In winning the French Open 11 of the last 14 years, Rafael Nadal of Spain has all but cemented his tennis shoes into the terre battue, or red clay, of Roland Garros.
That said, the 32-year-old failed to reach the final of a clay-court tournament until he beat Novak Djokovic to win this year’s Italian Open, the final warm-up before the French Open.
It was the first time since 2004, Nadal’s second year on tour, that he had gone nearly five months into the season without winning an ATP title.
Simona Halep, who won her first, and so far only, major at Roland Garros in 2018, lost out on a chance to return to the No. 1 world ranking when she lost in the final in Madrid. She then lost in the second round in Rome to No. 44 Marketa Vondrousova. Naomi Osaka had grabbed the top spot by winning back-to-back majors at last year’s United States Open and the Australian Open in January.
[Roland Garros’s clay courts can be particularly tricky. Here’s why.]
And then there’s the three-time French Open champ Serena Williams, who played her only clay-court tournament of the year at the Italian Open, trying to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 major single titles. She withdrew with a knee injury before her second-round match against her sister Venus.
But should they falter, there are a host of contenders ready to grab the championship.
At the French Open, Roger Federer will be playing in his 76th major championship, Rafael Nadal his 56th. Tsitsipas, 20, of Greece will be contesting just the seventh major of his career. Two years ago, Tsitsipas made it through qualifying at Roland Garros only to lose in the first round of the main draw to 6-foot-11 Ivo Karlovic. The 6-foot-4 Tsitsipas is now a top eight seed, achieved largely in January at the Australian Open, where he upset Federer, the six-time champ, en route to the semifinals.
Tsitsipas, who has a one-handed backhand that rivals Federer’s in style and substance, has been on the road nonstop this year, competing in 12 of 13 consecutive tournaments and winning in Marseille on hard courts and on clay at Estoril. He also upset Nadal in three sets to reach the final in Madrid this month before falling 6-3, 6-4 to the No. 1, Novak Djokovic. Last week he lost to Nadal by the same score in the Italian Open semis. Tsitsipas has a 29-11 match record, 13-4 on clay and is the youngest player to have already notched wins over Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, whom he beat en route to the Toronto final last August. Last year, he entered Roland Garros ranked No. 39. Now he’s No. 6.
Pella is the consummate dirt-baller, the latest in a long line of Argentine men who have achieved success on clay courts. When Guillermo Vilas won the 1977 U.S. Open, it was played on clay. In 2004, Gastón Gaudio beat his countryman Guillermo Coria to win the French Open.
José Luis Clerc, David Nalbandian, Alberto Mancini, Martin Jaite and Juan Martin del Potro (the 2009 U.S. Open winner) have all been ranked within the world’s Top 10. Though Pella, who just turned 29, is just 2-5 on hard courts this season, he has 20 clay-court wins against just eight losses. He won his first ATP title at São Paulo in February, beating Christian Garin of Chile in the final. He also reached the final at Córdoba, the semifinals at Buenos Aires and the quarterfinals at Munich, Barcelona and Monte Carlo, where he knocked out the 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic before falling to Nadal. Pella came into Roland Garros last year ranked No. 78; now he’s at 22.
Nicknamed F.A.A., Auger-Aliassime seems headed on a flight path right to the top of tennis. The 18-year-old Canadian is the youngest player ranked in the ATP’s top 100, reaching altitude at No. 28, but likely climbing. Finishing last year at No. 109, he has also made the biggest jump into the top 50, largely on the strength of qualifying for and reaching the semifinals at the Masters 1000 event in Miami in March. In losing to the eventual runner-up, John Isner, Auger-Aliassime became the youngest male semifinalist in tournament history. The 2016 U.S. Open junior champ and French Open junior runner-up that year, Auger-Aliassime has a 17-11 match record this year, 10-8 on clay courts. Last year, he was ranked No. 178 going into Roland Garros and lost in the second round of qualifying. This year, he will be seeded.
At the end of the 2017 season, Bertens was ranked outside the top 30, unhappy with tennis and contemplating retirement. But the Dutchwoman, now 27, adjusted her priorities and goals and rededicated herself to the game, and the results have been startling. She has won five WTA titles in the last 13 months, including on clay in Madrid two weeks ago, where she beat four former Grand Slam winners in Jelena Ostapenko, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens and Halep, all without the loss of a set. She then reached the semifinals in Rome, advancing when Osaka pulled out with a hand injury. Bertens, who is now at a career-high No. 4, has one of the biggest serves on tour and used it to hit 20 aces against Belinda Bencic en route to the Stuttgart semifinals last month. Bertens has never reached the final at a major, but she did make it to the semis of the French Open in 2016, becoming the first Dutchwoman in a major semifinal since Betty Stove reached the U.S. Open semis in 1977. Since 2016, she has a tour best 70 match wins on clay.
Bencic has long been billed as the next Martina Hingis. The 22-year-old from Switzerland, who specializes in taking the ball on the rise and directing it into all corners of the court, in 2015 beat Serena Williams, who was No. 1 at the time, in Toronto en route to her second career title. In doing so, she became the youngest player to beat Williams since Maria Sharapova, then 17 years old, did it at the 2004 WTA Finals.
But after reaching a career-high No. 7 in 2016, Bencic suffered myriad maladies, including a debilitating lower-back injury, that caused her ranking to plummet. She has fought back, winning Dubai in February with victories over four top 10 players: Halep, Aryna Sabalenka, Eleni Svitolina and Kvitova. She also beat the No. 1, Osaka, and Karolina Pliskova to reach the semis in Indian Wells and beat Osaka again on clay in Madrid before she lost in the semis to Halep. In 2013, Bencic won the junior titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The last two years, she and Roger Federer have teamed up to lead Switzerland to the Hopman Cup.
Kontaveit has never passed the round of 16 at a major. But this may be the year, and this could be the major. Kontaveit, 23, of Estonia, was runner-up to Kvitova on an indoor clay court in Stuttgart last month, advancing when the two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka retired down 3-0 in the third set. She moved on to the final when Osaka withdrew with an abdominal injury.
Kontaveit, a big ball striker with great pace and variety, also reached the semifinals of the Miami Open before falling to Ashleigh Barty (she benefited from yet another retirement when the Indian Wells champ Bianca Andreescu pulled out injured during their round of 16 match). She then lost to Pliskova in the round of 16 in Indian Wells. In all, Kontaveit has won 10 of her last 15 matches. In 2015, she became just the seventh qualifier in the Open era to reach the round of 16 at the U.S. Open.
After Madrid, Kontaveit was ranked a career-high No. 14, the best ever for a woman from Estonia. Last year, she reached the semifinals on clay at Stuttgart and Rome before losing to Stephens in the round of 16 at Roland Garros.