Rafael Nadal is the overwhelming favorite on the men’s side. Serena Williams is a mystery in the women’s draw. But keep an eye on these players at Roland Garros, too.
Mertens, 22, has climbed into the top 20 after winning tournaments in Lugano, Switzerland, and Rabat, Morocco, during this clay court season. She won 13 straight matches on clay before losing to top-ranked Simona Halep in Madrid. In January at the Australian Open, Mertens became only the third Belgian woman to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. She upset Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals before losing to the eventual champion Caroline Wozniacki in two close sets. While her two-handed backhand is her best shot, Mertens wins matches with her high tennis IQ, playing the right shot nearly every time. She uses topspin loops, slices, and drop shots when she’s defending, and she has a knack for keeping her opponent on the run and hitting balls out of the strike zone. Mertens trains at Kim Clijsters’s tennis academy, and credits the former Grand Slam champion with teaching her how to compete at the highest level. Mertens is a very tough out right now, especially on red clay.
Ranked 14th, Kasatkina, 21, is the highest-ranked Russian player, supplanting Svetlana Kuznetsova, who held the position for 85 weeks. In the past year, Kasatkina has defeated all four reigning Grand Slam champions — Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Jelena Ostapenko and Garbiñe Muguruza. She reached the final in Wells, Calif., where she fell to Naomi Osaka. Kasatkina oozes talent, blending power and innate timing with deft touch and a showman’s flair for shotmaking. She has a powerful kick serve, a heavy topspin forehand and the ability to make an opponent suffer. Like her idol, Rafael Nadal, Kasatkina has a charismatic presence on the court, and she is one of the rising stars in the women’s game, a player capable of winning multiple Grand Slam titles.
The superbly conditioned Sakkari, who last year reached the third round of three Grand Slams, became the highest-ranked Greek woman in history when she cracked the top 40. The 5-foot-8 Sakkari uses Olympic powerlifting and track and field workouts to develop her speed and strength. She is coached by Thomas Johansson, the Australian Open champion in 2002, and her mother, Angeliki Kanellopoulou, a former WTA tour player. Sakkari hits the ball with clean, simple technique and generates astonishing pace. She looks to control court positioning. At 22, Sakkari has the work ethic, aggressive mind-set and audacious ball-striking ability to make a deep run at Roland Garros. Like Ostapenko, the defending champion, Sakkari can get hot and hit a seeded player or two off the court.
In the Madrid Open quarterfinals this month, Thiem did the unthinkable: he beat Rafael Nadal on clay. Nadal had won 50 straight sets on clay, and beating him on his favorite surface looked like a Sisyphean task. Thiem pushed Nadal deep behind the baseline with a blitzkrieg of groundstrokes. But the real key was in Thiem’s mental approach: “I went in with the attitude that I can beat him,” Thiem said. Along with 21-year-old Alexander Zverev, who beat Thiem in the Madrid final and nearly toppled Nadal in Rome, Thiem, 24, has the all-consuming drive to be No. 1. He is one of the few players who could defeat Nadal at Roland Garros.
In November 2015, Kyle Edmund made his Davis Cup debut for Britain on an indoor red clay court in Ghent, Belgium, in the finals against David Goffin. The British captain, Leon Smith, chose Edmund, then 20 and ranked 100th in the world, on the advice of Andy Murray, who saw great potential in Edmund. The gamble nearly paid off, as Edmund dominated Goffin with powerful serving and devastating forehands to take a two-sets-to-none lead. Goffin prevailed in five sets, exposing Edmund’s backhand and lack of big match experience. Since then, Edmunds has steadily climbed the rankings, and, by virtue of a solid clay court season, will be the No. 16 seed at Roland Garros. In Madrid, Edmund reached the quarterfinals, defeating Novak Djokovic and Goffin on the way. With his confidence growing after he reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open, Edmund is emerging as a threat to contend for Grand Slam titles.
Tsitsipas has vaulted up the ATP rankings to No. 40, joining his fellow 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov as the only teenagers in the top 100. A former No. 1 junior, Tsitsipas, a 6-foot-4 Athenian, enters Roland Garros after a brilliant clay court campaign. His run to the finals of Barcelona was breathtaking, as he dispatched the top-20 players Diego Schwartzman, Pablo Carreño Busta and Thiem in straight sets before losing to Nadal in a lopsided final. Tsitsipas plays deep in the court with consistent, powerful groundstrokes. His one-handed backhand rivals Stan Wawrinka’s for its technical perfection and precision. Along with Shapovalov, who also plays a brash, fearless brand of tennis, Tsitsipas has the game and the mentality to win Grand Slam titles.