Tuesday, June 25, 2024

French Open: The Contenders- Men’s Singles and Doubles

The first round of the French Open continues today at Roland Garros, kicking off the second Grand Slam of the season as Paris welcomes the stars to the world’s biggest clay court tournament. On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal is the clear favourite, especially in the absence of Roger Federer and Andy Murray, and with former champion Stan Wawrinka crashing out in the first round.

Nadal is seeking his eleventh title on his favourite surface after a dominant clay court season, winning titles in both Barcelona and Rome. Can anyone challenge him? We will take a look at the potential winners, challengers and British representatives here, as well as round up the doubles draw.

French Open Men’s Singles

Rafael Nadal (World number 1, 1st seed)

When it comes to the red clay, no one is like Rafael Nadal. Widely regarded as the greatest clay-court player in history, Nadal reclaimed his position as world number 1 in Rome just recently with a hard-fought win over Alexander Zverev, and has generally been in scintillating form since he regained fitness in April, claiming titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome along the way.

His brand of tennis, which is aggressive and tenacious, relies on his expert use of topspin, which permeates through his groundstrokes to a heavy degree and makes him lethal, especially on this surface, which suits his counterpunching ability down to the ground. No one has had a consistent answer for it throughout his career, and that makes him a prominent favourite to achieve an astonishing eleventh title.

The only glimmer of hope for his rivals is that on the odd occasion a couple of them have managed to break his almost impenetrable defences. Dominic Thiem defeated him in straight sets in Madrid, ending a streak of 50 consecutive sets won on clay, and Alexander Zverev caused him a lot of trouble in Rome just recently. However, over the full five sets it’s difficult to back anyone to have the game, and the mettle, to outlast him.

French open
French Open Legend Rafa Nadal

Alexander Zverev (world number 3, 2nd seed)

In the absence of Roger Federer who opted to miss the clay court season, 21 year-old Alexander Zverev is Nadal’s main challenger. The lithe, tall German belies his physique and packs a lot of punch, as he showed by blowing Ricardas Berankis off the court completely in their first round bout yesterday 6-1 6-1 6-2.

His clay court season has been exceptional this year, defending his title in Munich and going on to win his third Masters title in Madrid before a very unfortunate rain delay in Rome prevented him from utilising his momentum in the final against Nadal when he was a break up in the final set. He is looking confident in his ability and has all the attributes to cause anyone in the game problems, boasting a powerful serve and excellent ability at the baseline.

He has an exceptional backhand and at 6ft 6ins is surprisingly agile around the court. If Zverev can show the mental strength necessary, he is by all accounts the biggest threat to Nadal, but at his young age is it too soon?

Marin Čilić (world number 4, 3rd seed)

Despite being a player that goes under the radar a lot even though he is a past Grand Slam champion and made the Australian Open final this year, Marin Čilić is a serious contender for all the Grand Slams at this stage in his career. He has consistently proved over the past couple of years that he is a force to be reckoned with, and someone that can match all the top players on his day.

On clay, Čilić has had mixed results, and only really started to get a handle on Roland Garros last year, when he reached the quarter-finals for the first time before falling to Stan Wawrinka. Nevertheless, there are many aspects of his game that suit the surface, and the power he has is always a highly useful asset, even if his huge serve is somewhat negated by the clay.

In Madrid, he reached the semi finals before losing to Zverev and has shown as a result that he can go far, meaning that if he brings that form to Paris, he could be a dark horse to go far in the tournament, which is an odd thing to say given that he’s the third seed, such is the amount that he’s flying under the radar.

Juan Martin Del Potro (world number 6, 5th seed)

This player’s story is one of remarkable and admirable resilience and grit amidst a great amount of adversity. Del Potro has long had the ability to match the Big Four players in tennis, and were it not for his countless injuries, he would definitely have added to his solitary Grand Slam title, picked up at the US Open in 2009. The lanky Argentine is a brilliant tennis player to watch, bring a mix of power and flair to the table along with the bags of talent, which is exactly how he’s managed to claw himself back in to the top 10 after so long away from the game.

Last year was his first appearance at Roland Garros for four years, and his clay court season has not been anything special so far, his last tournament in Rome in fact ending in retirement against David Goffin, but Del Potro on his day is a threat to anyone and, if fully fit, there is every chance he could match or better his best result at Roland Garros: the semi-finals.

Dominic Thiem (world number 8, 7th seed)

Another of the ‘Next Generation’ players to make a name for himself, Austrian 24 year-old Dominic Thiem has proved himself to be a huge threat on clay, making the latter stage of multiple tournaments this year and proving in the past two years that he can reach the latter stages in Paris. It was only last month in Madrid that Thiem ended Nadal’s massive winning run in stunning fashion before going on to lose to Zverev in the tournament final. What remains to be seen however is whether he can do it against the likes of Nadal over five sets and maintain that sense of consistency in general against others.

Boasting an aggressive baseline style and a gorgeous one-handed backhand, Thiem’s shotmaking ability and ability to construct points in his favour are his major skills, while he is also able to hit heavy, strong serves.

Clay is his surface of choice because it is the surface where these skills can come to the fore best, the slower surface allowing him to take the time to pull his opponents to where he wants them and take control of rallies at his own pace. He will be a threat to everybody in the draw, and if he can stay consistent, has every chance of reaching the very latter stages and taking Nadal on again.

He started his campaign yesterday with a very simple win over Belarusian qualifier Ilya Ivashka 6-2 6-4 6-1, but now has to face another extremely talented up and comer, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in the 2nd round. It will be a tough challenge but one that Thiem, at this stage in his career, will be expected to overcome.

Novak Djokovic (world number 22, 20th seed)

He may be out of form and lacking in tournament wins, but you can never rule out 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic. His elbow surgery in January caused a massive problem for him, and on his return he endured a very poor run of form by his standards, even admitting that he perhaps came back too early.

Nevertheless, in the past couple of months things seem to have slowly settled, and he made the semi-finals in Rome recently only to come up against the brick wall that is Rafael Nadal. Despite an excellent defensive game and a comfort across the whole court, whether it be on the baseline or at the net, clay can not be said to be Djokovic’s best surface.

He did look comfortable without impressing hugely in his first round tie against Rogerio Dutra Silva yesterday, running out the winner in straight sets 6-3 6-4 6-4, but it remains to be seen what he can do against a higher calibre of opponent at this stage.

His solitary win at Roland Garros came at the peak of his powers, and it is very hard to imagine that he currently has the game to match and even better Nadal, but with Djokovic there is always a chance, and so he has to be considered a contender.

Brit Watch

Kyle Edmund (world number 17, 16th seed)

In the absence of Andy Murray who is still recovering from a persistent hip injury, 23 year-old Kyle Edmund has taken on the mantle of Britain’s main hope in France. Edmund is a player who has improved a lot very quickly, flying up the rankings and showing the world that his forehand means business. The clay has actually been pretty kind to Kyle and he seems perfectly at home on the surface, reaching his first tournament final in Morocco before beating both Novak Djokovic and David Goffin in Madrid.

Edmund on form is full of explosive weapons at his disposal, and particularly his forehand, which is often hit with both power and precision. This is exactly why he has risen up the rankings and the pressure is definitely on him to join Murray as an elite player, and one who can challenge for the top accolades.

This tournament is a great chance for him to get a feel for it and build on last year’s performance, that involved a 5-set loss to Kevin Anderson. Nevertheless, Edmund is an exciting player for the future and one who will hopefully have a tournament that showcases that talent.

Cameron Norrie (world number 85, unseeded)

Another great British success story, Cameron Norrie’s rise up the rankings is a testament to the fact that soon, it seems like Murray won’t be the only Brit destined to make the 2nd week of a big tournament like this. Norrie had not played a top-level match on clay before he came back from 2 sets down to beat Roberto Bautista Agut in the Davis Cup, and since then has embraced the surface.

A semifinal appearance in Lyon last week, which included a win over John Isner, shows the talent the young man has, and the fact that he has someone like Edmund, who is so good on clay, alongside him means he can learn and gain from the experience for subsequent appearances. He certainly came out firing yesterday in his first round tie against German Peter Gojowczyk, picking up the first set 6-1 before his opponent had to retire through injury in the second.

This sets him up with a very tough 2nd round tie against French #15 seed Lucas Pouille, but the experience will serve him well for the future and there is always a chance he can pull off another upset.

His arrival on the scene has certainly been enjoyable, and long may it last.

Men’s Doubles

Unlike the singles tournament that everyone expects Nadal to dominate, this year’s lineup for the French Open men’s doubles tournament leaves it decidedly open-ended with no out-and-out favourite.

American/New Zealander duo Ryan Harrison and Michael Venus are the defending champions, but they chose not to compete with each other this season and thus won’t be defending their title as a team, while the biggest names in doubles, the Bryan brothers, have been unable to participate due to an injury to Bob Bryan, ending a run of 76 consecutive Slams for the pair together. Mike Bryan will participate, partnered by Sam Querrey.

British hope Jamie Murray continues to partner with Brazilian Bruno Soares, and they will be 4th seeds at the tournament, hoping to better last year’s quarter-final result and having every chance to do so. Fellow Brit Dominic Inglot partners Wimbledon doubles semi-finalist Franko Škugor, which is a great team on paper, but a tough first round draw against 8th seeds Alexander Peya and Nikola Mektić, the latter of whom being Škugor’s ex-partner, means it has to hit the ground running straight away.

In terms of the eventual victors, it is obviously hard to ignore the #1 seeds Łukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo who have been consistent throughout the past year in their ability to make the latter stages of tournaments, while #2 seeds Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic have also been in superb form, winning most recently in Geneva just last week.

Those two teams will be the ones to beat, but also look out for Colombian duo and 5th seeds Juan Sebastián Cabal and Robert Farah, who are arguably the most in-form team in the whole tournament and will be looking to better their performance at Roland Garros last year, when they made the semi-finals. One thing is for sure, the doubles will be an excellent watch this year and there are plenty of teams who could well make it to the final if they bring consistency and a bit of luck with them.

It is shaping up to be an exciting and enthralling fortnight of tennis on the men’s side, both in singles and doubles. While Nadal is the obvious favourite in the singles, it is not a foregone conclusion as there are multiple players that can cause him problems, though it remains to be seen if they have the mental strength to say with him over a 5-set match. All shall be revealed soon.

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