About a month ago, it looked a formality that world number one Novak Djokovic would clinch his first French Open title at Roland Garros this year, and in doing so join an elite group of all-time greats in achieving the Career Grand Slam.
However, as a result of the past couple of weeks, there may be a few doubts in the Serb’s mind going into the second major of the year, which starts on Sunday.
That’s because Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have picked up tournament victories on the clay in Monte Carlo and Rome respectively, with Murray actually overcoming Djokovic in the final in the Italian capital.
Consequently, alongside the reigning champion Stan Wawrinka, 2009 French Open champion Roger Federer, the ever-improving Kei Nishikori, and a whole host of young stars who have started the year in brilliant fashion, this could prove to be one of the best French Opens in recent memory.
Djokovic still remains the favourite to lift the trophy come June 5th.
The 11-times Grand Slam champion has picked up where he left off in 2015 and started this year in imperious fashion. A sixth Australian Open title in January, followed by a third straight Indian Wells/Miami double, which are arguably the toughest of the Masters 1000 events to win, had seen the Serb pick up the last three majors and the last four Masters 1000 titles.
“You’ve also got to go back two years to the last time any of the so-called ‘Big Four’ beat Djokovic at a major – Nadal overcame the Serb from a set down in the French Open final of 2014, en route to a ninth title on the dirt”
The defeat to Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo was a major surprise, and defeat to rival Murray last week may put doubt in the Serb’s mind. However, these defeats might not concern Djokovic too much, especially as he came into the Rome showpiece having needed three hours to see off Nishikori the night before, and was clearly fatigued.
Also, Djokovic has turned Grand Slams into his own in recent years. He has won five of the last seven majors, and lost just one match at Grand Slams last year, when an inspired Wawrinka produced one of the greatest performances in recent times to beat him in four sets in the French Open final.
You’ve also got to go back two years to the last time any of the so-called ‘Big Four’ beat Djokovic at a major – Nadal overcame the Serb from a set down in the French Open final of 2014, en route to a ninth title on the dirt. For Murray’s last win, it’s the 2013 Wimbledon final. For Federer, it’s the 2012 Wimbledon semi-final, with the Swiss losing his last three major finals against Djokovic. Djokovic has got the number on those guys at the majors.
The Serb was just two sets away last year from joining an illustrious quartet of Federer, Nadal, Andre Agassi and Rod Laver in winning all four Grand Slam titles. With the way he’s started this year, you’d be a brave man to back against him this time round.
However, recent weeks have shown that the pressure of the upcoming French Open may be getting to the world number one. He struggled throughout Rome.
It’s not just about Djokovic though. Some of the other top players are playing themselves into form, most notably Nadal and Murray.
World number five Nadal ended a two year wait for a Masters 1000 title by beating Gael Monfils in the final in Monte Carlo in April. His route to the final also pushed him to play some of the best tennis seen from the Spaniard in many a year, most notably in the semi-final against Murray. Murray pushed Nadal, and the nine-times French Open champion responded with his best tennis, before going on beat Monfils and lift a ninth Monte Carlo title.
“The forehand is beginning to strike with the same ferocity once more, like it has done so devastatingly in the past, but more importantly, the confidence is coming back to the Spaniard”
A ninth title in Barcelona soon followed, where he did not drop a set all week, before he had a decent run in his hometown Madrid, before being thwarted by Murray in the semi-final.
Nadal also played well in Rome. A hard-fought victory over rising-star Nick Kyrgios set up a mouth-watering quarter-final clash with Djokovic. Although Nadal played well, particularly in the opening set, he did not quite have enough to get past the world number one, going down in two hard-fought sets.
Nevertheless, Nadal goes into the French Open in much better form than he showed this time last year. The forehand is beginning to strike with the same ferocity once more, like it has done so devastatingly in the past, but more importantly, the confidence is coming back to the Spaniard.
With his ranking at five, he will be drawn to face one of Djokovic, Murray, Federer, or Wawrinka in the quarter-final. Remember, he has only lost twice at Roland Garros since his debut back in 2005. That’s ten years, 72 matches, and just two losses. He’s a man all of those guys want to avoid.
Murray is another who is beginning to play himself into form going into the second major of the year.
The world number two started the year well by reaching a fifth Australian Open final, but he began to struggle after he helped defending champions Great Britain beat Japan in the first round of the Davis Cup in February.
The Indian Wells/Miami swing, the latter tournament he has won twice before, only heralded two match victories – they were the first tournaments out of the country since the birth of daughter Sophia just prior to that Davis Cup rubber.
However, whatever doubts arose from a disappointing time in the United States were soon forgotten when Murray re-established his new found love for the clay.
It seemed to click for him on the dirt last year, losing just once (to Djokovic in the French Open semi-final), and he transferred his new found belief on the red dirt into this season where, thus far, he has only lost twice – to Nadal in Monte Carlo and Djokovic in Madrid.
As for the rest of the top players, it’s difficult to tell exactly where they are at the moment.
Federer has played little since undergoing knee surgery after the Australian Open, pulling out of Indian Wells and Miami, but returning in Monte Carlo to try to claim one of just two Masters 1000 titles eluding him (the other being Rome). He won two matches before losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals, and then had a further set back in the succeeding weeks, forcing him to pull out of Madrid.
“As he showed in the final last year, Wawrinka is capable of producing magic which even Djokovic cannot deal with, so he cannot be ruled out”
However, he played in Rome, beating Alexander Zverev in the second round, before losing to Thiem in the third round. Thus, since losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open back in January, he has played just five matches on tour, casting into doubt whether he will be fit enough to play in Paris. If he did withdraw, it would be the first major he has missed since 1999, 65 Grand Slam tournaments ago – a staggering record.
Defending French Open champion Wawrinka has also had an indifferent year. Despite winning in Dubai, the world number four has won just three matches on clay, but is playing in Geneva this week in a bid to restore his confidence. Nevertheless, as he showed in the final last year, Wawrinka is capable of producing magic which even Djokovic cannot deal with, so he cannot be ruled out.
As for the rest of the top eight, Nishikori is also playing good tennis. He pushed Murray to five sets in the Davis Cup rubber in Birmingham in February, and has reached two finals and two semi-finals in his last four tournaments, three of which have been on clay. World number seven Tsonga has reached the semi-final in two of the last three years at Roland Garros, while world number eight Tomas Berdych enters the tournament in far from ideal circumstances having split with coach Dani Vallverdu a few days ago following a 6-0 6-0 thrashing at the hands of David Goffin, who has also played some of his best tennis in the early parts of the year.
As for those outside the top eight to keep an eye on, Milos Raonic made his first Masters 1000 final in Indian Wells in March, following on from a semi-final appearance at the Australian Open. However, he hasn’t quite hit the heights on the clay yet this season, although quarter-final appearances in Monte Carlo and Madrid are not to be scoffed at.
Dominic Thiem has won 32 matches so far this season, only Djokovic has won more, and a good run to the quarter-finals in Rome will give him confidence of going deep in Paris. However, it remains to be seen whether all of the tennis he has played will hinder him as he reaches a Grand Slam, which are best of five sets.
Another man the top players would want to avoid, especially as he will be seeded to meet them in the fourth round, is world number 19 Kyrgios. The Australian won his first ATP title in Marseille earlier this year and reached the semi-finals in Miami. He also pushed Nishikori to three sets in Madrid and Nadal to three in Rome last week, and has the game to really test the top players.
Regardless, Djokovic goes in as favourite to clinch that title he so desperately wants, but he will have to be at his best to etch his name into the history books.
The draw, which takes place on Friday, could be crucial in deciding how the tournament develops, especially where the likes of Nadal, Nishikori, Raonic, Thiem, and Kyrgios end up.
It is all set up to be a wonderful fortnight in the French capital.
Marcus Oades (@RFCOadesey)
Images courtesy of tenis-portugal.com, wikipedia.org and ‘Marianne Bevis’ via Flickr.