Six Who Could Challenge Rafa At Roland Garros
Let's start here: No one is predicting Rafael Nadal will lose at Roland Garros. The Spaniard is a 10-time champion at the clay-court Grand Slam and, at times this year, the 31-year-old has looked better than ever on clay. Before losing to Dominic Thiem in the Mutua Madrid Open quarter-finals on 11 May, Nadal had clay-court winning streaks of 50 sets – an Open Era record – and 21 matches.
But legends do stumble. So if, on the off chance that Nadal has a bad day in Paris, who might have a chance at challenging him? We present six who could trouble Rafa on la terre battue.
Keep in mind, however, these six – Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Fabio Fognini, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic – would have to summon some of their best tennis to upset the No. 1 player in the ATP Rankings. The Spaniard is 79-2 at Roland Garros, with his only losses coming in the fourth round in 2009 to Robin Soderling, and in the 2015 quarter-finals against Novak Djokovic.
And during all of his clay-court, best-of-five matches, Nadal is 104-2, a winning percentage of 98. Last year, he dropped only 35 games in seven matches at Roland Garros, the second fewest games dropped by a Grand Slam winner in 50 years, since the Open Era began in April 1968.
Fewest games dropped in winning a Grand Slam title*
1978 Roland Garros
2017 Roland Garros
1980 Roland Garros
2008 Roland Garros
*Where all matches played were best-of-five-sets
The six who could challenge Nadal:
Alexander Zverev, clay-court FedEx ATP Head2Head against Nadal: 0-3
The 21-year-old German was three service holds away from beating Nadal last week in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia final in Rome. Zverev was leading 1-6, 6-1, 3-1 before rain halted play. But after the delay, Nadal grabbed momentum and won the final five games.
Zverev would be the talking point of the European clay-court swing, if not for Nadal. The 6'6” right-hander has improved his movement on the dirt, and he's never had a better clay-court stretch: Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters semi-finals; repeated as champion at the BMW Open by FWU in Munich; won his third ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title – and second on clay – at the Mutua Madrid Open; and returned to the Rome final, where he took a set off Nadal on clay for the first time.
One other factor should help Zverev at Roland Garros: His seed. The German is the No. 2 seed and on the opposite half of the draw from Nadal, giving Zverev ample time to play his way into the tournament. He should carry loads of confidence into a hypothetical meeting with Nadal as well. “I was not far away from beating Rafa on a clay court in a Masters  final,” he said.
But Zverev, No. 3 in the ATP Rankings, will have to overcome his past performances at Grand Slams. He has never reached a Grand Slam quarter-final, with his best result a fourth-round run (l. to Raonic) at 2017 Wimbledon.
Dominic Thiem, clay-court FedEx ATP Head2Head against Nadal: 3-6
Thiem doesn't have to wonder about what it's like to beat Nadal on clay; he only needs to file through his memories. Two years ago, Thiem beat Nadal in the Argentina Open semi-finals; last year, the Austrian won in straight sets during the Internazionali BNL d'Italia quarter-finals in Rome; and earlier this month, Thiem did it again, knocking out Nadal in the Madrid quarter-finals and snapping the Spaniard's winning streaks.
Thiem, unlike Zverev, also has been there done that at Grand Slams. The No. 8 player in the ATP Rankings has made back-to-back Roland Garros semi-finals in 2016 and 2017. His heavy and forceful groundstrokes, however, haven't troubled Nadal in Paris. The 10-time champion routed Thiem in the semi-finals last year 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.
Novak Djokovic, clay-court FedEx ATP Head2Head against Nadal: 7-16
Two months ago, placing Djokovic's name on this list would have been wishful thinking even for the most diehard of Djokovic fans. But after Rome earlier this month, it's more than possible that the 2016 Roland Garros champion could slow down Nadal in Paris.
Djokovic, playing pain-free, reached his first ATP World Tour quarter-final and semi-final of the season at the Foro Italico in Rome before falling to Nadal 7-6(4), 6-3. His surgically-operated right elbow seems fine, and he's comfortable with his coaching situation and his renewed partnership with Marian Vajda, who was previously in Djokovic's box from June 2006 to May 2017.
Djokovic is one of only two men on Earth who can say they've beaten Nadal at Roland Garros, having won 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the 2015 quarter-finals, the last time they met there. Nadal, though, has won the six other times they've played at the Grand Slam.
Fabio Fognini, clay-court FedEx ATP Head2Head with Nadal: 2-6
The dark horse of the bunch, no doubt, but that's the beauty of Fognini: One day he could play lights-out tennis and challenge Nadal, as he did earlier this month in Rome. The Italian No. 1 took the opening set off the top seed and was a set away from becoming only the fourth man to beat Nadal at least three times on clay (Djokovic, 7; Thiem, 3; Gaston Gaudio, 3).
Other times, Fognini struggles to bring it all together, and Nadal easily marches onward. That's how their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry has been of late: the Spaniard has won their past six meetings. Fognini last won at the 2015 US Open when he came back from two sets to zero.
Juan Martin del Potro, clay-court FedEx ATP Head2Head 0-2
The health of Del Potro's groin will be the biggest variable in any potential matchup. The Argentine retired during the third round in Rome last week, down 2-6, 5-4 to David Goffin.
But if healthy, you'd be a fool to count out Del Potro, even if he hasn't posted his best clay-court results this season and even if he has taken only one of the seven sets he and Nadal have played on clay.
It's simple: On the biggest stages of tennis, few play better than Del Potro. Twenty times the Argentine has faced players ranked No. 1 in the ATP Rankings, and he's won almost half of the matchups, going 9-11. It's the most wins against No. 1s by any player who has never been ranked No. 1 himself.
Marin Cilic, clay-court FedEx ATP Head2Head 0-1
The Croatian has never played better in big clay-court tournaments than he has this year. Cilic broke a five-match losing streak in clay-court Masters 1000 quarter-finals to reach his maiden Masters 1000 semi-final on the surface last week in Rome (d. Carreno Busta). He pushed Madrid titlist Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals as well, falling 7-6(13), 7-5.
The No. 4 player in the ATP Rankings has the Grand Slam credentials – 2014 US Open titlist, 2017 Wimbledon finalist and 2018 Australian Open finalist. He should waltz into Paris full of belief, too. Cilic made the Roland Garros quarter-finals last year for the first time (l. to Wawrinka).
The 29-year-old beat Nadal during their only FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting of 2018 in the Australian Open quarter-finals.