The 2019 French Open promises to be interesting as Rafael Nadal will be looking forward to an unprecedented 12th title and 18th Grand Slam major overall while seeking to stop him will be World Number 1 Novak Djokovic who would want to win his 4th Grand Slam in a row. Dominic Thiem is in red hot form and would be a top contender while young Stefanos Tsitsipas will seek to leave a mark. Roger Federer too will be returning to the French Open after 3 years, and while a win would be improbable, once Federer plays, nothing can be ruled out.
Let’s go on a preview journey of the prestigious tournament and examine the build-up to it of the main contenders, and of course, the draw/their likely opponents.
To discuss prospects of Rafa, a brief history is pertinent. Now it was the 2005 clay court season which had seen Rafa rise to Number 5 in the world. From 2005 to 2017, for 16 years Rafa had never reached the Italian Open, the precursor to French Opens without tournament victories. The last was in 2004 and next was the current year, 2019. Even die-hard fans of Rafa were feeling nervous. Was it the beginning of the end?
A keener look would have however revealed that while Rafa did not have tournament wins in the clay season, his form was steadily improving. Let’s look at the hard court season first. While in the Australian Open Final he lost badly, it was only to none other than the World Number 1, Novak Djokovic at his peak of form and fitness. All other opponents had been brushed aside by Rafa. When he lost to Kyrgios at the Mexican Open, he had three match points. He, however, withdrew against Roger Federer at Indian Wells due to injury and things looked grim.
In the clay court season, Rafa lost 3 consecutive semi-finals to Fognini, Thiem and Tsitsipas. The Champion, however, insisted that he was not worried, as according to him he was playing better and better every week. He did walk the talk by winning the Italian open and in convincing fashion. He served bagels in 4 matches out of 5, with the 5th, an easy one-sided win over Tsitsipas. Rafa even won 2 matches in a day by identical scores of 6-0, 6-1. Rafa served a bagel to the World Number 1 Novak Djokovic in the final, and while Novak won the second set, there was never any question as to who will be the winner, with Rafa winning the 3rd at 6-1.
Yes, Rafa seems to have peaked at the right time to win the 2019 French Open. He seems to have a relatively easier draw. David Goffin and Nikoloz Basilashvili are possible opponents in the 3rd and 4th rounds, while he may meet Nishikori or Medvedev in the quarter-final and Federer or Tsitsipas in the semi-final. Rafa has won 88 matches at the French Open and has lost only once each to Soderling and Djokovic. He would certainly like to make it 95-2.
Let us also look at Novak Djokovic. He is not just contender number 2, but clearly a joint favourite along with Rafa. He had won 9 of his last 11 matches against Rafa before losing the Italian Open Final. He too was not winning any tournaments after his Australian Open win. In fact, while Rafa was at least reaching the semi-finals, Novak was losing even earlier.
However, by winning the Madrid Open by defeating Thiem in the semi-finals and Tsitsipas in the finals, Novak showed that his focus was back. At the Italian Open, he won 2 tough matches in the Quarters and in the semis versus DelPo and Schwartzmann to show that his resilience and ability to fight was back to where he would like them to be. There is no shame in losing to Rafa in a final on clay.
Novak who would hope to lift his 2nd FO in 2019 has a tough 1st round match in Hubert Hurkacz while Borna Coric/Denis Shapovalov and Alexander Zverev may meet in the 4th round and QF. Dominic Thiem is a possible semifinal opponent and he could run into Rafa in the title clash.
Roger Federer has made a return to clay court tennis after three years. He strolled to an easy win over Gasquet at Madrid before playing a perfect 6-0 set against Monfils. Then he somehow managed to win the match or rather Monfils managed to lose it. Federer lost to Thiem in a tough 3 sets in the Semifinals at Madrid. At the Italian Open Federer outplayed Sousa but was outplayed by Coric, somehow managing to win by winning crucial and big points. He then gave a walkover to Tsitsipas.
The story of Federer could be the same as at Madrid and Rome- playing attractive tennis and giving a fight, but unable to close out matches. Federer has an easy route to the quarter-finals but could face Tsitsipas or Wawrinka or Cilic there. Fans would be hoping that there is a semi-final contest between Federer and Nadal.
Dominic Thiem is a contender going by just one match- his highly efficient win against Rafa in the semi-finals at Barcelona. That’s the reputation Rafa has on clay courts. Yes, 5 set matches are a different ball game altogether but Thiem has showed that he has the game to do well at the French Open.
Despite his loss in three easy sets to Rafa in last years final, he will be seeking to improve and a fit and in form Thiem can be dangerous- for any opponent, including Rafa and Novak. He has tough possible 4th round and quarter-final matches against Monfils and DelPo.
Tsitsipas is certainly the star of the future. The Greek kid showed that resilience is his middle name when against Rafa at Madrid he came back again and again from 0-30, 15-40 type situations to actually win the match against the great Spaniard. Before that, he had taken out Zverev and Verdasco.
At the Italian Open too he showcased his consistency by reaching the semi-finals and defeating the mercurial Fognini en route. It took only Rafa to stop him. Tsitsipas has shown great consistency. He has wins over the top 3 now. He has reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open. He is all set to do something spectacular and it just seems a matter of time. But will it be at French Open 2019?
Apart from these 5, there could be some dangerous floaters like DelPo and Fognini who on their day can cause major upsets. One early round match (3rd) which could be of interest in DelPo versus talented Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime.
I personally feel that while Thiem and Tsitsipas are the future of tennis, the 2019 French Open Final could see one more battle between Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and it could be a titanic battle between them to decide who will be last man standing. Remember, Rafa has a perfect 11-0 record in FO finals. He will be eager to maintain that. Novak will, on the other hand, be wanting a Djoker Slam for the 2nd time and also to become the 1st open-era player to win each Grand Slam at least twice.
The blogger, Ritesh Misra, is an IRS Officer currently based in Mumbai. He tweets @riteshmisra. His hobbies are sports, films, and music.
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