Is this the most open French Open in years? Circumstances might have made it so.
Played a different time of year, played with only a few weeks’ clay preparation, played with a sparse crowd (maybe), and played with lingering questions over each of the three favourites.
Rafael Nadal, defending champion and winner of 12 of the last 15 editions of the tournament, has only played three matches in the last seven months and his last outing was a surprising straight-sets loss. Novak Djokovic is playing at his first Grand Slam since being disqualified from the US Open for hitting a lineswoman with a ball – described as the “toughest and darkest” moment of his career by his former coach Boris Becker. And Dominic Thiem hasn’t played a competitive match on clay after becoming a Grand Slam champion for the first time at the US Open.
So who’s best prepared for Roland-Garros?
Is Nadal still strong favourite?
It’s usually around this time – although not usually this time of year – that the same old question surfaces: who can beat Nadal over five sets in Paris? Having seen Nadal sweep through at least two of the pre-tournament clay-court events, the answer is usually the same: maybe Djokovic, if he plays his best, otherwise nobody.
But this year Nadal may look more beatable than ever.
Part of that is because it’s difficult to judge exactly what kind of form he is in, having only played three competitive matches in the last seven months.
After skipping the hard-court season in New York, he looked like the king of clay in his first two matches back in Rome, beating US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta and Dusan Lajovic for the loss of just six games. But then he was surprisingly dumped out in straight sets by Diego Schwartzman, who had lost their last nine meetings and only won two of 24 sets.
Schwartzman called it his “best match ever”, but Nadal was strangely off, making 30 unforced errors and struggling on serve, only making 27 of 63 first serves and being broken five times.
“We can find excuses, but I didn’t play well enough,” he acknowledged.
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Is three matches enough preparation for Nadal, who has never won the French Open without winning at least one clay tournament beforehand?
In his post-match press conference after defeat to Schwartzman he said: “I did my job here…At least I played three matches.” Which is a fair point. Three competitive clay matches is three more than some players will have under their belt when they travel to Paris. And Nadal will expect to have time to work his way into the tournament and improve his form in the early rounds before tougher tests await in the second week.
But this could still be the most under-strength version of Nadal seen at the French Open in recent years...
Will US Open disqualification fuel Djokovic?
While Nadal fell at the quarter-final stage in Rome, Djokovic emerged as the champion in his first tournament since his disqualification from the US Open.
The win moves Djokovic ahead of Nadal in the all-time standings for Masters wins with 36, but more importantly shifts the narrative on from his costly outburst in New York. Had the world No 1 lost early in Rome then he surely would have faced questions about his mindset heading into the French Open; now the questions should be centered around how he attempts to win a title he has only won once before, in 2016.
Novak Djokovic says he has 'moved on' from US Open disqualification
Djokovic has said that, despite his preparation, Nadal remains the “number one favourite” for the French Open and “you just can’t put anyone in front of him”. But will Djokovic’s extra time on court over the last month - plus his dominant form in 2020 - count for anything? Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou said recently that he believes Djokovic - who is 7-17 against Nadal on clay - is playing the “best tennis of his career at the moment”.
Plus, is there any extra motivation for Djokovic after his US Open disqualification?
Djokovic downs Schwartzman to win Rome Masters
He was, after all, widely expected to win in New York and claim an 18th Grand Slam title, putting him two behind Federer’s all-time record and one behind Nadal.
Instead he stays on 17, and has fallen even further behind Federer and Nadal in the popularity stakes. Whether that counts for anything with Djokovic at this stage of his career is unclear, but his roar when he sealed victory in the Rome Masters gave a glimpse of what that meant to him. Victory in Paris would mean much more.
Can 'relaxed' Thiem go again?
After breaking his Grand Slam duck at the fifth attempt in New York, will Thiem make it third time lucky at the French Open?
The Austrian has lost in the final against Nadal for the last two years and hasn’t played a clay event in the lead up to Roland-Garros. Instead he has been spending time at home and preparing for his first event as a major winner. Even he admitted after winning the US Open that the big question now is “how I’m going to do it with the emotions mentally”.
Men's tennis finally has new Grand Slam champion in Dominic Thiem
“I achieved a big, big goal,” he said. “It's going to be or I expect that it's going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments because, of course, I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far, way better career than I could ever dreamt of, but until today there was still a big part, a big goal missing. With this goal achieved, I think and I hope that I'm going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”
A ‘free and relaxed’ Thiem could be a dangerous proposition for either Nadal or Djokovic, one of whom will be scheduled to meet the Austrian in the semi-finals when the draw is made on Thursday. And perhaps time away from the court will benefit him physically and help him get over the ankle injury he was battling in the latter stages of the US Open.