For the first time for a decade and a half, Rafael Nadal entered the month of May without a title in the calendar year. Given that the Spaniard has 11 titles each in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, 22 titles have come for him during the first half of April alone over that period. He’s won another five at Madrid/Hamburg during April as well.
Nadal entered Rome, the final ATP 1000 event before the French Open, having lost three successive semifinals on clay against Fabio Fognini (Monte Carlo), Dominic Thiem (Barcelona) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (Madrid). The Spaniard was desperately in need of a title on his beloved clay before Roland Garros.
That reflected in how he swept all before him to bag a record 34th ATP 1000 title. In the five matches he played in Rome, Nadal dished out four bagels (6-0) and three breadsticks (6-1) – one each to World Number One Novak Djokovic in the final as well, with the Serb having taken the second set 6-4.
Given that Djokovic had won the Madrid Masters the previous week, a win for Nole over Rafa in the Rome final would’ve made the World No 1 the resounding favourite for Roland Garros. Now that billing is firmly placed on the customary favourite at Roland Garros, with Nadal not only having broken his title duck for the year, he has managed to do so by getting the better of Djokovic.
Any doubt that might’ve lingered over Nadal’s status as the man to beat would’ve been erased following Thursday’s draw. Each of the three players who have enjoyed any success over Nadal on clay – Djokovic, Thiem and Fognini – are in the opposite half.
Alexander Zverev, who at the start of the clay court swing was one of those who could’ve challenged Nadal’s hegemony, is also in the top half with Djokovic and Thiem. And so is two time French Open semifinalist and last year’s US Open finalist Juan Martin Del Potro. Zverev is projected to meet Djokovic in the quarterfinals, while Thiem and Del Potro would be on collision course in the final eight.
Zverev who is yet to make any mark at the majors, and has had a 2019 to forget thus far, might first have to deal with Dusan Lajovic in the third round, and Fognini in the fourth, before he can think about the quarters. Thiem, meanwhile, could have a potential fourth round clash with Gael Monfils or Fernando Verdasco – the man who beat him in Madrid.
For Del Potro, 10th seed Karen Khachanov is the projected Round of 16 opponent. Djokovic, meanwhile, could face one of two Next Gen stars Borna Coric or Denis Shapovalov in the fourth round.
Playing in his first French Open since 2015, Roger Federer is in the same half as Nadal. He could face Diego Schwatzman, or last year’s semifinalist Marco Cecchinato, in the Round of 16. The projected quarterfinal opponent for Federer is sixth seed Tsitsipas, who also has Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic in his section.
11-time champion Rafael Nadal could face 27th seed David Goffin in the third round. He’s seeded to meet either NikolozBasilashvili or Guido Pella in the Round of 16, with Kei Nishikori or Daniil Medvedev the potential quarterfinal opponents for Nadal.
The Spaniard couldn’t have handpicked a better draw for himself, with no real banana skins in store for him in the initial rounds. Even so, given the form he showcased in Rome, which is the closest he has been to his best on clay this year, Nadal looks good to convincingly beat anyone at Roland Garros and the best of five format that comes with it, wherein he has only ever lost two matches on clay in his entire career.
The two likeliest challengers for Nadal would be Djokovic and Thiem, who could set up a mouthwatering semifinal clash with one another.
For Djokovic, it’s a shot at completing a second ‘Nole Slam’ – holding all four majors at the same time – and winning the 16th major, having already done so in 2015-16, which would bring him within one of Nadal on the all-time list and four behind Federer’s record of 20.
The Serb has perfectly channelised his season to peak in time for majors, given that he is on the other side of 30 now. That has resulted in Djokovic sweeping all of the previous three Grand Slam titles.
For Thiem, it’s the year where he should get closer to that coveted Roland Garros title and fulfill the prophecy of many as the next man to dominate clay. Thiem made the French Open semis in 2016 and 2017, before making the final last year, where he lost to Nadal.
The Austrian has already beaten Nadal this year, and thrice on clay overall, but getting the better of him in five sets is a completely different beast altogether. After breaking his Masters 1000 duck in Indian Wells this year, Thiem would be hoping to get his hands on the maiden major title.
Federer showed glimpses of what the tennis world has missed on clay over the past couple of seasons in Madrid and Rome. But it’s evident that his participation at Roland Garros has more to do with getting match practice before Wimbledon, where he will be going full tilt. It’s hard to see the Swiss maestro going gung-ho for the French, unless there is a shock early exit for Nadal and the draw opens up nicely for him.
All in all, as has been the case for the past decade and a half, the French Open is Nadal’s to lose. And it’s hard to see anyone other than Djokovic or Thiem taking the crown away from him.