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

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Tennis could learn from the FA Cup

The new tennis season is in full swing, with the first Grand Slam of 2016 currently under way in Melbourne. Bar Rafael Nadal, the usual suspects have reached the last-32 of the men’s draw, while on the women’s side things have been a little more unpredictable, with big names like Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams crashing out in the opening two rounds. While Grand Slams are the pinnacle of the tennis calendar, with the winner needing to come out on top in seven often intense matches over the course of a fortnight, there is one qualm I have with the current set-up – the draw structure is biased in favour of the best players.

Understandably, the current system is in place to ensure that, if the favourites win their matches every time, the final of both the men’s and women’s competitions will be contested by the top two players in the world. If you are good enough to be awarded a seeding for the tournament (there are 32 seeds), you will be the guaranteed favourite for at least the first two games that you play. Moreover, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the first and second seeds respectively in the Australian Open, know that the only round in which they can face each other is the final. Djokovic and Murray tend to enjoy fairly comfortable passages through the first two ties due to the fact that they do not face anyone inside the top 32 in the world during these matches.

Contrast that with the FA Cup. The world’s oldest cup competition retains its magic primarily because non-league minnows can pit their wits against Premier League giants. However, it also allows big clubs to face each other from the third round onwards, meaning that established sides can be culled at a relatively rapid rate. If the draws were structured in such a way that a contest between, say, Arsenal and Manchester City could only take place at the semi-final or final stage, it is arguable that the competition would lose its romantic quality. Six Premier League sides were eliminated in the third round of this year’s competition, with five of these teams eliminated by fellow top-flight clubs (the exception being Swansea City’s defeat to Oxford United). If the FA Cup draws were devised along the lines of top-level tennis, there would be no Premier League clashes early on, with the result being that the latter stages of the draw would be dominated far more by the big sides.

Admittedly, Arsenal have won the trophy for the past two seasons, but the semi-final line-up last campaign – Arsenal, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Reading – was fairly refreshing. The 2013/2014 season was even more open, with the Gunners, Hull, Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic making the last four. If a tennis-style draw was used for the FA Cup, it is hard to imagine such a diverse quartet making it through.

It is my belief that despite the thrilling moments provided by the likes of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, predicting the outcomes to tournaments is becoming easier than it should be. Having Djokovic face Federer and Murray in the opening few rounds would certainly keep the Serbian on his toes, and would also allow the lower-ranked players a bit more breathing space, as there would be a smaller possibility of coming up against these sorts of players early on. Furthermore, if the underdogs advance further in more tournaments, they would begin to accrue more prize money, bringing their earnings closer to the game’s big-hitters and creating a more even playing field. While the tournament organisers would not have it any other way, a more indiscriminate draw would certainly add a level of suspense to tennis which, in my view, is currently missing.

Alex Bowmer

 

Featured image credit: AFP