By Nick Carter
Roland Garros starts on Sunday, and most of us are pretty confident in who we think will still be in the tournament in two weeks. A few of us at Popcorn made lists of the top ten contenders for the men’s title in Paris, which I’ve compiled and written some thoughts on. To keep the suspense, let’s start at number ten.
Note: this was written pre-draw release.
10. Daniil Medvedev
At time of writing, Daniil Medvedev has just lost to Richard Gasquet in Geneva in his first match back after a medical procedure to rectify a hernia. It was a slow start for the world number two but he almost fought back to take it to a third set. Medvedev historically hasn’t liked clay, but his game can actually work well on the surface. His quarter-final last year was impressive given everyone thought he might lose in round one. He is rusty but if he gets a decent draw (Ed. note: he certainly has) he’ll warm up quickly and be in the second week. Medvedev is also in pole position to return to the number one ranking after Roland Garros, provided Djokovic doesn’t defend his title. That being said, Daniil can guarantee top spot if he reaches the final, which is a long shot but not impossible.
9. Felix Auger-Aliassime
I don’t know if anyone would have put Felix Auger-Aliassime as a genuine contender for the quarterfinals of Roland Garros before the clay season started. The Canadian’s 2021 record on the surface was dire, and he’d massively underperformed on it since reaching the 2019 Rio Open final. However, Felix has slowly built his form and then established himself as a contender by impressively beating Jannik Sinner in Madrid. Then came his match against Djokovic in Rome, who had to play his very best just to win in straight sets and fend off Felix. Over five sets in slower conditions, FAA will probably need a favourable draw to go really deep but we’re confident he’ll be in the second week.
8. Andrey Rublev
Andrey Rublev is a hard man to predict, but one would expect him to have a good run if he’s on his game. His Belgrade title was incredibly impressive. Yes, Djokovic eventually ran out of steam in that match but Rublev was playing some magnificent tennis at the end of the second set. He had that little bit extra in the tank, and for most of the match he really took it to Djokovic and showed that he deserves his place in the top ten. Aside from in Rome, Rublev has only lost to other in-form players in Sinner and Tsitsipas. He is looking very good for a quarterfinal slot, which would be his first at a major in over a year.
7. Casper Ruud
After Miami, most were expecting big things in the clay season from Casper Ruud. What followed was incredibly disappointing from the Norwegian. For a man who is the favourite for any clay court ATP 250 event, he underperformed in all the big events. The low points kept coming, bottoming out in Madrid after an opening round loss to Dusan Lajovic. Then came Rome, and an awesome semi-final run. He avenged an earlier defeat to Botic Van de Zandschulp, fended off an in-form Denis Shapovalov and in the end went down fighting against Djokovic. This has to have given him a confidence boost and if he wins Geneva, that momentum should launch him to that elusive second week of Roland Garros, and probably beyond.
6. Jannik Sinner
Jannik Sinner edged out Casper Ruud for this spot on the list, and with good reason as his clay season has been pretty solid. The man who was the next big thing until Alcaraz came along, Sinner has shown he is at his most comfortable on clay, and don’t forget he reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals on debut. Injuries have been the biggest issue for the Italian, as lack of fitness probably held him back against Zverev in Monte-Carlo and definitely against Auger-Aliassime in Madrid. However, he went deep in all three Masters events and lost only to red-hot players. He’s the lowest ranked player on this list, so could have an unlucky draw in the fourth round against someone further up this list. If things do fall his way though, he could barge his way into the quarterfinals, or dare we say it, the semifinals.
5. Alexander Zverev
Those who follow tennis closely will know that there are four clear favourites for Roland Garros. Alexander Zverev is very much the fifth wheel on this vehicle (and like all spare wheels, many feel best kept out of sight). On paper, Zverev is a title contender. He reached the semifinals at all three clay Masters 1000 events, including the final in Madrid. Zverev also has a chance to take the number one ranking after Roland Garros, although the only scenario where he can is if he wins the title and Medvedev doesn’t reach the semi-finals. Here’s what is holding back Zverev from being put in the same category as the four ahead of him: past performance and current form. He lost recent matches to Tsitsipas and Alcaraz, and it’s likely the same result would have occurred against Djokovic and Nadal were they near their best. There is of course the fact he has yet to beat a top ten player over five sets in his career. Zverev could well make the semi-finals if the draw falls his way. He could be in the final as it’s not beyond the realms that his biggest challengers would be in a different half of the draw (Ed. note: it ended up being within the realms). Winning it, whilst possible, is unlikely.
4. Stefanos Tsitsipas
Last year’s Roland Garros finalist is in a strange place. Again, Stefanos Tsitsipas has had massively impressive clay results this season. He’s reached the semifinals at minimum in the three clay Masters 1000s and has only lost to Alcaraz, Zverev and Djokovic, all now ranked in the top six. Tsitsipas has also won Monte-Carlo, which has very similar conditions to Roland Garros. His level on clay is what the rest of the field needs to match to be realistic contenders. Yet there is a sense that he hasn’t played quite as well as he did on clay in 2021, despite having better results so far in 2022. It seems that Djokovic has that bit more, which Nadal certainly does when he’s fit. Alcaraz seems to have the Greek’s number. So, 4th seems fair right now based on those match-ups, but if Tsitsipas unlocks his full potential, don’t count him out of the title fight. Anything less than a semi-final is going to be an underachievement for him (Ed. note: given the draw, anything less than a final might be an underachievement for him).
3. Carlos Alcaraz
Are we on the Carlos Alcaraz hype train? Probably. There’s officially no one he can’t beat right now. He’s beaten Nadal and Djokovic now, the ultimate tennis yardsticks, plus Tsitsipas, a high clay standard at the moment. Alcaraz is on a clay winning streak of ten matches. He has form, momentum and confidence. There is still one big question mark for him: best of five sets. He has shown he can perform in this format on hard courts in New York and Melbourne, but going head to head with Tsitsipas or Berrettini is a different challenge to taking on Djokovic or Nadal. Alcaraz vs Djokovic in Madrid was incredibly close, and if it had been best of five, the Serb may well have dug out the win. This unknown, magnified by lack of experience of the teenage Alcaraz, means he still is not quite the favourite for the title, but if he were to win Roland Garros it would not be a surprise. Anything less than second week would be an underachievement, but I have a suspicion Alcaraz will be in the semi-finals at least.
2. Rafael Nadal
It feels wrong to say that a man who has won Roland Garros thirteen times is the second favourite for the title. Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court tennis player ever; I don’t think anyone could argue with this. He has often proven to be unbeatable in Roland Garros, only losing there three times over the course of his glittering career. In the end, it is injury that is holding most of us back from putting Nadal as the definite favourite. Had he not had his rib injury in Indian Wells, he may well have got better results in the clay events and would be the red-hot favourite. That foot issue is still a factor though, and we saw it really affect him against Denis Shapovalov in Rome, with him surrendering 14 straight points late in the third set. With a bit of time to recover and an extra day between matches at a major, it’s possible he will recover a high enough level. The reality is that if Nadal is fully fit, he will be unstoppable. Because of this huge unknown, it’s hard to set any expectations for him other than reaching the second week. Everyone will be watching Rafa very carefully, but we’ll only know how he’ll be when he faces the biggest tests.
1. Novak Djokovic
Let’s be honest, Novak Djokovic is the clear favourite on paper. Four of the five people whose lists I looked at for this article put him as number one. Aside from a false start in Monte-Carlo, Djokovic has reached at least the semi-finals in every event he’s played, and arguably has only lost to players who were in peak form. He has regained his fitness, and was his old dominant self in Rome, which gives him the most momentum going into Roland Garros. Don’t forget he is the defending champion and the only one who can really challenge an in-form Nadal on clay. Furthermore, Djokovic needs to win to be certain about retaining his number one ranking (although the final will do if Medvedev doesn’t reach the quarter-finals and Zverev doesn’t win the title). Right now, unless Djokovic’s fitness is still suspect (which is possible), the only man who many of us see him losing to is Nadal, provided the Spaniard is fit. If Novak does win, he puts himself in pole position to take the lead in the grand slam title race after Wimbledon. It is all intriguingly poised in Paris, and we’re all looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
Honourable Mention: Diego Schwartzman
Sadly, Diego Schwartzman just missed the cut here. Jethro had him relatively high on his list (6th), and he shouldn’t be counted out. Making the semi-finals in 2020 and quarter-finals in 2021, he had the misfortune of playing Nadal both times, and managed to take a set in the latter match. In 2018, he also reached the quarterfinals where he again lost to Nadal in four sets, breaking Rafa’s 37 set winning streak at the French Open. Don’t sleep on Diego; he’s always a dark horse in Paris, and is one of the best clay court players in the world on his day.