Expert picks: Who will reign at Roland Garros?

  • ausopen.com

As tennis fans, few things get us more excited than discussing the storylines and predicting the champions as a major tournament draws near.

And ahead of Roland Garros, we did just that, bringing together a panel of experts to offer their thoughts on the upcoming action in Paris.

Our panel

Jelena Dokic - former world No.4 and now tennis commentator
Todd Woodbridge - 22-time major doubles champion and now tennis commentator
Alicia Molik - former world No.8 and now Australian Billie Jean King Cup captain
Wally Masur - former world No.15 and now Tennis Australia's Director of Performance
Nicole Pratt - former world No.35 and now Tennis Australia's Women's Team Coach
Simon Rea - former coach of Nick Kyrgios and Sam Stosur and now National Development Squad Coach

Which players have impressed you most on clay in the lead-up to Roland Garros?

DOKIC: "I think Ash’s form speaks for itself, and these two weeks off will do her a lot of good. I would put Iga a close second behind her. It's been interesting to watch Djokovic and Nadal come through in this latter stage of the clay-court season, because they didn't start unbelievably well. Behind Rafa, Djokovic and Tsitsipas are close seconds in terms of form.”

WOODBRIDGE: "Barty’s consistency, resilience in winning three-set matches and her temperament have been on point. There was quite a lot of negative talk about whether she was the real No.1, and she's certainly fixed that up. I also feel like Swiatek has placed herself perfectly. Rafa has impressed me because of that escape and title run in Rome. Tsitsipas' consistency has been terrific, he's been brilliant to watch.”

MOLIK: "Ash has impressed me, purely because winning consecutive matches is so valuable leading into the French Open. She's one player who transitioned from hard court to immediate success on clay. Swiatek as well seems to be playing some great tennis and has timed her run really well. The clay-court season rolls around every year and I keep thinking: Can Rafa still win a couple of the lead-ups? Well, yes, he can. It's unbelievable.”

Iga Swiatek in action at the WTA 1000 event in Rome.
Iga Swiatek, the recent Rome champion, has won 15 of her past 16 clay-court matches and arrives in Paris on a six-match winning streak. (Getty Images)

MASUR: "Ash is really well placed. She's played well since Charleston. She withdrew from Rome but you feel that she'd had a lot of tennis and was thinking about the French. She’s won a lot of big, tough matches in three, which must give her a great sense of confidence. Novak and Rafa, by their unbelievably high standards, were probably a little patchy on the clay, but it seems that order was restored in Rome.”

PRATT: "Barty of course. Sabalenka's shown more consistency than in the past and I think she's been very good on clay. Swiatek in Rome was very impressive, and especially the final. That was quite incredible. In terms of matches, Tsitsipas for the year is 33-8; he's one of the top guys with clay-court form. Nadal continues to do what he always does; his effort in Rome was amazing. He must be brimming with confidence.”

REA: "I've been impressed with Tsitsipas, and I've taken an interest in what Berrettini's done on clay; I think he's one to watch because he's been going deep relatively consistently. And Rafa is building. On the female side, Barty has done a terrific job all the way through and showed us all why she's No.1. I think Sabalenka has given Ash trouble, so she's definitely one to watch. And Swiatek, given how dominant she was in Rome, is coming in hot.”

Roger Federer and Serena Williams are back in action after long breaks. What do you make of their chances?

DOKIC: "You never count them out, especially at a Grand Slam. But they're not in great form and they haven't had the matches. The focus is grass, and Wimbledon, especially for Roger. it would be a huge mountain to climb, best-of-five at Roland Garros. For Serena, yes, she has won it, but it's not her favourite surface. I think it's great we'll get to watch them both again and still be able to enjoy their tennis.”

WOODBRIDGE: "Roger's already, by his own admission, said he's using this to prepare for the grass. But don't count him out from winning a few rounds; I think the question mark is how his body bounces back, particularly if he gets some four or five-setters. For Serena, I admire that she played a small tournament in Parma, but ideally she would have won that tournament and then you'd think she has a chance in Paris. This would be one of her greatest achievements if she did win it.”

MOLIK: “I think not having much match practice impacts every player, but I think the older you get the tougher it is. They’ve proved they can turn form on, on a dime. But it’s recovery, isn’t it? Especially for Roger if he plays a tough five-setter. They want to play the French because they’re planning ahead to Wimbledon; I think what happens for both of them at Roland Garros is a bonus.”

Roger Federer (L) played just one match on clay leading into Roland Garros, a three-set loss to Pablo Andujar (R) in Geneva. (Getty Images)

MASUR: "It’s a big ask given how little tennis Federer has played. And he's coming off some injuries. You imagine he will always provide a great contest, but you just have to think it's a little too soon to be pushing deep into the tournament. But he's made a fool of me before. Serena is in the same basket; there's no substitute for confidence and winning, and she doesn't have that at the moment. She's always dangerous with the quality of her serve, but the belief in some of the other women must rise when they play Serena these days.”

PRATT: "Federer said himself that he's trying to accumulate some matches to help him for the grass-court season. It takes the pressure off him; he's owning the fact he doesn't have high expectations for clay. If he gets through his first few matches, he might surprise himself. Serena has tried to play more matches, however I don't feel she's played enough, or is moving well enough on clay, to be a real threat.”

REA: "There's absolutely no expectation and pressure on Roger's shoulders, and I think that makes him potentially dangerous, whereas Serena seems to be more of a momentum athlete; it used to be at Grand Slam time that you either got Serena early, or the steam-train gathered momentum and became impossible to stop.”

Which storyline will capture your attention most when the tournament begins on Sunday?

DOKIC: "I love the battle now between Djokovic and Nadal for Grand Slam titles. Nadal, if he wins this, would have his 21st Grand Slam, which would be insane. Djokovic potentially getting to 19 and closing the gap would be extremely interesting.”

WOODBRIDGE: "I'm really hoping we see these younger guys refuse to bow down to Rafa and Novak, and go: ‘You know what? You've had your time. This is mine.’ You've got to think that this is getting so close, and this could be that tournament.”

Rafael Nadal (R) and Novak Djokovic met in the 2021 Rome final, just as they did in the final of Roland Garros in 2020. (Getty Images)

MOLIK: “Naomi Osaka’s decision not to hold any press conferences. That’s a big step; Roger, Rafa and Serena have never done that. Everyone’s had to go through those times when they feel great in front of the press, and difficult times when their confidence is down. And they’ve still got to front up to press. She might not be in a great headspace herself. I’m really interested to see her first match.”

MASUR: "I guess I've always got my Australian hat on. Ash and Sam (Stosur) have had success at Roland Garros in the past. What am I hoping for? Australians in the second week. And once you're in the second week, anything's possible.”

PRATT: “Talking about Barty, Swiatek, Sabalenka, Svitolina and Andreescu – I'd love to see semifinals with any four of those five. Because that's kind of the future right now.”

REA: "I guess there's the obvious in terms of this global pandemic, and how Roland Garros rolls out from an event perspective. We wish them all the best. And then there's Rafa going for 21 Slams, and our own Aussie Ash looking to claim another French Open.”

Who is your pick for the women’s title – and why?

DOKIC: “I think Ash is the favourite. I also think that if she wins, in a way it's defending a title. To me she's a multiple Grand Slam champion; she's obviously got one but I think she's ready to win more.”

WOODBRIDGE: "Form wise, Barty is the favourite. Given quarters at the Australian Open, wins in Miami and Stuttgart, the consistency is there.”

MOLIK: “Anyone who’s won a tournament recently – Barty, Swiatek, Sabalenka, Badosa – is thinking second week, minimum. If Ash gets to the second week she’s really strong on the clay. She’s right up there for me.”

Ash Barty's triumph in Stuttgart was part of a brilliant clay-court lead-up during which she won 13 of 16 matches. (Getty Images)

MASUR: "I'm gonna say Ash. She came into the Australian Open having barely played but she was very competitive. I believe she's better now, with the matches that she's played. She'll face a lot of good players who'll ask her a lot of questions, but she's got the skills to play according to the opponent, which is not true of every player.”

PRATT: "Definitely Barty. She's awesome when she's had matches under her belt. And I think she's excited. In a way she is defending the title. I just think the fact she's done it before, and her confidence is brimming, she's gonna be very difficult to beat.”

REA: "The heart says Ash, and I think she'll go close, I really do. But I think it's impossible to ignore Swiatek's success on clay and the momentum she seems to be building. That demolition job on Pliskova in the Rome final made me sit up and take notice."

Who is your pick for the men’s title – and why?

DOKIC: "Last year, Nadal came off a seven-month break and had just two wins in Rome, but won Roland Garros without losing a set. Even if he's not in his best form, he always plays such great tennis in Paris. It wouldn't be doing him justice if we didn't put him as the favourite.”

WOODBRIDGE: "For me, clay is the hardest surface because it takes such resilience, patience and recovery. And Nadal’s got those attributes, in terms of his temperament. To beat him, opponents have to win three sets of the hardest competition they’ll ever play. Many are mentally exhausted before they even get to the match. In the locker room, I feel the players sometimes become a little resigned to the fact that he's going to take ownership again.”

MOLIK: "I can't see anyone really challenging Rafa, to be honest. I just think the calmness he always shows on clay at the French, it's sort of a bit like home for him, isn't it? I've never seen any bit of panic in his tennis there.”

Rafael Nadal celebrates his quarterfinal victory over Alexander Zverev in Rome.
Helped by winning ATP titles in Barcelona and Rome, Rafael Nadal has built a 14-2 win-loss record on clay in 2021. (Getty Images)

MASUR: "It's very hard to go past Rafa, because over five sets he just seems to have a way of blunting whatever the opposition throw at him. If it was best of three, it would be different. All the lead-ins are best of three. This is best of five. And he just seems to squeeze the life out of everybody.”

PRATT: "I'm going with Rafa. He's relentless. He plays every point literally with the same intensity. And although some of the matches (in the lead-up) were very close, the fact that it's five sets, it's just the pressure he mounts on his opponents and what they have to do physically to win a point.”

REA: "It's Rafa until someone proves that it's not. I think we all perhaps take what he's been able to achieve at Roland Garros for granted. It is an unbelievable, remarkable, out-of-this-world dominance there. I don't see it stopping this year."