RG 2021: Who are the men's favourites?

 - Dan Imhoff

One name stands tall again as players descend on Paris but a handful of contenders could shake up the status quo

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Some bring form to the French capital, others a proven record on clay.

In Rafael Nadal's case, he again brings both. As of Thursday, he holds a tour-best 14-2 record on the surface for 2021 with two titles to boot. A haul of 13 Roland-Garros trophies speaks for itself.

Here's how the men's favourites for Roland-Garros sit heading in this year.

Rafael Nadal (ESP)

Any attempt the Spaniard might make at batting away favouritism on the eve of any Roland-Garros is typically taken with a grain of salt.

Despite Russian Daniil Medvedev having usurped the No.2 ranking, Nadal is again categorically the man to beat in Paris this year.


Two titles from four events contested on clay sees the usual circling of names to determine whether his conqueror in a lead-up event stands a genuine chance at dethroning the 13-time champion in Paris.

But as Andrey Rublev attested following his upset of the world No.3 in the Monte-Carlo quarter-finals last month, “it’s so tough when people expect you're the best player on clay and you have to win … every time. You cannot lose on clay because you’re the best. It’s so tough to play with this feeling.”

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

For the record, Nadal’s only other loss on the clay-court swing came against Alexander Zverev on a speedier court at altitude in Madrid. He bagged titles in Barcelona and Rome either side of that – saving a championship point against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the prior and a three-set triumph over his greatest rival, Novak Djokovic, in the latter.

“We all know Rafa is the huge favourite,” two-time Roland-Garros champion and Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier said on Wednesday.

“I think those of us who were lucky enough to see Novak take him down at Roland Garros years back recognised that if they both play at their best, Novak has a chance tactically and technically to take him out. It's not easy. It's obviously been incredibly difficult to do so… Of course, Rafa has every right to be the most optimistic of all, even though he'll doubt it more than anybody, ironically.”

Record at RG: 100-2 (champion 2005-2008, 2010-2014, 2017-2020)

Record in 2021: 18-3, 2 titles

Clay record in 2021: 14-2

Titles won on clay: 62

Novak Djokovic (SRB)

Arguably Nadal’s toughest opponent on clay, Novak Djokovic will complete his final tune-up this week on home soil as he targets his 83rd career title in Belgrade.

The world No.1 has proven again he was in a league of his own at Melbourne Park when he captured a record-extending ninth Australian Open to start his season. He has since surpassed Roger Federer for most weeks atop the men’s rankings.

In his three clay-court events already contested, the Serb has improved on his preceding result each time. After a disappointing straight-sets third-round defeat to Dan Evans in Monte-Carlo, the 34-year-old came up just shy of reaching the final of the Serbia Open, taken down in an epic against his Australian Open semi-final victim, Aslan Karatsev.

He survived spirited tests from Tsitsipas and Lorenzo Sonego to reach his 11th Rome final and admitted the short turnaround took its toll in a three-set loss to Nadal.

“I thought he showed a lot in Rome. He came in in a huge physical deficit in that final and still put up heavy resistance,” Courier said. “It was still a nip-and-tuck match. If you're Novak, you take encouragement from that. Last year's final he got beaten pretty badly by going away from his normal patterns.

“He overplayed the drop shot and lost his way quickly rather than trusting his normal good stuff would be enough… There's a few things to look through and reasons for optimism if you're Novak.”

Record at RG: 74-15 (champion 2016)

Record in 2021: 18-3*, 1 title

Clay record in 2021: 9-3*

Titles won on clay: 15

(*still active in Belgrade)

Dominic Thiem (AUT)

An emotionally and physically depleted Dominic Thiem finally ran out of steam in the quarter-finals at what was traditionally his best major, Roland-Garros, last September when Diego Schwartzman had his number. Backing up after capturing his first Grand Slam title in a sapping US Open final only weeks before proved a bridge too far in Paris, where he had reached the semi-finals or better in each of the previous four years.

Unfortunately for the Austrian, he hasn’t managed to bridge that mental chasm since. Until last year, he had beaten Nadal on clay once every year since 2016 and had closed the gap in their Roland-Garros encounters. This year, his chances at pushing for the title in Paris have dipped.

Dominic Thiem, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Following his Grand Slam breakthrough, Thiem has only twice passed the quarter-finals from eight subsequent singles events.

His standout result in 2021 came in Madrid, where he fell to Zverev in the semi-finals, but he arrives in Paris having lost three of his past four matches on clay, including to Sonego and Cameron Norrie.

“We're going to learn a lot about Dominic here at Roland-Garros, a tournament where he's done very well in the past,” Courier said. “Thiem for me is a question mark. I hope that he's able to kind of reignite his passion. Feels like he's a little bit in the same boat Novak was a few years back when he seemed not to be able to find his passion. I'm hoping Thiem can.”

Record at RG: 28-7 (runner-up 2018-2019, SF 2016-2017)

Record in 2021: 9-7

Clay record in 2021: 4-3

Titles won on clay: 10

Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE)

Since a tearful departure having barely succumbed to the magic of Stan Wawrinka in the fourth-longest match in Roland-Garros history two years ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas has fast come of age. While only 22, the Greek star surged into the semi-finals last year to hand Djokovic a five-set scare.

After reaching the last four at the Australian Open to start this season he has only failed to reach the quarter-finals or better once in nine events – a round of 16 defeat to Casper Ruud in Madrid being the sole exception.

Elsewhere on clay, he landed a maiden Masters 1000 title in Monte-Carlo, a heartbreaking runner-up showing to Nadal in Barcelona, a narrow loss to Djokovic in the Rome quarter-finals and on Sunday, his seventh career title in Lyon for a tour-leading 33rd match win of 2021.

“You have someone like Tsitsipas who is so obviously passionate. Boy, should he be confident,” Courier said. “What a run he's on. I love his game, attitude, zest for life. He's very close to the big breakthrough, very, very close.”

Record at RG: 9-4 (SF 2020)

Record in 2021: 33-8, 2 titles

Clay record in 2021: 16-3

Titles won on clay: 3