The French Open gets underway on the 30th of May at Roland Garros and history beckons for Rafael Nadal, who can become the first male player to win 21 Grand Slam titles with a victory in Paris.
Rafael Nadal is the undisputed King of Clay and his dominance on the red dirt of Paris has been nothing short of legendary. Rafa has won Roland Garros for the past four consecutive years and he blazed past the competition in 2020, winning his 13th crown without even dropping a single set.
The number three seed has an incredibly 98%-win record at the French Open, winning an astonishing century of games and losing only two. The heavy topspin groundstrokes and never-say-die attitude make Nadal the ultimate competitor on the clay surface, and it will take a superhuman effort to beat the Frenchman at his fortress once again in 2021.
By his own lofty standards, Nadal hasn’t been in the best of form in the four clay tournaments that precede Roland Garros. The Spaniard lost out to Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals of Monte Carlo and Madrid and uncharacteristically dropped a set in the opening two rounds in Barcelona. The 34-year-old eventually found his feet and got his forehand firing again at the Italian Open where he beat his age-old rival, Novak Djokovic, in the final in Rome.
THE CHALLENGERS TO NADAL’S THRONE
Nadal is once again the favourite to reign supreme in Paris but the 13-time champion is not short of challengers. Novak Djokovic is in the form of his life after taking the opening grand slam of 2021 in Australia and was the last person to beat Rafa at the French Open all the way back in the quarter-finals in 2015. The 2021 French Open also welcomes the much-awaited return of Roger Federer to the Grand Slam arena. This will be his first grand slam since the semi-final of the 2020 Australian Open and while Federer is unlikely to make a deep run at Roland Garros, it will be great to see the Swiss Maestro return to Paris for the first time in four years.
Let’s face it, the Big Three ARE STILL the Big Three in Men’s Tennis today and while they gain a lot of motivation from their battle to be the GOAT, they now have the added stimulus of keeping the next generation biting their dust. The trio share 58 Grand Slam titles between them and while Federer is on the closer side of turning 40, Nadal & Djokovic are 33 and 34 years old and seem like they’ve got a few good years in them. There were even shots fired by Novak after his Italian Open 2021 Final loss, questioning the abilities of the next crop, saying “The Next Gen young people? Me, Rafa and Roger are reinventing the Next Gen. We are the Next Gen.”
Out of the much talked about next-generation though, Dominic Thiem captured his maiden Grand Slam at the US Open in 2020 and is perhaps best poised to challenge Nadal after his two final appearances at Roland Garros in 2018 and 19. Stefanos Tsitsipas took home the Monte Carlo Masters in April and was one point away from beating Nadal in the Final at Barcelona, while Alexander Zverev actually overpowered the Spaniard in straight sets on his way to victory in Madrid and could be a dark horse in Paris.
There’s also new schedule this year with more variables to it. With night sessions being introduced, it could mean slower conditions than during the day with the cooler air, while the retractable roof in case of rain, could bring faster conditions with the ball travelling faster through the air due to humidity.
We have an exciting two weeks of tennis ahead of us and a Barcelona win wedged between discouraging showings in Monte Carlo & Madrid, means all eyes will still be on Rafael Nadal who may not have it as easy in 2021. Will Rafa continue his dominance in Paris and win a record 21st Grand Slam, will it be Djokovic or will the next generation finally do the unthinkable and usurp the King of Clay – we’ll have our answers soon enough!
[Header Image Credit: ANI]