On the men’s side, the big news coming into the French Open is who won’t be there. Roger Federer aggravated an old back injury and will miss his first Grand Slam this century. For reference, the last time tennis’ ironman wasn’t in the draw of a major, at the 1999 U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet were duking it out in a “Little Aces” junior tournament in France. (You can see them do it here.) And on Friday we found out that Gael Monfils, Roland Garros’ in-house entertainer, has had to pull out due to a viral illness that has forced him into a hospital. Those are two tough losses for the tournament.
But while Federer said he didn’t “take this decision lightly,” his withdrawal at least makes sense, both from his perspective and the tournament’s. Federer’s priorities this season have always been Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open. And while the men’s event at Roland Garros will lose its most popular attraction, the draw is more logical in Federer’s absence. Rafael Nadal moves from the No. 5 to No. 4 seeding slot, which prevents him from having to play any of the Top 3—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka—until the semis. When you’re talking about a nine-time French Open champ, that only seems right.
The tune-up tournaments are over and the favorites are set. Djokovic, the world’s best player, leads the way. Nadal, the best clay-courter of all time, is a few steps—or maybe a long slide—behind him. Murray, who has beaten both Rafa and Nole this spring, has his best-ever shot at a title in Paris. And while Wawrinka, the defending champion, has had a subpar season, we know he can turn that around in a hurry.
Here’s a look at where those four favorites have landed in the draw, and who they might have to face over the next two weeks.
This will be the fifth time that Djokovic arrives in Paris with a chance to complete a career Grand Slam. By winning in Madrid and beating Nadal in Rome, he did what he needed to do to prepare. Was his agitated behavior at the Foro Italico a sign that the pressure will get to him at Roland Garros? Or did he get it out of his system? I’m thinking he’ll be OK in Paris, but he of all people knows that strange things can happen there—by the end of the tournament, nothing will feel the same as it did at the start.
The feeling at the start is that Djokovic has a good draw. He starts against 100th-ranked Rendy Lu—they’ve played just once, and it was a straight-set win for Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2010. None of the seeds in Djokovic’s quarter—Federico Delbonis, Bernard Tomic, Roberto Bautista Agut, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Pablo Cuevas, Tomas Berdych—look all that daunting at the moment. The best of them, Berdych and Ferrer, have been on hard times of late. Cuevas, this section's toughest dirtballer, would have to survive to the quarters to face Djokovic, and he’s never been past the third round at any major. I’d say Bautista Agut, who put a brief scare into Djokovic at last year's U.S. Open, could be dangerous, but his career record at the French is just 4-3.
First-round match to watch: Taylor Fritz vs. Borna Coric
While it’s hard to spot a potential challenge to Djokovic in his quarter, the same can’t be said for Nadal’s section. His obstacles pop out immediately. In the third round, Rafa could face Fabio Fognini, a player who beat him three times in 2015 and pushed him hard again last month in Barcelona. In the fourth round, Nadal could play Dominic Thiem, who beat him in Buenos Aires this year, or Alexander Zverev, who nearly beat him in Indian Wells. (If there’s one piece of good news for Rafa, it’s that he won’t have to beat both of those young guns.) In the quarters, Nadal is projected to play either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Goffin. Tsonga loves Roland Garros, and Goffin is having a career year; neither is an easy proposition if they're playing well enough to reach the second week.
But neither is Rafa, of course. The upside of Nadal’s draw is that if he does make it through this gauntlet, he will likely have built up a good head of steam for a potential semifinal against Djokovic. He’ll need it; Rafa has lost 15 straight sets to Djokovic. But he’s still 6-1 against him at Roland Garros, and he pushed him to the limit in Rome last week. If they face off in the semis, Nole will have much more to lose than Rafa.
Sleepers: Thiem, Zverev, Goffin
Does it matter what Wawrinka, the game’s great enigma, does in the weeks leading up a major, especially this major? When he arrived in Paris last year, he wasn’t anyone’s favorite to win. He’d had an up and down spring, and he’d reached the quarterfinals at the French just once in 10 tries. We all know what happened next.
If anything, despite his run to the final in Geneva this week, Wawrinka has been even more middling during the 2016 clay swing. Can he turn it around again at Roland Garros? Looking at his draw, it’s not inconceivable. Stan’s first-round opponent is Lukas Rosol; the two played in Geneva on Friday and Wawrinka won in three sets. The other seeds on his side are Jeremy Chardy, Viktor Troicki and Gilles Simon. And while the best player on the other side of this section, Milos Raonic, beat Wawrinka at the Australian Open, he’s not a natural clay-courter, and is no lock to reach the quarters.
Sleepers: Lucas Pouille, Jack Sock
Unseeded, but not quite looming: Grigor Dimitrov
It wouldn’t be surprise if this were the first time that Murray has come to the French Open thinking he has a shot to win the whole thing. In the past, the clay season took a back seat to his quest to win Wimbledon; as of last March, Murray had spent 10 years on tour and had never won an event on dirt. Now that has all changed. In 2015 he won in Munich and Madrid, and took Djokovic to a fifth set at the French. This year he’s been even better, beating Nadal in Madrid and Djokovic for the title in Rome.
Murray’s draw, at least in the early going, shouldn’t lessen his confidence. He’ll start against a qualifier, and the seeds nearest him are Ivo Karlovic, Benoit Paire and John Isner. While all three of those players can pose problems, there’s no guarantee that any of them will last long enough to meet Murray. Fortunately for him, the two most dangerous possible opponents—Kei Nishikori and Nick Kyrgios—are on the other side of this section. They might slug it out for the right to face Murray in the quarters.
Sleeper: Kyrgios. He could play Gasquet, a man he knows well, in the third round.
First-round match to watch: Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Fernando Verdasco
Semifinals: Nadal d. Djokovic; Murray d. Wawrinka
Final: Nadal d. Murray