Five running hot heading into Roland-Garros

 - Dan Imhoff

Rafael Nadal may still be the man to beat in Paris but these five players arrive with form on their side.

Dominic Thiem - Roland-Garros 2019 - huitièmes de finale©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Players and pundits alike deviate little when nominating the man to beat on the eve of this year’s autumn edition of Roland-Garros.

Despite falling short of the semi-finals in his lone pre-Paris warm-up event – a rarity on clay – one name still stands clear: Rafael Nadal.

A shortened clay-court swing and quick turnaround following the US Open means many of his peers have elected to skip lead-up events altogether.

A slightly earlier than expected departure against a player Nadal had never fallen to in nine previous meetings in the Rome quarter-finals has piqued interest as to whether this will be someone else’s year.

Could world No.1 Novak Djokovic be poised to add a second Roland-Garros trophy or will Dominic Thiem become the first man in the Open Era to win their first two majors back-to-back?

Here are five men who bring form to Paris...

Dominic Thiem (AUT)

The newest Grand Slam champion has opted for a well-earned rest after landing the silverware in New York.

Following a dramatic finish in which he survived Alexander Zverev in a fifth-set tiebreak to emerge triumphant, Thiem sat out the two weeks of clay-court tournaments to hone his game in his own time.

It raises plenty of unknowns heading into what has traditionally been his strongest major and allows him to deflect favouritism at will.

“Nadal and Djokovic are also the absolute favourites in Paris,” he said in a post-US Open interview with Bild am Sonntag.

However, with the monkey lifted from his back after coming up short in two prior Roland-Garros finals and this year’s Australian Open decider, expect his confidence to be sky-high.

Novak Djokovic (SRB)

His US Open campaign came to a shuddering halt after being defaulted in the quarter-finals so Rome stood as the immediate litmus test as to how quickly the world No.1 could shake the disappointment.

Turns out pretty fast. While the Serb did not summon his best throughout a successful campaign for a record 36th Masters 1000 trophy, he came up with the goods when it mattered most, dropping just one set in five matches to qualifier Dominik Koepfer in the quarter-finals.

“I feel good.  Of course this gives me even more confidence that is absolutely necessary for a Grand Slam,” Djokovic said of his Rome victory, his fourth title of 2020.

It came just three weeks after completing his second career Golden Masters with victory at the Western & Southern Open and took his record this season to 31-1.

Diego Schwartzman (ARG)

Djokovic claimed the spoils in Italy but it was Argentine Diego Schwartzman who was the talk of the tournament after ending his Big Three hoodoo to dispose of Nadal in the quarter-finals and surviving Denis Shapovalov in a three-hour semi-final thriller.

Schwartzman had taken Djokovic to five sets at Roland-Garros in the third round in 2017 and stole a set from Nadal in the quarter-finals a year later, but until last week had never beaten any of the Big Three in 17 prior showdowns.

“Six days [rest] for us is like a year. We have a lot of days... to recover," Schwartzman said, following a long Rome campaign.

"But I also have a lot of confidence, so I just have positive things this week.”

At just 5’7” the 28-year-old relies heavily on his return of serve and speediness about the court and has now reached the second week twice at each major besides Wimbledon.

Denis Shapovalov (CAN)

It has been a big month for the 21-year-old Canadian. After reaching his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Flushing Meadows, with wins over the likes of Taylor Fritz and David Goffin, Shapovalov made a seamless switch to clay, winning four matches in Rome.

A quarter-final triumph over Grigor Dimitrov was enough to see Shapovalov make his top10 debut, the youngest to do so since Stefanos Tsitsipas in March last year.

He holds fond memories of his last trip to Paris where he reached his first Masters 1000 final indoors last November, but he has never progressed beyond the second round at Roland-Garros.

Expectations will be justifiably higher of changing that.

“Definitely very pleased with myself,” Shapovalov said, following that nail-biting loss to Schwartzman in Rome. “Obviously I'm a perfectionist. I expect a lot from myself.”

Casper Ruud (NOR)

A student of the Rafael Nadal Academy, it would stand to reason the highest-ranked Norwegian in history would pick up a few tips from the greatest clay-courter of all time.

After reaching his first Masters 1000 semi-final in Rome, beating the likes of Karen Khachanov, Marin Cilic and Matteo Berrettini en route, Casper Ruud arrives in Paris at a career-high No.30 in the rankings.

“He has that pattern of play on clay with a lot of spin. It's no accident he's in semi-finals here in Rome,” Djokovic said after ending his run.

“I'm sure we will see more of him in the big tournaments, especially on this surface. I mean, he's got the game. He's physically fit. He just knows how to play on clay.”

The 21-year-old has already claimed bragging rights over his father and coach Christian Ruud, when he won his first career title in Buenos Aires this year – on clay – and followed it up with a run to the final in Santiago. It allowed him to pass Dad’s highest ranking of No.39, set back in 1995.