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Can anyone challenge Rafa before Roland Garros?

  • ontennis
  • 15 May 2017
  • 11:05
While the women will be searching for a French Open favorite in Rome, the men already have theirs picked out. With his titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and his first win over Novak Djokovic in three years in Madrid, Rafael Nadal will be back in the pole position in Paris and primed to win it for a 10th time.

Can anyone move a step closer to Rafa, or put a dent in his confidence, in Rome? We take a look ahead at the men’s draw.

First Quarter

Pity poor Andy Murray. With Roger Federer and now Rafael Nadal back on the rise, he has become an under-the-radar No. 1. In truth, Murray hasn’t had a terrible season; he’s 16-6, with a title. But after being slowed by an elbow injury in March, and suffering losses to Dominic Thiem in Barcelona and Borna Coric in Madrid, he’s a long shot to make it back to the French Open final.

As with Garbiñe Muguruza on the women’s side, though, Rome would seem to be the ideal place for Murray to turn his season around and propel himself toward Paris. Last year, he beat Djokovic in straight sets for his first title at the Foro.

While Murray’s draw this year isn’t a cakewalk, it offers an opportunity for him to create some momentum and possibly defend that title. He could play Fabio Fognini in his opening match; the Italian, who is 5-9 in Rome for his career, has traditionally crumbled under the home-court pressure. A bigger challenge could come in the following round, from Alexander Zverev. But if he gets by the German, Murray will be favored against either of the two seeds on the other side of this quarter, Milos Raonic or Tomas Berdych.

First-round matches to watch: Berdych vs. Mischa Zverev; Tommy Haas, 39, vs. Ivo Karlovic, 38

Semifinalist: Murray

Second Quarter

Call this the land of opportunity. Stan Wawrinka is the top seed, and Marin Cilic is the second seed; while Wawrinka reached the Rome final in 2008, he hasn’t been back since, and Cilic’s career record at the Foro is 7-8. Neither is a lock to go far.

The player who might benefit the most from landing in this quarter is David Goffin, who has been steadily building his own Roland Garros résumé over the two years. By now we expect to see the Belgian in the latter stages of Masters events, and he has reached the quarters in Rome the last two years. A third straight quarterfinal, possibly against Wawrinka, would seem to be in his offing this week. Stan is ahead 3-1 in their head to head, but Goffin won their last meeting, in a third-set tiebreaker in Indian Wells, in March.

Sleeper: Albert Ramos-Viñolas. A finalist in Monte Carlo, the 29-year-old Spaniard is ranked a career-high No. 17. He’ll start against John Isner.

Semifinalist: Goffin

Third Quarter

The Eternal City once seemed destined to belong eternally to Nadal, who has won seven times at the Foro Italico. But his last title there came in 2013—an eternity for Rafa on clay. If he’s going to hoist the trophy again, he may have to do it the hard way.

Nadal is in the same quarter as Thiem, his opponent in the Madrid and Barcelona finals, and the same half as Djokovic. Rafa could also get a round-of-16 challenge from Jack Sock, who is looking to kick-start a once-promising clay swing and get some matches under his belt before he arrives in Paris. Rafa beat Sock in Miami last month; all we can say about a rematch on clay is that there will be topspin.

Also in this section: Monte Carlo semifinalist Lucas Pouille. He could play Thiem in the round of 16.

First-round match to watch: Sock vs. Diego Schwartzman

Semifinalist: Nadal

Fourth Quarter

Uncertainty is the theme in this section.

Djokovic is the highest seed, and a four-time champion in Rome, but where is his head and his game after his loss to Rafa this weekend? He might not find his groove again until he finds a new coach.

Nick Kyrgios lies in wait for Djokovic in the third round, but after his own perplexingly uninspired performance against Nadal in Madrid, where does he stand as far as his motivation goes?

The oft-injured Kei Nishikori is the second-highest seed here, but he’s coming off another withdrawal, this time to Djokovic in Madrid.

And how about Grigor Dimitrov? His loss to Thiem in Madrid, after holding five match points, is the kind of loss that could affect his confidence for weeks, if not more. It also won’t help that his opening-round opponent is Juan Martin del Potro.

First-round matches to watch: Kyrgios vs. Roberto Bautista Agut; Pablo Carreño Busta vs. Gilles Simon; Dimitrov vs. Del Potro. In their four meetings, Dimitrov has won just one set.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Semifinals: Murray d. Goffin; Nadal d. Djokovic

Final: Nadal d. Murray

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