TO the delight of tennis fans all across the globe, the main draw of the much-anticipated Roland Garros is set to commence on Monday. This comes one week later than initially scheduled, as the French Tennis Federation postponed the tournament in the hope that COVID-19 restrictions would ease and more fans would be allowed to attend the event. The tournament will run from May 30 to June 13.
Up until June 8, French Open officials will allow 5,388 fans through the gates, with a maximum of 1,000 spectators on each court (excluding night sessions). From June 9, Roland Garros will make use of the European Union’s COVID-19 health pass and increase its capacity to 13,146 fans. Each stadium will allow either 65 per cent capacity or 5,000 fans, whichever comes first.
This upgrade will fall during the quarter-final stage of the tournament in both the men’s and women’s draws, a huge boost for the local fans and economy. To compare this with last year’s Roland Garros, the 2020 tournament was pushed back four months to September and crowds were limited to 1,000 patrons each day.
Both 2020 champions Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek will be competing in this year’s event, along with a host of big names in the tennis world. Let’s take a look at who is absent, the contenders to watch and some outside chances to keep an eye on.
The most notable absentee is world number three Simona Halep, who will miss the tournament with a left calf tear. Halep, who was the 2018 French Open winner, would be one of the favourites to win this year’s title if she were able to compete.
On the men’s side, Canadian world number 14 Denis Shapovalov withdrew from the tournament with a shoulder injury that reportedly bothered him through the Geneva Open. Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 Roland Garros champion, has also pulled out with a foot injury.
Big names Nick Kyrgios and Andy Murray have chosen not to participate so they can focus on the upcoming grass court season. Wimbledon is set to commence just two weeks after the Roland Garros final.
THE LEADING CONTENDERS:
The year’s tournament is headlined once again by Nadal, who is in pursuit of a historic 21st Grand Slam title. His remarkable record at arguably the toughest Grand Slam is well-documented – 13 French Open titles, 100 wins out of 102 matches and four championship trophies without conceding a set during the tournament. One of those flawless championships where he never lost a set came in 2020, proving that Nadal is not showing signs of slowing down on his favourite surface. If the ‘King of Clay’ ends his career with the most men’s Grand Slam titles, it will be difficult for historians not to consider him the greatest men’s tennis player of all time.
His major challengers remain the two rivals challenging him for that ‘GOAT’ crown– Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Both players sit in Nadal’s half of the draw and, remarkably, we could be treated to a Federer v Djokovic quarter-final showdown if both champions play their part. If Nadal progresses to the semi-final, the winner of Federer v Djokovic would face him in the final four.
Djokovic is arguably a much tougher threat than Federer in this tournament, as the Serbian remains world number one and has won 16 of his 19 matches in 2021. Meanwhile, Federer has no expectations of winning and seems to have conceded defeat already. “I know I will not win the French Open, and whoever thought I would or could win it is wrong,” Federer said. “Roland Garros is not the goal, the goal is the grass.”
Two-time Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem is the other main contender to consider in the men’s tournament. Despite having a poor start to the season, the Austrian world number four has proven in recent years that he is capable of beating anyone when he plays his best tennis. With no Nadal or Djokovic in his half of the draw, this could be his time.
On the women’s side, defending champion Swiatek is considered the favourite given her strong start to the season. The 19-year-old has already won two titles this year – in Adelaide and Rome – and made an impressive run to the Round of 16 at the Australian Open before being knocked off by Halep. With Halep’s absence comes a huge opportunity for Swiatek to go back-to-back.
Australian Ash Barty is her main challenger, and these two women could be forced to face off in a semi-final. After missing last year’s tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world number one and 2019 French Open champion is back with the aim of regaining her crown. Her form has been the most consistent of just about any player in 2021, claiming three titles so far along with runner-up honours in Madrid. Barty’s game is reliable and well-suited to clay, so expect her to make a deep run in Paris.
Aryna Sabalenka and Naomi Osaka deserve consideration as contenders too, but for very different reasons. Sabalenka has been brilliant on clay so far this season, having defeated Barty in the Madrid final and losing to her in the Stuttgart final. The 23-year-old has never made past the fourth round of a slam, but she appears ready to fulfil her potential and could make a serious impact over the next two weeks.
On the other hand, fellow 23-year-old Osaka has already lived up to her potential in many ways, winning four Grand Slam titles over the past four years. However, all of these have taken place on hard courts, and her struggles on clay are well-documented. Osaka has never made it past the Round of 32 at Roland Garros, so it will take a major turnaround for her to contend for the championship this year.
World number two Daniil Medvedev‘s record on clay makes for rough reading, as he has fallen in the first round of Roland Garros in each of the past four years. Given Medvedev is one of the most talented players on the circuit, this record is quite difficult for him or any expert to explain. The Russian has added clay court specialist Igor Andeev to his coaching staff in an attempt to reverse these fortunes. If Medvedev gets some comfortable wins under his belt early in the tournament, then he quickly becomes a contender to watch.
Elsewhere, Stefanos Tsisitpas and Alexander Zverev are in strong form, having won recent clay court titles in Monte Carlo and Madrid respectively. They have been drawn in the same half and could meet in a semi-final, especially if Thiem and Medvedev continue their respective struggles. Norwegian 22-year-old Casper Ruud is in impressive form having made the semi-finals in Monte Carlo and Madrid, but he has drawn a difficult first-round matchup in France’s Benoit Paire. Speaking of the draw, it could open right up for Grigor Dimitrov (in Medvedev’s quarter) after he made his debut fourth-round appearance at Roland Garros last year.
If you’re looking for a dark horse to follow on the women’s side, look no further than Garbiñe Muguruza. The 2016 French Open champion has a brilliant record at the slam, making it through to (at least) the Round of 16 in six of the past seven years. The 27-year-old has the ability to beat anyone at her best and could easily make a huge impact at this year’s event. She does have a tough draw however and would likely be forced to face Swiatek in the fourth round.
It would be remiss to rule out Serena Williams, who remains just one championship away from Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Three of Williams’ titles have come at the French Open, but her form on clay in the lead up to this year’s event has been subpar. In contrast, American 17-year-old Coco Gauff‘s form in the lead up has been outstanding, winning a title in Parma and making the semi-finals in Rome. This tournament presents a huge opportunity for Gauff, who has a lethal backhand and appears to have fixed her double faulting issues.
American Jennifer Brady will look to continue her dominant start to the season after making the 2021 Australian Open final, while experienced stars Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka are capable of doing some damage in the bottom half of the draw.
FIVE ROUND 1 MATCHES TO WATCH:
 Daniil Medvedev (RUS) v Alexander Bublik (KAZ)
 Sofia Kenin (USA) v Jelana Ostapenko (LAT)
 Jennifer Brady (USA) v Anastasija Sevastova (LAT)
 Casper Ruud (NOR) v Benoit Paire (FRA)
 Victoria Azarenka (BLR) v Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS)
Men’s champion: Rafael Nadal
Women’s champion: Ash Barty
Picture credit: Getty Images