In every major tournament the biggest opponent is often the draw: Who plays who and which players loom ahead. The draw is the fate of all tennis tournaments, just like this 2019 French Open.
As of Thursday, the draw inched its way to the round of 32. Out of the initial 256 singles players to begin the singles competitions, 64 stand tall and energized for a chance to reach week two, when the rubber meets la terre battue. Yet, seeds have fallen and prospective winners have withdrawn. Anyone who had guessed these outcomes would probably be disappointed. The successful ones, taking full advantage of the luck of the draw, have to be pleased about their fortune, if indeed they look ahead.
Defending champion Simona Halep, the third seed, seems to have a bright green light guiding her to the semifinal round. Petra Kvitova, who had been in her section, withdrew with a left-arm injury before play began, leaving a spot for a lucky loser. Kvitova was a possible challenge for Halep in that quarter. Not now.
Anett Kontaveit (No. 17) could have caused Halep trouble. But the Estonian lost in the first round.
Thursday, Aryna Sabalenka (No. 11) fell to 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova. The American teen doesn’t mess around, but lacks the experience of going deep in a major even though she made the third round at this year’s Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal has also been blessed by what some have called a “cakewalk” draw. Who else but the 11-time French Open champion deserves such a sweet avenue? Nadal faces David Goffin (No. 27) Friday. Not much of a challenge there for the King of Clay. Every time these two have met on red clay, Nadal has trounced the Belgian: Monte Carlo, Madrid, Barcelona.
The only player left, then, to cause Nadal a hiccup would be Kei Nishikori (No. 7), a possible quarterfinal opponent. The Japanese native did hand Nadal a maddening loss at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and could have scored a Masters win in 2014 in Madrid, but he retired in the third set. Nishikori is injured frequently, which doesn’t make for a hopeful bet in Paris.
Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Madison Keys, Ashleigh Barty — the women with high hopes (and deservedly so) are bunched in the same section of that “lucky draw.” Osaka, the top seed for the first time at a major tournament, comes in having won the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, which is called “pressure.” She has demonstrated a remarkable resilience so far, though, coming from behind in her first two rounds to defeat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and, on Thursday, two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka. The horizon is not bright for Osaka, though: Serena looms in a possible quarterfinal matchup if Barty doesn’t take the 23-time champion down first.
Roger Federer (No. 3), who has one French Open title from 2009, would like to add another to round out his trophy case to an inspiring 21 major titles. Yet he faces a mountain of trouble, one being a possible semifinal against Nadal. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Federer hasn’t played in Paris since 2015, the year his friend and fellow Swiss, Stan Wawrinka, manhandled him in the quarterfinals and went on to win the title, ripping victory from Novak Djokovic’s hands. Luckily or not for the beloved Federer, Stan awaits in this quarter. Stefanos Tsitsipas (No. 6), the young slayer of dragons with wins over Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, all on their favorite surfaces, lurks as well. The Greek native is an “unpredictable” opponent, as characterized by Darren Cahill in a recent podcast from Tennis With an Accent.
“He tries to make something happen,” Cahill added, meaning he is offensive in the face of competing offense from the legendary leaders of tennis.
Nadal and Halep have what seems more of a chance to repeat their 2018 victories, given what the draw has laid out for them to date. Call it luck, if you will. But no one can be sure, which is the allure of the Grand Slams and this French Open. Yes, Nadal owns Paris and poses the biggest threat, no matter the cards that could’ve been dealt. Is it fair? That depends on which side of the net you’re on.