BLOCKBUSTER BATTLES LOOM EARLY IN PARIS


Having honed their skills on the red dirt for the last seven weeks, the ATP and WTA tours finally arrive in Paris for this year’s edition of Roland Garros.

With qualifying completed, the tournament draw has been announced and has delivered some salivating potential match-ups with titans of the sport facing brutal projected pathways in their pursuit of eternal glory.

Men’s Singles Draw

The men’s draw has thrown early predictions into chaos with four of the best five clay courters in the world, Djokovic, Nadal, Alcaraz, and Zverev, all in the same half of the draw, meaning only one can survive.

To successfully defend his title, Djokovic will likely have to get through Nadal in a quarter-final in a rematch of their colossal battle in last year’s semi-finals; and either Alcaraz or Zverev in a semi-final.

Meanwhile, in the bottom half of the draw, 2021 finalist Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, whose return to form has – to no surprise at all – coincided with the clay-court season, is projected to face Norwegian Casper Ruud in the quarter-finals, and either of Rublev or an underdone Medvedev in the semis.

For Djokovic, Roland Garros marks his first slam of the year after a turbulent Australian experience. The Serbian returned to the tour looking a shadow of himself before finding form in Belgrade, Madrid, and eventually dispatching Tsitsipas 6-0 7-6 to win the Rome Masters in the perfect lead up a week later.

For many, Djokovic is the player to beat this year. Despite Nadal’s supreme 105-4 Parisian record, the Spaniard recently revealed he lives with a chronic foot injury that flared up during his round of 16 loss in Rome to Denis Shapovalov and remains under an injury cloud.

Speaking after the surprise loss, Nadal said: “I had my foot again with a lot of pain.”

“I am a player living with an injury; it is nothing new. It's something that is there.

“Unfortunately my day-by-day is difficult, honestly… it’s difficult for me to accept the situation sometimes.”

Although the King of Clay, who is to face Aussie Jordan Thompson in a nightmare first round for the Australian, has experienced his first clay-court swing without a title since 2005, Nadal has been buoyed by thousands of supporters viewing his practice sessions in Paris as he seeks to continue his absurd dominance at the French Open.

Looming large alongside Nadal and Djokovic is tennis’ new star, Carlos Alcaraz. After a stellar start to the year which has included titles in Rio, Miami, Barcelona, and Madrid, Alcaraz – a favourite of The First Serve host Brett Phillips – has announced he believes he is ready to win a grand slam.

While his talent and form are of such an order that the tennis-loving community has run out of superlatives for the young gun, like German Alexander Zverev, Alcaraz is yet to fully prove himself in grand slam tennis having only once progressed beyond the third round.

Mind you, before Nadal’s first title in Paris he too had only broken the third-round barrier once and, in fairness to Alcaraz, he’s been on tour for barely a minute. However, the rigors of seven best-of-five-set matches on the dirt ought not to be scoffed at.

Elsewhere, Jannik Sinner may be poised to run deep this year with the Italian in the favourable bottom half of the draw with no real danger before a projected quarter-final against Andrey Rublev.

Notable first-round matchups include Tsonga (in his last ever grand slam) against Casper Ruud, Denis Shapovalov facing Danish star and cramping-prone Holger Rune and Stefanos Tsitsipas will play Lorenzo Musetti.

For the Aussies, there are some tough draws but plenty of opportunities (although perhaps not as much for Jordy Thompson).

To name a few, Alex de Minaur, who has had his best clay-court season to date takes on Frenchman Hugo Gaston with a third-round showdown against Denis Shapovalov on the horizon.

John Millman will be up against it taking on 27thseed Sebastian Korda while Thanasi Kokkinakis will face clay court specialist Alberto Ramos Vinolas with the winner likely to take on Carlos Alcaraz in the second round.

Women’s singles draw

On the women’s side, all eyes are on Polish superstar Iga Swiatek.

When Aussie Ash Barty announced her shock retirement earlier this year, many wondered who would take the mantle as the leader of the women’s game such was Ash’s dominance.

However, Swiatek has wasted no time taking the reins having won her last 5 tournaments, 28 matches, and 42 of her last 43 sets to be the clear dominant force in the women’s game.

Like the battle cry of the Roman Empire “all roads lead to Rome”, the smart money would suggest that anyone seeking to take home the women’s title this year will have to get through this unstoppable force.

Swiatek, the 2020 Roland Garros champion, faces a qualifier in the first round and is projected to meet 2018 champion Simona Halep – who is in resurgent form since teaming up with Serena Williams’ former coach, Patrick Mouratoglou – or Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 champion in the round of 16.

In the second quarter of the draw is third seed Spaniard Paula Badosa who is backing up her first grand slam quarter-final from last year. She faces French wildcard Fiona Ferrero in the first round and is expected to meet seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka or ninth seed and Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins (themselves due for a round of 16 showing) in the quarter-finals.

Sabalenka, who has been as high as world number 2, has had a solid lead in with a runner-up effort in Stuttgart and a semi-final showing in Rome. However, both losses came against Swiatek with Sabalenka unable to win more than seven games across four sets. One would think the Belarusian will need the wind to change if she is to progress past her Polish nemesis this time around.

While the top half of the draw will indeed be interesting for the women. The bottom half is absolutely stacked.

Battling it out for the spot that one would assume is to face Iga Swiatek in the final, is the clay court match-win leader for 2022, Tunisian Ons Jabeur, Emma Raducanu, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Maria Sakkari, Bianca Andreescu, Belinda Bencic, Amanda Anisimova and Naomi Osaka who are all in the same quarter.

Notable names rounding out the bottom half include 2021 champion Barbora Krejcikova, Victoria Azarenka, Anett Kontaveit, Garbine Murguruza and Coco Gauff.

Unsurprisingly, with such a loaded half of the draw, we fans are in for a treat with early matches including Osaka v Anisimova and Murguruza v Kaia Kanepi in the first round.

Osaka, who is returning to Paris for the first time since withdrawing mid-tournament in 2021 to prioritize her mental health, will be out to avenge her loss to the American in this year’s Australian Open, going down in the third round 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5).

If Osaka were to beat Anisimova it will be intriguing to see if she can get past the third round for this first time at Roland Garros, having stumbled at that hurdle on three occasions.

Needless to say, picking a winner in this half of the draw will take some doing. While Jabeur excels on the clay and made it to the Rome final last week (lost to Swiatek 6-2 6-2) to back up her title in Madrid, making it out of this section alive will be no mean feat.

Someone that no top player will want to meet is the unseeded Canadian Bianca Andreescu.

The 2020 US Open champion looms as a dangerous floater in the draw and is slowly returning to her best having re-commenced full time on the tour only months ago. She will likely face 2021 Gold Medallist and 14th seed Belinda Bencic in the second round.

Plenty of eyes too will be on Czech Barbora Krejcikova who is returning to the court with her first competitive match since February to defend her crown – notably with a new Fila clothing sponsorship.

Aussie Daria Saville who has rocketed back into form this season faces a qualifier Valentini Grammatikopoulou of Greece in the first round before likely meeting 32nd seed Kvitova in the second round.

Alja Tomljanovic has the unenviable task of tackling fifth seed Anett Kontaveit to open her campaign and could face another Aussie, Astra Sharma in the second round who has a winnable first-up encounter scheduled against 71 ranked Varvara Gracheva.