STARNBERG, March 5, 2018
Following his inspiring comeback in 2017, Rafael Nadal appears to be paying the price. The 16-time Grand Slam winner has a history of following his soaring highs with injuries, which appear to accumulate often when he pushes himself hard enough to win the sport’s biggest events. The hope obviously is that he can work through his ailments and move on to a similarly successful 2018. But after a minor injury at the Australian Open Nadal has struggled to stay on the court, most recently withdrawing from Acapulco due to a recurring leg injury. We’re getting to the point that we have to wonder if he’ll be healthy during the clay court season – traditionally the best part of the tennis calendar for Nadal.
More specifically, we may be faced with a French Open that lacks its greatest champion of all time. We assume Nadal has the event circled on the calendar as his best shot at Slam number 17, and will do everything in his power to be ready for it. But with how 2018 has gone so far, that’s no guarantee. And that means we may have to ask the question of who the favorite at Roland Garros would be without Nadal.
It’s still a little early for this conversation. We haven’t really seen who’s playing well on clay this year, and there’s much tennis to be played between now and the French. But given Nadal’s most recent injury retirement, it’s a topic that’s going to be on a lot of fans’ minds, so we thought we’d delve into it.
Stan Wawrinka – Wawrinka is another injury question mark. Nursing a hurt knee, he recently pulled out of two events but also noted that he hopes to return for the clay season. If he does, we know few people can get as hot as quickly as he can. Wawrinka won in Paris in 2015, made the semis in 2016, and lost to Nadal in the final last year. If healthy, he’ll certainly be among the favorites.
Dominic Thiem – Many would argue that Thiem is now the best clay court player in the world not named Nadal. It’s been by far his best surface to date, and is largely the reason he’s become a top-10 player at such a young age. Thiem lost to Nadal in the semis last year, but if Nadal misses the event this year he’ll have every chance to claim his first Slam.
Novak Djokovic – Djokovic has had his own health concerns, but that didn’t stop him from being among the favorites at the Aussie. Experts were certainly not writing him off even with doubts about his fitness, and for a few matches he looked nearly like his old self. He needs to sort out his elbow issues and likely regain some confidence, but if Nadal misses the French he’ll see a major opportunity in front of him.
David Goffin – Goffin has almost sneakily maintained a position as one of the best players on tour for the last year and-a-half or so, and he’s a fine clay court player. He lost in four sets to Thiem in the 2016 quarters and might have done better last season had he not been forced to retire early. He’s felt for a while now like a player who could sneak through and win his first Slam with a little bit of luck, and Nadal bowing out would certainly count as lucky.
Roger Federer – The assumption is that Federer will miss the French Open, as he opted to skip the entirety of the clay season in 2017 and it couldn’t have worked out better for him. That said, he’s certainly capable of beating just about anyone other than Nadal, so if his long-time rival seems unfit or unlikely to play, you never know. He could just jump in with a nothing-to-lose attitude, and a 21st Slam to gain.