French Open preview

French Open 2018: Can returning former champions Djokovic or Wawrinka halt the Rafael Nadal juggernaut?

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the 2018 French Open, where Rafael Nadal is looking to defend his title against the likes of Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka

Novak Djokovic
Can Novak Djokovic halt Rafael Nadal? Photo: Marianne Bevis

It seemed a momentous achievement to win a 10th French Open title when Rafael Nadal lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires last year. No other man has managed La Decima in Paris or at any of its siblings in London, New York and Melbourne.

Then he went on to win a third US Open title—having also reached the final at the Australian Open. No wonder he returned to No1 to begin cranking up his tally of weeks at the top to a current 174. Not bad for a man who missed so much of 2016 with injury—including withdrawing from the French Open in tears with wrist pain.

But come this clay season, Nadal has begun to push the boundaries still further with a remarkable run to the titles in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome—and that made it 11 titles at each of the former two tournaments and eight at the Foro Italico.

Now he is lining up yet another momentous achievement. At Roland Garros, he is favourite to defend his title, notch up an 11th French Open, and equal the all-time record of Margaret Court at the Australian Open.

King of clay? No question. An Open record of 56 clay titles. A 79-2 all-time record at Roland Garros. And this year alone, a 19-1 win-loss record—his only loss coming in the Madrid Masters quarter-finals.

But it is not just on clay that Nadal, who turns 32 during the French Open, is pushing the boundaries.

He has more Masters match-wins than anyone else from more Masters titles, 32. He has risen to fourth on the Open list of title winners ahead of John McEnroe: 78 of them. And with a fourth-round run in Paris, he will crack 900 career match-wins.

And should he win that 11th title in a fortnight’s time, he will stay at No1 ahead of his oldest rival, Roger Federer.

Talking ahead of his defence in Paris, however, Nadal put to one side any particular wish to retain the top spot.

“I don’t think much about that. Somebody asked me about that [in Rome], and I said, yes, but my only and real motivation is win the title. My feeling is of course better to be No1 than be No2 or No5, but what really makes me happy… is to feel myself competitive to play all events that I want to play and to have success in these important events.”

Even putting aside the Nadal records, it is hard to see too many trip-wires in the early stages of his draw, which has gone rather better for him than for No2 seed, Alexander Zverev, at the other extreme of the 128 players.

Alexandr Dolgopolov should prove an straightforward first hurdle, while Nadal’s first seed Richard Gasquet has his own tough opener against Andreas Seppi. In a wide-open quarter that ranges from teenage wunderkind Denis Shapovalov to veteran single-hander Philipp Kohlschreiber to the big-hitting Kevin Anderson, and a scattering of good clay-courters such as Pablo Cuevas and Joao Sousa, the biggest danger could come from the No11 seed Diego Schwartzman, winner in Rio. However, the Argentine had less impact through the European clay swing than might have been anticipated.

Some bigger problems, literally, lie ahead in the semis. The second quarter is topped by Marin Cilic, not a renowned clay player but a Major champion, now a Masters champion, and with a first clay Masters semi-final under his belt in Rome a week ago. He also broke new ground in Roland Garros last year by reaching the quarters.

Cilic is not the only man to break the Masters glass ceiling recently. Juan Martin del Potro, seeded a lowly 29 last year after injury problems, is now No5 seed after a fine start to 2018: titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells and the semis in Miami contributed to a 23-6 season. And it is del Potro who rounds out the Cilic quarter.

There are other physically big men here—Tomas Berdych and John Isner among them—but it could the likes of Fabio Fognini or young Briton Kyle Edmund—at a career-high No17—who cause upsets on a surface that they both love. Edmund, a semi-finalist in Australia, reached the final in Marrakech, and beat first Novak Djokovic then David Goffin in Madrid.

And talking Djokovic, there have been clear signs that the former champion is beginning to find his feet and confidence again after withdrawing from the tour for six months post-Wimbledon.

Returning from elbow injury, Djokovic lost a close match to Dominic Thiem—who went on to beat Nadal in Madrid—in Monte-Carlo, and he twice beat Kei Nishikori, in Madrid and Rome.

While he enters Roland Garros ranked an uncharacteristic 22, his record in Paris is formidable: He has not fallen short of the quarters since 2009, completed his Grand Slam in 2016, and has reached three more finals on Chatrier. Indeed he trails only Nadal and Federer for match-wins, 59, ahead of the illustrious clay champion Guillermo Vilas.

He does, then, have to be in the mix of possible threats for a final run title, a position boosted by being drawn in the bottom half. However, his quarter is riddled with men who could upset him before he can renew that famous rivalry with Nadal.

He begins against a qualifier, with another qualifier or David Ferrer in the second round, and the gritty Roberto Bautista Agut is his first seed. Come Round 4, and it is World Tour Finals champion and No4 seed Grigor Dimitrov—though clay, and Roland Garros, are not his most successful environments. In the quarters, the draw ups the ante for Djokovic with Gael Monfils, Nick Kyrgios or Goffin.

The nimble Belgian in particular will want to take up where he left off last year. Back then, he was one of the tips for a strong run until an accident on the court covers resulted in retirement.

All things considered, then, it would be dangerous to discount the Serb. If he is back to full match-fitness, he could certainly make a deep run, and he if he can achieve the near impossible, and dethrone Nadal, he would become the first man in the Open era, and only the third man in history, to win each of the four Majors twice.

Before Nadal, or any thoughts of such records, however, there is the question of the bottom quarter, which Djokovic will have to survive en route to the final.

And Zverev, eagerly looking for a deep run at a Major to match his breakthrough at Masters levels—he has won three from five finals in the last year—has been dealt a bad hand. He has a lot of tennis in his legs, too, more wins than anyone else this year, including the semis in Monte-Carlo, back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid, and a near win over Nadal in the Rome final.

On paper, he should equal his best showing so far, a fourth round, but once there, he faces Lucas Pouille or former champion and runner-up last year, Stan Wawrinka.

The Swiss was side-lined for the last six months of 2017 by knee surgery, and has made only modest forays into the tour this season—fewer than a dozen matches—as he works back to fitness. As a result, he is down to 25, and in truth, Roland Garros may have come a little too soon for him.

But Wawrinka aside, the rest of this quarter has Nishikori and Thiem, plus unseeded rising stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe, in its line-up.

Thiem, in particular, with that Madrid win over Nadal and also back-to-back semis in Paris, will have high hopes. However, he is in the final in Lyon this weekend: Has he overplayed again? His fans will hope not, and will also hope that Tsitsipas does not beat him again as he did in Barcelona, to oust Thiem in the first week.

Former French Open champions and finalists in 2018 draws

Rafael Nadal (10-time and defending champion)

Novak Djokovic (2016 champion, 2012, 2014, 2015 finalist)

Stan Wawrinka (2015 champion, 2017 finalist)

David Ferrer (2013 finalist)

Champions on clay this season

Nadal, Zverev, Thiem, Schwartzman, Fognini, Pablo Andujar [plus Geneva and Lyon finals this weekend]

Who falls where?

Nadal quarter

R1: Dolgopolov

R2: Sousa or Guido Pella

R3: No27 Gasquet

R4: No24 Shapovalov or No14 Jack Sock

QF: No11 Schwartzman, No22 Kohlschreiber, No28 Feliciano Lopez, No6 Anderson

SF: No3 Cilic or No5 del Potro

Cilic quarter

R1: James Duckworth

R2: Tennys Sandgren or Hubert Hurkacz

R3: No25 Adrian Mannarino

R4: No18 Fognini or No16 Edmund

QF: No9 Isner, No17 Berdych, No31 Albert Ramos-Vinolas, No5 del Potro

SF: No1 Nadal, No6 Anderson

Dimitrov quarter

R1: Viktor Troicki

R2: Jared Donaldson or Nicolas Jarry

R3: No30 Fernando Verdasco

R4: No20 Djokovic or No13 Bautista Agut

QF: No10 Pablo Carreno Busta, No21 Kyrgios, No32 Monfils, No8 Goffin

SF: No7 Thiem, No2 Zverev

Zverev quarter

R1: Ricardas Berankis

R2: Dusan Lajovic or Jiri Vesely

R3: No26 Damir Dzumhur

R4: No23 Wawrinka or No15 Pouille

QF: No12 Sam Querrey, No19 Nishikori, No29 Gilles Muller, No7 Thiem

SF: No4 Dimitrov, No8 Goffin

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