Men's Preview: Rafa, Nole, Stan and a throwback to French Opens past

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Rafael Nadal is the clear-cut favorite to win his 10th title at Roland Garros. (AP)

It’s just like old times in Paris, isn’t it? Rafael Nadal is the favorite, Novak Djokovic is trying to catch up to him, Stan Wawrinka is laying in wait, and we’re all wondering why Andy Murray isn’t better on clay. The tide that seemed to have shifted over the last three years during the clay-court season has shifted back. For the moment.

Let’s take a look ahead and see what direction it may be heading over the next two weeks at the French Open. (Click here for the draw.)


First Quarter

Andy Murray is No. 1 in the world and the top seed, but who would dare to pick him to win this tournament? He has been slowed this season by shingles and an elbow injury, and he still seems a little shellshocked after his marathon effort to reach the top at the end of 2016. Now the question is: Can Murray, after hitting a low point with his blowout loss to Fabio Fognini last week in Rome, work his way into the French with no expectations? Or should we just write off his clay season and meet him again in a few weeks at Queen’s Club?

Last year Murray needed 10 sets to win his first two matches, yet he still reached the final. It’s possible his draw will allow him to find a groove this time as well. He starts against something of a Murray-mini-me in Andrey Kuznetsov; the life-size Murray has won both of their previous meetings easily. And while the prospect of facing Juan Martin del Potro in the third round would normally be a daunting one, Delpo is saddled with injuries again. I wouldn’t take Murray to win the tournament, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet, either.

Also in this section: Alexander Zverev, Kei Nishikori, Pablo Cuevas, Sam Querrey, John Isner

First-round matches to watch:

—Zverev vs. Fernando Verdasco. The German beat the Spaniard in straight sets in Madrid earlier this month.

—Nishikori vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis. Once upon a time—2015, to be exact—the Australian made the third round at Roland Garros.

—Querrey vs. Hyeon Chung. If you love meat-and-potatoes power-baseline tennis, tune in to this one.

Sleeper: Nicolas Almagro. The Spaniard could play Murray in the third round; he beat him at Roland Garros in 2008.

Semifinalist: Nishikori


Second Quarter

Murray is the top seed and Nadal is the favorite, but Wawrinka has the rest of the field right where he wants them—i.e., not paying any attention to him. After a strong spring on hard courts, Stan has been up and down through the clay season. But that’s how he was the last time he won this tournament, in 2015. In 2016, Wawrinka waited until the week before the French Open, in Geneva, before winning a title on dirt, but it was still enough momentum to carry him to the semis in Paris. Now he’s into the quarters in Geneva again. Even better, the second-highest seed in his section at Roland Garros is Marin Cilic.

Can anyone stop Stan from reaching his fourth semi in his last five Slams? Fognini, the first seed he could face, stands a chance in the third round, as do home-court favorites Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet, if one of them lasts long enough to meet him in the quarterfinals. Nick Kyrgios would also be dangerous, but he has a long way to go, on a bad hip, to get to the quarters.

First-round matches to watch:

—Fognini vs. Frances Tiafoe

—Monfils vs. Dustin Brown

—Kyrgios vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber

—Cilic vs. 225th-ranked Ernests Gulbis

Potential third-round matches to watch: Wawrinka vs. Fognini, Monfils vs. Gasquet, Tsonga vs. Kyrgios

Sleeper: Tsonga. He’s in the final in Lyon this weekend, and he’s a perennial second-weeker at Roland Garros

SemifinalistWawrinka


Third Quarter

On the bright side for Nadal, his draw will allow him to avoid the land mines he wanted to avoid: Dominic Thiem, Zverev, Kyrgios, Fognini, Nishikori—even Querrey could have been challenges for Rafa, but none of them are in his quarter. Instead, the second-highest seed in his section is Milos Raonic, who is still working his way back from a hamstring injury, and may already be looking ahead to testing it out on grass.

The (slight) downside for Nadal will come early: He’ll start against Benoit Paire, a flaky Frenchman who will have the fans fully behind him, and who has the type of two-handed backhand, and all-or-nothing style, that could trouble Rafa for a time. In the third round, Nadal could face another Frenchman, the tougher and steadier Gilles Simon. After that, he’s scheduled to play Jack Sock, one of the few guys who can match Rafa spin for spin and forehand for forehand. All in all, Nadal, who has a combined 14-1 record against Paire, Simon and Sock, will be happy to have that as his path to the semis.

First-round matches to watch:

—Nadal vs. Paire

—Raonic vs. Steve Darcis. The shotmaking Shark could be a test for the still-recovering Raonic.

—Sock vs. Jiri Vesely. They went to a third-set tiebreaker in Rome.

Sleepers: Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreño Busta. The two clean-hitting Spaniards could find themselves facing their countryman Nadal in the fourth round and quarters, respectively.

Semifinalist: Nadal


Fourth Quarter

How far is Djokovic along the road to recovery? Is he the player who hammered Thiem in the semifinals in Rome, or the one who threw in a clunker the next day against Zverev? We know that celebrity coaches can make a difference, but how much of a jolt can Djokovic’s new one, Andre Agassi, provide in the course of two weeks?

Like Murray’s draw, Djokovic’s should give him the chance to find some form. He starts against veteran Spaniard Marcel Granollers; Djokovic hasn’t dropped a set in their three previous matches. The first seed he could face is Mischa Zverev. That could be tougher; the German is having a strong week in Geneva—he upset Nishikori in the semis—and he nearly beat Djokovic on a fast hard court in Shanghai last fall.

What may make Djokovic happiest is seeing who he’s scheduled to face in the quarterfinals: Thiem. The Austrian is one of the contenders to win the tournament, but to do it he’ll probably have to avoid the Serb. Djokovic has dropped just one set in their five matches. In other words, this is the last quarter of the draw that Thiem wanted to find himself in.

First-round matches to watch:

—Thiem vs. Bernard Tomic

—Frenchman Lucas Pouille vs. Frenchman Julien Benneteau

Sleeper: Nicolas Mahut. Could the 35-year-old from France give Thiem some trouble in the second round?

Semifinalist: Djokovic


Semifinals: Wawrinka d. Nishikori; Nadal d. Djokovic

Final: Nadal d. Wawrinka


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