With the 2022 edition of the French Open just around the corner, Damien Kayat takes a comprehensive look at all of the contenders, dark horses, long shots and more!
2022 ATP Tour
Men’s French Open Preview
Stade Roland Garros, Paris, France
22nd May- 5th June
Just a year ago, the men’s French Open preview was one of the most perfunctory articles you could hope to write. It boiled down to which NextGen star could possibly challenge the dominance of Rafa.
You would wax lyrical knowing perfectly well that the Spanish bulldog would take the title. Rafa’s dominance had turned an entire Grand Slam into a mere formality. Sure, Novak broke the spell last year with that epic semi-final clash. But that still slotted comfortably into a comfy Big-Three narrative.
But the sands of time have shifted in ATP tennis and there are various compelling contenders this year. This year’s French Open Championship looks like one of the most open in years.
Novak’s vaccine melodrama opened the door to Rafa, who surpassed his two great rivals to claim his 21st career Grand Slam in Melbourne. But defending French Open champion Djokovic is back, claiming his sixth Rome title last week in ominous fashion.
Rafa’s injury status has been one of the buzz topics leading into this year’s French Open. He was barely mobile at the end of his quarterfinal defeat to Shapovalov in Rome.
Carlos Alcaraz has taken the world by this storm this year and looks like the heir apparent to the Big-Three. Tsitsipas and Zverev also have mammoth clay-court credentials and may sense an opportunity to break the hegemony of Nadal and Djokovic.
2021: Novak Djokovic bt Stefanos Tsitsipas (6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4)
2020: Rafael Nadal bt Novak Djokovic (6-0, 6-2, 7-5)
2019: Rafael Nadal bt Dominic Thiem (6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1)
2018: Rafael Nadal bt Dominic Thiem (6-4, 6-3, 6-2)
2017: Rafael Nadal bt Stan Wawrinka (6-2, 6-3, 6-1)
Clay-court precursors this season
US Men’s Clay Court Championship: Reily Opelka bt John Isner (6-3, 7-6)
Grand Prix Hassan II: David Goffin bt Alex Molcan (3-6, 6-3, 6-3)
Monte-Carlo Masters: Stefanos Tsitsipas bt Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (6-3, 7-6)
Barcelona Open: Carlos Alcaraz bt Pablo Carreno Busta (6-3, 6-2)
Serbia Open: Andrey Rublev bt Novak Djokovic (6-2, 6-7, 6-0)
Estoril Open: Sebastian Baez bt Frances Tiafoe (6-3, 6-2)
Bavarian International Tennis Champs: Holger Rune bt Botic can de Zandschulp (3-4 ret)
Madrid Open: Carlos Alcaraz bt Alex Zvrev (6-3, 6-1)
Italian Open: Novak Djokovic bt Stefanos Tsitsipas (6-0, 7-6)
Can Novak successfully defend his title after all the off-court insanity? I think his straight-sets victory over Tsitsipas in Rome answers that question emphatically. This five-set format just suits the ironman of world tennis and he will probably be feeling quietly confident this week.
I was surprised by the way he lost to Rublev in that Serbian Open final. But he was playing catchup at that point and he seems to be peaking at the right time. Novak will also have a major point to prove after all his trials and tribulations (which were mostly been self-inflicted).
He recently regained his World No.1 spot and he will be keen to impress himself upon this year’s event.
Rafa is a hard one to gauge. He has been coy with ‘injury threats’ in the past, perhaps playing a bit of mind-games leading into these Grand Slams. But he did look pretty desperate towards the end of that match with Shapovalov.
The thing is this: I don’t think an 80% fit Nadal just walks away with the title this year. He may have done several times over the last decade. But the athleticism of players such as Alcaraz and Auger-Aliassime has evolved, making peak fitness a non-negotiable.
And I just have the feeling that Nadal’s foot issues may flair up this year. You can’t bet against him in this venue. It’s like saying Meryl Streep won’t get nominated at the Oscars. But this could be the year to do it.
"There will come a time when my head says enough because the pain takes away happiness. Not just for tennis, for my life."— Gaspar Ribeiro Lança (@gasparlanca) May 12, 2022
"I'm not injured, I live with a chronic injury."
Tough words from Nadal following his loss against Shapovalov in Rome tonight. pic.twitter.com/htrRSWDMCM
The Other Contenders- Carlos Alcaraz, Alex Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas
Iga Swaitek looks unstoppable in the woman’s draw and identifying this year’s male champion feels trickier. But I still think that the men will whittle down fairly predictably as opposed to the traditional bedlam in the women’s section.
When asked about who would contend at this year’s French Open, tennis guru Patrick Mouratoglou gave four names. He chose Rafa, Novak, Tsitsipas and Alcaraz (and not in the order). I would add Zverev to that list of possible champions.
World No.2 Medvedev just returned from a hernia operation and suffered a shock loss to Gasquet in Geneva. I don’t see him offering much resistance on his least favourite surface.
Carlos Alcaraz is obviously in vogue right now and it’s easy to see why. He is still just 18 years of age and he looks complete. His record for the year stands at a staggering 28-3. His clay-court record is a ludicrous 15-1. He won titles in Rio, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid.
In Madrid, he became the first man in history to beat Rafa and Novak in the same clay-court tournament! He is clearly the player with all the momentum at present. But can he transfer that success to the Grand Slam arena? The 19-year-old was forced to withdraw at the quarterfinal stage of last year’s US Open (in what was really his breakout performance). Does he possess the physical durability to go all the way in one of these five-set sagas?
Alex Zverev has turned into something of a boom-bust merchant in recent times. The current Olympic Gold medallist had shock first-round exits at Indian Wells and the Bavarian Tennis Championships.
But the switch to clay has seen him secure his most consistent results. He lost to Tsitsipas in the Monte-Carlo semi-final and went on to lose to Alcaraz in the Madrid final. He then lost to Tsitsipas again in a tight three-set semi-final in Rome.
The question always remains with Zverev: will he be physically and mentally up for the challenge of a Slam. It’s almost absurd that a player of his talent and experience only has one Grand Slam final to his name. And I think that curse may continue this year (he was eliminated in the 4th round in Melbourne earlier this season).
I think that Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas may represent the greatest overall threat to Novak and Rafa. Like Zverev, Tsitsipas has only managed to reach one Grand Slam final in his career. But that crucially came in Paris last year.
He blew a two-set lead against Novak in a meltdown that must have left some scar tissue (especially considering the fact that he lost in five sets to the same opponent in the 2020 semi-final).
But his clay-court credentials are hard to ignore. He defended his Monte-Carlo title this year and is fresh off a run to the Rome final. He just seems more physically capable than Zverev to go the distance. I think we can expect a legitimate title charge from Tsitsipas, one forged in the crucible of those epic Djokovic defeats.
Dangerous Dark Horses- Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Denis Shapovalov
I’m opting to swerve both Andrey Rublev and Casper Rudd. Rublev flatters to deceive on the Grand Slam stage. Rudd is a natural choice considering his penchant for clay. But his European clay-court form is actually pretty flat. He had a semi-final run in Rome that papered over the cracks.
He’s never gone beyond the 4th round of a slam and I can’t see him beating these battle-hardened competitors. He may be the hipster choice but he’s not my choice.
I’m instead opting for a pair of Canadians as my dark horse contenders.
Perennial underachiever Felix Auger Aliassime hasn’t set the world on fire this year. I thought his decision to bring on Toni Nadal would show more tangible benefits (especially on clay).
But he managed to break his title duck earlier this year in Rotterdam. And he has been in sensational form in the Slams, reaching the quarterfinal stage or better in his last three.
I think these five-set encounters will afford him the opportunity to grow into matches. I just have a positive feeling about him this year.
My next pick is a guy who just lost in the first round of the Geneva Open: Denis Shapovalov. That’s all part of the fun with this Shapovalov. A nightmare consistency-wise, Shapovalov has developed into a really dangerous Grand Slam player.
Much like his compatriot Aliassime, Shapovalov has been brilliant in recent slams. He reached his maiden semi-final at last year’s Wimbledon Championships. And he almost came from two sets down to beat Nadal in this year’s Aussie Open quarterfinal.
Clay hasn’t traditionally been his strong suit. But he did become the youngest ever Madrid Open semi-finalist in 2018. He also won the Geneva Open last year. He is a momentum player who just needs one great performance to click into gear.
And he also happened to beat Nadal in Rome. That has symbolic power (whether Rafa was injured or not).
Longshots- Seb Korda and Miomir Kecmanovic
Gangly Seb Korda is my first longshot pick. The American hasn’t had the greatest of seasons. But he has unsurprisingly saved his best tennis for clay. Korda burst onto the scene with an unheralded forth round run at the 2020 French Open.
He then won his maiden ATP title at last year’s Emilia-Romagna Open. His best result this year was a semi-final run in Estoril (he beat top-seed Felix Auger Aliassime in the process).
He also managed to beat the explosive Carlos Alcaraz in Monte-Carlo, making him the only person to beat the young Spaniard on clay this year.
Serbian Miormir Kecmanovic has been the ‘nearly’ man of 2022. He reached five consecutive quarterfinals between Rio and Serbia. That included back-to-back quarterfinals at Indian Wells and Miami.
His quarterfinal match against Carlos Alcaraz in Miami is still hands-down my match of the year. Seriously, he is one of the few guys who can go toe-to-toe with the Spaniard, from the baseline.
He then broke the quarterfinal hoodoo with a semi-final run at the Bavarian Tennis Championships. He reached the 4th round of the Aussie Open earlier this year and I think he could pull off a few major surprises this week.