Two days to go until the start of Roland Garros, the highlight of the clay court season. In the women’s singles, world number one Iga Swiatek is the clear favourite to win the tournament after her five tournament wins in a row. In the men’s singles, there are four players who are likely to win the title this year.
The two top favourites: Djokovic and Alcaraz
Top favourite No. 1 for me is defending champion Novak Djokovic. The Serb, who turns 35 the day after tomorrow when the tournament starts, has had a tough start to the season after being ruled out of the Australian Open (A), Indian Wells (C) and Miami (C) due to missing his COVID-19 vaccination. He did not play well in his first three tournaments in Dubai (D) on hard court, Monte Carlo (C) and Belgrade (E) on clay. But in Madrid (C) he at least reached the semi-finals. There he lost to Carlos Alcaraz 7-6, 5-7, 6-7 in an absolutely top-class, epic match after 3:35 hours. And in Rome (C) last week, he found his absolute top form just in time, beating Tsitsipas in the final 6-0, 7-6 and not dropping a single set in the entire tournament. That makes Djokovic the No. 1 favourite for me, just ahead of Alcaraz.
The 19-year-old Spaniard has already won four tournaments this year, three of them on clay: Rio (D), Miami (C) on hard court, Barcelona (D) and Madrid (C). With his victories in Miami and Madrid, Carlos Alcaraz is also the only player besides Djokovic to win two Masters 1000 events (C category) in the last 52 weeks. In Madrid, Alcaraz, now already ranked No. 6 in the world, beat Rafael Nadal (5) in three sets in the quarter-finals, Novak Djokovic (1) in the semi-finals in an epic 3:35 hour match and then the overtired Alexander Zverev (3) in the final quite smoothly 6-3, 6-1 in 62 minutes. The 19-year-old seems ready for the big title.
Favourite No. 3: Rafael Nadal
The 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal (5) has had an outstanding start to the new tennis year, first winning the small preparatory tournament in Melbourne (E), then the Australian Open (A) and then also in Acapulco (D). The soon to be 36-year-old had never started so well into a season. In Indian Wells, too, he played magnificently until the semi-finals against Carlos Alcaraz. He managed to defeat his 17-year younger compatriot 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 after 3:12 hours in an absolutely top-class match, but broke his ribs in the process. In the final against Taylor Fritz, he played through the whole match in severe pain. The shocking diagnosis and a six-week break from the tournament followed.
Rafa had to miss his beloved clay tournaments in Monte Carlo and Barcelona completely this year. In Madrid, he did not play well by his standards, losing in the quarter-finals to Alcaraz 2-6, 6-1, 3-6, and in Rome it got even worse. In the round of 16 against Shapovalov, he seemed to be back in good form, winning the first set 6-1, but in the second set the foot pain came back, which has plagued him for almost 17 years (Müller-Weiss syndrome) and he lost the match in three sets, was almost defenceless in the last set. Nadal will thus go into the French Open without a clay title. That has happened only twice since 2005: in 2015, when he was eliminated by Djokovic in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros, and in the pandemic year of 2020, when Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, three of the four most important preparatory tournaments, were cancelled.
Nadal was thus unable to successfully play a single preparation tournament on clay this year. The mission French Open title No. 14 (world record) and Grand Slam title 22 (world record) will be enormously difficult for him under these conditions, especially as Djokovic and Alcaraz seem to be in absolute top form at the moment. On the other hand, Rafa is always a force to be reckoned with at Roland Garros, as he already showed in October 2020 when, after the long pandemic break and only one preparatory tournament, he then showed absolute top form in the tournament itself. If he could do the same this year, he would be on a par with Djokovic and Alcaraz. One can only hope that he will succeed. But his draw is extremely difficult. More on that in a moment.
Favourite No. 4: Stefanos Tsitsipas
These three, Djokovic, Alcaraz and Nadal, when he is fit and pain-free, are almost in a league of their own on clay. The player who comes closest to them in terms of his current playing strength on clay is probably Stefanos Tsitsipas (4). The Greek defended his title in Monte Carlo (C), reached the semi-finals in Madrid (C) and the final in Rome (C), so he was always among the top four in the three most important clay tournaments after Roland Garros (A). But against Alcaraz, who is almost five years younger, Tsitsipas has competed three times since September 2021 and lost three times. And he also had no chance against Djokovic in the final in Rome on Sunday, losing 0-6, 6-7. Last year, he also lost the final of the French Open to Djokovic, despite leading 2-0 in sets.
Tstitsipas would have to improve considerably to win his first Grand Slam title or Djokovic and Alcaraz would have to get injured or otherwise stumble. However, Stefanos is very lucky in his draw, because the three big favourites are all in the top half of the table, and he is the only one of the top four in the bottom half. If the 23-year-old can deliver what he is undoubtedly capable of, he should be able to reach the final again, as he did last year. If the top three stars have already played each other tired, that could increase his chances in the final. Nevertheless, I think it will definitely be difficult for Tsitsipas to win the tournament, not impossible, but difficult.
The most promising outsiders: Zverev and Ruud
It might be even harder for Alexander Zverev (3). The 25-year-old has been playing at the top of the world since 2017 and was even close to the No. 1 at times. Zverev has won a lot of tournaments, including five (!) Masters 1000s (C), the ATP Finals twice (B) and the 2021 Olympics (B), but he still hasn’t managed to win a Grand Slam title (A). Seven best-of-five matches is a different story than five or six best-of-three matches. The German had to find that out again and again. In a Grand Slam tournament, you have to win not just ten or twelve, but 21 sets to win the title. And the entire world’s top players are competing. Everyone who is not injured usually competes here.
On clay, Zverev is certainly one of the five or six best in the world, but if he makes it to the quarter-finals, which I definitely think he will, he will face Alcaraz and then Djokovic or Nadal in the semi-finals. For Zverev, that means: The mission Roland Garros 2022 is not hopeless, the quarter-finals should be possible in any case, but to beat Alcaraz and Djokovic or Nadal in top form and even over three winning sets, Zverev would have to outgrow himself. In 2021, he managed to do that in a few tournaments, but not yet this year; and above all: never in a Grand Slam tournament. That’s why I only see Zverev’s chances as an outsider.
The same goes for Casper Ruud, certainly one of the eight best clay-court players, who also got a relatively lucky draw. The 23-year-old Norwegian is more or less the king of the E tournaments (ATP 250), which he has been winning in a row for the last year or two. In 2020 he won one, in 2021 even five and this year already one. Six of his seven tournament victories were on clay. He is also in the final of the E tournament in Geneva this week, so he could win his eighth E tournament there. But Ruud has never won a higher-level tournament in the D (ATP 500), C (Masters 1000), B (ATP Finals and Olympics) or even A (Grand Slam) category. The quarter-finals should be possible for him in any case, if he can keep up his good form and does not play himself tired in Geneva. But then he could meet Tsitsipas, who seems a bit stronger to me in best of five. That brings us to the draw.
The draw has been extremely unlucky this year, because three of the top four players or even four of the top five are all in the top half. The bottom half is much weaker. Rafael Nadal had the worst luck of all. He faces top ten player Felix Auger-Aliassime in the round of 16, Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals, Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.
This is what the quarter-finals could look like:
- Djokovic vs Auger-Aliassime or Nadal
- Zverev vs Alcaraz
- Ruud vs Tsitsipas
- Rublev or Sinner vs Medvedev
But as always, we don’t know who will get injured, who will be able to withstand the pressure, who will be able to maintain their form or even improve it in time, etc. As things stand, the two top favourites for me would be Djokovic and Alcaraz, and if Nadal stays free of pain and injury and manages to reach his best form during the tournament, then he too. Unfortunately, all three are in the top half, so Tsitsipas has a very good chance of making the final in the bottom half.
For Alcaraz, who has just turned 19, it would be the first Grand Slam victory, for Djokovic, then 35, the 21st. He would then pass Federer (20) in the most important of all categories and draw level with Nadal (21). For Nadal it would be his 14th Roland Garros and 22nd Grand Slam title.
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