The 124th edition of Roland Garros will be an occasion of many firsts. Since 1947, the event has always been the second Grand Slam of the year, taking place in the months of May-June - unlike this year.
This will also be the first time that night matches will be played at the tournament. Additionally, the retractable roof over the centre court, viz., Court Philippe Chatrier, whose construction was completed in late 2019, is another novelty.
However, this year’s French Open has the potential to create the greatest oddity of all - Rafael Nadal’s name not being etched on that beautiful silver trophy that is awarded to the men’s champion.
Nadal is widely known as the King of Clay, but it wouldn’t be misplaced to call him the God of Clay. His numbers on the muddy, red surface are otherworldly.
Rafael Nadal has triumphed at Roland Garros a record 12 times. He has lost only two matches at the event, while winning an astonishing 93. His overall win-ratio on clay is similarly dumbfounding – 91.6%.
If Rafael Nadal is playing the French Open, imperatively he is considered an automatic favorite to win it. But this year, as he looks to defend his title for the fourth consecutive year, he faces a much sterner test than he has done in the recent past.
The tests would likely come in the form of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and World No. 3 Dominic Thiem, but also in the form of the cooler and heavier conditions this year. To add to Rafael Nadal's woes, the French Open has replaced the Babolat tournament balls with Wilson ones, which are reportedly lighter and less bouncy than usual - thus blunting the Spaniard's topspin.
Diego Schwartzman recently exhibited in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open that Rafael Nadal isn’t infallible on clay, especially when it is cooler than usual. Nadal is also short on match practice this year, and less prepared than usual due to the truncated clay season.
In a recent press conference, the Spaniard confessed that the unusual timing of the French Open this year could play a big role in the results.
“Conditions here probably are the most difficult for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different factors. Ball completely different. Ball is super slow, heavy. It's very cold. Slow conditions," Rafael Nadal said.
“Of course, the preparations have been less than usual. But you know what, I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible, to practice with the right attitude, to give me a chance,” he added.
Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic - legitimate challengers to Rafael Nadal's crown
Dominic Thiem, who was known as a claycourt specialist before his US Open triumph last month, finds himself in an opportune situation. His hard-hitting, baseline-oriented game, combined with his speedy court movement, make him a serious contender in the men’s singles category.
Moreover, by winning his first Grand Slam, Thiem has crossed a significant threshold in his development as a player. The immense burden of winning a Major as a representative of the ‘next generation’ of men’s tennis – a generation that has been heavily criticized for being unable to break the dominance of the Big 3 – is now over.
After winning the US Open, Thiem spoke like a man just out of jail:
“I expect it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments. I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far, way better than I could have ever dreamed of, but until today there was still a big goal missing. With this achieved, I hope that I’m going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”
It’s worth noting that Thiem enters this tournament on the back of two consecutive final defeats to Nadal at the French Open. But the newfound freedom and momentum which he carries following his first Grand Slam triumph will take him all the way this year.
The second major challenger to Rafael Nadal’s throne is his old foe, Novak Djokovic. Their long-standing rivalry has molded an entire era of modern tennis.
Historically, across all surfaces, Djokovic has had the upper hand over Nadal; he has won 29 out of the 55 matches that they have played against each other. However, on the red dirt, the tide overwhelmingly favors the Spaniard. Rafael Nadal has won 17 out of their 24 meetings, with the score at Roland Garros being 6-1 in his favor.
But many believe that this year the Serb has a better shot (than before) at lifting his second French Open. And the reason for that is purely the 33-year-old’s impeccable form this year.
Including the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic has collected four titles in 2020, winning 31 matches in the process. His only loss this year, in the round of 16 of the US Open against Pablo Carreno Busta, came via a default; the top-ranked player was dramatically ousted from the tournament after he inadvertently hit a line judge during the first set.
But at the recently concluded Rome Masters, Djokovic yet again displayed his unending motivation, hunger and prowess to keep dominating the tour. With 36 Masters wins, he has now become the player with the most such titles to his name - breaking the previous tie with Rafael Nadal.
The Italian Open victory was also Djokovic's 10th claycourt title, making him the first man after Rafael Nadal to reach double digits on both clay and hardcourt. It is with a blend of such mindset and confidence that the Serb arrives in Paris.
This strange year’s strange Roland Garros not only promises marathon rallies, long battles, electrifying shot-making from the baseline and unthinkable upsets, but also a more daunting test for the King of Clay. Rafael Nadal would have to fight off the challenge of many different things over the next fortnight - the unusual conditions, the new balls, the lack of match practice, and also the confident play of his two biggest rivals.
All things considered, we could well have the prospect of a different men’s champion.