Steve Flink’s French Open Men’s Tournament Preview - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink’s French Open Men’s Tournament Preview

There are five players who have the potential to claim the 2022 trophy but who is the favourite and why?

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Il campo Philippe Chatrier di Parigi

For the vast majority of fans in every corner of the globe, this is the best time of the year in the world of tennis. In less than a week, the French Open will commence at Roland Garros. The leading players will fight furiously across a fortnight to determine who will secure the most prestigious clay court prize in the sport. 

 

Over the past 17 seasons in Paris, the redoubtable Rafael Nadal has emerged victorious no fewer than 13 times. In that span, Novak Djokovic has taken the title twice (2016 and 2021), while the Swiss duo of Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Roger Federer (2009), have been victors once. To be sure, Nadal has been more dominant on the dirt than any other player at the rest of the majors, and by a wide margin indeed. It is inconceivable that anyone will ever approach his Roland Garros record. No one will come even close.

Until a few weeks ago, Nadal seemed to be the prohibitive favorite once more on his favorite surface in Paris. Already confident after capturing his record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in late January, Nadal took his third title of the season in Acapulco and then surged into the final at Indian Wells unbeaten on the season. But his 20 match winning streak was broken by the American Taylor Fritz as a compromised Nadal competed with a fractured rib on the California hard courts.

That kept the Spaniard out of Monte Carlo and Barcelona and off the courts for too long. He returned in Madrid and barely survived an ordeal against David Goffin, saving four match points against the Belgian to reach the quarterfinals. Then he lost in three sets to his teenaged compatriot Carlos Alcaraz in a stirring generational battle. Nadal moved on to Rome in search of an eleventh crown on the Italian clay. He accounted for John Isner in his opening match but then bowed out against the left-handed Canadian dynamo Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16.

It was not simply that Nadal lost to a player who nearly beat him a year ago in Rome, but the way he departed was what made it so disconcerting. He started that contest tremendously, playing almost vintage Rafa clay court tennis, dropping only a single game in a stellar opening set. But eventually he was beaten 1-6, 7-5, 6-2. From 2-2 in the final set, he lost 14 points in a row and eventually four consecutive games, moving timidly as the foot ailment that kept him away from tennis for most of the second half of 2021 haunted the Spaniard again. A lesser man than Nadal would have retired before the final bell had rung against Shapovalov, but the Spaniard stayed out there, faced the music and took his punishment, knowing he was going to lose.

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Now he will be preoccupied by the foot issue all the way up to the start of Roland Garros. Even if it improves, the injury will weigh heavily on his mind. And so he no longer is the clear favorite heading into the next Grand Slam championship. I still believe his outlook could change decidedly over the next ten days if the pain diminishes and he can practice properly, if he can get through a few early round matches largely free of pain.

But that is no guarantee. In my estimation, the co-favorites are Djokovic—fresh from sealing his sixth Italian Open title and his first tournament win of 2022—and Alcaraz, who has captured his last two clay court tournaments in Barcelona and Madrid after opening his clay court campaign with a surprising loss in Monte Carlo against Sebastian Korda.

In my view, Djokovic’s chances of succeeding are marginally better than Alcaraz’s, simply because the Serbian is such a seasoned competitor who knows his way around the big occasions much better than Alcaraz. This will be, after all, the 67th Grand Slam tournament of Djokovic’s extraordinary career, and his 18th consecutive appearance at Roland Garros. He has been pointing toward Paris ever since being barred by the Australian government from competing in Melbourne. For him, it was a cruel irony that not only was he prevented from playing the 2022 Australian Open—and perhaps coming through for the tenth time at that tournament—but in turn Nadal improbably pulled off one of the most remarkable triumphs of his career to rule in Melbourne for the second time. It was a double-whammy for Djokovic, who watched his greatest rival move past him at the majors.

The view here is that Djokovic has left that devastating disappointment behind him, but the feeling grows that his motivation to defend his title in Paris has grown immeasurably. He wants this title at Roland Garros very badly. Here is a man who stood only one match away last year from establishing himself as only the third man in history— and the first since Rod Laver in 1969— to win the Grand Slam. Losing in New York at the U.S. Open to Daniil Medvedev in the final was a devastatingly potent pill to swallow for the incomparably ambitious Djokovic. Moreover,  the humiliating experience of being granted a vaccine exemption by the Australian Open this year, but ultimately being barred from the tournament, left him for months with a deeply wounded psyche.

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Djokovic started his season late in Dubai, losing in the quarterfinals to Jiri Vesely. He did not reappear on the ATP Tour until Monte Carlo, dropping his opening contest in the round of 32 to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. His lack of stamina in the final set of that 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1 defeat was strikingly apparent. Djokovic moved on to Belgrade and struggled inordinately all through the tournament, conceding the first set in all four matches he played, falling in the final against Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-0. The way he finished that skirmish was strikingly similar to his setback in Monte Carlo. A thoroughly depleted Djokovic was a shadow of his normal physical self in the final set.

The world No. 1 realized he needed to step up his training regimen and recover his customary durability and match playing ruggedness swiftly. After a week off, he went to Madrid and lifted his game significantly, casting aside Gael Monfils and Hubert Hurkacz with his old efficiency, physicality and ruthlessness. Although he lost a classic semifinal encounter with Alcaraz that was exceedingly well played on both sides of the net, Djokovic took something substantial away from that defeat against the Spaniard. The match lasted three hours and thirty five minutes and went right down to the wire before Djokovic was narrowly beaten by the exuberant Spaniard in a final set tie-break. But the Serbian knew that he was getting much closer to the top of his game, and this time he was not fatigued at the end of a strenuous showdown.

On to Rome went Djokovic, and he came through handsomely to claim his 87th career title and his 38th Masters 1000 tournament. Not only that, but he played five more valuable matches in the process and did not drop a set, finishing off his confident run with triumphs over Felix Auger-Aliassime, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Although Auger-Aliassime pushed Djokoivic to 7-5, 7–6 (1), the Serbian remained poised after leading 5-3, 30-15 in both sets and not holding his serve. That was a good sign. In his meeting with Ruud, Djokovic surged to 5-1 in the first set but did not serve it out at 5-2. That was apprehension, pure and simple. But once more he recaptured his emotional equilibrium and came away with a convincing 6-4, 6-3 victory.

At the last hurdle against Tsitsipas, Djokovic was tested mentally and emotionally again. He played perhaps his best set of the season to open the final, not granting the Greek stylist a single game. His forehand firepower and unerring controlled aggression was the key to his success. But soon Djokovic trailed 2-5 in the second set. And yet, he was not conceding anything. Djokovic roared back to force a tie-break and emerged deservedly with a 6-0, 7-6 (5) victory over the fellow he beat in a five set final at the French Open a year ago—not to mention a five set semifinal the year before.

Tsitsipas in my view is the logical fourth most likely champion this year in Paris. His clay court level of play en route to Roland Garros was much like the way he played in 2021. Tsitsipas defended his Monte Carlo title, lost to Alcaraz in a spirited clash in the quarterfinals of Barcelona, was beaten by Zverev in the semifinals of Madrid and then made his run to the final of Rome. That consistency puts him in good stead for Roland Garros.

He will surely be in the thick of the battle for the third year in a row at the French Open, but Tsitsipas may need some good fortune with the draw if he is going to secure his first major title at long last. His records against the three chief favorites for the title in Paris are not stellar. Tsitsipas is now 2-7 against Djokovic and he has lost his last six appointments against the Serbian. The Greek is also 2-7 against Nadal and 0-3 versus Alcaraz, including two meetings this season and one memorable showdown at the U.S. Open last year won by the Spaniard in a fifth set tie-break.

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In my view, only one other player can be taken seriously as an authentic contender for the Roland Garros trophy— Sascha Zverev. The 6’6” German should have won the U.S. Open two years ago, squandering a two set lead against Dominic Thiem and later serving for the match in the fifth set before suffering a harrowing defeat. Last year in Paris he lost in a five set, penultimate round duel against Tsitsipas. Zverev has twice won the Masters 1000 title in Madrid and once was victorious in Rome.

He is an accomplished, all surface player, although he has yet to fully find his footing on grass. But after blazing through the second half of 2021– winning an Olympic gold medal and his second Nitto ATP Finals title in that span—Zverev has been disappointing thus far in 2022. He has played nine tournaments this season and has not garnered a title. On the clay he was good but not great, losing two semifinals in Monte Carlo and Rome to Tsitsipas, but defeating Tsitsipas to reach the final of Madrid before losing decisively to Alcaraz.

I put Zverev down at No. 5 on my Roland Garros list of contenders, but don’t give him much of a chance. To me, it will all come down to Djokovic, Alcaraz and Nadal, with Tsitsipas possibly finding a way into the conversation if everything falls into place. Nadal is slated to be seeded fifth. That could complicate his task. How can a champion who has won 105 of his 108 matches at Roland Garros be seeded so low?

Be that as it may, Nadal will approach this edition of the world’s premier clay court tournament dealing with deep inner doubts. He played only five clay court matches this year in his two tournaments, not nearly enough to give him the security he would  have under normal circumstances. Only a fool would underestimate the greatest clay court player who has ever lived. Even in his current state of physical uncertainty, Nadal remains a larger that life figure who has turned dreams into reality over and over again. Nadal—who will turn 36 during the tournament— knows that he won’t have many more opportunities to rule again at Roland Garros, and that fact alone must be weighed against his recent physical misfortunes.

And yet, looming large and driven by their own large dreams are the two front runners in my view—top seeded Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, who should be seeded sixth. What works for and against Alcaraz is this inescapable fact: Roland Garros will be only his sixth appearance at a major tournament in his brief but sterling career. His best showing yet was at the U.S. Open last year, when he reached the quarterfinals.

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So what business does this precocious 19-year-old have winning the French Open at such an early stage of his evolution? Quite simply, he has played the game this year like a wily veteran in many ways, winning four titles altogether, taking his last two titles on the clay, composing himself with extraordinary maturity, playing with a strategic acumen that totally belies his years.

This can work both ways. Alcaraz has never dealt with expectations—both his own and from a multitude of learned observers— like those surrounding him this year. In the end, he might stare into that stark reality and blink. But he is just as likely to look at the Roland Garros fortnight and see it as nothing more than an opportunity he is ready to seize. This kid is reminiscent in temperament to the 19-year-old Nadal who won his first major at Roland Garros in 2005.

In the last analysis, I am picking Djokovic. He has had Roland Garros in the forefront of his mind for months. Every match he has played across the spring on the red clay has been made more purposeful by his unwavering goal to win a third title at Roland Garros and a 21st major as well. He has brought forth a better version of himself with every tournament he has played since his clay court campaign commenced unceremoniously in Monte Carlo.  I believe he is going to realize his lofty goal in Paris.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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The Next Group Of Hopefuls To Replace The ‘Great Trio’ May Be Beaten Out By Youth

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Carlos Alcaraz - Roland Garros 2022 (photo Roberto Dell'Olivo)

What is it with this supposedly great crop of newer and younger players groomed to take the places of the “Great Trio” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the men’s game?

 

Only Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have won Grand Slam titles, both at the U.S. Open. And that’s about it. Medvedev just fell to Marin Cilic in the French Open round of 16.

Who?

You remember the 33-year-old hard-hitting Croatian who won the 2014 U.S. Open. Cilic had hardly been heard from since the 2018 Australian Open where he was runner-up . . . until  Monday when he needed just 45 minutes to conquer Medvedev.

THIEM JUST ANOTHER PLAYER THESE DAYS

Thiem? He looked like the real deal in 2020 when he won the U.S. Open. The Austrian is now 28 years old and an injured right wrist in 2021 has pushed Thiem far down the ATP rankings.

Then, there was the next presumed superstar: Stefanos Tsitsipas. The aggressive potential superstar came up empty on Monday against a virtually unknown teenager. Holger Rune was fantastic in his four-set domination of Tsitsipas.

The just-turned 19-year-old Rune appears to have it all: speed, quickness, power and touch. A 40th ranking isn’t too bad for a teen-ager, especially when it will zoom higher as the result of his advancement to a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ARE MEDVEDEV, THIEM AND TSITSIPAS REALLY THAT GREAT?

Maybe Medvedev, Thiem and Tsitsipas aren’t really as good as they once appeared to be. They are certainly not in the category of all-time greats. They have had their chances to become household words.

Maybe the members of this group weren’t meant to be the superstars to replace Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as fan favorites.

Maybe, it’s the next group of younger players, even teenagers. Yes, it appears that Carlos Alcaraz may outshine the likes of Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas in the next few years.

MAKE WAY FOR CARLOS ALCARAZ?

It just happens the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz may become one of the eventual replacements for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Carlos Alcaraz is one week younger than Rune.

Alexander Zverev might have been ahead of the others if he hadn’t blown so many chances for stardom the last few years. Still, he is the Olympic champion and probably has more potential than Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas.

A HERD OF PLAYERS WAITING TO MAKE THEIR MARKS

There is a herd of virtually unknown players waiting to make their mark. For instance, take Casper Ruud, 20-year-old Jannik Skinner and Matteo Berrettini. They have the potential to beat anyone.

But Alcaraz and Rune look like the best of the new young guns of tennis.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter who wins the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal showdown in Paris. They are two of the greatest players ever. Nothing is going to change that, not in Paris or anywhere else. Their place in history is written in stone, alongside Federer.

WOMEN’S GAME UNPREDICTABLE

The women’s game is even more unpredictable than the men’s game. One reason is because the WTA no longer has superstars the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, and Ashleigh Barty.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek looked ready to take over the women’s game with her long string of consecutive wins. But in the last two rounds of the French Open, Swiatek has looked like just another good player at times.

That may be due to the fact that the Polish sensation is going for her second French Open title while taking a 31-match winning streak into the quarterfinals. But it happened in the third round against 95th-ranked Danka Kovinic and then again Monday in round of 16 against 74th-ranked Qinwen Zheng.

Swiatek suddenly looked very average, but then bounced back to take both matches in the cool weather once she put on a white jacket in each match. She aroused her game early enough to avoid losing a set against Kovinic, but not against Zheng.

PEGULA MAY TEST SWIATEK

Swiatek now will face newlywed Jessie Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula is now playing the best tennis of her career and has rocketed to No. 11 in the world. Like Swiatek, Pegula is a fighter. She won’t go down easily and may be Swiatek’s toughest test remaining in Paris.

The 28-year-old Pegula called Charleston her home while she trained for a couple of years at the then Family Circle Cup complex, which is now the home of the Credit One Charleston Open stop on the WTA Tour. Pegula was married in last October at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Pegula also is having doubles success in Paris. She teamed with Coco Gauff to reach the third round in doubles, hoping for a victory there to advance to the doubles quarterfinals as well.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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