French Open 2018, men’s preview: Rafael Nadal draws easy path to 11th title; loaded bottom half sets up intriguing battles

The men’s singles draw at the French Open is a study in contrast – in the top half, Rafael Nadal towers over an easy section, and a stacked bottom half promises plenty of intrigue and fireworks.

To be fair, it’s almost impossible to imagine a difficult draw for 10-time champion Nadal at Roland Garros as he has only faced defeat twice in his career on these hallowed claycourts in Paris.

Top seed Nadal will begin his quest for an 11th French Open title against lucky loser Simone Bolleli, who was gifted a place in the men’s singles main draw after Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov withdrew due to a prevailing wrist injury.

The Spaniard could potentially meet 27th seed Richard Gasquet in the third round but the Frenchman’s mediocre record at his home Slam and on the surface suggests that he wouldn’t pose much of a challenger for Nadal.

 French Open 2018, men’s preview: Rafael Nadal draws easy path to 11th title; loaded bottom half sets up intriguing battles

Who can stop Rafael Nadal from winning his 11th French Open title? Alexander Zverev, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem are among the contenders. Reuters

Rising teen sensation Denis Shapovalov is a possible opponent for Nadal in the last-16. The Canadian, who is seeded 24, will be making his debut at Roland Garros and starts off against Australian John Millman.

Shapovalov is coming into the French Open on the back of an impressive run in the clay season – he reached the semi-finals at Madrid and was stopped by Nadal at Rome in the third round. His fearless play and zipping one-handed backhand should help him reach the second week, but if he comes up against Nadal again, we will probably see a repeat of the result in Rome.

Sixth seed Kevin Anderson rounds up Nadal’s quarter of the draw, who opens against Paolo Lorenzi and is projected to meet Nadal in the last-eight, should he make it that far. Philipp Kohlschreiber and Borna Coric face off in one of best first round matches to watch out for.

Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro sit on opposite ends of the second quarter. Cilic suffered a slump in form after reaching the Australian Open final in January but seems to have regained confidence just in time for the French Open.

Cilic plays Australia’s James Duckworth in the first round and may face Fabio Fognini or Kyle Edmund in the fourth round.

Cilic, who reached his first-ever Masters 1000 semi-final on clay at Rome, will be looking to better his 2017 quarter-final showing this time around. However, Cilic is projected to run into Del Potro in the quarters, and has a 2-10 record against the tall Argentine, with three of Del Potro’s wins coming on clay.

Del Potro’s participation at Roland Garros remains uncertain due to the groin injury that forced his him to retire from his third round meeting in Rome, but if he does play in Paris, his ability to bludgeon his way through a draw make him a dangerous competitor.

Loaded bottom half   

David Goffin, Nick Kyrgios, Novak Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Alexander Zverev. Add dark horse Stefanos Tsitsipas, a seasoned clay-courter like Roberto Bautista Agut and a dangerous floater like Fernando Verdasco and you have a half packed with talented contenders.

Eight-seeded Goffin has had a very solid clay season so far – quarter-finals at Monte-Carlo and Rome and a semi-final appearance in Barcelona – and he is projected to face Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters from their section of the draw.

Dimitrov is heading into Roland Garros on a three-match losing streak, including opening-round exits in Madrid and Rome. He might be seeded fourth but few people would be surprised if he crashes out early. However, when it comes to this section of the draw, all eyes will be on Djokovic and how he fares.

Djokovic hasn’t won a Slam since he lifted the French Open trophy in 2016 but his recent run in Rome, where he lost in the semi-finals to Nadal, showed that he is finding his way back to the top. Djokovic opens his campaign against Rogerio Dutra Silva of Brazil and could face 2013 French Open finalist David Ferrer in the second round.

If Djokovic is able to overcome the hurdles in his next two rounds to reach the quarters, he could face Goffin which will be a true test of how far he has progressed on his comeback trail. Also in this quarter, one of the most intriguing openers on the men’s side – all-Australian first round clash between 21st seed Kyrgios and qualifier Bernard Tomic.

And we have saved the best for the last. The bottom-most quarter of the draw has the two players with the most likely chance of reaching the final – Thiem and Zverev, who are on course for a collision in the quarters.

Thiem is the only player to have defeated Nadal in the claycourt season this year and he comes into the French Open on the heels of winning his 10th ATP title at Lyon. The “Prince of Clay”, as he is called by fans, has reached the semi-finals of Roland Garros is the last two years. The question remains, can he do one better in 2018?

Second seed Zverev has two Masters 1000 titles on clay, reached three finals back-to-back this year and even came to within three games of defeating Nadal on this surface. But he is yet to defeat a top-50 player in a best-of-five-sets match. He has also never progressed beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam.

Zverev has been consistently delivering on the ATP tour but the 21-year-old needs to replicate those results on the biggest stage in the sport.

While it would take a superhuman effort to stop Nadal from completing “La Undecima” at Roland Garros, this year’s men’s draw has put all the other serious contenders in one half to battle for a spot potentially against Nadal in the final.

The two halves might be lopsided, but this could end up giving us one hell of a tournament. Until the title decider at least. As history has shown us, once the Spaniard reaches the final, no one has stopped him from getting his hands on the trophy.

Updated Date: May 27, 2018 15:12:14 IST