominate the section below Nadal, the young Austrian was a finalist in Munich, won Nice this week, he also reached the quarters in Rome, and the third round in Monte Carlo this spring. Inigo Cervantes is unlikely to put up a fight in round 1, with Guillermo Garcia-Lopez a dangerous, but underdog opponent in round 2, and Alexander Zverev his likely rival in round 3. GGL opens with Thiemo De Bakker after reaching the quarters in Geneva, he has three clay quarterfinals and a semifinal in the lead up to the French Open, so if Thiem is fatigued, he could pounce. Zverev lost to Thiem in the Nice final, after losing to him in Munich, both matches on clay. The young German could be fatigued as well, but he’s had a strong young gun showing this year and he’ll need a big win over young Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who excels in doubles, followed by a win over Kevin Anderson, the #18 seed who has two wins on clay this year, or Stephane Robert. Given Thiem has been a cut above Zverev thus far, I see him winning that match again to reach round 4, but Zverev will still be a nice unseeded surprise in round 3.
David Goffin, and the Kohlschreiber/Almagro winner are on a collision course for round 3. The Belgian #1. who reached the quarters in Rome, should dispatch young wild card Gregoire Barrere, and then ease past Carlos Berlocq or Paolo Lorenzi to reach round 3. The Kohlschreiber/Almagro winner is likely to face Jiri Vesely, after Vesely beats Rajeev Ram. Vesely has an ATP quarterfinal and a semifinal on clay this spring, and shocked Novak Djokovic for the win of his career. He’s a talent, but he lacks consistency, thus I have Goffin over Kohlschreiber in round 3. Goffin leads Kohli 2-1 in the h2h, and he’s been the better player this season, particularly in big events.
Presuming French #1 and Monte Carlo semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can fend off the challenge of in-form qualifier J.L. Struff, he should be able to defeat Gilles Muller/Marcos Baghdatis, and setup a winnable third round contest with either Joao Sousa, or Andreas Seppi. Tsonga will have home support, though he often struggles under the pressure. Baghdatis should beat Muller on clay, but he’s poor on the surface, while Sousa, a quarterfinalist in Madrid, and semifinalist in Nice, is the favorite against Damir Dzumhur, an Istanbul quarterfinalist, and also the Nice quarterfinalist Seppi, who opens with Ernests Gulbis, an opponent who he has struggled with in past h2h matches, but is far below his previous level these days. Sousa has a h2h win over Seppi, and has been in better match form. Tsonga should be the better player on clay in their third round meeting, he’s the strongest player in this section.
The defending champion Stan Wawrinka has had an awful clay court season, and was slumping for a while, but he may have just found the form he needs to compete at the highest level, as he won the Geneva final on home clay, and just beat his round 1 opponent Lukas Rosol in the semifinals there. If Martin Klizan, who had a good early part of the season before being injured, isn’t too rusty, he could give Wawrinka a stiff challenge, first the Slovak will need to defeat Taro Daniel though, who isn’t likely to have enough game against Wawrinka on clay. With Klizan’s form questionable, I have Wawrinka getting through the first two rounds, though it may not be as smooth as many think. The Swiss veteran is alone in the national spotlight with Federer absent now, and while he’s capable of playing incredible tennis, his poor play this season has hardly inspired confidence. His round 3 opponent will also result in him being a heavy favorite, as Jeremy Chardy/Leonardo Mayer are most likely, and neither have had a great spring. The winner of that match will face Adam Pavlasek or Roberto Carballes Baena, both of whom came through qualifying, but are not top tier talents. Wawrinka over Chardy is my pick for round 3, as like Ferrer, Wawrinka will benefit from a weak draw more than anything else to reach the second week.
The Troicki/Dimitrov winner should be opposite Frenchman Gilles Simon, unless the Schwartzman/Pella winner serves as a dark horse. I have Dimitrov over Troicki, and Dusan Lajovic (who beats Denis Kudla R1), and Simon ousting recent challenger winner Rogerio Dutra Silva to setup a round 2 match with Schwartzman. Their first h2h meeting will have some upset potential given Simon hasn’t done much on clay this year. In a slam I still have to favor the veteran Frenchman to reach the third round, but I have him falling to Dimitrov, who should reverse the h2h loss on clay this year to Simon if he can pull his game together. This is a tough section to predict.
American Jack Sock gets a nice draw. The Houston finalist could be the last American standing after defeating a struggling Robin Haase, and either qualifier Dustin Brown or veteran Dudi Sela in round 2. Geneva finalist Marin Cilic should defeat Marco Trungelliti, a qualifier, and then Istanbul quarterfinalist Albert Ramos, after Ramos beats fellow dirtballer Horacio Zeballos. Cilic isn’t the most consistent higher seed in the draw, and Sock will certainly have a shot at the fourth round, but on clay I give Cilic a slight edge. It should be an intriguing matchup.
Milos Raonic has few obstacles in his quest to reach the second week. The Canadian could have a big French Open, and he’ll start with Janko Tipsarevic, who is still easing back from a series of injuries, followed by Adrian Mannarino or Mikhail Kukushkin, and most likely Lucas Pouille in round 3. Raonic reached the quarters in both Monte Carlo and Madrid on clay. Mannarino found shocking form on clay and reached the semis in Nice, while Kukushkin is poor himself. The big serving Canadian should work his way out of any early round danger, as the young Pouille likely won’t be able to stay level against Raonic’s steady serving. Pouille was a finalist in Bucharest, and a semifinalist in Rome, he’s a solid young talent who should ease past Julien Benneteau, and most likely Andrej Martin, as Daniel Munoz De La Nava is slumping. The French fans will certainly try to will him into the round of 16 though.
Andy Murray has the weakest section of the draw, and the Rome champion and Madrid finalist shouldn’t worry much about Radek Stepanek, who he beat in Madrid, and had to come through qualifying. Mathias Bourgue and Jordi Samper-Montana are both below ATP level players right now, and Ivo Karlovic, who is awful on clay, is the only other seed in Murray’s section. Murray has a clear path, as I have him facing veteran Spaniard Albert Montanes, a semifinalist in Marrakech, in round 3. Montanes should “upset” Karlovic on clay, and also beat either Laslo Djere or Jordan Thompson, both of whom lack much ATP experience. Murray will outrun, and out work Montanes in round 3.
American #1 John Isner should reach the third round, and end up opposite the erratic French favorite Benoit Paire. Isner hasn’t enjoyed clay this year, but his opening round opponent John Millman doesn’t like clay either, and I don’t see Kyle Edmund or qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili as quite ready to step up and earn an ATP top 20 win on clay yet. Both recently won challenger titles, and don’t sleep on Edmund making the third round, but Isner’s consistency works in his favor. Paire has been struggling, but he has two semifinals on clay this spring, and neither qualifier Radu Albot, nor Teymuraz Gabashvili/Donald Young are opponents likely to defeat him. Young should win over Gabashvili given the Russian’s terrible form. I have Paire over Isner because I sense the Frenchman will do well at home, and I don’t trust Isner on clay right now.
Richard Gasquet and Nick Kyrgios always seem to run into each other, as the veteran Frenchman can’t escape his young Australian rival. Gasquet, the French #2, should ease past Thomaz Bellucci, who has been disappointing recently, and also the Querrey/Fratangelo winner, to setup the third round match with Kyrgios. NK has to defeat Marco Cecchinato, and either Adrian Ungur or Igor Sijsling, as his first three opponents are more at home on the challenger tour. Kyrgios has a semifinal and a quarterfinal on clay this spring, and he’s been a top performer at the Grand Slam level, with Gasquet playing at no better than average this clay season, I have Kyrgios winning that match and advancing into round 4. Kyrgios also has a h2h win this year against Gasquet.
Kei Nishikori vs. Andrey Kuznetsov figures to be one of the better round 2 matchups in the draw, Nisihkori has a struggling, and injured Simone Bolelli as his first opponent, while Kuznetsov opens with Benjamin Becker, a veteran who is allergic to clay. Kuznetsov has a pair of clay quarterfinals this spring and he’s a rising talent, but Nishikori has established himself as a player likely to go deep in this draw, given his semifinal showing in both Madrid and Rome, and his finalist result in Barcelona. Munich quarterfinalist Ivan Dodig should dispatch a struggling Mikhail Youzhny, and setup a meeting with Bucharest champion Fernando Verdasco. The veteran Spaniard opens with American Steve Johnson, who is poor on clay, and he should win that match, and defeat Dodig, before falling to Nishikori in round 3.
Dark Horses (one for each quarter of the draw): Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Diego Schwartzman, and Andrey Kuznetsov
Coric is my pick to reach the second week opposite Djokovic, Fritz is an interesting opponent, and Bautista Agut can be a consistent performer who plays tough tennis on clay, but he doesn’t have the upside of the young unseeded Croatian. Zverev has to beat Herbert, and a seeded Anderson to reach round 3, and then he’ll need to reverse his result against Thiem and win. That’s a tough ask, but he could still reach the second week.
Schwartzman may lose round 1 to Pella, and Simon is one of the tougher veterans to play in Paris, but if the Argentine gets out of the first two rounds, he’ll likely run into Dimitrov again, an opponent he defeated in the Istanbul final. We could see this Argentine in the second week. Kuznetsov has the toughest early round opponent, as Nishikori looms in round 2, but if Kei plays poorly and shows up in dreadful form, we could see the Russian make a run into the second week. All of these players are relatively young, unseeded, and have strong upside potential.
Round of 16:
Djokovic d. Coric in 3
Cuevas d. Ferrer in 4
Nadal d. Thiem in 4
Goffin d. Tsonga in 5
Raonic d. Cilic in 4
Wawrinka d. Dimitrov in 5
Nishikori d. Kyrgios in 4
Murray d. Paire in 3
Djokovic and Murray beat Coric and Paire respectively in Madrid and Monte Carlo, the top 2 players should ease into the quarterfinals. Nadal is 2-1 against Thiem, and won their most recent match in Monte Carlo, that match has upset potential, but over a best of 5, Nadal has a clear edge.
Goffin and Tsonga have split clay meetings, that match could go five sets, but with Tsonga normally playing worse at home, I have Goffin advancing. Ferrer is 3-0 against Cuevas but dropped a set against him in their match this year, I have an upset in that match because I don’t trust Ferrer to play well at all this week, and Cuevas is due for a surprising run.
Raonic likely outlasts Cilic in a close battle of big hitters. Wawrinka is better than Dimitrov, despite Grigor holding a 2-1 h2h edge on clay against the Swiss. Nishikori is 3-0 against Kyrgios and has two wins this season against him, on clay he should prevail.
Djokovic d. Cuevas in 3
Nadal d. Goffin in 3
Wawrinka d. Raonic in 5
Murray d. Nishikori in 4
Murray is 6-1 against Nishikori, they play a similar style, and Murray seems to do it better, even on clay. Wawrinka vs. Raonic is tough to predict, Raonic won for the first time at this year’s AO after going 0-4 against Wawrinka. On clay, the advantage likely shifts to Wawrinka, as this is not Raonic’s best surface. However, Stan is shaky right now.
Nadal and Djokovic should be unbothered as they march towards a semifinal against each other.
Djokovic d. Nadal in 4
Murray d. Wawrinka in 4
Djokovic hasn’t lost to Nadal in the last two seasons (7-0), the world #1 beat Nadal in Paris last year, and has a win this year on clay in Rome. It will be a close and competitive match, but Djokovic has simply outpaced Nadal at this point in their careers, and I’m not sure Nadal is going to be able to get back to his prior level, even on clay. Djokovic’s superior consistency and conditioning should win out.
Wawrinka won his last three meetings against Murray, after Murray had a prior h2h edge. With that said, Murray has been in far superior form this year, and even on clay he’s established himself as an elite player. With Murray playing some of his best clay tennis, he should win the semifinal match.
Djokovic d. Murray in 4
It was important for Murray’s confidence to win in Rome against Djokovic, but the world #1 was not playing at 100%, and presuming he’s healthy and fit, it’s hard to see how Murray will defeat him in a slam final, especially on clay. Djokovic won their previous two meetings this year, including the Madrid final, and he’ll be the favorite if he reaches the final. Last year in the semis Djokovic beat Murray in five sets, and it should be a competitive, and high caliber final. I tip the Serbian to win his first ever French Open title, this seems to be the year for him.