As 2018 French Open Begins, Nadal Is A Champion Who’s Turned Clay-Court Tennis Into His Own Sport

Rafael Nadal

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

The French Open, the second tennis major of 2018, kicks off on Sunday at Stade Roland Garros with the popular and endearing Rafael Nadal once again on top of the world rankings – not to mention being the undisputed king of clay. Nadal has arrived in Paris healthy and motivated, and he’s focused on winning an unprecedented 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires. This year’s champion will be crowned on June 10.

As the French Open draw was unveiled on Thursday evening at L’Orangerie, with defending champion Nadal receiving the No. 1 seed and Alexander Zverev No. 2, both players come into Roland Garros playing some of their best tennis of the year. Until he was beaten by Dominic Thiem in Madrid earlier this month, Nadal had won 50 consecutive sets on clay – undoubtedly his favorite surface. And, until he lost the final in Rome last Sunday against Nadal, Zverev had strung together 13 consecutive match victories.

Nadal’s path to an 11th French Open title begins with a first-round match against No. 54 Alexandr Dolgopolov followed by either Joao Sousa or Guido Pella in the second round. Possible third round opponents include: No. 32 Richard Gasquet, Andreas Seppi, Malek Jaziri or Mikhail Youzhny. Then, by the fourth round, Nadal could face either No. 15 Jack Sock or Denis Shapovalov. In the second week, possible quarterfinal opponents include either No. 7 Kevin Anderson or No. 12 Diego Schwartzman; in the semifinals, it’s No. 4 Marin Cilic or No. 6 Juan Martín del Potro, and likely finals opponents would come from among No. 9 David Goffin, former No.1 and 2016 French Open champion Novak Djokovic, No. 5 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 8 Dominic Thiem or World No. 3 Zverev.

“It’s great to be back; I feel great,” said Nadal, interviewed on stage during the draw ceremony. “Every time I have a chance to be at Roland Garros is very special to me. It’s the most special of any place in my career.”

If the seedings hold – and nothing’s ever certain at a Grand Slam – the projected quarterfinals would pit No. 1 seed Nadal versus No. 6 Anderson, No. 3 Cilic versus No. 5 del Potro, No. 8 Goffin versus No. 4 Dimitrov and No. 7 Thiem versus No. 2 Zverev.

“The last couple of week have been very positive for me,” said Nadal. “Success helps me with my confidence. My motivation is the highest possible.”

Nadal – King of clay

On the eve of this year’s French Open, it’s time once again to ask the question everyone’s been asking: Can anyone beat the super-awesome Nadal on the terre battue at Roland Garros? The predictable answer is no. But … under the right circumstances, he’s beatable. Will it happen this year? Not likely. However, in a field of 128 players, in which each has to string together seven consecutive best-of-5-set wins to lift the championship trophy – remember, there are no byes – anything’s possible.

After Nadal beat Zverev last Sunday, it improved the Spaniard’s win-loss record on red dirt this season to 19-1 and put him on a different plateau from his competitors. The 31-year-old Nadal, who will turn 32 during the French Open on June 3, has won three clay-court titles (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Rome) this season – increasing his total on clay to an amazing 56 for his career – and he’s only lost four clay-court sets in the past 12 months. By winning Rome, which was his 32nd career Masters 1000 title and 78th ATP title overall, Rafa returned to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings, beginning his 174th week at the top. His mental and physical excellence are unparalleled.

“Nadal is so ridiculously good on clay – marrying offense and defense; bringing his lefty funk to bear; durable as they come; emboldened on big points – that it’s hard to imagine any player from an era doing much damage against him on dirt,” Sports Illustrated executive editor and tennis columnist Jon Wertheim wrote earlier this week. “In other words, it’s not like he’s playing B+ tennis and winning. This is a champion who’s turned clay court tennis into his own sport.”

En route to the Italian Open title, Nadal eased past three Top 30 foes, Damir Dzumhur, Shapovalov and Fabio Fognini, in the early rounds. Then, he stopped his Big Four rival Djokovic in the semifinals before a divine rain intervention stopped Zverev’s momentum and gave Nadal new hope for coming back to beat the 21-year-old German, winning four straight games after the second rain delay to close out the match.

Manageable draw for Zverev

Meanwhile, Zverev, who is very much deserving of his No. 2 seed after winning back-to-back clay-court titles in Munich and Madrid this spring, recently told the Roland Garros media, “Of course, Rafa will be the favorite in Paris, there’s no question about it. For me, it will be match by match there. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to play the same kind of tennis like I did in the last three weeks.” 

Zverev begins his quest for his first Grand Slam title with a first-round match against No. 92 Ricardas Berankis. Then, he would face either Dusan Lajovic or Jiri Vesely in the next round.

After coming oh-so-close in Rome following on the heels of his success in Munich and Madrid, Zverev has shown the world his game is ready. He’s won three Masters 1000 in the past 12 months. Now, let’s see if he can make a major breakthrough in a Grand Slam and get past the fourth round.

Looking at this year’s draw, the eighth-ranked Thiem, seeded No. 7, is the only player that has beaten Nadal on clay since 2016. With this nugget of bragging rights, can the Austrian threaten for this year’s title? Maybe. Looking back, his best French Open result came last year when he lost to Nadal in the semifinals. This year on clay, Thiem won the Argentina Open, was a quarterfinalist at Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, and reached the finals at Madrid, losing to Zverev. He arrives at Roland Garros following a first-round loss to Fognini at Rome.

Injuries remain a dominating storyline at Roland Garros. While 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, ranked 25th, and Djokovic, ranked 22nd, have finally overcome their respective injuries, which have sidelined them much of this season, this year there are several prominent players missing from the Roland Garros field. They include: Andy Murray (missing his first French Open since 2013), Milos Raonic, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and the latest to withdraw is Australian Open semifinalist No. 20 Hyeon Chung.

Among those who might be ready to make a serious run and, certainly, will be fun to follow are: No. 17 Kyle Edmund, No. 40 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 41 Borna Coric, No. 61 Frances Tiafoe, and No. 26 Shapovalov.

The bottom line to winning this year’s French Open – or any major – is simple: It’s all about getting the right draw and, then, making the most of one’s opportunities – match by match, round by round.