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French Open 2019: A look at the players to watch at the Roland Garros

Largely because of Nadal, the French Open has proved the most challenging for Novak Djokovic.

ET Bureau|
May 24, 2019, 11.41 PM IST
French Open 2019: A look at the players to watch at the Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal has only lost twice on the Parisian clay in 14 years.
Men to watch

The Mallorcan’s domination at Roland Garros since debuting in his sleeveless top and pirate pants in 2005 is quite simply unprecedented for a Grand Slam tournament. He has only lost twice on the Parisian clay in 14 years in which time his heavy topspin game has seen him bulldoze his way to a Grand Slam record 11 titles. This year, however, semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Barcelona suggested the 32-year-old was not at his rampant best, perhaps struggling with nagging knee problems. But in beating world number one Novak Djokovic to the Rome title last week, his first title of the season, the reigning champion ensured that once again he will arrive at Roland Garros wearing his usual cloak of claycourt invincibility.

This time last year Novak Djokovic was still fighting to rediscover the spark in his game — fast forward 12 months and he could be on the verge of holding all four Grand Slams for the second time in his career. Largely because of Nadal, the French Open has proved the most challenging for the Serb and his one title came three years ago when Nadal had withdrawn with a wrist injury. Djokovic looks in fine fettle ahead of this year’s French Open, with the Madrid title in the bank and a run to the Rome final where the demands of a heavy week caught up with him against Nadal. After a week’s rest he will start as the man most likely to prevent Nadal winning a 12th title.

ROGER FEDERER (Switzerland)
Swiss maestro turned his back on the claycourt season for two years — a decision vindicated by the tennis he is still producing at the age of 37. Like Djokovic, he only has one French Open title to his name, but the very fact that he is returning to the Parisian dirt for the first time since 2015 means he feels he has a chance to land a second and extend his Grand Slam haul to 21. Federer’s best chance is to avoid the kind attritional baseline rallies that have blunted his natural attacking flair in the past, so expect one of the game’s great innovators to arrive with some new tricks up his sleeve.

The Austrian’s elegant game is tailor-made for clay and while his style is very different to the more powerful Nadal’s he boasts the same stinging topspin off both flanks. Thiem, 25, has added aggression to his game in recent years and it paid off last year when he reached the final and, for a while, went toe-to-toe with the great Spaniard. Victory over Nadal on his way to the Barcelona title last month will fuel his confidence. Expect Thiem, who recently hired Chilean Nicolas Massu as part of his coaching set-up, to make a deep charge in Paris as he seeks a first Grand Slam title.

The tall Greek is up to a career-high sixth in the world and the 20-yearold will definitely be a danger in Paris. His powerful allaction style, including one of the game’s best singlehanded backhands, and f lowing blonde locks, have already made him a fan’s favourite on Tour. In reaching the Madrid final, beating Nadal en route, he proved again that for all the flair, he knows how to look after himself. He reached the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open in only his seventh Grand Slam main draw and hard to imagine him not surpassing his previous-best second round in Paris.

Women to watch

The lionhear ted Romanian finally landed a Grand Slam title in Paris last year after seasons of sweat and it will take a tough cookie to wrestle the crown from her grasp. Few players enjoy a scrap more than the 27-year-old but until she downed Sloane Stephens in last year’s final there were nagging doubts about her ability to strike a knockout blow. That pressure has now been lifted and she will arrive happy and relaxed although wary of big-hitters like Kiki Bertens who got the better of her in the Madrid final.

Talk about revelling on the big stage. The Japanese world number one has only won three titles but arrives in Paris having won the last two Grand Slams on offer. The 21-year-old still gives off the impression that she is a little nonplussed by all the fuss, preferring to make statements with her aggressive brand of tennis. Clay is not her natural surface but she reached the quarter-finals in Madrid and again in Rome where a thumb injury meant she had to withdraw. If she’s fit she will be dangerous.

Inconsistency has seen her tumble down to 19th in the rankings heading to Paris but none of the top seeds will be happy to see her in their section of the draw. The powerful Venezuelan-born Spaniard can be unplayable when she is firing on all cylinders and is one of those who can be relied on to bring her best game to the biggest stages. She overwhelmed Serena Williams in the 2016 French Open final and did the same to Venus a year later at Wimbledon. Reached the semi-final in Paris last year and expect to see her in the second week again, as long as a left thigh injury sustained in Rome clears up in time.

Write off the American 23-times Grand Slam singles champion at your peril. The 37-year-old has played only a handful of matches since reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal, but she will not just be in Paris for a family outing. Three times Williams has swept to the title in Paris and last year, in only her third tournament back after giving birth, reached the last 16 before injury struck. No one doubts that she has the weapons and the court craft to make another title tilt and should she get on a roll in the first week her mere presence in the draw will start to sow some seeds of doubt into the heads of the favourites.

The cool as a cucumber American counter-puncher does not blast opponents off court, instead uses her incredible court coverage and unerring accuracy to wear them down. Last year’s final against Halep was a battle of wills between two players with similar styles — Stephens eventually succumbing in a gripping three-set contest. Results this year have not been spectacular but a semi-final run in Madrid was a clear message that she is warming up nicely for a strong challenge over the next fortnight.

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