French Open 2020 men’s preview: Djokovic, Nadal, Thiem lead the charge

Novak Djokovic brings 31-1 record and five titles to Paris, Rafael Nadal goes for 13th title after surprise loss in Rome, plus background facts and figures

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic is defending champion at the Mutua Madrid Open (Photo: Marianne Bevis)
Novak Djokovic is defending champion at the Mutua Madrid Open (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

In an unparalleled tennis season, barely into its second month following a five-month shut-down due to the coronavirus pandemic, there have already been some headline-making stories.

There was Andy Murray making his competitive return for the first time since last November.

Then Dennis Shapovalov, just 21 years old, broke into the top 10 following his first Major quarter-final at the US Open, backed up with a semi run on clay barely a week later on the other side of the Atlantic.

Dominic Thiem became the first Major champion born in 1990s and first new winner in four years at the US Open, and edged closer to another glass ceiling. No-one else but ‘the big four’ has occupied the top two ranking places in more than 15 years.

A clutch of young Italian stars made their mark at their home Masters, with four in the third round. Not only does Italy have eight men in the top 100, and another eight in the next, but two of them are teenagers who turned many heads with their exciting style of play—Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti.

Alexander Zverev followed his first Major semi finish in Australia before lockdown with his first final in New York after lockdown.

Meanwhile in Rome, Rafael Nadal, in his first post-lockdown appearance, lost in the quarters on his beloved clay at an event he had won nine times before

But the biggest tennis name, both before and after lockdown, has been No1 Novak Djokovic. He arrives in Paris on a 31-1 streak, with three titles before March, and now two Masters titles in August/September. And were it not for another headline-creating incident in New York that lead to his disqualification, he may well have won there too.

Of course the most out-of-season factor of this year’s French Open is that it, like Rome, comes hot on the heels of the US Open swing—hot hard courts to cool and heavy clay courts. With its swift landgrab of late September amid the uncertainty of lockdown, here in autumn is Roland Garros, with new facilities, peculiar player and fan conditions, and quite possibly a break with the Nadal ‘tradition’.

Remember, the mighty Spaniard has lost only three times in Paris since winning on his debut in 2005: That’s 93-3. And the most recent of those, in 2016, was due to withdrawal with injury. But Rome suggested that the long break had done Nadal—who thrives on a brutal match-playing regime—few favours.

And so Thiem, who has been runner-up to Nadal in the last two years at Roland Garros, and with the burden of trying to win a first Major now lifted, must be one of the main contenders for the title.

However, Djokovic has proven to be virtually impregnable this year, and with the Rome title under his belt—albeit won without facing a seed until the final in the shape of No15 Diego Schwartman—he will feel supremely confident.

Bottom line, then, it hard to see beyond Djokovic and Nadal. The former has, unlike last year, avoided Thiem in his half, with his possible semi opponents being Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas.

That leaves Nadal to contend with Thiem, though the Austrian has to make it through the toughest quarter, not least unseeded Marin Cilic in the first round, in-form Ruud the first seed, with former champion Stan Wawrinka lined up for the fourth round—though the Swiss has drawn wild card Murray in his opener. Then the quarters bring Schwartzman or home favourite Gael Monfils.

Nadal’s earliest threat may lie in the hands of Briton Dan Evans, who has drawn unseeded Kei Nishikori for his opener—the winner perhaps seeing Nadal in the third round. Then the unpredictable flair of Fabio Fognini could make the fourth round, and David Goffin and Zverev would meet to determine a quarter-final against Nadal.

There are a few men worth keeping an eye on: Schwartzman is up there, along with No6 Tsitsipas, No7 Zverev, No10 Shapovalov, plus some dark horses such as Cristian Garin, Casper Ruud, Ugo Humbert, and Sinner.

What’s new at Roland Garros in 2020?

· Court Philippe Chatrier now has a retractable roof for the first time, and there is flood lighting on all 12 competition courts—though scheduled evening matches will not begin until 2021.

· All press conferences will be held via video—no face-to-face media interaction.

· Players may only come onto the site on match days, otherwise practise at the Jean-Bouin training centre, and they and their small entourages will all stay in two designated hotels.

· At the time of writing, there will be 5,000 ticket holders every day, all allocated to Philippe Chatrier (Parisian authorities, though, have announced a maximum of 1,000 at any one outside event, so this may change).

· Prize money: Total purse, €38.4 million; Singles champions, €1.6 million (-30%); First-round losers, €60,000 (representing the only main-draw prize increase, +30%).

Clay champions this season

Garin (Cordoba, Rio), Ruud (Buenos Aires + Santiago RU), Thiago Seyboth Wild (Santiago), Miomir Kecmanovic (Kitzbuhel), Djokovic (Rome Masters)

NB Schwartzman RU in Cordoba and Rome

Former French Open champions and runners-up in draw

Nadal (12-time and defending champion)

Djokovic (2016 champion, runner-up in 2012, 2014, 2015)

Wawrinka (2015 champion, runner-up in 2017)

Thiem (runner-up in 2018, 2019)

Murray (runner-up 2016)

Top-100 players missing from draw

No4 Roger Federer, No20 Milos Raonic, No42 Nick Kyrgios, No45 Kyle Edmund, No52 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No58 Fernando Verdasco, No60 Lucas Pouille

British Round 1s NB Edmund pulled out injured ahead of draw

No32 seed Evans faces Nishikori

No71 Cameron Norrie plays a qualifier (NB Liam Broady has qualified for French Open for first time

No111 Murray, with a wild card, opens against fellow three-time Major champion Wawrinka. Murray played the Swiss in his last French Open appearance before undergoing two hip surgeries, losing in a four and a half hour five-setter in the 2017 semis.

Main draw of 128: 101 by ranking due to three late withdrawals, 19 by qualification, 8 wild cards

Djokovic quarter 1

R1 Mikael Ymer

R2 Hugo Dellien or Ricardas Berankis

R3 No29 seed Hubert Hurkacz

R4 Seeds are No20 Garin and No15 Karen Khachanov

QF Top seeds are No10 Roberto Bautista Agut and No7 Matteo Berrettini

Medvedev quarter 2

R1 Marton Fucsovics

R2 Adrian Mannarino or Albert Ramos-Vinolas

R3 No31 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili

R4 Seeds are No22 Dusan Lajovic and No13 Andrey Rublev

QF Top seeds are No9 Shapovalov and No5 Tsitsipas

Thiem quarter 3

R1 Cilic

R2 Reilly Opelka or qualifier

R3 No28 seed Ruud

R4 Seeds are No16 Wawrinka and No19 Felix Auger-Aliassime

QF Top seeds are No12 Schwartzman and No8 Monfils

Nadal quarter 4

R1 Egor Gerasimov

R2 Mackenzie McDonald or qualifier

R3 No32 seed Evans

R4 Seeds are No21 John Isner and No14 Fognini

QF Top seeds are No11 Goffin and No6 Zverev

French Open women’s preview: Former No1s Halep, Azarenka, Muguruza, hit form before Paris

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