FRENCH OPEN 2019: What to watch, from Osaka to Federer’s return
PARIS — On the day Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open for her second consecutive major championship, she was asked whether it was too soon to start thinking about grabbing four in a row.
“You know the French Open’s next, right?” she said, smiling and fiddling with her fingers. “We love that clay court!”
The sarcasm was obvious. Osaka was well aware of her 4-3 career record at Roland Garros, where play begins Sunday, and her 5-4 mark on clay last season. Still, she also quickly acknowledged being intrigued by the idea of adding to the run that began at the 2018 U.S. Open in pursuit of a non-calendar Grand Slam: “I’m not going to lie and say that thought hasn’t crossed my mind.”
Osaka is seeded No. 1 at a major for the first time and her play on clay has been much better lately, with a semifinal and a pair of quarterfinals in the run-up to Paris. She also says the thumb and abdominal issues of recent weeks are now resolved.
“I mean, definitely for me, I feel like I should be an all-court player. Honestly, it’s been a bit of a ride trying to figure out how to play better on clay throughout these years, but I think this year I have been playing well,” said Osaka, who is to play Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the first round Tuesday. “So I’m really excited to see what happens here.”
Other things to watch at the French Open, the year’s second Grand Slam tournament:
There’s change all around the grounds of the French Open. The main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier, was rebuilt over the past year in preparation for installing a retractable roof ahead of the 2020 tournament, while a new, 5,000-seat show court surrounded by greenhouses will be inaugurated Sunday. Court Simonne Mathieu is named after the Frenchwoman who won Roland Garros in 1938 and 1939, then volunteered for the nation’s army during World War II. That arena’s debut match features 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza against 96th-ranked Taylor Townsend of the United States.
Roger Federer returns to play at the French Open for the first time since 2015, scheduled to face Lorenzo Sonego at Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday. He missed the tournament in 2016 because of lingering back issues, then sat out the entire clay circuit each of the next two years to focus on preparing for the grass and hard courts. His 20 Grand Slam singles titles include one from France, exactly a decade ago. “In some ways, I’m happy to be here and I just want to get through that first round to get the campaign going. That’s my focus right now,” he said. “Not thinking too far ahead.”
Serena Williams has completed only three matches since her Australian Open ended four months ago, and she cited a bothersome left knee when pulling out of her past two tournaments. So just how healthy the 23-time major champion is will be a key storyline during Week 1. Williams is to face Vitalia Diatchenko in the first round Monday.
No one has ever won a Grand Slam singles title 12 times. Rafael Nadal will try to be the first to go past 11 and, thanks to his Italian Open title this month, suddenly seems to be ready to defend his King of Clay crown in Paris. “It wouldn’t be fair to pick anybody else but him as the main favorite, because he has won this tournament so many times,” said No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who lost to Nadal in the Rome final. “He has lost, what, two times in his career on Parisian clay?” Yep, Novak, that’s right. Nadal is 86-2 at the French Open.
WHAT A RUN
Djokovic is putting together quite a streak himself, with a chance to win four straight majors for the second time, something he called “extra motivation and incentive.” He’s also gaining on Federer’s 20 majors and Nadal’s 17; a title in France would bring Djokovic’s tally to 16. “This is the tournament that I was preparing for, so to say, for last couple of months. I wanted to peak in this tournament.”
With three seeded players under age 20 — No. 20 Denis Shapovalov, No. 25 Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 22 Bianca Andreescu — Canada is expected to be a major player on the tennis scene for years.
AMONG THE MISSING
Nick Kyrgios was the latest big name to withdraw from the field — and it comes after he was kicked out of the Italian Open for a temper tantrum, then bashed the French Open on social media. Other players who are missing, and with well-documented injuries, include Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova, Kevin Anderson and John Isner.