Roland Garros Men’s Preview Is Rafa Nadal a Definite for Undecima?

Roland Garros

Photo courtesy of wikicommons.

Roland Garros, the clay court slam, has been Rafa Nadal’s territory for ten of the last thirteen years. The Tennis Review looks at the Spaniard’s chances of holding on to the trophy and at the likelihood of his two main rivals, Sascha Zverev and Dominic Thiem, dethroning him.

Rafa Nadal (1)- Champion 2005-08, 2010-14, 2017

It’s been yet another dominant clay court season for defending champion Nadal with titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, and a last eight finish in Madrid.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw of Simone Bolelli in the first round, Joao Sousa or Guido Pella in round 2, Richard Gasquet in round 3, Jack Sock in round 4 and Kevin Anderson, (watch out for Borna Coric or Diego Schwartzman in that section) in the last eight is about as good as it could have gotten for the ten time champion.

Nadal does not seem like he needs the luck of the draw to help his cause, but while he may look it at times, Nadal is not immortal, and on the verge of turning 32, he is going to be more prone to off days such as the one he suffered in the Madrid quarters, and he is going to struggle even more than he used to when conditions get unfavorable and his opponent gets wise exploiting that as happened in the Rome final.

While, to Nadal’s credit, he has produced the tennis needed to win, his few but telling less than convincing performances this Clay court lead in should encourage his rivals.

The question, however, is if Nadal, so close to even more history making with Undecima a very  winnable seven matches away, is going to give them that chance in the first place?

Nadal’s opponents can take a little more heart, courtesy of Mother Nature- the first week’s weather is forecast for cloud, showers, and thunderstorms, which means the energy saved on rain-dancing can be spent playing aggressive tennis and unsettling the Clay maestro in already uncomfortable low bouncing conditions. Rain delays may work in Nadal’s favor as they did in Rome, but if it’s a rainy night and morning followed by a damp and long enough period of play, the Undecima parade may not just get rained on, but it could be a washout.

Prediction: The world No.1, the defending champion,  the most in-form and experienced Clay court player- the Undecima looks , whatever the conditions, a definite for Nadal. Just as it’s one thing the forecast predicting rain, it’s another thing it actually raining, it’s also one thing having a chance to defeat Nadal in Paris and another thing to take that chance.

Alexander Zverev (2), 3rd round 2016.

All eyes may be on Nadal and his record going into Roland Garros, but Sascha Zverev has some impressive numbers, too. Zverev has just reached three clay court finals in three straight weeks, (Munich, Madrid, Rome) winning 13 of 14 matches and usurping Thiem as the Prince of Clay.

Zverev’s performance in the Rome final versus Nadal was a heartening showing and he can attempt to reach his first career slam quarter final with some confidence when he opens his campaign in Paris.

Zverev has had a nice draw, too. Ricardis Berankis in round 1, Damir Dzumhur in round 3, and Lucas Pouille in round 4.

Zverev, who had the misfortune to face Fernando Verdasco in last year’s French Open first round has the form to take advantage of that draw, and amend his less than stellar slam record. Zverev’s best slam finish was the Wimbledon fourth round last year. He has only entered 11 draws, however, and just turned 21 so while his lack of slam success may look like he has disappointed, all the signs point to his putting that behind him and breaking through sooner rather than later.

But that inexperience may still hurt him especially on the mental side. Zverev is still prone to temper tantrums and if he suffers another difficult draw like he has done in three of his last four slams (Verdasco in Paris round 1, Coric in US Open round 2, Chung in Australian Open round 3) and comes unstuck, his temper may stop him putting it all back together.

Can he dethrone Nadal?  His Rome final performance says he has the game to trouble Nadal. Dethroning him over five sets on Philippe Chatrier is an altogether different ball game, but if anyone is going to get to the final and give themselves a chance, Zverev, if his serve and backhand are on song,  is the man most likely.

Prediction: Zverev’s first slam final looks imminent.

Dominic Thiem (7)- Semi-finalist 2016, 2017.

Clay is Thiem’s best surface and after a lackluster injury hit last nine months, the Austrian showed us just why he was labeled the Prince of Clay last season in his win over Nadal in the Rome last eight.

Still, Thiem made one step forward, two steps back this Clay season. After defeating Nadal, in the Madrid quarters, Thiem never got a look in when playing the final versus Zverev, and in Rome he lost to Fabio Fognini in round 3.

If Thiem is still feeling his Madrid and Rome losses come the French Open, there is the chance he might end up over-hitting his way to another dispiriting loss, and at Roland Garros, the scene of his best triumphs, and Thiem  will need to know when to rein it in if he wants to reign in Paris.

Thiem did win the Lyon title this week, however beating Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Dusan Lajovic and Gilles Simon in consecutive three set matches, while ensuring Thiem is match fit going into Roland Garros, may tell on the Austrian if he does make it into the second week as his packed scheduled seemed to do the last two previous seasons.

Can he dethrone Nadal? If anyone can beat Nadal on Clay, it is Thiem.  But, he needs to be confident and mentally tough to do so, and in Rome he looked neither. If, however, Nadal is tired, having an off day, and it’s damp, Thiem is the last player he is going to want to face.

Prediction: Thiem managed to avoid Nadal’s quarter and landed in the opposite side of the draw, but he still has a tough path to the final- Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Thiem in Barcelona, could be his second round opponent, Kei Nishikori is his potential last 16 rival, and Sascha Zverev is lined up for the last eight. With the way things have been going for Thiem this year, an early upset seems on the cards.

Keep an eye on:

Novak Djokovic just made his first semi-final at an ATP 1000 since Rome last year.  Still far off his best, Djokovic has at least finally been showing some encouraging signs of the baseline prowess that made him such a force two seasons ago, which make a potential second round match with David Ferrer a very exciting early round prospect.

Borna Coric has had a less stellar clay court run than expected, but was not helped by tough draws and a neck injury in Rome.

Hard working, motivated, and mentally tough, Coric is going to give his rivals, and first up is Philipp Kohlschreiber (22), a tough time in Paris.

Marin Cilic is the 2005 Roland Garros Boy’s champion and just achieved his best result in a clay ATP 1000 reaching the semis in Rome. One of the few active slam champs in the draw, Cilic has an underrated defensive game and plays his best tennis in slams.

Kyle Edmund is having a breakout season and has had a nice European clay court swing. Armed with a weapon in his forehand and going somewhat under the radar, Edmund can do some damage in Paris.

Kei Nishikori‘s baseline tennis is a superior brand and works so well on Clay. The Monte Carlo finalist is match fit for Roland Garros, the question is how fit is his physical condition?

Stan Wawrinka is sorely missed as a factor in slams and while his recent form and injury comeback means he is difficult to name as a favorite, it does not feel right to omit one of only three active Roland Garros champions from the list.

In his last three Roland Garros appearances, Wawrinka is W-SF-RU, and in his upcoming first round match he will face the man who beat him before he went on that impressive run, in the 2014 first round, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, so we might not get to see too much of the best Swiss player in the draw, but what we do get to enjoy, we will savor.


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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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