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.

Featured image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

Images (from top to bottom): Matthew Lewis/Getty Images Europe, Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe, Andy Lyons/Getty Images, Julian Finney/Getty Images, Kena Betancur/AFP

Advertisements

France look to make home soil count

For those still grieving the end of an incredible Premier League season, relief is imminent. Euro 2016 begins on Friday, and marks the start of a month of international football.

For the first time the competition has expanded from 16 teams to 24, creating more groups, fixtures and an additional knockout round. But who will emerge from this as the European Champions?

My personal favourites are France. They are hosting the tournament, and according to history, their national team always thrive on home support. The 1984 Euros and the 1998 World Cup, both of which were held in France, were also won by Les Bleus. In addition, the French team now boast a whole host of exciting young players looking to make their mark on the international stage. Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have all had excellent seasons for their respective clubs and will look to do the same for their country. The team as a whole look innovative and fast-paced, and with the crowds behind them, they will do well.

Germany as always will have a great chance. Many of the key players from the 2014 World Cup victory remain, and Thomas Muller is still in great goalscoring form. However, doubts have been raised over the Germans’ form, with recent losses over the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia. Die Mannschaft will be the ones to beat at the tournament, but these defeats will give other teams confidence.

In the year of the underdog, there are also a number of dark horses who could become surprise champions. After all, Greece shocked everyone to beat Portugal in the Euro 2004 final. Austria may not be able to take it this far, but they could surprise. The team were dominant in their qualifying group and feature league winning players such as Bayern’s David Alaba and Leicester’s Christian Fuchs. The group draw was also favourable for them, with Iceland, Hungary and Portugal making up the rest of Group F, making progress likely.

Croatia could also impress, with many of their key players plying their trade at the world’s best clubs. Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona, Luka Modric of Madrid, Mario Mandzukic of Juventus and Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan are all in excellent form and this could propel Croatia far into the knockout round. However first they must negotiate a tricky group stage featuring Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey.

Finally Wales could potentially impress in their first major international tournament in 58 years after a strong qualifying campaign, finishing two points behind Belgium. Gareth Bale can have an instrumental role in Wales’s progress and can finally make a mark on the international stage. The Welsh defence should also be solid, with only four goals conceded throughout qualification. Controversial though this may be, Wales have a good chance at beating England in their group game.

Moving on to England. Once again the Three Lions go into an international tournament surrounded by subdued expectation. This is Hodgson’s third international tournament and it finally feels like this is his team; a move away from the ‘‘golden generation’’ of English football, with only Wayne Rooney remaining from those disappointing days. Fans will look at the sharp attacking edge of this England team and feel hopeful. Kane and Vardy were the first and third top scorers in the Premier League this season, and with the youthful, creative Dele Alli and the experienced Wayne Rooney playing in behind them, goals can be expected. However, it will be at the other end of the pitch that will cause concern. England’s defence looks shaky, with the back four hardly inspiring confidence. England should get through the group stage and past the last-16, but will fall foul to more clinical opposition in the quarter-finals.

What is guaranteed is a month of drama, excitement and goals galore. Euro 2016 kicks off this Friday with France v Romania at 8pm on ITV1.

Nancy Gillen

Featured image: Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images Europe