By William Hill
25th May 2018
Rafael Nadal has played 81 matches at the French Open across the last 13 years. He has won 79 of them and lost only two.
Robin Soderling upset Nadal in four sets in 2009 and then he was ousted in the quarter finals by Novak Djokovic in 2015.
The King of Clay has ruled at Roland Garros 10 times in total, with his only other non-victory coming in 2016, when withdrawing ahead of a third-round showdown with fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers because of a wrist complaint.
This level of dominance unsurprisingly makes the current world number one an odds-on favourite to be the men’s French Open tournament winner and land an 11th clay-court Grand Slam and a 17th across all surfaces.
And Nadal’s recent form doesn’t offer much indication that another French Open shock is on the horizon.
After all, until a recent quarter-final defeat at the Madrid Masters, the 31-year-old had gone 51 weeks without even dropping a set on clay, winning 50 in a row and all without being forced into a single tie-break.
This eclipsed a record dating back to 1984, when John McEnroe won 49 sets in succession on carpet.
And of all of the annual clay-court events, Nadal’s Roland Garros record is stronger than in any other, having won 97.5% of his matches.
So if a surprise is to be sprung, then who is the most likely to dump out the top seed and win this year’s enhanced winner’s cheque of €2,200,000?
With no Roger Federer or Andy Murray in the starting line-up, it’s the below trio of tennis stars that intimate that they have the game to take down Nadal. Here are some reasons why:
Dominic Thiem’s French Open chances
Thiem was Nadal’s conqueror in Madrid, winning 7-5, 6-3, having also proved the Spaniard’s nemesis 11 months earlier when again winning in straight sets in Rome.
However, it is worth noting that, in between, Nadal dropped only seven games when beating Thiem in the 2017 French Open semi-finals and triumphed when facing the same Austrian opponent on the clay of Monte Carlo last month.
Still, Thiem’s 3-6 head-to-head record against Nadal on clay is substantially better than the majority of active players, while his recent success made him just the third player to have beaten the French Open 2018 top seed at least three times on the surface.
The others are Novak Djokovic, who has lacked the consistency to seem a genuine threat this year, and 2004 French Open victor Gaston Gaudio.
The key for the current world number eight is whether he’s well rested enough heading into Roland Garros after a fairly busy clay-court season and how kind the draw is to him.
It could prove a blessing in disguise that Thiem was eliminated in the second round by Italian Fabio Fognini in the final prep event in Rome, even if his reaction in annihilating his racket during the match suggested he didn’t feel the same.
Thiem’s 3-6 head-to-head record against Nadal on clay is substantially better than the majority of active players.
In terms of the draw, Thiem is seeded seven for the French Open. This enhances his prospects of meeting one of the bigger guns in an earlier round.
Despite this, Thiem is still the second favourite in the French Open betting at 8/1.
Alexander Zverev’s French Open chances
One player currently riding the crest of an enormous wave is Zverev. More so, the recently-turned 21-year-old is doing so standing on one leg with a hand tied behind his back.
It was he who beat Thiem in the final in Madrid, which directly followed another clay-court victory in Munich. Furthermore, he only dropped a single set across these two tournaments.
Most recently he pushed Nadal all the way when losing in three sets in the final when attempting to defend his Rome Masters title.
Despite his young age, Zverev’s Madrid success secured him a third career ATP Masters 1000 trophy. Only Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray have achieved this feat among other active players on the circuit.
This triumph also ensured that Zverev is the only player outside of the ‘Big Four’ mentioned in the previous paragraph to reign in Madrid since the event switched surface from hard to clay nine years ago.
There are no obvious flaws in the German’s game, as he moves well around the court and is reliable for getting balls back into play.
Meanwhile, standing at 6ft 6ins tall makes him difficult to break and he is already developing a tendency of rolling through service games.
The thing Zverev is yet to prove is whether he can showcase the much-improved form over three sets this season to the five-set Grand Slam stage.
He has never been beyond round four of a Slam previously, yet the second seed at Roland Garros is still a tempting each-way bet in the French Open odds.
Juan Martin del Potro’s French Open chances
“I don’t like to run too much and you must play long rallies here on clay,” was Del Potro’s response in Rome when asked about the surface, and history indicates that he prefers the other Grand Slams.
The Argentine has won fewer career matches in Paris than Melbourne, London or New York, but he has only participated in the French Open once across the last five years.
Delpo is a previous Roland Garros semi-finalist and he is no stranger to starring on clay, with four of his 22 career titles arriving on the surface.
Most significant is that after a collection of injury-ravaged years that threatened to cause him to quit the sport, there have been signs of late that Del Potro’s worst days are behind him and that a renaissance is forthcoming.
He’s returned to tennis’ top 10 this season, having slumped outside of the top 1,000 in 2015, and a victory on the hard courts of Indian Wells, when defeating Federer in the final, was his first for five years.
Del Potro knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam too, following his triumph in the 2009 US Open.
Meanwhile, he has been a regular thorn in the sides of the Big Four through the years, beating the quartet on 20 occasions, with five of these scalps coming against Nadal.
His flat, powerful serves, alongside a colossal forehand, make Del Potro a threat to anyone on his day and the 29-year-old can be backed at 33/1 in the French Open betting.