The Five Players Who Can Challenge Nadal Mano A Mano At Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal has long dominated the Parisian terre battue at Roland Garros, lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires 11 times and tallying an 86-2 record. Fresh off a triumph at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, Nadal arrives at the year’s second Grand Slam with plenty of momentum.
But the second seed is not as overwhelming of a favourite as usual, having taken until last week to capture his first title of the year, his longest trophy drought to start a season since 2004, when he earned his maiden tour-level crown. Nadal was beaten in the semi-finals at Monte-Carlo (l. to Fognini), Barcelona (l. to Thiem) and Madrid (l. to Tsitsipas).
So Nadal's chase for a 12th title will not be easy, even if a big part of the battle some of Nadal's biggest potential challengers will face is setting a clash against the Spaniard. ATPTour.com examines those who could pose the biggest threat to the lefty mano a mano if they do play in the coming fortnight:
Djokovic has all the motivation he needs entering Roland Garros, as the Serbian could win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam, becoming just the second player to accomplish that feat twice (also Rod Laver, who completed two calendar-year Grand Slams). While Nadal defeated Djokovic in three sets in the Rome final, the World No. 1 has plenty of reason to feel confident if they meet in the Roland Garros final for the third time (Nadal won on both occasions).
Despite losing at the Foro Italico, Djokovic has won nine of their previous 12 meetings, and he leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 28-26. Djokovic also spent two hours and 12 minutes more than Nadal on the court to reach the final in the Italian capital, with no day of rest before battling for the trophy, and he still pushed Nadal to three sets. That could give him confidence leading into the year’s second major.
Thiem has earned a clay-court win against Nadal in three consecutive years. During that span, Nadal has lost just two additional clay-court matches, both of which came this year: against Fabio Fognini in Monte-Carlo and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Barcelona. So Thiem has proven he is capable of challenging Nadal if they meet for the trophy.
The Austrian’s overwhelming weight of shot could push Nadal back and keep the lefty from playing aggressively. Although Thiem could not mount much of a challenge in last year’s Roland Garros final against Nadal, he showed his ability to do so in a best-of-five set format at the US Open, battling the Spaniard for four hours and 49 minutes, forcing Nadal to find his very best tennis in a final-set tie-break.
Tsitsipas is one of just three players who has defeated Nadal on clay in the past three years, and the pair could potentially meet in the semi-finals. A year ago, Tsitsipas lost in the second round in Paris as the World No. 39. But now, the reigning Next Gen ATP Finals champion is on the verge of cracking the Top 5, and he carries an ATP Tour-leading 29 wins in 2019 into the clay-court major.
The 20-year-old Greek star was unafraid of taking the ball early against Nadal, frequently venturing to the net in their semi-final at Madrid. Even though he lost to the nine-time champion in Rome, Tsitsipas did not feel out of his element.
“I just felt comfortable playing. I didn't feel much annoyed playing him on clay these two matches, which I guess is good,” Tsitsipas said. “Today I felt very close, despite the two-set loss.”
This may be Federer’s first Roland Garros in four years, but you can never count out a 20-time Grand Slam champion, especially since the 37-year-old Swiss showed good form in his return to clay. Federer reached the quarter-finals in both Madrid and Rome, but his only loss came after holding match points against Thiem in Madrid. In Rome, Federer withdrew before facing Tsitsipas.
While they have not played one another since 2017, Federer has won five straight against Nadal in their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry (Nadal leads 23-15), including seven sets in a row. Federer, a 101-time tour-level champion, has not beaten Nadal on clay since 2009 Madrid, but Nadal being the favourite may free the World No. 3 up to go for broke and spring an upset. This will also be their first clay-court match since Federer switched to a racquet with a bigger head, reducing his number of shanks.
Juan Martin del Potro
This may be only Del Potro’s fourth tournament of the season as he continues to come back from a knee injury, but the ‘Tower of Tandil’ has shown that he is not too rusty. In Rome, Del Potro held two match points against World No. 1 Djokovic before ultimately succumbing in a hard-fought three-hour, one-minute battle.
More important than winning or losing that match was the Argentine’s level. Del Potro’s massive forehand will always be a tremendous weapon regardless of his opponent. And he showed no apprehension in hitting through his two-handed backhand against Djokovic, which would be key against Nadal, who would attack crosscourt with his heavy forehand. The biggest challenge would be for Del Potro to reach the final, first, but when he is on his game, he can test anyone on any day, even Nadal in Paris.