WILL EVANS serves up tennis tips as he runs the rule over the men’s section of the 2021 French Open draw. Can anyone end Rafa Nadal’s reign?
THE TOP CONTENDERS
The ‘King of Clay’ is a red-hot favourite to clinch a 14th French Open title – including his fifth in succession – and a record 21st Grand Slam crown. Nadal has dropped just one set in winning the past four finals at Roland Garros. Ominously for any would-be contenders, the 34-year-old arrives in Paris in blistering form, having won the recent Barcelona Open and Rome Masters.
The world No.1 and winner of 18 Grand Slams was the last player other than Nadal to win the French Open, triumphing for the only time at Roland Garros in 2016. Djokovic, the reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champ, went down to Rafa in straight sets in the 2020 French Open final. But the heavyweights have been grouped in the same half this time around. The 34-year-old wizard impressed in make the Rome Masters final recently, pushing Nadal to three sets. Still solid value and the most likely to win the tournament if Nadal doesn’t.
Fifth seed Tsitsipas is on the third line of betting after some impressive recent results. The Greek 22-year-old won the Monte-Carlo Masters, pushed Nadal all the way in the Barcelona Open final and took out the Lyon Open. A semi-finalist at the 2019 and ’21 Australian Open and last year’s French Open (where he lost a five-set epic to Djokovic), Tsitsipas is primed to take the next step to a maiden Grand Slam final. He should cruise through the early rounds and is on the opposite side of the draw to Nadal and Djokovic. Big chance.
World No.4 Thiem is a regular French Open powerhouse, reaching the semis in 2016-17 and the final in 2018-19, before being upset by Diego Schwartzman in last year’s quarters. Winning the 2020 US Open got the Grand Slam monkey off Thiem’s back, but the Austrian would dearly love to win a major with all of the big guns present. The 27-year-old made the Madrid Open semis, but exited in early at the Rome Masters and was bounced in the first round as top seed at the Lyon Open by Cameron Norrie. A soft early draw should allow Thiem to play his way back into form.
The 24-year-old Zverev has been threatening to break through on the Grand Slam stage for several years – and this could be his big chance. He reached a maiden major final at the 2020 US Open, losing a classic to Thiem, and is a two-time French Open semi-finalist. Zverev beat Nadal and Thiem on his way to winning the recent Madrid Masters but lost to Nadal in the Rome Masters quarters. The world No.6 will play qualifiers in the first two rounds and is on the opposite side of the draw to Djokovic and Nadal.
BEST AUSSIE HOPE
Alex de Minaur
Seeded 21st, de Minaur is rated a $301 longshot for the title. The tenacious 22-year-old doesn’t have the strongest clay-court résumé and is 1-4 in French Open matches. De Minaur’s form on the clay swing has been modest, exiting in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters and Rome Masters. He was competitive in losses to big dogs Tsitsipas and Thiem in Barcelona and Madrid, respectively, however. If he can get past Stefano Travaglia in the first round, de Minaur will likely face a tough customer in Marco Cecchinato, while Djokovic looms as a potential Round of 16 opponent.
It’s unlikely Federer has headed into a Grand Slam this millennium as long as $67 for the title. But the G.O.A.T. is nearing 40 and hasn’t appeared at a major since last year’s Australian Open due to COVID-19 and injuries. This is also the 20-time major winner’s least successful Grand Slam event, winning just once – in 2009. But Federer is a five-time French Open finalist and reached the semis in 2019 after a four-year absence from Roland Garros. However, he has played just twice since returning the court: a quarter-final appearance at the Qatar Open in March and a first-up loss to Pablo Andujar at last week’s Geneva Open. Federer is grouped in the same half as Nadal and Djokovic, but nothing is beyond the Swiss maestro.