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French Open Preview: Players To Watch Not Named Nadal

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On the off chance Nadal doesn’t win the French Open, who could take the crown?

The (Rafael Nadal) French Open is just under a week away, as tennis heads into the busiest part of the season. Tennis fans will see three Grand Slams in a four-month period after patiently waiting since Federer’s five-set thriller at the Australian Open.

It is no secret that Nadal has a record ten titles at Roland Garros, and is easily the most successful player there of all time, in any discipline of tennis. If he’s healthy, he’s an easy favorite to take home another title. It is almost a foregone conclusion he will take home the title. He has had one of the most dominant clay seasons of his career in 2018, and looks primed to breeze through the tournament, yet again.

Only three times since 2005 had Nadal failed to win the French Open. He was famously beaten by the eventual runner-up, Robin Soderling in 2009. He would again lose to the eventual runner-up, Novak Djokovic in 2015. His 2009 loss was somewhat of an anomaly, while 2015 was arguably the worst season of Nadal’s career. While it is possible to beat him at the French open, it is very unlikely.

However, Nadal does have a long history of injuries. In 2016 he pulled out of the tournament after the second round due to a wrist injury. While this was the only time he pulled out of the French Open due to an injury, he has missed time elsewhere with back and hip problems.

It would be no fun not to speculate who could win the tournament should an injury or massive upset take place with Nadal. Below are five players who have the most potential to upset the King of Clay, or make a run should he have to withdraw.

Novak Djokovic

Michel Euler - AP

Many would put Djokovic in the conversation as one of the best male players of all-time. He has twelve Grand Slam titles and thirty Masters 1000 titles to go along with a fair number of other records. He might be the third best of all-time behind Federer and Nadal, but that is likely a conversation between him and Pete Sampras.

As one of the only two players to have ever knocked Nadal out of the French Open, he certainly could pose a fair match up. He beat Rafa in straight sets in the quarterfinal of the 2015 tournament. This was arguably the best year of his career, as he won every Grand Slam but the French Open, falling in the final to Wawrinka. 

While he seems to be healthy entering the tournament, he hasn’t had great results since returning from his elbow injury. He started out the year on a good run but had a second procedure on his elbow in late January. Novak hasn’t fared well in the tournaments he’s played in the last couple of months. He was knocked out in the second round of two straight Masters 1000 tournaments following his return in March. It’s not clear whether he’s just a bit rusty, or the elbow is a bigger problem than he’s led on.

Sitting at 6-6 on the year he enters the French Open as the no. 11 seed. This is the lowest tournament seed he has had in over a decade, having never really missed significant time from the tour. Before the injury, he hadn’t been ranked outside the top four since 2007.

Alexander Zverev

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The 21-year old German phenom is currently ranked No. 3 on the tour. Many consider him to be the “next big thing” in men’s professional tennis. He has 7 ATP titles to his name: four 250 Series titles, one 500 Series titles, and two Masters 1000 Titles. He has also lost in four finals, three of which are to players on this list.

 Despite this level of success at such a young age, not once has he made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. He’s only made it past the third round once in his career. There’s no doubt the talent and skill are there, but he hasn’t been able to pull through on the biggest stage in tennis. 

Zverev fares well on Clay, having won three of his seven ATP titles on the surface, but does just as well on grass and hard courts. He serves exceptionally well due to a well above average second serve. His plays extremely well at the baseline as well as the net, and his backhand is a useful weapon for him. Standing well over six feet tall doesn’t hurt either. There just isn’t a glaring weakness in his game. He has immense talent and unbelievable tools at his disposal, but just needs to put it all together.

He most recently won the Madrid Open, his second Masters 1000 title on clay. Zverev enters the Grand Slam tournament at a carer-high No. 2 seed, so the expectations might be more lofty than usual. Should he make it through the rest of the competition, he’ll likely face Nadal in the final. Whether or not he makes a run at this year’s tournament, it’s only a matter of time before he breaks through lives up to the hype.

Dominic Thiem

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Charlotte Wilder - USA Today

The young Austrian has had a string of success in recent years. He has made it to at least the fourth round in his past six Grand Slam tournaments. More importantly, twice has he made it to the semi-final of the French Open, each of the past two years.

Thiem is one of the few non-Federer players on tour to use a one-handed backhand, which has served as an asset in his career. He employs a lot of top-spin on his serve, pushing opponents back which bodes well on clay. Less aggressive and generally more strategic, the slowness of the ball on clay courts allows him to plan his points. His long take-back allows him to hit strong, calculated shots. He tends to stay away from the net, but will serve-and-volley if he feels it is right.

Of his nine ATP Singles titles, seven of them have come on clay courts. It is by far his best surface, making another run at the French Open all the more likely.  In 2017 he lost to Nadal in the semi-final, while losing to Djokovic the year prior. In the Madrid Open this year, he knocked Nadal out of the tournament, but eventually fell to Zevrev in the final. He will enter the tournament as the No. 6 seed, meaning he will avoid playing Nadal until at least the quarter-final. Perhaps his recent win gives him the best shot at knocking the King of Clay out.

Marin Cilic

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Marin Cilic has established a name for himself in the last few years, with the 2014 US Open title and two Grand Slam final appearances in the last year. He is currently ranked world no. 5, but was ranked a career-high no. 3 following his Australian Open final loss to Federer earlier this year. Since the start of 2017, he has a 19-5 record in Grand slam tournaments.

Cilic’s serve can reach an elite speed of 155mph, which has been a huge factor in his success over the years. He is also known to have low, powerful groundstrokes. He doesn’t move around the court incredibly well, but it able to make up for that with his power and accuracy.

Hard courts tend to be where he excels the most, but are also the courts he plays on most frequently. The clay courts take a bit of speed off of his serves and groundstrokes, which affects a player like him who relies so heavily on power. He does have two ATP titles on clay, but has also lost four clay-court finals. 

Cilic made it to the quarterfinal of the French Open in 2017, losing to eventual runner-up and 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka. The 2018 season has definitely been strong for him so far, and he enters the draw as the no. 4 seed.

Kei Nishikori
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Sky Sports

Kei Nishikori returned in 2018 from a wrist injury that kept him out for five months. While a little rusty in the early going, he made it to the final of Monte-Carlo, the premier Masters 1000 tournament on clay. He would lose to none other than Rafael Nadal in straight sets, but beat both Zeverev and Cilic to get there.

Nishikori is known for being an exceptional defender on the court. He returns serve with power and is known to hit winners on a return. He has been compared to players like Andre Agassi for the tendency to take balls early. His two-handed backhand has been praised and compared to that of the game’s top players. While he has only a slightly above-average serve, he has made it work for him and prevented players from taking advantage.

After missing so much time, he’ll slot in somewhere around no. 17, depending on how many points he earns at this week’s Italian Open. He will certainly face a tougher draw than the other players on this list, but he seems to be healthy and ready to compete.

Edited by Kat Johansen.

Who knocked Rafael Nadal out of the 2009 French Open
Created 5/13/18
  1. Juan Martin Del Potro
  2. Roger Federer
  3. Andy Murray
  4. Robin Soderling

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