ATP Men’s Tour
Men’s tennis has never been more competitive. The first five months of the year has been a bolt from the blue – with the World no. 1 Andy Murray and World no. 2 Novak Djokovic winning only two ATP500 tournaments between them (Djokovic won Doha in January, Murray won Dubai in March).
Djokovic is seeking to arrest his slide by appointing that man Andre Agassi as a coach in Paris. Murray, meanwhile, has no immediate answers to his terrible form. Roger Federer has pulled out from the year’s second Grand Slam so that he can go for broke at Wimbledon and win his 19th Major.
As a result, the French Open that starts next week at Roland Garros is littered with new hopes, young blood and expectations, but ruled by an old horse: a 30-year old Majorcan known as the King of Clay.
World no. 4 Rafael Nadal enters Paris once again as an overwhelming favourite to win his 15th Major – the first time since 2014 he has entered in such dominant form on red dirt. After falling to his great rival Federer in the Australian Open and Miami final, as well as the Indian Wells quarterfinal, Nadal finally hit his winning stride at the beginning of the European claycourt season. It has helped that Djokovic has been a shadow of himself – a player who had beaten Nadal seven straight times in a row before losing to him at the Madrid semifinal this year. Nadal won the trio of Monte Carlo Masters, Barcelona and Madrid Masters, before finally losing his first clay-court match of the season to upcoming Austrian sensation Dominic Thiem at Rome. This has been Nadal’s best start to a season in years, and nobody stands a chance of beating him on fresh legs over 5 sets of tennis in Paris. He could well become the first man ever to win 10 Grand Slam titles at a single venue. This one, though, has been long overdue.
20-year-old German Next-gen star Alexandr ‘Sascha’ Zverev won his first Masters 1000 title in his first final, when he defeated Novak Djokovic in the Rome Masters final. He became the youngest since Djokovic (2007) to do so, and entered the top-10 of the ATP rankings for the first time in his career. He hasn’t been able to beat Nadal on clay yet, but he has consistently defeated other top-10 players, laying the foundation to make a deep run in Paris. Everyone has touted him as the future World no. 1, and the French Open will be his first test on his stairway to greatness. 2017 could be a crucial season for him, given that men’s tennis has long waited for someone to break through and take over from the ‘Golden Generation’ of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray.
23-year-old World no. 7 Dominic Thiem has been in the there and thereabouts for the last few months. He is touted to be Zverev’s greatest future rival, the Federer to Zverev’s Nadal, and has shown that he possesses the versatile game required to beat the best – reaching the finals at Madrid and Barcelona, and the semifinals at Rome, losing to Nadal in the first two and Djokovic at Rome respectively. He needs to manage his schedule better, though, if he has to seriously challenge for the Grand Slams. When he finally beat Nadal in his third consecutive try in three weeks at Rome, he had given so much to the match that he was demolished by the Serb in the next match, clearing the path for Zverev – who didn’t ever look confident against Nadal – to win his first big title. The good thing about Zverev and Thiem is that they seem to be all-court players, not just claycourt specialists – with Thiem’s best performance at a Slam being his semifinal run at the French Open last year. He will want to go one, or even two, up in the 2017 edition.
The last time these two played, it was the third round of the French Open 2016, where Thiem defeated Zverev in four pulsating sets of young, flashy tennis.
World no. 2 Djokovic is also one of the main contenders – if he gets his head straight. He is the defending champion, and has fired his whole coaching team over the last month, and hired Agassi in a bid to recapture the kind of form that had him dominating men’s tennis like never before less than 12 months ago. Djokovic is the only one with the experience and confidence to beat Nadal over five sets in Paris – something he has done once before in 2015. He showed glimpses of his best form in Rome last week, defeating Juan Martin Del Potro and Dominic Thiem on the same day before losing to Zverev in the final. Reaching the semifinals at Madrid and final at Rome may have lifted his confidence a little – and he is still in a better position than Murray is at this moment.
World no. 3 Stan Wawrinka is the most unpredictable player on the Tour right now. If he wants, he can steam through a tournament despite bad form, like he did in 2015 when he defeated Djokovic in the final, and in 2016 when he again defeated Djokovic in the US Open final. He is the only man other than Swiss compatriot Federer to have defeated both Nadal and Djokovic in the finals of a Grand Slam. Wawrinka hasn’t looked at his best in Europe so far, but nobody would want to bet against him if he passes his first two rounds. The more troubled he looks in the early stages, the more dangerous he becomes in the latter stages. He has already reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and the final at Indian Wells, losing to Federer on both occasions.
World no. 1 Andy Murray had his best claycourt season of his career in 2016, winning at Madrid and reaching the finals of the French Open for the first time. He has improved tremendously on clay in the last two years, but has gone backward this season, losing randomly at the early stages of almost every tournament he has played. He needs Ivan Lendl to kick his backside soon, or he might not enter Wimbledon as the most confident player in the world.
Nick Kyrgios had a stellar North American hard-court swing, defeating Djokovic twice in two weeks before deciding to “rest” at the start of the European clay season. He didn’t play Monte Carlo and Barcelona, lost to Nadal in the fourth round at Madrid, and retired from Rome without playing a match. He won’t have momentum or court time on his side when he comes to Paris, but is arguably the most talented and ‘clutch’ player of the youngest generation. On his day, he can beat anyone at all – the new-age Marat Safin of sorts.
Other dark horses:
Gael Monfils, Jo Wilfred Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Roanic, Kei Nishikori