Five unlikely Roland-Garros favourites

They're perhaps not natural clay-courters, but these five tall big-hitters are in fine form on the red stuff.

Alexander Zverev s'impose au Masters 1000 de Madrid/Alexander Zverev wins Madrid© Denis Doyle/AFP
 - Ian Chadband

Clay might not be quite their natural habitat but here are five players who have the height, the firepower and the class to make a splash at Roland-Garros after notable European clay-court seasons.

Alexander Zverev

After his defeat by Rafael Nadal in the Rome final, young ‘Sascha’ said all the right things on court afterwards, acknowledging his conqueror as the best clay-courter of all time. Yet as there had been spells in that three-setter when he was effectively overwhelming ‘the greatest’ with his booming groundstrokes before the heavens came to Rafa’s aid, you couldn’t help again marvel at the potential of this 21-year-old German. It was not that long ago it was thought he was going to make the most noise on faster hard and grass courts but he has had so much success in the last two seasons on the red stuff - two of his three Masters 1000 titles have now been on clay, in Rome 2017 and Madrid this year - that he now qualifies as a man for all surfaces. What he wants to be, though, is a man for all Grand Slams and, even given his tender years, it’s surely inconceivable that his record of never having gone beyond a fourth round nor beaten a top-50 opponent in a Slam won’t be ended at Roland-Garros.

Petra Kvitova

It’s wonderful to see the Czech - who this time last year was only gingerly returning to action after the career-threatening injury to her racket-wielding left hand - now blossoming far beyond the grass and hard courts on which she has won 20 of her 24 career titles. Back-to-back triumphs in Prague and Madrid in May represented her first clay-court tournament victories for three years, doubling her career tally of trophies on the surface in a single spectacular span. And those victories stamped herself as the woman to beat at Roland-Garros, where she starts on an 11-match win streak. Not that she sees it this way. “Maybe there are better players playing on clay,” she shrugged after her Madrid triumph. Maybe. Yet there is no-one with a bigger heart to accompany the ammunition.

Marin Cilic

At 29, Croatia’s former US Open champion sounds as if he has discovered that the clay-court season is not just some irritating encumbrance on the road to Wimbledon's grass or New York's hard courts, but a confidence and morale-boosting part of his season that ought to be savoured. Last year, in Istanbul, he won his first clay-court title outside of his homeland and followed up by reaching quarter-finals in Monte-Carlo, Rome and Roland-Garros; he swore it played a big part in him subsequently reaching the Wimbledon final last summer. This season, he again reckoned that the European clay season was worth treating with diligence as a “crucial” part of his campaign as he made the Monte Carlo quarters and gave Alexander Zverev a formidable challenge in their Rome semi. At the very least, he will again be looking for a last-eight spot in Paris.

Karolina Pliskova

The Czech’s exploits in this clay-court season may have been over-shadowed by one spectacular episode in Rome, when she ended up smashing her racket against the side of the umpire’s chair after a controversial call precipitated an early exit. Yet that uncharacteristic meltdown should not conceal what a breakthrough clay-court campaign it has been for Pliskova. She demonstrated a more patient, deliberate approach to her destructive flat-hitting game that brought success both in Stuttgart - where the 1.86-metre beanpole earned the second, and biggest, clay-court title of her career - and in Madrid, where she reached the semi-finals before running into red-hot compatriot Petra Kvitova. After being fined for her Foro Italico tantrum, expect calmer, and potentially more fruitful, days ahead in Paris.

Kevin Anderson

“I’ve never won a title on clay. That would be a top goal for me,” said the 2.03-metre South African giant at the start of the spring campaign, his horizons and ambitions having naturally expanded ever since he reached the US Open final last year. Five years ago, among his 15 ATP final appearances, he did reach a clay-court showdown in Morocco only to lose to Tommy Robredo but, at 32, he really may just be playing the best tennis of his career on the surface, having reached his first-ever Masters 1000 semi-final in Madrid. It felt like a considerable breakthrough for the man from Johannesburg, who had previously made 10 Masters quarterfinals and failed to win any of them. Disappointingly though, the world No.7's 2018 progress was subsequently checked when he had to pull out with a thigh injury during his opening match in Rome and he is now fighting to be fit to resume his clay-court odyssey at Roland-Garros.