It’s strange to say so in 2017, but the withdrawal of 35-year-old Roger Federer from the upcoming French Open has blown the second major in the tennis calendar wide open.
The Swiss ace has made mention to the fact that he wants to remain on the tour for as long as possible, and realistically – but unsaid – is that the fast court tournaments offer him the best chance of adding to this Grand Slam haul. Quite simply, his legs cannot cope with the miles needed to win a clay court event.
All of which leaves punters in something of a quandary as they assess the outright market at Roland Garros. The former ‘king of clay’, Rafa Nadal, has found some form in 2017 and will be looking to regain his crown, but the Spaniard hasn’t lifted a major trophy since 2014. Has his time come an gone?
And then there’s Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. This must be the first occasion since the dawn of time that the Serb won’t be the favourite for a Slam event, such is his lack of form, while Murray is on record as saying he finds clay court tennis tough.
So where’s the smart money going for the French Open, which starts on May 28?
Stan the Man?
Having won the Madrid Masters, and dropping just a solitary set along the way, it’s hard to question Rafa Nadal’s status as bookmakers’ favourite despite that lengthy wait for a Grand Slam trophy.
But quotes of even money simply do not represent value, because we do not know how well he will cope with the rigours of five-set matches in the searing French heat. Playing at the Australian Open (where he reached the final earlier this year) is tough enough, but the points are typically shorter and the rallies less of a physical test. At Roland Garros, there is nowhere to hide.
So perhaps the best betting value lies at the door of Stan Wawrinka, who is available at a general 10/1. The Swiss star has an excellent record in these parts, lifting the trophy in 2015 and progressing to the semi-finals a year later where he was ousted in four sets by an inspired Andy Murray.
The funny thing about Wawrinka is that his form never appears that strong on paper, but don’t forget that this is a player who has won three Grand Slam events in his haul of 15 career titles. That is a huge percentage compared to the other giants of the game, and confirms that he struggles to motivate himself for ‘lesser’ events.
But when the majors come round, you underestimate Wawrinka at your peril.
Time for Thiem to Shine?
One of the most improved players on the ATP Tour, certainly on clay anyway is Dominic Thiem, and he will be quietly fancied to go one better than his semi-final showing here 12 months ago.
He added the eighth tour title of his career earlier in 2107 in Rio De Janeiro, and incredibly five of those titles have come in the past year. All in all, Thiem has won six of his eight tournaments on clay.
He reached the final of both the Madrid and Barcelona Masters recently – losing to Rafa Nadal on both occasions, and many are speculating about another Nadal vs Thiem showdown in the finale at Roland Garros.
Alexander the (Potential) Great
Of the most exciting young talents on the ATP Tour is Alexander Zverev, and the 20-year-old has already started to turn potential into a tangible output with title wins in 2017 in Marseille an Munich.
That win on his home German soil suggests that there is a wise old head on Zverev’s young shoulders, and that will hold him in very good stead for the challenges ahead.
He’s already starting to sink his teeth into Grand Slam events, taking eventual finalist Rafa Nadal to five sets at the Australian Open and nicking a set from Thiem at Roland Garros 12 months ago.
Big things are expected from Zverev in the years to come….who’s to say he won’t break out early at this year’s French Open.