Matt Zemek

First things first: The French Open is more than two full months away. Surely this is enough time for Rafael Nadal to heal and become sufficiently prepared to turn “La Decima” into title No. 11 at Roland Garros. This title is reserved for Rafa unless or until he declines the reservation. As long as he can restore his health, the French Open is his to lose.

I know we have not yet made the turn to clay season, and that we still have Miami to play on hardcourts, but we have to take a look at the coming spring swing on red dirt.

The crushed red brick is shifting under our feet as we speak.

Novak Djokovic needs time to execute his comeback, and since he is highly unlikely to play more than two or three matches in Miami, he won’t be a finely-tuned player when the tour moves to clay. Monte Carlo, should he play it, will very likely have the same “re-learning how to ride a bike” quality which defined his loss to Taro Daniel in Indian Wells.

Stan Wawrinka, a player built to win on clay, needs more time to rest, rehabilitate and practice. Andy Murray, who has done very well at Roland Garros in recent years, won’t be part of the clay swing this year. Alexander Zverev, winner of last year’s Rome Masters, is utterly lost. Grigor Dimitrov is… well… Grigor Dimitrov. Marin Cilic just lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Who cares which surface? That’s a bad loss on any surface for the World No. 3. Kei Nishikori was unable to play Indian Wells, robbing him of match play he needs.

Now we have the news that Dominic Thiem — per Austrian media outlets — will be out for three to four weeks after suffering an ankle injury which forced him to retire from a match against Pablo Cuevas in Indian Wells.

What does this all mean? First of all, it means that the 2018 Monte Carlo Masters in mid-April are looking a lot like the 2017 Bercy Masters in early November. If Rafa is not physically ready for that tournament, and if Thiem — after a few weeks of inactivity — is sluggish (which is probable), who the heck is going to win?

As tennis commentator — and occasional Tennis With An Accent podcast guest — Andrew Burton would say, “this is a tournament in which someone in the draw will win.”

Someone has to win… not necessarily because he is so good, but because if a tournament is played, matches have to be held. Someone has to lose, someone has to win — in every round on every day. Someone will win the tournament for the simple reason that he played in the tournament.

Someone in the draw will win.

This is what ATP tennis used to be like, and no ATP situation resembled this landscape more than French Open or clay tennis in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Remember the good old days when Magnus Norman — or Andrei Medvedev, or Martin Verkerk, or Alex Corretja — would make a French Open final? Pete Sampras could be counted on to thrive at a hardcourt major or Wimbledon, but the French was the one major where he never reached a final. Andre Agassi could thrive on all surfaces… when he wasn’t going through an 18- or 24-month career rut. These and other factors left Roland Garros wide open. Gustavo Kuerten was the closest thing to a dominant French Open player, but if he was the Roland Garros favorite in most of those years from 1996-2004, the other half of the draw was often much less clear.

The final French Open before Rafael Nadal was the 2004 edition, in which Gaston Gaudio defeated Guillermo Coria in one of the most bizarre finals in the history of major-tournament tennis. The cramping, the nerves, the jarring shifts in leverage, the cliffhanger of a final set — that match was as unpredictable and bereft of rhythm as the previous eight French Opens had been. When ATP players came to Paris in late spring, Roland Garros had the feel of a coin flip, with the occasional exception of Kuerten.

Monte Carlo — given all the injury/rehab/career restoration efforts in evidence on the ATP Tour — is likely to recall 1996-2004 at Roland Garros.

The big worry: What if Rafa and Thiem, the two clear favorites to meet in the final if placed in opposite halves of the draw, are not fully healthy?

The ATP could be headed for 2004. It’s much too early to definitively state that it will, but it’s not too early to note that Monte Carlo could represent an uncomfortable preview of much of the 2020s.

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