Men's draw: Nadal avoids key contenders
Zverev, Thiem, Nishikori, Wawrinka among the names in a tantalising "quarter of death" in the men's draw.
A conqueror of Nadal on clay, a former Roland Garros champion, Next Gen stars and the home charge.
The bottom quarter of the men’s draw is loaded, bursting with title contenders and intriguing match-ups.
The past two trips to Paris have yielded semi-finals for Thiem, but the Austrian has landed a tricky route to the second week.
The 24-year-old’s build up to Roland Garros was bolstered by a 7-5 6-3 triumph over ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals in Madrid. It was a blistering performance, during which Thiem dismantled the world No.1’s defence with catapulting groundstrokes. He’s certainly set the bar high for Roland-Garros.
“For sure, I’ve improved my game,” Thiem said in Rome. “The way I played against Rafa last week was the way I imagined myself how I should play. It was a very, very good match.”
His confidence is soaring, despite an early Rome exit at the hands of Fabio Fognini. Over to Paris and Thiem faces another potential early threat in the shape of Next Gen prodigy Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek swept Thiem aside 6-3 6-2 on the clay en route to the Barcelona final last month. The towering teenager is swinging freely and would relish the chance to cause an upset on a show court.
This bottom "quarter of death" is sprinkled with dangerous players such as Benoit Paire and Frances Tiafoe - a finalist on clay recently in Estoril. There's also Monte Carlo runner-up Kei Nishikori, who Thiem could face in a compelling fourth-round encounter.
The 19th seed this year in Paris, Nishikori's return to action following a succession of injuries has been steady and the former US Open finalist can call upon memories of reaching the last eight in Paris in 2015 and 2017. He will be undeterred facing Thiem, having clinched both previous meetings - including a duel on the red dirt at Rome two summers ago.
And what of Zverev? The German slides into action in Paris as the second seed, which is the first time since 2005 that a player outside the ‘Big Four’ is placed in the top two seeds at Roland-Garros.
His magnificent lead-in included a semi-final spot at Monte Carlo, back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid, and a valiant performances in the Rome final, where he fell to Nadal in in three sets after leading 3-1 in the third.
A 17-3 clay season win-loss record sends out quite the statement to his rivals, but Zverev is yet to burst past the fourth round at a Grand Slam. With all the hype, expectation and hope heaped on German, "Sascha" was sent home at the first hurdle in Paris last May by Spanish stalwart Fernando Verdasco. It hasn’t quite clicked at the majors yet for the three-time Masters 1000 champion, but Zverev heralded a “massive” confidence boost by lifting two trophies during this year's Paris preparations.
“Winning two titles in two weeks is great. Winning another Masters (Madrid), is unbelievable,” reflected Zverev, who is eager for caution when speaking of a deep run at Roland Garros.
“Of course, Rafa will be the favorite, there's no question about it. I'll be in the other half of the draw. So, that's a good thing. But for me it will be match by match. Hopefully I'll be able to play the same kind of tennis like I did in the last three weeks.”
If Zverev does replicate his recent ruthless tennis, then the world No.3 is poised for a long stay in Paris. However, plenty of obstacles lie in his path. Dusan Lajovic or Jiri Vesely in the second round would certainly not be a stroll, whilst the host’s highest hope, Lucas Pouille, could provide a ferocious fourth-round assignment.
Should Pouille falter early, 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka might launch into action following a turbulent return to Tour after his knee surgery in August.
Zverev has prevailed in both of their previous encounters and Wawrinka is shy of match play, but the Swiss powerhouse - who opens against Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez - will be inspired by memories of his scintillating triumph on Philippe-Chatrier three years ago.
If the three-time major winner clicks into gear, his cannonball shots will test the resolve and Grand Slam progression of the No.2 seed.
On paper we’re set for a tantalising Thiem-Zverev quarter-final, but there is a plethora of other prospects vying to spoil the party.