Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep will begin their French Open defence in a fortnight and four-time Grand Slam champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario backed the duo to retain their title in Paris, although they have not won a clay court title this season in the lead-up to Roland Garros.
Despite the lack of a clay court title this season, Nadal has reached the semi-finals in all four tournaments he has played in. Nadal lost to Fabio Fognini in the last four at Monte Carlo, Dominic Thiem in Barcelona and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid. For a man called the King of Clay, a title-less run-up to the French Open will cast doubts on his chances of retaining his title.
However, three-time French Open champion Sanchez Vicario believes that her compatriot Nadal is favourite for a 12th French Open title given his phenomenal consistency on the red dirt.
"Nadal is the one to beat because of the success he has had on clay. Also, playing five sets is a different story compared to three sets," Sanchez Vicario told Firstpost during a telephonic interview.
"This year, there are going to be more players who can challenge Rafa for the title. Novak Djokovic, obviously, is one of them. Dominic Thiem is a very good clay court specialist. Then we also have Roger Federer and Stefanos Tsitsipas. So it is wide open," said Sanchez Vicario, who was in Bengaluru as the international event ambassador for the TCS World 10k.
Sanchez Vicario won the French Open title in 1989, 1994 and 1998 while also reaching the finals three more times during that decade. The Spaniard was involved in a fierce rivalry with Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, with the trio winning nine times in Paris in the 90s. However, the years after 2010 have seen seven different champions, with the women's draw becoming more and more unpredictable.
With 18 different players winning 19 titles this season, Sanchez Vicario termed the women's draw as very open with no clear favourites. While leaning towards Serena Williams, Vicario was loathe to pick a winner as she believes that the two-week period can be unpredictable for the contenders. However, if forced to choose, Sanchez Vicario would back Halep to retain her title given her consistency over the years on clay.
Sanchez Vicario also praised Naomi Osaka for her maturity and ability to deliver under pressure, having won two back-to-back Grand Slams while also climbing to the top of the WTA World Rankings. However, she called on the 21-year-old Japanese star to show more consistency between Grand Slams.
"She is proving she can play on all surfaces and is a worthy World No 1. Now, it is just a matter of maintaining that consistency under pressure from other players," Sanchez Vicario said.
Since being knocked out by Hsieh Su-Wei in Miami, Osaka came back on the tour at Stuttgart where she reached the semi-finals before withdrawing due to an abdominal injury. She recovered to reach the quarter-finals in Madrid and Rome before a hand injury forced her to pull out in Italy.
Apart from Osaka, Vicario believes Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty are the players to watch out for. Kvitova has staged a remarkable comeback by winning seven titles since recovering from a horrific knife attack in 2016 which left her tennis career in jeopardy.
"Kvitova is a very dangerous player and none of the players like to face her when she's on top. The fact that she is left-handed gives her an advantage, so she's definitely one of the contenders in Paris," Sanchez Vicario said.
Kvitova isn't the only one Vicario cautions against. Ashleigh Barty's versatile playing style and never-say-die attitude will cause trouble for those playing against the plucky Australian.
"I have always believed that Barty has great potential. She has the ability to change play and even though clay may not be her favourite surface, players will struggle against her."