The Field Narrows at Roland Garros

Actually playing tennis made me look beyond being a pure fanboy (vamos Rafa!) and appreciate the game and its talents a bit more. So for someone who loves following tennis, the closest French Open in over a decade might be upon us. Rafa’s bastion was breached last year with Djokovic striking the decisive blow but Wawrinka grabbing the trophy by turning up in his career-best avatar.

An improving Murray and Nadal with a slight dip in Djokovic’s clay season has made this year’s edition very interesting. Let us look at the contenders now that there is no outright favourite anymore.

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Djokovic: The safe bet

A betting man shouldn’t look beyond Djokovic. He was stopped only because Wawrinka played the best tennis of his life last year. He has raked up a crazy number of points and there is day-light in terms of ranking points between him and the second-ranked Murray. Djokovic won in Madrid and rescued lost causes repeatedly at Rome to showcase his mental strength and extremely strong gameplay. His shots are flat and fast and give little time to the opponent at decisive moments.

Detractors might point to his defeat by the unfancied Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo and his relative subdued performance at Rome where most players pushed him hard with Murray triumphing in the final. His dropshots to end points prematurely were picked off easily by Rafa at Rome. He does look a little less invincible than before and this means the other have a chance. It is a slim one though as Djokovic is harder to beat over 5 sets than over 3.

If it was general tiredness causing a lower performance in Rome then the 10-day break should help him get back to prime fitness. But the pressure will be immense given the French Open has been a jinx for him over the last 2 years and the only Grand Slam missing from his trophy cabinet.

Murray: Will the real Slim Andy please stand up?

Murray, who has never really found his feet on clay despite formative years in Barcelona, is now the top clay-court player (ever so slightly) over the last one year when it comes to win-loss records. He pushed Djokovic to 3 sets at Madrid and beat him at Rome.

His improved clay-court performance is at a level now where it is hard to predict who will win over 5 sets, Djokovic or Murray. His second serve is much improved and his court movement and backhands are giving him an advantage. His mental strength has improved. All this means Murray probably has the best chance of pulling off what Stan the Man did last year.

I think his biggest enemies are his back issues and mental strength against the strongest opponents and he will be hoping they keep away at Roland Garros.

Rafa: Much improved, but more is needed.

Nadal ranks #2 if you look at win-loss records in clay over 52 weeks. This is deceptive because Nadal has more losses but balanced that by playing more tournaments. During this clay season he did defeat Murray, Nishikori and Wawrinka apart from tricky upstarts like Fognini, Kyrgios and Thiem who’ve beaten him over the last one year. He managed to win Monte Carlo but came up a bit short against Murray and Djokovic at Madrid and Rome.

The improvements are noticeable. Deeper and stronger forehands, better serving and solid backhands along with his usual quick court movement and defensive skills give him some chance. The confidence is back, more or less. He has been frank about his mental struggles so I would believe him when he says he is feeling much better now.

He still needs to do better in the close moments against the top players as he was a break up in both sets against Djokovic and still lost in straight sets. He stopped hitting the deeper shots at important moments and tried to play safe. It may work against most but not against the top 2. He also seems to fear the Djokovic cross-court backhand a little too much and avoids going cross-court with his forehand against him. He finds it more comfortable pushing at the beginning of a set and taking early breaks but he needs to find a way to stay competitive at the end.

Nadal is also someone who can take time to come up to full speed and a ranking of 5 meant he might run into Djokovic in the Quarters like last year. But Federer dropping out means he can breathe a bit easy although Fognini, Thiem and Tsonga may all test him first.

The others

Wawrinka has had a poor run of form and is unlikely to defend his title. But as I write this he is up a set against Cilic in the final at the Geneva Open. If Stan the Man decides to put on a show he might still make it all the way.

Nishikori is consistently good but not good enough to win top-level tournaments. He did win clay titles at Barcelona twice in 2014 and 2015 but the Masters and Grand Slams are a different cup of tea.

The best challenge from the next generation comes from Nick Kyrgios, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem who are now beating top 10 players fairly often. Krygios has a pretty good rate of defeating Top 10 players but is too erratic to be consistent over 7 rounds. David Goffin handed 2 bagels to Tomas Berdych recently and has a decent record against top 10 players. Thiem always seems in the cusp of a breakthrough season.

The draw at Roland Garros puts Nadal and Djokovic in the same half while Wawrinka needs to get past Murray to get a shot to defend his title. The overall quality of play may not reach the greatest heights because the only top player who seems to be in career-best mode is Murray. But this does mean we can expect some exhausting rallies and tight matches as everyone races to try and deny Djokovic the Career Grand Slam!