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Three to See: Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens meet again at a major; Zverev and Alcaraz vie for semifinals—and, oh yeah, Djokovic and Nadal, Part 59
Each day, we'll preview and predict three must-see matches at Roland Garros.
Published May 30, 2022
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Coco Gauff vs. Sloane Stephens
Two Americans meeting in the second week at Roland Garros? That isn’t quite as surprising as it sounds, considering that Stephens nearly won this tournament in 2018, and Gauff made the quarterfinals here last year. That’s as close to dirt-baller status as you’re going to find for a pair of players from the States.
Gauff has won all eight sets she’s played in Paris, and she made fairly routine work of two quality players, Kaia Kanepi and Elise Mertens, in her last two matches. Stephens, meanwhile, has built momentum with each round. She won her first two matches in three sets, but cruised 6-2, 6-0 over Jil Teichmann on Sunday. Coco and Sloane have met once, in the first round at the US Open last year, and Stephens won 6-4, 6-2. Gauff is playing much better than she was then, but once Sloane gets her teeth into a tournament, and gets her flowing mix of offense and defense in sync, she’s tough for anyone to break down. Winner: Stephens
UPDATE: Gauff reaches her first Grand Slam semifinal, winning 7-5, 6-2. Relive the match as it happened with our live blog:
Wimbledon draws unveiled! Serena to face Harmony Tan; favorable openers for Djokovic and Nadal
Among the intriguing first-rounders include Nick Kyrgios-Paul Jubb and Sloane Stephens-Zheng Qinwen.
Alexander Zverev vs. Carlos Alcaraz
On most days, this meeting between the third and sixth seeds would qualify as a blockbuster quarterfinal. On this day, when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are also facing off, Zverev and Alcaraz will have to be satisfied with undercard status. That said, it should be a worthy one. The Spaniard and the German have impressed in similar ways so far in Paris. To add a tiny bit of controversy to the proceedings, Zverev has accused tournament organizers of favoring Alcaraz by giving him more chances to play in Chatrier, while Alcaraz has accused them of favoring everyone else by putting him on at night twice. This time he’ll get the day session, so presumably one of these two will be happy, anyway.
Zverev and Alcaraz have played three times, but there’s probably not a ton that can be gleaned from those matches. Zverev won the first two in straight sets, but they took place on hard courts, and more importantly, they took place in 2021, before Alcaraz became the Alcaraz we know and opponents fear. In their third meeting, a few weeks ago on clay in Madrid, the Spaniard won easily; at times he seemed to be toying with the German. But Zverev was coming off two very late nights that week, and said he struggled just to feel “coordinated” on the court.
If you wipe the slate clean of the past, who has the advantage in this quarterfinal? Alcaraz and Zverev were both pushed to the limit in the second round; Zverev saved a match point against Sebastian Baez, and Alcaraz did the same against Albert Ramos-Viñolas. Granted those reprieves, neither has surrendered a set since. The key here would seem to be how well Zverev can defuse the Alcaraz attack. Can he use his deep and heavy topspin into the corners to keep the explosive Spaniard from taking over rallies? Or will Alcaraz cut threw the Zverev defenses, as he has against most opponents this season, with his mix of raw power and deft touch? I’ll say the latter, and I’ll say it won’t be in straight sets. Winner: Alcaraz
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Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal
The 59th meeting between Djokovic and Nadal will have a slightly different dynamic than most of the ones that came before. In the past, whatever happened between them on other surfaces, Nadal has been the favorite when they’ve moved to clay. And for good reason: He leads their head-to-head on the surface 19-8, and before last spring, he led their head-to-head in Paris 7-1.
The operative words in that last sentence are “before last spring”—i.e., before Djokovic beat Nadal in their classic semifinal at Roland Garros 12 months ago. That was only one match among 58 others, but they haven’t met since, so it will loom large when they take the court on Tuesday evening. I actually think Djokovic’s ability to turn the tables last year may help both of their psyches this time. Djokovic will have a greater belief that he can do it again, while Nadal won’t feel the same “I’m always supposed to win on clay” pressure that he usually feels, even against Djokovic. Rafa isn’t the hunted this time, but neither is Djokovic, who will surely be determined to get his first Slam victory of the season after being barred from competing in Australia.
Physically, Djokovic should have an advantage. He won in straight sets on Sunday, while Nadal needed four-plus hours to get past Felix Auger-Aliassime. And then there’s the wild card: Nadal’s foot, which flared up in Rome, and seemingly could do the same at any moment in Paris. All of which means the longer the match goes, the more it should favor Djokovic.
But the thing about tennis rivalries, even ones that have gone on as long as this one, is that each edition takes on a life and a dynamic of its own. By the third set or so, nothing that has happened before will matter. It will be fun, as always, to see where No. 59 takes them, and us. Winner: Djokovic