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  • Writer's pictureSaurabh Nagpal

Rafa's Throne Is Under A Threat As The French Open Begins At A Strange Time Of The Year

Updated: Sep 30, 2020


Song to Vibe Along: Something in the Way by Nirvana


Unprecedented. The employment of this word to describe the peculiar events of 2020 has also been unprecedented, and for good measure. The need to reiterate these events is none. All of us are well familiar with them.

While much lesser in gravity, the happenings in the world of sports have also been bizarre and unparalleled. This wacky pattern is set to continue with this year’s French Open, which strangely is the last grand slam of the year.

The 124th edition of the Roland Garros will be an occasion of many first times. After 1947, the event has always been the second slam of the year and has taken place in the months of May-June, unlike this year. It will also be the first time that night matches will be played in the tournament. Additionally, the retractable roof over the centre court, viz., Court Phillipe Chatrier, which completed its course of the construction in late 2019, is another novelty.

However, the most stupendous oddity of this year’s French Open, which, in all honesty, can also be referred to as the Rafa Nadal Open, might be not seeing Rafael Nadal’s name getting etched in that beautiful silver bowl that’s awarded to the men’s champion.

Nadal is widely known as the King of Clay, and it wouldn’t be improper to call him the God of Clay. His numbers on the muddy, red surface are world-shattering. On a record 12 occasions, he has triumphed at the Roland Garros, losing only two matches, while winning an astonishing 93 throughout his journey. His overall win ratio on clay is also dumbfounding – 91.6%.

If Nadal is playing the French Open, it’s imperative that he is a favourite. Yet, this year, as he looks to defend his title for the fourth consecutive year, he faces a much sterner test than he has done in the recent past. This test, majorly, is in the form of the world number one, Novak Djokovic, and world number three, Dominic Thiem.

Diego Schwartzman recently exhibited in the quarter-finals of the Rome Open that Nadal isn’t infallible. Even on his beloved surface, there is a possibility that Nadal can be intimated and defeated, especially right now when he is short on match practice and less prepared than usual due to the truncated clay season.

To add to Nadal's woes, the French Open has replaced the Babolat tournament balls with Wilson ones, which are reportedly lighter and less bouncy than usual - thus blunting the Spaniard's topspin.

In a recent presser, the Spaniard confessed: “Conditions here probably are the most difficult for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different factors. Ball completely different. Ball is super slow, heavy. It's very cold. Slow conditions.

“Of course, the preparations have been less than usual. But you know what, I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible, to practice with the right attitude, to give me a chance.”

Thiem, who in his own right is also a clay-court specialist, finds himself in an opportune situation. His hard-hitting, baseline-oriented game which often involves bursts of unanticipated, thunderbolt-like groundstrokes, combined with his gliding court movement makes him a serious contender in the men’s singles category.

Moreover, by winning his first grand slam, he has possibly crossed a significant threshold in his development as a tennis professional. The immense burden of winning a major as a representative of the ‘new-gen’ of men’s tennis – a generation that is heavily criticised for being unable to break the dominance of the Big Three – is now over.

After winning the US Open, Thiem spoke like a man just out of jail: “I expect it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments.

“I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far, way better than I could ever dreamt of, but until today there was still a big goal missing. With this achieved, I hope that I’m going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”

It’s worth noting that Thiem enters this tournament on the back of two consecutive final defeats to Nadal in the French Open. Perhaps the newly-found freedom and the momentum which he carries following his first grand slam conquest would take him all the way this year.

The second major challenger to Nadal’s throne is his old foe, Djokovic. Their long-standing rivalry has molded an entire era of modern tennis. Historically, across all surfaces, Djokovic has the upper hand as he has won 29 out of the 55 matches that they have played against each other. However, on the red dirt, the tide overwhelmingly favors the Spaniard. Nadal has won 17 out of 24 meetings, while the score at Roland Garros also being 6-1 in his favor. Yet, this year, the Serb has a finer shot (than before) at lifting his second French Open.

The weight behind this claim is purely the 33-year-old’s impeccable form this year. Including the Australian Open, Djokovic has collected four titles in 2020, winning 31 matches in the process. His only loss this year, in the round of 16 of the US Open against Pablo Carreno Busta, occurred in the most ludicrous and bizarre manner. The top-ranked men’s player was dramatically ousted from the tournament after he inadvertently hit a line judge during the game-break in the first set.

At the recently concluded Rome Open, he, yet again, displayed his timeless motivation, hunger, and prowess to win more and more titles. With 36 conquests, he has now become the player with the most ATP Masters to his name. Rome Open was also his 10th title on clay, becoming the first man after Nadal to reach double digits on both surfaces – clay and hard. It is with the blend of such mindset and such confidence that Djokovic arrives in Paris.

Conclusively, this strange year’s strange Roland Garros not only promises marathon rallies; long battles; electrifying shot-making from the baseline; and unthinkable upsets but also a more daunting test for the King of Clay, if not the prospect of a different men’s champion.


Picture Credits: via Pinterest


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