We bring you the first edition of the tennismash pow-wow, where our editorial panel of Vivienne Christie, Paul Moore, Matt Trollope and Leigh Rogers thrash out their thoughts on the biggest storylines this week in tennis.
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1. With back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Rafael Nadal is showing real signs he’s back to his brilliant best on clay. Has he firmed for French Open favouritism?
VC: Any wonder Rafael Nadal loves clay so much. He entered the 2016 clay court season without a win in eight months and now has two big titles in as many weeks. It’s an important mental hurdle, and fans are right to be excited. The quality of Rafa’s straight sets win over Kei Nishikori in the Barcelona final suggests he could well lift the French Open trophy for a 10th time. At the same time, you can’t overlook the fact that he didn’t face Novak Djokovic in either of his past two title runs – he might match the world No.1 as a favourite, but Rafa far from overtakes him.
PM: There’s no doubt about it: Rafa is back. Can he go all the way at Roland Garros? No. Of course, Rafa in this kind of form on clay is a devastating proposition. But he’s not unbeatable. And I think that a lot of the players know that these days. I think he’ll go deep at Roland Garros, but I think Stan, Andy and Roger will all fancy their chances against him. And that’s before we’ve even spoken about Novak. Djokovic wants the French bad, and if it comes down to an in-form Nole against an in-form Rafa there’s only one winner – and only one World No.1.
MT: Nadal’s progress on clay this year is showing remarkable similarities to his halcyon days where he would open the season with a win in Monte Carlo, storm through the rest of the tune-up events, and eventually hoist the trophy in Paris. He’s begun just like that in 2016 – undefeated and two titles already, and growing in confidence by the day. The one thing that’s really telling is his success in the “break points saved” category – time and time again in Monte Carlo and Barcelona he faced break points, and pretty much saved the lot of them. That’s vintage Rafa; it speaks volumes about his belief. People may tip Djokovic as the favourite but Novak has now blown too many golden opportunities to win at Roland Garros. There is a real sense of déjà vu about the way Rafa is playing right now …
LR: There is no denying that Nadal has been impressive in the past fortnight – but Djokovic is deservedly still the French Open favourite. Despite Nadal’s claycourt credentials, how can you argue that the most dominant world No.1 in recent years is not the favourite? The uncharacteristic early loss in Monte Carlo will probably do Djokovic more good than harm, allowing him to mentally recharge ahead of his Paris campaign. Nadal’s return to form just builds anticipation for an exciting Grand Slam tournament – something all tennis fans want to see.
2. After a post-Australian Open slump, Angelique Kerber appears to be back on track after defending her Stuttgart title. With the women’s field as open as it is, could Kerber be a chance to go two for two in Slams in 2016 when she arrives at Roland Garros?
VC: There’s a feel-good factor in Angie returning to the winner’s circle – of course she’s a chance to claim back-to-back Slams. But with the past four Slams delivering five first-time finalists and two brand new champions, predicting patterns in the women’s game has become a near pointless exercise. You can’t overlook Victoria Azarenka’s thunderous top five return and I can’t help feeling that even after her many months without a title, Serena Williams is still dictating outcomes in the women’s game. It will be fascinating to see the world No.1 tackle her title defence.
PM: Can Kerber win the French Open? Why not. Confidence is such a big thing in tennis and Kerber seems to have it in abundance. She knows that she can beat Serena (who seems like the obvious candidate for the title), and the rest of the WTA Top 10 are misfiring with freakish regularity. In fact, she’s arguably the form player and can get it done on clay. So yes, Angie Kerber 2 x Grand Slam winner – it kind of makes sense.
MT: Absolutely. Despite her modest record in Paris, Kerber possesses all the ingredients of a great claycourter – excellent movement and defensive abilities, physical fitness and strength, enough power to hit through a slow court, and a fighter’s mentality – few players perform better in a gritty rally than Angie. Cast your eye over the field: Serena’s in a funk. Maria is MIA. Vika is weakest on this surface. Aga has never done well on red clay. Muguruza, Kvitova and Halep are maddeningly inconsistent. Kerber, meanwhile, is brimming with confidence – a rare commodity in the women’s game today – and seems to have her swagger well and truly back. I think she believes she can win the French too.
LR: Six months ago I would never have imagined even considering this, but the reality is yes. The women’s field is wide open right now, so how can you not rate Kerber (who is convincingly leading the WTA Race to Singapore) a chance? The German might not have recorded her best results at Roland Garros, but don’t forget she had never gone past the fourth round at Melbourne Park either until this year.
3. There may be no top-level tournaments yet there are a host of smaller events playing out on the ATP and WTA tours this week – what’s the one thing you’re most looking forward to?
VC: Nick Kyrgios returning to Estoril as No.2 seed offers plenty of intrigue; in 2015, his finals run there seemingly came from nowhere. This year, he arrives as a top 20 player with a first career title and many 2016 wins over higher-ranked names on his CV. I’m looking forward to seeing how Kyrgios builds on that momentum at an event that’s already provided a milestone.
PM: Can I be honest? There are weeks on the tour that I struggle to understand. This is one of them. There are so many big, exciting tournaments coming up that it would be great to get this week out the way and go back to focusing on the events that matter. I know that sounds harsh, and yeah it’s great for someone else to pick up a trophy. But really? Bring on Madrid.
MT: How Svetlana Kuznetsova will fare as the top seed in Prague. Already a winner in Sydney this year and a finalist in Miami, the two-time major winner theoretically should run rings around the International-level field on a surface that has delivered the best results of her career. It’s time she seizes an opportunity and brings her best when it’s expected of her. Also, a Kyrgios v Coric quarterfinal in Estoril would be awesome. #NextGen
LR: Nick Kyrgios returns to Estoril, defending finals points for the first time in his career. As the number two seed and competing as a top 20 player for the first time, just how well he handles the pressure should give an insight into what we can expect from the young Australian at the French Open. Top players often express it is easier being the hunter than the hunted, which is something Kyrgios hasn’t experienced at this level yet.
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