PARIS: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will set their sights on more Grand Slam history at the French Open as Roland Garros embraces a new but eerily empty era of night time tennis.
A 14th title in Paris for Nadal would take him to a record-setting 21st major, surpassing the mark he shares with Roger Federer who has already written off his hopes of adding to his lone success in the French capital back in 2009.
Djokovic, the champion in 2016, can move to 19 Grand Slam titles with victory. That would make the world number one the first man in over half a century to win all four majors on multiple occasions.
Only one of the sport’s ‘Big Three’ will make the June 13 final after the draw placed top seed Djokovic, third seed Nadal and eighth-seeded Federer in the same half of the draw.
That means Djokovic is scheduled to face Federer in the quarter-finals before a potential semi-final blockbuster with Nadal.
“I see it as completely normal. I’m not worried about it. I have a lot of work in front of me to play a potential match versus Djokovic,” said Nadal, who has already won clay court titles this season in Barcelona and Rome.
At last year’s delayed Roland Garros, Nadal swept past Djokovic in straight sets in the final.
It was Nadal’s 100th win at the tournament against just two losses since his 2005 title-winning debut.
Nadal, who defeated Djokovic in the Rome final, starts his campaign against Alexei Popyrin of Australia, the world number 62.
Giving Djokovic hope, however, is the knowledge that he was responsible for one of Nadal’s losses in Paris, in the 2015 quarter-finals.
He is also a four-time runner-up although three of those defeats in the championship match came against the Spaniard.
Only two men have previously managed to win all four of the Slams on more than one occasion — Roy Emerson and Rod Laver of Australia. Laver’s achievement came back in 1969.
Djokovic tackles 66th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States in his first round match while Federer, playing the tournament for the first time since 2019, begins against a qualifier.
Federer, with his 40th birthday fast approaching, remains the sentimental favourite but his priority will be an assault on Wimbledon where he has been champion eight times.
Austrian Dominic Thiem, the fourth seed who has twice fallen to Nadal in the French Open final, will be favourite to come through in the bottom half of the draw although his form has been patchy in the run-up.
Russian Daniil Medvedev, despite being seeded two as per his world ranking, will be happy just to win a match having failed to do so in his previous four main draw appearances at Roland Garros.
Far more likely challengers are Germany’s Zverev and Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas.
All-court player Tsitsipas, seeded five, arrives in the French capital on the back of claycourt titles in Monte Carlo and Lyon while Zverev beat both Nadal and Thiem on his way to winning the title in Madrid.
Away from the obvious contenders, youngster Jannik Sinner, together with Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini, head a strong-looking Italian challenge.
SWIATEK FACES BARTY CHALLENGE
On the women’s side, Iga Swiatek has been marked as the favourite to add a second French Open trophy to her cabinet but the teenager’s title defence is likely to face a formidable challenge from world number one Ash Barty.
The Pole set Roland Garros’ red clay on fire when she became the youngest woman to win the title since Monica Seles in 1992 and the first to do so without dropping a set since Justine Henin in 2007, losing just 28 games during the fortnight.
Her preparations for this year’s claycourt major has been ideal as she captured the WTA 1000 title in Rome this month and has now won two of the three biggest events on clay.
Swiatek’s last defeat on clay came in the WTA 1000 event in Madrid against Australian Barty, who elected not to defend her 2019 French Open title last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Barty showed her grit and guile in Madrid to take down Swiatek, who will turn 20 on Monday, in straight sets before falling to hard-hitting Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in the final.
The 25-year-old Barty pulled out from the quarter-finals in Rome with a muscle strain in her serving arm this month but remains the bookmakers’ second favourite for Paris and a second Grand Slam title.
Second-ranked Naomi Osaka has been unparalleled in recent years when it comes to success on hard courts but she has never been considered a serious contender at Roland Garros, having never gone past the third round in her four appearances.
The Japanese has won four out of the last six hardcourt majors and returns to Paris this year having skipped the 2020 edition, wanting to prove that she can adjust her game to achieve her goal of becoming a dominant player on all surfaces.
With former champion Simona Halep ruled out due to a leg injury, Sabalenka is expected to post the biggest threat to Swiatek and Barty but the world number four has to find a way to harness her power on the dirt.
Serena Williams will also be determined to prove she is still in the mix for the biggest titles in the sport.
But the 39-year-old American, who lost four Grand Slam finals in 2018 and 2019, might struggle in her bid to win a record-equalling 24th major title at Roland Garros having failed to get past the last 16 in her last three appearances.
This year’s Roland Garros will be the second taking place under the shadow of the coronavirus.
Just over 5,000 fans a day will be allowed on site until June 9 when that figure rises to 13,000.
For the first time this year, there will be nine evening sessions at the tournament.
However, a Covid-19 curfew from 9pm means that eight of those sessions will be played inside an empty Court Philippe Chatrier.
Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2021