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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal permitted just 35 games in seven tournament victories to win his 10th Roland Garros titles.

Photo credit: Barcelona Open BancSabadell Facebook

There was a time when Roland Garros provided nearly as many plot twists as a Victor Hugo novel.

Times have changed.

More: Chung Pulls Out of Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal reduces upset storylines to French fairytales.

The streaks and skid marks Nadal leaves across Philippe Chatrier Court are visible reminders: All red clay routes run through Rafa.

A year ago, 12 years after his first Roland Garros crown, Nadal showed menacing muscle memory permitting just 35 games in seven tournament victories to achieve La Decima in arguably his most profound Paris performance.

Still, this French Open fortnight can provide spectacle and surprise.

Roland Garros begins on Sunday.

Today, our four burning French Open questions for the men’s field.

1. Can Anyone Stop Rafael Nadal From Winning his 11th Roland Garros Crown?

The perennial question to which the king of clay provides an annual answer chomping on championship silverware on the final Sunday in Paris.

Oddschecker lists Nadal as an overwhelming favorite at 4/9 to raise the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a record-extending 11th time.

Beating Nadal at Roland Garros is as challenging as moonwalking across the River Seine. The king of clay is 79-2 lifetime at the French Open and owns a staggering 102-2 record in five-set matches contested on clay. 

You must hold serve, guard the baseline, play big and bold and be willing to challenge Nadal’s forehand early in rallies to stretch him on the backhand side. The problem is if you don’t get to the forehand with depth and bite he will wrench control and even if you test his backhand, Nadal has hit his two-hander better than ever.

Nadal’s Roland Garros dominance is the most commanding Grand Slam performance of any player at any Slam we’ll likely see in our lifetimes. Barring injury or a bad day, which can afflict anyone, it’s hard to see the 31-year-old Spaniard stumbling on his stomping ground.

Or as Hall of Famer Ken Rosewall, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Roland Garros triumph presenting the Coupe des Mousqueatires, said: “Unless anything unforeseen happens to Rafa—his reputation is scaring everybody—so I’m just going to go over there and give him the trophy and come home.”

2. Are Alexander Zverev or Dominic Thiem Ready to Win Roland Garros?

The short answer is yes, though if either have to beat Nadal in the final to do it that likely won’t happen this year.

Thiem knows he can beat Nadal on dirt because he already has three times, including sweeping the Spaniard, 7-5, 6-3, in Madrid in his lone clay loss of the season.

The question is: Can he dethrone the king of clay in a best-of-five Grand Slam match on the expansive Court Philippe Chatrier which gives Nadal much more court to roam and defend than the smaller center courts in Madrid and Rome where Thiem’s beaten him each of the past two years?

When Thiem is taking and making the first strike with vigor he can seem nearly invulnerable to Nadal’s counterstrikes.

“It's difficult to harm a player like him because he's a very powerful player, he has a lot of strength, he strikes the ball very hard, very violently,” Nadal said after bowing to Thiem in Madrid. “When you receive that ball, it's very difficult to respond.”

The offensive-obsessed Thiem tends to try to blast his way out of problems. Sometimes It’s like seeing a guy trying to swat a fly with a sledgehammer, but Thiem’s titanic kick serve and hellacious, heavy forehand can help him command the center of the court against almost anyone.

While Zverev has yet to defeat Nadal in five meetings, he stopped Thiem to win his third career Masters title, and second on clay, in Madrid earlier this month.

Zverev’s transition game is still a work in progress, he sometimes allows himself to be pushed back behind the baseline, he can be vulnerable to the low ball, isn’t a natural mover in the frontcourt and while he’s managing his emotions much better this season he can get chatty with the chair umpire and support team.

The third-ranked Zverev has not surpassed the fourth round in 11 Grand Slam apperances. However, the 21-year-old German is growing into his body and game. Zverev is 17-3 on clay this year, has won two of his three Masters titles on dirt and is 4-3 vs. Top 10 opponents in 2018. 

Although he looked physically depleted and mentally spent in the fifth set of his Australian Open loss to Hyeon Chung in January—Zverev has won 27 of his last 31 sets on dirt, including title runs in Munich and Madrid, which should empower him for a second-week surge in Paris.

3. Which NextGen Stars Are Most Likely To Break Through?

When you beat Thiem on dirt, you earn clay credibility. Stefanos Tsitsipas thrashed Thiem en route to the Barcelona final, one of five Top-20 wins he's earned on clay this year.

The son of tennis coaches, the 19-year-old Tsitsipas exudes explosive power off both wings. The 6-foot-4 Tsitsipas plays with a lanky grace, moves well and his expansive reach helps him dig balls out of the corners.

Inexperience is a challenge.Tsitsipas has only played 17 career Tour-level matches on clay and has yet to win a Roland Garros match.

Canadian No. 1 Denis Shapovalov showed major acumen charging into the US Open fourth round as a qualifier last summer. 

The 19-year-old Canadian owns a natural commanding clay play carving his lefty slice serve to slide opponets off the ad court and set up his whip-lash forehand. Shapovalov is an exciting shotmaker, who can play all-court tennis and could be a threat if conditions are quicker. 

Opponents have been able to rush Shapovalov into errors off his one-handed backhand, though in Madrid he was proactive running around the backhand to fire that forcing forehand in victories over Benoit Paire, Milos Raonic and Kyle Edmund to become the youngest Madrid men's semifinalist in history. 

If the red clay is playing dry and fast 21-year-old Karen Khachanov possess the power to threaten. The powerful Russian fires flat hard shots, but can be displaced by opponents who can absorn pace and play shorter, sharper angles. Though the 39th-ranked Russian cites clay as his favorite surface, he's posted a subpar 3-4 record on dirt this year and is 2-11 lifetime vs. Top 10 opponents.

4. Who Are the Dark Horses?

The French Open finals have given us long-shots in the past.

Fifteen years ago, a 46th-ranked Martin Verkerk reached the French Open final in his first appearance in Paris, falling to Juan Carlos Ferrero.

World No. 44 Gaston Gaudio made history saving two match points to outduel compatriot Guillermo Coria, 0–6, 3–6, 6–4, 6–1, 8–6, in the 2004 final becoming the first man to win a Grand Slam after being bageled in the first set of the final.

We define dark horses as players ranked outside the Top 20 so British No. 1 Kyle Edmund, 19th-ranked Fabio Fognini, who owns clay-court wins over Nadal, French Davis Cup hero Lucas Pouille and Paris Masters champion Jack Sock don’t fit the criteria.

Novak Djokovic won his last Grand Slam title at the 2016 Roland Garros and showed signs of revitilization reaching the Rome semifinals where he pushed Nadal to a tie break set.

Though Djokovic has not beaten a Top 10 player since stopping Thiem at the 2017 Rome and underwent elbow surgery in February that prompted him to tinker with his service motion and Head racquet, he is coming off his best performance of the year in Rome.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion owns a .793 career winning percentage on clay, winning 13 titles on terre battue. 

Stefanos Tsitsipas is one to watch because of his stinking strokes, creative shotmaking and lanky athleticism.

Gael Monfils is a world-class talent, who hasn't exactly produced earth-shattering results recently.

La Monf flat-lined winning just one match total in Munich, Madrid and Rome. Still, Sliderman loves his home stage in Paris and has had his best Grand Slam results at the French Open where he enjoys massive fan support. Monfils reached the Roland Garros semifinals in 2008, has been a quarterfinalist four times and remains an explosive mover who can track almost any ball down on the terre battue.

If you're seeking a real veteran long shot, world No. 76 Pablo Cuevas has reached the French Open third round three years in a row, but he was seeded in each of those years and could now face a much tougher draw.

Still, he has a Roland Garros win over the young Dominic Thiem, owns six career clay-court titles and boasts a .606 career clay-court winning percentage, which tells you Cuevas knows his way around clay.


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