As Stefanos Tsitsispas collected his 7th career title at Lyons after defeating Britain’s Cameron Norrie 6-3 6-3 in the final for his second title on clay having also been successful at the Monte Carlo Masters, the Greek world No.5 is certainly a major threat to Nadal’s aspirations of a record 14th Roland Garros title.
Every year when I’m asked about Roland Garros, I give the same answer. I say ‘the only thing we don’t know when Roland Garros starts every year is who Rafa is going to beat in the final.’ Everything else, we know Patrick Mouratoglou
There can be no doubt that Nadal remains the favourite to achieve what would seem impossible, despite not dominating the build-up on clay this year as he has done in the past, with just the Barcelona and Rome titles falling into his clasp this year these past few months.
One shouldn’t discount Dominic Thiem, the Austrian world No 3 who has twice reached the final – 2018 and 2019 – only to be denied by the King of Clay.
Thiem, the only player to have won a major in recent years outside of the ‘established’ group – the 2020 US Open –, hasn’t had the best of runs since then, despite last year’s epic quarter-final loss to Diego Schwartzman, the diminutive Argentine.
As Alec Corretja, the 2001 Finalist, said: “There are rivals who can challenge Rafael Nadal in Paris. Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Diego Schwartzman top that list, as they can all play good tennis.
“I’m not sure that Matteo Berrettini, Casper Ruud and others can endure the best-of-five encounters against Rafa.
“If Thiem brings his best tennis, he is probably the one who can challenge Rafa the most on clay because of the styles of games.
“He has a good forehand, a good backhand, a good serve, and he doesn’t need to go so far back to hit his backhand.
“I think that the night session can draw some upsets. It can create problems for players if matches go long into the night because they will finish late, and the conditions will be totally different, as the clay should become very wet.”
Interestingly Daniil Medvedev, the world No2, doesn’t feature amongst any of the pundit’s possible winners and that isn’t surprising as the Russian has yet to win a match at Roland Garros in four appearances! In addition, he is the only player in the top 10 not to have won a clay court title having played 31 matches on the surface and only won 11.
Another name you would expect to be bandied around as a possible champion is Roger Federer, the 2009 title holder, but he has discounted himself from the race by declaring that Wimbledon is his target of the season, followed by the Olympics.
Federer though, isn’t playing to make up the numbers. He will want to win as much as ever, so must be considered at least as an outside contender.
Novak Djokovic, the world No.1, remains the real threat for Nadal. The Serb pushed the Spaniard to the limit before losing a tight Rome Masters final and he will be keen to avenge the whitewash he suffered in last year’s Roland Garros final!
Marion Bartoli believes Djokovic fancies his chances.
“I think that Novak Djokovic will really hope massively that he doesn’t draw obviously, Rafa,” Bartoli told Tennis Majors.
“But I think the final in Rome was very interesting because even though Djokovic had two matches to play the day before, he was still right there and competing a lot better than what he did in the final at Roland Garros a few months back.
“I think that was a big signal for him just to see that he has the level and if he goes to a five-setter he is right there with Rafa on clay.”
“And I think that was for him the main point because obviously skipping Madrid and not arriving with a lot of confidence on clay, and not doing well in Monte Carlo and Belgrade, was really for him a big question mark whether this year he would still be able to play well on clay.
“So I think that [Rome] for him was crucial for his confidence to go to Roland Garros and knowing he can do it.”
This week he is back in Serbia where he is competing in the second of his home events within a month, the Belgrade Open, hopin to pick up his first clay court title of the season in preparation for Roland Garros.
Ideally Djokovic and Nadal should be facing each other in the final on the 13th June but it all depends on the draw as the pair could be drawn in the same half unless the seeding is tweaked as a gesture to Nadal’s dominance at the event.
Meanwhile, Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ French coach, has backed Nadal, declaring: “Every year when I’m asked about Roland Garros, I give the same answer. I say ‘the only thing we don’t know when Roland Garros starts every year is who Rafa is going to beat in the final.’ Everything else, we know.”
Betting against Nadal collecting his 14th French and extending his tally of Grand Slam singles titles to a record 21 surpassing Roger Federer with whom he currently shares that honour, would indeed be a risk.