French Open Racing Form – The Men
Douglas Hochmuth and Bill Simons
Rafa Nadal: Expectations for the clay king are always sky high, so if he falters it feels like the sky is falling. In January he soared at the Aussie Open, but was crushed by Novak in the final. He then lost early to Kyrgios in Mexico and withdrew from Indian Wells and Miami. Worse yet, the once domineering duke of dirt seemed fallible on clay as he fell to a streaking Fabio Fognini, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. But Nadal, at last, found his full-throttle swagger in Rome, en route to a much-needed Italian crown. Yes, he’ll “only” be seeded No. 2 – but for good reason he’ll be the favorite to win in Paris, where he’s only lost twice. But, for many, if the king of clay fails to reign for a 12th time at Roland Garros, the French sky will certainly fall.
Novak Djokovic: The world No. 1 is in better form coming into this year’s French than in ‘18. Last year, he entered the clay swing 3-3. Still, he found his way to the Roland Garros quarters before suffering a shock loss to Marco Ceccinato. This year he entered 13-3 and won impressively in Madrid before falling to fatigue and Rafa in the Rome final. The ongoing swirl of ATP politics probably won’t be a distraction, while a victory by this second favorite contender could give him some points in the ongoing GOAT debate.
Roger Federer: Tennis was fascinated to see that in his twilight, arguably the second best clay court player of our era will be at RG for the first time in three years. Equally fascinating have been his bold tactics: in Madrid and Rome, he charged the net time and again. The maestro’s variety will be an invaluable asset in Paris. If he can get through the first few rounds he still could face considerable opposition. And, of course, a run to the semis or even the finals would ignite tennisdom.
Dominic Thiem: The only player to beat Rafa on clay in 2017 and 2018, Thiem did so again this year in the Barcelona semis. Last year’s Paris finalist, and now at a career-high No. 4 ranking, he’s emerged in recent seasons as the game’s most feared clay player not named Rafa. The 25-year-old Austrian is still susceptible to surprise losses to lower-ranked players, but he’s reached at least the French semis the last three years. Look for the Indian Wells champ to handle his quarter with ease before a potential blockbuster semi. If the highest ranked player in his half is upset prior to that, he could have a real shot at his first Slam.
Stefanos Tsitsipas: The 20-year-old Greek proved that his run to last year’s Toronto final, where he beat four top ten players, was not a fluke, when he made the semis in Australia. Both of those tourneys were on hard, but he’s proven his clay court chops with a title in Estoril, a second masters final in Madrid and the semis in Rome. Tsitsipas has a big-match mentality that will serve him well at this year’s French.
Alexander Zverev: The German says that his troubling season is due in large part to legal hassles with his former management company. This has the distracted the 22-year-old, who’s saddled with the reputation of underperforming at Slams. His best result at a major was reaching last year’s RG quarters, and anything beyond that this year would be a triumph for the 6’6’’ champion of the future.
Juan Martin Del Potro: Tennis’ ongoing feel-good story, Delpo made his second return to the tour following last year’s knee injury in Shanghai. The beloved Tower of Tandil played well enough, but lost his opener to Rio champ Laslo Djere. He’s dealing with a lack of match play and uncertainty about his knee. But he managed an impressive run to the Rome quarters, where he fell in an epic battle with Nole. The Argentine is a true wildcard.
Kei Nishikori: Here’s something that might surprise you: Nishikori is fifth in clay court win percentage behind the Big Three and Thiem. The consistent Japanese star is ranked No. 6, has won only two titles on the dirt, but has twice made a French QF.
Marin Cilic: Former US Open champ Cilic can be deadly – but not this year. The Croat’s season has been throttled by four first-round exits and six losses in a row to players outside the top 20. In Madrid, Cilic put together back-to-back wins for the first time since the Aussie Open, but pulled out of his quarters match against Djokovic with food poisoning. I would not expect Cilic to live up to his seed at this year’s French Open.
Karen Khachanov: Is there a Paris Masters curse? Jack Sock, who won the tourney in 2017, is now No. 167. And, since winning the event in 2018, Khachanov has lost in the first round in eight of eleven tourneys, with five of those losses coming against players outside the top 50. The Russian, who’s now No. 12, seems best suited for fast indoor hard courts, so expect an early exit.
Denis Shapovalov: The young Canadian has the shots but maybe not the mental chops to compete yet on clay. He lost in the first round in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid, looking frustrated about his inability to end points quickly with a big forehand. Unless he finds “the zone,” don’t expect him to be competitive through a best-of-five match past the third round of the French.
Lucas Pouille: The Frenchman’s Aussie Open semi showing is quickly fading. He has since won only one tour-level match. Social media clips have shown him breaking racquets in frustration in practice matches, leaving us wondering how long famed coach and Slam champ Amelie Mauresmo will stay in his corner.
OTHERS THAT COULD FALL EARLY: Marco Ceccinato, Alex De Minaur, Dusan Lajovic and Kyle Edmund. BTW: could Nick Kyrgios, who hates clay but loves to surprise, score some wins? And what kind of shock would it be if Rio Open finalist Felix Auger-Aliassime went deep?
Stan Wawrinka: At the height of the Gimelstob debacle, Stan drew glowing accolades by taking one of the gutsiest moral stances in tennis history. Now will he be drawing our attention for his on-court play? After his 2015 RG victory, the powerful Wawrinka can never really be counted out at the French. His No. 27 ranking is far below his career high of No. 3, but a reasonable draw could see the powerful Swiss make his first major fourth round or better since his 2017 surgery.
Fabio Fognini: After his surprise title in Monte Carlo, you can’t dismiss the 31-year-old flashy Italian. He’s certainly on form heading into RG, but can he sustain it? Since 2011 he hasn’t once managed to reach a Slam quarterfinal and he fell last year in the fourth round in Paris.
Diego Schwartzman: The 5’7” Argentine is always dangerous. He’s best on clay and downed Kei Nishikori during a stunning run to the Italian semis. A season of mixed results will see the No. 20 player in the world with a modest seed. But, like last year where he beat then No. 7 Kevin Anderson, he could take out a big name in the quarters.
Christian Garin: The Chilean’s welcome party came in Houston where he won his first title. He backed it up with a title in Munich, where he beat three seeds, including hometown hero Zverev. The 22-year old started the year around No. 90, but has risen as high as No. 33, and has proven he can pull off an upset on clay.
Grigor Dimitrov: The talented Bulgarian didn’t blink as he played qualies just to get into the Geneva draw. Now coached by Andre Agassi, the former ATP World Tour Finals champ has had a rollercoaster career. He’s currently in a dip, which means he could face a high seed early and sneak an upset, but don’t expect him to go deep.
Look for the InsideTennis.com draw analysis Thursday, 10:00 am PST.