French Open: 8 things to know about tennis’ clay major in 2020

The red clay courts of Paris are synonymous with European spring and early summer, but this year Roland Garros has been moved to late September. Here’s what to expect.

By Nick McCarvel

Never mind what month or season it is: The French Open, tennis’ clay court major, starts Sunday (27 Sept.).

Typically held as summer blooms in Paris, instead its autumn setting in, and players have made their way from the U.S. Open in New York City to the Italian Open in Rome and now Roland Garros, as it’s known in France: The final major of a bizarre 2020 calendar.

Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II, meaning that only the Australian, U.S. and French Opens will be completed this tennis season. But when “Ready? Play.” is uttered on Day 1 it will pay no matter, as the biggest stars in the sport have descended on the City of Lights for Grand Slam glory.

Here, we give you eight things to know about the French Open, including if anyone has a shot against 12-time champ and two-time Olympic gold medallist Rafael Nadal and why 2018 winner Simona Halep is the women’s favourite.

Changing gears – and surfaces

Ever heard of the New York-Paris double? Us neither. But that’s because it’s the first time that players have made the move from the hard courts of the US Open immediately to the red clay of the French Open.

The challenge? The two surfaces play quite different, with the ball moving through hard courts much faster, while the clay slows it down, often meaning longer points and a chance for defensive players to dig in their heels and make the biggest hitters on tour get the ball past them.

But tennis players are adaptable athletes, including US Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka. “I haven’t had the best relationship with clay seasons for years,” said the Belarusian at the end of her stay in New York City. “I’m looking forward to (sliding) a little more. … It’s going to be a quick turnaround.”

Rafa reigns supreme

There will be no such turnaround for the King of Clay himself, Nadal a 12-time Roland Garros champion and one of the many European players who opted not to make the trip to the States for the US Open.

The 34-year-old Spaniard, despite a quarter-final exit at the Italian Open last week, is by far the favourite, with a jaw-dropping 93-2 record in Paris and the loss of only three sets in his last three appearances there.

Nadal is always chasing history when he plays: The Beijing 2008 gold medallist in singles is one Slam away from tying Roger Federer in the all-time major count, currently sitting at 19 and the Swiss at 20.

Roman foreshadowing for Halep, Djokovic?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Nadal could be world No.1 and 2016 French Open winner Novak Djokovic, who has yet to lose a match in 2020, though he was defaulted (disqualified) from the US Open mid-match when a ball that he hit in frustration struck a lineswoman in the neck.

Djokovic, the London 2012 bronze medallist, will look to bounce back from that incident even further, having captured the trophy in Rome by dropping just one set with his brand of aggressive, yet never-miss tennis and a serve with pinpoint accuracy.

Djokovic and Nadal have been drawn on opposite sides of one another, while Nadal could meet US Open winner Dominic Thiem, who he’s faced in the last two French Open finals, in the semi-finals.

While that trio leads the men’s field, the women’s tournament feels rather open with world No.1 and defending champion Ashleigh Barty opting not to play due to travel concerns. The 2018 French Open winner, Halep of Romania, is the favourite, however, coming off her first win in Rome and well established as one of the best clay courters in the women’s game.

COVID: Strict protocols in place

Tennis players are now used to the strict COVID-19 protocols in place at events, having played in a bubble environment at both the US and Italian Opens.

It is much the same in Paris, with assigned hotels, temperature checks and regular testing. There have been a handful of positive cases in the qualifying event, meaning several players have been removed from that event, though details around who have been kept quiet. Damir Dzumhur, the world No.114, was removed from qualifying after his coach tested positive.

It is still unclear how many – or if any – fans will be allowed on site, with organizers at one point estimating they could permit up to a five-figure number onto the grounds daily. But that number dropped to 5,000 per day in the recent past, and now has been dropped down to 1,000 with new rules going into effect in France this coming weekend.

Women’s field: Euro stars return in full

It wasn’t just Halep who skipped the US Open, but also top 10 stars like Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens, both who could threaten to win their maiden Slam.

You can’t count out 23-time major champion and four-time Olympic gold medallist Serena Williams, who is a three-time winner in Paris and made the semi-finals at the US Open, going out to Azarenka in a tough three sets.

Also to watch for: Big-serving Karolina Pliskova, Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin, world No.10 Belinda Bencic as well as a revitalized Azarenka, Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza, who won here in 2016 and has been resurgent herself, and the like of Rio 2016 bronze medallist Petra Kvitova in addition to 2019 runner-up, Marketa Vondrousova.

Men’s field: Can Thiem do the NYC-Paris double?

The New York-Paris has never been done before only because it’s never been on offer. So, can Thiem pull it off? He goes from his new strength on the hard courts to his de facto favourite surface on the red clay, and is coached by two-time Olympic gold medallist Nicolas Massu.

While Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem factor into a three-way race for the crown, don’t count out US Open finalist Alexander Zverev, the confounding Russian Daniil Medvedev, Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, 2015 Roland Garros champ Stan Wawrinka and big-hitting Italian Matteo Berrettini.

Could the Canadian contingent continue its strong climb? Keep an eye on both Denis Shapovalov, who just made his Top 10 debut, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 20-year-old who is the youngest player in the top 25.

Rain? We’ve got a roof!

No French Open is complete without a plethora of rain delays, and with autumnal weather rolling in, there could be plenty. But this year marks the first with a fully operational roof over the main stadium, Court Phillippe Chatrier, meaning play can continue for TV viewers no matter the weather.

Roland Garros is the final major to add a roofed show court to its grounds, the French Tennis Federation undergoing a total campus reboot, knocking down the famed No.1 Court “the Bull Ring” and constructing a new Court Simonne Mathieu, which debuted in 2019, with 5,000 seats.

Chatrier’s roof is a seven-years-in-the-making project, with costs estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of euros. Lights accompany the new structure, meaning matches can go later than they previously did, though there will be no night session until 2021.

Missing in action: Federer, Osaka, Barty

While Barty has opted out due to travel concerns, there is also no Federer or US Open winner Naomi Osaka. Federer, the London 2012 silver medallist and an all-time great, had knee surgery earlier this year and is out for the remainder of the 2020 season.

Osaka, who played through a hamstring injury during her New York run, said she was not healthy enough to make the quick turnaround to play on clay.