PARIS (Reuters) – The French Open begins on Sunday. Here are eight men to watch on the Roland Garros clay.
The Mallorcan’s domination at Roland Garros since debuting in his sleeveless top and pirate pants in 2005 is quite simply unprecedented for a Grand Slam tournament.
He has only lost twice on the Parisian clay in 14 years in which time his heavy topspin game has seen him bulldoze his way to a Grand Slam record 11 titles.
This year, however, semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Barcelona suggested the 32-year-old was not at his rampant best, perhaps struggling with nagging knee problems.
But in beating world number one Novak Djokovic to the Rome title last week, his first title of the season, the reigning champion ensured that once again he will arrive at Roland Garros wearing his usual cloak of claycourt invincibility.
This time last year Novak Djokovic was still fighting to rediscover the spark in his game — fast forward 12 months and he could be on the verge of holding all four Grand Slams for the second time in his career.
Largely because of Nadal, the French Open has proved the most challenging for the Serb and his one title came three years ago when Nadal had withdrawn with a wrist injury.
Djokovic looks in fine fettle ahead of this year’s French Open, with the Madrid title in the bank and a run to the Rome final where the demands of a heavy week caught up with him against Nadal. After a week’s rest he will start as the man most likely to prevent Nadal winning a 12th title.
Swiss maestro Federer turned his back on the claycourt season for two years — a decision vindicated by the tennis he is still producing at the age of 37.
Like Djokovic, he only has one French Open title to his name, but the very fact that he is returning to the Parisian dirt for the first time since 2015 means he feels he has a chance to land a second and extend his Grand Slam haul to 21.
Federer’s best chance is to avoid the kind attritional baseline rallies that have blunted his natural attacking flair in the past, so expect one of the game’s great innovators to arrive with some new tricks up his sleeve.
The Austrian’s elegant game is tailor-made for clay and while his style is very different to the more powerful Nadal’s he boasts the same stinging topspin off both flanks.
Thiem, 25, has added aggression to his game in recent years and it paid off last year when he reached the final and, for a while, went toe-to-toe with the great Spaniard.
Victory over Nadal on his way to the Barcelona title last month will fuel his confidence and while he exited early in Rome, expect Thiem, who recently hired Chilean Nicolas Massu as part of his coaching set-up, to make a deep charge in Paris as he seeks a first Grand Slam title.
When Zverev won the ATP Finals in London last November — his biggest title to date — it seemed the German wunderkind had finally come of age and would start to collect Grand Slams.
This season has been disappointing, however, and his form on claycourts coming in to Paris has been, at best, patchy.
Zverev’s angular game is not best suited to clay and for all his firepower from the baseline, he looks vulnerable when dragged into battles by dirtball grinders like Colombian Cristian Garin and Italian Matteo Berrettini who inflicted early defeats on him in Munich and Rome.
In his 15 Grand Slam main draw appearances he still only has one quarter-final to his name, in Paris last year, and matching that would appear to be his best hope.
The tall Greek is up to a career-high sixth in the world and the 20-year-old will definitely be a danger in Paris.
His powerful all-action style, including one of the game’s best single-handed backhands, and flowing blonde locks, have already made him a fan’s favourite on Tour.
The Athenian plays with a smile on his face, but in reaching the Madrid final, beating Nadal en route, he proved again that for all the flair, he knows how to look after himself.
He reached the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open in only his seventh Grand Slam main draw and hard to imagine him not surpassing his previous-best second round in Paris.
Hard to imagine Fognini lifting the trophy but the swaggering 31-year-old is pure box office whenever he is in action on his favourite clay surface.
He claimed his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlos this year, taking out Nadal in the semi-finals, taking him to a career-high 11th in the world rankings.
Owns a killer dropshot and a bewitching range of angles with his groundstrokes, although his serve and his propensity to go AWOL mid-match make him a dangerous player to back. When he is on, however, there are few better players to watch.
The battle-scarred Argentine is back from yet more injury woes and if his body can hold up he has big enough weapons to blast through even the most rugged defences on clay.
His sledgehammer forehand took him to the semi-finals for the second time last year but he was no match for Nadal in a disappointing one-sided contest in which his game did not fire.
A fractured knee ended his 2018 season in October and he only returned in February but few players can pick up the pace as quickly as Del Potro and he fought Djokovic almost to a standstill in the Rome quarter-finals.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)