French Open 2015: For ultimate prize, Djokovic could face Nadal, Murray and Federer

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the 2015 French Open, where Rafael Nadal is the defending champion

Novak Djokovic has made little secret of his desire to fill the one remaining Grand Slam hole in his resume: Roland Garros.

And perhaps for the first time in his rise to the very top of the tennis pile, where he leads the second man in the rankings, Roger Federer, by over 4,600 points, he is many experts’ favourite to plug that last hole.

His record this season, indeed for the last year, has been exemplary. Twelve months ago, after winning the Rome Masters, he reached the final of Roland Garros, won Wimbledon, and by the year’s end, had the Beijing, Paris Masters and World Tour Finals titles, too.

And this year has been even better. Since winning his fifth Australian Open title, he has lost just one match, and that in the final of Dubai—to Federer. Come Rome again, and he notched up his fourth Masters of 2015, his 24th Masters overall: A 35-2 winning record and unbeaten on clay.

But as so often before, the nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal looms on the horizon, ready to thwart his ambitions. Six times they have locked horns at Roland Garros, six times Nadal has won.

However the early months of 2015 suggested Nadal was struggling to regain his full powers after missing so much of the back-end of 2014 with injury and illness.

He has arrived in Paris with just one clay title to his name, the 250 in Buenos Aires, and while it was not too much of a surprise that he fell in the semis of the Monte-Carlo Masters to Djokovic, his loss to Fabio Fognini in his second match in Barcelona was rather more so, and his loss to Andy Murray in the Madrid final was his first clay loss to the Briton. Then at the Rome Masters, he went out in the quarters to Stan Wawrinka, his first loss to the Swiss on clay.

So Nadal’s hopes of winning a remarkable 10th French title has been the subject of much debate, especially as he begins his campaign seeded outside the top five for the first time in his 66-1 Roland Garros career.

Because of his seeding outside the top four—he is No6 after the withdrawal of Milos Raonic with injury—there was more of a frisson around this year’s draw than in many a Grand Slam. He would be an unwanted opponent for one the top men in the quarter-finals—but which one?

No2 seed Federer made it clear in Rome that he still believed Nadal to be the favourite come Paris: He had fallen to his mighty Spanish rival in all five meetings at this Major on the red stuff, four times in the final. And top-seed Djokovic, loser to Nadal in the 2012 final, the 2013 semi-finals and 2014 final, anticipated that the familiar Nadal would be back to winning ways come Paris.

“I expect Rafa to play well in any tournament on clay. Yes, he did not have the start of the clay court season he hoped. He sets high standards and people look for those from him… he always peaks at Roland Garros.”

And he it was who drew Nadal in his quarter. Not only that, he would find No3 seed Murray in his half, leaving Federer as his possible final opponent. So if either Djokovic or Nadal is to make it all the way to the title, he will most likely have to do so by the hardest possible route.

There are, of course, many other men with equally big ambitions in this intriguing draw. Can any of them make their run at the climax of the clay season?

Djokovic/Nadal quarter

Both Djokovic and Nadal have some tricky early players before their expected face-off in the quarter-finals. The Serb has veteran Jarkko Nieminen in his opener, and then could face the winner between two talented young Australians, Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis, in the third round. In the fourth, he could play either Kevin Anderson or Richard Gasquet.

Nadal opens against French wild card, Quentin Halys, a match sure to divide loyalties among the home crowd. But Round 2 is a real challenge for the defending champion, bringing the winner between Alexandr Dolgopolov and Nicolas Almagro, who scored a surprise win over Nadal in Barcelona last year.

Nadal’s fourth round is also packed with danger: No10 seed Grigor Dimitrov is drawn to play veteran clay expert Tommy Robredo, though Dimitrov has a tough opener against Jack Sock. The fast-rising teenager Borna Coric, who scored a famous win over an injured Nadal in Basel, is also here—though he was still playing at the semi stage of Nice when the draw was made.

And so—Roland Garros will hope—to the expected face-off with Djokovic, who arrives confident and fresh, having bypassed Madrid to keep his form and fitness at their optimum level.

Semi-finalist: Djokovic

Murray/Ferrer quarter

Andy Murray, twice a semi-finalist at Roland Garros, has been enjoying the best start to a clay season in his career. Until Munich, Murray had not even reached a clay final before, but he won the German title and then the Madrid Masters, too. He too arrives in Paris fresh, after pulling out after his first match in Rome to rest and recuperate.

His scheduled quarter-finalist is 2013 runner-up David Ferrer, who already has three titles and 32 match-wins this year, including two semis and two quarter-final runs on the clay.

But before that formidable quarter, Murray has lucky loser Facundo Arguello, followed by the dangerous Vasek Pospisil, though the big-hitting Canadian has been dealing with injury problems. More dangerous is Murray’s first seed, the huge new talent from Australia, Nick Kyrgios, who beat Federer in Madrid and reached the Estoril final. Murray has beaten him in both previous meetings, but here is a player who grows in confidence with every tournament he plays.

Murray’s fourth round holds the contrasting skills of big-serving John Isner, who has been on a decent run this spring, or the all-court ability of David Goffin.

Ferrer opens against Lukas Lacko, and his first seed is scheduled to be the returning Viktor Troicki. Ferrer’s fourth round could line up Marin Cilic, though the US Open champion’s form since his return from injury has yet to hit the heights. There are two big-hitting men, Jerzy Janowicz and Jiri Vesely, also in this segment.

Incidentally, 20-year-old Briton Kyle Edmund, followed up his first Grand Slam main draw qualification in Australia in January with another main draw here: He plays French qualifier Stephane Robert.

Semi-finalist: Murray

Berdych/Nishikori quarter

Tomas Berdych is enjoying a No4 ranking for the first time in his career on the back of one of the most consistent runs on the tour: He has reached at least the quarter-finals of all nine tournaments this year, advancing to the semis in no fewer than seven of them and the finals of three: Doha, Rotterdam and Monte-Carlo.

He finds himself in a section packed with some highly talented but also unpredictable players, not least his first seed, Fabio Fognini—who has twice beaten Nadal this year but also lost to players outside the top 100.

Round 4 for Berdych brings a possible meet with Philipp Kohlschreiber or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—and Berdych has a significant upper hand against the Frenchman working his way back from injury absence.

His likely quarter-final opponent, Kei Nishikori, is an exciting prospect: The two have not met since 2012, during which time the Japanese man has surged to a Grand Slam final and he comes into Paris with the Barcelona title, plus a semi and quarter run in Madrid and Rome respectively.

Nishikori’s section is a packed one though: Paul-Henri Mathieu to open, Thomaz Bellucci a possible second-rounder, Fernando Verdasco his first seed. Round 4 should bring Roberto Bautista Agut—the other seed, Feliciano Lopez, is not at home on clay. Also here are Juan Monaco and Federico Delbonis, who beat Wawrinka to reach the semis of Geneva this week.

Semi-finalist: Nishikori

Federer/Wawrinka quarter

The two Swiss stars are scheduled to meet for a 19th time if they fulfil their seedings, and though Federer lost out to his compatriot in the final of Monte-Carlo last year, he was a convincing winner last week in Rome—though it was Federer’s only straight-sets win over Wawrinka since 2012.

2009 champion Federer will no doubt heave a private sigh of relief that he has avoided not just Nadal but also Murray in his half, but his section is not without threats.

He opens against lucky loser Alejandro Falla, who famously took the Swiss to five sets in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010—and last year to two tie-breakers in the Halle final. Federer has had few problems against the huge figure of his first seed, Ivo Karlovic.

But the fourth round, where Federer made an unexpected exit here last year, throws up a man he has faced in two of his last three tournaments, Pablo Cuevas—and both times he took the Swiss to a tie-break set. However it could be the charismatic Gael Monfils who instead makes it to another intriguing meet: The Frenchman had match points against Federer at the US Open last year and beat him in Monte-Carlo in straight sets. Monfils has also reached the quarters at Roland Garros four times, advancing to the semis in 2008.

Federer is in decent clay form, however, winning the title from the new Istanbul 250 and making a final run in Rome. Wawrinka, conversely, has struggled with form, and in particular with consistency. Rome brought his first back-to-back wins since taking the title in Rotterdam, but he beat Nadal in straight sets before losing to Federer.

He opens against Marsel Ilhan and then his first seed may be the in-form Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, winner of two titles this year, including the clay Bucharest. Wawrinka’s fourth round could throw in the winner between Ernests Gulbis and Gilles Simon.

The third Briton in the men’s draw, Alijaz Bedene, has a tough opener against the fast-improving young Austrian, Dominic Thiem.

Semi-finalist: Monfils

Final: Djokovic beats Nishikori

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