Road to Rogers Cup: Could Djokovic stop Nadal at Roland Garros?

Monday, Jun 4

Welcome to Road to Rogers Cup, a weekly review of all the action on the pro circuit leading up to Rogers Cup presented by National Bank this August 4th to 12th at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.

This week, we reflect on the first week of the season’s second major and the jewel of the clay court season – Roland Garros in Paris, France. The terre battue of Roland Garros has historically been dominated by one man, Rafael Nadal, who, to no one’s surprise, is still in the draw having not lost a set. However, the one active player to have defeated him in a best-of-five match on clay is also well and alive… and he’s only been looking better as the tournament has progressed. Could Novak Djokovic be the one true obstacle in Nadal’s way of claiming his eleventh French Open crown? Or could young pretenders Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev present their own challenge?

Photo credit: Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Last week: Top Roland Garros contenders play themselves into form

The Story

The lead-up to Paris featured a cast of four characters that lead the show – and it’s been no different throughout the first week of competition in the French capital. Nadal, the perennial favourite, struggled in his first-round match, which was played over two days… but “struggled” is a relative term. Simone Bolelli failed to take a set of the World No.1, but was able to dictate play enough to expose some chinks in Nadal’s armour. The Spaniard closed that match out in a tiebreak, saving set points en route, and since then has been in devastating form, dismissing his following three opponents to reach the quarterfinals with little fuss.

Djokovic’s long-awaited return to form appears to finally have come to fruition, despite a minor second-set blip (and racquet obliteration) against Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round. Even at his best, the Serb always tended to appear wobbly in the early rounds of Grand Slams, and the pattern held true last week. Despite moments of frustration, the perfectionist former World No.1 was able to find tactical solutions to a variety of different difficult opponents, with more and more flashes of the form that in 2015 saw him become just the second player ever to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros. He faces unseeded Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals and is just two matches away from a potential final with his famous Spanish rival.

Thiem and Zverev are the obvious heirs to the throne of Roland Garros, but the hot question of the hour seems to be which one is going to have a crack at it this year? The two German-speakers, the former from Austria and the latter from Germany, are set to play each other in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, and both racked up some big results at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events leading up to Paris. Thiem, for the second year in a row, was the only player to beat Nadal on clay when he did so in Madrid, while Zverev himself walked away the champion in Spain with a win over Thiem. Zverev, however, lacks the Grand Slam pedigree of his Austrian peer, but seems to have broken that duck with consecutive five-set wins to reach his first-ever final eight at a Grand Slam.

The takeaways:

  • A 12-time Grand Slam champion is flying under the radar. Given his lengthy and seemingly arduous comeback from injury this season, not many have spoken about Djokovic’s shot at the French Open trophy. Be we cannot forget: not only has he won this title before, he’s beaten the one man who has dominated the event for over a decade. Can he reach the final, and if so, could he dethrone Nadal?
  • Zverev finally makes his major breakthrough. Before this week, the talented 21-year-old had only made the fourth round of a Grand Slam once and had never defeated a Top 50 player at one. Both those narratives are smashed, and he did so in epic fashion, needing three-straight five-set wins to reach the quarterfinals. While the effort he’s had to put into his wins leaves a few question marks, there’s certainly no more question marks about his ability to fight through marathon battles.
  • Death, taxes and Nadal winning the French Open. Some things are just certain. Although Nadal hasn’t looked invincible, he’s certainly looked the best among all of his competition.
Photo credit: Roland Garros / FFT

This week: Balanced quarterfinals make for intriguing second week

The quarterfinals at Roland Garros have shaped up quite nicely. Diego Schwartzman will face Nadal for the second time at a Grand Slam this year. The diminutive 2017 Rogers Cup quarterfinalist gave Nadal all he could handle in Australia, but is coming off an epic five-set comeback win over Kevin Anderson in the fourth round. Clay is his best surface, but it’s also Nadal’s… so it’s tough to see him pulling off an unlikely upset.

Juan Martin del Potro, who had an injury concern coming into the fortnight in Paris, struggled mightily in the first set of his opening match against Nicolas Mahut – but since then, has looked in devastating form. He disposed of John Isner with ease in his fourth-round match, and is set to face Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals for a possible clash with Nadal in the final four.

Djokovic was handed ostensibly the lightest quarterfinal opponent in the form of Cecchinato. The unseeded Italian has played the best tennis of his career during the clay season this year, but he’ll have his back against the wall against former World No.1 Djokovic, who has all the tools he needs to pick on Cecchinato’s one-handed backhand and smother his clay-court grinder game. He’ll face the winner of the exciting Zverev-Thiem quarterfinal, which has all the makings of a landmark match in their burgeoning rivalry.

Canadian contingent

Denis Shapovalov lost out in the second round to Maximilian Marterer, a German lefty with significantly more experience on the dirt than the young Canadian. Shapovalov put forth a mighty effort in the four-set defeat, but was unable to sustain his level on the slow surface to notch the win.

Alongside World No.1 doubles player Maté Pavic, Gabriela Dabrowski is the last Canadian standing at Roland Garros. She and her Croatian partner are into the semifinals of the mixed doubles tournament, having won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open earlier this year.