We have finally approached the second major of the year, with major storylines having developed. On the men’s side, one player is standing head and shoulders (and chest and torso and legs and feet) above everyone else. The man who has owned clay has slumped to the point that it’s causing a crisis of confidence amongst his fans. On the women’s side, while the Australian Open champion continued her winning streak, it was eventually snapped, and now the clay court season has become a free-for-all as a number of players have crashed the party, creating upheaval in the rankings. Behind the backdrop of these major storylines, the draw for the French Open is critical to helping or hindering players on their quest for the title in Paris. So who benefitted from the draw? And who’s in trouble? In this article, we’ll discuss the men’s singles. The women’s singles draw analysis was previously posted yesterday.
Seeds: (1) Novak Djokovic, (15) Kevin Anderson, (20) Richard Gasquet, (27) Bernard Tomic
The world number one by a large margin opens up his campaign to complete a career grand slam with a relatively easy path in the first week. He’s been gifted with players who are past their prime (and even then, they couldn’t trouble Djokovic) or players better suited for hardcourts in his first three rounds. On the other side, Richard Gasquet would seem to have the type of game to trouble Novak on clay for a while, but there’s no guarantee that the Frenchman will get to the fourth round, as he’s known to wilt under the pressures of the Parisian crowds and an equally steady player in Kevin Anderson would be a potential third round opponent.
National Second Round Clash: (27) Tomic versus Kokkinakis. Just because the future hall-of-famer Lleyton Hewitt has bypassed Roland Garros doesn’t mean there won’t be an Aussie contingent playing on the dirt. Should both players get through their first round matches, young Aussies Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis will play for a right to face off against Novak Djokovic in the third round. Players like Kokkinakis have been good for Tomic, the first of the young Aussies to make noise on the ATP tour. As Tomic suffered through dispiriting losses and injuries, Kokkinakis and Nick Kyrgios arrived on the scene with flash and style. When Tomic was no longer the focus, it seemed to motivate him. There could be fireworks in this one.
Quarterfinalist: Novak Djokovic.
Seeds: (6) Rafael Nadal, (10) Grigor Dimitrov, (18) Tommy Robredo, (30) Adrian Mannarino
Much has already been written about Nadal (and Djokovic’s) fate, as the two are headed for a potential quarterfinal matchup. That’s bound to happen when a player with a reputation on clay begins to have less than stellar results. Given Nadal’s shaky form, there’s not even a guarantee he makes it to the quarterfinals. His second round opponent could be either Nicolas Almagro, a hard-hitting Spaniard who is on the comeback trail after injury took him out for almost all of 2014, or Alexandr Dolgopolov, a crafty Ukrainian who has beaten Nadal before. Rafael Nadal is likely to get through this section, but don’t be surprised if he struggles with at least one of his opponents.
Short American Stays. Both Jack Sock and Sam Querrey are located in this section, and both shouldn’t be expecting to stay long. Querrey takes on young talent Borna Coric, who is on an upward trajectory ever since reaching the semifinals of the event in Basel last year. Jack Sock could have been primed for a fairly deep run in Paris this year. He won his first career title in Houston, the only clay court ATP tour stop in the United States. Alas, he’s up against Grigor Dimitrov, the tenth seed, who is simply a better player—especially on the terre battue—than Sock is.
Quarterfinalist: Rafael Nadal.
Seeds: (3) Andy Murray, (16) John Isner, (17) David Goffin, (29) Nick Kyrgios
As the winner of two clay titles in Munich and Madrid, Andy Murray must be liking his chances for a potential title in Paris as well. He’s known to have been a pretty good player on the red dirt, but it wasn’t until this year when he was finally able to hoist a trophy for winning a clay tournament. His path early on isn’t so difficult, though Nick Kyrgios is always upset-minded and could prove to be a difficult third round opponent. The other side of this section features a lot of decent clay court players, including David Goffin, Santiago Giraldo, and Jeremy Chardy. However, none of them have the ability to match the kind of play that Murray has been displaying this spring.
If John Isner wants to avoid an upset, he needs to cut down on the prolonged matches. (Source: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)
Upset Alert: Seppi over (16) Isner. This upset may not be entirely possible—Seppi is just returning now from an injury layoff—but as with Isner, it’s up to him to avoid giving his opponents hope. Isner hasn’t played badly on the clay this spring and could be in line for a potential second week showing, but he’s got to cut down on prolonged matches. He has matches where he grows far too reliant on his serve to bail him out in tiebreaks, and it doesn’t always work. Big servers have an advantage in that the opponent will feel more stressed on their own service games to hold, because the likelihood of breaking the big server is low. Isner doesn’t use that to his advantage, and it gets him in trouble.
Quarterfinalist: Andy Murray.
Seeds: (7) David Ferrer, (9) Marin Cilic, (23) Leonardo Mayer, (31) Viktor Troicki
This section of the draw could be potentially upset-laden, as there are some question marks surrounding most of the seeds and dangerous floaters populated here. Former French Open finalist David Ferrer looked to be finally succumbing to age last year, but he’s had a nice bounce back. He’s a threat to grind down opponents on any surface, but especially on clay. He opens up against a tricky, hard hitter in Lukas Lacko and could face a number of clay court specialists (Gimeno-Traver, Souza). Viktor Troicki has made the long road back from a doping-related suspension. On the other side sits Leonardo Mayer, a clay court specialist who won a fairly big title in Hamburg last year. He opens up against the young and ascending talent Jiri Vesely. The fiery Jerzy Janowicz is also here. He’s a question mark through-and-through: will he go on a run with his power and finesse game or will he flame out in the first round?
Upset Alert: Haase over (9) Cilic. Haase is an enigma at this point in his career: sometimes he plays really well, and other times he plays so poorly that you wonder how low his ranking actually is. However, this upset is based more on the US Open champion’s form than that of Haase. Marin Cilic is still trying to get back into top shape since injury forced him out for pretty much all of the fall last season. He’s simply not had a good 2015, and with a target squarely on his back as a major champion, being in bad form spells a lot of trouble.
Quarterfinalist: David Ferrer.
Seeds: (5) Kei Nishikori, (11) Feliciano Lopez, (19) Roberto Bautista Agut, (32) Fernando Verdasco
Last year’s US Open finalist has a pretty good draw ahead of him if he wants to make it to the second week of Roland Garros. Furthermore, he appears to be healthy, which is huge for Nishikori. Last year he came in with a lot of momentum but was banged up, and he subsequently crashed out in the first round. The Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci might give him some trouble in the second round, as could Fernando Verdasco in the third. The other side of the draw is packed with pretty good clay court players. Feliciano Lopez could be an upset victim early on as he looks forward to the grass, a surface he’s better on. A second week appearance could be in the cards for any of Roberto Bautista Agut, Florian Mayer, Lukas Rosol, Juan Monaco, or Federico Delbonis.
A word on Lukas Rosol. Rosol is a pretty good player. He’s best known for upsetting Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon several years back. He’s ranked 40 in the world currently and reached two clay quarterfinals this spring in Bucharest and Munich. But it was in Munich in which we got a confrontation and strange look into the relationships between tennis players.
Quarterfinalist: Kei Nishikori.
Seeds: (4) Tomas Berdych, (14) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, (22) Philipp Kohlschreiber, (28) Fabio Fognini
Tomas Berdych has been the beneficiary of Rafael Nadal’s ranking slide, moving into the Top 4 and thus avoiding having to play any of the Big 4 in three straight matches to win a major title. Were this the Tomas Berdych of the past, that might mean that he would choke given the grand opportunity laid out for him, but I think Tomas has gotten past that. He’s an improved player mentally, as evidenced by his first-ever win over Nadal in Melbourne earlier this year. In a draw that features a number of players who haven’t had much practice on clay this year with some still playing their way into shape after prolonged layoffs (Tsonga, Paire, and Stepanek in particular), Berdych could have a relatively straightforward path to the quarterfinals.
A True Wildcard. If there is one player who could knock out Berdych unexpectedly, it’s the man who has two victories over Nadal on clay this year in Fabio Fognini. The 28 seed is a complete wildcard: he vacillates wildly from extremely dangerous player on clay to combustible, fine-drawing sideshow. He could be interested in upsetting Berdych, or he could be interested in simply collecting a check from the tournament and making a spectacle of the match.
Quarterfinalist: Tomas Berdych.
Seeds: (8) Stan Wawrinka, (12) Gilles Simon, (24) Ernests Gulbis, (26) Guillermo Garcia-Lopez
This part of the draw is simply up for grabs. Wawrinka is the favorite here, but he’s not necessarily had a great spring on the clay, though he did notch a win over Nadal in Rome en route to a semifinal showing. Off-court issues (the recent breakup of his marriage) could have some influence on how well Stan performs. This draw is ripe for a surprise as well because Gilles Simon is injured, and it’s still unclear how bad it is. Simon withdrew from Rome with a neck injury and later pulled out of Nice this week. The neck sounds like a serious problem for him; Gilles may actually withdraw from Roland Garros before the tournament.
Upset Alert: Sijsling over (24) Gulbis. I’m not sure how watchable this match is going to be honestly. Sijsling was knocking on the door of the Top 50 just last year but has now slumped to 166 in the world and had to qualify to reach the main draw in Paris. He’s only 3-8 on the year in ATP main draw matches. However, that’s still better than Ernests Gulbis in 2015. The Latvian has only a 2-12 record on the ATP tour this year, and one of those wins came just this week in Nice.
Quarterfinalist: Stan Wawrinka.
Seeds: (2) Roger Federer, (13) Gael Monfils, (21) Pablo Cuevas, (25) Ivo Karlovic
Roger Federer was gifted a pretty decent draw for a chance to reach the Roland Garros final. Sure, there are clay specialists in his way—he’s up against Colombian Alejandro Falla in the first round and then could get horrific moaner Marcel Granollers in the second. However, a second week appearance should be on deck for the former French Open champion. A lot of people are pointing at Gael Monfils as a huge roadblock for Federer in the fourth round—some even going as far as predicting Monfils as the winner of that projected match—but while the Frenchman loves to showboat for his hometown fans, I think Roger’s determination will be able to put an end to Monfils’s antics.
Darkhorse: Dominic Thiem. Thiem might have been a darkhorse in name only earlier in the spring. He hadn’t had a good 2015 as he himself admitted. He was struggling in transitioning from adding points to his ranking to defending them this year. But in Nice this week at one of the final tune-up events for Roland Garros, Dominic Thiem won his first career title. The young Austrian did it against a very difficult draw, beating fellow first-time winner Victor Estrella Burgos and then four straight seeds (Nick Kyrgios, Ernests Gulbis, John Isner, and Leonardo Mayer). Thiem has the game, but now he’s got his confidence back, and that could be trouble for opponents in Paris.
Quarterfinalist: Roger Federer.
Final prediction: Novak Djokovic defeats Kei Nishikori.
It’s probably the most highly-anticipated matchup in a long time. The world’s best takes on the defending champion for the right (as seen by many) to take home the title. And in the supposed de facto final, I simply think that Djokovic is going to come out on top. Nadal might have found his true footing by the quarterfinals–to get there, he’s going to have had to win four matches already–but Novak’s play all year long has just simply been phenomenal. The winds of change are blowing in men’s tennis, and it feels like we’re about to enter another period of hegemony, similar to the Pax Federer of the early to mid 2000’s. Except, unlike Federer, who had Nadal holding sway on clay, Djokovic will simply be the best on all surfaces. If Nadal can’t stop him, then Murray certainly can’t. That’s not to say that Murray hasn’t been playing well on the terre battue, but Djokovic simply knows how to beat Murray time and time again.
On the other side, it’s a bit of a surprise to say that Federer won’t be in the final, especially if Gael Monfils won’t take him out. And yet, Nishikori has simply been better on the red dirt this year. While both have won a title this spring on clay, Kei’s came at the 500 level (Barcelona) while Roger’s was the debut of a 250 event in Istanbul. Roger didn’t played only one player inside the top 50 en route to his title, and yet he struggled to win matches in Turkey; he was pushed deep in at least one set in each of his four matches and even had to go three against the world number 62 and 63. Kei, on the other hand, took out three players ranked in the top 35 to win the Barcelona title. Furthermore, while both have had their fair share of losses on clay as well, Nishikori has only lost to the eventual champion in both Madrid (Andy Murray) and Rome (Novak Djokovic). Federer can’t say the same.