French Open: Men's singles preview and predictions

French Open: Men's singles preview and predictions

10-time champion Rafael Nadal heads into the major as the heavy favourite to win a record-tying 11th title, while Alexander Zverev and the rest of the young guns look to break the King's stranglehold on clay at the year's second major.

pete-borkowski
Pete Borkowski

The European clay court swing has all been leading up to this: the 2018 French Open. All the action over the past two months has just been foreplay, but the main event is finally here as the world’s best will descend on Paris for the season’s second major.

The King of Clay returns looking to further extend his dominance and achieve even more history, while a series of new challengers duke it out for the right to challenge him in a hugely imbalanced draw on the clay courts of Roland Garros. Here is your full break down of the men’s singles tournament at the French Open.

Top Quarter: Nadal’s Dream

While he would never admit it, top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal had every reason to be excited when he saw the draw on Thursday. The 10-time French Open champion could not have asked for a much easier draw. Nadal is a combined 107-15 against the 31 men who will try to prevent him from reaching the semifinals.

Rafael Nadal will look to sink his teeth into an 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires in two weeks time, having won his tenth a year ago. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Rafael Nadal will look to sink his teeth into an 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires in two weeks time, having won his tenth a year ago. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Only eight men in his quarter have ever beaten him, only three of them are potential opponents in the first four rounds, and only one of those three has beaten Nadal in the last ten years, that being Denis Shapovalov, who is a potential fourth-round opponent. Only one of those fifteen losses came on clay.

The world number one was initially considered to have a tricky opener, but Alexandr Dolgopolov pulled out of the tournament, so instead the Spaniard will kick off his campaign against lucky loser Simone Bolelli. The second round could be a bit tricky as Estoril champion Joao Sousa could loom. The first seed he could meet is number 27 Richard Gasquet, who has never beaten Nadal in 15 meetings.

The top seed is lined up to meet 14th seed and Paris Masters champion Jack Sock in the fourth round. However, Sock is having a nightmarish 2018 that has yet to see him win consecutive matches. The American has also never reached the quarterfinals of a major clay court event, so the red-hot Madrid semifinalist Shapovalov, who is seeded for the first time in his career at a Grand Slam, is a more likely opponent.

Kevin Anderson fires himself up during the Madrid Open earlier this month. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Kevin Anderson fires himself up during the Madrid Open earlier this month. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Should the seedings hold, the tournament will see a rematch of last year’s US Open final in the quarterfinal as sixth seed Kevin Anderson joins Nadal in the top quarter. He opens against Paolo Lorenzi. The South African could have his hands full in the second round with six-time clay court titlist Pablo Cuevas, who has reached the third round in Paris the last three years. Cuevas is the only person in the top quarter to have ever beaten Nadal on clay (in Rio in 2016).

11th seed Diego Schwartzman will be looking for a major breakthrough on his best surface. The Rio champion could meet Munich runner-up Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round before Anderson in the fourth, with the winner going on to face Nadal in the quarterfinals. Despite being a strong clay court player, Schwartzman has never made it past the third round in Paris. His lone major quarterfinal came last year on hard courts at the US Open.

Quarterfinal prediction: Nadal d. Schwartzman

Second Quarter: Big hitters on collision course

Third seed Marin Cilic has been steadily improving on clay over the last few years and is coming into Paris on the heels of some strong results. The Croatian had his best run in Paris a year ago when he reached the quarterfinals and just reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal on clay in Rome. The French Open remains the lone major where Cilic has never reached the final.

Marin Cilic had a career-best result at a big clay court event last week when he reached the semifinals in Rome. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Marin Cilic had a career-best result at a big clay court event last week when he reached the semifinals in Rome. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Cilic opens his campaign against James Duckworth and, like Nadal and Anderson, could have a tricky second-round match against either Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren or young gun Hubert Hurkacz. The first seed Cilic could meet is number 25 Adrian Mannarino, who has a brutal start against two-time Houston champion Steve Johnson.

This section of the draw is full of players who had great starts to 2018. Australian Open semifinalist Kyle Edmund, seeded 16th, will open against the January surprise Alex de Minaur. The Aussie, who turned 19 in February, reached the semifinal and final, the first of his career, of his first two events of 2018. Edmund could have to go through the winner of a blockbuster first-round encounter between the ever-dangerous Fabio Fognini and Marakesh champion Pablo Andujar, who beat Edmund in that final, just to set a fourth-round date with Cilic.

After a slow clay-court season so far, fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro will look to get his season back on track with a strong run in Paris. The Indian Wells champion does not have a great history on clay, having not won a title on the dirt since 2012 and is only contesting his second French Open in that same time span. He will open against wildcard Nicolas Mahut.

Juan Martin del Potro won his first Masters 1000 title earlier this year in Indian Wells. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
Juan Martin del Potro won his first Masters 1000 title earlier this year in Indian Wells. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

A few challenges stand between del Potro and a quarterfinal meeting with Cilic or Edmund. First off, clay court specialist Albert Ramos Vinolas, the 31st seed, is his probable third-round opponent. That could set up a blockbuster between the sunshine double champions, Indian Wells winner del Potro and Miami champion John Isner, who is seeded ninth. The American will open against his countryman Noah Rubin and could meet 17th seed Tomas Berdych in the third round. Del Potro could be up next, with the winner potentially meeting Cilic in the last eight.

Quarterfinal Prediction: Cilic d. Ramos Vinolas

Third Quarter: Chaos looms

Fourth seed Grigor Dimitrov will need to refind his early season form, and a little bit of luck, if he wants to reach new heights in Paris. Dimitrov is one of two people who can break the big four dominance at the top of the rankings depending on the results over the next two weeks. A title for the Bulgarian combined with a Nadal first-round loss would see him become the first person since 2005 not named Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray to be ranked inside the top two.

Grigor Dimitrov celebrates reaching the semifinals in Monte Carlo, his best clay court result this season. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Grigor Dimitrov celebrates reaching the semifinals in Monte Carlo, his best clay court result this season. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

However, the Bulgarian comes into Roland Garros on the heels of back-to-back opening match losses in Madrid and Rome. He will hope to break that trend against Viktor Troicki, although he could have his hands full in the second round against Rio runner-up Nicolas Jarry. The first seed he could face is number 30 Fernando Verdasco.

Just to reach the quarterfinals, Dimitrov could have to go through former French Open champion Novak Djokovic. The Serbian has his lowest seeding at a major since the 2006 US Open at number 20. The 2016 champion, whose struggles with form started after winning that title, opens against Rogerio Dutra Silva and could meet 13th seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round. That could set up a fourth-round battle with Dimitrov.

To make this quarter even more complicated, David Goffin, the eighth seed, is also looking to continue his comeback from an eye injury earlier this season. His form has been steadily improving during the clay court season, reaching the quarterfinals or better at three of his four events including a three-set loss to Alexander Zverev in the Rome quarterfinals last week. He opens against Robin Haase.

Seeded 20th, 2016 champion Novak Djokovic is an early looming threat at this year's event. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Seeded 20th, 2016 champion Novak Djokovic is an early looming threat at this year's event. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Just to reach the quarterfinals, Goffin could have to go through serve-monster Ivo Karlovic in round two and then the flashy Gael Monfils in the third round just to reach round four. Any number of opponents could be waiting there. Should the seedings hold, Pablo Carreno Busta, the tenth seed, is the probable opponent. 21st seed Nick Kyrgios is also making his return to the tour and could have something to say about it should he survive his blockbuster opening round match with countryman Bernard Tomic.

Whoever emerges from that mess could meet either Dimitrov, Djokovic, Bautista Agut or who knows who in the quarters

Quarterfinal Prediction: Goffin d. Djokovic

Bottom Quarter: Quarter of Death

All eyes will be on second seed Alexander Zverev, who is the first non-big four member to be a top-two seed at a major since Andy Roddick at the 2006 Australian Open, to finally have a breakthrough at a major. With world number two Roger Federer taking a pass on the entire clay court season, Zverev, ranked third in the world, gets the coveted position as far away from Nadal as possible in the draw.

The German, who comes into the tournament red hot after winning Munich and Madrid back-to-back before losing a heartbreaker to Nadal in the Rome final, could be the man to break the big four’s stranglehold on the top two should he win the title and Nadal fail to reach the final. However, the 21-year-old will need to at least reach the quarterfinals first, something he has never done in his young career.

Alexander Zverev won a pair of crowns on clay this spring, including the Masters 1000 event in Madrid. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Alexander Zverev won a pair of crowns on clay this spring, including the Masters 1000 event in Madrid. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The second seed will have to do it the hard way if he hopes to have a major breakthrough in Paris. He should not have too much trouble in the first three rounds, as he opens against Ricardas Berankis and the first potential seeded matchup will be against number 26 Damir Dzumhur in the third round, who struggled all through the clay season. That is where the easy matchups will likely end.

To reach his maiden major quarterfinal, Zverev may have to go through 15th seed Lucas Pouille, who will have the backing of his home Frech crowd. Another potential opponent is 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss has reached three straight semifinals and two of the last three finals in Paris, including last year when he lost to Nadal. Despite struggling on the clay as he attempts a comeback from a knee injury, Wawrinka, seeded 23rd, could be trouble as he returns to a court he knows well. He could meet Pouille in the third round and Zverev in the fourth round.

Should the German make the breakthrough and reach his first major quarterfinal, things will not get any easier. Fellow clay-court powerhouse Dominic Thiem is his likely quarterfinal opponent, a rematch of the Madrid final. However, the seventh-seeded Austrian has to run a gauntlet of his own to reach the last eight. He opens against qualifier Ilya Ivashka but could have to battle the surprise of the clay court season, Barcelona runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round. 29th seed Gilles Muller could be his first seeded opponent in the third round.

Dominic Thiem scored the biggest upset of the clay court swing, handing Rafael Nadal his lone clay court loss this year in Madrid. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Dominic Thiem scored the biggest upset of the clay court swing, handing Rafael Nadal his lone clay court loss this year in Madrid. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Just as Zverev has Wawrinka and Dimitrov has Djokovic, Thiem also has his own star on the comeback trail in his section and arguably the most dangerous. While Sam Querrey would be his fourth-round opponent if the seedings hold, 19th seed Kei Nishikori, who was the runner-up in Monte Carlo, stands between Thiem as the last eight.

The Japanese, who at his peak was one of the tour’s top clay court players, opens against a French wildcard and could meet Ecuador Open champion Roberto Carballes Baena in the second round. That would set up a clash with Querrey, who has a challenging opener of his own in the form of countryman Frances Tiafoe. The winner of that could meet Thiem, with the right to face Zverev in the quarters as a reward.

Quarterfinal Prediction: Zverev d. Thiem

Semifinal Prediction: Nadal d. Cilic, Zverev d. Goffin

Final Prediction: Nadal d. Zverev

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