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Djokovic braced for unhappy Nadal and Roland Garros demons

Halep heads into ‘weird’ French Open as clear favourite

By AFP - Sep 26,2020 - Last updated at Sep 26,2020

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning his men’s semifinal match against Austria’s Dominic Thiem at the Roland Garros 2016 French Tennis Open in Paris on June 3 (AFP photo by Martin Bureau)

PARIS — Novak Djokovic will renew his love-hate relationship with Roland Garros in the knowledge that it is himself rather than seemingly unsettled 12-time champion Rafael Nadal who could pose the greatest threat to winning a second Paris title and 18th Grand Slam crown.

The only man to beat Djokovic in 2020 is Djokovic after the Serb’s hair-trigger temper prompted a sensational disqualification from the US Open.

The 33-year-old arrives in the French capital with a 31-1 record this year after his New York brain-fade was followed by a record 36th Masters title in Rome.

Djokovic’s 2016 triumph at Roland Garros allowed him to become only the third man after Don Budge and Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time.

Not even Nadal, the holder of 19 majors, or Roger Federer, with a record 20 Slams, can match that staggering achievement.

Federer will miss the French Open as he rehabs his injured knee while Nadal has played just three matches since February, a ring-rustiness evident in his quarter-final exit in Rome.

However, Djokovic refused to get carried away by his chances at Roland Garros ahead of Sunday’s start in a wet and chilly Paris.

“It’s Nadal,” insisted the World No. 1 when pushed on who is the favourite. “You just can’t put anybody in front of him.”

Djokovic is right to be cautious after experiencing numerous low points on the red clay of Paris.


‘Ball is dangerous’


Djokovic will start his tournament against Sweden’s Mikael Ymer, the World No. 80.

Nadal, who skipped the defence of his US Open title due to fears over coronavirus, eyes a 13th French Open.

Since his title-winning debut in 2005, the Spaniard has only lost twice at Roland Garros in 95 matches — to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015.

The 34-year-old may appear to be under-cooked after his last-eight exit in Rome to Diego Schwartzman.

However, the last time he suffered such an early departure from the Italian capital was in 2017 — just weeks later he was lifting a 10th French Open without dropping a set.

Nadal cut an unsettled figure at a pre-tournament press conference on Friday where he admitted the cold and damp conditions forced him to face his “most difficult ever Roland Garros”.

He is also unhappy about using a new brand of ball.

“For the health of the players, the ball is super heavy and becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders,” he said.

Nadal begins his campaign against Egor Gerasimov, the 83rd-ranked Belarusian.

The unusual sight of Roland Garros being played in the autumn also means radically different conditions to those expected in its normal time slot of May and June.


Murray versus 

Wawrinka first round


That could suit newly-crowned US Open winner Thiem who has lost the last two finals to Nadal in Paris.

The World No. 3 Austrian has 17 career titles with 10 of those on clay.

Four of his five wins over Nadal have come on clay with three of four victories against Djokovic carved out on the sport’s most testing surface.

This year, Thiem will be in the same half of the draw as Nadal and starts against Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open winner and a former World No. 3.

World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev has, yet, to win a match at the tournament in three visits while sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas made the last 16 in 2019, losing a five-set marathon to 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka.

Wawrinka faces fellow three-time major winner Andy Murray in the first round on Sunday in a rematch of their 2017 semifinal epic, a tie which Murray described as the clash which “ended his hip”.


Player to beat


Former champion Simona Halep arrives at the rescheduled French Open as the player to beat in a women’s draw missing title holder Ashleigh Barty and recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka, two of the world’s top three.

Serena Williams can never be discounted as she launches another bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles crown, but Roland Garros is the American’s least successful major despite her wins in 2002, 2013 and 2015.

Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Williams in the 2016 final, is another contender while fellow former World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka is hoping to take the momentum from her run to the US Open final into the clay swing.

Last year’s runner-up Marketa Vondrousova will again target a deep run in Paris having rediscovered some form at last week’s Italian Open, where she made the semi-finals before losing to compatriot Karolina Pliskova.

The fourth-ranked Czech retired from the final with a thigh injury after dropping the first set to Halep, who extended her winning run to 14 matches after capturing a second consecutive title coming out of lockdown.

“I’m honoured to hear that I am the favourite, people thinking that I’m the favourite. But I don’t look in that direction,” said Halep, who plays Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in round one.

“It’s not extra pressure. I’m used to this kind of pressure because I’ve been No. 1 seeded in the past. I’ve been in this position.”

“To play Roland Garros in September, end of September, it’s a little bit weird,” she added. “But it’s nice that we have the chance to play at this tournament.”

No woman has successfully defended the French Open title since Justine Henin won three times in a row between 2005 and 2007, a trend set to continue with Barty pulling out over the coronavirus fears that also prompted her to skip the US Open.



conditions await


A sore hamstring has sidelined three-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, while Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, will miss the tournament as well. The Canadian hasn’t played since hurting her knee last October at the WTA Finals.

Despite the notable absentees, the field here is stronger than the US Open where six of the world’s top 10 players skipped the event, with the return of Halep, Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens. Belinda Bencic was a late scratch with an arm injury.

“As I said always, many girls from the top 10, top 15 have a chance to win a Grand Slam,” said Halep.

“Roland Garros is very open, because it’s clay court but it’s a little bit faster, so also the big hitters can win it easy.”

The Romanian holds a 20-2 record this season and is unbeaten since January — her only losses came to Aryna Sabalenka in Adelaide and Muguruza in the Australian Open semifinals.

Players will have to adapt to unfamiliar autumnal conditions, with gusting winds and persistent rain forecast for the start on Sunday. The weather outlook isn’t set to improve much either. 

“It’s a big difference between Rome and here, that’s for sure. 15 degrees less,” said a smiling Halep. “I feel the cold. I feel like struggling a little bit. But for everybody it’s the same.”

As for Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, she has not added to her Grand Slam haul since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.

The window of opportunity is closing for her to finally match Margaret Court’s total, with an unmistakeable sense of an opportunity gone begging after her semifinal exit at Flushing Meadows.

Williams withdrew from last week’s Rome event with an Achilles strain, meaning she will arrive in the French capital without having played on clay this year.

She is set to face fellow American Kristie Ahn in a rematch of their first round encounter at the US Open. 

She could meet old rival and close friend Victoria Azarenka in the last 16, just weeks after the Belarusian star won their last-four clash at Flushing Meadows.


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