Experts weigh in: How will Nadal fare at the French Open? Who will surprise?

After a very challenging year due to injuries, how will 14-time French Open champ Rafael Nadal play in what may be his final tournament at Roland Garros? And after a tough season so far, can Novak Djokovic come back to win a record-breaking 25th Grand Slam title?

Iga Swiatek is looking unbeatable right now — but could Elena Rybakina, Aryna Sabalenka or Coco Gauff stand in her way?

Our experts weigh in as the French Open begins Sunday.

How do you think Nadal will fare here?

Bill Connelly: When we last saw Nadal in 2022, he was holding serve 79% of the time and breaking 40% of the time on clay. In 11 clay matches this year, he’s actually holding 81% of the time … but breaking only 30%. His defense — and his ability to turn defense into offense — isn’t quite as strong, and he just drew maybe the worst possible first-round matchup. Alexander Zverev is an even more consistent big server than Hubert Hurkacz, and Hurkacz manhandled Nadal in Rome. The crowd will try as hard as it can to carry him, but it’s hard to be optimistic about him winning one last match at Roland Garros.

Tom Hamilton: Nadal has surprised us before. Remember that Australian Open triumph in 2022 when he won the whole thing just a few months after he thought he was going to have to retire? Then he won Roland Garros later that year with a numb foot as he coped with the chronic pain caused by Müller-Weiss syndrome.

If anyone can find one last fortnight of magic, it’s Nadal. But as we’ve learned with tennis, rarely does it grant fairy-tale endings. We just don’t know how the 14-time champion is faring and feeling. But what’s for sure: He’ll wring every last ounce out of his frame for (likely) one last shot at the title.

D’Arcy Maine: I agree with Tom that if anyone is going to find some last-minute, unexpected magic at Roland Garros, it would be Nadal, but this draw did not do him any favors. Having to face Zverev — the No. 4 seed who just won the title in Rome — in the first round is going to be incredibly tricky. Zverev has reached the French Open semis three times, including last year, and he has momentum and health on his side at the moment. It would be amazing to see one last Nadal run at his favorite tournament, but it just seems unlikely considering his recent results and injury struggles.

Will Djokovic get his season back on track in Paris?

Connelly: The fact that he played this week at Geneva at all was a bit shocking, and an acknowledgment that his game just hasn’t rounded into form as he hoped or expected it to in 2024. But there really hasn’t been any major theme to his losses this year. He couldn’t land a serve against Alejandro Tabilo in Rome. He couldn’t return a serve against Alex De Minaur at the United Cup. He was unnerved and error-prone against Luca Nardi in Indian Wells. He was unlucky against Casper Ruud in Monte Carlo, winning 54% of points but losing all the wrong ones. If Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner were both in top form, I’d be doubtful of Djokovic’s chances. But he’s got as good a chance as any of winning this tournament.

Hamilton: It has been an uncharacteristic year for Djokovic. But as we’ve all learned — rule him out at your peril. No one in the draw will want to face him, and he has this incredible ability to find another level for Grand Slams. It would be no surprise to see him lifting the trophy on June 9, but if he does, it would be one of his most remarkable triumphs to date.

Maine: Well, he certainly has to hope so. After the past several years he’s had on tour and with the ambitious goals he had coming in to 2024, it’s almost inconceivable to think he hasn’t even reached a final yet this season. And some of his losses this year have been truly surprising. Djokovic said he was “worried” about his Roland Garros chances after losing to Tomas Machac (while battling a stomach illness) in Geneva this week.

But, let’s not forget — he’s still Novak Djokovic. He has had other seasons in which he struggled and then rediscovered his form at exactly the right time (see: Wimbledon, 2018). Why not again now, right? I’m reminded of something he said last year after falling in the Rome quarterfinals, and I think it remains accurate: “I always like my chances in Grand Slams against anybody on any surface, best-of-five.”

Which player will challenge two-time defending champ Swiatek the most?

Connelly: In the past 13 months, only one player has actually beaten Swiatek on clay: Rybakina. So that’s my default answer. Rybakina has been so absurdly consistent in 2024 — 2-2 against Swiatek and Sabalenka and 28-3 against everyone else — and while every draw has its own set of potential potholes (she could play Angelique Kerber in the second round and Elina Svitolina in the fourth), hers appears to be manageable. But the fact that Swiatek has to beat only one of Rybakina or Sabalenka is a boon to her chances, not that she needed the help.

Hamilton: It has to be either Rybakina or Sabalenka. Swiatek will, in all likelihood, win the whole thing, but Sabalenka pushed her to her limits in Madrid, while Rybakina got past her in Stuttgart and went on to win the whole tournament. So either of those two, but it is going to take a truly epic performance to shift Swiatek over the next fortnight.

Maine: I don’t see anyone legitimately challenging Swiatek at this tournament. However, she could potentially have a tough battle in the second round in what would be a blockbuster showdown with Naomi Osaka. While the four-time major champion has never had great luck on clay and just returned from maternity leave at the start of the season, Osaka is coming off some impressive wins on the surface against Marta Kostyuk and Daria Kasatkina and seems to be getting better with every match she plays.

Assuming Swiatek does escape that meeting, others on her path to the final who could be tricky include the red-hot Danielle Collins in the quarters and Gauff in the semifinals.

Which player outside the top 15 could surprise in the next two weeks?

Connelly: I think I’ll just answer Mirra Andreeva here for every Slam until she enters the top 15. It’s only a matter of time. Her draw is brutal — she could get Victoria Azarenka in the second round, Kasatkina in the third, Maria Sakkari in the fourth and Sabalenka in the quarters — but she’s still capable.

On the men’s side, how about Jan-Lennard Struff? He beat Holger Rune and Taylor Fritz on the way to the Munich title, and his only clay-court losses since last year’s French Open were against Sinner, Alcaraz (in a final-set tiebreaker) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (in three sets).

Hamilton: This was going to be an ode to Jiri Lehecka, who knocked over Nadal and Daniil Medvedev in Madrid, before succumbing to a back injury. That cruel twist has ruled him out of the tournament. So, instead, let’s go for Marton Fucsovics to make a run to the second week, and Francisco Cerundolo and Tabilo to also ruffle some feathers.

On the women’s side, I normally back Jelena Ostapenko as an outsider, but her form has seen her emerge as one of the chasing pack behind Swiatek, so let’s go for Sara Sorribes Tormo, who has knocked out some big names in recent weeks on clay.

Maine: There are quite a few, in both the men’s and women’s draws. And in the men’s draw, which feels more wide open than it has in years, things could get interesting. Nicolas Jarry, the No. 16 seed, reached his first-ever Masters 1000-level final in Rome earlier this month and was impressive throughout his run. He might have found his best form at the exact right time. A similar sentiment could be said about Felix Auger-Aliassime, the No. 21 seed, who looked resurgent in Madrid.

On the women’s side, 17-year-old Andreeva, a quarterfinalist in Madrid, could be dangerous, and you can never count out Sloane Stephens on clay. The 2018 Roland Garros finalist is unseeded but seems to always play her best tennis in Paris.

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