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Five men’s French Open first-rounders to watch: ATP Top 3 may not ease into event
Tennys Sandgren, who faces Djokovic, has five wins over Top 15 players, and they’ve all come at the majors.
Published May 29, 2021
WATCH: Rafael Nadal's pre-tournament press conference.
The men’s draw at Roland Garros could have been kinder to some of the biggest names in the game—but that's what makes the Slams so compelling. Here are five first-round matches to keep an eye on in Paris:
(3) Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs Alexei Popyrin (AUS) [Nadal leads 1-0]
When you have a 100-2 career record at a tournament with 13 titles, you’re probably pretty confident going up against anyone. But Nadal’s first opponent is nonetheless a dangerous one.
Popyrin, 6’5” and 21 years old, has surged up the rankings over the last few months, going into the Australian Open at No. 114 and currently No. 62. The Aussie won his first ATP title on indoor hard courts in Singapore, but he’s also shown he can play on clay, reaching the third round of Madrid a few weeks ago—where he ultimately fell to Nadal, 6-3, 6-3.
“He was hitting every ball and hitting the spots,” Nadal said afterward. “I think I was doing things well, even if it was difficult to play against a player like him, since he was trying to hit every single ball.
“He was hitting every ball hard. I needed to adapt, and I think I did that well.”
Popyrin has one career Top 10 win, beating Dominic Thiem at the 2019 Australian Open. He has two more Top 20 wins, both this year: David Goffin at the Australian Open and Jannik Sinner in Madrid.
(2) Daniil Medvedev (RUS) vs Alexander Bublik (KAZ) [Medvedev leads 1-0]
Medvedev isn’t the biggest fan of playing on clay, to put it mildly. He's lost eight of his last nine matches on the surface, and is 0-4 lifetime at Roland Garros. His draw doesn't help, either, as Bublik was two spots away from being seeded. The Kazakh has also recorded his first three Top 10 wins over the last eight months.
But the 2019 US Open and 2021 Australian Open finalist sounded hopeful in his pre-tournament press conference on Saturday.
“Coming here was my first practice yesterday, and I was playing amazing so far,” Medvedev said. “I don’t know if maybe the balls changed or it’s the conditions, because last year we had these Wilson balls, which are supposed to suit me, but it was like five degrees when I played my match, so I had almost no chance to do anything against a great player like [Marton] Fucsovics.
“But so far I have been playing amazing. I could play—I mean, I didn’t feel that it was clay. I was playing like on hard courts, and hopefully, I mean, I have some expectations. Most important is to play good. I have a player that also doesn’t like clay, but again, he will like the conditions here.”
Medvedev won his only tour-level meeting with Bublik on an indoor hard court in Moscow in 2016, 6-4, 6-0.
(1) Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs Tennys Sandgren (USA) [Djokovic leads 3-0]
The world No. 1 has been looking more and more dangerous on clay as Roland Garros gets closer—he battled into his first clay-court final of the year in Rome a few weeks ago, where he lost a tight three-setter to Nadal, and he’s now through to another final on the surface this week in Belgrade.
But facing Sandgren can always end up being a battle, no matter how well you’re playing or where you’re ranked—especially at Grand Slams. The American has five wins over Top 15 players, and they’ve all come at the majors, beating Thiem and Stan Wawrinka at the 2018 Australian Open, Fabio Fognini at 2019 Wimbledon, and Matteo Berrettini and Fognini (again) at the 2020 Australian Open.
He also famously earned—and lost—seven match points against Roger Federer at the 2020 Australian Open.
Djokovic and Sandgren’s closest match was a 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 win for the Serb in just under three hours in the second round of the 2018 US Open. He didn’t lose another set en route to the title.
At Roland Garros, they’ll be playing against each other on clay for the first time.
(13) David Goffin (BEL) vs Lorenzo Musetti (ITA) [First Meeting]
Italian teenager Musetti has skyrocketed up the ATP rankings over the last nine months. As a wild card, he entered last year's Rome Masters ranked No. 249, and is currently No. 76 going into Roland Garros. And he’s done it the hard way, making a slew of deep runs at ATP events packed with big names.
The 19-year-old Musetti actually has a winning record against Top 20 players: 5-4, including wins over Hubert Hurkacz and Felix Auger-Aliassime on clay in the last few weeks.
He’ll make his Grand Slam main-draw debut on the terre battue.
(14) Gael Monfils (FRA) vs Albert Ramos-Vinolas (ESP) [Monfils leads 4-2]
Despite his struggles as of late—he’s just 1-5 on the year, and 1-9 since the restart last August—Monfils is still France’s No. 1 player by a long way, the only French player in the Top 30 of either the ATP or WTA rankings at the moment. And it would be foolish to count him out at Roland Garros, where he’s made one of his two Grand Slam semifinals (and four of his nine major quarterfinals).
He could be in for an early battle, though, as he takes on former Top 20 player Ramos-Vinolas—who’s actually tied for most tour-level wins on clay this year, going 17-7 on the surface to win Estoril, reach another final in Cordoba and two more semifinals at Buenos Aires and Marbella.
Monfils leads the head-to-head, 4-2, but Ramos-Vinolas has won two of their last three meetings.