The second Grand Slam of the season is within a couple of months and the race for the title is wide open. Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in last season’s final, but the players ranked number two and one in the world, respectively, will find their hopes of claiming the title this year threatened by a duo who refuse to go away. Many had written off Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s hopes of winning further Slams after they seemed to be past their best a few years ago, but the two titans of the sport have come crashing back into contention.
It seems counter-intuitive to declare one of the greatest players of all time as a shock contender, but Federer is 35 years old and expected to be in physical decline. Federer has evidently forgotten that fact and is delivering some of his best tennis. With titles in Miami and Indian Wells to add to his Australian Open victory, Federer will be heading to France brimming with confidence. Federer has declared that he will not play any tournaments before the French Open, so he should be well rested and raring to claim his second title at Roland Garros.
However, it will be difficult to write off the usual suspects. Murray and Djokovic are obvious contenders for every tournament in which they participate, yet both have endured indifferent years thus far. Murray was undone by the serve and volleying of Mischa Zverev in the Australian Open and was toppled by Vasek Pospisil, a player ranked outside the top 100, in his most recent outing at Indian Wells. Djokovic, meanwhile, has been defeated by Nick Kyrgios in his past two tournaments and suffered a spectacular defeat to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open, another player sitting outside the top 100.
Of course, all tennis players lose matches. But the manner of these defeats gives hope to those aspiring to challenge two players who previously seemed near infallible. Kyrgios will be one of those expecting to win a Slam at some point in his career. The young Australian is well known for his hot-headed temperament and his propensity to speak his mind, but he has enjoyed impressive results of late coupled with a more focused on-court mentality. This strong form is reflected in tennis betting where Kyrgios is 25/1 to take home his first Slam in France. Kyrgios performed adequately in the clay-court swing last season, and so he will be hoping to run deep in tournaments before Roland Garros to fully acclimatise to the surface.
Someone who will have no trouble acclimatising will be nine-time champion Rafael Nadal. The leading clay-courter currently in the game, Nadal will be expecting to take the title having enjoyed a strong start to the year. Admittedly Nadal has already lost three finals, including that epic against Federer in the Australian Open, but to enjoy long weeks in so many tournaments already bodes well for a man salivating at the prospect of moving to a clay surface.
Stan Wawrinka, champion in 2015, will back himself to reach the semi-finals at least, and will secretly be harbouring hopes at providing a minor upset in taking the title. Wawrinka is able to beat anyone when at the top of his game, and if he finds form and focus in France then he will be difficult to stop. Those looking for more left-field victors, in addition to the aforementioned Kyrgios, should not rule out Dominic Thiem making a big impression. Thiem is ranked ninth in the world and is another expected to triumph in a Slam at some point in his career. Thiem is notable for packing his schedule with tournaments, prompting worries about his level of fatigue, but he made a swashbuckling run to the semi-finals last season and will dream of going one better.
It is likely that it will be one of the big four who take the title at the French Open. It is always difficult to bet against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, and subsequently he will arrive in France as favourite. Do not rule out a second Nadal-Federer Grand Slam final of the year, something that tennis fans could never have predicted at the start of 2017.