FILE - Rafael Nadal. Photo: Guglielmo Mangiapane
FILE - Rafael Nadal. Photo: Guglielmo Mangiapane

King of clay: Who can stop Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros?

By Stuart Hess Time of article published May 30, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - Rafael Nadal remains the favourite to win a 14th French Open title, his path to that remarkable record, has a significant hump in the way.

A potential semi-final against his main rival Novak Djokovic has thrown up plenty of intrigue in the men’s competition. The women’s tournament already had plenty of fascination. In fact it’s been in the nature of women’s tennis in the last few years, as Serena Williams’ dominance has waned, that the women’s game has been far more interesting to watch than the men, which has continued to be characterised by three players.

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Whereas Naomi Osaka, seeded No 2 in Paris is a class apart on hardcourt, that is most certainly not the case on clay. The Japanese starlet has struggled on the ‘red dirt’ , unable to get past the third round in four previous visits to Roland Garros. That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t clear favourites. A trio of players led by World No 1 Ashleigh Barty, winner in 2019, current champion Iga Swiatek and Belarussian powerhouse Aryna Sabalenka, stand out as the main contenders, each underlining their status by winning one of the big build-up tournaments ahead of Roland Garros.

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Which is not to say, there aren’t opportunities for upsets. In fact it is in the nature of women’s tennis that a player emerges from the shadows, whether a new name like Jennifer Brady, runner-up in Australia earlier this year, or a veteran like Victoria Azarenka, who made it to the final of the US Open last year, the women’s game provides a variety that the men’s competition can’t match.

A potential first week match to look out for will be between Barty and Coco Gauff, seeded 24, who won the clay-court tournament in Parma, Italy two weeks ago. Of the three main contenders, Sabalenka, who won in Madrid this year, beating Barty in the final, has fallen on the right half of the draw. That bottom half features Williams, Osaka, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber, all players who’ve won multiple Majors, but none of whom have lately, had a good record at the French Open.

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The men’s draw did the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem plenty of favours on the one hand. All three are in the bottom half, and have no need to worry about Nadal and Novak Djokovic or even Roger Federer, who is making his Grand Slam comeback, and has been drawn in the top half, with a potential quarter-final against Djokovic in the offing.

For that trio of what was once called ‘next gen’ stars however, the absence of Rafa and Nole (one of Djokovic’s nicknames), means there are plenty of expectations, not so much from those watching, but more so from themselves. Of the three Thiem’s, the US Open champion and twice a runner-up at Roland Garros, expectations are a little lower, given his lack of form this year.

Zverev, is in-form and despite his off-court controversies, very motivated this year. He won in Madrid, beating Nadal along the way, although the great Spaniard returned the favour a week later in Rome. He is probably the favourite to emerge from the bottom half, but needs to avoid lengthy battles in the first week, to ‘save his legs’ as the competition gets harder, if he wants to win his first Major.

Tsitsipas, seeded No 5, has a very friendly quarter, and a fairly clear path to the semi-final. While No 2 seed Daniil Medvedev is that portion of the draw, the Russian has never won a match at Roland Garros, a curious anomaly that has thrown up how weird the seeding system is for this year’s tournament.

That outcome has created the potential for Nadal v Djokovic on Friday, June 11. “I see it as natural. One player is almost 40 (Federer), another is almost 35 (Nadal) and the other is 34 (Djokovic). It seems logical that younger players (will) climb in the rankings,” Nadal said of the seedings in Paris.

“Whenever that happens you have these consequences (with the seedings). I see it as completely normal. I’m not worried about it. I have a lot of work in front of me to play a potential match versus Djokovic.”

How much of a factor will Federer be? No one, including the great Swiss, expects him to add to his 2009 title at Roland Garros, and he has spoken of looking ahead to Wimbledon, and using a short clay-court season to build up miles in his legs. He opens against the colourful veteran Denis Istomin, with that quarter-final against Djokovic a potential outcome should he get through the first week. In fact, if Federer, who had two knee surgeries last year, were to make it into the second week, that would constitute a huge success given the amount of time he’s missed and that clay is his least favourite surface.

Champion picks Women

- If Barty is over her elbow problem, she has the brains and skill to add to her 2019 success. The Australian won in Stuttgart, and was a runner-up in Madrid, carries confidence into the French Open and her experience of winning there, will stand her in good stead.

Men - It would be stupid to look past Nadal, whose record at Roland Garros reads: 100 wins, two losses. One of those defeats was to Djokovic and that potential semi-final looms as a blockbuster.

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