French Open 2014 men’s preview
Originally published on 23/05/14
Is the King of Clay’s crown slipping? Is this the year that Novak Djokovic will finally complete his career Grand Slam? Can any of the young guns break through to win their maiden Slam? For the first time in almost a decade there are more questions than answers heading into Roland Garros, and nearly all of them stem from Rafael Nadal’s unusually unconvincing form on clay this season.
Whereas in previous years the Spaniard has looked almost invincible on his favourite surface, this time around his armour appears to be starting to show chinks. The questions began in Monte Carlo after his defeat to David Ferrer and intensified following his surprise loss to Nicolas Almagro a week. A hard-fought victory over an injured Kei Nishikori in the Mutua Madrid Open final did little to silence doubters and his 4-6 6-3 6-3 defeat to Novak Djokovic at the Rome Masters showed the Serb looks to have worked out a way to beat the world No.1, even on clay.
That result in the Italian capital means Nadal goes into the French Open having lost more than two matches on clay for the first time since 2004. Still, even with recent form in mind, he will start the two-week tournament as narrow favourite over Djokovic, and it would be no surprise to see him lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a record-breaking ninth time on June 8.
He has a win-loss record of 59-1 in Paris and beating him over five sets on clay must still rank as one of the toughest challenges in sport. Even Djokovic has never beaten him on clay when it really mattered, inside the Paris major’s main arena, Court Philippe Chatrier. The Serb came mighty close to achieving it in last year's semi-finals when he blew a 4-2 lead in the final set before Nadal recovered to win 9-7 in the fifth. Whether that experience means he will be better prepared than ever before if he comes up against Nadal in the final, only time will tell.
The other two members of the ‘Big Four’, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, have shown they can live with and beat Nadal and Djokovic on hard, indoor and grass surfaces, but on clay that feat is all the harder. Murray came close in Rome when he led Nadal 4-2 in the final set before going down 1-6 6-3 7-5 and if he can continue where he left off in Italy then he could be a contender. Federer, on the other hand, looks almost an outsider this year following the birth of his second set of twins and his opening round defeat to Jeremy Chardy in Rome.
Perhaps of more threat to the top two will be Rome semi-finalists Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov as well as Stan Wawrinka and Nishikori, both of whom have won tournaments on clay this season. If Wawrinka and Nishikori are 100% fit and recovered from recent injuries then they could go deep in the draw.
Throw into the mix the clay-court specialists like Ferrer, Almagro and Santiago Giraldo, as well as the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis and Alexandr Dolgopolov, and it looks like it could be one of the most open French Opens in recent memory. Just don't be surprised if it's Nadal's name again on the trophy in a fortnight…
The favourite: Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard's record on clay represents a collection of mind-boggling statistics. Eight Roland Garros titles in nine visits and a win-loss record of 59-1 in Paris makes it impossible not to nominate Nadal as the favourite once more. Bearing in mind he also has eight Monte Carlo trophies, eight Barcelona crowns and seven victories in Rome, Rafa is still the King of Clay.
The darkhorse: Milos Raonic. You'd be forgiven for labelling the big-serving Canadian as nothing more than a fast court player, but he's shown in the past he has the artistry and game to enjoy success on clay. Having spent time under the tutelage of Spaniard Galo Blanco and now with Ivan Ljubicic, Raonic will arrive in Paris expecting much more of himself. His run to the Rome semi-finals and last four of the ATP 500 in Barcelona last year shows he knows what he is doing on the dirt.
Home hope: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. While France has strengthened in depth in the men's game (eight players in the top 50), it looks unlikely they will end their wait for a male Grand Slam champion this June. Hopes will be pinned on the shoulders of leading lights Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and, perhaps the man with the best chance of success on the big stage, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.