Roland Garros: Five men who could make the second week for the first time

With the second Grand Slam of the year about to begin, it seemed high time to look at some of the players who could break new ground at Roland Garros this year and possibly spring a few surprises along the way.

Alexander Zverev

Zverev

Zverev is in the form of his life and is destined to remain in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come. The rangy right-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough year on the Tour, but there were signs in 2016 that he would be one to watch, when he sewed the title in St. Petersburg last September, defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final over three sets.

Since then, the German has gone from strength to strength, adding three more titles to his collection, two of which came on clay. His ability to raise his game against the world’s elite has been astonishing and was underlined when he outclassed Novak Djokovic to pick his most recent crown in Rome.

Zverev will face a very stiff first-round test in the form of Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but the 20-year-old has already shown on a number of occasions that he can overcome adversity.

Grigor Dimitrov

Dimitrov

Many who watched Dimitrov blitz Andy Murray in a clinical Wimbledon quarter-final performance in 2014 would have expected the Bulgarian to push on. It hasn’t quite transpired like that, but the 26-year-old is displaying his swashbuckling brand of tennis on a far more regular basis in 2017.

The recruitment of coach Dani Vallverdu, formerly part of Murray’s coaching set-up, was a major coup and the intensive work that took place in the off-season in Monte Carlo has paid dividends. Impressive victories over Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori led the former junior champion at the All England Club to the title in Brisbane and this was backed up with a memorable victory in Sofia.

His first encounter during the fortnight will be against the experienced Frenchman Stephane Robert. Time will tell if Dimitrov can break his Grand Slam final duck.

Lucas Pouille

Lucas Pouille

Pouille was not on many people’s radar heading into last year and his name would have drawn shrugs from many regular observers of the sport. However, that all changed in 2016, when the 23-year-old reached two Tour finals and two consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, which included a sensational win over Rafael Nadal in the latter competition.

His sole title triumph this year was on clay in Budapest, where he convincingly crushed Briton Aljaz Bedene. At 6′ 1” he is not one of the tallest men on the circuit, but the Dubai resident compensates for that deficiency with a strong defensive game and a searing two-handed backhand.

Pouille’s first assignment at his home Major is against compatriot Julien Benneteau, a team-mate in France’s Davis Cup team. Given his remarkable recent improvement, bettering last year’s third-round performance at Roland Garros seems highly likely.

Nick Kyrgios

Kyrgios

Kyrgios has been beset by plenty of controversies in his fledgling career, but the 22-year-old has certainly matured recently and his scintillating brand of tennis can trouble any player in the world.

The Australian shot to prominence at Wimbledon three years ago, with an all-action display that shocked Nadal and those in attendance at SW19. His explosive groundstrokes, excellent balance and soft hands make him an exciting player to watch and last year saw him develop greater consistency with titles in Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo. 2017 has not been as successful trophies-wise, but Kyrgios has claimed two notable scalps over Novak Djokovic.

The Canberra-born player’s first test will be against the elegant Philipp Kohlschreiber, who could push his young opponent all the way. A potentially intriguing duel.

Pablo Carreno Busta

Pablo Carreno Busta

One of a seemingly endless number of Spaniards to roll off the production line, Carreno Busta has taken a little longer to bloom than some of his fellow countrymen. However, his game has come in massively in the last year and he is currently nestled just outside the top 20.

The 25-year-old can generate a lot of power off both wings and is not afraid to come in and dispatch the loose ball when necessary, with his delicate touch at the net an indication of his extensive doubles experience. Last year saw him pick up his first ATP Tour titles, in Winston-Salem and Moscow. The Gijon-born player then captured his first clay court title in Estoril just three weeks ago.

Carreno-Busta faces German Florian Mayer in round one, with a potential third-round match-up against Dimitrov on the horizon.

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Wheelchair tennis unjustly sidelined

 

As Wimbledon draws to a close, there has certainly been some great tennis on show. The best players in the world have treated the world to some high-quality action, while a few surprises and fairytales have also been sprinkled in.

The issue of prize money has also reared its head at these championships. All four Grand Slams offer equal prize money to men and women. The main argument from people against this stance is that female players play a maximum of three sets, as opposed to a maximum of five sets played by their male counterparts. However, these contentions are, in my view, of little consequence. The winner of either competition will this year pocket £2m. Even if you go out at the first round, you will be £30,000 richer.

These sums are eye-watering compared to the prize money in wheelchair tennis. The winner of the singles event on either side will receive the relatively small sum of £25,000, one-eightieth of the figure commanded by the able-bodied athletes. In the wheelchair doubles, each player in the pair will receive £12,000, whereas individuals in victorious men’s, women’s or mixed doubles teams will win £350,000.

The disparity between the two sets of figures is incredible and suggests that disability sport is not taken very seriously at all. Going out in the first round of the able-bodied event is more lucrative than winning the wheelchair singles competition. How can this be right?

Following London 2012, it was assumed that Paralympic sport would receive far greater exposure in mainstream media than it had done previously. Admittedly, Wimbledon is making strides. This year saw the staging of the first-ever singles event for both sexes. However, it received peripheral coverage. Despite the exploits of Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett, who become the first Britons to secure the men’s doubles wheelchair title, their win received relatively little air-time on the BBC. Allied to this, the match was shunted out to Court 17, hardly a fitting venue for a major final. 

The Grand Slam tournament organisers will argue that the low level of prize money offered to wheelchair athletes reflects the relative lack of demand from spectators. Whatever the merits of this argument, they have not done their best to promote the sport. If none of the wheelchair matches are scheduled for any of the show courts, how is interest supposed to be drummed up? While Reid and Hewett were creating history, many of the main courts were given away to invitational matches, which, while entertaining, should be lent far less importance than the wheelchair events.

Tomorrow, Reid will attempt to sew up the singles title, while Jordanne Whiley will attempt to secure the women’s doubles title with her Japanese playing partner Yui Kamiji. These stories should be celebrated, but they have all too easily been drowned out.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Leon Neal/AFP Photo