Which questions emerged when the draw became reality? Five questions don’t encompass all the intrigues and possibilities of a draw, but they capture the main storylines.
1 – Spanish worker bees or ATP Finals combatants for Djokovic?
Novak Djokovic received as good a draw as he possibly could have hoped for, but now comes the challenge of turning that great draw into a great result. If he is to make the semifinals — where either Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev would pose a formidable challenge — Djokovic will likely have to beat at least one of these four players if not two or three:
Roberto Bautista Agut (round 3)
Grigor Dimitrov (round 4)
David Goffin (quarterfinals)
Pablo Carreno Busta (QFs)
Those four players can be neatly segmented into the Spanish worker bees and the two men who played in the ATP Finals title match last November in London. Goffin, when locked in, offers the stiffest challenge on clay, but he is in the other section of this quarter of the draw, so Djokovic might not have to face him by the time he gets that far (assuming he does). Moreover, Goffin has not quite built back the level of form he established last year, before his February 2018 eye injury.
Bautista Agut memorably pushed Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2016, winning set one and taking a 4-2 lead in the fourth before losing in four sets in three hours and 16 minutes. He has struggled recently, but Djokovic has to prove that he is a five-set endurance man once again, and if that match goes deep into a fourth set, RBA will count on his stamina to work in his favor. Djokovic is a clear favorite, but again, he and his body have a lot of work to do. His draw sets up great, but if his stamina is not yet at full capacity, Nole will need to win matches in straight sets to enjoy a smooth tournament. How he fares in a 3.5-hour battle in 2018 is a currently unanswered question. Carreno Busta and Dimitrov aren’t heavyweights, but they are physically fit players. Attrition is what Djokovic has to confront even more than the actual draw.
2 – Can Kei Nishikori become Clay Nishikori at Roland Garros?
The spotlight in the bottom half of the draw most fully falls upon Djokovic, and then Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, but lurking in that half is a man who has played a lot of high-quality clay-court tennis over the course of his career. Kei Nishikori memorably outplayed Rafael Nadal in Madrid a few years ago before his body betrayed him… as it so often has. Nishikori made the Monte Carlo final this year. He knows his way around a clay court. Yet, he has never made a Roland Garros semifinal, let alone a final. Nishikori — it might shock you to know — has not made the semis or better at any of the majors other than the U.S. Open. It is time to shatter that statistic, and with an erratic Thiem and a not-yet-proven Zverev in his half of the draw, why can’t Kei be the one to face Rafael Nadal in the final on Sunday, June 10?
If his body holds up, this is a draw Kei can use to his benefit. Is he ready to step through the portal?
3 – Can a quality clay-court player in Rafa’s half of the draw win a “smaller” Roland Garros title?
Let’s not pretend that Nadal has a tough draw. It’s as smooth a path as he could have wanted. In terms of storylines from Rafa’s half, however, one can find some compelling choices. One is the small cluster of players in Kevin Anderson’s section, which is the other section in Nadal’s quarter.
In that (Anderson) section are Diego Schwartzman, Borna Coric, and Pablo Cuevas. All three men are comfortable playing on clay — two are from South America, where clay tennis is a way of life, and Coric’s game is a highly compatible fit with clay’s point-construction-based dimensions. Yet, none of these men have gotten beyond the third round at Roland Garros. They all have draws which scream “quarterfinals.” One man can lose 2, 2 and 1 to Rafa in the quarterfinals and still be overjoyed with his 2018 Roland Garros. One man would have reason to be moderately satisfied with a fourth-round result. Anyone in this mini-group who fails to make the fourth round would have reason to be very disappointed in his Parisian campaign.
4 – Is Juan Martin del Potro healthy enough to play at a B-plus level on a relatively consistent basis?
If he is, he should make the semifinals unless an in-form Kyle Edmund or (in what would be a surprise) a focused Fabio Fognini are waiting for him in the quarterfinals.
5 – Can Alexander Zverev make short work of his first week?
Of course, everyone wants to know how far Zverev will go in this tournament, specifically if he can get to a major quarterfinal for the first time, but the deeper question people should be focused on is Zverev’s management of his first week. The draw, on paper, has given Zverev a good path. However, he just played three straight weeks of tennis and needs to successfully decompress this week before restarting the engines in Paris. That process of “restarting” might be rough, so Zverev has to handle it well if he is to take a big step forward at the major tournaments.
A second-round matchup with Dusan Lajovic — who beat del Potro in Madrid — could be tricky. Assuming Zverev wins in round one, watch that match against Lajovic. If Zverev can cleanly wipe Lajovic off the court in 85 minutes, it will suggest that he is ready to evolve at this tournament. If he needs 3.5 hours to win that match, he might be depleted when he gets to the third round and could be ripe for another early exit.
Roger Federer set the standard on this score: Win easily in week one of a major to set up a push in week two, when the competition gets tougher. If Zverev wants to oppose Rafa in the final, he very likely needs a smooth flight in the first week, regathering his energies for the second week…
… assuming he gets there, which is not a safe assumption to make, given his history at the majors.
Image taken from Zimbio.com