When Roland Garros gets underway on Sunday, May 28, Rafael Nadal will look to bank on his splendid show in the tune-up events to go after ‘La Decima’ (the tenth). Ten – that’s the theme for Nadal on clay this season. He won his tenth title in Monte Carlo and then Barcelona. A week latter, the Mallorcan won in Madrid. Last week, his 17-match unbeaten run came to a close against Dominic Thiem in Rome. It is difficult to fathom that one player has won nine Grand Slam titles at the same venue and to make this achievement even more staggering – this distinction was achieved within 10 years (with the blip occurring in 2009).
As French Open 2017 waltzes in, Nadal once again looks in top form for the tenth crown. To further aid his confidence, none of the ‘big 4’ are firing on all cylinders and Roger Federer pulled out of the tournament to ‘extend his career’. With that, the reigning Australian Open champion and the only player who has caused Nadal trouble this year, albeit on hard courts, will not be participating.
Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou summed up Nadal’s prospects perfectly prior to Monte Carlo Masters. “He is the player who moves better than everyone on clay, he has a perfect timing. And he always fights. His topspin shots are fantastic and have an unbelievable speed, so when they bounce it’s very difficult to control them. I think he can win in Monte Carlo, he had a very good start of the season and lost only thrice to Federer, to (Milos) Raonic and (Sam) Querrey. Also, probably (Novak) Djokovic and (Andy) Murray aren’t in their best shape yet,” he said.
In terms of the strong contenders, Mouratoglou said: “Nadal is the clear favourite in Paris, Thiem is second. (Alexander) Zverev and Djokovic are contenders too, not favourites,” he told Russian website Sovsport.
Djokovic, the defending champion, comes into the tournament after a poor first half of the season winning just one tournament (in January in Doha). But he would prefer to see the positives in reaching the final of Rome only to lose to Zverev but blitzing past Thiem only a few hours prior. He would further hope to be a reinvigorated self after the appointment of former French Open champion as his temporary coach for the clay court Slam.
Murray has failed to continue his strong from last year into 2017. The Brit reached the final of Doha, lost to Mischa Zverev at the Australian Open in the fourth round, won in Dubai, lost in the first round in Indian Wells, second round in Monte Carlo, semi-final in Barcelona, second round in Madrid and first round in Rome. So overall, it has been a terrible five months for Murray who former British number 1 Tim Henman thinks is still struggling with shingles.
The youngsters could pose the biggest challenge to Nadal lifting the trophy after a fortnight. ‘Sascha’ Zverev and Thiem.
Zverev jumped to World No 10 after the Rome Masters title and became the youngest Masters champion since Djokovic in 2007. The German has three titles this year (earlier two in Munich and Montpellier) and aided by his tall (6’6”) frame, can get plenty on his serve and still posses quick movement with smart groundstrokes to peg the opposition back.
Thiem has had the fortune, or misfortune if you see it that way, of playing Nadal thrice in the past month. He lost in the final of Barcelona and Madrid but prevailed in Rome. The 23-year-old Austrian has already won a title, the only one this year, on clay in Rio de Janeiro and looks a strong contender for the title. He’s earned praise from former players. “Thiem, on a given day, can beat anyone in the world, as he showed in Rome. Thiem, for many years to come, will be a contender there. I think he’s someone that will get a Slam at some point in his career. If I had to bet on one he would get, it would be Roland Garros. But it might just be a waiting game for the rest of the tour until Rafa is done collecting all those French Open titles,” said former American player James Blake to Tennis Channel.
There are plenty of dark horses for the title – Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov but the latter three have injury concerns while Wawrinka – being Wawrinka – is too unpredictable to vouch for as a favourite.