By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
The French Open began on Sunday. Serena Williams’ return highlights the women’s draw while an absence of star power is noticeable on the men’s side. There is no Roger Federer or Andy Murray and 2015 champ Stan Wawrinka is already out after a first round loss. Novak Djokovic has had an up-and-down spring, but had a promising showing in Rome in his last event before Roland Garros.
All eyes will be on Rafael Nadal and his bid for a record 11th title in Paris. The Spaniard entered the event as the overwhelming favorite (think Warriors over the Cavs) and is having a dominant clay court season.
Rafa made it through his rain delayed opener in straight sets, but as the tournament makes its way through the second round here are Nadal’s five biggest obstacles over the next week and a half.
The rainy conditions during Nadal’s first round match against Simone Bolelli allowed the Italian to jump to an early lead in the third set before play was suspended. The setting can cause Nadal’s topspin heavy shots to sit up off the bounce more rather than kick out, allowing opponents to step in and take angles away from Nadal.
Djokovic nearly took advantage of this in the 2012 final when he won eight straight games to take the third set and an early lead in the fourth before Nadal rallied for his seventh title. Bolelli was able to become the aggressor and held four set points in the third. More elite players will take advantage. The dryer the clay, the better for Nadal.
4. Alexander Zverev
The 21-year-old German is the No. 2 seed in this year’s event, but despite some favorable draws in the past he has yet to reach the quarterfinals of any major. He’s had a solid clay court season, including a win in Madrid and a competitive loss to Nadal in Rome. Zverev has a lot of weapons and is due for a good run at a Grand Slam, but he sits at number four on this list until then. He wouldn’t see Nadal until the final in Paris.
3. Marin Cilic
Clay isn’t his best surface and he hasn’t had the best spring, but Cilic has a really favorable draw if he can take advantage of it. Last year he made the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time in his career and is coming off a runner-up finish at the Australian Open. Hw would see Rafa in the semis if he got there. His toughest potential hurdle could be Juan Martin del Potro, who suffered a strained groin in Rome. Cilic showed up on the big stage in Melbourne when he nearly beat Federer in the final and could do so again if he makes the most of his draw.
2. Dominic Thiem
The only man to beat Nadal on clay this entire season, Thiem has made the semifinals at Roland Garros in each of the last two years. He’s on the opposite side of the draw as Rafa and has a potentially tough path to get to the final for the first time. He could see Kei Nishikori in the fourth round and Zverev in the quarters. The 24-year-old also knocked off Djokovic in the quarterfinals last year.
He’s had a disappointing 2018 thanks to the elbow injury that sidelined him for a good portion of last year, but Djokovic is the only man remaining in the draw who has beaten Nadal at Roland Garros and won the French Open. Djokovic played well in a tight loss to Nadal in Rome and seems to be finding his form at the right time. Already in the third round, there’s nobody else in the tournament who has stared down the greatest clay court player of all time in Paris and walked off a winner.