Tennis

Nadal's the man to beat at the French Open but it's open season with the women

Rafael Nadal beat Stan Wawrinka in straight sets to win the 2017 French Open title. It was his 10th success at the tournament.
Rafael Nadal beat Stan Wawrinka in straight sets to win the 2017 French Open title. It was his 10th success at the tournament. Photo: Pierre René-Worms/RFI
4 min

It’s been 100 years since the death of the aviator Roland Garros and the FFT – the body that organises the French Open – plans to fete the centenary with a series of events.

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One is an exhibition in the tennis museum at the tournament venue about the man, his legend and why the French Open adopted his name. Another is a range of chic clothing. The homage will culminate on the final day of the 2018 tournament.

That will involve a phalanx of French Air Force jets flying over centre court before the men’s final which is expected to feature Rafael Nadal.

While the pilots are up in the heavens, they would do well to seek out a being to bring down and challenge the Spaniard.

On terra firma - or to be more precise on the terre battue at the French Open - he’s been nothing short of a god.

Last year Nadal won the French Open without dropping a set. It was his 10th title at the venue. And during the fortnight, he looked otherworldly.

But then again, it’s nigh on impossible to recall a time since 2005 when he didn’t.

Only Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic have lifted the title since then.

Federer is not in town. The Swiss is saving himself for the grass court season. Wawrinka and Djokovic are not at the races. They’ve been struck down by injuries and are on the road to recovering their former prowess.

With such heavyweights lamed, Nadal enters the 2018 tournament as the uberhot favourite. His preparation for the second Grand Slam event of the season has been impressive too.

He has claimed the Monte Carlo Masters for the 11th time, the Barcelona Open - also for the 11th time - and the Italian Open for the eighth time.

The only person to have beaten him on this year’s clay court stretch was the Austrian Dominic Thiem at the Madrid Masters.

Nadal, the top seed, will start his quest in Paris against Alexandr Dolgopolov. The pair have met nine times since 2010 with Nadal winning seven of the encounters and all three on clay. Not much hope is held out for the Ukrainian, then.

Alex Zverev, the second seed in Paris, ran Nadal close in the final of the Italian Open in May. The 21-year-old German was a break up in the deciding set of the final before rain forced a delay.

They resumed with Zverev leading 3-2 but Nadal won four consecutive games to take the title.

The Spaniard admitted he had been lucky. Few though will gulp down that analysis. The fact remains that many players are battling the myth. And it is used to be the same case when taking on Serena Williams.

The American will be at Roland Garros this year but the three time champion is not the force of old having taken time away from the tour to have her first child in September 2017.

The 36-year-old’s two tournaments since returning to the circuit have been two victories and two defeats. She will be one of five women’s champions in the lists from Sunday.

Reigning champion Jelena Ostapenko starts the defence of her title against Kateryna Kozlova from Ukraine. The 2016 champion, Garbine Muguruza, takes on the 2009 winner Svetlana Kuznetsova while the two time winner Maria Sharapova plays a qualifier. Williams is up against Kristyna Pliskova from the Czech Republic.

Simona Halep is the women’s top seed. Sharapova beat her in 2014 to claim the crown and Ostapenko outslugged her in the 2017 final. The Romanian, the runner-up in the 2018 Australian Open, is due a Grand Slam title and has the credentials to lift one.

But it doesn’t work like that at the top level. Nadal’s adversaries know that all too well.

 

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