Will we see a first-time men's major champ at RG2021?

 - Dan Imhoff

Not since Nadal in 2005 has a man won his maiden slam in Paris. These are the best placed to do so this year.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, final, Monte-Carlo, 2021©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

A certain Spaniard invariably ensures the chances of a rival contender breaking through for their first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros each year are slim at best.

No man has secured that first piece of major silverware in Paris since Rafael Nadal first competed and went all the way in 2005.

While seeded third in 2021, the 13-time champion again starts as the favourite but a handful of names are in the fray to follow in his footsteps and land their first at Roland-Garros this year should the cards fall their way.

Tsitsipas stands tall among contenders

Arguably the standout of the bunch on clay yet to triumph on the big stage, fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas has collected a hefty swag of points leading in and could not have positioned himself better for a deep run in the coming fortnight.

The 22-year-old Greek still has time up his sleeve but already in 2021, he has won more matches than any other player, including a first Masters 1000 trophy on clay in Monte-Carlo, where he did not concede a set, and a seventh career title on Sunday in Lyon.

His victims on clay this year include Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger Aliassime, Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini, while his three losses came to Nadal – after holding a championship point in the Barcelona final – to Djokovic, 7-5 in the third in the Rome quarter-finals, and to in-form Casper Ruud in the last eight in Madrid.

Following a heartbreaking five-set defeat to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round two years ago, Tsitsipas atoned with a semi-final run in 2020 before he succumbed to top seed Djokovic in five.

“I've been feeling my game well, I've been using my patterns really well,” Tsitsipas said following his Lyon triumph. “I think it would be considered my best [preparation] so far pre-Grand Slam and now all the attention is on next week. I love playing in Paris, I find it mesmerising.”

Zverev back in the mix

Hype has consistently followed Germany’s Alexander Zverev given the notable inroads he made in his teenage years. That attention became more of a curse with each early Grand Slam departure before he finally reached his first major semi-final at last year’s Australian Open.

A first Grand Slam final followed at Flushing Meadows in September, where seeded fifth, he capitulated from two sets up against Dominic Thiem. Whether that result will come back to haunt him should he reach subsequent Slam finals remains to be seen, but there is no denying the sixth seed could push deep in Paris, where his best results came in quarter-final appearances in 2018 and 2019.

At altitude, where the courts were known to play faster than Roland-Garros, the 24-year-old claimed his fourth Masters 1000 title in Madrid. There he inflicted an upset of top seed Nadal before he took down Thiem and Matteo Berrettini in succession. It came as an aberration in his lead-up given he won only four more matches on clay from his other three events.

“I enjoy playing against the best players in the world, that's what you're here for,” Zverev said of facing Nadal before the Spaniard gained revenge in their Rome quarter-final. “That's what you play tennis for. You want to be the best and you want to play against the best.”

Only a deep run will do for Rublev

Much like his familiar foe, Tsitsipas, Russian workhorse Andrey Rublev is making a habit of putting himself well in the hunt at nigh on every stop in 2021.

After going undefeated to help steer Russia to an inaugural ATP Cup triumph in Melbourne to start his season, the 23-year-old has reached the quarter-finals or better in eight of his nine events, including a title run in Rotterdam.

A third-set tiebreak defeat to John Isner in the round of 16 in Rome is his earliest exit of the season, but it was his run to the Monte-Carlo final, which stood out on clay.

Despite falling to Tsitsipas in that final, Rublev had become only the third player – after Frenchman Olivier Mutis in 2004 and Alex Corretja in 2003 – who currently boasted a winning head-to-head ledger against Nadal on clay after a three-set quarter-final triumph. Not that he was getting carried away with his achievement.

“If we look [at] a player like Rafa, who is the best clay-court player in history, then of course it's one of my best victories for sure,” Rublev said. “But if you look at [it] from [the] other side, how he feels, for sure he didn't play his even good level today. In his position it’s so tough when people expect you're the best player on clay and you have to win … every time.”

Rublev reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final since the 2017 US Open in New York last year. He has made it to the last-eight stage at each of his last three majors.

Andrey Rublev, quarter-final, Monte-Carlo 2021©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Two flag-bearers best of the rest

The head of an Italian cohort fast filling the top 100, Berrettini has found his range on clay leading in. The 25-year-old claimed his first title of the season at the Serbia Open before he surged into his first Masters 1000 final in Madrid.

“I know and I feel that I can play this kind of tennis, this kind of level, I deserve to be here,” Berrettini said after his loss to Zverev in the Madrid final. “When I play and I use my weapons in the right way, all the players are struggling. This is something that makes me confident for the future.”

Fifteenth seed Ruud makes no secret of his affinity for the terre battue and his results this season certainly stack up.

As the only Norwegian to have won a title, the 22-year-old picked up his second on clay on Sunday in an impressive victory over Denis Shapovalov in the Geneva final. It followed his first two Masters 1000 semi-final outings in Monte-Carlo and Madrid, while he also reached the last four in Munich.

“It is a big confidence-booster ahead of Roland-Garros,” he said after the Geneva victory. “I’ll get a good week of practice before Roland-Garros starts.”