2016 French Open Preview Part 1: The Story

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This is the first in a three part series previewing the men at this year’s French Open. A historical look at seeds will be featured in part two with the final part this weekend focusing on the 2016 draw and what to expect.

2016 French Open: The Story
The field is close to being set for the 2016 French Open as the final round of qualifying continues on Friday. It’s deja-vu all over again this year with the top story lines again centering around Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Also give a nod to Andy Murray who now has to be considered a legitimate threat after his win over Djokovic in Rome. That these three seem to be drawing the most attention despite none of them being the defending champion in Paris next week is humorous. Perhaps the tepid play of 2015 champ Stan Wawrinka has much to do with his name not being thrown about a whole lot when talking about who is in the mix to take home the title at Roland Garros this year. Perhaps we’re still trying to forget those nightmarish shorts he wore in 2015?

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Wawrinka is 19-7 this season, but nearly half those wins came in his two tournament title runs in Chennai and Dubai. Outside of those two tournaments, he is a middling 10-7 and his loss last week in Rome to Juan Monaco likely didn’t do much to prop him up as one of the “favorites” for this year’s French Open. Perhaps that is just how he would like it as The Pig still thinks Wawrinka would prefer to “fly under the radar” and let the spotlight shine on the likes of Djokovic and Nadal, while he goes about his business. So by verge of The Stanimal being more lemon face then lion face (bonus points if you get it), the questions are largely the same from a year ago.

Can Djokovic finally complete his personal Grand Slam by winning what has been a highly elusive French Open title?

2015 seemed as if it lined up perfectly for the Serb. The reigning World #1 rolled through the first four rounds without dropping a set and then vanquished one Roland Garros ghost by defeating Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. It was a dominant display that seemed to pave the way for Djokovic to finally get a French Open title. The semifinals showed some seeds of doubt perhaps as Djokovic was forced to fend off a choke from up two sets to love against Andy Murray. After edging Murray 6-3, 6-3 in the first two sets, the Scot put the Serb on the ropes by taking the third and four sets by identical scores of 7-5, 7-5.

Djokovic would steady himself and roll to a 6-1 win in the 5th set, but some damage had been done by playing a grueling five set match that was played over the course of two days due to rain. That left Djokovic finishing his semifinal barely one full day before the men’s final. In the final, he was matched against an unexpected foe in Stan Wawrinka. Take nothing away from Wawrinka, he played a brave match, maybe the best of his life to win in four sets; still, what if Djokovic had proper rest before hand? Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. Another year without winning the French for Nole.

For Nadal the question is the same, but with some rediscovered confidence in 2016. Can he recapture his stranglehold on the French Open?

The nine-time French Open champion has a slight air of difference as he heads to Roland Garros this year. The Spaniard has much more confidence in himself than he did a year ago with his play backing that up. It’s been a solid year for Rafa, but one that has still seen him fall short against the likes of Djokovic and Andy Murray on clay. That last inclusion could be the bigger difference this year for Nadal over last year. Should he find a way past Djokovic, where he is certain to be in his half of the draw, he could well line up against Murray if he is able to solve the Djokovic puzzle. There is also Kei Nishikori, who has not often troubled Nadal, but can offer another physical test that can add to the wear and tear over the two week period of a slam.

Nadal will be eager and desperate to reassert himself as the “King of Clay.” He’s still only lost twice in 72 career matches at the French Open. A ridiculous number by any measure, but it seems that the loss column may grow before the trophy case bulges with title number ten in Paris. Rafa has shown much more of his trademark grit this season and recently, has been more aggressive and assertive with his ground strokes. It still hasn’t gotten him past Novak Djokovic in his last seven tries, including three on clay and one at Roland Garros last year. It also hasn’t gotten him past Andy Murray in two of their last three meetings on clay.

So where are we at with a few days left to chew on the what ifs?

The loss by Djokovic in Rome last week seemed to be a step back confidence-wise. Djokovic was tasked with two very physical matches against Nadal and Kei Nishikori back-to-back before meeting Murray. It wasn’t just the physical nature either that should bother the Serb and seemed to be in his head by the time the final ended. Both Nadal and Nishikori were able to charge ahead of Djokovic at different times in both matches and hold leads. To his credit, Djokovic fought back and won both, but that again goes to that added wear and tear factor near the end of a Grand Slam.

The physicality definitely took a toll on Djokovic and one will wonder how well the Serb will hold up at the tail end at Roland Garros if a similar path is needed. It’s just one of those things; there always seems to be something preventing Djokovic from winning there. That will always play on him mentally, until it doesn’t.

And enter Andy Murray into the mix of potential winners. Murray has long been summarily dismissed on clay. Not that his results warranted it. He is 92-40 on clay in his career with a 28-8 mark at Roland Garros. It’s not garish, but Murray quietly has made the semifinals in Paris three of the last four years. Now, three of his last five ATP titles have come on clay dating back to last year with the Rome win this month seeming to legitimize him in the eyes of many. He already proved a tough out in last year’s semifinal with Djokovic, but there seems to be an air of belief surrounding Murray this year that definitely has not been there on clay in the past.

So those appear to be the top contenders. Djokovic. Nadal. Murray. Put them in whatever order you wish as they seem close to a 1a-1b-1c scenario right now. Toss in Wawrinka as an X-factor if he turns off “Non-Slam Stan” mode and then perhaps throw in Kei Nishikori as a dark horse with the right draw. To The Pig, the winner looks likely to come from that group with any other winner being a big time shock in my book.

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