Rafa's four to fear?

 - Matt Trollope

He's the prohibitive title favourite, yet Rafael Nadal will be wary of four particular quarter-finalists in Paris.

“There are only three players who I see have the ability to stop Rafa from completing yet another sweep of the year’s big claycourt titles – Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem.”

That was what Australian tennis legend Todd Woodbridge told Tennismash in April, after Nadal had, yet again, kicked off a European clay-court season with victory in Monte Carlo. While a quarter-final loss in Madrid has prevented the Spanish superstar completing a clean sweep of clay-court tournaments this spring, it was his only loss – titles in Barcelona and Rome and a run to the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros have taken his record on dirt in 2018 to a near-perfect 23-1.

Yet those names Woodbridge mentioned – Djokovic, Del Potro and Thiem – all remain alive in Paris and have joined Nadal in the last eight.

Should the great Roland-Garros champion be worried? Theoretically, at least, he shouldn’t, given he’s lost just two matches ever here and has proven practically invincible over five sets on lively Parisian clay.

Yet although he views all opponents warily and never underestimates anybody, it’s this trio, plus No.2 seed Alexander Zverev, who may cause particular consternation.

Here’s why.

Dominic Thiem

Let’s start with the Austrian, who inflicted that Madrid defeat on Nadal. Yes, it came at a tournament where the altitudinous conditions change the ball game. But it’s red clay all the same, and it was Thiem’s third win over Rafa on the surface. “I had to play an extraordinary match, and that's what I did,” Thiem said. “It was very important I went in with a positive attitude, with an attitude to win. Like this I should go in every match against him. Also in maybe the next upcoming tournaments.” Including Roland-Garros? Thiem won’t forget in a hurry last year’s semi-final here, where Nadal ripped him apart for the loss of just seven games. Yet this is a more mature, more confident, and somewhat fresher Thiem, one of the few who has the weapons and the fitness to slug it out with the Spaniard over five.

Dominic Thiem© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
Juan Martin del Potro

But Thiem, like Djokovic and Zverev, are positioned in the opposite side of the draw, and could only meet Nadal in the final – if they even get there. A player looming closer is Del Potro, who could face Nadal in the semi-finals. Should that happen, the Argentine is one of the few proven performers against the world No.1 in big matches. Del Potro has won two of their last three meetings – including a stunning triumph in the Rio 2016 Olympic semi-finals – and even in Grand Slam losses has played Nadal tough. His physique (tall) and game (flat, penetrating and powerful) are the kinds of elements that have historically troubled Nadal. And Del Potro has been in stunning form at Roland-Garros this year, winning his last 12 sets in a row en route to the quarters.

Roland-Garros 2018, Juan Martin Del Potro, 3e tour©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
Novak Djokovic

Djokovic’s history against Nadal is well-documented. He leads their head-to-head series and since 2011 he and Nadal have split their 14 meetings on clay. Djokovic is the best match-up against Nadal on the red dirt, and was responsible for Nadal’s last loss at Roland-Garros; the Serb thumped him in straight sets in the 2015 quarter-finals. While Djokovic is still making his way back to top form following a lengthy struggle with an elbow injury, he’s dropped just one set in Paris this fortnight and possesses weapons – a rock-solid backhand, baseline positioning, a mastery of angles and excellent movement – that have repeatedly neutralised Nadal, even on clay. He’s also the only active player with the knowledge he can beat Rafa at the world’s greatest clay-court tournament.

Novak Djokovic Roland-Garros 2018.©Cédric Lecocq / FFT
Alexander Zverev

Zverev in an interesting case-study. The No.2 seed has never before beaten Nadal in five meetings. And, after three straight five-set victories to reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final, he won’t be the freshest of the quartet featuring in this piece. Yet he has an (albeit short) history of pushing Nadal to the brink. He held match point against him at Indian Wells in 2016, extended Nadal to five in the third round of Australian Open 2017 and led the Spaniard 3-1 in the final set of the recent Rome final before weather – and Rafa – intervened. Should Zverev advance to the Roland-Garros decider, he’d be playing completely free of pressure. And he has the levers, height and ground-stroke power – and comfort on clay – to hang with Nadal.

Roland-Garros 2018, Alexander Zverev©Philippe Montigny / FFT